Yesterday in a moment of editorial justice the New York Times ran an article about my friend Susan Spungen and her work on the soon-to-be-released movie, Julie & Julia. Susan is a food stylist, but she’s not just any old food stylist. It’s arguable that she is responsible for the way in which the food looks in the magazines and cookbooks that we read today.
I met Susan 15 years ago in Bridgehampton, when she worked as the food editor for the just-launched Martha Stewart Living. I was the 10 years younger, unemployed and adrift girlfriend of a chef friend of hers. When I met Susan, I could not believe that someone could get paid working with food–and not being a cook. Se was my idol and then became my friend.
Several years later, I read an article in some obscure (to me anyway) design journal that said that Susan’s work at Martha Stewart Living had forever changed the look of food on the page. With its soft, pinprick focus, natural light, it had an organic look so delicious you want to take the bite of pecan pie dangling on the end of a fork right off the page and eat it. And for all intents and purposes, you could.
Susan doesn’t use glue or shelack or shoe polish to make her food look pretty. She just uses pretty food, and cooks it nice. I had the privilege of working with her as an unskilled assistant on a couple of occasions when she was at Martha, and the food was so real, in fact, we often sat down feasted on it when we were done shooting. “I cook for the camera,” she used to say when asked about the tricks of her trade. Meaning she made sure to get a nice brown sear on a roast, or grill marks on a slice of fennel. But otherwise, the food was food. Nothing more and nothing less.
This is not just clever beyond belief, but also, I think, important to the way we think about food. Just like yesterday’s Times article said that using real, delicious food in a scene made the actors act differently (better!), I think that stressing how beautiful food can be organically is important, too. We don’t need food layered in ring molds or decorated with sugar spires, and certainly we don’t need an orange wedge and a sprig of parsley on the side of our fried eggs. But like so many things, keeping it simple is sometimes the hardest thing of all.
Over the years, Susan whenever I went to entertain, she was my entertaining 911 hot-line. A dozen housemates for a fall dinner in the Hamptons? She pointed me to a pork dish with fennel and apricots she’d published in Martha. Forty people, Christmas open house, expecting to be fed. Not seated “Give them something they can eat with the plate on their lap, that doesn’t require a knife.” We decided on a beef Daube from Saveur and it was so good it’s the only time I’ve ever almost run out of food.
Susan is the only person I know who is pickier about what she serves than I am, and the first time I asked if I could bring something to one of her parties–her annual Fourth of July bash on the lawn of her Sagaponack cottage–her response was: Like what? I loved that. No shame to admit that it mattered. The party was an Americana theme: bbq ribs, corn, a chocolate layer cake, hand-churned ice cream. So I decided to stick with what I know, suggested a platter of chocolate chip cookies and she agreed. I have made tons of cookies over time, but never so painstakingly rolled into equal-size drops and never with such meticulous attention paid to the baking. The mountain of cookies I presented was, I admit, an all-American site to behold. And I passed. Susan liked them so much she included the recipe in her book, Recipes, which is sort of cult classic among those who own it. (If you don’t own it and you like to cook delicious food from recipes that work, you should buy it. It’s out of print, but Amazon has them in stock.)
By the time her birthday rolled around that September, I’d gained her trust. She was serving lobster chowder and corn on the cob to about 30 friends crowded around the Sagaponack cottage fireplace on the first chilly days of the impending fall. I suggested prosciutto with melon, which I’d been seeing piled at the farm stand up the road. But naturally, Susan had an even better idea. Prosciutto with figs. I assembled them at her house so she could show me how to wrap a thin slice of prosciutto around a halved fig and still make it look good. Of course she had the ideal long, narrow, white platter for me to put them on. We then drizzled them with some ancient, million dollar balsamic. And then she got the brilliant genius idea of finishing the figs with a few turns of black pepper. My appetizer tasted delicious. But what’s more, they looked so elegant. I was proud for a moment and almost forgot that, like all of us who take our cues from the magazines that Susan has influenced, I could not have created such a dish without her guidance. None of us could.