January 13, 2012
San Francisco-based photographer Caren Alpert has captured mouth-watering shots of food, stylish portraits of chefs and glimpses of chic restaurant interiors for clients such as Bon Appetit, Saveur Magazine and the Food Network. But, beginning in 2008, she branched out from her editorial and catalog work to experiment in fine art.
Alpert has taken magnified photographs of foods, from Brussels sprouts to Lifesavers, using a scanning electron microscope at her alma mater, the University of Arizona. Titled “Terra Cibus,” meaning “nurturing from the earth,” the series, recently exhibited at the James Beard Foundation in New York, provides viewers a new, and often bizarre, look at familiar foods.
I spoke with Alpert about the project:
Can you describe the process of preparing the samples and getting the shot?
I choose the foods out here in San Francisco. I sort of curate them if you will. I decide what I want to shoot. I overnight them to the lab in Arizona. They go through a dehydration process and then a metal coating process. Depending on what the food is, the length of dehydration can yield a better result and different metals used in the coating can yield a different result. That is the preparation process.
With a scanning electron microscope you are photographing the surface of a subject or a specimen—in my case, food. I am basically photographing the electrons bouncing off of the surface.
What have been the most interesting foods under the microscope?
Have you gotten a sense of which foods are photogenic under the microscope and which are not?
I am getting better. But I wouldn’t say I am dead on 100 percent of the time.
I read that you tried a tortilla chip and it was boring looking. Have there been other duds?
Interestingly, it has been difficult to photograph meats and proteins. Bacon, for example—I thought it would be more interesting than it was at first pass. I am trying to find the best way to photograph foods like that, that are higher in fats.
What sort of editing do you do?
The machine captures in black and white only. We do a post-processing treatment back at the studio where we infuse the color of the original foods as best we can.
After photographing a shrimp tail, you went to a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to inquire about its feathery texture. Do you often take your photographs to outside experts?
Certainly when I am stumped, yes. I am trying to involve more information about what we are looking at. The shrimp tail was quite surprising. Because the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a local gem for us, it was nice to be able to call on them, and they were very receptive to helping out. They were also very surprised to see the image. That is the part of the tail where you hold it and bite it off and then you throw the tail back on your plate. It is right there at that sort of cartilagey intersection.
What have you learned about food from these photographs?
How an unprocessed food or an organic food intakes water or air, you see a lot of that. Processed foods are very sharp and spiky, whereas unprocessed or more organic foods sort of have a repetitive pattern.
Has working on this series changed your own eating habits in any way?
No. Probably the biggest shock—but it hasn’t been enough to change my eating habits—is the French’s fried onions, which you sprinkle over your string bean casserole. They are really irregular and very violent looking compared to some of the others. You would think after seeing it, it would be enough to make you not want to eat them. But they are sort of a guilty pleasure. I snack on those occasionally.
Is healthy eating part of the goal? What do you hope viewers take away from the photographs?
I hope the viewers think about their own choices everyday or how they influence others around them. I got an email a few months ago from a man who said he and his two kids were on my website trying to guess all the foods. Then they would go back to their kitchen cupboards or refrigerator drawers to see if they had any of those foods at home. I think if it can encourage dialogue like that it is really interesting and successful.
I sort of like to encourage the viewer to look at it more aesthetically. I think people are so floored. “Oh my gosh, that is my lunch sandwich or that is my chocolate cake or that is my morning blueberries.” People are just fascinated. They are taken with the beauty of some foods and not others, of course. I got another email from a young woman in Spain who said that she and her boyfriend were fighting about images as art. She thought the images were beautiful and artistic, and he thought, oh, anyone can do that. They were having an argument about what makes art. That’s awesome, you know? It is really encouraging people to think about the parameters they put around those definitions.
More images can be seen at www.carenalpertfineart.com. Prints are available for purchase directly through the photographer.
December 16, 2011
Children—though by no means all of them—tend to be fairly picky eaters. Most expand their culinary horizons as they get older, but a few people hold fast to limited diets of safe, familiar things like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. My friend and co-worker Niki is one of them.
You know that queasy, I-can’t-bear-to-watch feeling you get watching a show like Bizarre Foods, as host Andrew Zimmern slurps down fried worms or rotten shark meat? Niki feels that way about foods that most of us consider perfectly edible, like eggs or raisins. She has a byzantine list of rules for what she is willing (or, more often, not willing) to eat: No cooked fruit. No “out of context” sweetness (which she defines as anything other than dessert). No cookies with nuts. No soft fruit. No dried fruit. In fact, hardly any fruit other than apples. Cheese only if melted. Tomatoes only in sauce, and then only without chunks. No eggs. No mayonnaise. (Her version of a BLT is a bacon and butter sandwich.)
