Meatpaper three

Sweat Sock: The Other White Meat
by Chris Colin
MARCH, 2008

I WAS GRILLING A JOHN LE CARRÉ NOVEL the other day when it occurred to me that the chauvinists of the world have been misunderstood: Treating someone like a piece of meat is a painstaking, attentive thing to do.

I’d learned this under the tutelage of Kim Konecny, a veteran food stylist who’s prepared and arranged edibles for everyone from Dreyer’s to the New York Times Magazine. I had invited Konecny into my kitchen to work her magic on a pork chop, and to learn some of that magic myself. Could it be applied to some non-meaty, everyday objects, I wondered? Is meat intrinsically photogenic, or can anything be made to look appetizing?

I had a clown nose, a sweat sock, a plush toy, and a spy novel that otherwise did little to water the mouth.

Is meat intrinsically photogenic, or can anything be made to look appetizing?

First, Konecny and my pork chop. Meat styling leans on a few fundamentals, she explained: Grill marks. A glistening sear. A tight depth of field when you take the photo. She trimmed the fat — evenly, or you’ll see cut marks after you cook the thing — then used a grill pan, one way then another, to achieve that familiar grid of black lines. (Typically she applies the lines with an electric charcoal starter — more control that way — but I don’t have one of those.)

Having grilled and browned the thing, she commenced plating. Oil, herbs, a series of miniscule adjustments and the chop was ready for its close-up. I focused and shot. Later, after Konecny had left, I threw the meat in the oven, to fully cook it. Great quantities of food are wasted in the world’s food-styling sessions, she’d informed me. I solemnly repeated this to myself as I made my way through the late-night snack, though I’d already eaten dinner.

Clown noses and so on don’t go to waste in the same way. It would be hard to say what wasting a clown nose would entail, exactly. Still, I made sure all my ingredients had enjoyed a healthy life before pressing them into service:

I’d witnessed the nose fall, in the chaos of a neighborhood fair, from the pocket of Tom Ammiano, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

The plush toy — Piglet, the least likable of the Pooh characters — had belonged to a friend’s baby, who will now think twice before leaving belongings at my house.

A gloomy thrift store had put the le Carré novel in its 25-cent bin, after a couple had emptied out their attic to make room for the husband’s expanding model train set-up, which he considered minorly embarrassing, but which also took him back to days of watching freights rumble past on summer evenings with his parents back in Maryland on a patchy grass hill by the elementary school, in a town now busier with pasta restaurants and glassware stores than he remembered — or so I imagine.

The sock was left under my futon by my friend Jed.

Having painted my non-meats with assorted cooking oils, I fired up the Weber. Noses, socks, stuffed animals, contemporary fiction — these things smell terrible when you barbecue them, I discovered. No matter, my mind was already wandering to all the other non-meats that could be grilled: an alarm clock, an antique eye chart, a miniseries on VHS or DVD. You could even grill this article. Once my inedibles had developed a respectable sear, I stopped thinking about things and moved on to the plating phase.

The plating phase is where you step into a Baudrillard essay you vaguely remember from college, when having more hair led you to think about things like the precession of simulacra, viz: In an effort to make food look more like food, non-food is used instead. Glue regularly substitutes for milk in photo shoots — looks richer, and cereal doesn’t absorb so much of it. With beverages, acrylic ice cubes are swapped for real ones; no melting, and they refract light better. Cardboard is inserted under hamburger buns to keep them from sinking into the patties beneath. (Meanwhile, all those sesame seeds are affixed by hand, lest an imperfect constellation of white dots be formed.)

For the food stylist, Piglet et al. are uncharted territory, but I muddled through. As instructed, I glossed them up with canola oil rather than extra virgin olive, which can give food a greenish tint. In a bit of food-styling irreverence, I used blue plates — far less appetizing than red or green, my mentor had warned. (I went for a cooking-in-progress shot with the book, though — an artist’s impulse, I like to think.)

Finally, I maneuvered the items negligibly amongst their garnishes. Does the thyme work with or against the pig? How might the squeezed lemon comment on the sock? Photo time! I snapped away with a tight focus and under multiple lights, the better to minimize shadows.

I have my own theories about whether a person would want to eat these items, but at a certain age, a person tries to keep his theories to himself more. So you be the judge. I’ll just remind you that none of these items is fully cooked — they’re just made to appear so from the outside. If that sounds like a metaphor for something meatier, you’ve probably been reading too much Baudrillard, which incidentally would look good with strawberries maybe?


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Three.


photos by Chris Colin