Library Review: Picture Cook: See. Make. Eat

I like quirky cookbooks. Sure, having a copy of the Joy of Cooking or Mastering the Art of French Cooking is nice, but otherwise I need the book to be a hyper-specific cuisine study or a unique approach to cooking for me to really care about recipes I could probably otherwise Google. So finding a cookbook that eschews text in favor of nearly entirely relying on pictures as a way to teach people to cook certainly grabbed my attention.

Picture Cook: See. Make. Eat is a minimalist cookbook from author Katie Shelley, who approaches cooking as a free form expression of individuality. In fact, she includes a brief forward to that effect informing readers that what follows are not “precise culinary blueprints” but are meant to inspire “experimentation, improvisation and play in the kitchen.”

I was actually a bit surprised to find that the pictures were drawings. I had expected photos of techniques and preparation, similar to what you find in cookbooks from chefs like Jacques Papin. Instead we get a colorful and playful book – possibly aimed at a younger audience – which presents a less earnest and serious tone than most cookbooks and fully grasps onto the idea that being a visual learner doesn’t just mean putting a nice picture of a finished pie next to the recipe.

The typography is basically Comic Sans, which you’re either going to like or loathe depending on how you feel about Comic Sans in general (the Internet has strong feelings about this).It doesn’t really bother me and it fits the book overall. [Editor’s note: The typography in the book is actually based on Shelley’s own handwriting, so font fanatics can calm down, it isn’t actually Comic Sans.]

Each section is color coded and individual recipes within the sections have their own color schemes. Overall, it works just fine, though some recipes are drawn in a gold color that doesn’t show up very well on the white paper. If you’re using the book in a well lit room you might have trouble reading these recipes. Luckily there aren’t more than a handful.

My only significant problem with the design of the book is the layout of the recipes. Generally they are read left to right and guide arrows are included to show you the progression of each step, most of the time. Some recipes don’t have them and others are so chock full of arrows that they start to add to the clutter rather than provide clarity.

Check out the recipe for Panzanella and tell me, where and how do I start to tackle that. Another issue involves where on the left side of the page to start. The basic techniques start at the bottom left, while some of the soup recipes start at the top left. Still others sort of begin in the middle of the page. Some even have dual paths when the recipe involves simultaneously boiling and sauteing ingredients before combining them. In these cases there are no indicators about which should be done first. For a book that seeks to simplify the complexities and anxiety of cooking, in a few places the minimalist graphic style is counter productive.

In the back, there’s a nice index with all of the recipes, though some of them are named things like “Josie’s Rice” so if you were looking for a rice recipe, you wouldn’t find it by under R. That’s a minor quip, what is really excellent is the color coded key that explains which recipes are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free or have no sugar added. This simple addition makes it easy to find dishes that fit any or all of your culinary restrictions.

The recipes are varied and cover pretty much all types of cuisines and cooking styles, and most of them have fewer than five steps. They are eminently accessible and even if you could find similar simple versions in other places,the encouragement and experimentation is what really sells the book. The recipes are more like guidelines, starting points for people to learn the techniques and steps needed to construct a dish, but simple enough that you are encouraged to deviate, to put your own spin on the ingredients, spices, etc.  There are also a few nice “technique” pages which give tips on how to improve your knife skills to properly dice an onion, or the best way to dissect an avocado. These little touches that other cookbooks might just assume you can do, Picture Cook is more than happy to take you by the hand and show you.

Some of the most successful recipes are ones dedicated to a dish like the omelette or taco, and which focus on many different options for constructing the same dish. These pages are wonderfully illustrative of how versatile a single recipe can be, and provide nice inspiration for new cooks.

New cooks are probably one of the better targets for this book, but it would be a fine gift for anyone looking to wean themselves away from cookbooks and push their culinary experiments toward being more free form and adventurous. Cooking is not meant to be a chore by any means and with Picture Cook Shelly may have found one of the better ways to disarm some of the mysticism and anxiety that often hampers people who struggle to get comfortable in the kitchen. The fact that she does it with a handwriting style is all the more impressive. (and awesome!)

Picture Cook is available on Amazon.

 All photos courtesy of Ulysses Press.