Fictional Foods

Reflecting on half a semester’s worth of work now at midterm time again, my latest school photo project takes inspiration from the classics. Rather than tried-and-true recipes, the classics in question here are works of literature that have made their mark on readers and writers across the ages. Bringing snippets of each story to life in such mouthwatering clarity that viewers may be tempted to eat their books, the goal is to inspire an entirely new conversation about each featured novel. Even though few of the original writings themselves were focused entirely on the edible aspects of their tales, they can provide striking insights into cultural norms, personalities, and a character’s state of mind when food comes into the picture. It plays such a central role to all walks of life, so even when depicted in fictional works, it should be no different. Those who have never read the books featured should still be able to enjoy such a series if executed properly; no matter language barriers, age differences, or political associations, the appreciation of food is universal. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw famously said, “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.”

Dishes have been veganized as needed, of course! While I can’t claim to have the most accurate renditions of each passage due to this subversion, all “meats” are made of seitan or tvp, and no other animal products were employed in any other dishes.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust:

She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis:

The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmond had never tasted anything more delicious.

Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls by Thomas Preskett Prest:

“What a strange manner of talking she has!” said Jarvis Williams to himself, when he found he was alone. “There seems to be some singular and hidden meaning in every word she utters. What can she mean by a communication being made to me, if I neglect my duty! It is strange, and what a singular-looking place this is! I think it would be quite unbearable if not for the delicious odor of the pies, and they are indeed delicious – perhaps more delicious to me, who has been famished for so long, and has gone through so much wretchedness; there is no one here but myself, and I am hungry now – frightfully hungry, and whether the pies are done or not, I’ll have half a dozen of them at any rate, so here goes.”

He opened one of the ovens, and the fragrant steam that came out was perfectly delicious, and he sniffed it up with a satisfaction such as he had never felt before, as regarded anything that was eatable.

“Is it possible,” he said, “that I shall be able to make such delicious pies? At all events one can’t starve here, and if it is a kind of imprisonment, it’s a pleasant one. Upon my soul, they are nice, even half-cooked – delicious! I’ll have another half-dozen, there are lots of them – delightful! I can’t keep the gravy from running out of the corners of my mouth. Upon my soul, Mrs. Lovett, I don’t know where you get your meat, but it’s all as tender as young chickens, and the fat actually melts away in one’s mouth. Ah, there are pies, something like pies! – They are positively fit for the gods!”

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens:

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more–except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.

The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving:

[A]nd he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields, breathing the odor of the bee-hive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty flapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez:

The harmony they had longed for reached its culmination when they least expected it, at a gala dinner at which a delicious food was served that Fermina Daza could not identify. She began with a good portion, but she liked it so much that she took another of the same size, and she was lamenting the fact that urbane etiquette did not permit her to help herself to a third, when she learned that she had just eaten with unsuspecting pleasure, two heaping plates of pureed eggplant. She accepted defeat with good grace, and from that time on, eggplant in all its forms was served at the villa in La Manga with almost as much frequency as at the Palace of Casalduero, and it was enjoyed so much by everyone that Dr. Juvenal Urbino would lighten the idle hours of his old age by insisting that he wanted to have another daughter so that he could give her the best-loved word in the house as a name: Eggplant Urbino.

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf:

An exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish and she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass to choose an especially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savory brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine and thought, This will celebrate the occasion…

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Mad Props

Prop shopping can often be the most fun, or the most frustrating, part of food styling. Endless accessories to match any style are out there, waiting to be discovered; the thrill of the hunt can turn any outing into an impromptu prop acquisition mission. Though the food will always be the star of the show, it still needs strong supporting actors to complete the production, so it pays to have a sharp eye for design and for deals. Expenses are what prevent these searches from being carefree, as any blogger knows well. While those hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind serving pieces are obvious budget busters, it’s surprising to see how badly plain linens can eat through any allotted funds. Yes, I’m talking about fabric napkins, props that rarely get the attention they deserve. Adding pops of color while softening the scene, giving it motion with an effortless drape or order with a tight fold, napkins often pull the whole image together. Problem is, most napkins come in sets, because what normal person wants just one or two of a hundred little scraps of fabric? Rarely will more than two even fit on my set, not to mention the inflated price tag that comes with those matching bundles.

