One of the many lessons my father imparted on me from a young age was, “People eat with their eyes first.” It may seem strange, given that we are a Chinese family that, more often than not, ate Chinese food at home, and Chinese food is not generally the most aesthetically pleasing.
I mean, he tried; he would make these elaborate feasts with lobster salad that was served in half lobster shells – the lobsters cut in half, and the salad carefully spooned atop the empty tail area. He made a chicken dish whose name escapes me, but was served completely deboned in a platter covered with this very cornstarchy, clear gravy poured atop it.. and he would painstakingly slip a perfectly sliced piece of Virginia ham between each piece of chicken, so the purple-y pink would pop through the white of the chicken meat. He served huge plates of his famed shrimp with lobster sauce, and would take the time to create the ring of broccoli around the edge.
My father had an eye for beauty in all things. He knew how to arrange food to make it look most appetizing, and it’s a damn shame he didn’t live long enough to see all the food porn there is on the internet now. I can only imagine how he would react and what would inspire him to go farther, create more and better things to his tastes.
A few years ago, I was eating at a friend’s apartment. I don’t recall what he’d made for us to eat, but I do remember that I was arranging my food on the plate carefully, without thinking much of it. After watching me with some amusement for a few minutes, he finally asked if I was going to photograph my plate. I looked up, surprised, and said “I wasn’t planning on it…” but he rightly pointed out that whenever we’d eaten together, I plate my food. Even when it’s a buffet, even when I’m not taking photos… I always arrange my food on my plate. You know those photos of me eating at an event – either at a family gathering where I basically scoop food onto my plate and there are less photos of the entire dish before it’s disturbed… or at a buffet… and the food is all neatly laid out in a clock fashion?
I actually eat like that even when there’s no photo to be taken.
This story has surfaced a few times around the site, but I thought it deserved its own post, as I find myself ‘styling’ my food more often than not.
As a child, my father often asked me to do things for him. Bring him a cup of water. Turn on the lights. Make him a sandwich. (Any child of an Asian family knows that the joke that Asian people have children so they can have free labor is actually at least partially true.)
When I was about 10, he asked me to make him a sandwich. I made him a sandwich: let’s say ham, cut it into two rectangles and brought it to him on a 10″ dinner plate.
He peered at it and asked me, “What’s this?”
I blankly stared back, “It’s your sandwich.”
He got up and said, “No, this isn’t how you serve a sandwich.” He led me back into the kitchen and made another sandwich, cutting this one on the bias. He put one half down and leaned the other half on it, so it stood up, proud, creating height in an otherwise flat dish. He opened a bag of chips and added some in the empty space. He took a pickle from a jar in the fridge and cut that on an angle and added it to the plate as well.
“This is how you serve a sandwich.”
I wanted to protest he’d asked for a sandwich, not a sandwich with pickles and chips, but somewhere in my head I knew I shouldn’t. He explained again, “People eat with their eyes first. You need to make something look visually appealing, so people will want to eat it with their mouths, too. Add interest to the plate. Make it look good, and it will be appreciated more.”
I have never forgotten that lesson. Even when I’m making a plate of food for just me – especially when I’m making it for just me, I want the food to look so good, I am excited and can’t wait to eat it.
I like to think my father somehow knew one day these lessons would be a big part of my life.
Do you plate your food when you’re the only one who’s going to see it?