In the Kitchen

Writing a Recipe Post — or not…

So, I was going to write a recipe post this week, but I got to thinking about the process.  And then I got to giggling.  And then I got to the inability to put anything of merit on to paper stage.  And then, well, I just said “FORGET IT” and decided to run with the moment instead…

We all have our favorite blogs and sites we frequent.  Some of us prefer lifestyle blogs.  Some spend their time in business sites.  Others search out cooking or crafting or gardening or whatever it is that blows your dress up.  Usually those that draw our interest are well designed, easy to navigate, and filled with colorful graphics and photos.  Images are often what catch our attention and invite us to take time to read the content and, as such, are vitally important to certain kinds of blogs.

But, did you ever stop to think about what goes into creating those visuals?  About the staging and backdrops and lighting and balance and, perhaps most importantly, the TIME involved?  Well, I have and you know what?  I ain’t doin it no mo!!!

Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy perusing the graphics in certain recipe posts.  In fact, if it’s something unusual that requires a special technique, I find it to be quite helpful.  How often does THAT happen, however? 

Let’s start at the beginning of a new recipe post, shall we…

First, if it’s raining, cloudy, too sunny, too early in the day, too late in the day, in the middle of the day, forget it.  The lighting simply will not be right and, ya know, a recipe will NEVER turn out correctly if the lighting for the photos isn’t perfect.  So that means you either have to invest in a full boat of studio lighting and possibly rewire your kitchen or wait until another day.

Gather your ingredients.  Now, remember that everything must look like it’s the freshest, brand name, straight-off-the farm, organic, best that money can buy, or said recipe will be a flop.  That generic can of diced potatoes with the dented side and the fluorescent orange price sticker on the top is out of the question and the bag of onions you grabbed from the REDUCED rack disqualifies the entire post. 

Once you’ve accumulated what you need, you stop, curse loudly and with purpose,  and put everything on hold in order to run BACK to the store to grab the quart of organic, 2% soy milk that you NEVER use, but the recipe requires.

Next you look for that perfect location to stage your photos.  When you live in a small house with an even smaller kitchen, this can be quite the challenge.  (and don’t forget the lighting issue)  Recently I’ve been setting up on my little island with the old cutting board on top.  It gives the photo that “old farmhouse” kind of look and there’s a hanging light just overhead that helps – a little – on perfect days – but not most days. 

You’re trying to achieve balance here – a look that, not only provides a visual of the necessary ingredients, but does so in an aesthetically pleasing way.  People want to see beauty and feel invited into the photo and from there, compelled to try this fabulously delicious recipe for themselves.  Or so I’m told.

photo courtesy of Jim Henson’s Muppets

And so, we work at it – turning dented cans just so — retrieving apples that have rolled to the floor and placing them so the bruises don’t show – resting carrots lovingly on their sides so that their vivid greens delicately caress the bottle of hot sauce.  Sigh…

By now you’re at least two hours in.

Finally, you’ve achieved perfection and step back with hands clasped to your breast as you gaze in awe at the wonder and beauty of it all.  And then you realize that you forgot to put down the pretty t-towel you bought specially to add just that touch of color and offset the old cutting board.

In a rage you grab the whole board and dump everything unceremoniously on the counter and start again.

A half hour later and you’ve done it.  Time for photography.

Now, one of the most important elements of photography is the backdrop.  All of the staging in the world is irrelevant if the backdrop doesn’t compliment the subject.  And so, as I gaze through my viewfinder, I realize that today’s backdrop just happens to include the dining room table – which, at this moment in time, is filled with paperwork, a half-dead flower arrangement, and a mountain of laundry waiting to be folded.  Okay, change of plans. 

Turn the whole cutting board, staged ingredients and all, in another direction.  Oops!  That won’t work – the refrigerator, covered in magnets, reminders, and business cards and fingerprints, is NOT a suitable backdrop. Another turn.  Nope!  Can’t take photos into the sun and besides, that window needs a good washing.  One more chance.  Ahhh…  That’ll work.  My old Hoosier Cabinet will suit as a backdrop just fine.  Except that now my body is blocking the light I need from the window to take the danged picture!

