Thoughts on the Nature of Food Photography

The Act

I have witnessed the growth of the food pic trend over the past few years.  How could I not?  Every time I go out to eat, there are people taking phone pics of their meals.  And like everyone else, I’m annoyed by it. I find the act of taking the pictures in the middle of a meal rude.  The pictures themselves are usually uninspired and they fall flat in their effort to convey the essence of the food.  My most frequent reaction to such a pic in social media is to skip it.  If my eyes accidentally stop on one, I am overcome by the thought, “Who cares?.”

But I am not holier than thou.  I am a sinner as well.  Perhaps the gravest sort, the hypocritical judge.  Have I become the Elliot Spitzer who sees prostitutes on the side while prosecuting and damning them before the courts. The urge to take the pictures is so irresistible at times, I fall from my high horse and muck about in the mud with my phone out and the camera shooting away.  Yes, I confess, I am weak and cannot help myself.  Though I do my best to rise above, some rare courses call out to me and require my hamhanded, amateur, photographic talents.  I convince myself that these are different from the many pics taken around me, that these are special.  In the words of Thorin, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “I have never been so wrong.”

 

Nom Nom Nom

We eat to survive.  Eating uses all of our senses and I assume, from an evolutionary standpoint, this is to determine if our food is going to kill us.  Taste and smell are obvious senses with eating.  Without these two, it doesn’t much matter what you pick on a menu. 

With our sight we can tell if we have received what we ordered, or if our nut allergy is going to react to the ice cream sundae we definitely ordered without nuts.  It also helps to see if our lettuce is wilted or if mold has appeared on our delicious loaf of cheese bread.

Consistency (touch) is extremely important.  We don’t want to discover something hard inside our mashed potatoes or for our steak to have the consistency of mush.  Some food should be hot in our mouths and some cold.  If you aren’t sure of the role of touch, just think of a bowl of Cheerios.  There isn’t much difference for taste between one that is just right and another that has sat for too long as we answered the door, but a mushy bowl of Cheerios borders on inedible.  And good luck enjoying your room temperature coffee.

Lastly, hearing.  We probably use this least when we eat, and hearing food eaten is considered bad manners in the West.  Yet foods that are supposed to crunch, like Vlasic pickles or potato chips, advertise it.  Pick a food that shouldn’t crunch, like a hot dog, and if hear a crunch, you know something has gone terribly wrong and your meal is finished.

When a photograph is taken of a beautiful Katz’s Deli pastrami sandwich, it can look good and make me salivate.  But it only includes sight and that misses most of the point.  The pic has no people in it, and unless I’ve eaten such a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, or requested the pic of their food to satisfy my curiosity, I receive very little of the joy of the soon-to-be-stuffed photographer.

When a moment is captured with people enjoying their vacation, I can vicariously experience their joy and see the happiness on their faces.  But there is nobody in the picture of food except the food itself.  Pictures of food can look good, but are unlikely to take your breath away or force beauty into your day if you have never eaten that particular meal before.  I prefer a painting of the Last Supper over a still life of fruit.  Of course, there is one exception, but it took Salvatore Dali to make it happen.  Add some action or people to the pic and it becomes much more interesting.

 

Food as Art

Most people go through their days without noticing the beauty and wonder surrounding them.  They wake up, blah, blah blah, blah blah, boring, boring tedious boring, and they go to bed.  Maybe they love their jobs, or their significant others, their kids, whatever floats their boats, but they do it without art.  They live each day without really looking around themselves.  They don’t notice the varying color of the sky, the expertise and talent of the builders and architects of their house or the buildings around them.  They don’t look too closely at the lines for traffic that have been drawn a bit wavy on the road or the shoddy service they receive at the drive-through window.

But they all notice their food.  They really look at it, at least when it arrives.  They sit in judgement over it.  They see it, they smell it, they experience it.  This is true even if they are getting a coffee and a donut at the Waffle House instead of La Bernardin.  My father sometimes watched the look on people’s faces when their food arrived, the look of expectation, or disappointment, or even uncertainty as the dishes were brought to the table.  This is one of the rare moments of attention, true attention, in most people’s days.  The food has been made for them.  If they’re not careful, it might taste terrible (watch out for that hot pepper), have an obvious defect (such as an errant staple or bug), or even kill them (if they have a shellfish allergy).

