January 23, 2012
The necks of geoduck clams can grow up to two and a half feet long. Pick one up and it’s hard not to conjure up a tender part of the human anatomy. As Mark Kurlansky writes, the “long phallic neck squirts water and then sadly falls flaccid.” They’re also a staple of the Chinese New Year, served as xiàng bá bàng (“elephant trunk clam”). Since geoducks (pronounced goo’e duk and originally meaning “dig deep”) live for over 150 years, they can become really meaty—up to 14 pounds.
Just how big they get came into question in 1981, when J. D. Barnes published a review of the textbook Skeletal Growth of Aquatic Organisms in the journal Science. The book explains, among other things, how mollusk shells contain biochronologies of geophysical and paleoecological information, like the rings of a tree—albeit in an organism pulled by the tides and the moon. “They are now seen as virtual transcripts of what happened in their environment during their deposition,” Barnes wrote. “Of course, the transcripts are in code, and the deciphering of the codes has only just begun.”
Clamshells essentially act as kind of natural instrumentation for recording environmental conditions in their annual growth rings—from changes in lunar magnetism to the detonation of atomic bombs. First identified as climate proxies in 1992, the bands on a geoduck shell also provide a century-old record of fluctuations in the ocean’s surface temperature. Fascinating and important stuff, indeed.
What’s odd is that the 1981 book review included an intriguing photograph, found in the book and attributed to an unknown photographer, of a boy hunched over a wheelbarrow. The photo depicts a massive geoduck clam with its distinctive growth bands. The only problem: It’s a jackalope of the sea—except that rather than a mythical creature invented in 1934 by a skilled Wyoming taxidermist, the oversized geoduck is an unnatural exaggeration of an actual organism.
“The light on the clam comes from the right side and above, while that on the boy’s face and hand is clearly from the left,” biologist Stuart Landry wrote Science. “A clam the size shown would exceed the size limits for a sessile filter feeder.” Another reader reported that, indeed, he had seen the very photo in a gift shop, right alongside the postcard of a jackalope. (One collector identifies the photographer as Johnston #1768, and, indeed, there are other postcards involving gigantic clam wrestling.)
Perhaps the over-sized geoduck provides a lighthearted invention, exhibiting regional pride, like other tall-tale postcards depicting corn that fills an entire railcar or squash the size of trucks. The image may also hint at a more troubling issue—the indelible changes in the environment that are being inscribed onto clam shells. Certainly, something to chew on this year.
Want to learn how to cook geoduck? Check out the video below:
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.
January 10, 2012
A while back I wrote a post about what the diners in Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party were eating during their alfresco midday meal—only to find out that, aside from some fruit and bottles of wine, we really don’t know what was on the menu. Nevertheless, the image struck one of our readers as being a fine inspiration for a full-fledged party—with themed décor, entertainment party favors and, yes, the food—and she commented on the original post asking if I had any ideas on how to go about planning such an event. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m no expert on art or historic French gastronomy by any stretch of the imagination, but just the same I’m putting on my event planner hat to offer up the following ideas on how to throw a party inspired by an Impressionist painting.
Let’s start off with creating a little atmosphere. Looking at Luncheon of the Boating Party, this is a party meant to be thrown outdoors, be in on a deck, a lawn, park, whatever have you. But if all you have is a closed-in space to work with, throw open the windows and get as much natural sunlight into your space as you can. Impressionist painters were fascinated by light and how its qualities changed throughout the day, so hold the romance of candlelit noshing for another occasion.