Moving forward.  My kitchen is so small that there isn’t room for a tripod and so I do my best to create a tripod out of myself, hold my breath, and……..  Wait!  Time out!  Yell at dog as he passes through the shot dragging his butt across the floor.  Try again.  Scream at someone to grab that cat as he stops, drops, and proceeds to do those things that cats do when primping and preening.  And yet again.  A STINK BUG!  Good grief, there’s a stink bug on the tomato!  SWAT!!  (throw away smooshed tomato and replace with new one – rebuild shot)  Explode at teenager who is oblivious to life in general as she inadvertently photobombs the shot and then threaten that the next living being who literally breathes anywhere on the first floor during the next fifteen minutes will be written out of my will!!

Take the shots and heave a huge sigh of relief while leaning, sweaty and exhausted, on the counter behind – only to discover the onions that had rolled away behind the toaster during my earlier rage and so missed the photos.  Spike onions to the floor and walk away because the sun is now down and photography is completely impossible.

Attempt to finish photographing ingredients the next day and again the next – not possible because of two days of heavy rains and thunderstorms passing through the Susquehanna Valley, rendering my kitchen to darkness and gloom.

On the fourth day, I am rewarded with light and so the photography session (including onions) is completed.  On to the prep work…

Now, this is the part that makes me roll my eyes and giggle.  Who in the blog world decided that we need to SHOW every single step in preparing a recipe?  Is this just one more instance of dumbing us down because we’re incapable of dicing an onion without a visual aid?  Don’t get me wrong, while I find some of the video versions to be clever, (I especially like the ones that show the chef holding the veggie above the pan and pretending to drop it in whole, only to have it appear perfectly diced and sizzling nicely in the next shot.  Magic, yes?) 

I wonder at the necessity, not to mention the unbelievable amount of time it takes to produce those cute little video clips over and over and over again.  And, as a blog READER, I have to ask myself if I am more likely to try a recipe that simply TELLS me to dice an onion as opposed to one that feels the need to show me.  Honestly, and speaking for myself, I don’ think it makes any difference at all.  I’m interested in the recipe itself and at least one good photo of the finished dish, but kudos to those who have the time and inclination to add the little video “cutesies” to their recipe posts!  I’m not going there, but you rock!

We are now a full four days into a single recipe blog post.  The food prep is complete and now we begin the actual cooking of said food. Grab your favorite scratched up pan and slap it on the stove.  Grab your camera and take photos of the empty pan sitting there.  Decide that your readers may be “put off” by your old pan (even though it’s by far your best for cooking) and replace it with one that looks better, but doesn’t cook as well.  Repeat photos of newer pan. (Make mental note to blur the background when editing the photo because there is a permanent burn mark around the burner ring and, Holy Unprofessional, Batman, THAT won’t do!)

Begin adding your ingredients as per the recipe, grabbing your camera with each addition, snapping away.  Any chef knows that recipes on the stove wait for no one, so the pace quickens with the addition of each new ingredient.  Add ingredient – snap photo – grab wooden spoon and stir – snap photo – pick out anything in pot that appears to be imperfect — slam camera to counter to quickly stir so that nothing burns.  Repeat.

About halfway in, the fever begins to build and things may or may not start to get ugly.  If your recipe involves making a roux, (and you have need to photograph the process) good luck!  I’ve never been good at making a roux (or gravy) to begin with and attempting to capture the process on film significantly complicates the matter.

Roux and I have a hate/hate relationship.  It hates me and I hate it!  No matter how hard I try – no matter how high or low I set the temperature – no matter how gently I add the flour or how vigorously I stir – it is never right!  As in E-V-E-R!!  But, for the purpose of having at least SOMETHING to include in the blog post, I forge ahead determinedly.

