Pitzer column: Secrets of food photos
By Sara Pitzer
For the Salisbury Post
Food photography lies. Or maybe it’s those of us who set up pictures for the photography that lie. I first started understanding this when I worked for Nitty Gritty Cookbooks, in Concord, Calif. The books had been heavily illustrated with Mike Nelson’s original art, but in an attempt to catch up with Sunset Cookbooks’ fancy photos, Nitty Gritty tried to make the switch.
It didn’t go smoothly. I remember they were trying to photograph an ice cream pie. Under the hot photo lights, the pie kept melting and sagging. I think it took three or four pies, in rotation, to get that picture.
As a result of watching that, I got interested in how the professionals get such great pictures of food. Here’s what I conclude: They lie.
In advertising, I think it’s illegal to do anything artificial to make the advertised food look better, but in the world of glossy cookbooks ó almost anything goes.
The blowtorch is a way to make a turkey look brown and perfectly roasted, but it doesn’t cook the turkey on the inside, because, see, a completely cooked turkey is apt to sag. I think Julia resorted to this trick.
The answer to the melting ice cream turned out to be Crisco mixed with sugar. It would taste foul, but it makes pretty pictures.
I wish I could claim to be so straight arrow that I never resorted to such tricks.
Back in 1980, when we were taking black and white photos for my book, “Whole Grains: Grow, Harvest and Cook Your Own,” I had a beautiful big soup tureen that I thought would look great in a picture, but it was going to take more than a quart of cream of vegetable-barley soup to fill it, and I didn’t want to end up with that much soup. Glen Millward and I decided to fit an upside-down bowl inside the tureen and then pour in the soup. Glen took the picture fast, before soup had a chance to leak underneath the interior bowl and lower the level. Looking at the picture, you’d never guess.
At the Salisbury Post, hungry photographers kept me from doing much of that sort of thing. At the end of each session, I’d package up everything that was good and send them home with it. I couldn’t very well offer them Crisco and sugar, tinted to look like strawberry ice cream.
I will confess to faking a chocolate cake once. It was a real cake, but it didn’t look sumptuous enough to show how good it would taste, so I bought a can of prepared frosting and gave that cake a second coat. It looked wonderful. When I found out that one of the women working at my vet’s office found it so appealing she cut out the picture and kept it in her desk, I felt ashamed.
Having gone this far, I guess I should tell you about today’s cheat.
For the cream puffs with whipped cream and peaches ó the cream puffs are real, straight from my freezer. The peaches are real, fresh from the farmer’s market. But the whipped cream isn’t whipped cream. It’s frozen topping. I knew it would hold up better during a trip to the photo studio on a hot day. I hate that stuff. Still, I know everybody doesn’t. A friend says her mother likes it enough to consider it a special food group.
Here’s evidence that mine is a minority view on the topic. I left the peaches and cream and puffs in the studio, along with plastic spoons in case somebody wanted to eat the work when they were done shooting