Why do old cookbook pictures look so unappetizing?

The “Why do old things look ridiculous” thread brought to mind the pictures in old cookbooks. I have never seen an old cookbook where the pictures look appetizing, but I’m not sure why. Is it the colours? Or the recipes themselves? Just look at stuff like Lileks’ “Gallery of Regrettable Food” and you can see examples of this phenomenon. Anyone have any theories why? These photos must have looked good at one time, but revolting now.

I think it’s the colors, which have probably gone squirrely in an old book. I’ve always been bothered by food scenes in black-and-white movies or TV shows. You see a roast chicken, or a banana split, or whatever, but it looks like gray goo. Plus, you subconsciously know that the food you’re looking at has long since been eaten and pooped out or is moldering in a landfill in Van Nuys. Color is a way to judge whether food has gone bad, so when the color is wrong, it’s kind of offputting.

I think in a lot of cases, such as the “Gallery of Regrettable Food,” it was just because the food was so nasty. Other than extremely versions of Italian and Mexican (and possibly Chinese) food, there wasn’t that much ethnic cuisine that would be popularly cooked at home. I think that’s why cookbooks went into bizarre items like jello molds and spam dishes - something unusual but still bland enough for middle American tastes of the time. However, jello molds and spam look pretty unappetizing, at least IMO.

My only real cookbook is The American Woman’s Cookbook from 1965. It was my mom’s and I have been looking at the petit fours on the inside cover for my whole life wondering where you get blue coconut shreds and why you’d want to eat that. The most disgusing color plate has to be the one with the cauliflour. It’s grey and it looks like a brain surrounded by corn and brussels sprouts. There’s some sauce on the temporal lobe that looks like vomit. I know it’s supposed to be cheese but…who barfed on the brain??

There are a lot of other gross things. There’s some tomato slices and pimento-suffed olives on a bed of lettuce with what appears to be guts. I can’t figure out what that is. There’s a glass of lemonade beside it. They never tell you what any of the color pictures are supposed to be but they are never the recipe on the facing page.

There’s a slice of pineapple with three dates on it. They have something white on top and then what looks like little cherry slices on top. Served on a bed of lettuce. It looks gross because that’s GROSS.

In black and white there’s a peeled melon filled with tomato aspic and frosted with cream cheese. It’s got a slice taken out of it and the whole thing is on a bed of parley or something.

One reason it looks so bad is the contrast and colors. If they have an orange, the rinds look snow white and the pulp looks bloody. The yellows in everything pop out and make sauces look sick.

I don’t know why everything is molded. On the shepherd’s pie, the potatoes have been forced through a pipe to make them look fancy. There is a chicken and noodles and the noodles have been molded into a ring with all the sauce and chicken in the middle like a soup. I guess people were bored.

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the art of food photography has come so far. I remember reading somewhere about what is done to food before it is photographed. That yummy ice cream? It’s mashed potatoes.

That’s partially true, but it’s not the wholly all of it.

A big part of it is advances in photographic and printing technologies. We use different chemicals in colour film and print paper now that more accurately represent colour and even flashes and studio lights have improved. We’ve also switched from blue-based inks to red-based inks for printing. So there are two steps in the set to page process that have become more “true-to-life.”

Beyond that, people have learned a lot of techniques for the actual photographing of food. Food photography presents a number of huge problems. The subject doesn’t “sit” well. :smiley:

Nowadays, many of the photos that you see in cookbooks aren’t actually the items prepared according to the recipe – they’re props, or partial props, made to represent the finished recipe. There are actually companies who do nothing but make prop foods for cookbooks and menus that photograph well. Vinyl eggs, stuff like that. One less item that you have to time exactly right in the studio. Put your sauce on 'em and click away. After a few minutes in the studio, the even best presentation is going to look like a congealing mess.

Of course, these technological improvements are the least part of Lilek’s-type examples. There’s no way you can make Lark’s-tongues in Aspic look good. :smiley:

Can’t answer the OP, but can tell you how to get blue coconut shreds. Place ordinary white shredded coconut in a container that you can seal tightly (leave some space). Add a few drops blue food coloring. Seal container. Shake container. SHAKE vigorously. After a bit, check color. If color not blue enough, add more blue food coloring. Shake.

My mom does this periodically to get green coconut shreds.