The Ins & Outs of Food Porn

Prolonged exposure to idealized visuals creates an appetite that can never be sated

By David Szanto*

Do you look at food porn? Come on. Tell the truth. If you’re an adult North American who has glanced at a magazine rack or flipped through the TV lineup lately, then the answer if probably yes. Don’t worry. Almost everyone does it.

Food porn, like sexual pornography, is often discussed with a wink and a giggle, but it also has a much more serious impact on our health and well-being. The expression first snuck between our lips in the mid-1980s and, since then, has picked up steam in a variety of gastronomic scenarios.

Loosely defined, it is the presentation of food—either through pictures or words—that creates an idealized and heightened sense of reality. Importantly, it is also experienced vicariously, at a distance from first-hand edibles. We consume food porn only with our eyes (and ears, in the case of video), but never as real, juicy, tangible food.

So what’s the big deal, you may ask. Unlike sexual porn, there aren’t any actors being exploited, preyed on by profit-seeking sleaze mongers and subject to hazardous working conditions. Right? In a way, this is true: tumescent wedges of strawberry-sauced cheesecake and glisteningly hunky beef kabobs are inanimate; we don’t need to worry about their emotions or bodily safety.

In the production and consumption of food porn, our collective culture is being exploited. The real food of a family dinner— even of a fancy meal out—is an expression of who we are. And eating together constructs our social identity. Presenting images of food that are enhanced with studio lighting, food stylists’ glazing, and more than a little Photoshopping tends to demean the humbler fare of ever-day dinners.

But it’s only entertainment! We can separate media-tized food from day-to-day food... can’t we? As scholars have pointed out, repeated exposure to idealized visual representations creates an appetite for the image, rather than the real thing.

Just like watching the edited acrobatics of orange-hued porn stars, gazing at a pair of plump, seared scallops on a bed of dewy micro-greens can create artificially elevated expectations. Encounters back in the less-than-perfect domestic scene can seem pale by comparison. And one thing that food porn never reveals is the mess that making it always leaves behind. Who’s going to clean that up?

I freely admit that I occasionally dabble with food porn. I even try to reproduce those shallow-depth-of-focus photos with the perfectly placed chive and drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. But the production quality is amateur, just like a lot of the stuff that ends up online these days.

And in the end, I always prefer a homey bowlful of well-seasoned rice and beans, or a cozy polenta puttanesca. So my advice to you, fellow dabbler: Put down the remote control, pick up a wooden spoon, and enjoy—alone... with a napkin close at hand.

* David Szanto is a PhD student in Gastronomy at Concordia University and a professor of Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.

Spring 2013, Vol 5 N°2

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