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Food Photography And Ghanian Cuisine

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KAYTE YOUNG: Production support for Earth Eats comes from: Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing local residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods.Coop. And Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent with personal financial services. Assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for over 15 years. More at PersonalFinancialServices.net

(Earth Eats Theme Music) 

KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats. 

YARA CLÜVER: It's almost like taking a picture of the food has replaced what we would maybe otherwise do, which is say grace or look at one another and say "bon appetite" or... you know...

KAYTE YOUNG: "Cheers" or...

YARA CLÜVER: "Cheers", or whatever it is that you say (laughs).

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on our show we listen back to an interview with Yara Clüver about her food photography course at Indiana University. And we explore a southern take on Ghanaian street food with Samantha Adei Kotey. That's all just ahead, so stay with us. 

(Transition Music) 

In the age of Instagram taking pictures of meals has become rather commonplace. In her food photography course, professor Yara Clüver complicates the role of both food and photography throughout history and in our current everyday lives. I stopped in during one of the studio sessions with her class in the fall. 

(Sound of people chattering in the background)

They met in the cafe area of the Collins Living Learning Center on the IU campus. 

YARA CLÜVER: Maybe I would add that I brought also these, because this is something that you could put like in the background... (sound of small objects clattering onto a table). And if I was working with something like this, I might put it in the background with the intention...

KAYTE YOUNG: Professor Clüver asked the students to bring food items for today's shoot but she also supplied a spread of foods, herbs, glassware, cloth napkins and other props of various colors shapes and textures. 

YARA CLÜVER: ...in a minute but you know I could have one in the foreground, so you know how we were learning about composition - what's in your foreground, what's in your middle ground, what's in your background...

KAYTE YOUNG: The students select items from the table, pick out their lighting equipment and get to work setting up their scenes. I approached a group of students midway through their photoshoot and spoke with Aaron Booey about what her group was working with. 

AARON BOOEY: We have an empty Peace Tea can and then some dried apricots and some purple... not purple, blue warheads with a blue sheet around it. 

KAYTE YOUNG: What was the first thing? 

AARON BOOEY: A Peace Tea can. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Peace Tea? 

AARON BOOEY: Peace Tea. It's a brand. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay. And what have you guys done with it? 

AARON BOOEY: So our idea was to make a diagonal to draw your eye through the piece. So we started at the top with the very top of the can, and then we arranged the fruit and the candy in a line that leads down to the bottom of the sheet that we're using. So we're focusing mainly on orange and blue. We have a teal cloth, and a blue plate, and some blue candy, and then we have the orange apricots, and the tea can. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And you also incorporated the wrappers, I noticed. 

AARON BOOEY: Yes. My original idea - because the can was empty when we got it, it was to focus on the aftermath of the food - the waste that comes with it. So I thought it'd be cool to like have a bunch of empty wrappers with the rest of the foo. And if you look closely one of the apricots is eaten off of, like it's kind of half eaten. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Also you've got the war and the peace. 

AARON BOOEY: Yeah (laughs). We were using a diffuser to mellow out the light from the window and then we also used a metallic light blocker - or a reflector, that really helped make the oranges pop cause there's a definite lack of orange in this composition. It's there, it's just subtle. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I asked Aaron why she enrolled in the course and what she was getting out of it. 

AARON BOOEY: I really like photography, it's not something that I really wanted to pursue as a career, but it's something that I'm very fond of. I'm a social work major. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Were you already taking pictures of food like maybe for Instagram or whatever? 

AARON BOOEY: No, I tend to focus on other people as my main subject. I also like drawing and I pretty much exclusively draw portraits as well. So, I like to focus on people and for a lot of the projects that I've had, I do focus on people interacting with food as opposed to just food. 

I think I've learned that food photography is a lot more diverse and it has a much richer history than what people typically think of it as. Because you know, you think of food photography as just some girl on Instagram, or some person on Instagram taking a photo, but in reality it has shaped the way we make food, and the way we think about food, and our culture as a whole. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yara Clüver is the associate director at the Collins Living Learning Center at Indiana University. She has a background in fine art photography and began developing this food photography course at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo Italy. I invited Yara to the studio to talk more about what she had in mind for this food photography course. 

