Suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theater by simply bringing a covered plate onto the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us when you can get a large audience together to watch a girl undress on the stage— a strip tease act?
To me, one of the more disturbing trends in food culture has been the adoption of the term “food porn” to refer to food photography which is particularly salacious. It term bothers me because, like pornography itself, food porn places appearance over substance and tries to satisfy with illusion rather than reality. As a result, both pornography and “food porn” are dangerous.
A full-blown critique of pornography is better left for another day and another forum, I think. But the key insight for me is that pornography deals in lust, not in love (or even in pleasure necessarily). It is the fulfilling of one of our most primal urges, but out of the context of the human culture that makes the fulfillment of that urge truly human and not simply animalistic: love, safety, commitment, etc. In short, if true human sexuality is best expressed through a loving relationship, pornography is fake.
Much professional food photography is fake too, literally. Perhaps the milk in a bowl is glue. Or perhaps the grill marks on a steak are drawn on. Or, my favorite: perhaps the little black flecks on the strawberries are really flecks of beard collected from the photographer’s razor (I’m not making this one up, folks). Even the food in Stanley Tucci’s film Big Night, a film which is all about how meaningful food can be, was fake. As Tucci has explained:
All the food was spat out by all of the actors. The audience walked out of the theater starving, and the actors walked away from the set sick.
Of course, most “food porn” today is not fake professional food photography but amateur photos of real food about to be eaten by real people. But like pornography, which is literally real but fake in a deeper sense, the concept of “food porn” encourages a distorted view of food and its role in our lives.
As in so many aspects of my cooking, my teacher on this subject has been the writing of the late Marcella Hazan, who wrote that it was taste, not appearance or artifice or novelty, that made cooking good.
All that really matters in food is its flavor. It matters not that it be novel, that it look picture-pretty, that it be made with unusual or costly or currently fashionable ingredients….Such incidentals may add circumstantial interest to the business of eating, but they add nothing to taste and signify nothing when taste is lacking.
Although I might quibble with the assertion that flavor is all that matters in food, Marcella’s point is a sound and important one, especially for our particular culture at this particular time. Because although food, especially beautiful or delicious looking food, has become prominent in our culture, we have no idea whether much of the food which attracts our attention is any good, because we never even taste it, as much of our attention on food is based not on actually eating, but on entertainment, whether through cooking shows or videos, cooking demonstration classes, cookbooks, or “food porn” — not on producing food or even eating food, but consuming it secondhand through visual images. Whenever I see a cooking show where a dish is tasted by the chef and he or she asserts that it tastes “amazing”, I always have to laugh. What are they going to say? That it’s underseasoned or that the flavors are poorly integrated? That it’s not cooked through or that the ingredients weren’t fresh or flavorful enough to start with?
Or think of what cookbooks look like today. How many are chock-full of recipes and wisdom in the manner of Julia’s Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, neither of which has a single photograph? Instead, cookbooks become almost like art objects, loaded with gorgeous photos and beautiful layout, but whether the writing is any good, or (God forbid) the recipes actually work or are delicious — that all seems beside the point. Some of us are even more likely to look through and read a cookbook for pleasure than to actually cook from it!
Likewise, although Julia Child more or less invented the cooking show, it was always very clear that she was not simply entertaining her audience, but teaching them how to cook so that they could do it themselves! How many of us ever cook a recipe we see Emeril or Bobby Flay cook on TV? The point of the Food Network is to entertain, not teach. It’s an amazingly ironic paradox that we say we don’t have time to cook, and yet we spend 30 minutes watching someone else cook while we could be doing it ourselves! Although there is more interest in food than ever before, there is less interest in cooking than ever before.
One reason for this strange state of affairs is that we don’t do it well. As much as we talk about not having time to cook, I think it is more accurate to recognize that the problem is not simply lack of time but just as much or even more the lack of skill and competence. Like pornography, which can make our own rather ordinary bodies seem paltry by comparison, so too can contrasting our own skill in the kitchen with that of celebrity chefs make us feel impotent. Perhaps we would make time to cook if we felt better about the results. After all, many working people in Italy and France still find time to produce delicious meals because they simply know how to do it with an economy of effort. And they value the result, not only delicious food but time spent at table with friends and family.
For most of our history, even when the quality of our cooking wasn’t great (and it never has been in America), at least we had a cultural sense of the social and personal value of eating over and above its self-centered pleasurable characteristics. For those who were raised with mom or dad tending the braising pot in the kitchen, who doesn’t attribute such memories with warmth and affection? Although some of my happiest and most formative experiences cooking were when I cooked for myself as a bachelor, there is no doubt that in its fullest expression, cooking is an act meant to result in sharing good food with others, family, friends and loved ones.
There is great cultural confusion about the place of food in our lives, even while there’s never been more interest in food and the quality of cooking has probably never been better. We’re more likely to lustily devour images of food than to cook for ourselves. We’re more likely to eat out than to eat at home (not counting convenience foods). And we’re more likely to focus on the shallow, self-centered pleasure of eating rather than its nourishing or social aspects. In certain high-end restaurants, we’re more likely to be concerned with plating than flavor, as Marcella warned us.
The result is a food culture which at first looks impressive, at times even beautiful, but like pornography it’s a beauty that is only skin-deep. And like pornography, it brings a whole host of evils with it. It brings obesity through the prevalence of processed and fast foods. It brings disempowerment through the loss of the ability to cook. It brings crassness through emphasizing our animalistic lusts, like on Facebook when someone asserts “I want that!” to a photo of something that looks delicious. And it brings narcissism, through the focus on self and pleasure. In general it brings shallowness through the emphasis on secondary things in place of primary things.
Real cooking, like real sex, is about nourishment, connection, and love. It is about self-sacrifice and giving, and sharing with those we love. Neither should be about the gratification of lust nor a self-centered shallow pleasure. Although the term and concept of “food porn” isn’t wholly or even mostly responsible for these cultural ills, it is part and parcel with them, and I won’t be using the term.
Justin Naylor, chef & proprietor, Old Tioga Farm