The answer, I believe, lies in its presentation. In place of sleek, staged food photography, artist Wendy MacNaughton instead adorns the pages with hand-drawn diagrams, charts, and illustrations.
A comprehensive kitchen guide with a handwritten feel
To me, the style bore some similarities to the line drawings that decorate ancient recipes bound by battered spines. I think that everyone’s mother (my own included) has a shelf or a cupboard that houses a well-loved kitchen guide or two, passed between generations. Immediately, the organic, imperfect each cookbook watercolor illustration brought to mind the to relics I’ll likely inherit someday.
Straight away, the bright drawings of fresh produce and marbled pork belly suck eyes into Salt Fat Acid Heat. Flipping through, it quickly becomes apparent that the visuals aren’t purely ornamental. Instead, Nosrat and MacNaughton collaborate, using visual representations to back up the chef’s words. Showing the difference between a pinch and a palmful isn’t just charming and humorous – for those trying to nail down cooking fundamentals, each cookbook watercolor illustration is downright informative.
There’s no arguing that reading up on food prep techniques, even when written out by talented authors, can be tedious. For visual learners, an axis for pairing dressings with salads or a comprehensive chart displaying how and when to use seasonal fruits can be infinitely more useful than a wall of text. MacNaughton’s whimsical imagery eliminates the possibility of losing reader’s attention, creating a beautiful cadence to the book and making it all the more possible to retain the messages driven home with each chapter.
That’s not to say that everything is picture perfect – MacNaughton doesn’t shy away from presenting the “uglier” sides of food prep. I’d be willing to bargain that there isn’t a beautiful way to convey how one properly separates a chicken carcass. Even so, the book dedicates a full two page spread to the process. It’s not a subject that normally warrants the attention of a hand drawn illustration. Nonetheless, it’s necessary information for those looking to improve as cooks. You won’t find polished mint sprig garnishes in the pages of this manual. Perfectly calculated aioli brush strokes are notably absent as well. Everything being taught is organized and easy to follow, but the visuals conveying each instruction aren’t afraid to get messy. Lines waver and colors bleed.
That authenticity, I think, might just be what makes this book special to such a wide audience.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for the plates that look too good to actually eat. Food should be celebrated for its beauty and creativity. But the kitchen, as in life, is very rarely relegated to perfect portions. For example, the words to my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe faded away a long time ago, rendered unreadable by Worcestershire sauce spills a decade old. Likewise, my grandmother’s beloved seven layer bars were less a set of instructions and more a soft list of do’s and don’ts. For those intimidated by ovens and knives, seeing the beautiful end products of others without any clear cut directions of their own can be enough of a deterrent to order another round of take-out. The critical attitudes of well-versed foodies and certain kitchen snobs certainly don’t provide a boost of confidence, either.
Many of those quick to put down beginners, however, don’t truly understand what makes cooking special. By nature, it’s medium welcoming of experimentation and expression. For generations, families and friends passed their tricks and tips through word of mouth and physical demonstrations. As time goes on, each individual adds their own personal flare to the mix, allowing new flavors to emerge in evolving dishes. We have a tendency to stray away from strict orders, and our personal tastes can only be discovered through trial and error.
Salt Fat Acid Heat reflects those long standing traditions, both in what it has to say and what it has to shows Like cooking alongside a loved one, it provides gentle how-to’s and explains why certain seasonings and specific motions work well. It doesn’t really say how things SHOULD be done – rather, it suggests how your food COULD be improved upon. Furthermore, it goes the extra mile by actually showing how to accomplish tasks that beginners often struggle with. Most importantly, it manages to do so in a way that doesn’t come off as a pretentious. Through her artistic style, MacNaughton managed to evoke a sense of nostalgia for home-cooked meals and handwritten recipe cards – a commendable trait for a mass-marketed instructional. Paired with Nosrat’s expertise, the volume makes the kitchen feel like an inviting place to even the most under-confident home cooks.
And what more could a fledgling cook want?
Share your thoughts
Even with years of experience cooking for myself, Salt Fat Acid Heat has helped me improve upon my culinary weaknesses. What books have changed the way you view food, or have impacted your cooking or baking skills? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments – we’re always looking to try something new.