Monday, April 9, 2007

Food, Glorious Food

We spent Friday night gaming at the apartment of J. Keith Van Straaten, former host of "Beat the Geeks" and the live, on-stage version of "What's My Line" which ran several seasons at the Acme Theatre on La Brea. J. Keith's been in New York for the past few months and dropped back here for about a week.

I spent time talking with the delightful Tory Davis, whom I had seen at previous J. Keith parties but whose name I did not remember. The topic of food (starting with cheeses) became common ground. Tory's blog, The Way to Eat, was my first stop this morning and you should check it out. Not only does she write nicely about food, she's a pretty good food photographer as well.

Back in the days when I was a full-time photographer in the greater Washington, D.C. area, some of my favorite assignments were food shoots. Not only was there wonderful stuff for visuals, you also usually got to eat afterwards. For the Washington Post, I photographed food classes (once watching someone make a smaller version of the timbale I later saw in "Big Night"), food competitions (the French chefs from the best French restaurants competed against each other for a trip to a cooking competition in Europe--a pre-Iron Chef evening if I ever spent one), and various other food-related events.

I photographed the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin several times, my favorite being the day he wound up in the wrong race at a "taste of Washington" event. He finished last, but he did finish. I never ate at his famous restaurant at the Watergate, but I did get to sample his food that day and at an evening where some of the great chefs of the world gathered in D.C. I don't know what he was like to work for, but he was an absolutely charming individual and recognized me when I would show up to take his picture. (Here is a link to the Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation.)

Many of the food shoots I did were with or for Phyllis C. Richman, then the food critic for the Washington Post. She was fun to work with and my goal is to have as many cookbooks in my collection as she had in her office at the Post. One day, while I was working at the photo department, she came in and said something about The Russian Tea Room. I mentioned that my then husband had proposed to me there. The article she wrote started with something like "Everyone has a story about The Russian Tea Room," and the proposal was mentioned in passing. I accompanied Phyllis to two of the events where I photographed Jean-Louis. I have no idea how Phyllis disguised herself to do reviews since she seemed to know everyone in food in Washington.

In the summer of 1985, after I had stopped freelancing regularly for the Post's photo department, I went off to Italy for a two-week workshop in food photography. The instructor was Aldo Tutino, who had photographed much of the food for the Time-Life cookbook series. Aldo was a native of a city near Naples (Positano, I think), but he and his family lived in Alexandria, Virginia and had purchased a retirement home near a small town called Vernasca in Emilia-Romagna, one of the great food regions of Italy. (Is there any region of Italy which is not a great food region?) Aldo decided to give teaching photography a whirl and I was one of five students to attend his first workshop.

I don't remember much about the other students, except Gail, who was the chief photographer for Marriott Corp. and an acquaintance of mine in the D.C. photo community. She and I traveled to Italy together on the flight from hell--four hours on the tarmac in New York because of storms--and she gave me advice on where to shop for jewelry when I went on to Florence (Quaglia & Forte.) Another photographer was also from the D.C. area and the other two were from greater New York City.

We worked in large format--4 x 5 transparencies--but there were plenty of opportunities to shoot 35 mm as well. For some of the projects we went off to find props at the local marcato and for others, Aldo and his wife provided everything. There is truly nothing so beautiful as the produce at an Italian open-air market. I had never seen peppers of such a variety of hues before in my life (California's farmers markets, though not so large, remind me of the ones I saw in Italy.) The smells of fresh or aged cheeses were intoxicating. It was remarkably easy to create a variety of photos from a trip to the market. One of the photographs that Gail and I designed and shot was later licensed by the Washington Post, so the trip even helped pay for itself.

In 1987, I attended a board of directors and chapter presidents meeting for the American Society of Media Photographers in Santa Barbara. We had a joint dinner with the Advertising Photographers of America's board of directors and chapter presidents. During the course of the meal, one of my fellow board members said that his idea of heaven was to die and go to Italy where you would drive a little and eat a little throughout eternity. I completely agree.

No comments: