Food Porn

Savour - - FOOD PORN - Orig­i­nally pub­lished in: Gas­tro­nom­ica: The Jour­nal of Food and Cul­ture, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Win­ter 2010), writ­ten by Anne E. Mcbride

the very idea of food porn is con­tentious. Aca­demics pre­sum­ably like the term be­cause it at­tracts more read­ers than less sexy top­ics (pun in­tended), while the gen­eral pub­lic uses the term broadly to de­scribe mouth­wa­ter­ing im­ages in mag­a­zines, on tv, or on­line. A 1 cer­tain shock value can ac­count for its pop­u­lar­ity with both groups. But peo­ple who ac­tu­ally work with food gen­er­ally ig­nore the label and fo­cus in­stead on their jobs. Is the term food porn, then, sim­ply a cre­ation of com­men­ta­tors on the side­lines? Why does it have such con­tin­u­ing ap­peal? And what does it ac­tu­ally mean? Al­though he did not specif­i­cally use the term, Roland Barthes dis­cussed what is es­sen­tially food porn in his 1957 col­lec­tion, Mytholo­gies. Com­ment­ing on the food-re­lated con­tent in Elle mag­a­zine that of­fers fan­tasy to those who can­not af­ford to cook such meals, he writes: “[C]ook­ing ac­cord­ing to Elle is meant for the eye alone, since sight is a gen­teel sense.” The ac­tual words food porn first ap­peared in 1979,

2 when Michael Ja­cob­son, co­founder of the Cen­ter for Science in the Pub­lic In­ter­est, op­posed healthy and un­healthy foods—“Right Stuff” and “Food Porn”—in the Cen­ter’s news­let­ter, Nu­tri­tion Ac­tion Healthlet­ter.

3 Ja­cob­son later ex­plained that he “coined the term to con­note a food that was so sen­sa­tion­ally out of bounds of what a food should be that it de­served to be con­sid­ered porno­graphic.” It is not known whether he

4 knew of jour­nal­ist Alexan­der Cock­burn’s 1977 use of the term gas­tro­porn in the New York Re­view of Books: Now it can­not es­cape at­ten­tion that there are cu­ri­ous par­al­lels be­tween man­u­als on sex­ual tech­niques and man­u­als on the prepa­ra­tion of food; the same stu­dious em­pha­sis on leisurely tech­nique, the same apos­tro­phes to the ul­ti­mate, heav­enly de­lights. True gas­tro-porn height­ens the ex­cite­ment and also the sense of the unattain­able by prof­fer­ing col­ored pho­to­graphs of var­i­ous com­pleted recipes.

5 For some rea­son, the term food porn took off, while gas­tro-porn never did. To­day, food porn gen­er­ally evokes the unattain­able: cooks will never achieve the re­sults shown in cer­tain cook­books, mag­a­zines, or tele­vi­sion

shows, nor will they ever mas­ter the tech­niques. In fact, por­tray­als of food have been so trans­formed by food styling, light­ing, and the ac­tions of comely me­dia stars that food does seem in­creas­ingly out of reach to the aver­age cook or con­sumer. As with sex porn, we en­joy watch­ing

6 what we our­selves pre­sum­ably can­not do. Critic Richard Magee points to a per­for­ma­tive di­men­sion in food that also links it with sex: “Food, when re­moved from the kitchen, be­comes di­vorced from its nu­tri­tive or taste qual­i­ties and en­ters a realm where sur­face ap­pear­ance is all-im­por­tant. The in­ter­est here is in cre­at­ing a graphic sim­u­la­tion of real food that is be­yond any­thing that the home cook could pro­duce.” By in­volv­ing vis­ceral, es­sen­tial, and “fleshy”

7 ele­ments, this per­for­ma­tive as­pect in­vites ob­vi­ous and usu­ally facile com­par­isons with sex8—as do the many food-show hosts, usu­ally women, who lick their fin­gers or use sen­sual terms to de­scribe what they are do­ing. A sec­ond level of com­par­isons also ex­ists. Cock­burn writes about “culi­nary pas­toral­ism” vis-à-vis “gas­tro-porn,” while Magee pits Martha Ste­wart’s “food Pu­ri­tanism” against Nigella Law­son’s “food porn.”

