Against Food Porn

Some will see this article, in light of the views I’ve espoused in pieces past, to be the final straw. They will submit their case for changing the title of this column from the “The Edible Thinker” to “The Crotchety Grandpa” in the name of “journalistic integrity” and “honesty,” and they will have a strong case.

But I attempt to channel that crotchety ethos here because I think it is valuable and under-represented. It’s a voice that reminds us to be attentive to our values and aware of our collective past as we hastily bum-rush the future. So forgive me when I say that the internet and social-media driven “food porn” culture has all the trappings of a full-blown apocalyptic scenario.

Engaging in food porn, which is, essentially, the act of ogling at pictures of salaciously prepared foodstuffs (the gooier and more outlandishly decadent, the better!), is really not so new. The trend, which came to my attention a few years ago, is now rather ubiquitous as a swarm of digital detritus in the form of Tumblrs, food blogs, Twitter pics, Facebook posts and filtered Instagram photos has come to dominate the internet landscape.

I want to argue, though, that merely looking at pictures of food does not constitute food pornography. For that, a certain culture needs to be in place, one that is woefully deprived and technologically dependent. Yes, in my crotchety-grandpa-mind, food porn has everything to do with the internet, or more specifically, the role it has played in bastardizing our quest for satiation. And while it’s true that I’ve talked to some length about technology and food in the past — how, in my opinion, technology has become food (exhibit A: WOWButter), now I’m seeking to further that assertion when I say that technology, and the internet in particular, has also impeded our ability to authentically engage with the food that is real. Exhibit B: food porn.

Simply put, convenience technologies are, by default, bad for food because so often the fastest and most convenient way of sharing food — through images and Tweets — is the worst way. It isn’t even food, but hollow idolatry. What’s more, these practices become self-perpetuating: when you have access to an infinite reservoir of images delivered to your eyeballs in nanoseconds, you become listless, bored and unsatisfied which requires mining deeper in search of more. But you will continue to eat while remaining hungry because the satiation here is completely nonliteral.

This is part of the tragedy — that food porn is so often pursued as a shallow attempt to satisfy oneself, but of course it never will. How could it, as mere pixels? Here, food porn culture betrays our alienation and gestures towards a new, emerging low. After all, is there any mental picture sadder than that of someone staring longingly at a sandwich through a pulsating screen at 1 AM? Food porn becomes downright apocalyptic because it demonstrates just how much has gotten between our food and us — for example, the impermeable barrier of an artificially-lit screen.

Now, we must reinvest in our humanity by stepping away from social internet sites and back into the kitchen. Use Facebook to invite people over to cook, not to repost pictures of pancakes from Tastespotting.

I’ve heard it said that viewing food porn gives people ideas about things to cook, but what I’m saying is that there is no substitute for accumulating actual knowledge and competency. This is what really matters and it cannot be obtained through spastic Googling. I recommend, of course, looking to your elders.

Julia Child’s the Art of French Cooking remains the definitive discourse. When read and worked through from cover to cover, it gently guides novices through the fundamentals (how to chiffonade herbs, braise pork, deglaze a pan, make a roux) while also building fluency in kitchen vernacular and fostering an acquaintance with the essential tools of any self-respecting chef’s arsenal. Similarly, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts is an unfussy and informative volume that will make anyone into a competent baker, capable of producing velvety pots de crème and glittering tarts as if this were second nature. There’s also Cook’s Illustrated, a revelatory magazine whose pictures demonstrate technique rather than gussied up haute cuisine.

Cheaper and more practical than going to culinary school, good cookbooks, magazines, recipes, TV programs and websites offer access to authentic knowledge that will give you the freedom and confidence to cook and share good food rather than fawn over lifeless, overly-stylized images of someone’s brunch. You can learn, if you so desire, to make the food that bloggers spend all day Tweeting about, or food that is, at the very least, quite delicious and rewarding to make.

Here’s the good news: the obsession of viewing food porn is powered by an underlying enthusiasm for food. The key is to redirect that energy in valuable ways that result in an actual knowledge of and acquaintance with food that also highlights the importance of quality, local and sustainable ingredients. By doing that, we will truly preserve a vital essence of ourselves, that which was passed down to us from our grandparents, the endearingly — and sagely — crotchety ones.

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