Thank goodness for online shopping. Current blog sponsor Dot and Army provides the perfect solution, packaging fun, whimsical fabric napkins in every color and design you can dream up, instantly giving you dozens of different ways to dress up your food photography. Don’t see a ready-made set that strikes your fancy? Custom packages are also possible. It’s like having your very own personal prop shopper who has impeccable taste!

Just imagine this image without either napkin in place. While they may be overlooked as a stylistic element by the average viewer, they add tons of color to this otherwise plain white background, while reinforcing the concept of a dainty tea party. All I had to do was explain my needs, and these two examples were part of the bundle I got from Jennifer, the talent behind this treasure trove.

This one is even less prominent, but take a gander at the vintage checkerboard napkin way in back. When I asked Jennifer to simply surprise me, this was one of the patterns she picked out, and it has already become an important part of numerous photos. Even if they aren’t the main focus of a shot, or even in focus, it’s those subtle touches that turn a fine photo into a memorable one.

Now, do I have a treat in store for all you budding and established food stylists… Jennifer has very generously offered to give away some of her fabric finds to one lucky reader! The winner can pick any 2 sets of 12 napkins, or choose a customized set to match their kitchen. Enter by commenting about your current favorite prop shop, be it local or online. For two extra entries, like Dot and Army’s facebook page and/or pin your favorite item from the shop on a Pinterest board. Be sure to come back and leave separate comments for each action you take if you want to make them count! You have until Wednesday, October 10th at midnight EST to get your entries in, so make haste and start commenting!

If you simply can’t wait to dive into all the goodies on display (and I sure don’t blame you) go ahead and add those treasures to your cart. When you checkout, enter the code “bittersweet” for a 20% discount on any orders (excluding custom orders.)

UPDATE: The random number generator has spoken, and the winner is…

Lucky commenter #52, Amy! Check your email for info about collecting your winnings, Amy, and enjoy your stylish new fabric napkins!

Food Styling 101: Soup

Nearly a full year (!) has elapsed since my last entry in this series, but it was never my intention to let it fall by the wayside. There are, of course, a million different foods with their own unique sets of photographic challenges, so it was never for a lack of material that the posts lagged. Without wasting any more time, let’s dive right back in… To a big bowl of hot soup.

Whether rich or wan, thick or brothy, soup is particularly difficult to style and capture in photos. The category is huge, spanning all cultures and ingredients imaginable, but there are a few guidelines to remember for documenting any liquid lunch.

Cook everything (or as much as possible) separately.
When cooking for myself, soups are a favorite one-pot meal, but stewing all of the ingredients together does not yield the most visually appealing results. Vegetables have different cooking times, and although it’s fine to eat a slightly overcooked, greyed pea, it’s not what you want to see in a photo. Keeping the components separate also gives you control over the exact amounts of everything in each bowl, and what is most prominently featured as well. If it’s a tofu soup, I want to see some tofu! The carrots might be in perfect dices and that’s all very nice, but those backup singers shouldn’t get the spotlight if the recipe is named after something else.

This may mean deviating from the given recipe slightly, so be aware of what can and can’t be removed from the main procedure. In general, the main body of a soup should remain intact (especially if it involves caramelizing or stewing anything thoroughly) but all mix-ins should stay out of the pool until the end. Noodles in particular need special attention, and must be rinsed in cold water once they’re cooked through to prevent them from becoming mushy. Fresh herbs must remain far away from all that heat until the very moment you’re turning on your camera and beginning to focus the lens. They wilt in mere seconds, so be prepared to switch out droopy herbs if you need a second or third take.

Build your bowl from bottom to top. Assemble your “hero” dish like a layer cake. Put the nice looking, but not gorgeous solid ingredients at the bottom, and be more meticulous about arranging the best examples on top. Once you have the body or “meat” of the soup in place, very carefully pour broth on top. Readjust the filling as needed, and only then can you add garnishes.