Everyone has a few popular foods they dislike—the first piece I ever wrote for Food & Think, about my distaste for the ubiquitous herb cilantro, is still one of the blog’s most commented-on—but Niki’s list is so long and inscrutable that she has become a source of fascination to our other co-workers and me.
It turns out scientists are fascinated, too. Researchers at Duke University have been studying picky eating as a bona-fide disorder, with “selective eating” being considered for addition to the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Although the causes of selective eating aren’t yet known, there appear to be some patterns: smell and texture are often more important than flavor, for instance. A possible link to obsessive-compulsive tendencies is being explored.
With such a limited diet, people with the disorder sometimes find it hinders their social lives or even careers, not to mention the potential for nutritional deficiencies. But if it’s a disorder, is it curable?
Niki is giving it a shot. Although her friends and family have long become accustomed to her quirky preferences, I think the recent attention to her diet at work has caused her to think more about why she feels as she does. A couple of months ago, on the way to lunch to celebrate her 39th birthday, I commented (probably insensitively, in retrospect) that maybe when she was 40 she would start trying new foods.
She decided to do me one better and start that very day. At lunch she ordered her first Bloody Mary—a bacon Bloody Mary, so that there would at least be one ingredient she knew she liked. It didn’t go over well.
But Niki persisted. She resolved to eat a new food every day until her 40th birthday. She started a blog called Picky Niki (with the tagline: Choking Down 365 New Foods) to chart her results. So far many of the foods have bombed, but she has discovered a handful that she can tolerate, and a few she really likes. If she sticks with it for the rest of the year, her repertoire will have expanded considerably.
As for me, I will try to be more understanding of her predicament and stop the teasing. I admire what she’s doing, and truly hope it opens up new possibilities for her. And maybe I’ll even give cilantro another shot. Yecchh.
December 14, 2011
When I decided, at age 40, that I wanted to try to have a child, I knew I faced a few elevated risks over younger women: first and foremost, I might not be able to conceive at all. I mentally prepared myself—as much as I could, anyway—for that and other possibilities, including the higher risk of the baby having a genetic defect.
So far I’ve been fortunate. The one risk I hadn’t given much thought to—the higher chance of developing gestational diabetes—is the only one that has been a factor in my pregnancy. I’m fairly healthy, I have no history of diabetes in my family, and I try to eat well—lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and few highly processed junk foods.
But older pregnant women—and that means even women as young as in their late 20s, believe it or not—can have a harder time regulating insulin, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Gestational diabetes, if not controlled through diet and exercise, can cause high-birth-weight babies and potentially lead to delivery complications, as well as increasing the risk that the child will develop obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. For the mother, there’s also the risk of high blood pressure and a higher likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.
I haven’t been diagnosed with gestational diabetes so far. But because my blood sugar was a little high during my early glucose tolerance test (this is given to all pregnant women around 28 weeks, but women of my age are also sometimes tested earlier), I was advised to exercise more frequently and follow a low-carbohydrate diet, the same advice given to those with the diagnosis.
The last thing a pasta-loving pregnant lady with a sweet tooth wants to hear is that she should cut out carbs. I have always been skeptical of the low-carb diet craze, suspecting it was a ploy by meat-lovers to make eating triple bacon cheeseburgers acceptable—as long as they’re sandwiched between lettuce leaves instead of a bun.
Luckily, the diet prescribed for me was not so extreme. The point is not to lose weight or to cut out carbohydrates entirely, but to limit them and to ration out their consumption throughout the day, always combining them with protein and a little bit of fat.
There were a few surprises in the information the dietician gave me. An unpleasant one was that my usual breakfast—a bowl of cereal—was out. Even sugarless, high-fiber varieties far exceed my maximum allotment of 30 grams of carbohydrates for the morning meal. (Blood sugar levels are especially prone to spiking in the morning, so the breakfast allotment is lower than that at lunch and dinner.) On top of that, I was surprised by how many carbs there are in a glass of milk—about 13 grams per cup. My other favorite breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese, was also way over the mark. Instead, I’ve switched to a whole grain English muffin with peanut butter.
