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OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center
OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center

The Unsung Army of Women Who Fed America and Its Allies During World War II

OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center
OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center

At the height of World War II, the words "bread is ammunition as vital as bullets” were stamped on pamphlets, posters, and other public service announcements across the American heartland. President Franklin D. Roosevelt echoed the sentiment in a 1943 national address: “food from our country's farms is helping the United Nations to win this war ... food ships from this country are the life line of the forces that fight for freedom.” America’s farm families, he explained, “made that victory possible.”

Roosevelt wasn’t being glib. The United States was facing a severe food shortage. With millions of men overseas, agricultural productivity had plummeted. By 1943, the farm population had dropped by 6 million from its high in 1933. Americans were rationing meat, wheat, sugar, and fats, while officials placed price controls on groceries in hopes of keeping food on the plates of its citizens and soldiers overseas.

America was busy feeding other countries, too. Britain leaned heavily on food imports from the United States and Canada, since German submarines regularly torpedoed cargo ships bound for the UK. In 1941, the Nazis developed a now-often-forgotten policy called the “Hunger Plan,” a blueprint to starve 20 million Slavs (it killed approximately 4 million Soviet citizens). That same year, the United States authorized the Lend-Lease Act, which would deliver 4.4 million tons of food to the Soviet Union alone.

All over the U.S. and UK, homegrown propaganda implored people to save and grow food:

Plant more sugar beets: Sugar is energy—let’s give 'em plenty
Food is a weapon. Don’t waste it!
Better pot-luck with Churchill today than Humble Pie under Hitler tomorrow
Dig for Plenty. Grow food in your garden or get an allotment
Grow more food: Dig for victory

Behind this “call to farms” is the story of millions of women—from farming wives to single urbanites—who dropped everything to plow fields, plant crops, cultivate gardens, rake muck, milk cows, slaughter animals, and drive tractors. They were members of an army all their own: the Woman’s Land Army.

Recruitment poster from WWI. Image credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Stories about women and the war effort typically revolve around Rosie the Riveter and the 6 million women who swooped onto factory floors to help build tanks, planes, and munitions. But their rural sister, the Woman’s Land Army, was equally vital.

These unsung “farmerettes” first grabbed their shovels during World War I, after a coalition of women’s groups—suffragettes, gardening clubs, the YWCA, the seven sisters colleges—responded to a heightened demand for food during the Great War. Inspired by a similar movement in Britain, approximately 20,000 urban, mostly college-educated women with little to no agricultural experience joined farms. These women didn’t just till the land American soldiers were defending. They also secured rights for themselves that had long eluded female workers, including eight-hour work days, overtime pay, and compensation insurance. The victories came in part because women finally had an upper hand during negotiations: Employers were desperate for a guaranteed supply of farm workers.

Two decades later, women’s groups such as the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association—and even Eleanor Roosevelt—called for a farmerette revival. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, these calls intensified: A 1942 Farm Journal article told women and children already living on farms to prepare “to train small town and city women for summer, seasonal and vacation jobs on the poultry, truck and fruits farms of the country.” An April 27, 1942 story in Time read, "If the U.S. [is] to feed the world, it must have a Land Army."

But the idea of reviving the Woman's Land Army initially met some resistance. In a story for Prologue magazine (a delightful quarterly magazine produced by the National Archives), historians Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith discuss the lengths to which the federal government went to ease World War II’s farmhand shortage without involving women. The government imported 230,000 workers from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Canada. It moved approximately 26,000 Japanese Americans—and 265,000 POWs—from internment camps to farms. It also would later convince 2.5 million teenagers to work as Victory Farm Volunteers.

Farmers themselves also often weren't interested in female help. Government surveys and magazine articles showed that most farmers were afraid to let inexperienced women handle heavy equipment. "If I have to have a woman helping me in the field, I want my wife, not some green city girl," one farmer in Jones County, Iowa told Wallaces' Farmer and Iowa Homestead. Farmers in Ohio were reluctant to talk about the idea, afraid that their neighbors would "ridicule them for employing women." One farmer in Clark County, Iowa simply didn't trust cityfolk: "Leave her in town. She'd not be worth a whoop in the field, and if you put her in the kitchen, we'd starve to death."

