“‘Food porn’ describes an obsession with all things food, and the term has saturated the vocabulary of Americans like golden butter on thick toast.”
What do pillowy gnocchi and Playboy have in common? Well, both are linked by a rather taboo term: porn. Or, as it applies specifically to delicious, starch-filled gnocchi, “food porn.” A strange phenomenon surrounding the aesthetics of eating has developed over the past couple of years, and it is every bit as perplexing as its freshly-coined term sounds. The current meaning of “food porn,” as defined in The Atlantic, includes all photos of food shared through social media (Romm, 2015). After researching examples of dishes palatable enough to be compared with pornography, I have come up with a slightly more narrow definition. Food porn is essentially an image of food that is idealized, unattainable, and generally unhealthy. Think gooey cheese melting off a big slice of pizza, Chicago-style of course, and you’ve got the right idea. The phrase “food porn” describes an obsession with all things food, and the term has saturated the vocabulary of Americans like golden butter on thick toast. The visual sense as targeted by pornography is mixed in with the sense of taste. Food porn is a “distinctly human supernormal stimulus” featuring “carefully arranged, carefully filtered images that show a meal—home-cooked or restaurant-served—at its most appealing” (Romm, 2015). Most often a depiction of junk food, delectable in taste but subpar in nutrient density, food porn has struck the United States in the most unprecedented way. Technology, including but not limited to mechanization and industrialization, and a shift in agricultural values have made this food phenomenon possible.
In the mid-twentieth century, biologist Nikolass Tinbergen discovered an oddity in animal behavior. After testing across species, the animals in his experiments showed preference toward flashier and brighter versions of their natural environments— a phenomenon he deemed “supernormal stimulus” (Romm, 2015). This explains a bit about how food porn, an unrealistic idea constructed from a seemingly ideal image, can have such an impact on our psyche. Take the internet, TV, or video games as examples of supernormal stimuli. Environments not found in nature are still able to engage and undeniably attract us. It’s no surprise that our evolutionary instincts have taken over our attraction to certain foods as well; we are hard-wired respond to foods high in fat, sugar, and salt (Barrett, 2010, 79-81). But how did this become supernormal deception when it comes to food imaging? Well, a big player in the development of food porn lies in technology. We can barely keep up with the stimulus that the ever-expanding world of technology is giving us; just imagine how addictive the combination of food porn images displayed on easily accessible and incredibly stimulating iPhone screens must be.
After World War II, the popular outlook on food changed from one of culinary focus to one tinged with cultural focus. A growing economy allowed for food to be more than just fuel for our bodies but for our minds as well. It is no coincidence that the focus on mechanization and the increased economic prosperity observed after the war coincide with this shift in American values. Food abundance was the luxury Americans indulged in, and the ultimate desire for Americans after the war was to “walk into any store in the land and buy anything you want” (Crum, 2012). A shift toward using technology to achieve abundance is repeatedly seen in many of the agricultural revolutions of the nineteenth century. From the Green Revolution to the Genetic Revolution, traditional agrarianism is forsaken in the race to fight poverty with abundance (Shiva, 1989, 244). And for the most part, we have been triumphant winners in the race. From creating high yield variety crops to being able to feed populations with greater economic efficiency, innovation has certainly had its day. Every advance made in science was deemed an intrinsic improvement, and Mother Nature went from being a “living, nurturing mother to inert, dead, and manipulatable matter . . . [that was] “eminently suited to the exploitation imperative of growing capitalism” (Berry, 1997,162). A mentality of exploitation steadily supported the idea that food can be a commodity, and I believe food porn is the response to this development in United States history. People are subconsciously craving the perfect food, and it can be found in images only. The abundance created in the nineteenth century and enduring through the present is not a wholesome abundance; consumers are neglecting the high fat and salt content in the foods that they covet. Food, be it as a commodity, a source of status, or even as a source of aesthetic beauty, has found an increasing presence in popular culture (Garber, 2015). It has moved further and further away from its humble yet powerful status as sustenance toward food stardom.
This shift from food as necessity to food as a commodity is why food has become something to obsess over, for reasons outside of its biological purpose. The very fact that agricultural production has been able to yield enough output that some of it ends up rotting in the trash means that we are able to use food for economic profit. We can produce enough food to feed the world, and this has become a bargaining tool for companies as well countries. Once agricultural production shifts to this value system, increased output and efficiency become the primary goals. Everything else—nutrition, taste, and ethics—can be neglected in this pursuit for profit (Shiva, 1989, 245). The very technology that makes feeding a large population possible becomes the downfall for that population’s well-being in ways unmeasured by clear-cut scientific and economic scales. Who could possibly run a test on how nutrition affects our happiness? It’s a really hard argument to make when pitted against the language of efficiency that companies produce and seek. However, food porn is one manifestation of the invisible ways that food affects our psyche.