Choosing where to build your bowl of soup is an issue that even I struggle with often. It’s a fine line to walk; wanting a generous portion of liquid, but not wanting to spill it while moving the dish to the set. I’m notoriously clumsy about these things, so I often style the base of the soup off set, adding just a small splash of the soup itself. Once it’s safely in place where it will be photographed, only then do I top it off (Very carefully!) with a final ladle full of broth.

Go heavy on the veg, light on broth to prevent it from looking watery. The same concept is applicable to thick, creamy soups as well. If you’ve only got a few of the goodies floating around in there, it’s gonna look skimpy no matter how lavishly you decorate the set. However, maybe you want just a plain, chunk-less creamy soup, and that’s perfectly fine, too! Just stick with one or the other; a spare soup is no fun to eat or look at.

Enhance broth with just a touch of turmeric to make it look richer. A tiny pinch goes a long way, but evokes that classic look of a long-simmered stock, bursting with flavor. Since you can’t actually offer viewers a taste, give them a hand with that visual cue to say “this is a deeply savory, well-seasoned, and delicious dish.”

Finish with a flourish. For perfectly smooth soups, add something exciting either to the side or in the center, to prevent it from looking too plain. A dollop or swirl of vegan yogurt is always a favorite, since it adds such great contrast and motion all in one swoop. Fresh herbs are a classic addition, as is a tiny drizzle of oil. More than one garnish is perfectly acceptable, but don’t go too crazy. Remember that simplicity is best.

Mind the glare. Think about each bowlful of soup as a giant mirror, and you’ll be two steps ahead of the game. Know where your light source is, and check in the viewfinder to see how and where it’s reflecting. If you want to show off all those lovely components you just spent so much time preparing, a steeper downward angle is better for capturing them. A little bit of shine and highlight is necessary (not to mention, unavoidable) but you generally want to avoid having a glare across the entire surface of the soup. When you shoot at a steeper angle (say, 45 degrees or so) you’ll pick up more of that reflection, and bear in mind that if you have more than one light source, you’ll have many more hot spots to keep in check. This would be a handy time to break out a black bounce card or gobo to cut down on those overly shiny areas.

Don’t forget about adding steam, too! Demonstrating that the soup is piping hot does wonders to evoke hunger, since it looks like it’s ready to be devoured right at that very second.

Speaking of which, what styling tips are you hungry for next? If you want to see more of this series, I need your suggestions!

Food Styling 101: Burritos

When I put out the call for your food styling stumbling blocks after a quick primer on ugly foods, the responses were greatly varied, but a few particular dishes stood out from the pack.  Burritos caught my eye first, as more than one or two people named them as particularly uncooperative photography subjects. For good reason, these tortilla torpedoes are notoriously difficult to photograph in an appealing light; Packed with generally brown, red, and maybe yellow components, they’re not exactly bright rainbows of fresh ingredients. It’s easy for them to look tired, droopy, sloppy, or just plain greasy.

The good news is, there’s no need for them to ever appear that way through the lens! Although I would never suggest that I compose burritos like this for an everyday meal, special considerations do need to be made when they’re the “hero” of a shot.

As I was styling and photographing this particular specimen, I tried to think of tips and tricks that helped bring it into the world looking like a glamorous movie star, and not a second rate stand-in. Here’s what I came up with so that others might be able to fix their burrito blemishes…

