Chow Bella took a bite out of the holidays earlier this month with our annual "Eating Christmas" event at Crescent Ballroom. No worries if you missed it -- catch the essays here through the holiday season.
We've all seen them: Magazine photos of expertly iced Santa cookies, leaning jauntily against gorgeous crystal bowls of nut-megged eggnog. HGTV ads featuring chafing dishes heaped with glossy sweet potatoes. Internet banners depicting painstakingly styled cranberry relish. Billboard portraits of big, shiny turkeys, bursting with fluffy stuffing and wearing paper frills on their legs.
I love the holidays, but I hate photos of holiday food. They're all bullshit. And they've ruined me.
I see these images of culinary perfection and I don't think, "Oh, hurray, the holidays are here!" You see these photos and think, "I am gonna eat some turkey!" I look at these super-pretty pictures of food and I smell acrylic paint. Mixed with motor oil. And hairspray.
You see, I used to be the food editor at a glossy home and garden magazine. Styling those picture-perfect representations of holiday food was part of my job. Let me share the photographic secrets of the holidays with you. This is the kind of crap we used to pull.
Ice cream is always either mashed potatoes or Crisco glazed with glycerine. Those yummy pancakes with the perfectly drizzled syrup? They've been sprayed with Scotch Guard to keep Mrs. Butterworth from puddling. Those out-of-season strawberries, so glossy and ripe and red? Where did those come from? Maybelline Very Berry lipstick, that's where. Don't touch the condensation on that glass of egg nog--it's corn syrup. That frothy cappuccino? You're soaking in it! It's topped with Palmolive dish soap foam, Madge!
That beautiful bird in the Butterball ad? It's a raw bundle of salmonella, stuffed with tea towels, hand-painted with Max Factor foundation for women of color and L'Oreal Sublime Glow Self-Tanning Skin Bronzer. Then blow-torched to look cooked and crispy. And god forbid it should go before the camera without its shoes on.
Everything in those photos is painted and glazed and coated and often drenched in some kind of toxic sealant to keep it fresh-looking. The smell is unimagineable. But let's try. Imagine the smell of a dead chicken covered in a pint of Glidden house-paint then gently misted with Aqua Net Super Hold. Now imagine what that smells like after it's been sitting under hot lights for an entire afternoon. It's enough to put you off your figgy pudding.
Food editor was the all-time most ridiculous job I ever had. All the eating and the recipe testing and the endless photo shoots that smelled like hell. I hated the title most of all. Food editor. It sounded like I was supposed to be plucking cannellinis from a cassoulet. I came by food styling honestly. I grew up watching my mother treat every side dish like it was on its way to an MGM screen test. Biscuits were carefully arranged in cunning wicker baskets lined with napkins that matched the tablecloth. Butter was forced into harlequin shapes. Meatballs were stacked into pyramids, then adorned with neatly trimmed sprigs of parsley. Like a Gloria Swanson frozen dinner, everything Mom served was ready for its close up.
Photo styling food made sense to me. But it's a curse. And it's starting to affect the people closest to me. I came home one day last December to find my husband photographing the dozen gingerbread men he'd just pulled from the oven. They were lounging amid tasteful sprays of holly on one of my best red-and-green placemats. A stylish votive burned in the foreground.
My spouse is not on Facebook. He doesn't tweet. He's not writing a holiday cookbook. What the fuck was he doing?
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He was crying, that's what he was doing. "I can't get a decent portrait of my cookies," he wailed. "The sugar frosting keeps melting under the lights. I just want you to be proud of me!"
"Well, if you want me to be proud of you," I hollered, "grab the Spar varnish, the hot glue gun and some ground glass, and let's get these gingerbread men camera-ready!" It never leaves you. Last year I destroyed a lifelong friendship when the hostess caught me styling her buffet lunch while she greeted guests at the door. All I'd done was replace her Chinette with stoneware, re-glazed one lousy ham, and cut a dozen boring radishes into charming rosettes. And no matter what she tells you, I barely put any Vaseline on that pie!
I have to be careful. Our new friend Jean joined us for Thanksgiving this year. "Oh, my god!" she exclaimed as I proudly unveiled my post-dinner dessert buffet. "These mincemeat purses are gorgeous! Your pumpkin squares are cut into pumpkin shapes! And the whipped cream on these cranberry pecan tartlets is pointed into perfect peaks! "Yeah," I said to my new friend. "I wouldn't eat that, if I were you."