Turning the tables
I made a great discovery in a second-hand-book shop recently: a Turkish cookbook with simple recipes that actually work.
I hope the publishers will forgive me if I say that this book has some appalling food photography in it: the food is out of focus and the colour frequently off-putting. But as a friend commented, what is great about older recipe books is that the focus is on the recipes themselves. The dishes have to appeal as a written description and set of instructions only.
Anyone can hire a good food photographer, but the writing of clear instructions to make reproducible dishes is a craft in itself. It's the writer's name on the front of the book. My friend likens the difference between old-style cookbooks and more contemporary and glamorous titles to the difference between old films and summer blockbusters: 'They were all about great dialogue and acting chops instead of today's special effects-driven pap.'
I don't entirely agree. Describing the making of chicken Kiev without pictures or diagrams would certainly be a challenge. Having a good idea of what the finished product is supposed to look like can be helpful - unless the photograph is so stunning that it actually becomes intimidating to the home cook.
I have never attempted a recipe from Alain Ducasse's Spoon Cookbook. The photography is certainly stunning - as in leaving the reader stunned by the complexity of the cooking. I raised this issue with a chef, who suggested that the book should not be considered as a cookbook but as a record of Ducasse's cooking at a particular moment in time. It's certainly no use for when you're looking for inspiration for supper.
What the photography in the French super-chef's book replaces are those little anecdotes that won legions of fans for the writing of Elizabeth David or the classic American work The Joy of Cooking. Illustrations are limited to simple line drawings, and recipes are packed into the 1,000-odd pages of that work. I find a random flick-through provides ample inspiration. (Later editions have expunged some of the anecdotes and become perhaps over-adventurous, giving recipes for dishes such as Ethiopian doro wat that I can't get to work.)
A classic that has stood the test of time for me is Audrey Ellis' French Family Cooking. Small family vignettes of life in France show how the dishes fit into the culture, while the recipes lend themselves to delicious results. The book also passes the other test for a classic: the photography is dire.