When Bread and Books are Gold: Designing a Cookbook Call to Action

Cookbooks transcend classification. Opening Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking transforms an inquiry about pasteurization into a history lesson on lactase production. Memoirs bookend chapters with symbolic recipes. Some anthologies sit dust-covered on coffee tables but inspire through a meticulously tweezer-plated cover image. However, one theme pervades modern cookbooks: a focus on aesthetics and creating a sense of luxury. Polished, filled with images, and wrapped in smooth covers, modern cookbooks assert artistic value despite a destiny to wear blood, butter, and sauce. Meticulously designed printing, typography, and binding help publications transcend their role as manuals for domestic and physical labor.

Sometimes when I approach sleep, I look for a cookbook in place of immersive fiction. Providing a stop between the real world and sleep, cookbooks hold alternate realities where foods sit on a table or stove in front of me. However, each cookbook’s heft and stiff cover turn relaxing bedtime reading into arm-aching exercise. These flourishes grant books legitimacy when studied at a desk, but this serious weight limits reading these books in other contexts. Cookbooks are not easily packed for travel and relaxation, for they prioritize their academic, scientific, and aesthetic value over their immersive escapism. After the 960 page The Food Lab nearly smashed its smooth laminated weight into my face, I noticed that cookbooks rarely come in the pocket-sized formats that a bestseller novel might inhabit.

This search for a bedtime cookbook meant that a baby blue, flexibound publication caught my eye. With a cover free of intricate watercolors or a visual cornucopia but holding the name of Massimo Bottura, Bread Is Gold shocked me out of a pattern of bulky tomes anthologizing decades of recipes. Why would one of the world’s greatest chefs forgo the weight carried by a hardbound, ornate cookbook?

Bottura’s work contains recipes from his Refettorio in Milan, a dining room for the needy that repurposed wasted foods from the 2015 Universal Exposition (EXPO). Famous chefs passed through this kitchen and created a new menu each day. In an industry leaning towards luxury, this book instead harnesses design to emphasize the Refettorio’s mission of reclamation and democratic dining.

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Despite a theme of “Feeding the World,” much of the 2015 Universal Exposition focused on self-promotion and fine dining.

Published by Phaidon, a company known for modern cover designs, Bread is Gold harnesses minimalism to convey its hunger-solving mission. Flexibound covers rarely accompany cookbooks today, mainly enveloping best-selling anthologies like The Barbecue Bible or 10000 Instant Pot Quick N’ Easy Kale Recipes. After all, thick bindings instill permanence and gravitas. However, Bread is Gold ‘s flexible spine conveys ephemerality. The feeling of bending and curving a compendium of recipes unsettles readers. Other cookbooks show food’s permanence and preserve traditions through the recipes inscribed inside. Meanwhile, Bread is Gold creates a sense of urgency that epitomizes the feelings created by food scarcity. Accentuating this theme is the texture printed onto the cover and inside flaps. Scratches dancing in random directions age the book, tempering a design focused on modern typography. Bottura asserts the value of the dilapidated and an urgency to absorb this knowledge before the Earth’s resources disappear.

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No books were harmed in the making of this article.

Rejecting the narrative and category-based structures of other cookbooks, Bread is Gold continues a relationship to time and exigency by imitating newspapers. The book’s newsprint stock cools each page with a dull blue tone and conveys frugality. Furthermore, Bread is Gold adopts a chronological recording of events and meals defined by repetition and structure. One page explains a chef’s meal. Then, an image of the chef at work follows. Readers next encounter two pages of pictures fit into a grid before arriving at several pages of recipes broken up by a top-down image on a bare wooden background. Different from the instructional step-by-step images or close-ups of beautiful ingredients that populate other cookbooks, the gridded images focus on the raw and the wasted. Egg shells and pounds of food sitting in equipment accompany chefs puzzling over crates of packaged foods and bruised produce. Cooking is often portrayed as an art form with limitless creativity, but Bread Is Gold’s structure emphasizes the confinement and restrictions behind working with rescued food.

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“When putting food on the table is a challenge, miracles happen in the kitchen. We were enlightened by the genius of necessity. We brought dignity back to the table by changing the dynamics of the dining room and serving unexpected food to the most vulnerable.” – Massimo Bottura

Meanwhile, the typesetting builds upon this impending claustrophobia. Despite their prestige, each visitor receives one page for his profile. Narrow columns stack ingredients on top of recipe instructions, and the multi-column layout limits the horizontal space assigned to each line. These recipes do not fold out into explorations of techniques or variations. Instead, the procedures demand efficient movement and drag readers’ eyes quickly down the page. On the photography pages, a tight grid encloses the photographs. Even when an image showing a label or product requests more size and detail, the image must contribute to the narrative from a defined compartment. Similarly, the space for recipe notes following each preparation prioritizes saving paper over utility. The empty lines occupy the remaining space on a page whether the surface provides five or 50 lines.

On the other hand, font embellishes the book. The printed title contributes a sense of modernity and decoration. However, “Massimo Bottura & Friends” and the subtitle “Extraordinary Meals With Ordinary Ingredients” appear in classic fonts. Perhaps the title’s ornamentation reflects the meaning of the phrase itself—that bread holds unseen value. “Bread” adopts ornamental swirls on the cover, and “is” gains three dimensional depth. On the book’s spine, the three words inhabit different fonts. Despite the book’s chronological rigidity, the phrase “bread is gold” travels through time with a futuristic, pixelated “is” on the spine accompanying the possibly 70s era “bread” on the cover. This phrase gains timelessness and sense of universality by inhabiting these various fonts.

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In a time where cookbooks earn their value through volume and ornate photography and illustration, Bread is Gold harnesses the medium of print and bookbinding to assert a sense of urgency. The asymmetry between this cookbook and other publications highlights how chefs should not forget their role in feeding the world as cooking rises into a valued art form.

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