Jessica and Susan Partain have been making miniature, inedible food for nearly 20 years. It all started when they were kids and discovered polymer clay at the craft store. With so many colors to play with, they crafted teeny chocolate-chip cookies, burgers, apples, and more. (They admit to raising some pretty well-fed dolls.) Flash forward to now—the two have made a mini career of the childhood hobby. Not only does Jessica teach how-to courses at her local library in Charlottesville, Virginia, but the two have written The Polymer Clay Cookbook, due out in October.
Like other cookbooks, involving real food, this one is full of recipes that are broken down into simple, straightforward steps. We talked to Jessica about the inedible jewelry-making process.
How did you learn? We are both self-taught. Much later on, probably after ten years of playing with clay on our own, we discovered some craft books on how to make miniature food. I think for the most part, we had converged on similar design solutions independently, but we did pick up a few additional tricks from people like Sue Heaser.
Should people with pudgy hands (or bad vision) even attempt this? I think all people should try to make miniatures! Different people will have different challenges, but if you're interested, I think almost anyone could get into the hobby. If your close vision isn't great, it is probably helpful to have a magnifying glass, for example.
What foods should beginners start with? Rounded fruits like apples and oranges, simple pastries like cupcakes, or even more intricate pieces like pizza are great. Not only do they build familiarity with the clay, but they are also fun. The other great thing about food is that it's inherently imperfect, so a slightly lopsided apple will actually look more realistic than a perfectly symmetrical one.
Is there a greater inedible jewelry community out there? Do you all commune at conventions? I think a lot of people converged on the concept of food jewelry simultaneously, and with the advent of the web have been able to see each others' work. There are some amazing tiny food jewelry artists out there [Ed. note: Like my friend Marisa Reisel of The Whole Slice Jewelry!], but we have not met any of them personally, since we seem to be scattered across the country.
I'm not sure it would be fair to call it an inedible jewelry "community," since that would imply that we somehow were the founders or spearheads—which I don't think any of us are! It's always nice to run across someone else creating miniature food, especially when they have a really different artistic approach than ours.
What was the most challenging food to craft? We've had lots of different kinds of challenges, some of which relate to limitations of the medium (polymer clay). For me, it was how to make a martini, which related directly to how to manipulate the clay in a new way. For Susan, it was probably how to make the tin of sardines, just from a technical/construction standpoint.
How did you overcome this? Our working process is very direct. We don't do sketches of our work (unless we're waiting in line somewhere) beforehand. So, when we're making a new kind of food, we start from the clay itself. We often go through "drafts" of foods until we're happy with how they look. We're always tweaking them. At this point, for example, I think we're on version six of the chocolate chip cookies. I wasn't happy with them until I had them laying out on my table, and a friend (unprompted) squealed "chocolate chip cookies!"
What kind of tools do you use? Razor blades and sharp needle tools, which is why my classes are for ages 12 and up.
Did you need a recipe tester for the cookbook? We tested many of the recipes in the book in classes with real students. A lot of the techniques we take for granted (having worked in our own way for nearly 20 years) are not necessarily self-evident, and working with real students helped us really clarify and refine our instructions. It was also enormously gratifying to see that a huge range of working styles could all result in very similar final pieces, which confirmed that our recipes are quite robust! We were sure to thank all those many students profusely in the acknowledgments.
Does your stomach ever growl during the production process? We actually did include a few real-food recipes in the book, since the mini ones tend to make people quite hungry. Those real recipes are ones that have been extensively tested (particularly the chocolate cupcakes) on our friends and family.