I admit to having to recruit my hubby at this point, as a roux requires two hands and is never forgiving.  My husband is a gifted, talented, brutally handsome man and master at everything he does – except photography. (as in we have had repeated lessons on which button actually takes the picture and there is an entire gallery on his cell phone of his feet, the floor, the sky, and his nostrils)  But, I digress…

By now the butter is melted and I’ve added the flour.  “Take the picture, says I!”  “Which button again, says he?”  “That one – that one, says I, but don’t get me in the shot – at least not below the waist – in fact, don’t get me in the picture at all!”  “Kind of hard to miss you,” smirks he!  I can’t whack him alongside the head because the flour is beginning to thicken.  “Hurry up – you’re gonna miss it,” I say, while beginning to hyperventilate.  “I can’t see anything – is this thing turned on?”  “YES – IT’S ON – IT’S ON – HURRY,” I screech, “it’s beginning to scorch!!”  “Do we need a flash?”  “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!” 

I skip this step because it’s too late and go ahead and add the milk, whisking frantically to try and avoid lumps – in vain.  “Get this part at least,” I plead.  “Wait – I can’t see anything – the lens is steamed up,” he says.”  “HURRY!”  “Oh geez, now my glasses are steamed up!”  “THERE’S NO MORE TIME – I HAVE TO DUMP IT IN THE POT,” I scream!!!  “It says I need to change the batteries.”  “GAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!”

Instead of the gentle pouring of a rich, smooth roux, I am met with the PLOP, PLOP, GADUNK of a giant, scorched flour ball the size of my fist that splatters chowder and the equivalent of brick mortar all over me, the stove, and the camera.  And all for the sake of a few photos….

There really isn’t much more to shoot after that and it’s a good thing too, because we’re physically, mentally, and emotionally wiped!  Perhaps a picture of the finished recipe simmering in the pot or pan – with or without a garnish prop.  (because we all do that in our everyday food prep, right?) 

Of course, there is that one last photo – the money shot, if you will.  This is the one that you’ll use as your feature image and it has to be PERFECT!  So, you get out the bowl/dish most suited for the meal.  And then put it back because it’s the wrong color, has a chip, and doesn’t match the napkin you HAVE to use.  Frantically scramble for a matching set of silverware and a glass that isn’t cloudy because you’ve been using a bargain brand of dish washing soap, and pray that the dead flowers on the table have at least something green worth putting in a bud vase.  At this point, screw the lighting – we’re using a flash.  Stir the chowder to keep it from forming a film on top, (because by this time it’s cold) clean up the mess you just made all over the sides of the bowl, clean the splashed roux off the lens of the camera, and with tears of joy and exhaustion, shoot the shot.

Simple, yes?

I’m not sure I over-exaggerate here.  Blogging, to begin with, is a time-consuming endeavor.  Blogging with photography (and food) takes writing into a whole new dimension, in particular when compiling recipes.  It is VERY VERY time-consuming and I think that’s one of the reasons I shake my head when I see so many posts that illustrate every little step of the process.  I’ve done it myself!  My earlier recipe posts are filled with photos.  Why?  Because it’s what I see others doing – because I thought that it was necessary in order to make the post interesting and the recipe inviting. 

In hindsight, I would like to think that I underestimated what it is that makes a good post and how the reader perceives it AND I’ve never been one to follow the crowds.  SO, in the future, my recipe posts will be exactly what I want them to be – simple and to the point, with the photos I think enhance the process, sans the frou-frou.

And anyway, does anyone really truly believe that the average, “real” household actually cooks like that?  That families trying to feed their kids on the run between after school events and evening activities prepare their perfect meals in perfect kitchens (with perfect lighting) on perfect place settings, all topped with the perfect garnish?  Um, not in my world and not in the world of anyone I know either.

So, instead of sharing recipe posts meant to impress from a visual perspective, let’s focus on reality – on content and quality as opposed to lens speed and how to add salt and pepper to a pan.  Let’s not pretend that we never grab a dented can or cut away a bad spot on a potato or utilize the “five-second-rule.”  Be real!  Be proud!  Post boldly and with purpose, but always be humble and mindful that fancy graphics don’t a quality blog post make and I’ll bet you have fuzzy veggies in your crisper drawer too.

Do not be unwise but wise, making the best use of your time… Ephesians 5:15-17

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