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The Art of Food

How food tells the stories of our time
By
  • Laura Fraser

October 23, 2017

Category
Story

In the kitchen in a bungalow in the East Bay, near North Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto,” two food stylists are preparing a dish for a photo shoot for a national publication. Sarah Menanix places a round of cilantro butter to melt on a piece of broiled salmon, while Alanna Taylor-Tobin slices fresh limes to arrange with the fish on a ceramic plate. They place the plate on a piece of marble, sun filtering through the windows, and carefully set a tumbler of white wine next to it, along with a crumpled linen napkin. The look is casual, effortlessly beautiful.

This photo, along with photos for other recipes they are shooting today, tells a story. “You’ve gone to the market, you’ve found beautiful ingredients, you cooked them simply, and you’re ready to share a meal,” said Taylor-Tobin, who studied art history as well as going to chef school. “Everything is fresh and informal, with natural surfaces, fabrics, and beautiful produce and meats.” The look, she said, is about hearty at-home eating, not what you might find in a high-end restaurant where, she said, “people use tweezers to make your meal just so.”

Di Lusso

Food photography and food styling by Studio H

Of course, a good deal of work goes into making the photos look so effortless. But the effect is that home cooks don’t feel intimidated by a perfect image of an impossible-to-create recipe. Taylor-Tobin wants the photos to welcome the viewer into a world that reflects the main influence in American food right now – the simple farm-to-table cuisine made famous by Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and now everywhere in California and the country.

Over the last decade, there has been a sea of change in the beauty we see in food. If you looked back a few decades at the covers of Gourmet magazine, you’d likely see lush and glossy images of complicated meals that took stylists hours to construct. Where once the image of a cake would have been replete with decorations in artificial colors and fancy rosettes, now the style is for cakes to look barely frosted and unfinished, like no one went to any fuss.

Food in Art

Representations of food in art and media have always reflected their cultural moments. Food has been a subject of art since antiquity because of its centrality in our lives, and the importance of daily rituals of eating and drinking. In “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine,” Judith Barter wrote, “From John Singleton Copley’s portraits of wealthy gardeners to Claes Oldenburg’s monumental fried eggs, depictions of food, drink and the spaces of preparation and consumption are a constant in American art.”

In early American art, depictions of food often focused on meat, which was at the center of the American plate. Where Dutch masters tended to paint fowl and fruit, Americans loved to paint a hearty piece of meat, such as in “Still Life with Steak,” by Raphaelle Peale, 1817. Even Mark Twain commented on this trend in his book “Roughing It,” “Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs.”

American paintings of food were often celebrations of harvests and bounty. Over time, paintings of food changed with styles and fashions, and served as a kind of social commentary as well. In Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of a grandmother serving turkey at Thanksgiving, “Freedom from Want,” the family gathered around the table is celebrating the traditionally plentiful meal. But on closer look, the painting, made during World War II in 1943, depicts a table that is not groaning with foods, but spare, with only a covered tureen, some pickles and a bowl of fruit. Rockwell is showing the reality of wartime rations while being grateful for American abundance.

Artists’ renderings of where people eat also depict cultural changes. Edward Hopper’s bleak diner scene, “Nighthawks,” shows the change from families eating at home to people eating alone in urban environments. The woman eating by herself illustrates a shift to women being more independent and less family-focused. The painting also depicts the cultural change from home-cooked meals to restaurants, and only shows the diner patrons drinking coffee, not even eating.

American paintings of food were often celebrations of harvests and bounty.

Beginning in 1964, Life magazine wondered “why so many young artists … seem to have hit on food as the ideal subject matter.” Pop artists were fascinated with supermarkets and branded products, most famously in Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. The Campbell’s soup can was first depicted much earlier, in 1926, in “Still Life with Telephone,” by Luigi Lucioni. The still life had the traditional fruit and wine from the artist’s Italian past alongside the modern conveniences of the telephone and the Campbell’s soup can, which represented industrialization, innovation in preserving and canning, and the commercialization of food.

The later pop artists were fascinated with brands as the mass-produced images that entered our homes, repeating images over and over, shaping our visual world. Roy Lichtenstein did away with the labels in paintings such as “His Standing Rib,” which depicted a large rib roast in the dotted texture of advertising graphics, commenting on the growing distance between Americans and their food, and food as an abstract image. In 1962, Claes Oldenburg made colossal burgers to point out the increased prevalence of fast food in our daily lives as McDonald’s took off as a brand.

Food in art and photography today focuses, once again, on the natural beauty of the produce, meats and baked goods. The look, as in the photos styled by Menanix and Taylor-Tobin, is of natural beauty, ease and a revival of the home-cooked meal. It is a celebration not of fine art but more of pride in Craftsmanship.

Tips for Setting the Table

  • Table Tip 1

    #1

    Start with fresh, colorful produce that is in season. It’s the prettiest.

  • Table tip 2

    #2

    Use natural table coverings. “I like natural colors because they let the food be the star,” said Taylor-Tobin.

  • Table tip 3

    #3

    Don’t worry about fancy place settings with salad and dessert forks. Keep it simple.

  • Table tip 4

    #4

    Don’t use patterned or flowered plates, except as an accent on the table. Let the beauty of the food speak for itself without a complicated background.

  • Table tip 5

    #5

    Add appealing color to the plate with bright fruits and vegetables, showing off their natural beauty by placing slices on the plate

  • Table tip 6

    #6

    “A sprig of parsley on the plate is a cliché,” according to Taylor-Tobin, “But fresh herbs on a dish always make it look special.” She recommended tearing basil or mint, or adding touches of rosemary or – yes – parsley to add a lovely touch to the plate.

  • Table tip 7

    #7

    Most important to enjoying an attractive meal is to not eat standing up or in front of the fridge. Take the time to make even a simple meal pretty. Consider a beautiful meal a gift to your guests and yourself.

Styling the Food

Angela Sellers, food stylist for Hormel Foods and resident creative, shared some of her favorite tips for stepping your food up a bit. Maybe you’re going for a perfect Instagram post or maybe you’re just trying to impress your guests, either way these tips are sure to make you look (and feel!) like a pro.

  • Style Tip 1

    #1

    Spritz fresh produce with water to give that fresh-from-the-garden look.

  • #2

    Choose a variety of colors to enhance appetite appeal. Greens especially give plates a brightness and a freshness.

  • #3

    Don’t be afraid to brown and caramelize, it enhances the perception of flavor.

  • Style 4

    #4

    Don’t obsess over perfection; drips, smears, smudges and crumbs create more relatable plates.

  • Style tip 5

    #5

    Tear instead of cut, giving a more rustic and natural look to herbs, breads, lettuces, etc.

These are just a few tips to help create a picture-perfect plate. But as always, experiment! Your viral photo could be just around the corner.