Across the pond, the UK had no problem employing women. Not only did the British implement a women’s farming program, they even started a “Women’s Timber Corps.” Working in nomadic squads, approximately 6000 women surveyed, cut, and processed lumber across Scotland, England, and Wales [PDF]. These Paulette Bunyans provided lumber for telegraph poles, British mining, and even the Normandy beach landings.

As the war wore on, more women insisted on helping in the United States. “There is an army of us, healthy, intelligent, some college graduates, some young wives with husbands overseas,” wrote a Vermont woman named Charlotte Goodwin in a 1942 letter to The New York Times [PDF]. “We can drive tractors. We can milk cows. We want to join up quickly in the farm production army. We are waiting to go. But we will not wait long, because there is too much to be done, and we will find farms for ourselves.”

And they did. The University of Maryland started teaching courses on gardening, poultry, and cow-milking. The University of Connecticut taught animal husbandry. Hunter College students, “bent on out-producing Hitler,” created a “Volunteer Land Army.” Meanwhile, the Volunteer Land Corps was established to send young cityfolk to farms.

U.S. Dept of Agriculture via Flickr // Public Domain

Finally, in April 1943, the federal government caved. It announced that it would fund The Woman’s Land Army through the Emergency Farm Labor Program, or Public Law 45, which earmarked approximately $26 million to keep America's farms growing. Information booths popped up in department stores, and recruitment posters were splashed across small towns and big cities:

“WAR TAKES FOOD—FOOD for our fighting men. FOOD for our fighting allies. FOOD for workers at home. … ENROLL NOW in the WOMAN’S LAND ARMY.”

Women were generally offered between 25 and 66 cents an hour for their labor (a range that could extend to over double minimum wage). Recruiters, however, mostly crossed their fingers that patriotic duty would outweigh financial interests.

It did. In 1945, Florence Hall, the National Director of the Woman's Land Army, noted in an issue of Independent Woman that women of all stripes had joined the group: “Accountants, actresses, artists, bank clerks and tellers, beauticians, entertainers, buyers, nurses, dietitians, designers, editors, electrical crane operators, ferry command pilots, government employees … musicians, masseuses, models, stenographers ... Policewomen, research chemists, translators … and women from many other vocations.”

By the summer of 1943, about 250,000 women had participated in the Woman’s Land Army. They picked and harrowed potatoes, pitched hay, and fed livestock. Observing the WLA’s success, Dr. Milburn Wilson of the USDA claimed that “the major burden of harvesting the increase [in crops] will fall squarely on the shoulders of the women of the country and teenage boys and girls.”

He was right. The next year, 774,000 more “nonfarm” women were working the fields.

OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center

It took time for some farmers to warm up to the help, writes historian Stephanie Carpenter in her book On the Farm Front. Some farmers believed training people with no agricultural experience wasn’t worth the hassle. Others didn’t trust the work ethic or values of city women. But those suspicions slowly faded. According to Spencer C. Tucker’s encyclopedia on World War II, “Most midwestern and southern farmers who protested the WLA in 1943 would ultimately use women as farm laborers by the end of the war.”

Nothing washes away old prejudices like exposure. Across the country, reluctant farmers came away with ringing endorsements. The manager of a hybrid seed corn company in Nebraska claimed, "The women did the best job any crew has ever done for me." An unidentified farmer in Huron, Ohio agreed: They women "couldn't be beat." One WLA supervisor, based in South Carolina, said, “Some of the best farms are now being operated by women workers.”

By war’s end, approximately 1.5 million to 3 million [PDF] American women had joined the Women’s Land Army. Tens of thousands more women living in Australia, Canada, and Britain had joined the cause on their home turf as well.

“Why were we forgotten so easily after we were no longer needed?” recalled one member of Britain's 80,000-strong Women’s Land Army. “We were proud to wear our uniform and serve our country. Those of us who are left are still proud to have belonged to the Women’s Land Army, and we will never forget.”

The same can be said the efforts in the United States. As one Midwestern farmer commented, "The biggest factor to their success was their patriotic attitude." It wasn't money they were after: They simply "came to help."

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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man-shaped tea infuser
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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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Cost Plus World Market

This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
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Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
iStock

Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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