It is a personal, commissioned work of art.  You picked it out of a menu and decided it was your personal choice.  Effort will be put in the manner in which your choice is presented to you.  It has been plated in a certain way, it has been arranged for both ease of eating (not often will you find a steak carefully balanced on end), for looks based on tradition or originality, for a mixture of flavors and colors.  It has been served separately from other dishes based on whether it is to entice the appetite to start a meal or top it off at the end. Some food it plated so beautifully, it seems a shame to take the first bite and mar it’s initial beauty.  Perhaps it’s time to take a picture of this ephemeral experience before its inevitable consumption?

Some things on the dish aren’t to be eaten, but exist only to add to the artistic merit.  A sprig of parsley or an extra small dish for cole slaw was a choice made by the chef or owner.  The big red container of McDonalds french fries, the fries standing tall above the edge of the open container is an intentional choice to make them more accessible and appetizing.  While the McDonalds owner does not know you personally, this container of fries was made for your enjoyment.  You will smell them and taste them.  You will judge if they are too salty, or slightly stale, or hot out of the frier.  You are truly paying attention, at least to that first fry you put in your mouth.  A few grabs later and the art has dissipated.  Even a hour later and your beautiful Mexican food, with its melted cheese and refried beans, has lost its appeal.  It is so easy, so natural to take out your phone, to try to preserve this very personal piece of art forever.  This art that continues to excite your senses even as you make your poor, deficient, two-dimensional rendering of its essence.

Your drink arrives as you sit at the bar.  It comes in a specific glass depending on whether it is a scotch on the rocks, a martini, a bit of brandy, or a Belgian beer.  The beer has a head, the martini has an olive or two, perhaps a twist of lemon peel.  Depending on the wine you ordered you may get a tiny desert wine glass or a mammoth one for a hearty red.  When the drink arrives, it is beautiful.  It has been made just for you, it is what you ordered.  The bubbles float to the top of the champagne flute and you are ready to celebrate an achievement.  Time for a picture?

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This absurd drink has obvious artistic merit, I mean, it sits in grass!

Hat tip to The Aviary in Chicago

 

Curiosity in the Bizarre or Disgusting

Who doesn’t enjoy a freak show?  Who doesn’t steal a glance at the unusual, the bizarre, the obscene, even the disgusting, if only to wrinkle their nose and look quickly away?  Few people watching a horror movie can resist peering through their fingers covering their eyes before closing their fingers again.

When we eat at new restaurants, or in places of different cultures, we are confronted by highly unusual dishes.  TV shows have been made purely on the basis of people being forced to eat food that disgusts them or even eating dishes of their own free will that the viewer finds repulsive.

This is also the basis for an entire genre of food photography that is much more desirable to the viewer of the picture than a picture of a burger.  These are pictures that appeal to the curiosity of the viewer, pictures that are designed to fascinate without the viewer risking the food ever approaching his mouth.  They are pictures that entice, at least in part, because they only require the sense of sight, and never have to sully the other senses.  Some people enjoy eating cheese with maggots or eggs that have been buried in a yard for some time, but I prefer to see these pictures rather than enjoy the meal myself.

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From some excellent place on Avenue B? in Alphabet City, NYC, 2014

Tasty, Disgusting, Satisfying, Interesting.  And absolutely artistic in the presentation.  Far superior for being bizarre and unusual.  It is firefly squid sushi that I ate because I gave my word to JP that would eat anything the chef served me.  But it’s a lot more interesting to me than to anyone who wasn’t present.

 

The Camera (Phone) Comes Out

If any thought at all is given to fellow diners, I assume it travels along these lines:

This’ll only take a moment and I’m sure the other people at the table can appreciate my need to capture this for posterity.  How can it be rude to take a picture with my phone in front of me instead of continuing conversation and discussing our newly arrived dishes?  If I’m rude, it’s only for a moment and I want my friends to see what I’m about to eat.  Anyway, everyone in this place seems to be using their phones and that includes people at my table.  I suck terribly as a person and should be ashamed of myself.

 

But if the desire for a pic stems from the desire to share life experiences with loved ones, is it really that shameful to whip out your phone? We have easier access to cameras than ever before, with the instant knowledge of the quality of each picture coupled with the ability to share it at no cost.