  • Bear in mind which side you want to be “up” as you build a burrito. If you want the top to be smooth tortilla, then What you lay down first will end up on top. If you don’t mind a “flap” from the tortilla edges on top, then you can build it right-side up.
  • Try to keep mushier components to the bottom, so that when you slice it, they don’t smear through all of the following layers. This means guacamole, re-fried beans, hummus, and the like are better placed near the base of your assembly.
  • Include a good number of greatly varied layers, but don’t go overboard. 4 – 5 different things is about the maximum before it starts to just look like a mess of everything you had leftover in the fridge.
  • Be generous, but don’t over-stuff. A burrito blow out is never attractive.
  • Make sure you include something green, somewhere. Herbs, grilled zucchini, avocado chunks, anything! Green evokes the feeling of freshness, which helps to prevent the burrito from looking like a sad, reheated gas station offering. It also adds pops of contrasting color to create interest.
  • Strain salsa and other “wet” condiments to prevent a watery, mushy mess. Likewise, dab sliced tomatoes on a paper towel to remove some of the excess liquid before adding them to a burrito (or sandwich, for that matter.)
  • Save small amounts of every ingredient, to “fluff up” filling later. This is most noticeable in the beans- I like to show half of the sliced pieces to give it a more realistic look, but add in a few more whole ones to give it more texture and variety. Be sure to toss those whole beans in just a dab of oil to keep them shiny, or brush on a very thin layer with a clean paintbrush once they’re in place.
  • Use toothpicks to keep the roll intact. I usually start with one at each end, and break off the excess so that they’re not sticking out and visible. Then, as I cut and rearrange the pieces, I may add more in as needed. Just don’t forget that they’re there when you go to eat it later!
  • To cut your burrito, use a sharp knife, and apply gentle pressure while using a sawing motion. Don’t just smash the blade down and crush the fragile ingredients within.

Then, when it comes to capturing your burrito masterpiece…

  • Think about the “meal” as a whole to fill out the rest of the set. Consider including a beverage, sliced citrus, chips, dip, fresh herb garnish, and other simple, colorful, or graphic elements to add interest surrounding the subject.
  • Keep the colors light, bright, and clean. A burrito tends to look heavy by nature, so you want to balance that out with contrasting elements.
  • Use a mirror to direct a “spotlight” right onto the filling. Since I prefer a back light for most of my photos (just place the plate in front of the window, easy as that), the cut sides have a tendency to go dark unless otherwise highlighted.
  • Shoot from a low angle so you can see all of that glorious filling!

That concludes this class on burrito styling. Are there any more questions before we move on to the next? Raise your hand, speak up, and I’d be happy to go on! Don’t be afraid to suggest the next subject either, because if everyone enjoyed this, you can count on the Food Styling 101 series to become a regular feature here!

Ugly but Tasty

It’s a conundrum that anyone who’s cooked even the bare minimum of meals has undoubtedly run into; the tastiest dishes are often the messiest, homeliest, and downright most unattractive of foods. Not an issue for the eater, who can simply close their eyes and take that first tentative taste, to realize the potential concealed by such an unassuming first impression. For a photographer, however, the added difficulty stems from the fact that viewers can only eat with their eyes. No matter how delicious you think your recipe for chili casserole is, without proper styling and propping, it will never look like anything more than muddy beans in a dish. Some foods are naturally photogenic and need little if any makeup before making their photographic debut, but others need a bit of love, and a whole lot of finesse.

Oatmeal is one particularly tricky food to capture in an appealing way. Lumpy, beige mush that goes on forever. It’s all about the toppings in this situation. Sparingly sprinkle berries (always lovely and great for color), nuts, or even chocolate chips if you want to give it a more decadent feel around the edges of the bowl. Make sure you leave enough of the actual oatmeal exposed so that it doesn’t end up looking like a bowl of fruit salad, though- If need be, add more of those beautifying ingredients around the bowl itself, as if there were so many extras, they’re simply overflowing. Move them into the background to reinforce what went into the oatmeal, sort of like a subconscious reminder.

Soups, stews, and other lumpy, semi-liquid meals share many of the same difficulties as oatmeal. You have more options here though, as any colorful veggie will instantly brighten up the picture. Green peas are my go-to addition whenever possible. Take frozen peas out of the freezer and simply thaw them under warm water. Add them after the dish is completely finished cooking so that they don’t turn brown, and leave a few out until the final plating. Insert your last few peas individually to make sure that they’re visible, but try to blend them in with a thin layer of sauce, so they don’t actually look like they’ve been placed there after the fact.

