We’ve all heard of food porn. But what exactly is it? Is it glossy pictures of plastic photos? Actual food that looks so beautiful it could make you orgasm? Or is it just provocative sexual pictures of food?
Anne E. McBride wrote an entire article in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (Vol.10, No.1 pp.38-46) exploring the origin of the term “food porn” and what it means today. She interviewed many chefs and food specialists about their opinions on food porn and basically came to the conclusion that no one is really sure what food porn is.
The origin of the term is fairly straightforward. The phrase was first used in 1979 by Michael Jacobson, cofounder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, when he wrote in the Center’s newsletter, Nutrition Action Healthletter about the opposition between healthy and unhealthy foods. He called healthy foods “Right Stuff” and unhealthy foods “Food Porn.” He said some food is, “so sensationally out of bounds of what a food should be that it deserved to be considered pornographic.”
So in Jacobson’s opinion, the creator of the phrase, food porn is pretty much highly processed junk food. Fascinatingly, we almost never use the term food porn in this way. As McBride found in her interviews, the definition of food porn ranged from watching people cook food to looking at glossy photographs of food. Never did anyone mention junk food, unless, perhaps, it was a glossy photo of junk food.
Google apparently doesn’t agree on one definition either. I Google image searched “food porn” and came up with just as many definitions as McBride – though, again, junk food didn’t really come up.
Here is a compilation of the variety of Google images I came up with, combined with the variety of definitions McBride’s article described:
1. Glossy Images. This may be the most typical definition of food porn. It’s what sells restaurants and fast food joints to people. It’s what people show in their food blogs. Typically these images are taken of food in the perfect lighting. Often food is glossed up and many times it was just plastic, not actual food, that was photographed. It is porn because you look at it, even though it is unattainable.
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.”
Here are some images of food that came up on the Google image search for ‘food porn’ that was most likely photographed in the perfect light and may not actually be edible.
2. Fancy food porn. Glossy photographs of fancy food, especially in food magazines, are also considered by many as food porn. But this definition transcends the 2D image. Fancy food is often considered food porn for its delicacy and beauty. It embodies everything romantic and stimulating about looking at beautiful food.
According to Chris Cosentino, an executive chef at Incanto and co-host of Chefs vs. City, “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.”
Here are some images to lust over that came up on the Google image search for food porn.
3. The act of cooking: Images of people actually making food actually came up the least on the Google search for food porn, though they did come up. It’s funny that this is the case, too, because porn typically involves watching some type of action, not some stagnant thing. Often you watch porn – it’s an action, not a stagnant image (though it depends on whether you’re reading a magazine or watching a movie). Watching someone cook food could actually be compared to watching someone have sex. Both are a performance that evokes an emotion, but in both cases the viewer doesn’t actually get to feel the result of the act. The viewer of a Food Network show doesn’t get to taste the food (unless they cook their own as they watch) and the viewer of a porno doesn’t get to feel the orgasm (unless they masturbate as they watch).
According to McBride, “By involving visceral, essential, and “fleshy” elements, this performative aspect invites obvious and usually facile comparisons with sex—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.”
Some of the first images of chefs that popped up on the search were of Giada De Laurentiis and Cat Cora, two women who have shows on the Food Network.
4. Provocative:These are the types of images that came up on the Google search the earliest. They literally use images of food to evoke ideas of sex. McBride didn’t necessarily describe this type of food porn, but many people hinted at it when describing what they thought food porn wasn’t.
In Alan Madison’s opinion, producer and director of various TV food shows, what we consider food porn is the opposite of porn. He argued, “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’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. 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.”
Madison has a point. Porn isn’t typically glossed up or fake or fancy. It is usually visceral, real, and provocative. It is, as he said, “graphic.” Here is a collection of graphic images that came up on the Google search. They aren’t of the slaugherhouses or the dirt and spit, but they are, perhaps, images that diminish food for its worth, just as Madison argues porn diminishes the sex. Whatever they are, they are certainly the funniest food porn images.