The place I like best in the world is the kitchen.
No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. White tile catching the light (ting! ting!).
When it comes to the kitchen, one can hardly disagree with Banana Yoshimoto, in spite of the cultural differences that divide us from the Japanese writer, quoted here in the opening lines of her well-known novel Kitchen (1993). All that needs adding is, perhaps, that the kitchens we all love so much are home not only to appliances, tools and all sorts of equipment, coming in different styles, materials and colours, tiny as well as large objects, bearing a variety of names including diminutives and superlatives, but also to books – again, not any books, but those that appear as a perfect mix of serious-looking cooking manuals and lively literature books – in one word, cookbooks. By flipping through, looking up or reading these books, foods can, albeit only through the action of imagination and memory, be seen, smelled and tasted, even when there are no images of the dishes as they are being prepared or are ready to be served. In most cases, far from adding anything, more often than not these images hamper the work of the imagination, as it inevitably happens when shifting from the written word to the visual form that tends to represent the dish while never being exhaustive in the ‘translation’ of the original. In his book Palatogrammi, Paolo Fabbri uses the word ‘palatogrammi’ to refer to the images used in cookbooks, i.e. those that define the system of culinary iconography, of the perfect ‘staging’ that provides us with more information than we would like to have and less than we would ask for.
At this point a theme emerges, that of food representation through the technique of photography, that will be explored below in graphic and info-graphic terms – a theme that would actually call for an in-depth analysis: at this stage, let us just quickly mention two concepts among many: the first is Roland Barthes’s “ornamental cookery”, in which the role of garnishing is to disguise the realism of foods and to translate them into a fairy-tale reality which has nothing in common with real dishes. This is because the photos are taken from above, in such an unnatural, aestheticizing view that makes them unreachable, only suitable to be consumed by seeing rather than by actually tasting them. The second is the more recent phenomenon of food porn, which involves not so much cookbooks as the widespread practice OF self-produced images showing untouched food, immortalized in plates just before being eaten, according to a definition coined in 1984 by Rosalind Coward, who stresses that food’s overexposure tends to display pleasure, cancelling altogether the value of both cooking and of the person – in most cases a woman – who cooks, very much like what happens in pornography.
Let us go back to books though. No doubt cookbooks are strange objects, as they are used to inhabiting places that are nothing like quiet library shelves, but are the sworn enemies of any paper product: water and fire, alongside many others that have luckily been defeated over time, according to William Blades’s classification in his The Enemies of Books. The worst enemies of books are indeed the ‘kings’ of any kitchen, which preside over any stage in food preparation together with their loyal subjects – vapours, squirts, smells…, and whose effects are certainly not less detrimental than the former. Cookbooks are brave books, however: they are not afraid of being used, over and over again, until they collapse, lending their pages to being folded, scribbled over, shredded, and then hastily repaired in an attempt to keep the books readable despite the unaligned lines and the lack of a few letters or whole words..
In the system that defines the various types of books editorial graphics deals with in the field of visual communication design, a section in itself, with its own history, structure, specific language, is that of cookbooks: veritable handbooks for the preparation of foods – and not, in a simplistic, general definition, recipe books, in that they are artefacts containing not only techniques and practices, but also plenty of information concerning foods, quantities, times, temperatures, processes, methods, garnishing – all aspects that make these books look more like technical manuals than culinary literature for reading. Or maybe, as we mentioned above, they are simply books with a double identity, whose pages encompass both genres: one, technical-scientific; the other, purely narrative.
These books are artefacts that impose the stillness of a shot, obtained through the printing process, on a sector like cookery, whose recipes, having their own precise storytelling structure and sequence, are subject, wherever there remains an oral tradition, to unceasing interpolations, changes, translations, betrayals. This is unlike what happens with the written tradition, in which according to what the British sociologist Jack Rankine Goody states in his The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977), it is precisely the establishment of this tradition across cultures (as a consequence of the birth of alphabetic writing and of printing), that brought about the development of a technical literary genre – the culinary treatise, which over time, by constructing an artificial memory, has made it possible to preserve and store the texts of recipes, which are necessary for the birth of a gastronomic history and to pave the way for its later transformations.
