Day in the Life

Food writer Sandra Day's culinary adventures have taken her around the world.

Sandra Day's cookbook collection covers two walls in the office of her Doucet Road home. Loosely organized by subject, yellow Post-It notes mark sections for vegetables and meat and poultry. After more than 20 years as a food writer, stylist and cook, Day's bookshelves are filled with review copies sent from publishers, personal favorites in the international and ethnic section and books she helped write and edit. Most of her own projects involve Louisiana and Cajun cooking; she points out Paul Prudhomme's first cookbook, Authentic Cajun Cooking, for which she edited all the recipes. She also compiled a cookbook for Tabasco and NASCAR, and a book on Cajun cooking by Better Homes and Gardens.

A native of Bossier City, Day began her food career in the 1970s at Southern Living magazine as its first assistant food editor, fresh out of graduate school at LSU in home economics. Her persistence paid off in landing the job. "By the third interview, [Southern Living] told me they were looking for someone with more experience," she says. So she did some freelance writing for The Advocate until the editor there told her she shouldn't give up on the magazine.

"It was just the little bit of encouragement that I needed at a time that I could have just as easily gone another direction," she says. "It was Thanksgiving, almost Christmas time, and I clipped all the articles I had written for her and wrote a letter about what I had been doing to build up my experience. I went out and bought a Christmas card for the editor. It said Merry Christmas to someone nice to work for." A week later, she got the job.

After about four years at Southern Living, learning the ropes of food writing, photography and styling, Day interviewed with Better Homes and Gardens in Des Moines, Iowa, and was hired as senior food editor. But after another few years, she got the urge to move closer to home. The food editor position at The Times-Picayune opened up, and she was hired.

Day's minor in English and some journalism classes in graduate school helped her with the writing aspect, but her real interest lies in creativity with food. She started out in fashion merchandising at Louisiana Tech, and that background filtered into her food experiences. "I found out that I discovered food from a more creative point of view in that first food class," she says. Her aspirations to be a fashion designer never panned out, but she ended up in the realm of food fashion.

Last month, she styled all of the food for photographs in the Junior League of Lafayette's upcoming fall 2005 cookbook, and on a recent weekday, she was testing a sugar substitute in a chocolate chip cookie recipe for a local company.

Food styling is an art in itself. "You do everything you can to preserve the color and the texture of the food," she says. "You might not fully cook certain parts of the dish." Another secret to picture-perfect food is having a stand-in and "hero" dish for photographs. For the Junior League cookbook, Day created the heros ' beautiful dishes rushed in for the actual photographs ' and members cooked the stand-ins, dishes that sit for hours while the props and lighting are perfected.

"It's a complex subject in that every dish is different, and it really helps to have a knowledge of food and how food reacts to exposure to air and heat and time, how it holds up," she says. "You've got your different little tricks on different kinds of foods." An undercooked roast, for example, gleams after being brushed with olive oil, and a long toothpick positions shrimp and crabmeat just right in a dish of seafood dressing.

Her marriage to a Cajun brought her to Lafayette, and although she is now divorced, Day decided to keep Lafayette as her home base. She says she occasionally gets burned out testing and developing recipes at home, but luckily her job takes her all over the world. She's worked with two restaurants in Switzerland, training their staffs in Cajun cooking. And she recently returned from a food writer's conference in Tuscany and is planning a Cajun Connections culinary tour in France this summer.

During her travels, Day says her favorite thing to do is collect ingredients. She pulls truffle oil and olive oil from Italy out of her pantry. "I love taking some of these ingredients that I get and cooking up a nice meal with people who appreciate the quality of it," she says. As a child, Day and her sister often cooked for the family when her mother worked weeknights, but it felt like more of a chore at the time. Now, cooking is a form of expression.

"I think people discover what a creative outlet cooking can be," she says. "If you get so bogged down in it that you've got to feed a family of five every single night, you can still back out of that enough to see how expressive it can be. I really enjoy either going out or cooking in, just a really nice meal, with wonderful fresh ingredients. It can be so entertaining."