On the upside, I’m not going to starve. In addition to the three regular meals, I’m supposed to eat a morning and afternoon snack, plus a smaller evening snack. And I can still have pasta, but instead of a big bowl of it on its own, it should be a side dish or mixed with enough vegetables and protein so the carb portion is limited. The happiest news of all? On those rare occasions when I am allowed to squeeze in a little treat, I was told it’s better to go for ice cream than sorbet, because the fat helps slow down the breakdown of carbs. Can do, doc.
November 1, 2011
It’s first day of November and kids everywhere are sitting down with stashes of goodies they earned the night before by dressing up, knocking on doors and rattling off the three magic words that win them a treat. And for adults, the leftover Halloween goodies are all on sale, so the time is right to enjoy a treat or two as well. Personally, I love my Good and Plenty, the licorice treats with pink and white sugary shells that spokesperson Choo Choo Charlie uses to make his locomotive zip down the track. But it turns out that Charlie should consider cutting back on his candy habit. According to a consumer awareness update published by the FDA, overindulging in licorice can cause health problems.
In Western medicine, licorice root has been used for hundreds of years as an herbal remedy to treat conditions from common colds to hepatitis. Clinical evidence of its effectiveness, however, is decidedly mixed. While it may soothe your symptoms, licorice more than likely isn’t curing what ails you. But licorice—the root as well as the black-colored iterations of the candy—can potentially do you harm, due to a chemical called glycyrrhetinic acid. When consumed in large quantities, it can cause your body’s potassium levels to fall to the point that some people experience arrhythmia, a rise in blood pressure, swelling and even congestive heart failure. People taking diuretics or medications for high blood pressure should be especially wary as the licorice may inhibit the effectiveness of the drugs. How much is too much? According to the FDA, a diet including 2 ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks might merit a trip to the hospital to have an irregular heart beat checked out. And consuming one to two pounds of licorice candy in one go may cause the blood vessels in your eyes to spasm, causing temporarily impaired vision. Though predominately a concern for persons over 40, it is recommended that everyone should moderate a high licorice intake.
That said, it pays to be an avid label reader. Some licorice products don’t contain extracts from the actual root and instead use anise to achieve a similar flavor. Packaging language such as “licorice-flavored” might serve as a tip-off that you’re not getting the real deal, but take a second to read the fine print on the ingredients list. Furthermore, licorice can also be processed so that the trouble-causing acid is removed, so you can keep an eye out for products marked DGL, or de-glycyrrhizinated licorice.
October 18, 2011
The adoption of the automobile as our primary mode of transportation has impacted how we eat, notably with the proliferation of quick-service roadside restaurants replete with convenience foods. We usually think of fried and grilled fare when it comes to eating on the go, but another breed of convenience food is a direct result of the rise of car culture: road-kill cuisine. Although the concept is a source of class-conscious condescension—just search the internet for jokes on this theme—some see the roadside-cum-deli aisle as an acceptable, if not preferable, alternative to supermarket meats.
One such person is 44-year-old taxidermist Jonathan McGowan of Dorset, England. He’s been noshing on scavenged meat for decades. Living near a chicken production site prompted McGowan to seriously consider the source of his meats, especially after seeing farm-raised animals living in inhumane conditions. ”I used to cut up dead animals to see their insides,” McGowan told the Daily Mail, “and when I did, all I could see was fresh, organic meat, better than the kind I had seen in the supermarkets. So I never saw a problem with cooking and eating it.” His food-sourcing methods have resulted in kitchen creations such as owl curry and badger stew. And he’s not alone. Road-kill cuisine has inspired regional cook-off competitions and even cookbooks.
With the Humane Society of the United States estimating that approximately one million animals are killed by traffic daily, the idea of “waste not, want not” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Even PETA, renowned for its anti-animal-eating stance, has said the consumption of road kill “is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket.”
But is it safe? Unlike the average Joe, hunters and people like McGowan know their way around dead animals and are trained to spot the red flags that signify meat isn’t safe to eat. And while farm-raised meats undergo federally mandated health inspections,what you find by the side of the road may expose you to pathogens such as E. coli or tularemia, a bacterial infection common in rabbits and other rodents. Furthermore, a collision with a car can cause an animal such extensive internal damage—which might not be readily apparent—that it is unsuitable for consumption.
First off, if you hit an animal, call the local authorities. Regulations on what you are allowed to lift from the roadside vary from state to state, and if an animal is still living after a collision, it should be tended to as humanely as possible. And while you might be hard pressed to find formal instruction on how to handle road kill you bring home, you might try a hunter education course to get a sense of how to handle animals killed in the wild, be it by bullet or bumper. Those of you who prefer supermarket meat can satisfy yourselves with a round of road-kill bingo during your next car ride.