The oldest Italian recipe book that has come down to us is Liber de coquina (13th -14th centuries), written in Vulgar Latin by an author unknown to us at the Angevin court in Naples. The volume provides fundamental evidence for the reconstruction of eating habits at the courts of Italy and Europe in the late Middle Ages. Following that example, this type of publication became widespread and underwent a deep transformation, from being simply a text to an increasingly complex system whose pages present carefully arranged texts and pictures to accompany the reader in the various phases of food preparation. This evolution is closely related to the presence of the written tradition, in which, always according to Jack Rankine Goody, non-discursive writing genres appear such as tables, lists, formulas and recipes. These genres do not exist in oral culture and are the plastic representations of a systemic thinking that can be viewed as the direct consequence of the use of writing. In the first samples of cookbooks, recipes appeared as confused texts with only very few details, like rough lists lacking not only quantities, cooking times or methods, but sometimes not even mentioning all the necessary ingredients for the dish in question. As the layout of the recipe became better defined, it came with exhaustive information, gradually generating the need for an editorial instrument, the cookbook, which could gather different types of data, and provide clear explanations so as to accompany the user throughout the preparation process, from finding the ingredients up to the garnishing.
At a closer look, the cookbook seems to show all the features that contribute to defining the finished or ‘semi-finished’ materials in editorial graphic design, that is the layout, typography, iconographic system, format, material, and binding.
The layout, which obviously varies from book to book, is structured in such a way as to receive and contain different contributions which need to be kept separated and arranged according to a hierarchy, so that it becomes easier to read and to follow the process. Arranged according to the invisible, governing pattern of the layout, the page will display the titles of the recipes – sometimes translated into a dialect or other language, the list of ingredients, their quantities, cooking times, the method, the arrangement and garnishing of the dishes, each element distinguished from the others by position, font weight, colour. This system, being directly related to the description and execution of the recipe, comes with all those minor elements that normally occupy the pages’ marginal parts such as titles and headings, footnotes, and page numbers. Thanks to the layout the information is distributed across space to help the users read and follow the various stages of the preparation and provide them with answers to all their questions in an uninterrupted, silent dialogue.
Just as important as the arrangement of the information in a certain layout is the choice of an appropriate font that may contribute, by the use of different weights and sizes, to organising the data hierarchically and to make it clear and readable in the exact sequence. The dispute over whether serif fonts, i.e. the typefaces with orthogonal extensions at the ends of glyphs, or sans serif ones, are more or less readable – is always open. Over the years, calligraphic fonts have often been used for the layout of cookbooks, almost as a reminiscence of the tradition of writing recipes by hand. Sadly, despite all efforts there is very little of this romantic reference left, considering that the fonts are generated by digital foundries by means of a process that is only a distant reminder of the original warmth of handwriting.
Whether they are serif or sans serif, fonts do play a crucial role in building the identity of cookbooks, since they have the task of managing information, attributing different degrees of importance to it, and contributing to arrange it according to a hierarchy in the course of the process. In order to achieve this goal, all the qualities of a font are used: the weights, meant as the thickness of individual glyphs, ranging from the very thin ones defined as light or slim to the thicker ones like black or ultra; lower and upper cases, small caps and the fundamental italics, which give the text an almost confidential tone: these were designed to imitate handwriting and are characterised by a slight slant to the right. Once the typography has been chosen, the next step consists in the graphic layout of the texts, which follows rules and patterns such as the alignment – justified, flush left, centred, etc.; the width of line spacing, whose value is also linked to font size; the size of justification, i.e. the length of the line based on the letters that make it up, which should be checked to avoid difficulties in reading due to its excessive length. All these elements contribute towards a greater consistency between the book contents and its graphic translation, in a reading system that clearly reflects a procedure unfolding in the space of the kitchen and in the time of the preparation.
The format used ranges from tall rectangle, undoubtedly the most common and convenient, to square, to short rectangle, not to mention the most varied shapes that can be chosen for the layout of these books, now that book printing and binding techniques set no limits whatsoever to imagination, even when that means introducing useless features. Re-reading Jan Tschichold’s closing chapter of The Form of the Book, in which he lists the Ten Common Mistakes in the Production of Books, will be of great help if we want to avoid making similar mistakes whenever we lose sight of the close connection existing between form and function in all areas of design, and specifically between form and content in editorial graphics.
The materials used for the production of cookbooks are no longer limited to paper only, with all its varieties in terms of thickness, make-up, colour, texture, or the various processing techniques such as lamination (considering that paper is required to resist wear and tear and the damages caused by its use in the space of the kitchen). Today, very different materials can be used, no longer made of paper fibre but replaced by the light of a display or a screen, where the static elements of texts and images are combined with the more dynamic elements of video and audio.
The binding that holds together the sequence of pages, with its variety – saddle stitched, sewn bound, glued, can be replaced by systems that make it possible to use the artefact in a different way. Examples include single pages held together by binders, rings or in boxes which do not need to be flipped through following a certain sequence determined by the location of the pages in the book, but make it possible to choose and read a single page, making it easier to look at it on the kitchen top where it must be placed and used.
