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What is Food Porn?

This post was originally published in The Skinny Gourmet blog.

Profiteroles” is used with permission from Rick Poon.

If the casserole is missionary style, food porn takes its devotees into the foodie kama sutra.

It glistens. It drips. It uses props. It is both lusty and intimate. For those who partake, it is an obsession. But just what is “food porn” anyway? Here it is, not for the faint of heart. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about food porn but were afraid to ask. Or at least a few things of interest on the subject.

In the interest of fair warning, this article discusses everything from the pornographic gaze to the latent sensuality of food and the sexual symbolism of food presentation. If you have delicate sensibilities or offend easily I ask that you do not continue on.

Origins of the term

Suddenly it seems the expression “food porn” is everywhere. This phrase got vaulted into popular imagination with Frederick Kaufman’s article entitled: “Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network at the frontiers of pornography,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine in October 2005. A journalist and a former pornography industry insider examine how the food industry borrowed visual techniques from the pornography industry. The original article isn’t available for free online, but there is a good recounting in an interview with Kaufman.

Kaufman’s article talks mostly about how camera techniques and ways of looking, the “pornographic gaze,” have been incorporated into the visual presentation of food. He talks through how specific techniques of filming from the pornography industry–such as “swooping” over food–and traditions of presentation–such as repetition–have been adopted wholesale by Food TV. Although sometimes it seems to be an over-extended phrase, not everything is food porn. For a classic example of food porn in video, think of Giarda cooking. The close ups as the flame bursts from the burner, a zoom in on her eagerly licking melted chocolate from her finger-tip. When the final food is presented the camera swoops in like Fabio to a fainting maiden. The camera trails lovingly across the food, tracing the curves and confines, lingering. This is a far cry from the quirky (but endearing) camera-work that characterizes Alton Brown’s show.

So sometime after I began writing this food blog, I noticed quick references to food porn everywhere, it seemed, but for all those casual references, there were few places where the idea got a good look. So I decided to take up the idea myself. I started looking at food photography, both self professed “food porn” and all the rest. What started as a simple project I intended to finish in a week morphed into something of a spiraling magnum opus. I identified photos that I thought embodied food porn and then slowly, inductively, drew out the elements that seemed central to that idea. Conversely, I would get an idea in my head of just the kind of photo I wanted to illustrate an idea and then hunt endlessly to find the image. What follow are my own observations based on looking at hundreds of photographs. I hope some of you find it interesting or insightful.

Deconstructing the Idea of Food Porn

On the internet, when we talk of food porn we are mostly talking about still photographs, but the concept also extends to video (as on the Food Network) and even “real” life presentation of food in restaurants. I am going to talk mostly about photographs, however, because I’m a food blogger, and because Kaufmann’s original article does such a great job with the video genre.

If we break down a photograph of food as a cultural object, we can better analyze how each of its constituent parts contributes to the final sensation of some photos being more or less “food porny.” When we observe a photograph of food, the food object itself may evoke somewhat pornographic imagery, as with dripping sauces or phallic foods. Furthermore, a particularly elaborate or exotic presentation of the food may also draw on pornographic sensibilities. Both of these would be just as present in food plated in front of you in a restaurant as they are in a photograph. However, the production of the photograph may involve aesthetic styles borrowed from the pornography industry. Finally, as an audience, we can observe the object in ways that are typical of pornography audiences. All of this takes place within an evolving social understanding of what is pornographic.

 

Cucumber by the Skinny Gourmet

THE FOOD OBJECT

The suggestive subject

Sometimes the subject of the photograph is implicitly sexual. Unlike architecture with its apparently endless stream of phallic symbols, food offers an equal array of feminine representations. For every eclair, sausage, or cucumber, we find passion fruit, curvaceous papaya, and enveloping wonton wrappers. A halved avocado greets us like the rotund belly of the madonna. Even those images that seem to delicately and distantly suggest masculine themes from pornography do so with greater variety.

 

Photos, from top left:
This photo is used with permission from Lara Ferroni. See original post.
“Wonton Regularity” is used with permission from Weimin
“Papaya” and “Avocado” by The Skinny Gourmet.

