When journalist David Carr first wrote about Lucky Peach back in 2011, he singled out the debut cover as a striking symbol of its vision: a backside of a “wrinkly” chicken “squirting out graphic eggs.” Since then we’ve seen the trailblazing magazine shatter conventions of beauty and business in the world of food journalism—including upending prevailing ideas about how food should be portrayed on the page.

Often relying on illustrations, watercolors, and bold graphics, Lucky Peach ditches the #foodporn formula of extreme-closeup burgers and farmers-market glamour shots that inspire people to lust with Seymore Butts-like abandon. Usually when we encounter food photography it is a purely visceral experience that sends a direct and powerful message: Eat me. But Lucky Peach’s pursuit of grinning cartoon sausages, comic-strip recipes, and offbeat graphics signals a meaningful change with our relationship to food. If an illustration is not meant to be gawked at, then what purpose does it serve? And why are upstart print publications, cookbooks, and even websites—like Eater, Epicurious, and Tasting Table, to name a few—joining the movement?

“I think this is a backlash. The pen and the hand are coming full circle,” says Sarah Rutherford, who provided illustrations for Sam Sifton’s book, Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well. The decision to draw a dumpling instead of photographing it raises more than just questions about aesthetics—it points to a psychological shift in how we want to consume ideas about food.


I. Budget Constraints and Cooking Pedagogy

peternell
Photo: bookshopsantacruz.com

From a practical standpoint, the decision seems relatively one-dimensional: Illustrations allow flexibility for publications without the means to stage big-time photo shoots with in-demand photographers who charge Terry Richardson rates.

“If you’re a fan of The Wire, you’ll know Lester Freeman’s answer is always to follow the money,” says Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan. “It’s more cost-efficient to call an illustrator than put a photographer on the plane.”

That’s especially true for outlets that strive to cover a range of global content but don’t have the resources of Bon Appétit or The New York Times. When it came time to execute a Lucky Peach article that surveys Icelandic sausage varieties, for example, Meehan says there were multiple options to pursue: rely on iPhone photos from the reporter, hire freelance shooters in Iceland, or draw the food as cartoons. The first is risky, the second is cost-prohibitive, and the third is ultimately more controllable.

That may explain why Short Stack Editions and a handful of upstart food rags at this year’s Brooklyn Book Fair were heavily anchored in illustration. It allows them to hit the ground running.

But logistical concerns are only part of the story. Illustrations can educate readers in ways that photographs can’t, and this logic applies just as much to cookbooks as it does to magazines.

“A step-by-step photo series isn’t alive in the way that I want their imaginations to be.”

“If you only have drawings, it feels more literate and manual-ish. It’s not so glorifying as it is instructive,” says Cal Peternell, whose latest book, Twelve Recipes, was filled with drawings composed by his wife and sons (who are all artists). Peternell’s theory seems to be gaining more traction, especially among cookbook authors. There’s an advantage, he says, when showing complicated techniques like how to truss a bird. Drawings can be more to the point and less distracting.

But the preference for illustrations also harkens back to a time when the art form was seen as a badge of creativity and counter-culture.

Writer John Birdsall explains that in ’40s and ’50s, Gourmet’s use of illustration—including its iconic covers—was driven by aesthetic concerns. The publication broke away from the tradition at the time by trying to “make it feel like an art magazine.” The ’60s and ’70s were photo-heavy thanks to the Time Life’s Foods of the World and Good Cook series, but by the ’90s, Cooks Illustrated returned to the “old-fashioned idea of genteel aspiration. It was the most practical, service-driven publication you could ever imagine, but line drawings—and especially the arty painting on the back cover—gave it a kind of Norman Rockwell-Saturday Evening Post cultural propriety.”


shortstack
Photo: Facebook/Short Stack Editions

As Birdsall notes, practicality and aesthetics no longer stood in opposition. Drawings were an artful alternative to showing someone “stuffing their hand in a carcass,” but they also became highly useful educational tools—ones that still appeal to modern-day chefs.

This style also gives the work a sense of timelessness, a quality that many cookbook authors argue cannot always be achieved through photographs. Not only do photos trap a recipe in time, but they also limit the cook’s ability to interact with it. “A step-by-step photo series isn’t alive in the way that I want their imaginations to be,” says Samin Nosrat, who is preparing to release her own illustrated cookbook. The message Nosrat is sending is a general philosophy of cooking—she’d rather equip readers with intuition and a blueprint than have them strive for some photo-studio ideal. That’s why she enlisted Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate a series of drawings and flowcharts. “Cooking is fun, and I wanted to convey that whimsy.” Nosrat suggests that you can allay the fear of a home cook by ridding a book of photographs—which often put pressure on the reader to perform.

Rutherford also supports this approach, arguing that illustrations leave a little more freedom to interpret the words or instructions. “They become yours. It’s not about copying a dish.”


II. An Aesthetic Shift to Re-Define Desire

Another preview from the art department: a sausage quest by Josh Freydkis for LP10!

