Joy Howard grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, though she’s spent even more time in New England — first on a pretty, tree-lined street in Brookline, and now deep in the woods of Western Massachusetts. Her love of food was greatly inspired by her mother, Sandy, and her Aunt Lucy, the latter of whom made the very best sweet potato casserole ever known to grace a dinner table (sans marshmallows, if you must ask). Joy got her start in food professionally as an editor and test kitchen manager, and she’s spent the past five years as a freelancer wearing many culinary hats. She writes a regular column for EatingWell magazine and is the author of two cookbooks; her work has also appeared in Parents, Edible Pioneer Valley, and numerous other books, magazines, videos, and advertisements.Joy’s talents as a food stylist can be seen in the November/December issue of Yankee, in two big features: our holiday recipe special “The New New England Thanksgiving” and “The 2020 Yankee Food Awards.” She recently took a break from her busy schedule to answer some of our questions about her life behind the scenes.Tell us a bit about how you got into working with food for a living.
My mother has always been incredibly passionate about cooking and entertaining, and she definitely inspired my interest in both. But I never imagined I would be doing what I do now until I started working at a magazine. I didn’t even start cooking seriously or know what a food stylist was until my late 20s. Through my magazine work, and a bunch of completely unplanned but incredibly fortunate opportunities, I found my way to cooking professionally and food styling — two things I really love.
When someone asks you what a food stylist does, how do you explain it?
Jokingly, I describe myself as a food MacGyver. My job is as much about making things look pretty on camera as it is about making them look like they haven’t been sitting forever, which happens often on a photo shoot. Something like a steak, which has the tendency to look old quickly, or a bowl of ice cream that will melt, takes that skill set to the extreme. I’m always thinking about bringing the most luscious parts of a dish to the forefront while staying true to the organic quality of food. My personal style is all about making food look perfectly imperfect, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
What’s the most unusual food styling job you’ve done?
The job itself wasn’t that unusual, but I once had to perform surgery on a pair of sprinkled doughnuts. I’d been told to buy them from a specific bakery and just to get two, but once I got to the set, the client was disappointed with their look. As a result, I had to transfer the glaze and sprinkles on one to the other to make it look more like what the client was envisioning — mind you, the topping on both doughnuts was already set. It worked and looked great in the end, but it was a very intense 10 or 15 minutes!
Pulling off a big holiday meal, from turkey to dessert, is a daunting challenge for many cooks. What was it like to style an entire Thanksgiving feast?
I’ve done other photo shoots with large table spreads, but this was the first Thanksgiving-themed story I’ve taken the lead on. When you’re creating a big scene, there are tricks you can do to keep the pressure off of having to have everything ready at once and take advantage of the natural flow of things out of the kitchen. It’s definitely more challenging but also involves a bigger sense of accomplishment than some other shoots.
What was your favorite recipe from Yankee’s Thanksgiving shoot and why?
I’m going to cheat and pick two: Molasses-Brined Spatchcocked Turkey with Cider Glaze, and Pumpkin-Fluff Pie. We usually don’t brine the turkey at my house, but this recipe proved that it’s 100 percent worthwhile. I’ll be doing it this year! And the pie was really delicious and reminded me a bit of cheesecake. I never turn down cheesecake.
Do you have any tips to share about hosting a holiday meal?
I don’t have a ton of them, but I’m big on traditions. I usually have Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, and my mom is always insistent on formally setting the table, which I love. We also make a small collection of must-have dishes every year — which I think helps build up the excitement around the meal. I think my best advice for any big meal is don’t sweat it! By and large, people are just happy to have someone cook for them, and timing everything perfectly or making a meal look photo-ready are both nice but certainly not necessary. I think the best meals are the ones where I prioritize spending time with my friends and family outside the kitchen rather than focusing on the food.
As someone who grew up in the Midwest, you must have encountered a whole new set of regional ingredients and recipes when you came to the Northeast. Do you have any New England foods or dishes that you particularly love to eat or make?
I love seafood, so I’m a huge fan of a good lobster roll. I’m definitely team mayo! Cider doughnuts were a revelation to me, and I will happily eat one anytime I have the opportunity. And while ice cream isn’t strictly a New England thing per se, the ice cream culture here is incredible. I have a sweet tooth. Can you tell?
Looking ahead to the new year, what are you most excited about? Any big projects planned or goals to tackle?
A cookbook that I worked on for Disney call Disney Eats came out on October 6, so I will be busy promoting that this fall. And since quarantine I’ve been obsessed with learning to shoot photos professionally — more for myself than for any work-related reason. It’s been a lot of fun and a great creative outlet. In general, I’m just trying to be more creative both on my own and with my kids. It centers me — something I think we all need right now!
To see more of Joy Howard’s work, visit her website or look for her on Instagram @littlefoodwonders.