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Pictures, words, irritations and detours

“A picture is a poem without words.” Horace

Today's post was going to be a riff on this painting, which turned up on my desk calendar recently. It's simply called Fruits and is by an artist called Pierre-Joseph Redouté - about whom I will say a little bit in a moment.

I was somewhat blown away by the sheer abundance of the fruits, and it reminded me that summer is almost with us and that some of these fruits are beginning to make their appearance in the shops. Which is a somewhat mundane thought for a painting that actually inspires a whole lot of intangible emotions.

If I was more literate I would be able to think of more words to describe the impression that this painting made - sumptuous, opulent, bounteous, lush, just joyful really. I'm sure there are many more. I had thought that somehow I could expand on language in the food curriculum, but ran out of ideas, other than presenting this picture as a language assignment - how many words can you think of kind of thing, or also literature - write about it - a poem maybe, what does it make you feel, think of, does it evoke memories? and so on. But really is there much more to say? Just looking and feeling is really what we should be doing in response.

From here I was going to ramble around summer fruits a bit but have now decided not to go there. I'll wait for summer and a suitably inspiring recipe or two. Today it's pretty cool and pretty damp. Not summer.

I did think to say just a few words about the artist however. The name was ever so vaguely familiar, but not enough to say anything so I looked him up. He is Belgian, and by all accounts a charmer, which enabled him to be the favourite artist of both Marie Antoinette and Napoleon's wife Josephine. Which means he survived the French Revolution. No mean feat I would guess if you had connections to the nobility. And serendipity wise, Napoleon - and Josephine - are all the rage at the moment because of Ridley Scott's latest magnum opus. Redouté is apparently responsible for much of the interior paintings in Malmaison, the chateau that Josephine bought for them whilst he was away campaigning in Egypt. He apparently was furious because it was expensive and rundown, but eventually came around and it became their happy place.

But back to Redouté. He was Belgian, the son of artists, who left home at the age of 13 - earning his way as an itinerant painter and interior decorator -13! His talent was recognised and he was taken under the wing of botanical artists who trained him in the art of painting flowers. Most of his work, if you look in Google Images, seems to be what is generally thought of as botanical paianting, but there are also some still lifes of vases of flowers which are similarly as lavish as the fruits. Suffice to say that many say he is the best botanical artist ever. Two examples below:

A detour but a mildly interesting one, that adds to the little I know about art. I do not know enough to really say whether these paintings are good or not, although I can clearly see, that there is movement, and detail - and yes they evoke emotion even if you do not understand what that emotion is. So yes - masterworks - if not necessarily to my taste. Although I think I could look at that yellow flower on a wall in my house for a long time.

Pictures and words having been my first thought I started Googling 'pictures words cooking' - which gave me flash cards for children learning words to do with cooking. Not really what I was after so I changed 'cooking' to 'cookbooks' which was rather more enlightening - and varied.

Herewith my second detour and first irritation. For top of the list (no doubt paid for) was a website called Momento enticing me to make my own cookbook using their software. I had a look. After all it's nearly Christmas and for a moment I thought I might be able to assemble a quick cookbook for the grandchildren or the daughters-in-law. It all looked pretty easy and enticing, and then I noticed that they also offered diaries. Now I like to have a printed diary on my desk - with some kind of thought-provoking and beautiful picture opposite each diary page on which there would be space for my weekly 'to do' list as well as appointments. I have been trying to find one for next year. So far with minimal success. Diaries such as these are not being published any more, or are snapped up really quickly.

Anyway I decided I would have a go, which of course involved 'signing up' with the inevitable irritation of the password. This was compounded by one of those captcha things, which kept on telling me I wasn't connected. Eventually I reloaded Safari and all was well. Then I had to download some software. Which I did easily enough with a few irritating passwords along the way, but when I came to launch it I was told that it was damaged! At which point I gave up and returned to my Google searches for inspirational pictures and words. I will have another go either later or tomorrow, although that layout for the actual diary doesn't really suit me. I'm hoping one can change it. Or I may just have to find a diary online.

Further down the list of answers that Google had found for me, in between 'Best cookbooks of 2022' articles, there was one tantalising article entitled Do graphic cookbooks illustrated like comic books work for readers? from The Washington Post, but when I clicked on it I found it is behind a pay wall. Now whereas I would willingly subscribe to The Guardian - and I do donate some money every now and then - and it's time to do so again - I am not a great user of The Washington Post. So I shall never know the answer to that question, tantalising though it is. And irritating. Perhaps one day I shall look a little further, because I have to say it's something I have wondered about a bit.

