Cheesy musings

You eat with your eyes: My problem with plating cheese

When I worked as a homepage editor, it was my job to lure readers into clicking with lists, puppies and babies, Kim Kardashian (pageviews don’t lie; if you hate her, why are you so interested in her marriage(s)?), and most of all, vagueness (“You won’t believe…” “Wait until you see…” “This ___ is shocking”). Another vital hook were the pictures.

I distinctly remember a morning two years ago when I arrived for the early shift and posted a recipe for baked Brie to the homepage. I watched the video three times “to find the perfect screenshot” – read: to fantasize about baked Brie – and thought a fresh-outta-the-oven, gorgeously-melty shot was just the ticket.

About an hour later, when one of my bosses arrived, he asked me to change the picture. “It just doesn’t look very appetizing,” he said.

Are these people high? I thought to myself (they weren’t – maybe that would’ve helped). This looks incredible.

Baked brie

I actually dug up the original video to take a screenshot similar to the one I had – credit: TheLoop.ca

It actually didn’t. None of the screenshots did the recipe justice, so I ended up using a stock photo. But I had watched the video three times – my brain was clearly already on board the baked-Brie wagon (which is supported by pecan-spoked wheels and fuelled by honey, by the way). Hell, my brain pretty much drove the baked-Brie wagon.

I think of that story often, as it crystallizes a problem I run into a lot: making scrumptious food look scrumptious. I don’t have a fancy camera and refuse to wait for daylight to take photos. I often gravitate to hard or semi-soft cheeses, which generally come in and are served as bricks. What’s sexy about that? So this is especially an issue for me on this blog. I once carved smoked gouda into little hearts because I didn’t know how else to quickly-but-appealingly capture it in my drab, poorly-lit kitchen.

So I try to get crafty (as one should). I feel weird about building a plate that is not the one I’m eating – I’m just now realizing that’s because I usually snap the picture as soon as I unwrap the cheese, otherwise I often miss it altogether after an inadvertent devouring – though I should, and garnish it with pretty fruit, nuts, herbs, etc., instead of what I actually eat it with, which is usually a spoon and whatever jam or confit looks most tempting.

Exhibit A: as I write, I’m dragging crackers through cranberry and pepper Boursin (not even spreading it, because all my knives are dirty – I’m a monster) while waiting for my dinner in the oven. The prettiest thing about it is my grandmother’s plate:

Boursin on pretty plate

Back to the Brie story. The importance of presentation is no newly-discovered secret. I’m just as guilty of judging a no-frills plate. I should have You eat with your eyes first embroidered on a pillow as a constant reminder. But it’s become more than just about eating what’s in front of you: now, as the Financial Post recently pointed out, it’s about wanting to eat what’s on your screen.

The Post dug into how restaurants are approaching food presentation with social media on the brain and encouraging patrons to Instagram their #foodporn (although if I see someone stand on a chair to get that ever-popular aerial shot, my eyes won’t be able to roll back far enough). It makes sense for restaurants to embrace the trend; who wouldn’t want free, public praise?

Still, I’m reminded of that sad little baked Brie, how delectable it is, and how few people likely clicked on the story or tried the recipe as a result of my ugly photo. I want to make more of an effort to style my cheese shots (suggestions more than welcome). But the next time I see a crappy food photo, I’ll assign it a tempting headline in my head: You won’t believe how delicious this tastes.

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