 

PRESENTATION OF THE FOOD

Stilettos, Crops, and Props

Many of us have come to realize that there is an element of pornography in the food itself, but the pornographic sense may be enhanced by the presentation, or “plating,” of the food. With food porn, the construction of the food object stands in for exotic positions. We encounter tuna tartare balancing delicately in a towering timbale. Succulent shrimp leans suggestively on a lounge of velvety grits. A complicated and colorful reduction sauce is drizzled around the scene like so many scented candles of an idealized romantic encounter.

This photo is used with permission fromwww.nolanledarney.com. Heart of Palm Amuse Boucheby the Skinny Gourmet. “fries and mayo” is used with permission from lezlieslenze.

For more examples of presentation, I like just about anything from or Bea at La Tartine Gourmande or Julie of the Food Architect.

Exotic and Familiar Foods as the “tart” or the girl next door

We may experience the food items pornographically not just because of their physical appearance, but because of their relation to us in our daily lives. Food pornography may employ familiar or exotic foods. In this drama, unconventional food items fill the role of hyper-sexual stars. We are tempted by the exotic, the unattainable. Is the dish made with fresh butter churned from the milk of a rare breed of mountain sheep found only in Peru? How delightful, how titilating. Or perhaps your flour-less chocolate tart is accompanied by a coulis made from an unusual tangy fruit that is grown in West Africa?

A seasonal, local Ghanaian fruit with a pungent and powerful taste with a slight hint of citrus. Photograph by the Skinny Gourmet.
This image is used with permission from eyewonder.

Still other times, food porn enacts our “girl next door” fantasy, taking a familiar object and casting it in a new and seductive light. Everyday apples are elevated. Like our proverbial girl next door, we gaze at these familiar foods and feel we are seeing them for the first time.

Consider, for example, how La tartine gourmandetransforms an apple into something lacy and a bit sultry. Or, at left, how apples are made into something glistening and a bit forbidden in this tempting tart.

 

ELEMENTS OF THE PORNOGRAPHIC GAZE

But other times there is nothing overtly sexual about the food itself. Rather, the sensuality of the photograph/food experience rests with the way that we, as the audience, interact with the object. Perhaps attracted by the food itself, or by skillful production of the photograph, we have a particular way of viewing the object that scholars often call a “gaze.” Even beyond sexually suggestive food objects and presentations, food pornography is defined by the relationship between the viewer and the object of affection.

Like pornography, food porn offers tantalization. Food porn is ever at our fingertips but we are condemned to look and covet without being able to taste. When done very well, this cultivates an obsession. I confess to an obsession with the food photographs of Lara Ferroni and through the writing of this post I developed another crush on the work of Lezlieslense. I catch myself going over to their sites just to browse page after page of food. It is hypnotic. It is addictive. Like the stereotypical sad sack glued to pornography at the internet café, I find I can’t help myself. As delightful as each photo is, it is never enough, and I always want more.

Those who photograph their food often belie their own obsession with looking at the food, producing photo after photo intricately detailing the food. I recently caught myself in the midst of an obsession with early morning light and a half peeled tangerine. For reasons I couldn’t quite explain at the time, I took more than twenty photos of this simple, unadorned, little fruit.


“Tangerine Obsession” by the Skinny Gourmet

Although there may be nothing sexually suggestive in the ordinary encounter with a tangerine, the more I looked at it, the more I gazed the more it appeared to me as, well,undressed. Half of the peel lay like so much discarded lingerie. The roundness of the fruit and the opening in the center began to seem embarrassingly feminine. The structure of the pith branched out across the skin in perfect imitation of branching nerves, ready to carry subtle sensation. Even the slightly exposed end of the fruit was rounded and cloven like a pert little derriere.

If I were to title this one, I would call it, ”A woman, upon waking semi-nude, at dawn” (and I would definitely wear a smart black turtle neck and maybe a beret to show I had a sense of humor about myself).

If there is a feminine equivalent of phallic–would that be vulvic?–the tangerine certainly conveyed that effect. Yet it appeared that way not only because of some native physical features of a tangerine. I imagine most of you have eaten tangerines before and never thought of them as particularly sexual. Rather, like a Rorschach test, my obsessive, intimate gaze began to impose symbolism and meaning onto the physical canvas of the tangerine.

 

PRODUCING THE PORNOGRAPHIC AESTHETIC

The elements of photographic production helps direct the way an audience experiences the food object. Unlike the presentation of food, which we can experience unfettered and three-dimensionally in front of us in a restaurant, photographic composition reminds us that someone else is shaping our experience of the food.