YARA CLÜVER: It wasn't intended as a class for art majors necessarily. And the class is called Food Photography - Concepts in Practice. So it is both a hands-on taking photos, or shooting photos and setting up studio situations. I don't expect them to have any training really in photography. You don't have to... like a phone is fine as a camera. It's a variety of different majors but the thing, I mean, that everybody has in common is that they take pictures of their food. 

So we're really looking at not just photography but really thinking about food, what is food in our society, how historically we think about how even civilization evolved as a result of agriculture and farming; and so the kind of impact that food has on our societies, on culture, on cultural expression, in religion and advertisement. 

There's a theoretical component to the class. And then we look at well what is food studies, we look at that initially. And then also visual literacy, definitely. So how to images communicate, and how are we impacted by them, and sort of technically what's going on with an image. I mean that's one component of it right? Is the technical aspects of the photo are working on you in some way. But also the context in which photographs exist today. 

 

We're taking so many pictures of our food and it's doing a number of things. One of the things is that it's working on the level of being like a grassroots advertising kind of campaign. You know? When everybody's like photographing their food and kind of showing off, "Here's what I ate, and I ate it at this place." You know? It creates this wonderful for the restaurants and businesses, right? Is this form of grassroots advertising that has a lot of validity to it because it's very authentic. Right? It's not somebody trying to sell you something because they want to make money off of it, but it's somebody selling you their experience and so it carries a lot of weight. 

And so what that also starts to do, it starts to create communities. You know while I've often been anti-social media and what is it doing to one-on-one interaction, face-to-face interaction, on the other hand it's like, well it is generating communities as well - through hashtags. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yara is noticing shifts in how we experience our meals. 

YARA CLÜVER: It's almost like taking a picture of the food has replaced what we would maybe otherwise do, which is say grace, or look at one another and say "bon appetite" or... you know...

KAYTE YOUNG: "Cheers" or...

YARA CLÜVER: "Cheers", or whatever it is that you say (laughs). You might still do that but that it's sort of that need to document has replaced some of the other rituals that we might have done before. 

KAYTE YOUNG: One of the readings for the class is by Charles Barstow from the magazine The New Gastronome, published through the University of Gastronomic Sciences, where Yara has taught. The piece is called "Eating the Image, Reflections on Food, Photos and Fantasy". 

YARA CLÜVER: He's really examining... well, why is it that we take photos of our food, and what's happening to our experience. Right? Of when we eat a meal with somebody, let's say at a restaurant. Right? So he locates things on two axes, on a horizontal and a vertical axis, and he says that the actual experience of eating food is on a vertical axis. So when you eat something, he talks about it's like a haptic pleasure, it's like happening in the moment. It's the sense of taste, right? And that is a different sense than our vision. But that that is happening in the moment, right? 

And it's really, we're internalizing the thing, and so it's about the body and this thing or really subject. Object and subject are very connected in that process and it's happening in that instance. So on the horizontal axis which represents time, it's happening as sort of like a point in time. Whereas our visual sense is very much more about a longer period of time that has to do with the future and the past. And so that these are two really opposite things and so he takes the little more of a negative spin on this idea of our obsession with photographing our food because he says that it's affecting that vertical experience of...

KAYTE YOUNG: That moment.

YARA CLÜVER: That moment. Because now it's about actually locating the food in terms of... kind of what will have been, I think is how he describes it. It's sort of like we want to locate this somewhere at some point, and somebody needs to witness this. Another thing he talks about, it's like we do this because it's sort of for a witness, but the person with us is actually not enough of a witness. It's really some kind of witness that could be us, could be somebody else, it may never even be looked at - this photograph. That is altering the idea that the meal is really about, as he calls it, conviviality. Right? It's really about that sort of that sharing, and that you, if I'm with you, you're not enough of a witness. I really need to make this photograph for some other witness, which is sort of on this horizontal axis. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah and it's almost dismissive of the that person that you're with in the present. 

YARA CLÜVER: Yeah, they're not enough, yeah, yeah. And it's really more focused on, sort of me, in this moment, it's sort of more of a narcissistic thing. Right? Because it's like, it's about me and somebody needing to witness me, as opposed to… I mean sharing this moment with you. 