The dining decor itself is pretty simple with a plain, white tablecloth covering the table, but it beautifully sets off the vibrant bowls of fruit and bottles of wine. When contemplating your spread, consider similarly colorful foods that will “pop” off the table. There are also brilliant red flowers in the scene, seen on the ladies’ straw hates. (Maybe they’re Gerber daisies? I’m not enough of a green thumb to know.) Other Renoir paintings, such as A Girl with a Watering Can and Two Sisters (On the Terrace) feature flowers in reds, pinks and whites. You might draw inspiration there for table displays. And add in some greenery—all that lush, verdant foliage makes the warmer colors stand out. The only other prominent piece of decoration is the red-and-white striped awning covering the dining area. If you could find similar colors and patterning in an umbrella or a tent, you’d have some beautiful shaded area should you be entertaining on a lawn. You could also bring in the motif via tablecloth, and dress some tables with the white linen and others with the more colorful material.
Furthermore, just as one would readily crib entertaining ideas presented in books and magazines, look to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum for ideas on how to throw an Impressionist-themed party. This event coincided with their exhibition Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism and featured outdoor games and music by composers of the era such as Ravel and Debussy.
I’d be remiss in not addressing the issue of favors to give to your guests. For this theme, I might spring for simple art supplies and encourage guests to get creative, maybe even get them to sketch scenes from the party in lieu of taking a photograph. You can find small sketchpads and pair them with a basic set of pencils or watercolor paints. (There is also a product on the market called watercolor pencils. It has been several years since I have done studio art so I’ve no idea how well they work; however, traditional watercolors can be very aggravating to work with and might discourage someone who is apprehensive about taking up a paintbrush. Offhand, the watercolor pencils look like they would give someone more control and work well as regular colored pencils.) Throw in a few post cards of Impressionist paintings to serve as a muse to your guests.
Another gift idea would be a book on Renoir himself. Taschen publishes art books with beautiful color reproductions and they have one that details the life and work of Renoir. The Philips Collection, which is home to Luncheon of the Boating Party, has a selection of products based on the painting that are available for purchase online. You could pair any of these things with small foodstuffs. I have seen chocolate bars with masterworks painstakingly recreated thereon; however, these treats can be cost-prohibitive, depending on one’s budget. On the other end of the economic and gastronomic spectrum, candy buttons are somewhat evocative of the painting style used by post-Impressionists like Georges Seurat, who used tiny dots of color to create an image. You would need to include a post card of a painting done in the pointillist style so that people can get the joke, and this would work best for a good-humored crowd with an appreciation for kitsch. You could even make a game out of seeing what images you and your guests can make out of the candy buttons—an edible riff on Pictionary.
And, oh yeah, what to do about the food? We already know that we don’t know what the diners ate for lunch, aside from some fruit—grapes and pears, perhaps peaches—and red wine. The Philips Collection, which is home to the painting, held their own Luncheon of the Boating Party-themed dinner last August, and their menu included Vichyssoise soup and escargot for appetizers, coq au vin and oven-roasted sea bass for main courses and French toast with pear and caramel sorbet. For more ideas, thumb through Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire (yes, it’s available in an English translation). A celebrity chef of his time, Escoffier is credited with modernizing how a kitchen is run and in 1903 he came out with his Le Guide Culinaire, a book that standardized French cuisine. With some 5,000 recipes therein, surely you can find something to suit your palate and skill level—and you’ll be making food that’s roughly of the same era as the painting. If all you want is a taste of France geared to a modern audience (and modern kitchen), refer to an old standby like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or an even more recent compendium like Essential Pépin.
I think all the basics are covered. And if you have any ideas to add—or have actually mounted a party to this effect—include your thoughts in the comments section below. And to Donna, thank you for the blog post idea and hope the above is helpful as you start planning your Mother’s Day luncheon.
December 23, 2011
Baking can be an intimidating prospect. It requires lots of precision, and it’s disappointing to spend a painstaking chunk of your day futzing with an arsenal of measuring cups, the front of your person plastered with flour, only to have your creation come out of the oven looking less than fabulous. In your 11th hour panicking, you could opt for a professionally made cake—but even those can reach your eager clutches as an aesthetic and architectural mess. You could be upset, cry, maybe sit silently and stare blankly off into space wondering what higher power could possibly allow this sort of thing to happen. Or you can laugh it off—and Cake Wrecks, a blog started by Jen Yates in 2008, provides some much-needed comic relief as it looks at human foibles by way of baked goods. I corresponded with Yates via email about the blog and her new holiday-themed book Wreck the Halls.
