Your perspective on the words is a purists' one, and everything you say about perspective depending purely on distance is correct and consistent within itself. Yes, to the extent that you have resolution, you can shoot with any length of lens (if you shoot in the right direction) and crop to get the same image. But that's not how we photograph, practically, is it ? Generally - certainly with food - we have a specific subject we want to portray. A news photographer will depend daily on cropping from a wide image. Food doesn't move, though. and while there's certainly advantage in shooting somewhat larger than you need, I believe you can get pretty close to the image you want, in the frame you shoot.
A portrait lens lets you back off from the subject so that the subject can feel more relaxed - partly because it lets you see what you're shooting properly in the viewfinder despite being that far away, doesn't it ?
I sympathise with what you say about "a common misconception about perspective and focal length", but even my venerable textbook The Joy of Photography refers to the different perspective that different lenses give. Actually this is a fun conversation and it's been strangely satisfying to be driven to dig the old tome out again.
Coming back to the topic - in the end, I think you're right that perspective 'distortion' is not the problem with Holly's picture. (I do think that filling the frame more with the food and plate, would make it easier to compose a good image in the first place, and to review it on the spot, on the in-camera display).
Looking again more closely, it seems the angle of the light, the shape of the plate, the shape of the food, and the light's single direction conspire to make the plate feel like it's bleeding off to the bottom left.
As far as I can like the picture, if we're determined to keep the plate, I like it rotated - 2 degrees clockwise, here. A bit too much ? Also lightened two steps and sharpened, as others did, and with a little more yellow:
Edited by Blether, 11 September 2009 - 12:35 AM.