Monday, August 13, 2012

Lusting After Asparagus?

August 13, 2012
Lusting After Asparagus?: Our Culture's Food Porn Problem

What's wrong with ogling beautifully shot images of filet mignon and other rich foods? A lot, actually.

Rachel Marie Stone

The Old Testament book Song of Songs is pretty racy. And not infrequently, its sexual imagery is expressed through food metaphors:

As an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
so is my beloved among the young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste

Similarly, a Sumerian poem “The song of the lettuce” (lettuce, believe it or not, was considered an aphrodisiac in the Ancient Near East; when lettuces goes to seed, it shoots up tall and, ahem, releases a milky white sap), is all about, well, eating “the honey man”:

“. . . my lord, the honey man of a goddess, his mother's favourite, whose hands are honey, whose feet are honey, will make me sweet, whose limbs are honey-sweet, will make me sweet.”

These poets—as well as the writer of Like Water for Chocolate—remind us of the similarities between eating and sex, which are both sites of “bodily interfacing” (a place where a body meets something outside itself) and which are both potentially life-giving and community-forming.
A recent Newsweek cover (which appears to have been totally plagiarized from a 2008 issue of the British Observer Food Monthly) depicts a sensual female mouth waiting to receive some very phallic-looking asparagus. It’s not particularly original (nor, I think, tasteful), but as a piece of food porn, it speaks volumes about our culture’s view of women, food, and sex.

At first glance, what bothers me about the image, aside from its crudeness, is the fact that it involves a woman and some vegetables, and not, say, caramel or chocolate cake. As scholar Susan Bordo explained in Unbearable Weight, while it is acceptable for men in advertisements to appear sensually, almost sexually enraptured in food of any kind; for women, things are more complicated: “female hunger as sexuality is represented in Western culture . . . with terror and loathing.” Women, she argues, are often only ‘allowed’ to be sensual with regard to food only if it is diet Jell-O or a Weight Watchers frozen dinner or a vegetable or a dessert in a pre-measured, calorie-controlled portion. So by rendering an image of a woman as passive in the sexualized reception of a vegetable, the cover reflects--rather than challenges--dominant cultural ideas about women’s appetites. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so daring (if it ever did).

But what do we make of the larger phenomenon of “food porn”—of stylized, close-up, sensual food photography, and its use that, in the words of, involves a lot of “click, drool, repeat”?

The term “food porn” seems to go back to a 1998 Nutrition Action HealthLetter from the Center for Science in the Public Interest when they debuted a column contrasting unhealthy foods (“food porn”) with healthier options (“the right stuff”); the usage implies the editor’s opinion of porn as unquestionably destructive. But as it applies more generally today to appealing images of food, pinned on Pinterest or blogged on any number of foodie sites, "food porn" refers to images that create a yearning for the foods they portray.

Like the Song of Songs and the ridiculous Newsweek cover, food porn is more anticipation than satisfaction. It is about desire and longing for something tasty to eat while you’re wasting time at work or lounging in front of The Food Network late at night. As a blogger who might be partially categorized as a foodie, I’ve contributed my own share of drool-worthy food images to the web. Good food photography—as in a beautiful cookbook—can whet our appetites for the real thing. What could be wrong with that?

As I see it, some of the same things are wrong with food porn as with, well, the other kind of porn: namely, it is generally for private or semi-private consumption, it divorces visual appeal from substantive encounter, and it leads to dissatisfaction with the real thing: a longing for the next amazing meal, instead of contentment with what we might already have in the fridge. A real-life McDonald’s sandwich looks nothing like the advertisement version, and most of what goes on our tables on a daily basis bears scant resemblance to perfectly-plated dinners on Pinterest. While there’s no denying that we do ‘eat’ partly with our eyes—and that appealing presentation is an important aspect of cooking and serving food—food porn is in a different category from simply enjoying the look of your dinner plate. It’s intended to draw you, you alone, in, and create longings that are hard to fulfill in the real world.

Just as sex at its best is unitive and community-forming, so also food is meant to be so much more than a private pleasure. It’s ironic that as food porn, celebrity chefs, and reality-TV cooking shows proliferate, family meals and home cooking steadily decline. Yet these are the very things that seem most likely to bring us health in the fullest sense.

It’s no accident that Jesus shared a meal with his disciples, telling them to “do this in remembrance” of him. We don’t “think this” in remembrance of him, “say this” in remembrance of him, or “pin this” in remembrance of him. We eat and drink in remembrance of him, and, as the apostle Paul and the early church reminds us, it’s that eating and drinking that brings Christians together in One Body.

No amount of time on ChowHound makes up for time spent around the table with others. For whether at the Eucharistic table or the picnic table, we are bound to each other in the breaking of bread.