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Cookbooks 5: Leslie Forbes

5.     Leslie Forbes. Many cookbooks are artistically produced, text and illustrations working together for cohesive effect. Some cookbooks are artbooks, where illustration can sometimes overwhelm the first priority of sharing recipes. Then there are cookbooks by the Canadian Leslie Forbes (1953-2016), i.e. my standout example of a design artist who joins recipe and illustration into a book that is an entire sensual experience all its own. I think these two titles were purchased at The Terrace Bookshop in Rathdowne Street in the late eighties; neither have been in print for nearly thirty years. You can get them for a steal on Abebooks. Pencil, pen, and ink draw together word and image into one coordinated tribute to Provence and Tuscany, places famed for their food and drink, all of it within striking distance of England. Forbes describes ‘A Table in Tuscany’ (1985) as “more a sketchbook that grew than a traditional cookbook,” and that’s why I return to her cookbooks. Although one might refer to them for the odd recipe, their main reason for existence is not grazing but browsing. You have to watch her precision English, too. I like, for example, her one sentence definition of Tuscan cookery: “Everything that can be used, is.” Every page opens up vistas small and large on the kitchen, and you have to watch her nous, as well. Speaking as a librarian, I pay homage to her incorporation of the Cataloguing-In-Publication data (CIP) in her own hand, on the verso of each title page. How did she do that, ahead of printing? Planning, is the answer, and an eye for every detail of production. There is remarkably little about the life of the amazingly gifted Leslie Forbes online. We know she took an interest in Indian cuisine before turning to the writing of novels. In 2003 she worked helping torture survivors write about their experiences of alienation. Then in 2005 she developed some form of epilepsy that “renders her mute, unable to write,” as one website puts it: Oliver Sacks’ territory. This condition led her to co-produce a limited-edition book with fellow-artist-writer Oona Grimes carrying the very Perec-like title ‘ABS NCES’ which, and I quote “underlies Forbes’s many stories for other artists about the topography of neural paths between our brain’s right and left hemispheres. About re-mapping image and word.” I gaze at these Lesley Forbes cookbooks with their inspired connection of image and word, and cannot quite believe that it came to this. I google the title of this neuroscience book of hers to be asked by the machine ‘Did you means: absences’. Yes, I suppose I did.  


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