There is a common chef’s maxim that states: people first eat with their eyes. The visual aspects of experiencing, tasting, and consuming food have been an important consideration of food culture for centuries. Within this landscape, chocolate and desserts have played a significant role in the evolution of the visualization of indulgence. From the laborious construction of marzipan hedgehogs and elaborate sugar structures of the 16th century to the highly technical making of contemporary chocolate commercials, the emphasis on the importance of visual perfection has remained constant, though motivations and meanings have evolved and expanded alongside technology.
Today, the term “food porn” has emerged as a way to describe the pervasiveness of images of food in media and the fascination with capturing images of what we eat. The Urban Dictionary entry for “food porn,” created in April 2005 defines the term as: “Close-up images of delicious, juicy food in advertisements” (Urban Dictionary). The term, first coined in feminist writer Rosalind Cowards’s 1984 book Female Desire, was vastly ignored until the early 2000s when it exploded in the media with Flickr’s “Food Porn” category in September of 2004 (Atlantic). Since then, food blogs, Pinterest boards, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages have more frequently been including pictures of food. Within these pages, chocolate and chocolate desserts capture special attention as objects of indulgence that play on historical associations with lust, sex, and romance (Robertson, 30). Even the very name, “food porn,” has obvious connotations and references to the satisfaction of one’s desires through a visual outlet. But why do people enjoy viewing and sharing mere images of food? Do these mouthwatering images induce cravings or, rather, act as a substitute for the actual experience of eating?
Unfortunately, when one looks to science for an explanation of this visual phenomenon, the research can be contradicting. Some studies, such as this one published in 2012, found that just looking at images of food could be enough to trigger an increase in the hunger-hormone ghrelin (Schussler et al., 2012). Other studies, including this 2013 study out of Nature Neuroscience, suggest the brain’s reward centers may not respond as much to visual “food cues” when the brain signals the stomach is full (Labouebe et al., 2013). Clearly, more research needs to be done in this complex arena to fully understand the visual, psychological, and neurological underpinnings of taste and food. Thus, in my opinion, a more interesting and ripe avenue for analysis lies in the social and historical influences that have shaped the pursuit of food’s visual perfection. By first tracing the history of displaying lavish desserts as a marker of social status and power through the contemporary phenomenon of televised, dessert-centered competitions, food blogs dedicated to chocolate, and finally the influence of social media, I hope to illustrate a common thread of food as an important part of the culture of social currency, as well as an evolving motivation for the visual perception of food as whole through the lens of chocolate and other examples of indulgence.
Today, we can share food with the snap of an iPhone and a few clicks. However, food sharing and the pursuit of visual perfection was historically a much more physical undertaking motivated by the desire to exhibit class, wealth, and power. In the introductory chapters of Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz describes the connection between food and sociality as, “food and eating have not lost their affective significance, though as a means for validating existing social relations their importance and their form are almost unrecognizably different” (Mintz, 5). However, a historical analysis confirms a great amount of care has always been paid to the visual perception of food.
For example, Mintz identifies several examples of significant effort put into perfecting the visual appeal of desserts. During the height of the 17th century, marzipan confections were meant to be admired before eaten and often molded into animal-like forms to adorn the tables of the wealthy (Mintz, 93). Cookbooks from the eighteenth century included instructions for elaborate displays, “graced with as many as ten different dessert items,” to transform sweet delicacies into a form of bourgeois entertainment (Mintz, 94). The video below illustrates how elaborate structures of sugar, spices, and even gold were transformed into symbols of power and privilege. In the nineteenth century, however, these grand confections lost their association with the high-class, because sugar as a commodity had permeated to the lower classes. While these examples may seem extreme, the historical motivations of food sharing and the importance of visual perfection serve to illustrate the origin of more contemporary meanings, and can help explain why the way food looks remains a primary concern in contemporary culture.
Fast-forward to recent years and the obsession over making indulgences appeal to a visual appetite has evolved. However, the cultural capital and social currency that is gained through the exhibition of visually astounding sweets remains. For example, the spirit of competition is embodied in the various cooking competitions aired on television that are for dessert commodities. Ace of Cakes, Baker’s Dozen, Chocolate with Jacques Torres, Cupcake Wars, DC Cupcakes, Dessert First, The Dessert Show, Kid in a Candy Store, Last Cake Standing, Passion for Dessert, Sugar Rush, and Sweet Genius, are a handful of The Food Network’s television offerings, and all of them are exclusively focused on desserts or sweets. Even Top Chef has created its own sweet division, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Clearly, America enjoys visually indulging. Sugar, chocolate, and even buttercream frosting are ingredients available to the vast majority of Americans; thus the thrill of watching these competitions focuses more so on the talent and attention to detail exhibited through the construction of such elaborate desserts. Though the on screen judges obviously taste the desserts prior to voting on the winner, I would argue that the visual perception and attractiveness of the desserts is much more important, as the show is designed primarily for the distant audience at home. They must be able to “taste” with their eyes.
