Food FX

Don't hate me because my food is beautiful. It just turns out that way. It looked good before I went to culinary school.

I never just throw food on a plate. And I can't arrange food on any old plate. Joan Crawford hated wire clothes hangers; I hate paper plates. Form seems so much more important than substance. Sometimes I can't help myself.

It's even worse than it sounds. I admit it -- I'm a food stylist.

For a food stylist, taste has nothing to do with the mouth and everything to do with aesthetics. Food styling is the art of making food to be photographed. Eating it is irrelevant.

Since I'm confessing, I ought to put all of my recipe cards on the table. My vice and I have turned pro. I actually get paid to style food. I've never done any really deceptive stuff -- I've always worked with real food and edible recipes.

My reality-based styling has more to do with my clients than my morals. I've done almost all my food styling for newspapers. Journalistic integrity requires that the food in newspaper photos be the product of the accompanying recipes.

I've used a blowtorch to make the top of a cheesy recipe look brown and bubbly immediately before the picture was taken. I've put an upside down bowl into a soup tureen so the solid ingredients in the soup stayed close to the surface. I've brushed olive oil on all sorts of foods just before the shot so they would look wet, or shiny. And I've put a wadded-up dishtowel under salad greens so the salad wouldn't look wilted.

Once, during my internship with the food section of a newspaper, a photograph was lost. The deadline for sending the photo to the printer was an hour away. I made a very raw sausage and tomato sauce in five minutes. Five minutes later I had a good-looking but inedible polenta. I styled this undercooked duo to look like the food in the lost photo, and we made our deadline.

I'll confess here for food stylists in general. They do some pretty weird stuff to food.

How many times has your mouth watered over a perfect turkey on the cover of a magazine?

What do you really see in the photo? The turkey's skin. You also see a nice platter strewn with herbs you can't identify and don't know where to buy. You see everything but a slice.

That's because, inside, the turkey of your dreams is probably raw. She might be stuffed, but her stuffing is likely to be wads of aluminum foil that help keep her breast perky.

Her skin isn't real, either. It's her skin, but if you've ever cooked a turkey, you know that it's impossible to get every part of the bird evenly brown. She's wearing makeup, a kind of bronzer. A food stylist trick is to cook the bird at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes (to crisp the skin). Then the bird is sprayed or painted with a coloring solution.

John F. Carafoli is the guru of food styling. He's a big-time food stylist who can make anything look appetizing. His book Food Photography and Stylingcontains a recipe for coloring solution. One of the ingredients is liquid detergent. So much for Thanksgiving dinner at the Carafoli house.

Turkey isn't the only bird to pull a fast one. Chicken can be just as deceptive. Take breaded chicken, for instance.

If the photo is all that matters, why bother to cook the bird? Buy some breadcrumbs. Put the crumbs and the raw chicken in a bag and shake. All done. Carafoli suggests spraying the raw breaded chicken with coloring solution so the chicken will have a darker, "more baked look."

Truth-in-advertising laws require that the advertiser's product be used in the actual ad.

In ads for ice cream, artificial ice cream (made of sugar, margarine and corn syrup) is used to make "stand-in" ice cream. Like a stunt double, the fake stuff is used to set up the real shot. The real stuff comes out at the last minute.

If the ad is for the chocolate sauce, the ice cream doesn't have to be real. This makes things easier for the photographer because fake ice cream won't melt under the hot lights. In fact, artificial ice cream tends to dry out after a couple of hours under the lights.

Still have that sweet tooth? Have a slice of pie.

If the photograph is of a single slice, there's a good chance that the pie is filled with mashed potatoes. The pie augmentation continues by removing a little potato from the side of the slice facing the camera. Fruit filling is then pressed into the mashed potatoes. This beauty definitely has a good side.

One of my favorite tricks is milk in cereal. The cereal is real. But there is no milk, because, as we all know, milk makes cereal soggy. Instead, the bowl contains a disc of white cardboard. The cardboard is covered with white glue, and cereal is placed, piece by piece, onto the glue. Extra glue is drizzled between the cracks to simulate milk.

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