In my family, it was traditional to offer anything on your plate to anyone else at the table.  Often a spoonful of soup, in contradiction to all good manners, was passed over the middle of the table.  In our close family, it was entirely acceptable to request a taste of anyone else’s dish.  Poor manners?  Well, for us it was love.  We loved to eat and we loved to enjoy.  We loved each other and nothing could be better than sharing the joy of a well made or interesting dish.  We wouldn’t stab it off someone’s plate, but a request to try a taste of an unoffered dish was entirely within the realm of acceptable conduct.  At our table, this wasn’t rude.  We were in our own little Rome and we did as we liked.  And no, we didn’t share ice cream cones, that would have been gross(er).

Yet sometimes it is an opportunity to show off one’s sophistication or wealth.  Taking a picture at Masa of a $100 appetizer plate of raw sliced kobe beef with shaved truffles on it says more than just “look at my food.”  It also says, “look what I can afford, look at this luxury, look at the places I go to eat a $1000 meal.”  That may not be the photographer’s intention, but it certainly has that effect.  It is boastful, conceited behavior best left out of the public sphere.  It is gauche to show off your million dollar toilet, even if it is truly the best seat you’ve ever owned.

 

Food As Disappointment

At least a small percentage of the pictures are of the low quality of the presentation.  The pictures of food that don’t match the ads.  The Subway footlong that’s 11 inches, or the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder that is distinctly wilted, with a greasy fingerprint on the top bun from a careless chef.  This is similar to the bizarre food shots in that they do not present food to be experienced, but a show of careless quality in its many forms.  Who wants to experience disappointing food?  But we still look.  I find it easier to commiserate  with the disappointed gourmet than with yet another picture of a standard bologna sandwich.

I never review my pictures of food.  With art, people, landscapes, etc. it is another matter.  I am drawn to pictures of smiling people, fat and happy around a table or dirty plates and demolished goodies.  I love candid shots of serious discussions over drinks, or a smiling couple cutting a wedding cake.  I don’t really need that extra pic of the cake, no matter how delicious or artistic, sitting without human accompaniment.  But taking food pictures can be a joy by itself, even if I rarely look back at the photos.  I must remember that nobody who has seen them, unless they contain some unique curiosity, will ever give them a second glance.

 

I have had many musings on this subject and it was my wish to put them together in one place.  As I failed utterly to examine any literature on the matter, or to consult with more than a handful of close friends and family, I am certain to have omitted many obvious and important points.  Many other points are not original to me, but are the result of my theft of the thoughts I found insightful after long discussions with others.  Please be forgiving for the lack of completeness on this subject, but understand I am only bringing up an array of thoughts rather than a doctoral dissertation.  And, dear reader, take no offense in considering your own food pics or my judgement of them.  All the pictures of food sent by my friends, family, and readers are, without exception, inspirational works of art that excite my senses and bring out the best in me.

Noodles and a Crane

As I’m traveling today, I have little time to write, think, or try to entertain.  Rather than leave you with this, I give to you a picture of my lunch (how boorish!) and an origami crane.  Enjoy.

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The crane was slightly mauled by one of the beasts in my house, but the lunch was excellent!  I prefer Maruchan Ramen to Nissin Cup Noodles, but that’s mostly because I have fold memories of the Ramen I used to snack on in my teens and 20s.  The Nissin brand is more flavorful and therefore more authentic.  It’s not bad, but when it comes to Asian food, the less authentic the better.  As far as I can tell, this goes for Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese.  I think Japan may be okay, but I haven’t been there to know for sure.

Don’t think because you enjoy your local Chinese restaurant that you can eat in China.  You likely can’t.  My dainty, bland little American tastes quail when confronted by the real thing.  I remember visiting a food court in Singapore in a very high end mall and seeing a store called “Pig Organ Soup.”  All I wanted was a handful of french fries, but after seeing the pictures below the sign, I decided never to eat again.

Family and Coffee Cake

When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Elizabeth, NJ.  My parents would drive my brother and I up for a visit on any given weekend and we would eat Jewish Deli food.  This consisted of lox, bagels, whitefish, and a bunch of the less attractive fare such as herring in cream sauce and gefilte fish.  Herring wasn’t a problem for me, but gefilte fish was another matter.

I’ve always found gefilte fish utterly disgusting and awful.  I mean, who really wants a mashed up fish patty with terrible flavor that is served out of a jar.  And in that jar it has been sitting suspended in a clear gelatin.  The thought makes me shiver.

 

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Clearly I am getting sidetracked by the horror of gefilte fish.  Back to the important part of this story.