Another example of conveying taste through visualization is illustrated in the design and production of commercials for chocolate and other desserts. Gü Puds is a British brand of desserts introduced in the early 2000s, and they sell a wide variety of chocolate and fruit desserts in small, single-serving “puds.” The video above details the highly technical labor that goes into the making of their commercials and illustrates the importance of creating exactly the right visual effect. The directors and producers used a Photron BC2 High Speed camera recording at nearly 2000 frames per second in high definition to capture the slow motion image. The time, resources, manpower, and technology involved in the creation of this commercial (lasting less than a minute!) clearly exemplify the importance of the visual identity of foods, and more specifically, desserts. When customers feed their cravings to indulge, they value the visual appeal as an insight to how the product may taste, and therefore marketing campaigns use this association to their advantage.
In addition to commercialized exploitations of the visual appetite with profit and sales in mind, food blogs have also become an interesting component of food culture from a different sector of the popular. Rather than relying on the published food critics in the New York Times, people looking for an excellent dining experience can check one of a plethora of blogs online. This article illustrates how the restaurant experience is being shaped by these food bloggers, armed with iPhones and not afraid to kneel on the ground to find the best angle from which to snap a shot of an orange infused chocolate soufflé. Mark Jahnke, who, along with his wife, started the food and wine blog, F. Scott and Zelda says, “A lot of our friends are foodies, and we just wanted to let people know what we had tried over the weekend and whether it was good” (La Gorce, 2010). While food is typically the highlight, the restaurant atmosphere is often communicated through the images, and illustrates the importance of context within food blogs. In addition to restaurant recommendations, most food and dessert blogs also highlight recipes and at-home suggests via posted images. For example, the Tumblr “Mostly About Chocolate” features recipes, restaurant recommendations, and newsworthy links to articles about chocolate related topics. While scrolling through the blog one can find two adjacent entries, one of an image of a freshly baked dessert and the other of a freshly purchased chocolate croissant (images below). This comparison illustrates the value of both types of visual representations and social currency that can be gained by sharing images of our food. On one hand, the blogger has asserted his or her culinary expertise, and on the other, a well-rounded knowledge of the best bakeries.
This clearly “homemade” dessert (Curly Wurly brownies) reflects the talent and ability of the baker. The blogger also noted she needed to “let them cool down before cutting then I’ll take proper pictures that look decent.”
In this post, the blogger gave a shout out to a local bakery. Compared to the homemade dessert, this image represents a refined taste and a well-traveled consumer offering expert selections from only the best.
Beyond televised cooking shows, visual marketing campaigns, and structured food blogs however, the culture of the visual appetite has permeated even deeper into the facets of society through a contemporary culture centered on technology used for every day tasks, especially through social media. Because social media is a ubiquitous platform for sharing content, the meaning of sharing food has drastically expanded to encompass the casual sharing and the capacity to do so extends to anyone with an iPhone. Most individuals have the technological capacity to snap a photo of a mouthwatering chocolate torte and share it via Instagram, Pinterest, or simple as a picture message to a friend. Rather than physically sharing a meal over a table, people can share their thoughts and experiences regarding food to anyone in the world, in seconds. This brings a new dimension of the capacity of food to unite people.
Today, the meaning of sharing visual representations of food has clearly expanded. Rather than an indication of class and power exclusively, as was common in earlier centuries, visual representations of food now represent a social currency of taste in many forms. From Food Network episodes, to million-dollar Super Bowl commercials that make our mouths water, to the picture posted on Facebook of the chocolate birthday cake baked for a friend, capturing and consuming images of food marks us as highly visual consumers and illustrates the importance food has beyond simply feeding our bodies, that of cultural connections and multi-faceted social currency.
1) King’s Confectionary Video
2) Top Chef: Just Desserts Video Clip
3) Gu Puds Website
4) The Making of a Gü Chocolate Ad
5) Comparative Blog Posts
Scholarly and Other Sources
La Gorce, Tammy. 2010. “A Vibrant Culture of Food Blogging.” The New York Times. url: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/nyregion/07dinenj.html?_r=0
Labouebe, et al. 2013. “Insulin induces long-term depression of ventral tegmental area dophamine neurons via endocannabinoids.” Nature Neuroscience. 16 200-208.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Group: New York. 1985.
Romm, Cari. 2015. “What ‘Food Porn’ Does to the Brain.” The Atlantic. url: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/what-food-porn-does-to-the-brain/390849/
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women, and Empire. Manchester: New York. 2009.
Schussler, P et al. 2012. “Ghrelin levels increase after picture showing food.” Obesity. Jun: 20(6) 1212-7.