Beautifully lit, perfectly styled food photography is everywhere — in magazines, food blogs, and even Instagram, where your 10-year-old cousin is already expert at using natural light to make mom's cooking look delicious. These images are usually carefully curated to project an image of an idealized existence where the chicken never burns and everyone is always smiling, perfectly coiffed round the table.
Dimly Lit Meals for One, a new book based off a popular Tumblr, serves up quite the opposite scenario. Author Tom Kennedy pairs grainy photos of barely (if at all) plated culinary monstrosities with a fictional tale about the sad-sack person who is likely eating it.
Real people submit the photos, often with a brief description of what the food in the image is — "because it's not always very easy to tell," Kennedy says.
In one, an uncomfortably close-up depiction of chopped cabbage, a used fork, and orange goo that looks a bit like days-old Thousand Island dressing, Kennedy writes, "Cabbage with nacho cheese dip over it is not the same thing is coleslaw. As much as you might try to convince yourself that the simulacrum of food sitting in front of you is a real side dish, you're sadly laboring under a delusion." The photo's fictional narrative later implies that the "chef" behind this meal was also responsible for "mystery twenty-four-hour stomach viruses" going around the office. Is serving this dish to another human being an act of culinary torture? It's hard to say for certain.
A common theme in the book is foods eaten straight out of a can. "Loneliness and an inability to cook is a truly global phenomenon," Kennedy writes next to a photo from Egypt showing soupy, slightly greasy-looking canned fava beans with the spoon anchored firmly inside the bean broth. "As you shall eat so shall you die, alone and surrounded by the remnants of ready meals," Kennedy writes a bit later. "That's globalization for you."
Kennedy thinks people might send in photos of such depressing meals because having the photo turn up on a blog "with a stupid story about it" makes them feel better.
"People like to see themselves in things, even if it's just a picture of what they've made for dinner," Kennedy says. And not everyone has the chops to become an Instagram food celebrity.
These are the meals people cook when they don't want to cook anything and the delivery restaurants are all closed. "You're feeling quite low and don't necessarily want to get out of bed and everything feels heavy and tired all the time," Kennedy says, describing a feeling anyone who has ever been depressed knows well. Today, cooking is so often portrayed as an intricate, beautiful, caring act. But sometimes, a meal is just some edible bits getting shoveled into a mouth, as Kennedy's book vividly illustrates.
In one of the better-looking photos in the book, a plate of soupy chicken and rice wasn't sent in by the meal's creator at all but by the creator's son. Kennedy recalls that when the photo was first sent in, the teen requested it not be put up on the blog, "because my parents will find out." So it wound up in the book instead.
"This is what fame is really all about," Kennedy says. "People are willing to sell out their parents' cooking."
He does, on occasion, get photo submissions that show some level of culinary expertise or are clearly too well lit to be included. "Maybe they just want somebody to say, 'Oh, that's really good,' " Kennedy muses. "But I don't want to make people feel better about themselves. I just ignore those ones."