Further down the page however was an article in Vogue by Clare Finney entitled How Food Photography Transformed the Humble Cookbook. It's quite a long article and has quite a few things of interest to say - beginning with an example of the first edition of French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David, which of course has no photographs within. The first words of the Vogue article come from Tessa Traeger who was apparently Vogue's prime, André Simon award food photographer for 16 years:

“There is, I think, only one first-edition Elizabeth David that has a photograph on the front cover – and I can honestly say it is one of the worst food photos that ever existed."

I suppose that's a bit élitist but it's probably almost correct. Worst? Probably not - but really not inspiring - or even particularly evocative, and technically poor. Even I can see that.

There follows a historical survey - going right back - when, of course there were no photographs but there were always illustrations. The illustrations early on were mostly instructional - how to cut up a chicken kind of thing, but sometimes lavishly pictorial because:

“cookbooks have always been aspirational. The author is always trying to encourage you to imagine the person you want to be; the household you want to have.” Polly Russell/Vogue

Nevertheless sometimes - as in Mrs. Beeton for example there were lavish illustrations of exotic desserts for example.

Robert Carrier's Great Dishes of the World, they say was the first cookbook to really feature high-class photographs in its pages, although there were not really very many and mostly not of actual dishes described in its pages. From there the photographs became more integral to the whole package and today the majority of cookbooks have a photograph of every dish. Because that's what people want:

"the job of the photographer is to translate the recipe for the user; “to transport them to that plate; to convey the food and it’s deliciousness.” Yet there is a fine balance to be struck between inspiring and intimidating the reader – and it is here that highly visual cookbooks have sometimes gone wrong." Clare Finney/Vogue

And here I shall detour again with a major, major irritation. That Vogue article, interesting and informative though it was, was so plagued with ads that it meant that every couple of lines the whole page jumped and my place was lost. In addition every paragraph or so a banner ad interrupted the text. That banner ad in the middle kept coming and going, as the same did with others. At one point I thought I had come to the end of the article until I thought to scroll just a little more down the page. It was absolutely appalling - by far the worst experience I have had, although it is increasingly common. As one chat page commenter said, it surely cannot be good advertising because of the immense irritation it causes - against the owner of the website, the advertiser and Google as well. I have seen articles saying you can stop this, but I suspect you cannot.

It is, of course, much easier and cheaper as well, these days, to produce a lavishly illustrated cookbook, so it is somewhat surprising to come across the odd one - Stephanie Alexander's Home for example, which was not profusely illustrated, which I therefore, because I'm a sucker for pictures, did not buy. In fact Stephanie Alexander overall does not seem to be a fan of photographs - she is a latter day Elizabeth David in that sense. Personality wise as well I think.

It is a balance though:

"The balance between the personal, the narrative, and the delivery of the recipe or instruction is a delicate one. Readers do not necessarily need or want the story of every ingredient, or to know where every element of the recipe was developed or even whether the author’s grandmother taught them to make the dish. Like the contemporary restaurant menu, it is possible to provide too much information or detail that does not add to the reader’s understanding and enjoyment." Joshua Raff/Literary Hub

Personally I like a fair amount of narrative, although that said, you can't expect a wonderful cook to necessarily be a good writer. I do think you need at least a few words, to at least point out things of interest or importance.

"While an authentic and engaging voice is important, perhaps above all, the author must have and project authority, a thorough knowledge and competency. This has not changed much over the past few decades. Without authority, there is no book. Or at least no book worth reading—or using for that matter." Joshua Raff/Literary Hub

So as an example of how to do it right I checked out my last cookbook purchase - Rachel Roddy's An A-Z of Pasta. The cover is unprepossessing - to me anyway, and suggesting one of those more comic book like efforts. But inside there is plenty of knowledgeable and entertaining narrative, coupled with beautiful photographs - some of the food - tempting but non threatening, some instructional, some related to pasta production and some just of her life - as below:

And the words - a lot of them - are good too. Just not sure about the cover.

"Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world." says Bruno Barbey, who I assume is a photographer and this is true. However, in a cookbook, alas you need the words as well, even if it's just the instructions for making the dish in the picture. And it needs to be in your language - not just your language in the national sense, but also in a non-jargon language. Clarity is all.

The pictures and the words have their own contribution to make. Each enlarges on the other.

"A picture is worth 10K words - but only those to describe the picture. Hardly any sets of 10K words can be adequately described with pictures." Alan Perlis

Which at first sight sounds eminently clever and correct. And yet. I certainly did not have enough words to describe that first picture and I doubt that anyone does. Pictures, like music, arouse inexpressible emotions as well as just conveying copy of reality. They also lead you into other worlds, other subjects which have nothing to do with the original stimulus of a picture. And pretty soon you might be beyond 10K words - certainly a thousand - which is the usual number used in this context. One thing leads to another. It's what the human brain does all the time. And even a photograph can do that.

Like Rachel Roddy making pasta with her young son on a sunny day in Rome.


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