Image by Phil Thomas, CC. Click on image for license and information.

Do you ever feel like your social feed is overrun by pictures of food? A report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project from October 2013 found that more than half of all Internet users have posted original photos or videos to a website. Thanks to the portability of cell phone cameras and the magic of photo filters, cell phone users are well equipped to pose as amateur photographers. And food is well suited to be a subject because it can be consumed with our eyes. There are presently over 143 million images tagged with #food on Instagram—and while not all of those images are of food, the hashtag shows that we're thinking about food socially. From plate shots of that special meal at that amazing restaurant to the spread from a backyard barbecue to the meal you just painstakingly made from scratch, food images are a large part of our social feeds. This type of imagery has come to be known as "food porn." It's a display of food as a sumptuous, desirable, enviable experience. It's meant to excite. And it's meant to show-off. Food porn offers an invitation to voyeuristically participate in someone else's food experience. As a consumer of food porn, you may never eat at that fancy restaurant or make the dish being shared, but you get to watch. While social media makes this easy to do, we've been doing this for years. Food porn is embedded in the relationships we have with food.

The term food porn is credited to Michael Jacobson, the cofounder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest which provides information to the public on nutrition, food, and health. He used the term in the Center's newsletter to refer to food that's sensational to the point of being divorced of it's properties as food: food meant to be enjoyed, but not necessarily consumed for nutrition. Jacobson applied the term to junk food or processed food but it's come to reference the sharing of any gratuitous experience of food. And when we consider the ways in which food has been presented historically, we see that the idea of food porn isn't a new phenomenon.

For example, the legends of huge Roman feasts where guests were given access to vomitoria so that they could empty themselves and continue to gorge persist as popular images of Roman dining. They paint a picture of elaborate shows where the meals with their exotic ingredients (like oysters and bee pollen) were a means to confirm the hosts' social status. But research (and some common sense) tells us that not all Romans ate in this fashion. The basic Roman diet included rations of cereals, wine, and olives. The trade required to bring exotic foods to Roman tables was only accessible to the wealthy, so it's more likely that the general Roman population was eating far more simply and including more locally sourced items in their meals. But the image that persists is of the lavish Roman banquet steeped in opulence and excess—a feast for the eyes more than anything else.

Our records of food continue in this fashion. They tell us about sensational experiences that were beyond the reach of the general population. The stories that have come down to us emphasize excess: The Emperor Claudius is said to have ordered crushed pearls be added to wine to make it more costly and required a precious stone to be added to every dish he was served. Other stories tell of flecks of real gold being added to peas to increase their sparkle, and mackerel being pickled live at the table so that guests could admire their iridescence in their final moments of life.

This display of wealth and power through food continued in the Middle Ages. Medieval barons depended on allegiances with neighboring nobles, and banquets were a great way to impress the guests and curry favor. At these events, the most important person in attendance was the host. He and the guests seated at his table were granted access to the best meal options, such as fresh roasts and untouched pies. But there were often secondary tables at these events, and the distance of these guests from the host as well as their own social standing determined what and how they were served, which is particularly important since these events could last for days. At the "Rewarde" or Second Messe tables the guests were given a larger proportion of day old roasts and half eaten pies but the food was still relatively fresh and recognizable as the dishes they were meant to be. Soldiers might be served puddings and stews—foods that could be boiled down into a singular mass from older leftovers—and served in the plainest vessels. The poor, who lined up at the gate, were thrown the scraps not eaten at the banquet.

This hierarchy reveals that eating was very much a spectator sport, but how does it relate to food porn? The answer here is two-fold. Firstly, people attended these events (and I use "attended" loosely to cover the poor waiting on scraps as well) to bear witness to the food that was beyond their reach. For guests at the feast, the foods at the host's table included elaborate displays that could only be admired from afar from some of the lower tables. For example, feathered peacocks were very much in fashion at the dinner table for their beautiful plumage. The birds were skinned, cooked, and then stuffed back into their raw skins with the feathers attached for display. (Imagine having that show up in your Instagram feed today.) They were stuffed with spices to mask the smell of their decomposition. But in the tradition of "passing food down" to lower tables as the feast days continued, these items would have spoiled relatively quickly and were more for show than consumption.

Secondly, these are the events that we have preserved as representative of the glamour of food. These depictions are recognized as unattainable. They completely mask the preparation required for this display. And they're indecent and scandalous. I want to emphasize a point made earlier: we know that not all Romans attended lavish Roman feasts, and that the medieval poor gathered at the lord's gates on feast days because not everyone could afford such elaborate experiences. But these aren't the images of food and eating that have remained with us. We don't immediately call up images of the Crachit's Christmas dinner because there is a status to recognizing what it means to eat well.

We want to know what others are eating and we want to share what we're eating because these things establish a social status quo. We have never had more information about food or access to healthy options. As an awareness of calorie counts and healthy food choices grows, there is a "right" side of food that people are trying to align themselves with—and it isn't too far from an older idea that prosperity could be measured by one's girth, instead prosperity and well-being are being measured by perceived association. It's okay to be a foodophile. It's okay to indulge in exotic ingredients. It's okay to showcase your culinary attempts. All of these things send the message that you understand what eating well means, just as you understand what an indulgence is when you share that fried Oreo you snagged at a local fair. We share food porn to affirm that understanding. We are showing off.

On the other side of that, the experience of the dish itself is a performance shared by those who view the image. The diner will theoretically never reproduce the results of the chef's labor, or master the techniques used to produce the dish. Neither will the viewer of a photograph of that food. The diner or viewer is meant to experience that labor with their senses. We consume these images because they also reaffirm what we believe we should be aspiring to. I'll share an anecdote with you to illustrate this: I have a weakness for fries, which good friends know and sometime indulge. For one workday lunch, I had a salad, but someone bought me fries since he was getting lunch that also included fries. I set the fries on my desk next to my salad and a colleague took a photo and posted it to Instagram. She thought the juxtaposition of the healthy and unhealthy was interesting. I thought nothing of it at all until someone commented on the photo as to just how unhealthy those fries were. Her comment allowed her to share her food knowledge and to critique the knowledge of others.

We're inundated with images that encourage us to try to recreate "good" eating. Between the Food Network and the Cooking Channel where "regular" people sometimes get to showcase culinary skills, and we're told that cooking is easy and that certain types of foods are enjoyable, we're being driven to maintain a particular record of food relationships. Food porn manages to completely ignore a divide between social and economic groups who may have access and the means to eat and well versus those who do not. There are people who cannot imagine spending the amount required for a dinner at Le Bernadin and who have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It's completely preoccupied with the self. But in doing so, it continues a tradition of creating a lopsided record that overlooks the struggles some people have to get enough to eat, and to eat healthfully and well.

The height of the holiday season often includes celebrations with friends and family, and lots of food. Whether it's an intimate dinner for two or a larger social gathering with treats laid out buffet-style, we're probably going to share some of our culinary experiences with our social network. This isn't surprising: food and eating have always been a huge part of our social experiences, and represent a large part of who we are. What is telling is the ways in which these shared moments reveal how little our relationship with food has changed over the years.

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Referenced:

  • Killgrove, Kristina and Robert Tykot (2013). “Food for Rome: A Stable Isotope Investigation of Diet in the Imperial period (1st – 3rd centuries AD)” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (32): pp 28-38.

  • Leith, Prue (1987). "The Fine Art of Food" Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 135(5373): 687-698.

  • McBride, Anne E (2010). "Food porn" Gastronimica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 10(1): 38-46.