Coleslaw with tart cherries. Or, a brief and muddled history of food photography.

The Guardian and the NPR website recently had articles about amateur food photographers. You know, those annoying people who take pictures of every meal they make and post it on every available social networking site, so that you just can’t avoid … D’oh! That’s me! I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize profusely to all of my friends who are not reading this because they started hiding my posts about six months ago when I began on this strangely obsessive blog.

The articles got me thinking about food photography over the years. It’s not a new thing to photograph food – in fact people have been painting pictures of food for centuries. Food is pretty! Food is inviting, and sustaining and necessary and temporal and symbolic. A meal can be so carefully and imaginatively prepared, so eagerly anticipated, so happily consumed. (And then comes the washing up.) I like the idea of crystalizing that one moment when everything is perfect, after all the work, before all the enjoyment. Before the creation of one person is shared with others. Photography’s great appeal is that it can capture a fleeting moment in a world where nothing is permanent. Everything passes, decays, or is consumed.

[I seem to have gone on and on, so the rest is after the...jump!]

I like to look at the photographs in old cookbooks and magazines. I love the pictures of food in those giant, cluttered magazines from the forties and fifties. The oddly-colored meals made with spam and mayonnaise, or sausages from a can. The newest-latest, not-so-freshest creamed corn and canned ham casserole. They don’t look remotely delicious or healthy, but they’re so cheerfully, unselfconsciously unappealing. Their direct descendants would be the pictures in women’s magazines my mother used to buy at the grocery-store checkout when I was little. With their happy artificial sunlight, in their perfect stage-set of a kitchen. I used to make an inexplicably green cream cheese, gelatin and cool whip pie in a graham cracker crust. I thought it was the most elegant creation!

I’ve said before that I like to read my Mrs Beeton, 1963 edition. I love her matter-of-fact tone and the wealth of information. The pictures are florid and pretty. The food looks surreal and inedible, but strangely appealing. Take this frontispiece of strawberry shortcake.

Mrs. Beeton's strawberry shortcake

I love everything about it! I love the world “frontispiece,” we don’t have enough of those, these days. I love the formality of it, its icy friendliness. I can just imagine Mrs. Beeton in a starchy floral dress, standing behind the table with her hands folded, trying not to show how proud she is of her fluffy creations. If you read the recipe, though, the shortcake sounds delicious, it sounds like the perfect strawberry shortcake – simple and elemental. Mrs. Beeton’s book is like that. So strange in some ways, so right and perfect in others.

My mother recently gave me a French cookbook she’d bought in the early sixties. Cuisine moderne et vieilles recettes. I’m having so much fun reading this one, as well. Puzzling out the french words to arrive at a revelatory moment when I realize they’re talking about melted chocolate and delicious-sounding liqueur combined in beautiful ways. The pictures in this book are remarkable. Extravagant, stately, with baroque arrangements and funereal lighting. They’re so different from French movies of the same decade, which are suave and cool, understated and bathed in elegant sage green and chrome.

Recently, we’ve been in an era I think of as the Martha Stewart period. The photographs are very stylish and nicely lit, in a way that seems natural whilst mysteriously lacking patches of sunlight or shadow. The food is in sharp focus, and in the background we catch a hazy, blurry glimpse of artfully arranged glasses and bottles of wine, or clever party favors, or interesting guests. These foggy images hint at a world I want to be part of, at least for the time I’m flipping through the magazine. They create a wistfulness not just for the food, but for the whole world that contains the food. I want that kitchen, those glasses, that yard, that seemingly effortless ability to make everything look perfect.

And that brings us to the “food porn” sites. I think they’re so much fun! Every small thumbnail is like a magical window into a somebody’s life. You can see right into their kitchen, and read about the food they like and why it’s important to them. Which is so personal, when you think about it! Some of the photography is wonderful. And not just of the final product, but each step along the way – kitchen appliances and utensils and countertops are transformed into beautiful compositions. I’m not very good at photographing food, but these sites have inspired me to put more of an effort in. I get frustrated and tell myself that I’m an ordinary person with an ordinary camera. And then I tell myself that that’s the laziest excuse, and will only lead to miserable mediocrity. I feel guilty that I’m wasting time, some days, when I spend an hour despairing over my inability to make a piece of tart look appealing. And then I tell myself, I’m not wasting time, I’m capturing it!

And all of this leads us to coleslaw. One of these food porn sites suggested that we buy some bagged salad fixings, made by Dole, and then that we make a salad, and then that we photograph it. So that’s what I did. I don’t usually buy bagged pre-cut vegetables. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, by any means! It’s just that I’m a freak, and I actually enjoy cutting vegetables. It’s one of the great pleasures of cooking, for me. As my wise brother once said, “every great meal starts with chopping up some vegetables.” But I liked the look of the coleslaw. I kept this very simple, partly because I like coleslaw lightly dressed with balsamic and olive oil rather than anything creamy, and partly because it seemed to suit the convenience of pre-chopped vegetables. A good coleslaw, to me, takes advantage on the savory-sweet contradiction inherent in cabbage, and combines some salty elements and some sweet elements. So I added tart-sweet cherries, salty bleu cheese, and crunchy hazelnuts.

***UPDATE*** My picture was rejected! Oh well, I’m an ordinary person, with an ordinary camera.

Here’s Photo Jenny by Belle and Sebastian.

1 bag dole classic coleslaw blend
1 cup dried tart cherries – roughly chopped
3/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
1 cup crumbled bleu or gorgonzola
3 T olive oil
1 T balsamic
salt and plenty of black pepper.

Empty the shredded cabbage and carrots into a bowl. Pour the olive oil over, and lightly toss. Shake on some sea salt, toss again. Pour the balsamic over, and lightly toss. Stir in the cherries, hazelnuts and bleu cheese. Grind fresh pepper on top. Taste for balsamic, salt and pepper. Serve.

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2 thoughts on “Coleslaw with tart cherries. Or, a brief and muddled history of food photography.

  1. The word the grabbed my attention here first was ‘tart dried cherries’, there was a period when my breakfast consisted of oatmeal with tart dried cherries, that went on for quite a long time. I loved ‘em. The second word was ‘photography’, I spent much of my life as a photographer and I still am very interested in photographs so whenever I come to this site [daily?] the first thing I do is to double click the image and give it a serious look. The old ‘teacher’ in me mentally composes comments the way I used to critique students work but I don’t think they’re appropriate here and Claire’s efforts are totally appropriate to her enthusiastic style and personal dedication. So nowadays I just enjoy the essays, the music and the photos! Thanks Claire.
    Great essay today.

    • Thanks, Tony! You know I’d welcome your suggestions for better photographs, I’m just not sure I’d be able to actually make them better! Limited skills and equipment and time. I’d try though!

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