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The power of photographs

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Can you judge a book by its cover?

When my gourmet friend came to dinner the other day, she, yet again, gave me a gift of a cookbook - this one - that she had picked up in an op shop, not remembering that she already had it.

It's called The Food of France: a journey for food lovers,. It's not written by a famous cook or even a famous food writer. It's a production of Bay Books who, I think, is part of the Murdoch empire. So it's aimed at a general market. But it's beautifully produced, and it has just about every classic French dish inside its rather lovely cover. You could argue that it's a modern update on Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cookery in the sense of being an introduction to the food of France. But of course it's not. There is no style to the writing - well there isn't much writing anyway - just a brief introduction to each region and an even briefer, of course, introduction to each recipe. There's nothing wrong with the writing - it's informative - but it's neither personal nor inspiring.

The photographs, however, are and Elizabeth David, of course, has none.

A jump to Saturday evening's 70th birthday party for the lovely lady shown here - the mother of our daughter-in-law and now a very well-established part of our extended family. I took this and I hope I somehow managed to convey what a wonderful person she is. So joyous, yet sensible and canny in all sorts of ways, and such fun. But I think she won't mind me saying that she is not a dedicated cook - which, of course, does not mean she doesn't like food. Just doesn't like preparing it.

Nowadays we are bombarded with photographs every day. Indeed I am currently trying to take at least one photograph a day to somehow convey something of that day - I paste a mini version in my diary. So in our personal lives, how to choose the most iconic ones of our lives. After all they are only a moment in time are they not? The expression on the face may not actually convey how that person felt at that moment, or indeed how they really are as a person. They might have been putting on a show for the camera. Or not. The photo from my childhood on my water bottle has my brother and I grinning away, and my sister looking glum. But we are on a beach, on holiday, so I doubt that she was really glum. And yet there she is fixed in black and white forever glum on a beach. And she is not a glum person.

And then, literally as I write this, my husband appears with chapter two of our English friend Sue's recollections of her life - full of photographs of what she has obviously considered to be significant moments in her life. I shall be reading it with real interest as my own attempt at this stalled a few years back.

As usual I have digressed enormously. What this was going to be was a post on photography and cookbooks, inspired by my latest acquisition. It was an interesting read in all sorts of ways, and I decided that, for this post I would compare it with my three other photograph heavy French cookbooks. I'm ignoring the ones I have on Provence. These are all of France. Here are the other three - all different in their own way.

To begin with an overview of each.

France: a culinary journey has a number of different writers and chefs, some well-known, contributing to each region, for the book is divided into the different regions of France. So you have lavish photographs of the countryside and the people, and the food, beginning with this. It's actually only half of the photograph as it is a double page spread of a large coffee-table size book, so I haven't even got the whole of half of it. But it's stunning - as are several other gorgeous photographs spread throughout the book. The food is photographed in groups so that you have three or four different dishes in each photograph. Most of the French classics are covered, but not all - there is no recipe for French onion soup for example. And some of the dishes are less well-known, which is mostly down to the personal choices of the authors of each section. It was published back in 1992 but it's a favourite of mine and I have made many of its dishes. And it's a prime source of photographs for this blog.

A Cook's Tour of France by Gabriel Gaté is a much more recent acquisition - A Christmas present from either this or last year. Based on Gabriel Gaté's spots on the Tour de France, the recipes are fairly random in arrangement and also fairly random in choice of dish. Not that that matters. Interestingly though there are very few photographs of the dishes that are featured. So in a weird kind of way very Elizabeth David, because what you get instead are heaps of wonderful photographs of all things French - beginning with this piece of wall art superimposed on a pattern from a lace curtain that is featured throughout the book. It's so very French - I suppose in a kind of clichéed way, but then France actually really is like that. I mean - lots of graffiti - some of it artistic and intellectual at the same time, graffiti, pipes (and wires) strewn willy nilly over somewhat distressed walls ... So whilst you do indeed get a flavour of French food in this book you also get a photographic impression of the country - more or less every aspect of it, although perhaps not the political and problematic. And not much of Gabriel Gaté.

Luke Nguyen's France, on the other hand is much more personal a journey, and appropriately enough one of the very first photographs in the book is of Luke Nguyen sitting with a Frenchman - possibly a relative - in a typical French street. Only a few regions are covered - those which harbour his relatives - and so you get visits to towns rather than regions with one - Ile d'Oleron - which you have probably never heard of - thrown in. So perhaps a more limited range of French delicacies, although there are a surprising number of classics in there in traditional form, plus some Vietnamese twists on other classics. So what you get here is a personal travel diary seen in photographs of Luke with his family and friends in various picturesque settings, the settings and scenery themselves, food, and the recipes whose photographs are even more gorgeous.

And returning to the book that started all of this, here is the frontispiece - or part of it - it too is a double spread - a typical French café filled with men! Remember my article about men in cafés? However it doesn't have all that many photographs of scenery and people - no the focus really is the food - the completed dishes. There are just a few collages at the beginning as each region is briefly discussed. But the food! The food photography and styling is absolutely superb. So just to finish I'm going to compare the books' approaches to a couple of standard dishes. None from Gabriel Gaté of course, because he doesn't do either standard dishes, or photographs.

Crème brulée

At top left a walnut crème brulée from France: a culinary journey, in the centre from The Food of France and on the right, from Luke Nguyen's France - a fusion dish called Kaffir lime and lemongrass crème brûlée. Plus, as a bonus, Crème caramel from The Food of France. Don't you want to rush off and make all of them - particularly the last two perhaps - straight away? And note the emphasis on the traditional French cutlery and crockery. Even Luke Nguyen - who here goes more Vietnamese has a French looking pan and cutlery. I suspect the food photography was completed later back in Australia, although it was a television series too, so maybe not.

French onion soup

Only two offerings here - from The Food of France on the left - yes it has everything - and Luke Nguyen's fusion offering of French onion pho soup with the sort of implements you might pick up in a French brocante.

Photography is a hugely appealing art. Nowadays we can all have a go. And not only do you not have to buy expensive film or cameras - just an expensive phone - you can also modify your first attempt on your computer or tablet when you get it home. Nevertheless, let's admit it, the professionals do a much better job. (Just as the professional photographer at the birthday party did.) But it must be getting so difficult for them too. How to do something new and different?

And should you judge a cookbook by the quality of its photographs? By its cover? Of course not. There is more to a cookbook than glossy photographs, as Elizabeth David et al. have proved in spades. But there's also nothing wrong with a beautiful coffee table cookbook. Now there's a modern expression is there not? A coffee table book. When did coffee tables come in? What does the phrase mean anyway - a sense of ostentatious showing off of one tastes, and one's money? Why is the book on the coffee table in the first place?

A cookbook with photographs though has the potential to show so much more than food - although there should always be food - whether it's the completed dish, the ingredients artfully composed in a still life, on a market stall, or growing in the fields. A cook book can show a whole and sometimes specific world - the people, the scenery, the pastimes, the objects, the homes, the history all of which, together, give a sense of whatever the overall aim of the book is.

With food everything in life is covered.


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