Delicious Pictures: Canal House Cooking

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   The first photographic images to render a reaction in me were the images that I encountered in books about food. I tend to read these tomes like novels stopping along the way to consider the images with the same focused curiosity that I give to words.

   Living in New York reignited my passion for books-especially books about culinary concerns. The city’s myriad of comprehensive bookstores was a perfect match to my growing passion for words and pictures. The mother ship of such places, Kitchen Arts and Letters, was always on my to-do list. Fortunately, this beacon remains at its upper eastside location.

   Here, I could find everything from vintage manuals about French baking (which I will never master) to ruminations from the guiding forces and upstarts of the culinary world. However, before I could sink into the words or finger through the bibliography (I love the B-I-B-L-I-O-G-R-A-P-H-Y!), I inspected the pictures.

   Images have power. The best of them seize dominion over our senses. Then, you get that feeling-the visceral response. This is where I want to dwell, especially when looking at delicious pictures.

   Looking back, my tastes have swung like a pendulum back-n-forth with each edition that was added to my collection. From the classical-meets-modern images found in Martha Stewart’s books and magazine to early color photography found in Life Picture books and the Time-Life Foods of the World and The Good Cook series to the slick, grand Dutch-inspired stills of books like Patrick O’Connell's Inn at Little Washington extravaganza, I was devouring everything: words, food and pictures.

   Then, slowly, as is the natural progression of things, my own aesthetic developed. No longer did the editorial, overtly dramatic and studio-forward image appeal to me in the same way. I started gravitating towards images that were naturalistic, candid gestures that embodied a hands-on approach to image making. Much like my own approach in the studio.

   Currently, (and certainly in my own opinion) the best articulation of that approach is seen on the pages of the Canal House Cooking volumes. This self-published project is born of Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer. Both dynamos have written, edited and designed the very best food publications in the biz that include Metropolitan Home, Cook’s Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living and Saveur. Christopher Hirsheimer is an extremely sought-after food photographer and one of the founders of Saveur magazine where she served as executive editor while Melissa Hamilton served as the director of the test kitchen. Hirsheimer’s pictures can be found on the pages of many books and magazines. Her work is the perfect compliment to David Tanis’ (of Chez Panisse notoriety) recently published, straightforward voice in both, A Platter of Figs (Artisan, 2008) and Heart of the Artichoke (Artisan, 2010).

   Together, Hamilton and Hirsheimer have developed a gem that highlights seasonal menus with easy sophistication. What’s more, it’s filled with beautiful Christopher Hirsheimer vignettes. On these pages, natural light, spills, crumbs and the patina of well-worn utensils and equipment remind us about what cooking should be: an earnest engagement with the senses. However, these images should not be taken for granted due to their seemingly pedestrian air. That would be a mistake. 

   Hirsheimer’s pictures represent food that you want to eat, that you can-and-should cook and they are realized in a kitchen studio reminiscent of most peoples’ home kitchens. You almost recognize the spaces and tabletops, even the tools. A picture of duck or butter or a mere bowl of fruit are evocative of the oftentimes difficult to articulate pleasures of the table. In short, there is poetry on the pages of these little books.

   So, before you roll your eyes at what seems like an overblown description of yet another cookbook, do yourself a favor and sit down with an issue of Canal House Cooking (there are now six issues in the series). Leaf through the pages and linger over the pictures as you read the smart, concise affirmations of both Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer and you will see for yourself and then become incredibly hungry.


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