9 It is dif­fi­cult to move be­yond such rhetor­i­cal play. But the tenth an­niver­sary edi­tion of Gas­tro­nom­ica of­fers an ap­pro­pri­ate oc­ca­sion to re­ex­am­ine the mean­ing of food porn. The fo­rum pre­sented here grew out of a meet­ing of Menus in the Me­dia, a work­ing group funded by New York Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Knowl­edge that stud­ies the cul­ture of cook­ing from both aca­demic and prac­ti­tioner per­spec­tives. Our orig­i­nal dis­cus­sion was led by Fred­er­ick Kauf­man and Alan Madi­son; here, other aca­demics and chefs con­trib­ute to the con­ver­sa­tion.

—Anne E. McBride

Anne E. McBride: Is there such a thing as food porn?

Will Gold­farb: No. It’s a mean­ing­less, ar­ti­fi­cial term. Porn is a re­place­ment for sex, while food is a con­sum­able item. Ex­cept for the fact that they’re both on tele­vi­sion I don’t see the two as re­lated. It’s all about de­liv­ery sys­tems. The Food Net­work makes food look pretty so that con­sumers will go out and buy a blender. But you don’t watch porn to buy the mat­tress on which the ac­tors are hav­ing sex. Sex is not con­sum­able in the same way. Where porn is a sub­sti­tute for the real thing, food tele­vi­sion is not a sub­sti­tute for food. Peo­ple com­plain that tv and mag­a­zines make food sexy to sell it, but where ex­actly is the porn in food tele­vi­sion? What is the act? Be­cause I don’t un­der­stand what the term means, for me it doesn’t ex­ist. Krishnendu Ray: I am skep­ti­cal, be­cause I find that food porn is used pri­mar­ily by writ­ers to con­demn cook­ing-re­lated en­ter­tain­ment on tele­vi­sion and in mag­a­zines. It is mostly used to at­tack beau­ti­ful food in the name of good food. What makes me dou­bly skep­ti­cal is the easy, un­in­ter­ro­gated con­sen­sus it has gen­er­ated among so many grad­u­ate stu­dents. It re­minds me of the old ex­ag­ger­ated cri­tique of mass cul­ture. Once you

10 call some­thing porno­graphic, you bring down moral op­pro­brium on it. You poi­son the topic and stop the dis­cus­sion from go­ing any fur­ther. But the is­sue is worth pur­su­ing. In­stead of food porn we could bor­row more pro­duc­tive and sub­tle cat­e­gories from stud­ies of vis­ual cul­ture.

11 Alan Madi­son: The use of food porn to de­scribe pro­fes­sion­ally pho­tographed food in mag­a­zines and on tv demon­strates a lack of un­der­stand­ing of what pornog­ra­phy is, how it is pro­duced, and for what pur­pose; it di­lutes the mean­ing and se­ri­ous­ness of the word pornog­ra­phy. In our so­ci­ety half-naked, air­brushed, pristinely pho­tographed mod­els ap­pear on bill­boards to sell ev­ery­thing from socks to suits—is this “fash­ion porn”? We use im­ages of fe­male soc­cer play­ers wear­ing only their sports bras, with looks of ec­stasy on their faces, and of male bas­ket­ball play­ers wear­ing short shorts to sell ev­ery­thing from sneak­ers to Vi­a­gra—is this “sports porn”? The use of sexy, highly styl­ized im­ages and pic­tures as ad­ver­tise­ments is the bread and but­ter of ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing. How do any of th­ese dif­fer from the highly styl­ized, cleanly lit im­ages of food tv or food ad­ver­tis­ing? If the “food porn” ad­vo­cates want to say that our so­ci­ety as a whole is porno­graphic, I would go along with that. But to sin­gle out food for this pe­jo­ra­tive is disin­gen­u­ous and hyp­o­crit­i­cal, since the use of such a charged word as porn is just in­tended to at­tract in­ter­est. Chris Cosentino: The idea of food as porn has been around since the days of the an­cient Ro­mans. There were huge feasts with vom­i­to­ria so din­ers could go back and gorge some more. It was about op­u­lence and deca­dence: oys­ters and bee pollen are great old ex­am­ples. When you look at things now, we’re not far from as­so­ci­at­ing eat­ing with the Seven Deadly Sins. Us­ing words such as luscious, unc­tu­ous, creamy, and deca­dent to de­scribe food brings to mind the so-called sins of glut­tony and lust. I think about food dif­fer­ently. For me it’s the im­me­di­acy of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the food it­self. There’s not all that much dif­fer­ence be­tween lust­ing over a per­son or over food. Fred­er­ick Kauf­man: When a cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive venue such as the New York Times ca­su­ally cat­e­go­rizes Julie and Ju­lia as “food porn,” we know there’s some­thing out there.

