The Food Porn Theory

This essay was revised from its original copy originally written on April 16, 2015.

We love food. We love to eat, get full, and do it all over again. Nothing will ever extinguish the basic human necessity known as eating. With that said, the way we approach food culture now is far from a necessity; food –and to a greater extent –eating is an art.

“Food Porn”. We see the word all the time, whether it be on our television screens during a competitive cooking show, or in a hashtag on an Instagram post where we positioned the camera and set the filter ourselves. The essential idea is that we love food, and what’s more interesting is that we love looking at food, not the actual act of cooking, we simply just observe. When it comes down to it, it’s all rhetoric; the idea of making food more appealing than it naturally is, and the role that rhetoric plays in capturing and maintaining viewers. This essay seeks to examine the different techniques through photography, TV shows, and literature that convey the glamorization of food – or “food porn”. In addition to studying these rhetorical elements, this essay will examine the history and other methods of glamorizing food as well.

In order to captivate and maintain viewers, food is made to be more appealing than what it naturally is. The most obvious form of gastroporn is what we see on television. The Internet is another way that we journey to our food fantasies. There’s an abundance of food blogs filled with photographs of food that seem easy to replicate. YouTube channels are dedicated to constructing food masterpieces, and it only takes a search on Tumblr or Pinterest to have all your expectations on pizza fulfilled.

To understand the culture of “food porn”, it’s important to visit its history. The foundation of “food porn” began with writing, an element that exists to this day. In 1796, American Cookery was published. Written by Amelia Simmons, American Cookery was the first of its kind in the United States. Eventually recipes made their way to newspapers, and the attitude of worshiping culinary arts began to surface, “As early as the 1840s when food writing first appeared in American newspapers, culinary writers were already established as more than cooking instructors. They were trusted to describe the world, as explorers had in the earliest written accounts of food in America” (O’Neil 39). Society looked to food as a guideline to life, or being cultured.

Magazines like Gourmet were introduced shortly after the success of culinary newspaper articles. Early articles in Gourmet romanticized food; “…the most important part of Gourmet’s identity in the 1950s was ‘an intense fixation on the past as the standard of meaning.’” (Mendelson qtd. in O’Neil 40). “The early Gourmet was aimed at a small social elite that could afford to hunt, fish, and travel, and that viewed fine dining much as it did art, theater, or opera: as something one need only appreciate in order to possess.” (40) Much like the Food Network was targeted toward an affluent audience in the early 90s. Although people were interested in learning about food, there seemed to be an elitist perception connected to the writing in Gourmet due to the magazines’ connection with the past. People of lower class weren’t going to identify with the expert literature in Gourmet because they didn’t share a connection with the nostalgic dishes of the early 20th century. Due to immigration in America, the culture was changing, and society still shared an interest in learning about food, it’s just that the general public desired food that progressed along with the country.

Photo: Insider.com

Enter the “gastronomic trinity” consisting of Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, and James Beard (41). Between these three, food had solidified its title as a subculture in society. With the advent of food television, new generations of food enthusiasts were able to attach themselves with personalities like Child, “She made people want to cook, often inspiring them with a single detail.” (Buford “TV Dinners”). Claiborne’s work with the New York Times increased a widespread interest in food. Two hundred and forty-four articles on food were published by 1963 and would continue to grow, there were 1,927 stories published by 2000 (O’Neil 42). Where Child made it acceptable to follow a chef, Claiborne’s literature made food a respectable discussion topic.

Interest in food literature continued to grow, less than twenty food magazines were published in America during the 50s. By 2002, 145 magazines, quarterlies, and newsletters on food were produced (39). Around 19.7 million read about food and books on food, and wine grossed over $350 million (39). Society’s obsession with food is more evident than ever. We’re willing to get our hands on food through any form, and not necessarily to eat or cook, but just to give food our full attention.

