The Aesthetics of Food by Nina, Sophia, Alice, Colleen and Carlie

 Living in a hypermediated world, we are continuously bombarded with images and messages which shape the discourses around our lives. These discourses are woven by narratives which police us by naturalizing what is socially acceptable and what is not. Although they act invisible by creating the framework by which we understand and interpret the world, media influences hold tremendous power in shaping those discourses, oftentimes creating new neoliberal markets on which we become dependent. These markets set up boundaries that reduce our ability to have agency over our lives. This is especially poignant in the realm of food media, in which mainstream media influences can take something as universal as food and establish rules to which we reduce ourselves in our eating habits. Food media aestheticizes food and creates food porn that prioritizes the visual image of the food over the intrinsic value of the food itself. In this project, we attempted to create a space of freedom from the expectations and narratives that food media constructs around how food should be cooked and eaten. By turning those value systems on their heads, we played with food conventions in an effort to recover what is lost in food media. In redefining our priorities, we created our own food media (our own pornography) in which we walk through the construction of a meal from the selecting of ingredients to cooking, presenting, eating, and dealing with waste. By selecting the least homogenous, “ugly” produce (those with bruises, blemishes, holes, overly ripe produce, etc) and preparing the meal without any governance about which parts of the food to eat, how to slice and add the ingredients, and eating communally with few social conventions, we discovered a deeply sensual and more wholesome bodily experience while interacting with food. While still honoring the legitimacy of food aesthetics, our project was an exercise in pushing the boundaries and priorities constructed around food that we noticed in food porn, and in so doing sharing an experience in which we could broadened our scope of vision of ourselves and our own agency in food choices.

Bodily Experience and Communal Experience – 

Media captivates our attention and implores our innermost desires when it comes to food. Oftentimes we find ourselves endlessly scrolling Instagram feeds, fantasizing over donuts decorated with galaxy scenes, sculpted avocado toast and rice bowls topped with spiralized vegetables. In her book, Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference, Signe Rousseau describes this as a “consumption of images,” (xxi), but consumption in this context is only achieved through the visual. In reality, browsing Instagram feeds, watching cooking shows or pinning recipes to inspirational boards on Pinterest are all visual consumptions that are far removed from the actual preparation and eating of food. Although we were aware that the presentation of food media was something experienced only on a virtual, and therefore two-dimensional, level before starting this project, our group was surprised by the depth our interaction with food reached while we prepared and ate our meal.

The most notable discovery was the bodily experience cultivated throughout the entire process. In his book, Cooked, Michael Pollan describes the work of cooks in terms of “rhythms and textures,” (5). These are sensations we cannot see; instead, we either hear the rhythm or feel the texture. He goes on to explain that, “cooks get to put their hands on real stuff, not just keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi. They get to work with the primal elements, too, fire and water, earth and air, using them – mastering them! – to perform their tasty alchemies,” (5). To use these elements is to interact with them, and that can only be done with the communal effort of all of our senses. Our sense of smell was engaged the moment the vegetables hit the frying pan and could be used to detect whether or not something was burning; we tasted our concoction along they way, determining whether or not it needed a little more salt, a little more pepper, etc; we listened to the snap and crackle of the sauteeing vegetables to gauge whether the heat was too high or not. To be a chef, we learned, one needs to be in tune with all of their senses.

Preparing our meal was also a communal experience. Media takes place away from space, disembedding us from our immediate surroundings. Through watching a cooking video or looking at someone’s scrumptious Instagram post, we engage in phantasmagoric communication with absent beings; we are not physically interacting with them. Our kitchen, however, was a dynamic space where we worked as a team to produce the food we would then be consuming. We chopped vegetables together, bounced ideas off one another in regards to how and when we should cook each ingredient and shared laughter and conversation – all within the same room, at the same time.

Pollan recounts a similar experience in Cooked when he describes brewing beer with his son, Isaac. “Brewing beer, even from a kit, turned out to be an enjoyable way for Isaac and me to spend a Saturday afternoon together… The work itself called for four hands and at least one strong back…, all of which combined to make for an agreeable collaboration of equals,” (388). Although Pollan and his son are from different generations, they were able to find common ground through this collaborative experience involving food. The same thing happened for our group. Each one of us comes from a unique background with our own preconceptions of how food should be made or eaten, yet we were able to come together, set aside these differences and worked as a team. We experienced one another as people, as friends who can create and laugh and enjoy a meal together.

Our project allowed us to step out of the virtual reality that is food media. Instead, we experienced the here and now reality. Our project went beyond the three dimensions, utilizing all of the senses and creating a interactive and collaborative environment. Even our own food media (our photos and video), though not portrayed with the same aesthetic as popularized food media, cannot portray these invisible phenomena; they can only be experienced physically and personally.