So (I) decided to end the class. Our final... instead of 14 students, one after the other presenting their projects, by the time you get to the 14th I feel sorry for that person because everybody's probably pretty tired. You know? So instead of I've decided I'm... because my mother is Brazilian, I was born in Brazil. So I have this in my own family this tradition of Brazilian cooking. So I've invited all of my students actually to come to my home for a Feijoada which is the traditional Brazilian dish. It's a black bean stew. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Why did you think it would be a good idea to have students over? 

YARA CLÜVER: We've created a community in the class and it's kind of a way of celebrating, I think, that community and doing something... actually being on the vertical axis of the pleasure of eating as opposed to theories and history and the horizontal axis of time. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So you're not planning on presenting your dish in a...

YARA CLÜVER: In a way that they can photograph? Yeah. I'm sure because that's so much part of the experience, I'm sure that's going to happen too. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Hearing Yara talk about their end of semester meal last fall, makes me nostalgic for dinner parties and all the other beautiful ways we gather together around food. Yara Clüver is offering her food photography class this fall through the Collins Living Learning Center, but perhaps she'll need to come up another way to conclude the semester that's a bit more in line with the restrictions imposed by a global pandemic. You can find a link to the article she mentioned and see a few images from the class on our website, EarthEats.org

After a short break producer Josephine McRobbie speaks with Samantha Adei Kotey about food from Ghana with influences from the American south. Stay with us. 

(Earth Eats Production Support Music) 

Production support comes from: Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at GriffyCreek.studio. Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive home, auto, business and life coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at BillRescheInsurance.com. And Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing local residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods.Coop. 

By day Samantha Adei Kotey is a contracts lawyer but in her downtime she develops southern spins on the Ghanaian foods she grew up with. Producer Josephine McRobbie recently joined Samantha in her kitchen in Durham North Carolina. Here's Samantha singing the praises of her hometown. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: So Houston is my favorite city. I love Houston. And I think it is because of the diversity within the city. So, we're Ghanaian, my neighbors next to me were Persian, across the street were Syrians, next to them was Japanese people, and then right next to us on the left side were Honduran people. I took for granted that everybody did not grow up like this, I thought it was just like normal until I went to college. But growing up in Houston I think kind of helped fuel my love of food. 

(Transition Music) 

My name is Samantha Adei Kotey, I am first generation American-Ghanaian. My parents were Ghanaian immigrants, both of them are from Ghana and they immigrated here in the 80's. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Growing up Samantha had amble time in Ghana with her grandparents but her formative years were spent in Houston. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: I remember every Friday my mom picked me up from school and we would go to Fiesta which is this amazing grocery store in Houston that a lot of immigrants go to cause there's like a lot of international merchandise. And so we would go there on Fridays and she like taught me how to pick ripe tomatoes and fruit and we would get the stuff that she needed to cook for the week. And then Saturday morning we would wake up and we would cook basically all day. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Her favorite Ghanaian dishes are the simple ones. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: I like Red-Red which is fried plantain. It's generally fried... traditionally I should say now that people are more health conscious, it's fried in like regular oil. But it is traditionally in palm oil so that's why the red. And then beans are accompanied with it like black eyed peas, like stewed down with salted fish which we call koobi, and like onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, like all stewed in palm oil and so the red-red. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Samantha attended Spelman college in Atlanta. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: I made it a point, like I was always cooking because I am super picky, and I hated the food that they had on campus. And so when I finally moved out... I think was my junior year, I was cooking like all of the time. And also I was a broke college student, like I didn't have a car the first two years and I couldn't really I think afford to like try the diversity of food but I definitely ate a bunch of southern food when I was there and I loved it. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: She moved to Durham North Carolina in 2008 to attend law school. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: I would cook a lot, invite people over, and law school can be a very kind of isolating experience because you're studying so much and so I think that the way for me to kind of keep and foster community was through food. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: She then spent a few years living in D.C. practicing law but also growing interested in cooking as more than a hobby. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: I lived with like a family friend who I call a cousin, and she's Ghanaian. And her mother was living with her at the time, and her mother was like born and raised in Ghana. She (Samantha's cousin) was born in Houston just like me. And so her mom was always cooking. 

