Food Stylists: Dirty Tricks of the Trade

It was the scandal that rocked the vegetarian world.
Vegetarian lifestyle magazine VegNews admitted that it routinely ran photographs of meat-based dishes to illustrate its meatless recipes. Examples included pseudo-vegan ice cream made from actual cream, beef frankfurters posing as their vegan counterparts, and pork ribs with the bones airbrushed away to look like a soy substitute. Bear in mind that these were stock photos used for budgetary reasons, and that no animal products touched the VegNews test kitchen. Still, readers were outraged, immediately offering up their online condemnation. They called it hypocrisy of the highest order, a betrayal of their trust, a show of contempt springing from deliberate and systematic deceit.

Food journalists, though, mostly responded with a collective shrug.
Food is, for the most part, supremely unphotogenic. It’s the law of nature that frozen will melt, crisp will wilt, and moist becomes dry. Food stylists have always relied on an arsenal of inedible ingredients and unsavory techniques to get the money shot, in the same way that celebrity stylists enhance their clients with hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras.

Take roasted chicken. If you make it at home, you know that the flesh shrinks and the skin wrinkles and deflates as it roasts, but in the pages of food magazines it always appears plump with taut, evenly browned skin.  That’s because the picture-perfect chicken has been stuffed with materials like cotton balls and paper towels, its skin was sewn tightly together, and it was roasted just long enough to give it a little texture. Then, still raw on the inside, it’s sprayed with a soap-based mixture and blasted with a blowtorch to achieve the ideal, deep golden-brown color. Bon appetit!

Here are some other tricks of the trade:

  • motor oil substitutes for pancake syrup, and the pancakes are treated with water repellent fabric spray to keep the ‘syrup’ from soaking in
  • barbecued meats are colored and glossed with wood stain, and grill marks are drawn on with eyeliner
  • nuts are fixed in place with super glue, and berries get touched up with lipstick
  • Elmer’s glue is a stunt double for pouring milk; stick a straw in a glass of whipped Crisco and you’ll swear it’s a milkshake
  • aerosol deodorant gives fruit a just-picked look
  • cotton balls, soaked and microwaved, provide the steam for ‘steaming hot’ soup
  • hairspray gives new life to a dried out slice of cake
  • brown shoe polish is applied to raw meat for a crusty, ‘well-roasted’ surface
  • hamburger patties are propped up with cardboard so they don’t sink into the perfect frill of lettuce atop the fluffy bun

There are purists out there who only use the real thing, and if the photographs are destined for advertising, the governing laws dictate that the food product that is the campaign’s subject must be the authentic item, although alterations and enhancements are perfectly kosher. The public should understand that commercialized food imagery is a hyper-idealized version of reality. It’s been gussied for its magazine appearance like a movie star that’s styled for the red carpet.

Like stars without their makeup
Ultimately, we gladly turn to our home-roasted chicken—homely and imperfect, but perfectly delicious. In the same way, we know that our romantic partners are not Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, but we are no less satisfied.



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5 Responses to Food Stylists: Dirty Tricks of the Trade

  1. Pingback: You did not Think about These 20 Clever Ideas Advertisers Use To idiot Us - AwwPeople

  2. Pingback: You Won’t Believe These 20 Clever Tricks Advertisers Use To Fool Us — Zerhub

  3. Dude says:

    You got the light direction wrong on the Pennzoil bottle.

    Find a 12 year old with Photoshop skills to help you next time.

  4. Michael says:

    You’re right on target. Although I persist in insisting that my partner at least really is Angelina Jolie.

  5. I saw your link in someone else’s sidebar and just had to comment. I know food ads are always enlisting the aid of non-food products, but I don’t think they need to. I’ve been photographing food in restaurants for a couple of years and it always looks so good I practically drool on my monitor as I blog about it!

    Although who knows–maybe those restaurants are covering my pancakes in fabric spray without my tastebuds knowing it . . .


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