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Monday, February 18, 2008

What is Food Porn?

"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.

I obtained the photographer's permission to use every photo featured in this post. This became a bit of a labor after a while, so please forgive me for using some of my own photos. It is not that there aren't far better photographers than me out there. It is simply that I lacked the time to track them all down.
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 from www.nolanledarney.com.Heart of Palm Amuse Bouche by 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 gourmande transforms 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.


RaspberriesPapayaBeets

"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.



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17 comments:

Peter M said...

Skinny-Minnie,

That's a wonderful article and some great photos to drive home your points.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I loved this post! But hated that it's making me hungry.

I think for so many food bloggers, food engages our senses in so many ways that it becomes almost pornographic. I think of how I salivate over certain pictures and have to have it right away. I can get so obsessed that that's all I can think about. :P

Also, I really liked how you actually took the time to get permission to use each photo, credited it, and linked back. I wish more people observed such courtesies.

Kim said...

Wow! I either need to cook a meal or get laid, not sure which right now.

Laura said...

That was funny and interesting and just plain well done. Wow!

I am tagging you; the details are at
http://thespicedlife.blogspot.com/2008/02/ive-been-tagged.html

Kate / Kajal said...

Erin ...gosh u can write girl !!!
This was a really interesting read , and hehe your obsession with the tangerine is quite cute. I do things like that all the time , and have bruised elbows by the time i finish my photo shoot ! haha. Looking fwd to seeing you soon :)

Erin said...

Peter, I'm glad you liked the chosen photos. It became sort of a labor of love to chose among all the good options out there.

Wandering, thanks for your thoughtful comment about credit and permission. As an academic, I feel very strongly about people's intellectual property.

Kim, your comment was pithy as all get out. You had me laughing myself off my chair.

Laura, thanks for your great comments in your tag. My husband is gloating that he got a mention too. This is my second tag, so soon I will probably have to enter the game. Thanks for thinking of me.

Kate, my fellow Ghana food blogger, thanks for the compliment. If your elbows are bruised by the end, it certainly pays off in those beautiful finished photos!

chou said...

Here it is way past my bedtime and I find myself discussing your article with my mother, aunt and grandmother.

I am, in general, opposed to the use of words that I link with behaviors that have negative effects on society to describe food or food consumption. (see here for a discussion in paragraph seven of the moral implications of negative language used with food) Porn, for example, exemplifies to me impulsive addictive behavior that can eventually ruin real relationships--yet food obsession can lead to similar challenges when taken to extremes (e.g. anorexia) Your discussion certainly raises questions for all of us to consider. Thank you for the thoughtful comparison.

Erin said...

Chou-You raise some very interesting issues yourself. I agree that anything in extremes can have negative implications. I also found this article particularly thought provoking, for its view that food "porn" is pornographic not for its symbolic or artistic parallels, but because like sexual pornography, food porn is inaccessible. The author defines it as "prose and recipes so removed from real life that they cannot be used except as vicarious experience." That sort of detachment can also have negative impacts.

But as a sociologist as well, I am also forced to acknowledge the power of people to continually redefine the meaning of terms, particularly as terms move into different contexts. The article you reference discusses how "gourmand" became redefined after the Industrial revolution as something of praise, when before it had been something to be ashamed of.

I think societies all over the world face many social problems associated with food, including the paradox of starvation and obesity coexisting. Eating disorders.

I think a discussion about what role labels play would be interesting. Does calling something porn make it have more negative consequences? by the same token, would porn by any other name still hold all its detrimental effects? Does calling something food "porn" trivialize the real social problems associated with pornography? I think it is all open to debate.

Astra Libris said...

Erin, this is the most interesting article and post I've read in a while - insightful, informative, and well-researched! I'm so glad I discovered your blog!

chou said...

Erin, thank you for directing me to that article. I was fascinated by the trends discussed, particularly because I have inadvertently noticed them as a buzz in the background of life but never acknowledged their importance before.

I have jokingly remarked before that the only non-fiction I read are cookbooks, followed by a pause and then a "well, maybe they're fiction, too." In that sense "porn" acts as an accurate descriptor of the myriads of unattainable food beauties lining our collective book shelves.

My biggest complaint with the use of the word, though, stems from my conviction that commonplace use of the word does, indeed, lead to a "trivializ[ation of] the real social problems associated with pornography." Perhaps society will respond by redefining true porn. Probably not. Consider, for example, the moment when I overheard my youngest brother affectionately call a friend "whore." For him, the word had an entirely different meaning that it did to me. I do not know that any word has replaced whore, as western society no longer views sexual promiscuity with the same disdain it once did.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion of the food industry piggy-backing with the trend setting of food writing. My first trip to a grocery store after discussing marketing techniques was hellish--I felt attacked by the claims jumping out at me. "Eat me!" this box or jar cried, "I will make your wildest dreams come true! Weight loss, disease prevention, healthy snacking . . ." Mmm hmm.

Why Jack said...

Actually, the term "food porn" dates as far back as January 1998. The Center for Science in the Public Interest had a feature called "Right Stuff v. Food Porn" as part of its monthly newsletter. Go here to see the CSPI archive: http://cspinet.org/nah/1998index.html.

Nurit "1 family. friendly. food." said...

This is great. I was thinking of writing something about this topic (after playing with lenses) but you did such a wonderful job. I thinking linking would be enough :)

Mel xoxo said...

Hi Erin,

I recently started my own blog (http://www.breadandsniffit.com) and have heard food porn being thrown around a plenty, but after searching for the definition of food porn, I stumbled across your blog. I absolutely loved it, a great collection of photos and your funny outlook, meant that I am now well informed and thoroughly entertained. Bravo.

I think I may have to go home and partake in a little food porn myself, now that I know how.

xanax said...

I am not able to see this web site correctly on my telephone

Erin said...

xanax-Sorry it doesnt look right on your smart phone. I'll look into some reformatting options.

Anonymous said...

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FoodPorn said...

Hi Skinny,
Your pics are awesome. This is what we should call combining art and the taste.

We'd like to invite you to submit your food porn pics to our website http://www.foodporn.net

It's gonna rock the atmosphere ! :p

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