February 2007

Heather Smith


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Books About Eating

Way back in that hazy bygone age that we now refer to as the 1990s, if you went to the store to buy a nonfiction book about food, you would most likely come home with a book like this one -- books that were kind of eating porn, in which people traveled all over the world looking for the most perfect, exquisite loaf of bread, or the most tender baby sheep that charmingly scampers and gambols on the sun-dappled Tuscan hills and therefore is all the more delicious when it is cooked and served to the author at the end of the chapter.

Then something changed. It's not that people have stopped writing food porn (as long as authors can write off meals and vacations as "tax deductions" food porn will be with us), it's just that people stopped reading it. Instead, it became fashionable to read books about what people actually ate, when they weren't in Italy picking their own olives. Food like potatoes and corn syrup. Cow spinal column, and chickens that eat other chickens.

It's unclear as to what changed in the zeitgeist to make people stop wanting to read books about éclairs, and start reading books about feedlots, but book designers had to react in a hurry. No more soft beiges and maroons, out-of focus photographs of fruit, and calligraphic typefaces. Instead, designers were in the interesting position of conveying the idea that this was going to be a book about food that you a) should not be eating, b) really should not even want to be eating, and c) should maybe actively prevent everyone you know from eating, while also conveying that this book was actually fun, and not likely to make you publicly ill on the subway.

How did they accomplish this Herculean task? The color red, and a whole lot of '50s nostalgia.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Publisher: Harper Perennial (July 5, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0060838582
ISBN-13: 978-0060838584
Cover Art: Martha Kennedy

This book sold so well, and the design was so good, that, in many ways Fast Food Nation became the template for every subsequent "alternate food history" book to follow. The red and yellow color scheme not so subtly brings to mind a certain fast food purveyor, without heading directly into copyright infringement. Some artful dodging with the "burn" tool in Photoshop adds a sinister gloom that slightly overshadows the delicious-looking greasy fries bursting out of the carnival-like cardboard sleeve. Years of involuntary barrage by fast-food ads on every bus shelter, billboard, and Saturday morning cartoon show induces an almost Pavlovian response in the prospective purchaser to instantly buy the book and thus receive the love, acceptance, killer dance moves, non-judgmental family, desirable waist-to-hip ratio, and professional success that such advertising invariably associates with fry purchase. It's a stellar piece of mimesis, actually. The little "gee whiz, Bobby"-style clip art heads, little white starbursts, and the 1950s typeface evoke nostalgia for a simpler, more prosperous era, where you could eat plastic food without care for the future -- because that future could be eliminated by nuclear apocalypse at any moment.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (Introduction by Eric Schlosser)
Penguin Classics (March 28, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 014303958X
ISBN-13: 978-0143039587
Cover Art: Charles Burns

This book was the run-away, best seller, "Mr. Sinclair, do you sign body parts?" smash hit of 1906 -- the book that convinced the highly irritated Teddy Roosevelt to sign a lot of highly unprecedented legislation that required meat to be -um- inspected. The book is still a fun read, if you enjoy books about hard-working noble immigrants to whom every dreadful thing in the world happens. It's gone through a veritable smorgasbord of cover iterations -- from "beefcake with smokestacks" to "if only we had a some horehound candies to ease the crushing despair of our old-tymey lives" to "expressionist man with cow." The Jungle has had many an identity crisis. I actually like "expressionist man with cow" quite a bit -- there just isn't enough cross-hatching in book illustration today, and I see this as a tragedy.

The style of the cover fits in nicely with the time period the book was written in, and the illustrator, Clifford Harper, has done what so few mainstream book illustrators do and thrown in some nice groin detail for the ladies (well, lets not be narrow-minded. For the gentlemen, the ladies, and any permutations and variations thereof). The excellent meat hook in the corner adds a) visual tension (Aaah! It's swinging out at an angle! What if someone gets their eye poked out!) and b) adds symbolism (Is it destined for the man, or the cow? Let me ponder this. Perhaps they are one and the same!)

Bonus points to actually putting a cow getting killed on the cover of a book about a slaughterhouse, especially a cow that looks as worried as this one. Ultimate honors, though, go to the above cover. Nothing says, "Please hit on me" on the subway like a book with a giant, flayed, cow head, complete with eyeball.

Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry by Warren Belasco
Cornell University Press; 2nd edition (November 2006)
ISBN-10: 0801473292
ISBN-13: 978-0801473296
Cover Art: Dan Burgevin

This book was originally published in 1989, well before its time. The original cover, back when it was published by Pantheon books, was pretty great, with its little skeleton fellas. (May have been a little too beige. But the '80s were a beige era.) The second printing, by Cornell University Press, was probably designed by a work/study student making $4.15 an hour. (I don't have a picture, so I'll describe it for you: Neon orange. Excessive use of clip art.) At last, this very fun social history of how hippies became obsessed with natural foods (Why didn't anyone else think that pot just might have had something to do with it?) and how yuppies figured out how to sell it to them is back in print, but the cover this time around is, alas, deeply trippy.

The actual title of the book barely wins the struggle for your attention against a background of spinning mandelas full of planets and multi-racial people, as well as a splay-legged caveman in bearskin loincloth, visibly torn between painfully obvious metaphors (Bear claw! Expressway! Fish and little budgies! Industrial farming practices!). Not ideal, but a pretty close representation of the hodgepodge, earnest, and, well, druggy culture that brought about the countercultural food renaissance -- a culture that Belasco does a great job of quoting in the book, as with this one from an early underground cookbook (obviously inspired by Allen Ginsburg, and not the kind of thing you'll ever run across today on the Food Network, more's the pity) which describes a cellophane bag as "5,000 years of machine history, eons of garbage dedication, paid for in cancerous wombs, in fallen cocks, in the crazy waste of our fathers." The '60s may not have been a good era for design, but they were a great era for hyperbole.

Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levenstein
Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (May 5, 2003)
ISBN-10: 0520234405
ISBN-13: 978-0520234406
Cover Art and Photography: Jessica Grunwald

This book takes some obvious cues from Fast Food Nation both in terms of color scheme (again, rather similar to the brand identity of a certain fast food chain) and in Thoughtful Use of Junk Food Imagery. What is usually photographed and advertised in a cheerful context is rendered somewhat sinister. The refrigerator is almost gleefully stuffed to capacity, and junk food, which is normally sold as self-contained, symmetrically lined up, and somehow clean and tidy is here unwrapped, stuffed, and tilted perilously, speaking to the universal fear of "cream filling going where it's not supposed to" and "bread getting soggy before you're ready to get it soggy." (Actually, I should take that back. There are probably entire fetish sites devoted to just those two themes. Let's just say "almost universal fear.") I think that bacon being so close to the DingDong is most worrisome, but I also have issues with the half-eaten Granny Smith apple. The spine of the book also has a little postage-stamp sized picture of a piece of fried chicken, so close-up that it looks like a little greasy cumulonimubus cloud. Which is pretty classy, if you ask me.

Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser
Publisher: Mariner Books (January 5, 2004)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0618380604
ISBN-13: 978-0618380602
Cover Art: Lynn Bennett

I don't think any piece of food journalism has managed to top this cover. First, it's working the '50s nostalgia angle, but the cover is a new and refreshing blend of orange, blue, and yellow -- colors that, oddly enough, don't show up in book design that often. So, not only does the book look sherbety and delicious, it stands out against all the other books on a hypothetical display table.

Plus -- it has a baby on the cover. Babies are adorable! Who doesn't love babies! Babies are used to sell everything from soap to life insurance to sport to washer/dryer sets! But this baby is covered in food, to the point where it's midsection appears to be a hamburger, and its head appears to be in the early stages of becoming an ice cream sundae. And, what's more, a hand is coming towards the baby with some little hideous cake thing, and it's uncertain from the angle if it is going to feed the hideous cake thing to the baby, or to scoop up some of the baby as delicious topping for the little hideous cake thing. Aaah! What if someone is trying to eat the baby! It looks so confused! Oh, the dramatic tension!

I certainly hope that Ms. Lynn Bennett goes on from this triumph to illustrate, say, the works of Danielle Steel, or Michael Crichton, both of which could use more collage art. Also, I would like to see T-Rex covered in ice cream. Make it so.