A good cookbook should not only please your sense of taste (both literal and aesthetic), but should be a feast for your eyes, too. After all, how food looks has a lot to do with its appeal. Last week we wrote about some of the misconceptions about the culinary landscape of the 1960s: it wasn’t just a world of frozen vegetables, canned fruit and Jell-O molds. Then, as always, there was fine cuisine to be had that was pleasing to the palate and the eyes. To help make the case, we engaged Nina Gallant, an accomplished food photographer, and Catrine Kelty, an equally accomplished food stylist, to shoot a series of color photographs for The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook.
The smell of pineapple upside down cake was wafting down the driveway as Judy pulled up to Catrine’s house for photo shoot about 9 o’clock one late spring morning. It wasn’t the first cake our intrepid stylist had whipped up that morning; she’d been at it since 5:00 am. Catrine is nothing if not efficient. There isn’t a wasted movement, or a wasted minute, in her carefully choreographed kitchen routines.
As the stylist it was her job to prepare the food for the shoot and to select period-appropriate linens, place settings, and other props so we wouldn’t have, say, ultramodern Swedish utensils in a book trying to evoke the 1960s. Catrine usually has on hand every prop you could imagine for a food shoot, but this was a special collection assembled for our book and she obviously had fun coming up with the pairings for our recipes.
We knew, of course, that we’d have to be selective: in a book with over 70 recipes, you can’t have a full color photo of everyone without breaking the budget. So, Nina, Catrine and Judy went back and forth before the shoot trying to discern which finished dishes would photograph well and whet the appetites of readers. Salads, with their multiple and often colorful ingredients would appeal, but the more complex hearts of palm salad seemed a better choice than, say, the simple (but delicious) wedge salad. And a photo of the avocado and crabmeat mimosa, which isn’t familiar to most people, would be more informative than a classic shrimp cocktail. After debating the virtues and vices of many of the recipes in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook about a dozen dishes were selected for the shoot, with each major food group represented. No, we don’t mean the food groups you learned as a kid in school; we mean the food groups in our book: cocktails, appetizers, salads, main course and desserts.
For those of us to whom photography is a point and shoot enterprise, it’s astonishing to watch the preparation that goes into each shot when you are working with a pro like Nina. She tried to take maximize the use of the natural light in Catrine’s home, but each shot still required framing the shot, trying different linens (there’s always an offending wrinkle in the linen!) and drink ware, finding new colors, and tinkering to eliminate shadows. When to Judy’s eye, everything was perfect, well, Nina and Catrine tried something else. The background martini glass is too large. We need another fork. Let’s move the olive tray. The pears need to re-glazed. There’s always another idea to try and Judy soon began to wonder if it might take a full week to do it right.
By noon, many of the dishes were still to be styled and shot, but lunchtime is lunchtime and since Catrine had prepared Gambas au beurre d’Escargot (Shrimp in Snail Butter), blini with caviar, hearts of palm salad, gazpacho, and canapés for the morning shoot, a delicious lunch was ready and waiting (being a cookbook author can be very tough work). To wash it down there was no choice but the Canadian Clubhouse Punch.
For Nina and Catrine it’s all about controlling the color, the light, the texture. But the most admirable control of the day was the self-control of Catrine’s dog, Caper. He’s like a part of the crew, his tail or nose just barely off-camera. But how he restrains himself in the face of a rib-eye in the pan is truly remarkable.
Even Don Draper and Roger Sterling had to go back to the office, no matter how many oysters, Martinis and Old Fashioneds they’d had at lunch, and so it was for the photographer and stylist. But with seven photos to shoot after lunch could all thirteen be done by 6 p.m? When that hour rolls around it’s down to the final two: the crabmeat mimosa and Oysters Rockefeller, but the oysters still need to be shucked, a job no one is looking forward to…and Catrine’s book club is arriving in a half hour for a non-Mad Men-style dinner! The last two shots will have to wait until morning.
The photo shoot was more work for this dynamic duo than we ever imagined, but the results…well, they speak for themselves and prove that when it comes to taste, a picture can be worth a thousand words.