Everyone always loves seeing chocolate, but it can pose a few problems for a photographer. It’s one of the items I get many questions about, as chocolate bars in particular often give others trouble, looking more like dog droppings than candy. Isolation is key here, so that the brown-ness doesn’t just continue to blend into the background and look like a crappy smudge (pun intended.) No wood grain backgrounds for me, thanks! Go with a light, bright color or simply white to provide contrast, and most certainly a white plate if you plan to use one. Cut-away photos are always a big hit if possible, so that you can let viewers see inside the chocolates and understand the contents (and thus flavors) better. A grouping of a few chocolates can also be effective, but be careful not to overcrowd the scene.

Ice cream is a legendary troublemaker on the set, but I have to say, I don’t find it to be such a pain to work with.  Though most people wouldn’t categorize it as “ugly food,” it goes from lovely and all made up to a droopy, gloppy, and unappetizing mess in mere minutes.  The key is speed and efficiency; Have your set all assembled and ready to go, white balance and exposure adjusted, and bowls empty and waiting before you take the ice cream out of the freezer. Limit yourself to a maximum of two bowls or scoops in the beginning, because it takes too much time to get that “perfect” sphere so many times over. As soon as the ice cream hits the set, snap like the wind; take as many photos as you can, from as many different angles, so that you can have a large number of greatly varied shots to choose from. Ideally, this should give you a better likelihood of getting that winning photo in one go. And don’t worry if the scoops don’t look perfect- They shouldn’t look dry and immaculate like colored mashed potatoes! A bit of melting or dripping fudge sauce makes for a mouthwatering effect.

Food in jars, no matter what the main ingredient, has the odds stacked against it. Typically long-simmered or preserved to a mummified state, they lack the brightness that fresh produce could offer. The key is to bring light, and plenty of it, into the frame. Try to shine light directly through the glass jars from behind, to give it a warm “glow.” Add fresh ingredients around the jars, to give viewers an idea of what vibrant produce went into making those pickles or jam. Remove some of the contents of the jars, and style them as you would expect to eat them; on toast, in a sandwich, etc.

The list can go on until the end of time, but these are the top five that come to my mind first. What are your ugliest dishes, and most difficult foods to photograph? If I get enough suggestions, perhaps there can be a part two for styling tips and tricks for these unphotogenic edibles!

Kosher Cooking with Levana

Every day is a different job, making it rather difficult to explain exactly what I do when meeting new people. Truth is, I’m not quite sure I have the whole story straight myself- Am I a student? Photographer? Author? Restaurant cook? Blogger? Well, to make matters more confusing, it seems I’m about to add another descriptor to the list: Food stylist.

Food styling is something that is par for the course for food bloggers, but in the world of professional photography, the person wielding the camera is rarely, if ever, directly involved in plating and arranging that delicious subject seen through the viewfinder. The ability to artfully display edibles comes naturally to most food enthusiasts, or anyone who spends enough time eating out and seeing how the experts do it, but it’s not a job that one stumbles into with little real experience… Unless you’re me, apparently. Never had I flattered myself by assuming it was something I could do beyond my own kitchen- Most jobs clearly state that the stylist have a solid culinary background, a degree from an esteemed cooking school, and experience up the wazoo. So getting that last minute call from my publisher, saying that a kind woman in Brooklyn would love my assistance, was quite the shock.

And can I tell you something? I had a blast. Challenging at times and a definite learning experience all the way, but thankfully, Levana Kirschenbaum was every bit as warm and welcoming as promised, and we hit it off immediately. Two long days of fussing with greens, swabbing plates obsessively with q-tips, and a just one minor pâté fiasco later, and we had dozens of beautiful images (thanks to the camera work of Meir Pliskin) to add into her upcoming cookbook, The Whole Foods Kitchen. [Please note, though this isn’t a vegan cookbook, there are many vegan options.] I still couldn’t help but pick up my camera a few times, though bear in mind that these are not the images going into the book. Just a few of my favorites, and a little sneak preview to whet your appetite!

Steel-Cut Oat Soup

Lemon Pudding

Steamed Dumplings

Pasta Salad

Roasted Fennel and Endive

Chocolate Steel-Cut Oats Pudding