When it comes to layout design, the texts are complemented by a series of iconographic elements whose weight has grown over time, from being hardly included in the beginning to being absolute protagonists. The power that images have gained is not to be measured only in terms of space on the page but also in terms of variety of colours, ranging from the black of the ink – the same used for the text – to the most complex compositions using first four-colour, then six-colour printing, followed by the Pantone colour codes – all brought out by the different types of treatment and finishing of the surface. Having mentioned the issue of culinary iconography at the beginning of the essay, it becomes useful, in this brief overview of the world of editorial graphics, to stress not so much the importance of photographs, whose role is well-established, but of the graphic and infographic representations which are systematically accompanying – if not replacing altogether – the presence of photography in this type of publications, in what seems to be an unstoppable process that affects the field of editorial graphics for magazines as well as other publications. The extraordinary power of infographics, which appears in most information and press systems, lies in the fact that it is able to translate the complexity of data into a form that enables the reading of images and the vision of texts, in a process of simplification and discretisation of contents without these being in any way impoverished, but rather properly translated for a wider spreading. The risk is for infographic tools to be only valued for their undoubted aesthetic worth, which is a consequence of the underlying design work, yet is not their main quality. This lies, instead, in the shift from complexity to simplicity. The result that is obtained when infographics appear through the pages of a cookbook is intriguing and unexpected, giving new visibility to the steps of the preparation which are only described. Let us try to look at a few examples in recent history, showing the gradual transformation of cookbooks, in which more and more often the relationship between texts and images appears to be modified until it is, in certain cases, turned upside down altogether.
La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene is the book by Pellegrino Artusi who, back in 1891, sanctioned the unification of Italy that had been achieved only a few decades before and that also entailed the unification of Italian cookery, while still contemplating regional differences; the book features only few, simple images – geometric shapes that vaguely remind of the shapes of regional pasta types and sweets.
La cucina futurista, written jointly by Tommaso Marinetti and Fillìa (Luigi Colombo’s pen name) is a difficult book to classify, which expresses all the propulsive energy of the movement that also affected cookery, of which [futurists] claim the right to an experiential gastronomy that was able to express itself in every form, with an exercise of communication based on multidisciplinary language. The book features sketches and drawings, in which foods are represented in a geometric shape reminiscent of micro-architectures with layout drawings, axonometries, or longitudinal sections to simulate new experimental dishes that in turn call for new, different systems of representation. We may consider them as some early, fundamental moves towards the use of graphics at a higher level that would lead, several years later, to the introduction of infographic elements which, together with photographs and illustrations, would complete the iconographic system of cookbooks. This is yet another reason to be grateful for to Futurists, for their ability to catch, through their flippant revolutions, a glimpse of new horizons and unexplored lands also in the area of visual communication.
The above examples are not sufficient, among the most recent ones, to represent the wealth of ongoing experimentations; therefore, they should be considered as scattered fragments exemplifying a much wider, radical transformation in the graphic translation and representation of the widest variety of cookbooks’ textual and iconographic contents.
Crêpes Suzette is an example of a non-linear, infographic recipe in which the story and the various stages of preparation of the dessert are made up of few words complemented by a number of diagrams, pictograms and symbols that translate, visualize and define the entire preparation process, kept together by a drawn itinerary marking time and the succession of the various steps, recalling the more specialised user manuals of technological gadgets.
La caponata di melanzane, another example of infographic recipe, shows the sequence of steps in a very schematic way and, quite unusually, the chemical reactions happening during the preparation of this complex recipe from Sicily’s culinary tradition.
Ricette scumbenate is an illustrated recipe book that collects twelve recipes of Salento’s culinary tradition, reinterpreted and told not so much through words as through illustrations, which give life to scenes of imaginary kitchen interiors in which characters, ingredients, tools and foods are represented in action, in the composition of a surreal, descriptive picture.
Spollo Kitchen is a collective project that experiments with a hybrid recipe book formula in which its miscellaneous nature is exalted by its being a cookbook written by several people, as many as are the national and international designers who answered the question “What do graphic designers eat?” asked by the call. Each page and each recipe is the expression of a designer, their visual and culinary tradition, their language – that is graphic or illustrative rather than textual, synthetic rather than extensive, schematic rather than descriptive.
The single recipes that are created to give life to great culinary posters shrink to find a place in the pages of Spollo Kitchen, just to, once again, become infographic or illustrated posters in their own large size to inhabit this gallery dedicated to evocative tales rather than to the precise explanation of individual recipes.
What sounds as an ironic proposal but is, in fact, the formulation of a template for the infographic translation of any cooking recipe, is contained in the project of Thanksalot Collective, who provide the online user with a veritable kit for the self- graphic transformation of every recipe. Its smaller version, featuring five basic recipes, is available open source and is translated into several languages.