AEM: How do you define food porn?

FK: Since food porn has be­come a cul­tural term taken for granted by blog­gers and main­stream me­dia alike, its ori­gins have rarely been re­vis­ited. The term’s stay­ing power has a fair bit to do with the edgi­ness and

con­tro­versy that con­tinue to en­cir­cle the id­iom. We may never be able to nail down a pre­cise def­i­ni­tion of pornog­ra­phy, but like sex porn, we know food porn when we see it. There was wis­dom in the Supreme Court’s 1964 “Com­mu­nity Stan­dards” rul­ing, which cre­ated a met­ric for the term pornog­ra­phy through cul­tural re­cep­tion, a tac­tic that could hence­forth lo­cate all man­ner of porn within his­tor­i­cal frames. Food porn gained its ini­tial lin­guis­tic trac­tion in the 1980s and ac­cel­er­ated through­out the 1990s and 2000s to at­tain its present vaunted sta­tus. Why did the idea of food porn emerge at this par­tic­u­lar time, and why did it per­sist de­spite the ex­plo­sion and frag­men­ta­tion of food me­dia? As with most ne­ol­o­gisms, the story has as much to do with the cross-dis­ci­plinary in­flu­ence of pol­i­tics and tech­nol­ogy as with whisk­ing and fry­ing. One could just as eas­ily place the credit or blame for food porn on the In­ter­net and Jenna Jame­son as on Gi­ada De Lau­ren­tiis and her moz­zarella, rasp­berry, and brown sugar panini. In­deed, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore a de­sire as es­sen­tial and phys­i­cal as food would be co-opted by cap­i­tal­ism’s most prof­itable av­enues of dis­tri­bu­tion and sales. And as most stu­dents of his­tory un­der­stand, slip­page of def­i­ni­tional terms be­comes par­tic­u­larly acute dur­ing pe­ri­ods of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial cri­sis, pe­ri­ods in which deca­dence, sonores­cence, and the col­lapse of pre­vi­ous or­ders are widely per­ceived—all of which marked the Amer­i­can land­scape from which food porn emerged. KR: I don’t define it, but from what oth­ers have ar­gued it seems rea­son­able to as­sume that food porn means the fol­low­ing: (a) it is porn when you don’t do it but watch other peo­ple do it; (b) there is some­thing unattain­able about the food pic­tured in mag­a­zines or cooked on tv shows; (c) there is no ped­a­gog­i­cal value to it; (d) it hides the hard work and dirty dishes be­hind cook­ing; (e) there is some­thing in­de­cent about play­ing with food when there is so much hunger in the world. I think there is some value in all th­ese crit­i­cisms, but the term food porn closes off dis­cus­sion rather than open­ing them up to closer in­spec­tion. For in­stance, take the cri­tique that porn is when you watch it but don’t do it. There is some merit to ar­gu­ing that we lose some­thing of our cul­ture when we don’t prac­tice it. Cul­ture is not only about rep­re­sen­ta­tion but also about do­ing it. We prac­tice cul­ture, and it takes a lot of prac­tice. This tac­tile, em­bod­ied con­cep­tion of cul­ture is a use­ful cor­rec­tive to cul­ture un­der­stood pri­mar­ily as rep­re­sen­ta­tion or ar­ti­fact. AM: Pornog­ra­phy has noth­ing to do with the en­hance­ment and in­creased val­u­a­tion of im­age and ac­tion and ev­ery­thing to do with the de­val­u­a­tion of the im­age and the ac­tions it de­picts. Porn is de­signed to sub­or­di­nate by pic­tures or words, not to el­e­vate or de­ify. Porn’s im­ages are graphic, not styl­ized; real, not en­hanced. Pornog­ra­phy does not ide­al­ize sex—quite the op­po­site, it di­min­ishes it. Sex porn con­tains no art, and the mak­ing of it con­tains lit­tle, if any, craft. It is the cheaply made, doc­u­men­tary record­ing of straight­for­ward ac­tions. Its point is to leave as lit­tle to the imag­i­na­tion as pos­si­ble, so that one can eas­ily in­sert one­self into the scene for the ul­ti­mate pur­pose of self-grat­i­fi­ca­tion. If there were an ac­cu­rate def­i­ni­tion for food porn it would not be chefs on food tv cre­at­ing de­li­cious din­ners, or recipes in food mag­a­zines aug­mented with sump­tu­ous close-up pho­tog­ra­phy. In­stead, food porn would be the grainy, shaky, doc­u­men­tary im­ages of slaugh­ter­houses, be­hind-the-scenes fast-food work­ers spit­ting in their prod­ucts, or danger­ous chem­i­cals be­ing poured on farm­land. Such doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence of food-prod­uct degra­da­tion is the clos­est im­agery to “food porn” and, just like reg­u­lar porn, some want to out­law th­ese im­ages—in this case, the food in­dus­try. If food porn did ex­ist, the anal­o­gous shot to the all im­por­tant “cum shot” in sex porn would be to graph­i­cally show the end re­sult of eat­ing—defe­cat­ing—not the process of mak­ing a per­fectly roasted chicken. CC: To me, food porn is the abil­ity of food to elicit a pos­i­tive and eu­phoric reaction, as well as to make oth­ers covet what you are eat­ing. It en­com­passes ev­ery­thing. It’s not just in mag­a­zines or on tele­vi­sion— it’s also the ex­pe­ri­ence of din­ing. WG: I don’t have a def­i­ni­tion for food porn since it doesn’t ex­ist.

