Not that there's anything wrong with pornography, but does everything have to be pornography now? Was a law passed in the dead of night, like a Congressional pay raise? In pondering undue pornography, I don't mean to indict certain of our favorite Web sites (exemption granted!) or gay newspaper ads for auto repair in which a cute shirtless mechanic smiles insinuatingly while holding a big wrench silly but harmless, and one turns the page to the cosmetic dentistry ad with the shirtless boy holding a big toothbrush. I do mean, at the moment, cookbooks, which over the past 10 or 15 years have gone from being rather austere and text-heavy tomes full of learning and encouragement to lurid encyclopedias of full-color photographs whose subjects are sprawled and splayed in poses worthy of Hustler or Drummer.
Are these objets d'titillation meant to be used or ogled? On my shelves sit a battered battery of old-timers, including The Fanny Farmer Cookbook (1979), The New York Times Cookbook (1961), and The New Joy of Cooking (1997) the last a revised classic published barely more than a decade ago. All are rich in fine recipes, and I know this because many of their pages are stained and spattered: evidence that I use them often. The pages open automatically to recipes I've consulted before and will doubtless consult again.
None of these worthy volumes have much by way of illustration beyond the occasional charcoal sketch. This has never been an issue. It's possible that a voluptuous photograph of a lemon tart will fill you with a desire to make said tart by using the recipe on the preceding page, but it's also possible that the photo will fill you with frustration and embarrassment when your own tart turns out to be not quite so photogenic as the one in the book. You might even decline to make the tart again. It's important to believe that when you make a recipe and the result is acceptable, you've done it the way the recipe writer meant you to.
There is a lovely photograph of a lemon tart in Gerald Hirigoyen's Bistro (Sunset Books, 1995), one of the dozen or so cookbooks by local chefs I use all the time despite the overwhelmingly sensual photography that fills them. My lemon tarts never look quite as fancy as the one in Hirigoyen's book, mainly because I skip the step that involves candying very thin slices of lemon and baking them into the center of the tart as decoration. But my lemon-tart-for-dummies version tastes good and is easier and less messy to make and guests never decline leftover pieces to take home for breakfast. Hirigoyen, incidentally, who grew up in French Basque country, is the founder of Fringale (which he's no longer involved with) and Pipérade, which began its life in the mid-1990s as Pastis.
Of the many esteemed local chefs who publish cookbooks, I esteem none higher than Joyce Goldstein, whose recipes use straightforward techniques, don't rely too heavily on odd ingredients, and always work. For the home cook, her only peer is the late Pierre Franey, who wrote the "60-Minute Gourmet" column for the New York Times for years and turned those many columns into a pair of sublime cookbooks, The Sixty Minute Gourmet and Cuisine Rapide (both Times Books; 2000, 1989). My copies of Franey have the hors de combat look of soldiers' boots after a long tour at the front. And while they probably wouldn't command much in the used-book market, their condition does tell the discerning eye that they're probably well worth having.
Due to an administrative error, I never acquired a copy of Goldstein's first and probably best-known cookbook, The Mediterranean Kitchen (1989), which she published while running her famous and wonderful Barbary Coast restaurant, Square One.