Gastro-Vision | Picture Perfect

Cover of "19 Pictures, 22 Recipes" by Paola Ferrario.

Mainstream cookbooks tend to present a particular style of photography: food spreads done up like the models of fashion magazines. Stylized still lifes, cropped, color saturated, and Photoshopped look too perfect to be true, or sometimes even to be edible. Yet glossy pictures are said to make the best cookbooks and in turn make cookbooks best-sellers. With her new publication 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes, Italy-born photographer and former Guggenheim fellow Paola Ferrario is bucking this trend; she has forgone pictures of food altogether in favor of found photographs of people and landscapes.

Recipe for Bruscitt, excerpt: "...If details were rendered we would see the heaviness and roughness of coats, the ages of shoes and hats, and the stains on beards."

Ferrario began writing 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes in 1994, but had until recently been unable to find a publisher. “Many people and agents said that it would be hard to sell because bookstores and sites would not know how to categorize it,” she explained in a recent email. “So finally, in 2010, I decided to self-publish.” Nineteen photographs purchased from flea markets and antique shops around the globe are each paired with a recipe (many of which belong to Ferrario’s family), a short text, an analysis, and a personal memoir and/or hypothetical narrative.

Ferrario’s musings on photography are as delightfully straightforward as her recipes, which include Cime di Rapa (broccoli rabe), Pasta with Tomatoes & Basil, Strange Rice, and Perfect Steak. Cheese with Pears requires little more than an appetite for both ingredients. To this the artist links a photograph of a young man standing in a “horrendous” pose (which she compares to a Giacometti sculpture) and in what she considers to be a dreadful composition. What can this photograph teach us about cooking? “This is not quite a recipe,” Ferrario explains, “more an exercise in taste.”

Cime di Rapa is paired with an image that could have easily been part of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives; you get the sense that food was hard to come by for his subjects. With this and other photographs calling to mind the Great Depression, 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes doesn’t always inspire one to cook, yet it’s still incredibly charming.

Recipe for Gravlax, excerpt: "In a perfect world social awareness would prevent politically incorrect seductions, but we are flesh, eyes and keepers of imperfect desires and the world of the beautiful boy can easily plant longing in our hearts...."

Ferrario is skilled at unearthing hidden or overlooked pieces of our daily surroundings. Her own practice might be described as photographing the “unmonumental”–remnants of the natural or built environment, the everyday assemblage. Her photographs ask viewers to consider mundane details like the many flavors of a complex dish. “I’ve always seen photography and cooking as being closely related,” she writes in 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes. Her approach to each discipline, however, is “diametrically opposed,” not due to personal preferences but rather the temperament of her materials. “I always use measuring instruments to shoot and develop…In the kitchen, on the contrary, I ignore measuring cups and scales and choose as tools of comfort knives, cutting boards, and various pots and pans.” Though both processes are prone to human error and surprise outcomes, Ferrario makes food sound more forgiving than a photograph, cooking more variable than making pictures.

Recipe for Strange Rice, excerpt: “The photo seems to be related to the European and American obsession with Japanese art which first became widespread through the Aesthetic Movement in the 1870s, continuing for 50 years….”

On the surface, 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes looks simple and even outdated. A muted color photograph across the cover (also printed inside with a recipe for Minestrone) shows a woman reclining on a bed, looking out her window at a sky partly obscured by palm trees. It seems to be a metaphor for Ferrario’s larger intent for her cookbook: not to teach readers how to cook, but to encourage them to slow down, take a step back, and contemplate what they make and see. Recipes are a means to this end. “When my friend Daisy [Fried] was editing the book,” says Ferrario, “she told me, ‘You don’t really want to teach people how to cook, you want to tell them how to live.’ I think there’s a bit of truth in that.”

Recipe for One-egg Cake, excerpt: “If you can’t see yourself building your own home bake, a cake. A freshly baked cake and this photograph produce in me a sense of admiration for people who can do tasks which require skills that are no longer routinely imparted in our society...."

But why publish this cookbook now? “Even if there is a craze about food and cooking shows in the U.S.,” says Ferrario, “I have read or heard that people are not cooking [any] more than they did ten years ago…I wanted to write a book that was a bit of an exhortation to cook for oneself, more than a simple cookbook…I felt that my book could very much be part of the movement that is trying to get people to cook for themselves again.” And so, a recipe for you, courtesy the artist:

One-egg Cake

“This is the simplest and most austere cake I know. It will take three dollars and fifteen minutes of your time to make. It will bake in thirty minutes. It will last for several breakfasts and afternoon teas. It will fill the house with the scent of serene existence. Its making will make you feel useful.”

butter and flour to grease the pan
1/3 cup of Crisco
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 egg
2 cups of flour
2 ½ teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of lemon rind
¾ teaspoon of salt
1 ½ cup of milk
a few drops of vanilla extract

Grease and then line with wax paper the bottom of an 8” x 8” x 2” cake pan. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. With an electric mixer beat together shortening with sugar and egg. Combine all the remaining dry ingredients together in separate bowl and mix well. With mixer resume beating the shortening, sugar, and egg mix; alternate pouring in milk and vanilla and the dry ingredients. Pour into pan and bake for 45 minutes.

All excerpts and images are courtesy of the artist. Ferrario has two upcoming reading and cooking events on October 2 for the “underground” supper club in Providence, and November 5 at Fante’s in Philadelphia.