Can we engage in recipe writing without pictures? Yes, and this post explains why I believe we can (and even should).
Photographing food well takes time. A minimum of one hour (and that's if I'm particularly inspired and lucky) goes into each recipe photoshoot. Typically it's considerably longer. This is one reason why not all recipes are accompanied by a picture. Another reason is it's just not necessary.
It wasn't that long ago we cooked guided by the written word alone, handheld by authors who supervised us via skillful narration. We have strayed from this in favour of viewing food through the lens of social media. How will it photograph? Shouldn't I eat earlier and disrupt my day now since the light is better? Do I even have microgreens to distract from the beige?
You might tell yourself it's too difficult to make a recipe without knowing what the end result is supposed to look like (hint: who cares, if eating it satisfies you, if you are nourished), but consider the following and you might change your mind.
Pictures don't generate culinary skill
A stylised visual representation of a dish can add unnecessary pressure to the cooking process (which is already stressful to many people). And distraction all too easily follows when we attempt to craft a meal that mimics what we see in a photograph. Imagery can offer direction but it can also be demoralising. When we spend our time trying to replicate a professional photo that has undergone a lot hands on (often by skilled individuals with years of industry training) touches, props, editing, we are in a way setting ourselves up to fail.
So what about an alternative? What if we cook without these expectations? What about cooking for the sake of cooking and learning, and enjoying whatever lands on our plates without measuring it by social media standards? After all, no one becomes good cook by taking or looking at pictures.
A photograph doesn't impart technical details or know how. An image of tempura cannot reveal why your fritters come out soggy, while good text offers an education into the dos and don'ts of deep frying. No image will impregnate you with skills; those are obtained from practice and good teachers.
We are cooking in a time when restaurants not only append menu items with vegan symbols, but also with camera icons to indicate which dishes look best on Instagram. Our concern lies more with how our plates look than how its contents taste and feel.
Lately I have been making efforts to fight the urge to take a photo of everything I eat, to go back to the days when the foods I photographed were memorable enough to earn both a repeat restaurant visit and a frame on one of the few rolls of film I traveled with. Sometimes those photos would be painstakingly taken in dark conditions, balancing my old (and weighty) Nikon F as still as I could manage, only to achieve a blurry photo. This, with the goal of being able to research and recreate these dishes upon my return home, is meaningful food photography in my eyes. When I look at these images today, I remember with detail the stories behind them. Conversely, sliding through endless pages of burgers on my phone fills me with dread. Is this what I've become? Someone who prioritises pictures of what I eat over the joy of eating, over the friends I'm dining with?
In order to counter this when dining with companions, I developed a protest technique, a sort of mental art installation, whereby I began taking photos of others snapping shots of their food. My intention with this retaliation was to subvert the absurdity of commodifying food and company for show online. This act backfired as those around me scrambled to join in on what was perceived as a new game. The time between plates hitting the table and me enjoying what I'm there for in the first place, to eat, now extended further (though a more positive spin frames this as a playful interaction with friends, which is also integral to a positive group dining experience).
Every once in awhile, scrolling through IG, I find myself captivated by a photo of a messy, empty plate. I stop to read the caption, which is often a brief message to convey how much the poster enjoyed their dinner of x to the extent that they were excited enough to not take a picture before tucking in. This is the minimalism that sparks joy. Food is about sustenance and stories, not likes from strangers, not a virtual performance for people to forget seconds after scrolling through. An empty plate after a loved dinner tells a better story than a tableful of neon food taken by someone with their finger swiping hard on the HDR setting.
I'd like to share some images from the first time I considered the sentimental weight of pictures of food, during an overland trip from Estonia to Cambodia in 2004. None of the photos are good, but when I look at them today I am flooded with emotion.