Making a Cookbook

Last week I wrapped up the recipe photo shoot for my upcoming Midwestern cookbook. Every shot of every dish was taken here at my house, some outside in the grass, others on things as diverse as our 1902 piano, a bookcase inside the woodshed, the dining room floor and one of my husband’s abstract wood carvings. It’s funny, but the photo shoot made this project—which I’ve been carrying around with me for so long that it seemed like my secret, or my secret hobby—much more public and concrete, and alive.

The shoot fulfilled all my wishes for it (and then some) but I’d like to share a little about what a cookbook photo shoot entails, because before the process began the photo shoot was a locus of confusion for many of my friends and family. This is understandable; cookbook photo shoots are a little foreign in these parts. I even remember being confused once about assisting for a photoshoot for a new Manhattan restaurant I cooked in. At the end of the day in the locker room I confessed to my friend Jason: “he said photoshoot, so I wore mascara today.” To this day I cringe about that.

Photos for cookbooks are trained pretty closely on the food itself. The prop stylist assembles an appropriate palette and dishware for each shot. The food stylist cooks from the recipes with a mind on the visuals, making everything look just a bit more luscious. The photographer shoots it from its most appealing angle and monitors the whole process.  It is my job to make sure that the food looks just like it will when you make it at home and to put the dish in a setting appropriate to the story about the recipe.

I chose a veteran food photographer for this. Jennifer May, who in addition to her magazine and newspaper editorial work has photographed a number of cookbooks, some for my publisher Clarkson Potter, flew in on the New York-to-Fargo indirect. Kendra McKnight, a French-born food stylist, came in from Montreal. The prop stylist was Alison Hoekstra, who brought a car stocked with the best props from thrift shops across the state. She and our three fabulous assistants drove up the four hours from Minneapolis. Then we got to work, shooting between 7 and 9 recipe shots each day, averaging about 11 hours to do it. A few photos of our process follow.

Here we are, Jen, Alison and I looking at a shot in the middle of my prop-strewn dining room.

That’s me cooking butter-basted walleye, shot through the porch screen.


Here I am cooking in a nice, very pale shirt. Not my usual duds.



We’re laughing here at the bravado of a quite-pregnant Kendra wielding a blowtorch, the “fatboy” as it was called.



Jen didn’t hesitate to rig up a bug-defying headdress—fashionable even in the deep woods—to get the shot.


This one cracks me up. We shot a piece of pie in my very clean bathroom because—I’m sorry—the light flowing through that window was amazing. The paper here holds a place for the eventual pale froth of whipped cream.




Here we have craft services, otherwise known as my mom Karen and my aunt Renee. Renee threatened to dig deep into the area’s semi-sweet salad history and make a spicy cucumber jello that wobbled under the weight of its miracle whip, but they caved to their innate good taste and instead brought delicious things like this tomato tart. You’d think that with cooking eight recipes a day we would have had enough food leftover to feed a village, but at lunchtime their delivery was always welcome. They bit back their impulse to add bacon to all of the vegetables (because of Alison’s vegetarian affliction) and compromised with a daily bowl of chopped cooked bacon on the side, a fillip that pretty much sums up my childhood. By day two they had adopted the name “The Worker Bees” and will soon be working on their own project, The Worker Bee Cookbook.

Throughout all of this, my husband was working behind the scenes, shimming tables, making wood fires in the grill and generally being there for all of us.

Each member of this crew was dynamite, but many thanks go to the talented Kendra McKnight for making my food look drop-dead delicious. (She is pictured below with her custom-K water glass.) And thanks to Jen May for her singular vision. Her photos proved to me that this area isn’t just stunning to me alone, but universally stunning, and oddly epic, too. In eight days she captured so many of the soaring emotions I’ve had since moving back home, all of them rendered in that particularly hard-to-pin-down, flatly dramatic Midwestern way, and for that I am grateful to her. And lucky.


At the end the interns, Angelina and Nick, along with our assistant Luisa, dried their dishpan hands and came outside to ring in the last recipe shot. Fittingly for a Midwestern cookbook, we shot it on a stack of firewood. In truth, I had intended to lug that lovely, worn tabletop all the way to the porch but had to re-grip halfway so I set it down on the woodpile.  I squinted at it and thought to myself, “End-of-shoot fatigue or strike of inspiration? You know what? I think it works.”


Here’s Luisa Fernanda Garcia-Gomez, taking her first break in days.


Ditto for Angelina and Nick, my excellent interns from Macalester College.


We wrapped with a swim in the incredibly clear Bad Medicine Lake, and then a bonfire with our friends, both of which we sunk into, wholly appreciative.


Jen May wrote an entry on the shoot as well, here, and of course she accompanied hers with amazing snapshots.

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