I found this unusual, 58-page book on a table at Brooklyn’s Spoonbill & Sugartown. The sales clerk told me the author brought it in, the store decided to sell it and purchases have been steady. I understand why. There’s something seductive about this self-published book: the soft feel of the pages; the intriguing black-and-white, muted photographs; the simple recipes with easy instructions and a handful of fresh ingredients; and the narrative about what we see and taste.
19 Pictures, 22 Recipes, while sub-titled “A Cookbook by Paola Ferrario,” is neither a photography book with recipes, nor a cookbook with pictures. It’s a sensual congregation of both, including essays. Ferrario tells personal stories, philosophizes about cooking and life, and provides interpretive thoughts about the photos. All the while, she emphasizes the exquisite pleasures to be experienced through simplicity. No need for expensive photography equipment to create a meaningful photograph, let alone some chef’s super meal to experience great taste.
Ferrario writes,“The photographer/cook only has to take what the planet has given and transform it into pictures or dishes with as little alteration to the original as possible.”
Consider her “Pasta with Tomatoes & Basil.” You just need a few Roma tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil, a simple recipe that makes a jar of Prego or Newman’s tomato sauce seem pointless. Ferrario pairs it with a Polaroid of a woman’s hips in a flowered polyester dress taken with a camera Ferrario purchased in a thrift shop.
“When I look at this picture I remember that my youth was serene because I was a dreamer with simple desires. I envied people who could dance well and read fast but never the ones that had more than I. Whenever I feel old or poor I make this dish, which is as beautiful as youth seems through the eyes of a happy middle age. It takes a little time to make and it costs almost nothing. It’s the perfect meal when we are assessing our needs.”
Paola Ferrario is a Guggenheim award-winning photographer represented by the Sue Scott Gallery in New York. She also is a cook by nature, telling us in the essay “La Scampagnata: An Apology” that hers is a generation of women who grew up having been taught how to cook and then choosing to cook in their adult lives. That choice is becoming more and more a rarity; however, given Ferrario’s musings here, it’s apparent we’ve needlessly complicated and avoided kitchen life.
My favorite pairing is “One-Egg Cake,” featuring the photograph of a newly built house. “The image freezes the moment when desire has become reality through labor, will and destiny,” the author writes. She adds, “A freshly baked cake and this photography produce in me a sense of admiration for people who can do tasks which require skills that are no longer routinely imparted in our society.”
It’s hard to detect detail in many of the slightly blurred photographs, but that doesn’t detract from their purpose. Together with the recipes and narrative, they create intimacy, bringing us close to the people sharing an ordinary moment with the camera lens. These are old photos Ferrario collected from flea markets and antique shops. The recipes – family recipes from Ferrario’s Italian childhood – include pasta alla carbonara, cantaloupe with prosciutto, waffles, minestrone, perfect steak, sugar cookies, strange rice and others.
You can read the book’s introduction on Ferrario’s website in PDF format. Published by Ferrario, the book is available for purchase on the site, or you could contact Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers. 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes is edited by poet Daisy Fried and designed by Ken Botnick at emdash studio in Saint Louis, Missouri.