AEM: How use­ful a metaphor is porn as ap­plied to food?

CC: Not a great one, though it def­i­nitely gets peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. Sort of like rub­ber­neck­ing at a high­way ac­ci­dent: It makes peo­ple stop and look. If the term porn brings peo­ple to food, I don’t care what it means. The more we can get peo­ple to pay at­ten­tion to food, the more changes are go­ing to be made to the food sys­tem. Ev­ery day I send out pic­tures of food that I cook. Th­ese pic­tures might change peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of what food is and send them to a farmer’s mar­ket, but some view­ers might find my pic­tures of raw meat of­fen­sive. The word porn is just risky enough to make some peo­ple look, but it will make oth­ers turn away. WG: The term porn is un­re­lated to food, since it tra­di­tion­ally ap­plies to flesh vend­ing rather than the high art of cus­tomer nour­ish­ing. Alan’s com­ments about the low grade of porn pro­duc­tion un­der­mine any sim­i­lar­ity even fur­ther— it’s about sex, stupid, not high-pro­duc­tion value. Mak­ing food for a pur­pose other than pure nour­ish­ment is usu­ally done solely for art, which is why peo­ple will pay one hun­dred dollars for a

fancy restau­rant and two dollars for McDon­ald’s, when both have the same calo­ries. FK: As a trope, food porn can tell us a great deal about who we are and the cul­ture in which we live, even if it doesn’t tell us very much about the en­dur­ing qual­i­ties of food. Pornog­ra­phy’s cul­tural ex­plo­sion can be traced to the advent of the per­sonal com­puter and sub­se­quent reign of the Web, which en­abled a new per­cep­tion of pri­vacy and new hori­zons of alien­ation. At the same time, porn as a cul­tural ar­ti­fact gained le­git­i­macy through iden­tity pol­i­tics (which em­pha­sized per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence over larger moral and so­cial codes), body and gen­der the­ory (which em­pha­sized phys­i­cal dif­fer­ence as a form of em­pow­er­ment), and an eco­nomic cli­mate in which any­thing deemed at­trac­tive could be re­lent­lessly repo­si­tioned and com­mod­i­fied as a lux­ury item—all the bet­ter to be con­sumed by the young ur­ban pro­fes­sional. The years of the yup­pie co­in­cided with the years of the foodie, and many of the same cul­tural fetishes ap­ply to both. The sub­se­quent Bush years and post-9/11 pol­i­tics ush­ered in a national post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der that has swung be­tween poles of ag­gres­sion and pas­siv­ity, wor­ship and withdrawal, dialec­tics that iron­i­cally serve the pur­poses of both nest­ing and porn.

AEM: Then why do you think the term food porn is so widely

used?