The popularity of literature revolving around food has a lot to do with the personal connection between writer and audience, “In addition to training and experience particular to the edible world, food writers enjoy a rare and intimate bond with readers. Shared tastes imply shared values and aspirations. A food writer is, therefore, trusted to disseminate the issues that can affect what readers put in their mouths.” (39) O’Neil continues, “Therefore, the aspirations of those who read food stories influence their style and content” (40). In other words, food literature constructs our ideas as a culture on a deep-rooted level. Before we browsed through photos of desserts, the food writer was depended on. Food writers held a responsibility to make their readers fall in love with their plates, whether by writing a piece on the perfect chocolate cake, or by contributing an easy-to-follow dinner recipe.

However, some believe that today’s food television has cheapened what food literature built as an intellectual subculture.“Food Porn—prose and recipes so removed from real life that they cannot be used except as vicarious experience—has reigned” (39), in other words, the genre has evolved into an almost unobtainable fantasy where the dishes being cooked aren’t something that would be attempted at, but we escape through others doing the work for us. The delusional nature that food television portrays could potentially have its complications.

The term “food porn” debuted in 1979. It was used by Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Jacobson used the phrase as a derogatory term to categorize unhealthy food (McBride 38). However, the term has developed into more than something that describes junk food. The term is a representation of our obsession with food. Most writers associate food and pornography, however the passionate relationship that we have with our food is an intimacy that many associate with sex.

Photo: Human Perception

Today, romanticized food is obtainable by anyone. Websites dedicated to images of food have become popular, “Food images are also the fastest-growing category on the hugely popular inspiration-board site Pinterest, where they generate 50 percent more re-pins than fashion and style photos.” (O’Rourke “The Food Porn Problem”). An image of whatever dish you feel like salivating over is a search engine away. “Like the sexual kind, food porn allows us to lust after taboo things…and now it’s on our terms: We can search for exactly what turns us on, enlarge the images, and linger for as long as we want.” (Albers qtd. in O’Rourke). Our intimacy with food has intensified due to the information era. An example of food in the 21st century would be the website, FoodPornDaily.com, a website dedicated to nothing more than extreme close-ups of dishes of all courses. Each click delivers a new image of a meal with a description. Typing “Red Velvet Cake” on Flickr.com generated thousands of beautifully shot images of the dessert from various angles and different lighting, all to make red velvet cake appear desirable.

According to the Women’s Health article, when you zoom in on food, it makes you feel like you’re having an intimate experience with it. This would explain why photos of food are often shot from a close range. A legitimate physical reaction accompanies the intensity of anyone’s close-up shot of dinner; “Food porn relies on a phenomenon called supernormal stimuli, which exaggerates qualities we’re already hardwired to love,” (O’Rourke “The Food Porn Problem”) looking at food triggers an amplified affection that was unbeknownst to our subconscious senses. However, “Neuroscience found that viewing images of insanely delicious food lit up the brain’s reward center and caused women with the most active mental response to overeat,” (O’Rourke “The Food Porn Problem”).

The scientific reaction to food is a way to make food appear more desirable, “Another study in the journal Obesity found that simply seeing food increases levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, even after eating a regular meal.” (O’Rourke “The Food Porn Problem”). This evidence proves that the pictures we look at on websites like FoodPornDaily.com can manipulate our senses.

Photo: Digital TV Europe

Food Television is – if not, the – popular form of food glamorization that appeals to us. Food TV deals with food romanticism through two different categories: through letting the audience live vicariously through the food, and in a sexualized manner that we may not even be aware of. Andrew Chan states, “The modern TV cooking programs appeal to our hidden perverse side. They seduce us to desire the virtual, while complicating our relationship to what is real” (Chan 139). To a degree, food on television has the ability to distort our expectations on what we eat. There’s a sensual aspect associated with cooking on television, our senses are captivated by “…the sizzle of oil in the frying pan, pots bubbling away, the crescendo of chopping, dicing, and slicing” (139). Because television provides us with a visual different from literature and photography, it’s easier to be seduced by food. Television provides us with a physical reaction that we can live vicariously through.

