Delores Custer, 79, Dies; Gave Star Turns to Cornflakes and Noodles

Delores Custer, a food stylist who made stars out of hamburgers and cocktails, cereals and crackers that twinkled from magazine pages and television screens, died on Aug. 18 at her home in Portland, Ore. She was 79.

The cause was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said her daughter, Danielle Custer.

Ms. Custer was the Maxwell Perkins of food photography — able to shape the unwieldy, the drab and the formless into a crisp and dazzling best seller, as the renowned editor once did with the prose of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. She was patient, keen-eyed and dexterous. She would sift through boxes of cornflakes to find the ones with the most character, and through bags of Goldfish crackers to pluck those with the most “smile definition.”

She once removed all the hairs from a single raspberry to use as a garnish atop a goblet of white chocolate mousse. She knew how to arrange rice so that no two grains were parallel. Her sandwiches were architectural marvels. Her builds, to use the industry term of art, were aspirational.

In the parlance of food styling, the product is known as the hero. The job of a food stylist, as Ms. Custer, who taught the craft all over the world, told her students, was to make it behave.

An elementary school teacher turned cook, Ms. Custer worked for companies like Kraft Foods, General Mills, Campbell’s and Bacardi. When she started out in 1979, it was the dawn of the Reagan era, and the visual tropes of food advertising mirrored that of the culture: oversized, buttoned up, nothing out of place. Perfect food, in other words. In the decades since, culinary fashion has relaxed. Turkey skin can wrinkle; crumbs are welcome.

She styled for commercials, print ads and packages, like one for Lipton’s Cup-a-Soup, for which she made sure the noodles appeared bountiful by tucking their ends back into the soup with a pair of tweezers. She sliced a steak in the shape of Texas, decorated a meat loaf to look like Groucho Marx and transformed a waffle into Tweety Bird.

Finally, she wrote the book on the subject. “Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera,” published in 2010, is more than 400 pages long, a “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” for the profession. In it, she talked about the tools of the trade — the syringes, atomizers, tweezers, Elmer’s glue (to affix sesame seeds to hamburger buns), Wildroot hair oil (to substitute for milk in cereal shoots), fishing line, emery boards (for smoothing the rough edges of cookies) and mortician’s wax (to keep berries from rolling off a plate) that go along with the normal batterie de cuisine required on a food set.

Ms. Custer’s tool kit was famous, said Mariann Sauvion, a colleague and former assistant, and included a peculiar heating device made by another colleague from a porcelain ceiling socket and a Depression-era heating element that screwed into the socket (picture a glowing cone the size of a light bulb), all of it lashed to a long wooden board.

This device, which Ms. Custer used to joke was good for keeping art directors in check, was her solution to achieving the cheese pull — the money shot in a pizza commercial when a slice is lifted from a pie but is still connected to its mates by a stretchy, steaming curtain of cheese. (Ms. Custer, a nonsmoker, liked to use cigarette smoke for steam.) The cheese pull is extremely hard to pull off properly, Ms. Sauvion said: “It could take half a day to get it right.” Ms. Custer, ever precise, also rigged her spatulas with thumbtacks so the slice wouldn’t slide off.

She could sweat a glass like no one else, using a toothbrush to flick glycerin and water onto a glass to simulate condensation. To create a perfect droplet for close-ups, she might use a syringe.

Among the hundreds of items Ms. Custer kept in her kit was a walnut shell, perfectly cracked in half, which had nothing to do with her craft but reminded her of home. She called it her “sanity walnut.”

Delores Jean Borgaard was born on Nov. 11, 1941, in Junction City, Ore., one of three children. Her father, Herman, sold real estate; her mother, Anne (Evenson) Borgaard, was a homemaker. A walnut tree grew in their backyard, and it was a family tradition after Thanksgiving to harvest and shell the nuts and send them as Christmas gifts.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Oregon State University in 1963, after which she taught fifth and sixth graders near San Francisco and military children in Okinawa, where she worked as a teacher for the Department of Defense. In 1967, she married Arthur Custer, a composer who was dean of the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now the University of the Arts School of Music) and later composer in residence for the Rhode Island Council of the Arts, among other positions.

She took cooking classes in Okinawa but, she wrote, really learned to cook from watching “The French Chef,” Julia Child’s public television show. (Many years later, she helped Ms. Child and Rosie O’Donnell make crêpes suzette on Ms. O’Donnell’s talk show.) While studying for a master’s degree in food science and nutrition at New York University, she met her first food stylist and helped her make food for a commercial for aluminum foil.

Ms. Custer taught workshops around the world and, for more than a decade, at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N. Y. She retired after her book was published.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her sister, Sally Wright; her brother, Robert Borgaard; her stepchildren, Jan Congdon and Paula Held; four step-grandchildren; and one step-great-grandchild. Mr. Custer died in 1998.

“Some stylists have specialties, but Delores could do anything,” said Colin Cooke, a still life and food photographer who shot hundreds of ads with Ms. Custer. However, he said, she shone particularly in margarine. At one point they worked for a company that owned 11 different brands.

“She was the master of the pat,” Mr. Cooke said, “the queen of the dollop, the swirl and the curl.”

Margarine, he added, can be tricky.

“You need to be one with the margarine,” he said, “because if it’s a bit too cold it won’t swirl. If it’s too warm it will melt. It’s a sculptural job. Delores understood that. She knew how to make it drip or swirl just right. If it was a pat, she might bring a hot knife to it, and wait until she got a drip forming on a corner.”

Then, at the crucial moment, she would pull back and Mr. Cooke would step in and take the shot.

Mr. Cooke was not with Ms. Custer when she filmed a commercial in the Mexican rainforest for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! The story line involved the model Fabio, of bodice-ripper book-cover fame, swinging on a vine toward a lady friend offering up the aforementioned product, spread out in enticing swirls on a slice of bread. During the shoot, Ms. Custer blew out the set’s fuses with a hot plate, compromising 60 pounds of soon-to-melt margarine in the makeshift refrigerators.

With typical sang-froid and ingenuity, Ms. Custer wrangled the hero into shape. Fabio looked OK, too.

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