STRAWBERRIES, STYLISTS & THE INJUSTCES OF LIFE
I met Libbie Summers (www.libbiesummers.com) last September when she and her husband Josh came on a photography workshop I was running with my friend Kate Hill at her house in Gascony.
I will admit here and now that I was worried about meeting her. She is a food stylist (actually she’s a food stylist, successful author, acclaimed award winning blogger, wonderful looking, really good company and a right laugh as well which kind of makes you sick…) but it was the ‘stylist’ bit that had me worried.
Over the years I’ve worked with lots and lots of stylists. Some very good ones who have made my life a breeze and my pictures sing, some mediocre ones and some downright awful. These days I’m never sure how to approach stylists. The bad ones have put me off so much that whenever it’s suggested that I have one on a shoot I tend to run away and hide.
I needn’t have worried. I’ve never worked with Libbie, but having spent a week with her I now know I’d love to. She has good strong ideas, is a master of her craft and is always just the right side of bossy. Unfortunately she is in the States and I’m just about to move to darkest Bulgaria, so it seems unlikely.
I’ve just seen a post by her on her blog with a picture of her hands holding an enormous strawberry, A REALLY enormous strawberry that almost covers her palm. She states ‘I NEVER remember my Grandmother, Lula Mae, growing a strawberry this big. Consequently, I never remember a strawberry from her garden tasting this bland.’
This took me back to a trip that we made to Western Ukraine two years ago this June. Anyone who reads this blog already knows how much I love it there and how much this wonderful but troubled country has come to mean to me.
It was beautiful weather, the outdoor cafés were packed with people and the markets were packed with strawberries.
But not big ones.
There were some that we would recognise as strawberries. Not enormous, and a bit grubby but delicious and juicy. However the strawberries that caught our eye were wild strawberries. Tiny things the size of my little finger nail. They were everywhere, packed into jars and offered to us by all the Babushkas who come into the market in Lviv every day to sell their produce.
The taste of them was ridiculous. I have never in my life tasted anything to compare. Yes, I’ve eaten ‘Fraises du Bois’ in France and they are very nice, but the majority of them are cultivated and they simply did not compare to these little Ukranian ones. We bought jar after jar of them and sat in the park stuffing ourselves.
The thing that really struck me however was the ‘styling’. Obviously that’s a misnomer and a ridiculous thing to say, but these ladies, these poor ladies, these hard working people who had come in to Lviv on the bus to sell whatever they could find in the fields had done one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Unable to afford lids to put on their jars of wild strawberries, they had taken fig leaves, or ferns and tied them around the jars to keep them fresh.
It was…wonderful. And it made me happy and sad in equal measures.
In London or New York, these strawberries would cost a King’s ransome. and we would be paid what, for them, would be a small fortune for Libbie to replicate what they had done and for me to photograph it. Yet in the market in Lviv we could buy them for pennies. Looking for all the world like they’d just come straight from the pages of a glossy food magazine.
We even came across one lady who was selling them like little bunches of edible flowers to munch on as you walked around the market.
I’m not sure what to say really. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of ‘Picturesque Poverty’, but I do know that something just seems kind of wrong…
On a lighter note, I now know that Libbie’s grandmother was called Lula Mae. Lula Mae! As an Englishman who grew up wanting to be a cowboy this is fantastic! I can imagine myself coming back to the ranch all hot and bothered after a long day of rounding up the cattle and fighting off several baddies, sliding off my dusty horse and saying ‘Lula Mae, I’m ready for mah dinner’…
Sadly I never met either of my grandmothers, but I do know that they were called Elsie and Beryl, which somehow doesn’t quite have the same ring about it…