Television creates a gap that separates viewers from actually cooking (139). It’s not enough to sift through recipes or read about food to fulfill their “foodie” desires; we’ve evolved into a society that wants more. However, it’s interesting to see how food television has evolved from a basic structure of “dump-and-stir television” (Kaufman “Debbie Does Salad”) into a spectacle with gorgeous women, charming men, and provocative talk. In order to make food more appealing, food is now sexier. Food Television establishes a fantasy that can be desired after, but not reproduced.

An example of the fantasy kitchen would be it’s plentiful space, and the mysterious cleanliness, “In the TV program’s fantasy kitchen there is copious space and ventilation; there are also no dishes to wash, no mounds of trash to throw out, and no impatient waiters checking on orders.” (139). The concept of a kitchen filled with five-star meals, but without the inconvenience of a piled up dishes amplifies the appeal of the actual food. Since there’s no association with cleaning up, the viewer can focus intently on whatever course is on the television. “Unlike home cooking, TV cooking builds to an unending succession of physical ecstasies, never a pile of dirty dishes.” (Kaufman“Debbie Does Salad”)

TV personalities contribute to making food more engaging than what it actually is. Over time, our TV chefs have evolved from women like Julia Child. Child was 6’2” and her traditional cooks uniform made her seem like she could be everyone’s loving aunt. Her personality made up for what she lacked physically, however. Today we see women like Nigella Lawson on our Televisions oozing sex appeal as well as a meal. With voluptuous curves (and form-fitting attire to match), and voluminous hair, “She becomes our sultry food-as-sex therapist, confidently dispensing advice and offering opinions, but always with a recipe/prescription for every woe.” (Chan 144).

TV personality Nigella Lawson cooking spaghetti on her show Nigella Bites.

Nigella’s show, Nigella Bites, certainly is suggestive, “The viewer is left to imagine what has transpired between scenes—or commercial breaks—after which the chef and/or host can be seen à table, metaphorical cigarette in hand, the detritus of a partially consumed meal strewn on the table like tousled bed sheets” (139). This suggestive behavior is an additional element to keeping the viewer intrigued in the cooking show. We want to live like Nigella. “As the naughty (and seemingly unfulfilled) housewife and self-declared amateur cook, she embodies the premise (and promise) that at home – or at least in her TV home – we can and indeed should all get down and dirty. She assures the viewer that it’s perfectly natural and not shameful to cook like she does, or at least to watch her cook – and like spectators at a nudist camp, we buy into her libertine ways” (143). Nigella plays into the fantasy of a wonderful home-cooked meal made by a beautiful woman.

Nigella’s audience isn’t exclusive, “Men are attracted to her like naughty schoolboys with a crush on their teacher; women love her because she is their virtual girlfriend, a confidante. Nigella presents herself as just as vulnerable as they are, and no better or worse in the kitchen (or presumably bed)” (143). A television host that generates affection from a wide demographic can make food more appealing. One might pay more attention to what Nigella makes because they enjoy her personality.

There’s a connection between food and sex, and Chan believes that food television is similar to watching pornography, “In essence, TV’s cooks are demonstrating how to fornicate or fuck, and not very well at that, whereas real chefs are engaged in making love—or art, which is how many chefs view their passion and profession” (140). Regardless of whether the dish is produced by a TV cook or a formally trained chef, the notion remains the same that food continues to be romanticized, dating back to the early days of Gourmet magazine.

Even though we watch cooking shows with a lustful eye on the food being made, some believe that the cooking that we see on television is in poor taste, “The television cooking show, however, can be viewed as the illegitimate love child, or even the prostitute, of the real world of gastronomy. Each show offers a virtual form of fast food or a ‘quickie’ instead of a real meal or mutually satisfying experience” (140).