Framing

Photographers can encourage us to experience the food object differently first and foremost by their deft choice of what appears in the frame. Like any well-trained Catholic school girl, these never-seen gatekeepers to paradise taunt and tease as much with what they do not reveal as what they do. We cannot have all, so part of the dish is in shadow or cropped out of the plane of view.

Framing the food object may also involve consideration of what else is visible. A view of food, however intrinsically sensual, that also shows us an elegantly set table reminds us immediately of our social graces. A well placed fork or a napkin of homey checkered gingham reminds us of our manners like a polite slap on the wrist. It puts the food into a recognizable context that, more often than not, is distinctly not pornographic. The absence of social context invites the mind to wander.


“Wasabi Brisket” by the Skinny Gourmet

A Moroccan Inspired Artichoke Frittata used with permission from Lara Ferroni.

Orientation

Other times composition borrows from the pornographic aesthetic through the careful orientation of food. Orientation may cause us to view a familiar food from an unfamiliar way, making the familiar seem exotic and perhaps evoking the “girl next door” fantasy discussed above.

Other times a subtle twist of orientation can make all the difference, can evoke the same longing as the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt tempting the breeze.

Compare, for example, Ferroni’s masterful orientation of the steaming frittata (top), to the more basic orientation of my own photo (at bottom). Like hers, my food object is round (although mine is banana bread). And like hers, my food object has a slice taken out. But to be honest, that is where the similarity ends. Because her frittata has that special something that makes it just a bit “food porny.” The orientation is such that the food is experienced more like a physical presence. The slice is angled towards us to give us a glimpse, but also rotated slightly away. Moreover, the frittata tilts towards us, like it is cozying up for conversation over a cocktail.

There is nothing overtly sexual or suggestive about a frittata per se, but here we are attracted by the tempting display of its insides. Like Sharon Stone’s furtive but confident flash in Basic Instinct, the frittata slice is pulled away a little. It gives, but not too much. It flirts with us. It seduces us. It makes us really, really want an artichoke frittata.

Zoom

The way an image is produced can encourage the audience to view it with a longing or intimate gaze. One powerfully sensual element of the gaze is closeness to the subject. In our real lives, being unusually close conveys intimacy, a mutual bridging of boundaries, like the space between two people being delicately negotiated for a first kiss. Television and movies manipulate this experience constantly, first-year film students learn that a close-up makes audiences identify with the character. Zooming away conveys a sense of loss and emotional distance. The same can be done with food. When we are so close we experience the food more intimately.

Raspberries Papaya Beets
“Goosebumps” by the Skinny Gourmet. (yes, more tangerines. I told you it was an obsession). Raspberries, Papaya and Beets also by the Skinny Gourmet.

Fetish and Imperfection

When zoom is taken to extremes it helps us experience the physicality of the food object in a totally new way. Extreme zoom is the distance of untidy intimacy. It is the distance where freckles and moles become known, where embarrassing stray hairs cannot be hidden. Within this closeness, food too reveals itself to us, inconvenient blemishes and all. In the creation of that terrifyingly intimate space, we are invited to adore, even fetishize, lumps, bumps and every sort of imperfection. But the fetish for imperfection and blemish can also attract us even when the zoom is not a factor, as in the heirloom tomatoes and bananas shown here.

“heirloom tomato 19” is used with permission from Easement “ugly is beautiful” (bananas) by the Skinny Gourmet.

 

This photo used with permission from Lara Ferroni of Plates and Packs. See the original recipe.

Depth of Field

Skillful use of short depth of field and artful light directs our attention and, intimately, pornographically, asks us to focus on nothing else but the object of our affection.

Helpless, we fall in love with all the details. The blurred background reminds us that there is (or was) a world out there beyond this food, but the focus holds our gaze. Stay with me here, right here on this juicy blood orange salsa.

It is the classic movie scene where the lover tries to leave but the beloved brings him back with a touch on the cheek. There is nothing but this moment, right here, this food. Fall into it. Be delighted by the hint of a little browning on the pine nuts. The way the fresh green of the herbs plays off the warm orange tones. How the sculpted scalloped edges of the polenta play off the natural shapes of the salsa.