WG: Be­cause sex sells. Ar­ti­cles that men­tion sex are an in­stant hit. When I was at Duke, my so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor changed the name of his “Con­sumer Mar­ket­ing” class to “Con­sum­ing Pas­sions”; en­roll­ment quadru­pled. It’s like throw­ing around the term molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy with­out dig­ging any deeper into what it re­ally means. The term food porn has no mean­ing in any con­text in which it’s used, but it has be­come a sound bite for ev­ery­one. It’s just sex­ier. AM: I per­son­ally don’t think the term is widely used. It is used by a slight sliver of academia to de­scribe the use of ide­al­ized im­ages of food in its mar­ket­ing, and of­ten it is used face­tiously by those who cre­ate that mar­ket­ing. How­ever, in the spirit of this dis­cus­sion, the short an­swer is: money. The term food porn is provoca­tive and is used in print to help sell ar­ti­cles. Sex sells, and to at­tach a sex­ual con­no­ta­tion to any ar­ti­cle at­tracts more eye­balls, thereby yield­ing more money for the pub­lisher. Some use food porn in their ti­tle for the same rea­son that some women’s mag­a­zines al­ways have the word or­gasm on the cover: to at­tract read­ers. In the fu­ture, we will see more sen­sa­tion­ally glib food ar­ti­cles like The Chicken Holo­caust, Ter­ror­ist Farm­ers, The New Racism: Brown and White Eggs, White Choco­late Slav­ery, and The Foie Gras Abor­tion. Ob­vi­ously, words mat­ter, and some are loaded with his­tor­i­cal mean­ing and deep emo­tion. Words can tit­il­late and of­fend; when mis­used, they have the in­sid­i­ous side ef­fect of di­lut­ing and per­vert­ing the word’s his­tor­i­cal mean­ing. Food porn is one such case. It serves to di­min­ish the mean­ing of pornog­ra­phy and its po­ten­tial to de­grade hu­man sex­u­al­ity. Al­though pornog­ra­phy can be harm­ful to both sexes, by and large it de­bases women in par­tic­u­lar. Us­ing the word porn in con­nec­tion with food pho­tog­ra­phy de­sen­si­tizes us to the pe­jo­ra­tive mean­ing of the word and thereby makes sex porn seem not re­ally so bad. CC: Food mag­a­zines, with their rich food pho­tog­ra­phy, have be­come the brown-pa­per-cov­ered mag­a­zines that peo­ple used to hide, ex­cept now it’s okay to be a foodophile. It’s okay to in­dulge and go to this restau­rant and eat this food, to gorge one­self on that cheese. There’s noth­ing wrong with that. KR: I am not con­vinced that the term is widely used, with the ex­cep­tion of some ele­ments of the vir­tu­ous lit­er­ary crowd and those who mimic them. They have this quaint idea that we should learn some­thing from tv, pre­sum­ably just as we do from books, es­pe­cially books with­out lovely pic­tures. The pre­sump­tion is that we should work hard at watch­ing, not just have mind­less fun. In my judg­ment, the ped­a­gog­i­cal value of any form of com­mod­i­fied cul­ture is sus­pect. En­ter­tain­ment on tv re­pro­duces all the prob­lems of pop­u­lar cul­ture, and few of its prom­ises. Food tv car­ries the same bur­dens. So the cri­tique of “food porn” is too nar­rowly fo­cused on food. But let me ar­gue the ex­act op­po­site of what I have said so far. Let us for a mo­ment as­sume that most of the cov­er­age of food on Amer­i­can tv is porno­graphic. Fol­low­ing the critic Don Kulick, in a slightly dif­fer­ent con­text one could ar­gue that if it is porno­graphic it is a pro­gres­sive kind of pornog­ra­phy. That’s im­pos­si­ble, right? In pornog­ra­phy the de­pic­tion of women’s plea­sure has al­ways been more dif­fi­cult be­cause there are no pho­to­genic equiv­a­lents to the erect pe­nis and ejac­u­la­tion. Hence the so-called “money shot” is al­most al­ways about the man; women’s plea­sure is much less con­vinc­ingly por­trayed. Vis­ually, the state of the phal­lus drives the plot. In food porn the po­si­tion of the phal­lus as the ul­ti­mate source of all plea­sure is usurped by food. Hence, if food tv is porno­graphic, it is much less phal­lo­cen­tric. Kulick notes that Luce Iri­garay has made much in her writ­ing about the power that a woman’s “two lips” might have to par­ler femme (speak woman) and thereby dis­place the male phal­lus from its Freudian throne as the sup­posed source of all erotic joy. The “two lips” Iri­garay refers to are vagi­nal lips. But maybe we should, in­stead, con­sider those other two lips and what they can do. And per­haps those in­tensely mouthy plea­sures of lapping, lick­ing, slurp­ing, and crunch­ing that we see de­picted… are some ver­sion of par­ler femme—a lan­guage of plea­sure, power, and supreme dis­in­ter­est in ev­ery­thing the phal­lus has to of­fer.

12 Think of that the next time you are distracted by Gi­ada De Lau­ren­tiis lick­ing her fin­gers as she greed­ily swal­lows some freshly made dough­nuts.

