I’ve been a longtime fan of Beth Kirby. For a bit there, I couldn’t figure out exactly what this woman did… for it seemed she did absolutely… everything? Why yes, yes she does. Every image I found myself pining for over this here interweb… she seemed to have some part in. Her photographs hold close the natural raw moment that is fleeting for many. Her eye is one to covet…. the kind of eye many wish to attain after years of training. I was able to sit for a chat with Beth, and hack out all aspects of what gets her going, how she came to be who she is, what exactly she does (or I should say doesn’t do)… and who she would choose to share a meal with. Her mysticism doesn’t stop at her beautiful photographs, this woman has an allure that makes you want to know more… more… more, please.
Beth shares with us a very special cookie recipe below… “wintery balsam fir thumbprint cookies filled with a chocolate orange ganache.”
I’ve been following your work for quite sometime. I’ll just say this… I obsess over every photo on your site. Can you tell us all what it is exactly that you do… and how did you get started?
I do a lot of things. I’m not sure what you’d call that. Dilettante? Jack of all trades? I’d certainly prefer renaissance woman! In short, I’m a photographer, stylist, writer, cook, and recipe developer. At any given point in time I’m working on any one of those things, or a few (or all) of them at once. As to how I got started, that can either be a long story or a short story. I’m going to go with the short version here: I spent a decade doused in cheap booze and rock & roll. I accomplished a different sort of education during that time of my life, but I can’t say I did much of anything professionally. Two and a half years ago, I gave up the drink and threw myself into the things I’m passionate about. I haven’t stopped or looked back since; it’s been the most serene, satisfying time of my entire life. And that’s how I got started.
What is the greatest challenge with food styling?
The unfortunate reality that some of the most delicious foods are thoroughly unappetizing, monochromatic messes. Food can be temperamental; even the most delicious looking dish can start to wilt, dry up, and generally fade in appearance in a short period of time. The advice I always give aspiring food stylists is to select, style, and brainstorm their props and composition before ever cooking the food, perhaps the day before. That and don’t be afraid of mess! Lived in food looks appetizing—crumbs, drips, and bites taken out of things are all great.
What I love and admire most in your photography is the use of pure natural light ALWAYS…. Its gives it such a tangible aesthetic. What is your favorite part of shooting food in this manner?
The depth and mood are what I love most about natural light. Shooting with natural, un-bounced light seems to instantly imbue a photograph with more than just the physical content; it creates mood & narrative. You wouldn’t think a photograph of a scone could make you feel something, but the right light seems to ignite the imagination and emotions. Not to mention shooting in natural light means I don’t have to do much in the way of trying to manipulate it. I just let it be. The truth is, I’m kind of a messy, chaotic person, so it’s really in my best interest to embrace what is instead of attempting to have some elaborate setup. It just so happens to work out that it’s my favorite style as well. I think reality is exceptionally beautiful just the way it is, shadows and shafts of light and all; I don’t see much need to “improve” it.
Were you always passionate about cooking? How do recipes evolve for you?
I’ve always had a tendency to cook, even when I was a child. But I think I was passionate about eating before I was ever passionate about cooking. Cooking is something I took an active interest in around the age of 18 while living in New Orleans, and my recipes have always been motivated by that inborn hunger, by my cravings. At this point in my life, recipes evolve so organically it’s really hard to describe the process. Basically I have, at any given time, about a million recipe ideas bouncing around in my head. Those ideas are usually inspired by a handful of things: what ingredients are in season & available locally, what I’m craving, my southern culinary heritage, and how I can make it my own. Then I take those factors into the kitchen, and that’s where the recipe really evolves. As I taste, it comes together. It’s highly intuitive.
Tell me about your childhood… what was encouraged in your home?
My childhood was southern & conservative; the Protestant work ethic & spirituality was encouraged. It took in its way. I was a very quiet, shy, and well-behaved child with a wildly active imagination. I think I could probably tell you more about my make believe life as a child than I could about reality. I was in uniforms from kindergarten to my senior year of high school, and I have lots of memories from church. In spite of all that, while there was definitely pressure to conform, I ultimately felt like my parents passionately encouraged my creativity, eccentricities and all.
If you were to make a meal for any 4 people, dead or alive, who would they be and what would you make?
My answer is a little obscure but pretty telling of my nerd learnings & non-work interests. I think I’d go with Dr. Carl Jung (deceased psychoanalyst who did a lot of work with archetypes & the collective unconscious), Aleister Crowley (infamous, brilliant occultist), Dr. Amit Goswami (a theoretical quantum physicist), and Patrick Lowe (my best friend in the world). I can’t imagine a formula for a wilder conversation, and besides, I might just come out of that dinner party with a holistic, cogent world view heretofore unarticulated! Or maybe not. I’d at least hope for a seance. As to what I’d make, it would be simple. I’d bake crusty, sour bread to serve with roasted bone marrow with big flecks of himalayan salt. Dinner would be a warm, simple pot of saffron risotto enriched with my favorite local cheese, Dancing Fern from Sequatchie Cove. I’d top it with citrusy wilted collards & poached eggs. Dessert would be a lavender & dark chocolate meringue pie, a take on an old family recipe. Because it gets people to tell you secrets, and I want to know their secrets.
Where would you choose to serve this meal? What would the décor resemble?
My home. I’d set a table in front of the fireplace, and the vibe would be simple, rustic, and earthy—rambling greenery & handmade pottery. Maybe even a little mystic, with some of my crystal collection making its way into the place settings & candles positively everywhere.
Favorite music to work alongside?
