Holiday cooking and freedom from the tyranny of food photography

Are you sick of beautiful food photography? I am. That’s why I love it when Celi posts a picture of a savory pie or a loaf of bread that she thinks isn’t lit well, yet we all know how delicious it is. It’s about how good it is to eat, not how good it is to look at, right?

I’m guilty on this count. I mean, I’m an art director by trade. I’m incessantly drawn to things that look amazing. But enough is enough. We are surrounded by and drowning in other people’s pictures of “perfect food” (perfect life, in fact). And, excuse me, but have you noticed how many food stylists are now suddenly experts on food preparation and have published cookbooks? They may be very good home cooks, but I am here to remind you that food styling and actual culinary art are two very different things. In fact, food styling relies on techniques that purposefully aren’t related to the actual cooked food in order to make it look seductive. Let’s be honest, some things just weren’t meant to be garnished with radishes no matter how pretty that pinky-red skin is!

And then there’s this. We cook out of passion, love, necessity and hunger. We’re not all willing participants in an on-going, reality show in which our technique and our presentation are up for judgment. The judgment occurs on the plate and on the palate. Our prizes are appreciative sighs, requests for more, eyes rolling back contentedly in tandem with pats on a warm, nap-ready stomach.

I knew something was badly and comically wrong when my sister-in-law opened a beautiful (as in visually rich) cookbook I’d given her for Christmas, and her husband innocently asked, “Where did you hear about this book, Charlotte? Is it good?” and I couldn’t answer because, in truth, I’d run into it while searching for food photography for a freelance project I was working on! Guilty as charged!! It was delicious looking, but I couldn’t begin to attest to the validity of the recipes!

Julian Barnes was already complaining about this in his fantastic 2003 book, The Pedant in the Kitchen. If you love cooking and reading about cooking, it’s a must read. As his website suggests, and this is an understatement, “The Pedant in the Kitchen is a perfect comfort for anyone who has ever been defeated by a cookbook.” Here, in an article for the Guardian, same year, he points out that even “real” photography (the type used in Nigel Slater’s shamelessly hearty Real Cooking) is misleading. A chef’s—or practiced cook’s—real hands, real technique and real negligence are nothing compared to our own. We fall short even when we’re being led to believe, visually, that such a thing is impossible.

This year I was saved by a cookbook (Sam Sifton’s Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well) that rocketed into the top of my all-time favorites within 5 minutes of cracking the cover. There’s not a photograph in the book, and despite our maniacal and ADHD-induced need for the immediate gratification of imagery, this book seduces with words, advice and solid, easy to follow recipes. Three days before Thanksgiving, I read it cover to cover in nearly a single sitting, and couldn’t wait to get underway with the holiday preparations.

I also keep three dog-eared books by Elizabeth David that were given to me by my dear friend and unassailable cook, Julia Leonard, which, like Sifton’s jewel, describe food and how to prepare it without mucking about with even one picture. David “talked” me through a masterful fish stew, which is miraculous considering I have no mastery of making such a dish at all. But most of all—again like Sifton, Barnes, Reichl (Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table) and M.F.K. Fisher—she writes about food in a loving, reassuring and thorough way that makes you fall in love with the idea of engaging with it, because you know that something seriously good (not camera-ready) will come of it. The pressure is gone. No Hipstamatic, no Instagram, no “likes”/tweets/shares, nothing necessarily blog-worthy at all…just amazing, personally memorable food.

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6 Responses to Holiday cooking and freedom from the tyranny of food photography

  1. ron says:


    on some cooking shows (“chopped” being our little family’s favorite), some chefs will cook dishes that are called “hearty” — which mean that they really don’t look like much, they’re not the most photogenic, they’re plain — they’re also usually in a bowl or in a pile that was obviously plopped on the plate. (i wish i could taste any of these dishes….) but what i think is interesting is that the word “hearty”, at least to me, suggest all that love, warmth and sharing of familiness that all the fussy, overly visually produced plates may lack. gimme a bowl of love and heart any time.

    and a spoon…..ah, spooning….

  2. Janette Gross says:

    You are so right! I fall for the beautiful photos, but often when I make something from one of those “radish enhanced” blogs or articles, they are not very good and back to the basic cookbooks I go! But don’t stop posting your photos – they are wonderful! Thanks again for your insights.

  3. cecilia says:

    Dear Charlotte, i hope you had a wonderful christmas break and thank you so much for the mention.. and thank you for the good books too! I am in the middle of reading Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison, the images are beautiful but this woman really knows her vegetables, it is a great book for those who love to grow, buy, arrange and cook and consume vegetables. As you know I am not a big one for cookbooks but this one is great. Have a lovely day.. c

  4. dayphoto says:

    Oh, how I am guilty of that…………purchasing a cookbook just by the photos! Oh, yes I have. Then I get the book home, read through it for a couple of days or nights…find a recipe or so that I want to try and —-yep, the whole thing turns out nasty. Back to my Southern roots and basic recipes.

    Great Post, Charlotte! Thanks for the good book ideas and blogs now I’m off to check them out!

    I hope your Christmas break has just been outstanding!
    ¸.•*¨*•♪♫♫♪HAPPY NEW YEAR ♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥

  5. debbibaron says:

    Hi Charlotte – I agree with you here because I am a visual person as well! I buy or look at cookbooks for the pictures because of the pictures. I rarely use the recipes now that I think about it. Interesting…that being said, I like your photos because they speak to me. I even have some saved on my digital picture frame, like the pink radicchio.

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