Where photography’s main goal is to make food look delicious—not a bad thing, to be sure—illustration offers more opportunities for storytelling and can convey a wider variety of sentiments, such as nostalgia, enthusiasm, or humor.

That’s the case for Something Old, Something New (Scribner, Apr.) by Tamar Adler, a food writer whose work has appeared in Vogue and the New York Times Magazine. The book reimagines recipes that are often dismissed as passé—steak Diane, peach Melba—rendered in watercolors by Mindy Dubin. Together, the text and illustrations give the book a feeling of gentle amusement: the chapter on seafood is titled “On Poverty and Oysters” and includes a watercolor of a lobster putting its pincers together as if in contemplation.

“I love photography, but it doesn’t fit the aesthetic of this book,” says Kara Watson, who edited the title. Illustrations offer “charm and a quiet intimacy,” she says, and can “reassure the home cook that a finished dish doesn’t have to look perfect.”

A similar spirit guides Dan Bransfield’s Pizzapedia (Ten Speed, Apr.), which narrates the history of pizza through watercolors. Bransfield, who has done illustration work for Applegate Farms and Whole Foods, says that, with food illustration, the “whole story is not spelled out, which allows the viewer to fill in the gaps,” engaging his or her imagination. “Illustration can be refreshingly nonliteral,” adds Ten Speed executive editor Jenny Wapner.

Barbara Scott-Goodman, a cookbook author, designer, and art director with more than 20 years of experience, collaborated on two illustrated cookbooks due out in the next six months: Cake (Penguin Press, Apr.), with venerable artist and author Maira Kalman, and Delicious Dessert Cocktails (Bluestreak, Aug.), with Lauren Tamaki, whose work has appeared in Food & Wine, the New York Times, and other publications. Both are single-subject books that, if full of photographs, might have become monotonous, Scott-Goodman says. “Everybody knows what cake looks like.”

The use of illustrations also allows for flights of whimsy. In Cake, the recipe for Pavlova is accompanied by Kalman’s gouache painting of the dessert’s namesake, Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova—a visual that might have been less charming if rendered photographically. Illustrations, too, can inflect a cookbook with emotion. Certain foods make you “think about your childhood,” Scott-Goodman says. “You can do a lot more with that with painting and drawing than with photography.”

Cookbooks by A-list chefs tend to favor photography over illustration: a famous face is a big selling point. French chef Jacques Pépin, for one, has appeared on the cover of several of his cookbooks. He is also a painter—a selection of his illustrated menus and prints is held at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History—and two forthcoming Pépin books, both with Rux Martin’s imprint at HMH, feature his artwork: Poulets & Légumes (Apr.) and Menus (Sept.). Martin says that illustrations tend to be reserved for books, such as Pépin’s, that are “personable.” Even so, they face challenges in the market. “What you’re always up against,” she says, is whether readers will be “as attracted to the quirkiness of illustrations, versus the vividness of seductive photos.”

Mixing It Up

Some cookbooks combine illustration with photography, and the reasons are as varied as the titles. Sometimes, practicality wins out. Illustrating rather than photographing an ancillary touch, Scott-Goodman says, such as an image of a single apple, can save money. And for some cooking instructions, says Emilia Terragni, publisher at Phaidon, “drawings can explain even better than photographs.”

Charles Miers, v-p and publisher at Rizzoli, says that his team will pair a photo-heavy interior with an illustrated cover—as it did for The L.A. Cookbook by Alison Clare Steingold (Mar.)—“if we think the result is fresh and inviting or might draw in the reader in a new way.”

At Phaidon, the heavily photographed regional cookbooks—including Japan by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Apr.) and Cuba by Madelaine Vázquez Gálvez and Imogene Tondre (Jun.)—sport illustrated covers. “The cover needs to immediately communicate the essence of that specific country,” Terragni explains. “For Japan, we were inspired by the beauty and simplicity of traditional bamboo objects, and the cover resembles a bamboo box with contrasting black cloth edges. For Cuba, we looked at photographs of cities and landscapes—the overlapping walls washed out by the sun and covered with abstract compositions created by mixing various slogans, words, and colors.”

The New Spanish (Kyle, May) draws on recipes from the East Village Basque restaurant, Huertas, that the authors, Jonah Miller and Nate Adler, cofounded. Its cover and interior combines lighthearted illustrations by Hugo Yoshikawa with photography. This inflects the book with what Adler calls “visual surprises.” Chris Steighner, editor at Kyle, says of the collages, “They encourage you to connect with the concept of the recipes in a way that’s different from what you get with conventional plated dish photos.”

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