Because journalism: How to make a food hat



Our newspaper just started working with a new food writer for the first time in nearly 20 years. I’ve always been a big fan of good food writing, and it’s one of the first sections I flip to when reading a newspaper, especially an alternative newsweekly which tend to produce more cheeky, and therefore more interesting content (from my perspective). I was trying to think of a way to really celebrate the fact that we were going to work with someone I had been wanting to work with for a long time, as well as to communicate that we would be taking a new, more playful approach to our food section.

When I first considered having Hayley Thomas (the food writer in question) pose on the cover of the paper wearing a giant hat concocted entirely from real food, I didn’t actually think it would fly. We’d just finished our Best Of issue and everyone was tired and a giant food hat smacked of the kind of DIY project that could go terribly awry leaving us without any cover at all, and possibly without a food writer if it went badly enough.

It turns out I’d underestimated everyone’s patience. Everyone, from the photographer to the art director who designs and approves all covers to Hayley herself agreed to go along with the plan. Thus began a two-week brainstorming session, followed by an hour or two of hat construction and another hour of shooting the cover.

If you happen to be in the same pickle I was in–needing to make a food hat on account of the fact that you’re a crazy person, but not sure how to go about it, here is a brief account.

You are going to need:

Anywhere from 2-4 styrofoam wreaths, depending on the size of the headdress you’re trying to make. I used Screen shot 2014-06-05 at 1.15.37 PMtwo because we were working with heavy materials and I worried if it would be neither structurally sound nor wearable if it were any bigger. You can buy these pretty much anywhere, including Amazon, but I bought mine from Beverly’s. I think they run $4-12. It’s important (and embarrassing) to fit the wreath onto your head while shopping to make sure the size will work. It should fit comfortably, but tightly onto your head and all the wreaths should be the same size. Also, the wider the brim, the more space you have to work with.

One styrofoam half-ball, which should be hollow and will function as a cap at the top of the styrofoam FA_ba8hhuwreaths, so you’ll want to make sure the ball is wide enough to fit comfortably on top of the styrofoam wreath.

A hot glue gun and a handful of glue sticks.

Wooden skewers. If you’re not sure what size to get, I’d go for the longer skewers Screen shot 2014-06-05 at 1.21.25 PMbecause it’s easier to chop them down than it is to try to make them longer, which is impossible unless your magic wand is in working order, which mine is not.

Scissors. But that’s a given. When do you not need scissors?

Food. Because we were just using this for a photo shoot and because I’m kind of a stickler about “cheating,” we used real food and put a lot of thought and time into the shopping list. I wanted to go shopping a week before the photo shoot and do a practice run with the hat but that would have been too wasteful, so I was forced to go shopping the night before the shoot and keep everything in the fridge to keep it nice and fresh before the shoot. My shopping list included lettuce, broccoli, radishes, an apple, brightly colored peppers, donuts, cheese, plastic wineglass, wine, cilantro, crab legs, a chicken drumstick, an egg (which would later be fried), grapes, sushi, and a baguette. The day of the photo shoot, the photographer ran out to buy a burger, fries, slice of pizza, and an ice cream cone. All of this stuff might sound expensive, but when you’re purchasing small quantities of everything it’s not so bad and I think we walked away having spent about $50. The only thing you should buy a lot of is lettuce, which makes a great base cover for your hat; I recommend opting for something with less crisp leaves and more color variation such as arugula. And honestly, there were a ton of other fruit and vegetables with interesting textures and rich colors, all of which would make a great addition to your food hat.

Glue the styrofoam wreaths on top of one another using the hot glue gun. Try to stack them as evenly as possible. Give them time to dry. Then glue the styrofoam half ball on top of the existing wreath. Structurally, this is a very important maneuver so be liberal with the glue and give it plenty of time to dry. Having said that, I didn’t have any problem with the foam parts of the hat trying to fall apart, so use a lot of glue but don’t panic.

Depending on the purpose of your food hat, it’s probably wise to delay piecing it together until an hour or so before you need it. I kept the food in the fridge and, though I didn’t utilize this tip, I believe there are tricks you can use to prevent produce from wilting or turning brown–all of which are probably just a simple web search away.

Start by covering the hat in a base layer of lettuce, and make sure you include the styrofoam at the bottom of the base, which will probably be visible but is easy to overlook. Cut the skewers into smaller pieces (about half the size of your finger is good) and skewer the lettuce into the styrofoam. Beware that the crisper portions of the lettuce are likely to snap, so aim for softer, leafier parts. Also, consider the way the lettuce will drape over the hat as you go along. Lettuce can be quite attractive, even if it tastes disgusting, and don’t lose sight of the play on texture as you work.

(I should also note that we only made the front two-thirds of the hat, reasoning that the back would not be visible for a photo and the weight would be crushing if we filled in the back as heavily as the front.)

From here, it’s just a question of what you have and how much weight you think your neck can maintain. I found that the grapes draped gorgeously over the hat, but you want to make sure you have a bunch with a strong stem, because you’re going to poke the skewers beneath the stem to support the grapes. I wound up thinning the bunch a little where it wouldn’t be visible to minimize the weight. Radishes offer sharp bursts of color, but I recommend placing them after the larger elements have a home on the hat because they can be angled into smaller spaces and at interesting angles.

I tried to balance the hat by placing the larger items–the drumstick, pizza, donut, and burger–strategically around the hat. Of these, the drumstick was the most difficult to skewer, but I managed with three small skewers arranged in a triangle pattern through the drumstick. Everything else was surprisingly simple, with the exception of the crab leg which I could not poke a skewer through and wound up dangling the crab legs from the skewer.

Now, by the time you’re finished, there are going to be little pieces of wood peeking out all over the hat. There’s no way to avoid this unless you eschew skewers altogether in favor of glue. But trying to glue cold, wet produce to styrofoam was pretty much impossible. However, you can snip the edges of the skewers with a pair of scissors so long as you’re careful.

I also recommend being cautious when you first mount the hat on someone’s head, as it can be difficult to balance, and having someone nearby to catch the hat if it starts to tip will help the model’s confidence, if nothing else.

If you’re concerned about the wastefulness of the food hat, I can honestly state that some (though not all, particularly the lettuce leaves which had become rather slimy by the end) of the food was plucked right off the hat by ravenous coworkers. This included the fried chicken, pizza, burger, and donut. So, happy wearing, and happy eating!




  1. I love that this is a post on making a hat with food. It does look hard to make. If a bit falls off you can eat it. Practical. 🙂

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