AEM: Why does food in­vite such voyeurism?

CC: Be­cause it pro­vokes such a vis­ceral re­sponse. KR: I don’t think food is par­tic­u­larly prone to voyeurism. Sex is much more com­pelling, happy fam­i­lies more en­tic­ing, mur­der absolutely grip­ping; all th­ese things work as en­ter­tain­ment for pre­cisely the same rea­son. In our cul­ture most of th­ese things—sex, bliss, and death—are ex­pected to be con­tained within the pri­vate realm in some ridicu­lously ideal world, while in re­al­ity they ei­ther leak out or we hope to trans­gress in our dreams. Much of cook­ing on tele­vi­sion is in fact do­mes­tic­ity on dis­play—equiv­a­lent to fam­i­lies on dis­play, ro­mance on dis­play, re­al­ity on dis­play, or­der (in cop shows), or dra­matic cures (in doc­tor shows). They are one-di­men­sional car­i­ca­tures, use­ful pre­cisely be­cause of their sim­plic­ity, clar­ity, and ide­al­iza­tion. So we dream up th­ese ways to con­tain sex, hap­pi­ness, and death, re­mind­ing our­selves of our so­cial ideals. We see more and more cook­ing on tv as we our­selves cook less and

less. But if our prob­lem with cook­ing shows is that they are voyeuris­tic, then al­most ev­ery­thing on tv is porno­graphic. Why tar­get cook­ing shows? Tele­vi­sion has al­lowed cook­ing to be born as a pub­lic im­age. Mar­shall McLuhan saw that com­ing long ago when he wrote: “In au­dile­tac­tile Europe tv has in­ten­si­fied the vis­ual sense, spurring them to­ward Amer­i­can styles of pack­ag­ing and dress­ing. In Amer­ica, the in­tensely vis­ual cul­ture, tv has opened the doors of au­dile-tac­tile per­cep­tion to the non-vis­ual world of spo­ken lan­guages and food and the plas­tic arts.”

13 Food on tv and in col­or­ful mag­a­zines is also about do­mes­tic­ity as an it­er­a­tion of na­tion build­ing. It gives us a way to imag­ine a col­lec­tive pub­lic by watch­ing cul­tural prac­tices as de­ployed across a di­verse but uni­fied ter­ri­tory that we call a na­tion. All those end­less bar­be­cue shows are a good way to imag­ine the ex­tent of the na­tion and its myr­iad va­ri­ety. But do­mes­tic­ity is not the whole story. There are also con­tra­dic­tory claims of mas­culin­ity and pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion. Food on tv por­trays the virtues of pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion. Even Rachael Ray is de­fen­sive when she goes on Iron Chef. “I am just a cook, not a chef,” she says. Chefs can do stuff I can’t. Sur­geons can do stuff no healer can. Cops can do stuff that you or I can’t. Th­ese folks can save the world. So, you see, we must con­cede our world to the ex­pert, each in his (or her) field. Not be­cause we can do it, but be­cause we can’t. So the point of food on tv is not that we can do it—the pre­sump­tion be­hind the cri­tique that food porn is mere un­pro­duc­tive, voyeuris­tic, fun—but that we can’t do it. That is the source of its plea­sure. FK: Voyeurism hinges upon pro­jec­tions of the pri­vate and the per­sonal into the pub­lic realm. From this per­spec­tive, the pub­li­ca­tion or broad­cast of a pri­vate ac­tiv­ity—be it coitus or cook­ing—cre­ates struc­tural equiv­a­lents. Food porn, like sex porn, like voyeurism, are all mea­sures of alien­ation, not com­mu­nity. As such, they be­long to realms of ir­re­al­ity. Ir­re­al­ity, of course, is at­trac­tive to any­one who may be dis­sat­is­fied with the daily ex­i­gen­cies of his or her life. Hence the com­pelling na­ture of vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ences from food and sex to the Weather Chan­nel’s bla­tant ex­ploita­tion of dis­as­trous storms and floods, all of which can be vi­car­i­ously con­sumed through the mul­ti­far­i­ous screens that have come to dom­i­nate our lives. WG: Food is unique within the realm of high art for in­volv­ing an ac­tual com­mod­ity in­ter­nal­ized by the con­sumer—a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship that can­not be found in any other ex­pres­sion of per­sonal val­ues. Once an art of sur­vival, food has evolved into a fine art, with a plea­sure dis­pro­por­tion­ate to its nu­tri­tional value. Im­ages of naked women nearly hav­ing sex can be con­sid­ered fine art; de­pend­ing on the style of pho­tog­ra­phy, they are not con­sid­ered pornog­ra­phy. Why? The only way to ar­gue that point is to make the “What is Art?” ar­gu­ment suc­cess­fully. By anal­ogy, it is not a stretch to say that there is such a thing as fine art that dis­tin­guishes the prepa­ra­tion of food. There­fore I don’t un­der­stand the no­tion of voyeurism in food. Just be­cause peo­ple like watch­ing other peo­ple do things, that doesn’t make it voyeurism. AM: Your ques­tion as­sumes that watch­ing food on tv is voyeuris­tic. That is ab­surd—that would make watch­ing any­thing on tv, or in the cin­ema or the­ater, voyeuris­tic. Can’t some­one watch just to be en­ter­tained or ed­u­cated? If all watch­ing is just tawdry voyeurism, then all per­for­mances are noth­ing more than cheap ex­hi­bi­tion­ism. This ques­tion