Currently I’ve been delving into a lot of old Appalachian ballads as a means to strengthen the thread that runs from me to the people who inhabited this land generations before me, to my heritage & ancestors. I feel like if you’re in the business of both recreating & preserving the cuisine and poetry of a region, the music is an essential aspect to plug into. Music has this way of feeding us language, thought, and emotion on a different wavelength, one that allows us to connect with metaphor & abstract concepts in an organic way—it’s a great way to get to know ghosts. And nothing beats baking biscuits to the tune of Dark Holler Blues by Clarence Ashley.
Your greatest dream? To live without anxiety traveling the world & focusing my energy on learning and honing my spiritual craft alongside my vocation of cook, writer, & camera wielder.
If you weren’t cooking/photographing/styling and being an all-around talented creator… what could you see yourself doing?
Maybe researching the disappearing & near extinct hidden hollows of the south. Definitely being a quantum mystic/syncretic witch full time. Not joking.
If you were a tree…. What kind would you be? Why?
A willow tree. A very emotional tree, it’s associated with both elemental water & the moon (I’m a Cancerian), psychic power, spirits, intuition, death & rebirth (a theme in my life), and flexibility. It’s the tree most in tune with my personal metaphysical make up & spiritual path. I always played beneath them as a child; they’re still magical to me.
Your personal style?
The only consistent thing in my wardrobe is a penchant for wide brim hats; I’m an avid collector. Other than that, I’m a moody dresser who lacks any defined personal style. I still play dress up. But as a general rule this is what I gravitate towards at the moment: mudcloth, clogs, high waists, overalls, cropped sweaters, stripes, button ups, denim, & work boots… all with the odd bit of Edwardian lace, Stevie Nicks, & the 70’s thrown in.
Greatest style muse?
I don’t really have one, but I’d say Diane Keaton in Annie Hall is a pretty big inspiration and has been for a long time. Jane Birkin is a perennial favorite as well as Patti Smith & the aforementioned Stevie Nicks.
You can start building your dream home tomorrow… which room would you design first?
Kitchen, obviously! As a matter of fact, we’re completely renovating the kitchen come January with the design team The Jersey Ice Cream Co.! Beyond excited. It involves an ivory Lacanche range with brass trim (the Sully), honed marble, and a farmhouse sink. I’m basically beside myself.
Where would this house be?
I should say Tennessee, but the truth is it would be in Ireland. I feel at peace there.
What materials would you use?
Old stone and reclaimed wood, plaster and shiplap, honed white marble and brass & copper. I could go on.
Your greatest online source for inspiration?
Blogs like Rebekka Seale, Nothing But Delicious, Little Upside Down Cake, Farmette, Dash and Bella, Manger, Hungry Ghost, Happy Yolks, The Vanilla Bean Blog, Always With Butter, Luisa Brimble, and For the Love of the South. Aaaand Pinterest, of course.
Your feelings about Pinterest?
Addictive. Inspiring. Incredibly useful, powerful tool. On the downside, it has a tendency to quickly oversaturate a style/idea, accelerating the rate at which it “jumps the shark” (i.e. in Portlandia as opposed to Happy Day’s terms “is over”).
Alright… now for these incredible cookies I can taste through these photos… let’s do this.
For Balsam Fir Butter:
4 sticks unsalted butter
1/2-3/4 cup clean balsam fir (or other edible conifer needles), lightly chopped to release flavor
1 stick (1/2 cup, 116 grams) balsam fir butter, at room temp
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp buttermilk
1 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup (125 g) flour
4 oz good 70% dark chocolate, chopped or in chip form
1/4 cup heavy cream
pinch of salt to taste (I love salty chocolate!)
1/2 tsp of organic orange flavor (can be found in the baking section)
To Make Butter:
1. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium low heat, get very hot but remove from heat before it starts to brown.
2. Remove from heat and stir in pine needles.
3. Cover and steep for 3-overnight. I do overnight, but feel free to taste your butter and infuse to the strength you’d like. I recommend making it stronger as the flavor will mellow when you bake with it. After steeping, re-melt if needed and strain through cheesecloth set over a fine mesh strainer. Store in the fridge in an air tight container. Feel free to double this if you want a good bit of extra on hand!
To Make cookies:
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer whip butter, sugar, salt, and buttermilk with the whisk attachment until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down bowl half way through.
2. Add extracts and beat to combine. Scrape down bowl and switch to the paddle attachment.
3. Add flour and stir on low to just thoroughly combine.
4. Turn dough out on to plastic wrap, form into a disk, wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. Can be chilled in the freezer for about 30-45 minutes to expedite the process.
5. Heat oven to 350°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment. Using a teaspoon sized scoop roll dough into little balls and place on sheet pan about 2 inches apart. Using a the lightly floured end of a wooden spoon make approximately 1/2″ indentations into the cookies, re-flouring between cookies. Chill briefly, 15-20 minutes, before proceeding.
6. Bake cookies for 8 minutes, remove from oven & use your finger to press the indentations back in to make them more pronounced as they will have risen during baking. Return to oven and continue baking for 3-5 minutes.
7. Allow cookies to cool on sheet tray about 5 minutes, and then remove them to a rack to let them cool completely. Can be stored in an airtight container for up to 24 hours to be filled at a later time at this point.
Make Ganache & Fill
1. Place a heatproof bowl over a pot of barely simmering water and whisk cream and chocolate together until chocolate is completely melted and the two are combined. Be careful not to let it get too hot as this will cause your ganache to break and become grainy.
2. Remove bowl from heat and whisk in salt and orange flavor.
3. Chill, whisking ever so often, for about 30-45 minutes to get it to a pipe-able consistency.
4. Using a a piping bag or a ziplock with a hole cut in the corner, pipe ganache into the center of each cookie. Put in the fridge for about 30 minutes to allow ganache to fully set…and then they’re ready to serve!
Be sure to check out Beth’s blog, Local Milk.