What prompted you to start Cake Wrecks?
All of my friends knew about my new cake decorating hobby, and one of them forwarded me an e-mail with the now famous “Best Wishes Suzanne/Under Neat That/We Will Miss You” cake in it. That was my lightbulb moment, and within just a few hours I’d started the blog. Of course, I never expected anyone to read it! It was just a fun little side project, meant only for me and my own amusement. The fact that other people found it and liked it was the shocking virtual cherry on top.
Are you personally making any decorated baked goods this holiday season?
Um, no. This time of year is way too crazy! I do bake, just not as often as I’d like because of the no-time thing. In fact, the hobby preceded the blog. My husband, John, signed us up for cake decorating classes at a local craft store back in 2008, and a few months later I started Cake Wrecks. As much as I love the wrecks—and believe me, I do!—I still have a passion for great cake art. That’s why we also feature amazing cakes every Sunday in our Sunday Sweets posts.
Why do you think there is such a prevalence of poorly decorated baked goods?
I think it’s just human nature. We’ve all been there: the post-lunch mental lull, the rushed order, the distraction that keeps us from noticing something glaringly obvious later on. Hey, I’ve done it, and odds are all my readers have, too. Like I say on the site: I’m not out to vilify bakers; I’m just trying to find a little funny in unexpected places.
Of course, some of the cakes I post are more of a concept-wreck, like belly cakes and edible babies, and those boil down to a matter of taste—pun intended. There really are ladies out there who think a slice of boob cake is “adorable.” Which is awesome. Because then we get to giggle about it.
Do you notice any trends among the wrecked holiday cakes?
Angry Santa faces. Like, plotting-to-murder-you-in-your-sleep angry. I don’t know why, but apparently a lot of bakeries are anti-smiley face.
Are there certain pieces of holiday imagery that wreckerators from all over seem to have trouble with?
The star of David, no question. If I had a nickel for every five-pointed Hanukkah star I’ve seen… well, I’d have at least 50 cents. In Wreck The Halls I include a Hanukkah cake with a five-pointed star that’s also upside down and inside a circle. Yes, they actually made a Hanukkah pentagram.
What is your favorite holiday cake wreck?
The first one that jumps to mind is Constipated Santa. He has this florescent pink face, and he’s bent double like he’s straaaaaiiining, and I can’t help but giggle every time I see it.
Then there’s this ridiculous lizard-with-a-human-head-wearing-a-Santa-hat cake. It looks as creepy as it sounds, believe me.
Of course the [book's] cover wreck is also a doozie: “Happy Hole Days.” We also have “Happy Holly Days,” “Marry Christmas,” and “Merrychrist Mas.” Good stuff.
And while it’s not holiday-oriented, the Star Trek/Star Wars mash-up ranks pretty high in my all-time favorites. As a die-hard geek, it makes me both cringe and laugh at the same time.
For someone who is entertaining during the holidays and ends up with a cake wreck, do you have any advice for them on how to fix it?
My advice? Don’t even try. The holidays are hectic enough without stressing over cake, so just let it go—or better yet, turn it into an inside joke. Who knows? You might end up with a new yearly tradition, like signing all your cards, “Mary Chistmas!” or making special homicidal snowmen for the front yard.
If you need a last-minute stocking stuffer—or simply want to enjoy more holiday wrecks—pick up Wreck the Halls. And for tragically comic cakes all year long, check out the Cake Wrecks blog.
December 15, 2011
Shopping this time of year is nothing short of stressful, especially if you (like me) are still trying to figure out the tokens of affection and appreciation you are going to give to those you hold dear. Throw in a mob of similarly indecisive and uninspired shoppers, and the ability to enjoy this time of year can go down the tubes. For those considering food-themed gifts this year, here’s hoping the following gift ideas will ease your last-minute shopping woes.