Food is also portrayed to be larger than life in part because we are so removed from the production side of it. We do not weed the fields that give up their abundance with our own hands. We do not know what it takes to make up the decadent plates we see on social media. Food porn is a term directed at the final product of a long chain of processes and by directing it at such, we are almost given permission to ignore the agricultural process aspect of what we eat. As cultural critic, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry says, “ . . . We do not flinch to hear men and women referred to as ‘units’ as if they were as uniform and interchangeable as machine parts.” (Berry, Pollan, 2009, 24) Food porn does not refer to the inhumane way that animals are being treated in the slaughterhouse but only to how delectable the slab of burger looks on our plate. We look at food “not as part of a system, cultural or nutritional or economic or otherwise, but as standalone—and often sui generis—aesthetic objects” (Garber, 2015). This idea is not a novelty of our times but once again points back to the philosophies during of the Scientific Revolution. René Descartes’s reductionist theory allows us to view complex systems as individual parts. We are able to break down multi-faceted and interrelated processes and view their constituent elements separately. We are trying to view the parts while ignoring the fact the whole is present within each part (Kirschenman, 2005, 5). But only with the recent technologies to combine agriculture with chemical and genetic engineering have we been able to put this “parts”-instead-of-“whole” viewpoint into practice. As Wendell Berry suggests in his 1977 essay Body and the Earth,
If the body is healthy then it is whole. But how can it be whole and yet be dependent, as it obviously is, upon other bodies and upon the earth, upon all the rest of Creation in fact? It becomes clear that the health or wholeness of a body is a vast subject, and that to preserve calls for a vast enterprise. (99)
Food porn’s imagistic properties are not only deceitful but potentially damaging.
Technology has helped not only advance the production side of agriculture but the marketing side as well. Even just thirty years ago, an obsession with food would have been hard to spread to the extent that it has today. What constitutes ‘good food’ probably would have deviated from region to region even within a single country. Without the same corporate tomato going into thousands of fast food burgers each day (Barndt, 2008), it would be hard to have a standard of comparison for our pornographic food tendencies. Food has maintained its status as a means of social power through the way it’s Instagrammed and blogged about (Amirtha, 2014). It has become a way to covet, a way to obsess. Gastronomy, a focus on the aesthetic appeals of food, has given way to gastro-anomie. A general dissatisfaction with the nutrition and taste of what we ingest, gastro-anomie affects not only our physical health but the negative consequences of eating mass-produced packaged food can affect our mental health as well (Gillian, 2013). We are craving what we lack in food in the form of imagery. As activist Deborah Barndt states, “. . . the illusion of the market is revealed through the constant spray of water that keeps vegetables ‘appearing’ fresh as well as the air-conditioned stores that sever the produce ‘from the heat of labor and the heat of the (real) marketplace’” ( 2002, 120). And we return to that glossy picture of food again and again because it’s all that we know.
The very phrase “food porn” suggests something distant and voyeuristic. The distance we associate with the image is a mirror for the distance that we now associate with food. It’s a twisted metaphor, especially when that distance is related to something we have to put into our bodies every day. This obsession with the imagery of delicious food is a reaction to the ways technology and agricultural practices in the United States have reduced food to something that is less satisfying, less gastronomical, than it once was. The very technology that has allowed for an abundance of our foodstuff now devalues the wholesomeness of the sustenance we receive. However, it’s not all bad news. The unique power humans have over other animals is the ability to recognize and override our reactions to supernormal stimuli (Barrett, 2010, p. 176). Armed with this new sense of awareness, maybe we can even turn our apathy toward agriculture into empathy so that we might garner a greater control over our food systems. So while it might be fun to Instagram our Starbucks Frappuccinos, we must remember the danger of forgetting the complex chain of production and marketing that works to create the indulgence we experience in an image.
Amirtha, Tina. 2014. “The Technology Behind the Food Porn Boom.” Fast Company. Web. http://www.fastcompany.com/3031717/the-technology-behind-food-porn-boom
Barndt, Deborah. 2008. Tangled Routes. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
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Berry, Wendell, and Pollan, Michael. 2009. “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems.” Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
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Crum, Madeleine. 2012. ““How World War II Changed The Way Americans Ate.” Huffington Post. Web. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wwii-food-america_n_1398132.html
Garber, Megan. 2015. “Food: The Newest Celebrity,” The Atlantic. Web. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/04/food-the-newest-celebrity/390585/
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Shiva, Vandana. 1989. The Violence Of The Green Revolution. Dehra Dun: Research Foundation for Science and Ecology.