And so I lived with them and her mom was a really, really, really good cook and I realize like "Wow, I really, really miss Ghanaian food." 

And it was then somehow my brain made the connection that like... hey, Ghanaian food or southern food rather I should say, has a lot of Ghanaian influence - West African influence, but specifically I could see like Ghanaian influence and so there's an overlap here. And if there's a way that I can kind of like fuse these two cuisines together and make people more open to trying African food because they can see like, "Hey, it's pretty similar to stuff that I eat, maybe just like seasoned and prepared a little bit differently", then that's what I'll do. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Samantha moved back to Durham in 2014 and works in contract law. She's also started Kornbread and Kontomire, a fusion cuisine company offering cooking classes and event catering. She was bolstered by the encouragement of the family who run a local Kenyan and pan-African restaurant called The Palace International. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: They are big proponents of highlighting African culture and kind of like bridging the gap between African American culture, Caribbean culture, like the diaspora at large in Africa. And so they kind of pushed me like, "Hey, your food is really good." Like, "Let's do some events. Let's do some pop-ups, or you know, make a dessert for The Palace." 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: In 2018 Samantha presented a five-course dinner at The Palace that highlighted Ghanaian cuisine. She made the ubiquitous Ghana salad that has salad greens and cucumber, but also includes ingredients that were common during British colonization in west Africa. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: Like the dressing is Heinz salad cream - which is very British, baked beans - Heinz baked beans not just like Bush's baked beans, or whatever like American baked beans people generally eat. And boiled eggs, and some people do salmon, some people do tuna, or but sardines. But if you go to a party in Ghana, you're gonna have that salad, like it's there. 

And so there is like a street food in Ghana called kosua ne meko, which is basically egg which is kosua, and meko is pepper. And so to kind of fuse the two together...

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: We're in Samantha's kitchen where she's preparing her take on this dish. It traditionally consists of a boiled egg cut in half with the meko pepper sauce added to the middle. It becomes a kind of tiny sandwich, easy to eat on the go. In Samantha's southern play on the dish, the egg is fried, topped with meko pepper sauce and served on your choice of biscuit. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: So I like cream biscuits. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Okay.

SAMANTHA KOTEY: Yeah. So biscuits that are super simple to make, it's just like two ingredients. I like add salt, and sugar, and like butter, and stuff. But you know generally it's just self-fried in flour and heavy cream. And so you don't have to worry about like the butter layers, will the butter melt, you know? 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: She tops this batch of biscuits with the butter honey and nutmeg glaze. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: And the nutmeg is because Ghanaians love to put nutmeg in everything. It is not grown in Ghana; however, we just love nutmeg. It goes in lots of things savory and sweet alike. So that's the biscuit situation. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Samantha chops up a mix of shallots and garlic as well as a special ingredient. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: And then I have these little peppers, it's called kpakpo shito, and you can only find it in Ghana. And then I added one habanero, we'll see if I use that. And then tomatoes, and then tomatoes and onion just to kind of garnish on top. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Habanero or scotch bonnet peppers are good substitution if you don't have access to peppers from Ghana. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: So this thing is an asanka and so it's kind of like a gigantic mortar and pestle. And so we kind of just like grind all the ingredients together into like a paste. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Samantha recommends starting with the spicy ingredients and then using salt and tomato to tone down the heat to taste. 

(Sound of banging as ingredients are ground in the asanka)

SAMANTHA KOTEY: So you start out with the onion and pepper first just because those are like harder than garlic to grind up, and the tomatoes are soft so... it's not (inaudible). It's just like a rocking back and forth motion.

(Sound of grinding and banging continues) 

So at this point it's still a little chunky but we're getting close. I'm gonna do a little bit more grinding and then I'm gonna add some salt, and then we'll add the tomatoes in at the end. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: She adds about a teaspoon of kosher salt and continues to grind. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: And they're just like regular roma tomatoes, doesn't really matter what kind you use. I just go for whatever is ripest. Just same grinding back and forth motion. Right, so we're good there. Now I'm gonna fry an egg... that'll be quick. So the egg is gonna be super simple. It's just a fried egg. Okay? With salt and pepper, a little black pepper. And that’s it. 

