Observations: A Visual History of Cookery is a feast for the eyes

Tim Walker@timwalker
Friday 12 February 2010 01:00

Many of us buy cookery books not for the recipes, but for the mouthwatering imagery that accompanies them. How many copies of Jamie, Nigel and Nigella's numerous tomes rest not on the shelf next to the cooker, dog-eared and spotted with grease, but immaculately preserved on the coffee table? Why cook a recipe when you can salivate over the photograph instead? A Visual History of Cookery takes this thinking to its logical conclusion in a beautiful new book that is a feast for the eyes.

Perhaps necessarily, since the history of food is rich and composed of many courses, the volume covers only the connected gastronomic histories of five Western nations: England, France, Italy, Spain and America. Its compilers are far from being fussy eaters: the dishes include everything from from foie gras to cornflakes, while both El Bulli and McDonalds are among the referenced restaurants. Histories of the haggis and the kebab rub up against examinations of the effect of religion on the cuisines of each culture.

Peppering the pictorial content are reproduced essays and articles by such varied contributors as A A Gill, Elizabeth David, Anthony Bourdain and Roland Barthes – whose full-flavoured essay on the link between steak frites and French patriotism is essential.

The main course, however, is the pictures, and among the illustrative high points are a cheese map of France made up of the cheeses in question; a sickly detail of Hogarth's 1748 painting O The Roast Beef of Old England; and – perhaps most delectable of all – Sophia Loren bending to season a pizza for her 1971 cookbook, In Cucina con Amore. A Visual History of Cookery (Black Dog Publishing, £29.95) even includes a few recipes – not that you'd be expected to use them.

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