“Interior of a Hong Kong Pizza Hut” by me

After reading Blake’s fun post on food photography, I’ve pondered just how much I’ve photographed my meals.

That would be once: for StuffSexWorkersEat. Not only did I forget to take my camera to breakfast several days in a row, when I did finally bring it, I forgot not to eat my food before taking the momentous picture. A food photographer I am not. I felt even more furtively creepy taking pictures of my unsuspecting, innocent meal than I do taking pictures of people who willingly pose for my camera.

I have photographed a few menus, like at the mango dessert shop and Pizza Hut, both in Hong Kong. I’ve sometimes taken pictures of the interior of a restaurant, for various reasons. But the food? I just eat it.

The first time I ate at Enso Kitchen I wished I had brought my camera, but my friend kindly took photos with her phone and later emailed them to me so I could have a memory of that meal. Honestly, every meal there was photo-worthy, but I never again asked for documentation.

Of course, my lack of tableside-camera was glaringly obvious in Singapore, where every meal at every restaurant was examined and documented by every Singaporean diner. Angles, lighting, presentation, table settings, other guests…it was all calculated and arranged for every shot until I assume their food got cold and congealed. But since anyone who took pictures of their food was doing it for their food-blog, it was expected. I was the weirdo who read a book or magazine while eating alone. I may have committed a huge faux pas by not liking my food well enough to preserve it forever digitally or on real film. I certainly was way out of the loop by so obviously not having a food blog.

While I’ve noticed the “photograph your food” trend growing in the US, I sniff at it. If you want a real education on photographing food, spend some time traveling through Asia. They do not hold back.

I have written about food in my personal journal. I’ve written about it a lot, actually. I love eating and I’m not a girl who misses meals. Nor am I a girl willing to starve myself in front of clients, though I often have eaten less than I desired out of social shame. Frankly, I’ve only ever met one man who can eat almost as much as I do (he is a fairly accomplished marathoner). My sister refers to me as a Hobbit because of my eating habits.

Yes, I work out. I have to if I plan to continue eating. On the other hand, I am neither a workout fanatic, nor any sort of neurotic-eater. I eat healthy food because it’s what I’m drawn to, I like what I like and ignore what I don’t. I don’t binge, purge, or have any sort of psychological qualms about my eating or lack of it. (Though I get cranky when I get hungry. I am happiest when fed regularly.) Food is fuel, but also something I love to enjoy. It’s the possibility of a small, repeatable daily pleasure, sometimes the high point in a bad day, other times the continuation of a good day. On rare occasion, it can be an event in and of itself. I’ve had a fair number of these food events and I treasure the memories like lost lovers.

I like food. That’s all there is to it.

It’s almost funny to me — out of all the fantastic meals I’ve had, the one food photo I’ve ever done was of my everyday breakfast, which cost $2SGD (then they raised the price slightly, but felt bad that I should pay more since I ate there every morning and gave me a discount card). The breakfast set I ate was very traditional for Singapore and very humble. It’s not expensive anywhere on the island and I’m not sure that any fancy hotel offers kaya toast for breakfast. There’s nothing special about it at all, save that I loved it, even on days when they didn’t let the eggs boil long enough, or put butter on my kaya toast.

There have been meals since where I’ve been tempted to whip out a camera (assuming I had one handy) but what’s the point? My memory is better-served eating the meal freshly-prepared, savoring what is to be savored about it. Even looking at the photos of my first lunch at Enso Kitchen don’t convey to me the memory of eating it. This isn’t to discredit my friend’s camera-phone skills, rather, in this age of mechanical reproduction, the one thing I can never, ever reproduce, or even completely share, is my memory. It’s a delicate, unstable thing, subject to the decay of time and injury, but it is the most powerful experience I can have of my meal because it only happens once and includes everything happening around the food, around me, and within me. Even if I go to breakfast at the same place, sitting at the same table, eating the same thing prepared by the same women every single day — no two meals are the same.

5 thoughts on “photographing food

  1. Thanks to the magic of links, I now know that in a kopitiam in Singapore I would want to ask for kopi kosong. But, from your photo of your breakfast set, I can’t guess whether you’re drinking teh, teh gao, or teh po. It’s true that eating is a repeatable and easily-obtainable pleasure. What’s curious to me is how much more I enjoy mediocre-to-poor food if I’m the one who cooked it. Must be some of that “puritan work ethic” in there somewhere.

    1. Jim — Kopitiams are not to be missed. Best cafes in the world, no two are alike and everyone has their favorite.

      I think I’m drinking Teh or Teh-C but it’s hard to tell even though I’ve watched the counter ladies make it (with the sock) numerous times. They never called it anything but tea (teh). I added sugar to mine for extra kick. One Western writer describes it as “muddy river water” because of its appearance but I assure you that’s not how it tastes. (The locals would customize their orders, but since I gave them enough grief with my eggs and lack of butter I didn’t say a word about the teh.)

      No, I don’t enjoy my cooking disasters. Sometimes I don’t even bother to eat them. I expect better out of myself, even when experimenting. So when restaurants screw it up, I’m really not forgiving.

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