Try to get through the day without seeing a photograph of food. You can't. Those images are everywhere, from the McDonald's billboard on the side of the bus to the box of cereal you grab off the grocery shelf.
But of course, the actual cereal you pour never looks as delicious as the picture on the box. That's because a food stylist has probably spent hours selecting the best-looking flakes and arranging them in the most appealing way for the photograph.
Food stylist Delores Custer tells NPR's Guy Raz that she looks for "flakes with character" and arranges them one by one on the spoon for maximum appeal. That pristine splash of milk? It might be sculpted acrylic. Or it might be a digital illustration or even Elmer's glue — but it's definitely not milk. Real milk would make the cereal soggy and unappealing on camera.
Yet surprisingly, most of what you see in the ads is real food. If you're looking at a McDonald's ad, that's really a Big Mac there — though someone like Custer has picked through thousands of buns, patties and lettuce leaves to find the most photogenic example of each. That milk in the cereal ad may not be real, but Custer says if the ad is for milk, then you'll see real milk.
Real food can be difficult to work with, Custer says. "Food is like children: It doesn't like to behave in front of company." So stylists have a vast array of tricks and tools for making it behave.
Slippery cutlery can be stuck in place with mortician's wax. Roast chickens tend to wrinkle and dry out after a few minutes, so Custer undercooks them and then paints the skin with a mixture of angostura bitters, yellow food coloring, and a dash of detergent for the perfect glistening roasted look. Tall sandwiches present a special challenge: How do you stack up all that ham and cheese and lettuce without flattening everything? Custer invented her own technique, using an armature of bolts and clear plastic discs to hold everything up.
Custer has spent more than 30 years as a food stylist. Her new book, Food Styling, has all the tips and tricks of a trade you see every day but never really think about. "You know when you were a little kid and you would hear, 'Don't play with your food'? We food stylists get to play with our food all of the time," she says.
But, she warns, "just because it's pretty doesn't mean that it's good."
"As food stylists, we're always looking for the pretty ones. We want the lemons that are just the right size, that have the right color yellow, the right texture on their skin." But that might be different from the lemon you choose in a grocery store.
"I know that the juiciest lemons have a certain look to them, and those would be lemons that I wouldn't pick for my food styling assignments."