A photo posted by Lucky Peach (@luckypeach) on

The same desire to evoke rather than prescribe is at the heart of Lucky Peach’s illustration-heavy style, which flipped the script on how we expect high-brow food magazines to look (at times, especially in the earlier issues, it felt more like a Daniel Clowes graphic novel than anything close to Bon Appétit). In food media, the trend is clearly wider than just Lucky Peach. Put A Egg On It and Gastronomica revived illustrations years before, and were even cited by Lucky Peach as inspiration for their own vision. Yet it was David Chang’s publication—guided by the art direction of Walter Green—that became a poster-child for the most recent upswing.

Rooted in an deep interest in zines and offbeat comics, the publication’s aesthetic is proof that the formula we’re accustomed to seeing—one where hyper-realism produces instantaneous desire—isn’t the only way to reach readers and sustain their interest.

“It’s hard to make food look delicious when you’re drawing it. It becomes about something else,” says Lisa Hanawalt, an artist and producer of the animated series BoJack Horseman who draws regularly for Lucky Peach. “You’re not trying to dress it up to make it look like something you want to order. Lucky Peach isn’t trying to sell you food. They want to entertain you and challenge your thinking.”

“Photos are really great at evoking desire to replicate an experience,” says Meehan. “If you see a photo of a place in Bali, you’ll say, ‘one day I’ll be rich enough to put my feet in that sand.’ If you see a Magnus Nilsson sauce, you’ll wish your life were that sumptuous.”


When it comes to drawing, there’s something highly personal about an artist’s line and color choice that pushes past the Pavlovian effect. “Photos are really great at evoking desire to replicate an experience,” says Meehan. “If you see a photo of a place in Bali, you’ll say, ‘one day I’ll be rich enough to put my feet in that sand.’ If you see a Magnus Nilsson sauce, you’ll wish your life were that sumptuous.”

dimsumillos
Photo courtesy Lucky Peach/Carolyn Phillips

In one case study, the distinct merits of illustrations versus photographs come squarely into focus. Lucky Peach published an illustrated field guide to dim sum in its Chinatown issue that was also syndicated on Buzzfeed Food, which replaced the original drawings with photographs. If you look at the two side by side, the differing agendas are obvious. Lucky Peach is less concerned with producing immediate gratification. Looking at each dumpling drawing is like trying to decode a map: You might have to stare at it for a long time to comprehend its shape and meaning. Buzzfeed’s decision to swap in photos signals its unmediated common-man approach—’hey, any numbskull can connect to pictures of dumplings.’ Both have their advantages, but one asks more of the reader by forcing contemplation rather than instant gratification.


III. The Rise of a Movement, Backed By Chefs

Get Jiro!

A photo posted by Rev. Dave Johnson (@devilpig666) on

The re-emergence of illustration in food runs parallel to its new-found prestige in the fine-art world. Illustration used to be “a dirty word,” illustrator Wendy MacNaughton explained in a Longform podcast. “It meant you didn’t have ideas; it was for ornamentation.”

It seems as though that reputation is now slowly losing traction. “Twenty years ago, everything digital was wonderful. People were fascinated by the first vector drawings,” says Marc Valli, editor-in-chief of the art magazine Elephant. Valli ran a feature last year observing the rise of hand-drawings, sketches, and colored pencils in the world of fine art. “But now we say, ‘wow, somebody took the time to draw this with a pencil? About seven years ago this came back into vogue—this idea of a sketch-book look, something naive and spontaneous.”


“Illustration used to be “a dirty word,” said illustrator Wendy McNaughton in a Longform podcast. “It meant you didn’t have ideas; it was for ornamentation.”

As a result, we’re starting to see a whole generation of image-makers follow a path in illustration as opposed to graphic art. Valli compares this moment to rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s: “It’s in its nascent stage, and I don’t think we’ve seen the impact of that yet.”

Interestingly, it is chefs who are pushing the boundaries of illustration even further, borrowing from other visual traditions to transcend food. Bourdain references Japan through his sushi-inspired manga. Chris Cosentino embodies the qualities of a superhero in a Marvel comic. And Amanda Cohen believes her graphic-novel cookbook is able to communicate something that pictures simply can’t. We’ve come to a point where we respect chefs as thinkers; given this platform, they’ve taken fuller control of how they want to frame their stories.

korean
Bon Appétit’s Korean BBQ Guide. Photo courtesy Bon Appétit


“As David Hockney and others have pointed out, people tend to think that cameras capture what we see—but they don’t,” says Designboom editor Andy Butler. “An illustrator can represent things in their work that a camera can’t pick up on, and the viewer is aware of these things.”

That’s not to say photographs are in danger of becoming irrelevant. Award-winning photographer Eric Wolfinger acknowledges a resurgence of hand-drawn images, but doesn’t think they will always do a better job in terms of visual depiction. The book he worked on, Tartine, for instance, is one man’s search for the ultimate loaf of bread. Photos give a visceral sense of what the bread is supposed to look like, which is crucial for telling that particular story.

These days, more online outlets seem to integrate illustration, from Serious Eats and Bon Appétit food guides, to comic-book recipes produced by Saveur and Food Republic. With 64 million #foodporn tags and endless #VSCOcam shots inundating our Instagram feeds, a little bit of variety feels refreshing—even if it means going back to basics with a pad and pen.

Just in time for CSA pickup, here’s a little portion of a produce guide I did for @food52, up today!

A photo posted by libbyvanderploeg (@libbyvanderploeg) on