also shows a com­plete mis­un­der­stand­ing of the ar­ti­fice of food tele­vi­sion, which does not em­ploy any of the vis­ual styles that im­ply voyeurism— hid­den cam­eras, poor light­ing, shaky cin­ema vérité cam­era work, or a sin­gle widean­gle view of the ac­tion. There is no pre­tense to make the ex­pe­ri­ence “real” or “doc­u­men­tary”—quite the op­po­site is nec­es­sary to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful food show. Most shows are taped with three to seven cam­eras in prosce­nium style, some­times with a full au­di­ence; the as­pi­ra­tion is the­atri­cal, to cre­ate high drama from the or­di­nary. Stylis­ti­cally speak­ing, cre­at­ing food tele­vi­sion has more in com­mon with opera than with pornog­ra­phy or voyeurism. In for­mal vis­ual terms, the in­vi­ta­tion is not to watch se­cretly but to join the com­mu­nity of the au­di­ence to cel­e­brate and ap­plaud in pub­lic, not to masturbate in pri­vate. If you are mis­tak­enly con­flat­ing voyeurism with view­er­ship based on statis­tics, that just doesn’t work. On tv, for ex­am­ple, the “voyeurism” food in­vites is dwarfed by pro­fes­sional wrestling, non-cook­ing house­wives in New Jersey, singers try­ing to be­come idols, and hun­dreds of other sub­jects from an­i­mated sponges to real-life bounty hunters. An aca­demic look­ing to make broad cul­tural cri­tiques based on tv-view­ing habits would be bet­ter served by watch­ing nascar than by watch­ing some­one sauté ar­ti­chokes.

AEM: Does food porn func­tion as a sub­sti­tute for ac­tual

cook­ing?