Food: Let’s start with the obvious. Food can make a great gift for people who are impossible to shop for, are downsizing or trying to de-clutter their home, or really don’t want anything material for the holidays. Consider their everyday eating habits and give them foods that you know they’ll love and maybe throw in a few things that might expand their horizons a bit, but aren’t so off the beaten path that they’ll go to waste. (For example, if they enjoy a cup of hot tea, offer something standard like Earl Grey or English Breakfast and pair it with a blend from your local tea shop that you probably won’t find on your standard supermarket shelf. Throw in some teatime nibbles, maybe some tea-themed trivia cards and you have yourself a themed gift basket.) If you’re going out of town to visit friends and family, give foods from your hometown or state, like peanuts and ham if you’re from Virginia. It takes a little bit of careful thought and planning, but a DIY food basket can make for a very considerate present.
Jewelry: Have your food and wear it too! But if you are in the D.C. area and can make a trip out to the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery gift shop, they offer a selection of pins created by artist Debbie Tuch, who encases foods—from slices of citrus to candy corn and peanuts—in glittery resin, turning them into wearable, fabulously fun pieces of food art.
Toys: A while back I did a post on food-themed toys for the young and the young at heart, and of the items on that list, the lightsaber chopsticks would be a fun stocking stuffer for older children and teens. I can also personally attest that the newly redesigned Easy Bake Oven, which forsakes the soon-to-be-retired 100 watt lightbulbs in favor of a built-in heating element, hit store shelves for the holiday season. For kids who see the kitchen as a science lab, ThinkGeek offers a home carbonation kit that lets you add some fizz to your favorite drinks by way of the chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar. (Don’t worry, those ingredients don’t make it into whatever you’re sloshing down.) For the baby who has everything, they also offer an illuminated bib with the picture of an airstrip and an accompanying jet-shaped spoon, perfect for an epic game of “here comes the airplane.” And again, be mindful of shipping deadlines if you need to have your internet-ordered goods by a certain date.
And then there are gifts for the bookshelf.
Feed Our Small Word: For little chefs, this Disney book introduces children to international cuisine by way of simplified recipes and fun facts. I also appreciate the few recipes where the authors point out that cooking is a creative medium and that it’s OK to do something different from what’s pictured—like trying different fillings for quiche, finding your own mix of veggies to use in quesadillas or making substitutions to suit your palate, like using kielbasa to make a mild version of paella.
Culinary Reactions: Learning about chemistry shouldn’t be relegated to the classroom, and Simon Quellen Field’s book explains why food does what it does. The writing style is very personable and he does a great job of illustrating concepts with recipes, such as a tutorial on homemade cheese after a lesson on suspensions and emulsions.
Essential Pépin: Chef Jacques Pépin has been in the business for six decades and here he collects some 700 recipes, revised and updated for the modern cook. Each recipe is preceded by a short introduction from Pépin that offers advice for preparation as well as personal anecdotes. It reads like a warm invitation from a master chef to come into his kitchen and savor a meal, and with recipes that range in difficulty, there ought to be something in here for everybody. And for those who need a little extra help, an DVD explaining all the techniques used in the book is also included.
The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook: This is an old standby that I think is perfect for someone who is hesitant about cooking or is just starting out. I probably use this one the most for my day-to-day cooking. It gives you nutritional information and cooking times for recipes, which makes it easier to figure out if something is going to ruin your diet or if you can manage to fit it in your busy schedule. (College students and young professionals, I’m looking at you.) Furthermore, I like this one because the recipes, while good on their own, are also basic enough that anyone who is culinarily curious will feel free to tinker around with recipes to personalize them.
Menu Design in America: If your interests include both food and the visual arts, there is no passing on this extensive volume published by Taschen. A stunning compilation of menu art from the 1800s through the late 20th century that documents changes in dining culture and graphic design, it’s the perfect accompaniment to your coffee table.