Another type of cooking show is the excessive kind. Shows where the host goes on an exploration to boldly try food that a viewer would never attempt. Even these shows have some sort of glamorous appeal, “With slick production values, the program itself has less to do with food and cooking and more to do with the manufacture and packaging of the host/chef himself or herself—and the manufacture of emotions surrounding eating” (140). The YouTube series Epic Meal Time is a group of men who take popular fast food meals and create a new meal after combining the original fast food items. For instance, one episode shows the men construct a miniature couch out of five hundred baked potatoes and Velveeta cheese (“Couch Potato”). The British TV show, Two Fat Ladies, featured two plus sized women who cook without any consideration of a healthy diet. Their cooking method is seductive because they celebrate everything that we’ve forbidden ourselves to eat, “Their favorite lubricant for their act, one which they apply with quivering squeals of delight, is that much-maligned ingredient in most other cooking shows and homes: butter…We drool and leer because we want to see how far they will go and what they will do next…Instead, the “Fat Ladies” seem to take great delight in appearing on-camera as culinary prostitutes of sorts, kitchen dominatrixes who enact their viewer’/voyeurs’ fantasies” (Chan 142). As an audience we’re attracted to what the women cook because it’s so extreme. The show also has a way of making edibles, even ones like butter, appealing. It’s not a matter of what’s cooked with something like butter, but how it’s cooked. We trust the women because of their confidence despite their size and assume that they’re experts in cooking with such a fattening substance.

Photo: Foodie Crush

Food has always had a way of being somewhat sexual, and even more-so when viewed on television, “In cooking shows, the money shot is the achievement and presentation of the finished dish, which magically appears at the end along with the dish that was cooked on air” (145). That “money shot” frame is the technique that’s utilized to heighten our senses and make us crave a magnificent Pad Thai or Chicken Marsala.

A clip from an episode of MasterChef Australia.

Competitive cooking shows expand on the passion already associated with cooking, “Like soft-core fantasy or 1970s porn films, which rely not on what is genuine but more on an idealization of sex, Iron Chef operates on a level of heightened imagery to stimulate passion” (146). Due to the heightened dramatic situations in shows like Iron Chef and Chopped, the leftover adrenaline creates an intensified infatuation with dinner.

There are some that believe that the glorification of food today has declined in terms of their standards, “The popularity of the cooking show as fantasy is paralleled by the real-world decline of culinary culture in America,” (147). Perhaps the viewer feels incompetent in the kitchen compared to what they see on television, “This might be the downside of TV cooking shows: rather than increasing and improving the viewer’s joy of cooking, they might make viewers feel inadequate or unconfident in their own culinary prowess (just as porn might create unrealistic expectations or depression about one’s own sexual skills)” (147). This is a negative aspect of “food porn” culture in the sense that an inadequacy in the kitchen could potentially lead to eating out often, and perhaps poor eating habits as a result of eating out so much.

Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive Ins and Dives explores Chicago Pizza.

The show Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives partakes in adventurism in dinner. Host, Guy Fieri goes across the country and tries food from blue-collar establishments. It’s possible that the food on shows like Diners encourage the viewer to partake in their own culinary adventurism. The nutritional value isn’t necessarily considered on Fieri’s show, and it could possibly influence the audience to disregard nutrition when eating out themselves. Our captivation with excessive food on television can persuade us to have a consistent appetite for such food in reality.

From elegant literature in the early 20th century to voyeuristic shows dedicated to food that will cater to every one of your senses, food porn has made its way into our culture as a permanent staple. Writing about food, photos of dinner, or food in television has created a community that shares a genuine infatuation with food. We’ve romanticized food so much that discussing food has become an art form. Some may believe that food demands more respect than what we see on television, however, each form of rhetoric achieves its goal in establishing an intimate connection with what we eat. Making food more attractive than its natural state will continue to evolve, and it will be interesting to see what the future entails for the genre known as food porn.

Works Cited

Buford, Bill. “TV Dinners: The Rise of Food Television.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 2 Oct. 2006.

Chan, Andrew. “La grande bouffe: Cooking Shows as Pornography.” The Gastronomica Reader. University of California Press 3:4 (2003): 139-147.

Epic Meal Time. “Couch Potato.” Online video clip.YouTube. YouTube, 27 Jan. 2015.

Kaufman, Frederick. “Debbie Does Salad.” Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s Magazine, Oct 2005.

O’Neil, Molly. “Food Porn.” Columbia Journalism Review. Columbia Journalism Review, Sept/Oct 2003.

O’Rourke, Theresa. “The Food Porn Problem.” Women’s Health. Sept 2012: 78.

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