 (Sound of egg popping as it cooks in oil) 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Put the egg, pepper and biscuit together and you have a simple southern comfort food dish with some subtle nonstick Ghanaian flavors. 

(Sound of pepper being ground into dish)

SAMANTHA KOTEY: I don't want people to just like come and eat Ghanaian food because it's not as mainstream yet as like Mexican food or Indian food. And so I think it's really important for people to have like cultural context and background. Like for example I think it depends on like the household but Saturday or Sunday, breakfast in Ghana people eat waakye which is like rice and beans. And it also has like spaghetti, and pepper, and stew, and an egg, like it's a whole thing. But the point is that it's very heavy. And it's heavy because... you know, traditionally Ghana or historically rather, Ghana was an agrarian society and based on agriculture. And so people are going out and working outside, and using their hands, and are probably not eating lunch, and so a lot of our food is really heavy. But it's not just because we want to eat like super heavy food but there was kind of like a utilitarian purpose behind it. And so I think that knowing that so that people kind of have a frame of reference for why we're eating a certain way or why something is prepared in a certain way is really powerful and feels important. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Samantha and a friend have started an African women's chef's collective with plans to put on regular cultural and culinary events. 

SAMANTHA KOTEY: The first event will be a Year of Return dinner, like a five course dinner. Which the Year of Return is an initiative that Ghana had this past year 2019, to commemorate 400 years, like 1619 since the first slaves left west Africa. And so we're having a Year of Return dinner that is Ghanaian based but there are dishes that are easily identifiable to southern dishes. And we will have like some story telling elements with that like alongside so that people can kind of... you know, like I mentioned, really connect with the whole experience. So, we both have committed to focusing on the collective because our mission is just to you know highlight African food and put it on the map and make it mainstream. 

KAYTE YOUNG: That was Samantha Adei Kotey talking with producer Josephine McRobbie. Find the recipe for Ghanaian Meko at EarthEats.org. 

(Earth Eats Theme Music) 

That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening. 

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RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Samantha Kotey, Yara Clüver, Aaron Booey and everyone in the food photography course at the Collins Living Learning Center. 

Production support comes from: Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services.  More at PersonalFinancialServices.net. Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at GriffyCreek.studio. And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive home, auto, business and life coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at BillRescheInsurance.com

Student photographing and arrangement of a tea can and candy with a teal cloth on a table.  A lighting device is in view.

Students in Yara Clüver's food photography course arrange food, props and lighting in the cafe of Collins Living Learning Center at Indiana University. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

This week on our show we listen back to a conversation with Yara Clüver about her food photography course at Indiana University. And we explore a Southern take on Ghanaian street food with Samantha Adei Kotey.

In the age of Instagram, taking pictures of meals has become rather commonplace. In her food photography course, professor Yara Clüver complicates the role of both food and photography throughout history and in our current everyday lives.

I stopped in during one of the studio sessions with her class last fall and later spoke with Yara Clüver in the studio.

People arranging food and photographing it in a small white tent, with others in background

Yara Clüver is the associate director at the Collins Living-Learning Center at Indiana University. She has a background in fine art photography and began developing her food photography course at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, in Italy.

One of the readings for the class, which Yara talks about in the interview, is by Charles Barstow, from the Magazine The New Gastronome published through the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, where Yara has taught. The piece is called Eating the Image: reflections on food photos and fantasy.

Update for Fall 2020: Yara Cluver is offering her food photography course this Fall through the Collins Living Learning Center in a hybrid model. The class will meet in person once per week for demonstrations and hands-on instruction, and they'll share student work and presentation in online meetings for the second class each week.

Stories On This Episode

A Southern Take on Ghanaian Street Food With Samantha Kotey

Samantha Kotey in a chef's jacket leaning on a butcher block counter top in a gleaming kitchen.

By day Samantha Adei Kotey is a contracts lawyer, but her free time is spent developing Southern takes on the foods her Ghanaian immigrant parents raised her to love when she was growing up in Houston, Texas.

Kornbread And Kontomire’s Recipe for Ghanaian Meko

Close up of crushed tomato sauce in black pan with wooden pestle and onion and pepper slices.

Samantha Kotey shares a recipe for a traditional Ghanaian pepper sauce recipe.

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