Attention culinary historians of the 2516! If you think you know what we’re eating today by looking at our food blogs and Instagram feeds, think again. Those perfectly lighted snapshots are more likely to document the occasional splurge or special occasion indulgence than our daily bread. We don’t take pictures of the bowl of Cocoa Puffs we devoured after a late night at the office.
According to a team of researchers at Cornell’s Food & Media lab, what you see when you stroll through the galleries of art museums will tell you more about the artist’s wish to paint the perfect oyster or the landowner’s desire to impress the Monarch than what they had for lunch.
The Cornell researchers examined 750 Western paintings of food and meals made between the years 1500 and 2000. When compared to the foods most readily available and served at the time of the paintings’ composition, the researchers discovered that artists were more likely to depict foods coveted by the rich or those with religious or symbolic significance than what the hoi polloi ate for supper. While today’s culinary scene places a high value (and price tag) on the local, a painting circa 1600 might include ingredients (spices, shellfish, tropical fruit) that would have had to travel great distances in order to grace the table of a status-seeking benefactor in landlocked Germany.
Even when they put aside paintings of banquets and lavish still-lifes to focus on 140 painting of small meals, the Cornell team found that many of the most common foods were left out of the frame. They speculate that in some instances, the artist may have painted, say, a lemon, because reproducing it in oil on canvas presented an appealing challenge.
In other words, you can’t rely on art for news (though you may die for lack of what is found there, said William Carlos Williams).
Another aspect of the Cornell study worthy of note: When it was first published, mainstream and niche media reproduced the #FoodPorn tag that headlined the Food & Media lab announcement of its findings. Almost every news story, from those in the daily papers to those in “Real Simple” magazine, included “Food Porn” in its headline. When I picked up the study, I was hoping to find a useful definition of the term but such was not the case. In fact, there’s no mention of #FoodPorn in the study.
Nonetheless, it made me think about what we mean when we attach the #FoodPorn label to a photograph or a Food Network episode.
The term was first coined in 1979 by Michael Jacobson, co-founder of Center for Science in the Public Interest who used it to connote “food that was so sensationally out of bounds for what a food should be that it deserves to be considered pornographic.” Depictions of food are pornographic when they invite us to gaze at what we cannot have or recreate, like an elaborate multi-tiered cake decorated with gold-leaf. But the pleasure of looking is fleeting. This month’s glossy photo spread is supplanted by next month’s spread and they all end up in the recycling bin.
It is, however, crucial to remember that the very term pornography implies a moral value judgment that may be appropriate to adulterous fetishism, say, but not to food and cooking. I’m reminded of W. H. Auden’s observation about literature and pornography. To paraphrase: The former can be read in a number of different ways whereas when one “attempts to read pornography in any other way than as a sexual stimulus . . . one is bored to tears.”
Every time we encounter a work of art, familiar or not, we are rewarded anew. We may notice a detail, a slant of light, an adept brushstoke, a subtle shading, that we hadn’t seen before. Or we may feel like we’re renewing an old friendship.
None of the paintings studied by Cornell’s team are #FoodPorn. They’re works of art that have survived for generations.
You can find out more about the Cornell study and the Food & Media Lab here.
feature image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.