Other experiments exist, in which the ‘ingredients’ making up a cookbook are subject to a complex layout that governs them all inside the pages. One example is Ko Sliggers’s book Koken tussen Italiaanse vulkanen (Italian cuisine in the shadow of the volcano): the Dutch-born author now living in Sicily, graphic designer by background and chef by passion, has brought together different attitudes in a single project – the expression of his own language and research in the fields of graphic design and cuisine, showing that both require specific competences based on theory and practice alike.
By way of conclusion, these reflections on the transformation of the happy-ending narrative structure of cookbooks over time shows a number of dichotomies appearing over and over again: lightness and heaviness, simplicity and complexity, infographic system and textual system. These dichotomies express a gradual process of contamination between graphics and cuisine, which goes beyond a mere translation process. With it we need to live, without feeling the need to exalt one aspect to the detriment of its opposite, if we firmly believe in living in a plural, multi-directional and radial dimension where no centre is, nor will ever be again, in any way privileged over others.
Pellegrino Artusi, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, Salvatore Landi Editore, 1891
Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge University Press, 1977
Leonardo Romei, Progettare la comunicazione. Esempi, esperimenti, metodi, modelli, Stampa Alternativa & Graffiti, Roma, 2015
F.T. Marinetti, Fillìa, La cucina futurista, Il Formichiere, Perugia, 2018
Roland Barthes, Physiology of Taste by Brillat Savarin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 1978 (Original edition: Physiologie du goût avec una Lecture de Roland Barthes, Hermann, Paris 1975)
Roland Barthes, Miti d’oggi, Einaudi, Torino, 1993
(English edition: Mythologies, Hill and Want, New York, 1972; original edition
BigSur, Ricette Scumbenate. Dodici storie pop di cucina ‘atipica’ salentina, Edizioni Scumbenate, 2017
William Blades, The Enemies of Books, Elliot Stock, London, 1888
Paolo Fabbri, Palatogrammi, sta in Andrea Pollarini (a cura di), La cucina bricconcella. 1891/1991. Pellegrino Artusi e l’arte di mangiar bene cento anni dopo, Grafis, Casalecchio di Reno, 1991
Massimo Montanari, Il cibo come cultura, Editori Laterza, Bari, 2006
Ko Sliggers, Koken tussen Italiaanse vulkanen, Uitgeverij Loopvis, Nederland, 2013
Jan Tschichold, La forma del libro, Edizioni Sylvetre Bonnard, Cremona, 2003
 Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen, Grove Press, New York, 1993
 Paolo Fabbri, Palatogrammi, in Andrea Pollarini (a cura di), La cucina bricconcella. 1891/1991. Pellegrino Artusi e l’arte di mangiar bene cento anni dopo, Grafis, Casalecchio di Reno, 1991, pp. 191-210.
 Roland Barthes, Miti d’oggi, Einaudi, Torino, 1993, pp. 125-126.
 “That summer I had taught myself to cook. […]I bought three books on cooking—fundamentals, theory, and practice—and went through them one by one. On the bus, in bed, on the sofa, I read the one on theory, memorizing caloric content, temperatures, and raw ingredients. Every spare minute I cooked. Those three books grew tattered with use, and even now I always have them near at hand. Like the picture books I loved when I was little" […]Angry, fretful, or cheery, I cooked through it all.[…]”. Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen, Grove Press, New York, 1993, p. 56.
 Jan Tschichold, La forma del libro, Edizioni Sylvetre Bonnard, Cremona, 2003, pp. 178-179.
 F.T. Marinetti, Fillìa, La cucina futurista, Il Formichiere, Perugia, 2018, p. IX.
 Crêpes Suzette is a project by Luciano Perondi and Valentina Montagna; the drawings were published in the magazine Experience 8, 2005, Mattioli1885.
 La caponata di melanzane is a project by Valentina Ascione and Onofrio Magro, while the chemical reactions are devised by the engineer Fabio Sagnelli.
 Ricette scumbenate is an illustrated recipe book created by the Big Sur communication lab.
 Spollo Kitchen is the collective project curated by CTS Grafica in collaboration with Polyedra and with the patronage of Aiap and Adci, which started in March 2013 when Italian and international designers were invited to illustrate their favourite recipes in a call for the best culinary posters. A jury selected 100 designers among the participants, whose recipes are included in the book Spollo Kitchen, published by Corraini and designed by Zup studio for CTS Grafica.
 Ko Sliggers, Koken tussen Italiaanse vulkanen, Uitgeverij Loopvis, Nederland, 2013.