These were wonderful family meals and my grandparents loved to host their children and grandchildren.  They rank among my fondest memories from my childhood.  My grandma always made chicken soup from scratch which was a star attraction of the meal.  And she always had Entenmann’s Crumb Coffee Cake fresh from the store in that box with the cellophane top.  This was one of my favorite foods.  It was a soft cake, with a dense crumb top and I loved it every time I came to their house.  You cannot eat it without the crumbs getting everywhere.  Plus, when you were done, you could sweep all the crumbs that had fallen onto your plate into a small pile and eat them too, which was the best part.  Alternatively, I would smush the crumbs together into a single giant crumb that I ate.  It was an amazing combination of saturated fat, salt, sugar, love, freshness, and high calories.

It is not everyday you find yourself with a perfectly made delicacy that is both inexpensive and (since the company went national a few years later) available in most supermarkets.

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Entermann’s discovered that people loved their cake so much that they expanded into an “Ultimate” crumb cake with more crumbs on top.  This was a good effort, but a mistake.  The cake had exactly the right number of crumbs on it.  Do not buy the “Ultimate” version that comes in a box with much more blue in it.  The one you want is the “Classic Crumb Coffee Cake,” much like Classic Coke.  And don’t think you can get the same thing in a bite size with their mini coffee cakes.  These simply aren’t the same eating experience or quality (in my opinion) as a square of the original stuff coming from the box.

For those uncertain of the correct etiquette of eating the cake, you cut it out of the box with a knife and eat it with your hands.  I guess you could eat it with a fork if you were frightened of getting white sugar on your tuxedo lapels, but I consider that similar to Bobby Kennedy eating his pizza with a fork and knife.  Sure, you could do that, but that’s not how it was done back in the old country of North Jersey in the 1980s.  Anyway, I don’t think it has confectioner’s sugar on it, so you could probably wipe away the mess with a napkin.

Many years later, in my late 20s, I came across an Entenmann’s coffee cake in a market and picked it up.  It was as good as ever and I now buy it whenever company comes into town. You only have a few days to eat it before it goes a bit stale, so it is better to have someone else in the house who enjoys it as well.

Sure, they have lots of other products I devour, such as their golden cake or those donuts that look like they’re covered in small tumors, but the crumb coffee cake is truly awesome.  Go buy a box right now.  Eat some.  Take it from me, if you don’t enjoy it, keep it to yourself because this reflects poorly on your character.  But I promise you, you’ll like it.

It is even rumored that Frank Sinatra had a standing order for Entenmann’s coffee cake wherever he went.  Is this true?  I have no idea, but the internet says it is, so it must be so.

 

Fortune cookies – It is time they told the future and nothing else

Fortune cookie

Fortune cookies.  Those magical cookies with a piece of paper inside telling us the future.  Never requested, but always included in every inexpensive Chinese food takeout.

The cookie itself is dry and bland.  Imagine a plate of just fortune cookies.  Yucko.  Without the fortune, nobody would ever eat one, but the fortune itself makes all the difference.  Plus, in my family, there was a tradition that the fortune wouldn’t come true if you didn’t eat the cookie.  And it’s one of the few times that everyone tells what their fortune is without fear that the telling will destroy the wish.  The fortune itself made all the difference.

I grew up in the age before fortune cookies had lucky numbers in them, making something tacky into something downright ridiculous. I’m a bit of a purist, so lucky numbers are hard for me to accept.  But the fortune itself?  That is truth writ large.  I have no choice.  I must accept my fate.

Sometimes the fortune is missing entirely, which is a loss.  You can always ask for another if that happens, so everything will be made whole.  But nothing is more aggravating than the fortune that does not tell the future.  “Your heart is a place of true happiness”  THIS IS NOT A FORTUNE! (Hopefully true, but not a fortune.)  “Sometimes traveling to a new place leads to a great transformation”  THIS IS ALSO NOT A FORTUNE!  I know about the present, I want to know what is to come.  If I wanted advice on how to live, I wouldn’t have ordered that egg roll.  I want to know that money, or wonderful journeys are in my future, or good news is coming, or even that I should expect a lucky Friday afternoon.  Don’t tell me platitudes.  Don’t tell me what Confucius thinks.  Uncover the veil of the unknowable future and give me that knowledge right now.

I received the fortune recently that “You will spend many years in comfort and material wealth.”  Awesome!  Maybe no spiritual growth, love of family, or anything beyond the  base material existence, but hey, it’s something I wasn’t certain of in my future until now.  Now that’s a fortune, and makes the $5 price of the meal worthwhile.