WG: There is no ques­tion that the act of cook­ing in­vites many en­thu­si­asts, some of whom may have lit­tle de­sire to ac­tu­ally cook. So the ques­tion is, does be­ing a fan di­min­ish the value of the ex­pe­ri­ence? Is Roger Fed­erer less bril­liant be­cause his spec­ta­tors don’t all play ten­nis? The an­swer, I hope, is painfully ob­vi­ous. I still don’t know what food porn is. But let’s say for the sake of ar­gu­ment that it has to do with the pre­sen­ta­tion of food. There are two kinds of peo­ple who watch food porn: ei­ther they cook or they don’t. There is no way that watch­ing food on tele­vi­sion will make peo­ple cook less. Most of the Food Net­work shows are de­signed to en­cour­age peo­ple to buy things to cook, so they have the op­po­site ef­fect from food porn’s pre­sumed one—that peo­ple watch and don’t do. Food on tele­vi­sion doesn’t take away the de­sire to cook from those who have it, but it does make peo­ple who don’t cook want to buy food. It’s a net gain, not a net loss. That’s why I love food tele­vi­sion. The con­cept of food porn ex­ists only for peo­ple who don’t have any re­la­tion to food in pre­par­ing, cook­ing, or serv­ing it—they’re only in­ter­ested in an­a­lyz­ing it. That’s the re­place­ment—the re­place­ment of the real with the ab­stract. The peo­ple an­a­lyz­ing the watch­ing of the cook­ing—that’s food porn. They are the ones who have re­placed the act of cook­ing with the act of watch­ing. FK: Through in­ter­views with food-me­dia pro­duc­ers, di­rec­tors, on­screen tal­ent, and Food Net­work ex­ec­u­tives, I learned that prac­ti­tion­ers of the genre un­der­stand food tele­vi­sion as the equiv­a­lent of an anti-anx­i­ety drug, that cook­ing on tele­vi­sion presents an ide­al­ized, al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity, and that the more peo­ple watch, the less they cook. Rachael Ray goes over beau­ti­fully in a sports bar: The men drink beer, munch chips, and watch the game, while one tele­vi­sion over, vir­tual wife smiles and pre­pares vir­tual din­ner. Again, the alien­ation and tech­no­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion par­tic­u­lar­ize a larger cul­tural shift in which vir­tu­al­ity has gained ground. And vir­tu­al­ity, in turn, en­gen­ders a wide va­ri­ety of re­ac­tions, in­clud­ing this ex­change. Our dia­logue about food porn is a way of reck­on­ing with a per­ceived threat, which may ex­plain a fair bit of de­nial. CC: If you don’t cook, yes, food tv al­lows you to live through oth­ers’ ac­tions, just as porn does. A lot of peo­ple want to feel the same pas­sion that chefs do, and tv is the clos­est way to get to that. Cook­ing shows are full of fer­vor, of drive. Oth­ers live though our pas­sion for food and ex­pe­ri­ence joy in our meals. For peo­ple who don’t nor­mally cook, food porn is a great sub­sti­tute. AM: This ques­tion, like all of the oth­ers, as­sumes that food porn ex­ists. But it doesn’t. The im­pli­ca­tion is that view­ing reg­u­lar, old-fash­ioned sex porn alone sa­ti­ates de­sire, which of course it does not. Porn in­cites to ac­tion and is worth­less if it does not. If the metaphor is to be taken to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, food porn in it­self can­not sate de­sire; it must in­spire to ac­tion. So, just as a healthy dose of reg­u­lar porn might leave you ly­ing in bed try­ing to catch your breath, one would as­sume that food porn would in­cite you to breath­lessly whip some egg whites un­til they be­came a very stiff meringue.

Chris Cosentino is ex­ec­u­tive chef at In­canto and co-cre­ator of Boccalone Salume­ria in San Fran­cisco. He was one of the fi­nal­ist chefs of The Next Iron Chef and is now the co-host of Chefs vs. City, both on Food Net­work. Will Gold­farb is the chef-owner of Wil­lPow­der and Wil­lEquipped, sources for spe­cialty prod­ucts and equip­ment for restau­rant and home kitchens. He was nom­i­nated for Best Pas­try Chef by the James Beard Foun­da­tion, and Pas­try Art & De­sign named him one of the Ten Best Pas­try Chefs in Amer­ica. Fred­er­ick Kauf­man is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Harper’s and a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at the City Univer­sity of New York and the cuny Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism. His es­say “Deb­bie Does Salad: The Food Net­work at the Fron­tiers of Pornog­ra­phy” (Harper’s mag­a­zine, Oc­to­ber 2005) ex­panded the con­cept of gas­tro-porn. Alan Madi­son has trav­eled around the world pro­duc­ing and di­rect­ing food shows for tele­vi­sion. He has worked with chefs Emeril La­gasse, Rocco DiSpir­ito, Jac­ques Tor­res, Rick Bay­less, Char­lie Trot­ter, Sara Moul­ton, Rachael Ray, and hun­dreds of oth­ers. Early in his ca­reer he worked as a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant in the porn in­dus­try. Krishnendu Ray is a so­ci­ol­o­gist and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of food stud­ies at New York Univer­sity. He is the author of The Mi­grant’s Ta­ble: Meals and Mem­o­ries in Ben­gali-Amer­i­can House­holds; his es­say “Do­mes­ti­cat­ing Cui­sine: Food and Aes­thet­ics on Amer­i­can Tele­vi­sion” (Gas­tro­nom­ica, Win­ter 2007) ar­gued against the ex­is­tence of food porn.

anne e. mcbride is the di­rec­tor of the Ex­per­i­men­tal Cui­sine Col­lec­tive at New York Univer­sity and of the Cen­ter for Food Me­dia at the In­sti­tute of Culi­nary Ed­u­ca­tion. She is work­ing to­ward a Ph.D. in food stud­ies at nyu, fo­cus­ing her re­search on the in­ter­re­la­tions among na­tion, pro­fes­sion, and cui­sine. With chef François Payard, she wrote Choco­late Epiphany and Bite Size, and with ice's Rick

Smilow, Culi­nary Ca­reers (Clark­son Pot­ter, 2010).

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