 

 

 

Montaigne, Chess, Eggs and Men of Honor

I’ve been feeling a bit down the past few days and so I did a bit of light and heavy reading.  On the somewhat heavier side is Montaigne.  Montaigne’s essays make for enjoyable reading and his voice speaks directly to me all the way from 16th century France. Then, suddenly, he attacks the game of chess.  I really didn’t see this coming, but in his disparagement of chess he makes a strong statement about men of honor that set me thinking.

Please bear with me as the quote is a bit longish for those looking for quick amusement.  The emphasis in the quote is mine.

“What passion does not excite us in this game: anger, vexation, hatred, impatience, and a vehement ambition to win in a thing in which ambition to be beaten would be more excusable.  For rare and extraordinary excellence in frivolous things is unbecoming a man of honor.  What I say of this example may be said of all others:  each particle, each occupation, of a man betrays him and reveals him just as well as any other.”

Is the study and attempt to uncover the meaning of life a more honorable pursuit than the world’s expert studying rock paper scissors?  In my heart, I feel it must be so.  But, as I consider it more deeply, what of the artist who portrays beauty?  Is that frivolous?  Is a doctor or a priest on the same level as the man who becomes an expert at rolling play-doh snakes?

A little more than a year ago, I went to Per Se in Manhattan.  It was one of my most memorable meals and an early course had an egg in which the top of the shell was perfectly sliced away.  I can’t recall what was inside, but it was amazing and I don’t even like eggs.

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After the meal I discovered that making the egg in exactly this way took a tremendous amount of skill and quite a bit of training by the apprentice chefs.  This egg was one of the best parts of my meal and the beauty of the presentation was perfect.  I consider the course a work of art.  Yet I would found sustenance more easily (and cheaply) if they had just fried it up and put it on some toast.  It is a reach for me to find the egg course anything less than frivolous.

In Chess, there is no luck beyond the question of who plays first, and even that rotates back and forth in a tournament.  Some games and moves were so brilliant they have become famous.  The gold coin game had such a shocking and insightful move at the end that it is rumored the spectators showered the board with gold coins.  Regardless of what happens during the match, all that has physically occurred is moving a few plastic or wooden pieces around and then putting them in a box at the end.  There isn’t even a tear in the AstroTurf or a stray fly ball for a fan to grab.

Unless the category of things defined as frivolous is narrow indeed, I maintain Montaigne is in error.  Extraordinary excellence in anything becomes indistinguishable from art.  In this author’s strong opinion, making art is not unbecoming an honorable man.  In fact, art is one of the greatest impacts a civilization makes upon the world, long after it has crumbled to dust.  Extraordinary excellence is linked to eternal truths

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Author’s note:   When I gluttonously scarfed down the egg and wished I could have another, I was unbecoming for even polite company, much less honor.  Om nom nom nom nom.

By way of thanks for getting to the end of this long post, here’s a Faberge Egg.

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Krystal

Today, for lunch, I ordered a #1 from Krystal, a southern chain of fast food restaurants.  It consisted of 4 small burger things, a drink and some fries.  I have heard before that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.  While I have no intention of following that advice in my powderedtoastblog as I am a rather vain and often foolish person, I will give it a try.

My review of my first time at Krystal:

1.  The Men’s room was mostly clean.

Thanks for tuning in!

Welcome to PowderedToastBlog!

I’ve taken this as an opportunity to comment on art,humor, politics, origami, world affairs, sex, drugs, rock and roll,  excellent restaurants as well as poor ones and anything else that interests me or my readers.  It is always best to start off on the right foot, and good food is appreciated by all.  Welcome to my blog and I hope you enjoy your visit.

 

Today I bring to you the perfect dessert candy:  The rum cordial by Russ & Daughters, located on Houston Street in Manhattan, not far from Katz’s Deli or Yonah Schimmel Knish bakery, two other locations that deserve individualized attention. Image

Here, in all its glorious perfection is a one pound bag of rum cordials, with a few next to a standard unit of measure, the fortune cookie, for scale.

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Do not confuse these with rum balls, a far inferior dessert.  These have a hard chocolate/candy shell and inside they contain a combination of virtue and loyalty intermixed with honesty, honor and raw brilliance, making them unmatched among their cordial brethren.  Also some rum.  Such a negligible amount of rum that you would die from diabetes long before you acquired a buzz.