Stylized Photo our food media + video – 

 

In popular and mainstream media, food is very much focused around appearance. Media also dictates the way we prepare, eat, and value our food. The food media that we are bombarded with on social media, on billboards and even explicitly described through radio commercials creates an illusion of how food should be. It frames our expectations around experiences that are unattainable in reality. In an attempt to challenge this discourse, our project was documented throughout: from selecting the specifically unappealing blemished produce to taking the very last few bites of the finished product. We captured our performance in ways that ‘food’ is portrayed through food media but with our purposefully selected unappealing food. We were curious to see what our reactions would be. If we took pictures of our produce being prepared in a scene that captures our actual experience, would this food still appear appealing to us? This was a key question we kept in mind through the entire experience. In alignment with Signe Rousseau’s thoughts about how “media [has] come to determine how we think and behave when it comes to nourishing ourselves”(xx), we prepared to create a space to explore our imagination to generate our own media capturing shots of our own experiences. Through this process of documenting this group performance, there were challenges that our photographers faced. Much of our creativity was very much influenced by the discourses that are generated through mainstream media.

We made sure to exclude the preconception of food and had no plan and no expectation of the result of our cooking experience in the beginning, we were just on the hunt for unappealing produce at first and we were going to make a vegan stir fry. This connects with an idea Rousseau mentions in her book Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday

Interference “The more food media we consume, the less incentive we have to think for ourselves about how we should eat”(xx). With no plan or recipe to abide by for this project, we were forced to trust our own agency. This was especially tested when Alice decided to top our finished stir-fry with sliced over-riped bananas without removing the peel. Although the reaction was not captured, this was a test for all of us to see if we could ignore our conditioned views of food to be open to enjoying this meal. An additional obstacle we faced was when we caught ourselves falling into a pattern similar to that present in food media in preparing the food especially. It was mentioned while we were cutting the produce that the vegetables should not be cut in any specific way and that why should the produce all have to be cut separately rather than together. This was fun to explore with each other, it almost felt like we were breaking the rules of how food should be prepared which made us realize just how deeply ingrained the influence of food media influences our own agency and governs our decisions.

In comparison to mainstream media, we realized that we captured more than just the visual experience of the food itself. I wanted to capture the blemishes and hands and tools used to bring not only this meal but communal experience together. In Cooked when Pollan works with his son brewing beer, he emphasizes how the labor opens a door of social bonding: “The work itself called for four hands and at least one strong back (for lifting and pouring five-gallon kettles and heavy glass carboys), all of which combined to make for an agreeable collaboration of equals. Working side by side is always a good recipe for easy conversation with a teenager”(Pollan 388). This type of hands on work creates a very level atmosphere and each person played a part in this performance, our end product was much larger than a sizzling colorful stir fry in a skillet. It was an atmosphere of open and creative space. Much of the media in food today very rarely focuses on the space in which a food is prepared, it is disconnected from everything and its origins remain hidden. In comparison our food media was very much connected to an experience. It captured a narrative of a fun group of friends exploring in the kitchen and making something beautiful.

Another aspect of this project that was captured was focused through the lens of food porn. Food porn uses the techniques present in actual porn through fetishization of food.  “ ‘True gastro-porn heightens the excitement and also the sense of the unattainable by proffering colored photographs of various completed recipes’. As implicit here as it is explicit in non-food pornography is the commodification of fantasy–the ‘unattainable’…” (Rousseau 74).  This  connects us back to the idea mentioned earlier about an unattainable experience of food. Similar to actual porn, there are very few senses that are being highlighted in that artificial experience, not only is it staged from a actor and actress level, but the process of filming the sexual experience itself through the camera shots creates a perspective to a viewer that is extremely unrealistic. In food porn, the same themes apply: “desirable but achievable.. Food porn, like sex porn are all measures of alienation, not community”(Rousseau 74-75). We in comparison introduced a community experience and captured this through our own food porn.

 

While preparing the foods we embraced the sounds and textures of the foods (e.g. squishing the cherry tomato which then exploded on Sophia and Alice eating the avocado with her finger present in the video). These created a more intimate bodily experience with our food in rather than the alienated unachievable one so present in food porn. While taking video and shots of the group members eating the food, great candid shots were captured which showed a very holistic experience of enjoying the meal. In the photo (*Nina taking a bite*) she has her hand cupped around the nan bread with the stir-fry on top of it. The pepper in the photo had a visible blemish on it yet there are still vibrant colors present and appears to be a very real experience. We concluded that by following our own agency we created our our food media and most importantly we created our own food aesthetics as a result.  

Art of it being governed so much + trust our own agency – 

Itself a discourse that is “highly regulated groupings of utterances or statements with internal rules which are specific to discourse itself (Mills, 48)”, food aesthetic has its systematic practices that people in this discourse discipline inconsistency and difference constantly on daily basis, naturalizing ‘proper food’ while defining ugliness. It allows people to constantly perform the notion that the look of food is itself quality, social manner and status. Outweighing food itself, food aesthetics create a huge gap between people and holistic sensual food; due to this ‘defined ugliness’, people’s justified avoidance of certain food may lead to unnecessary food waste.

Our project aimed to challenge the constructed aesthetics of food by excluding preconceptions during the whole process of interacting with food, reversing ways that the food is supposed to look and be prepared.


During the food selection, for instance, we chose ingredients that people will normally avoid due to its “ugliness”: green peppers with worm holes, bananas with black peels, and non-standardized sweet potatoes. We meant to visualize and doubt the standard of food selection that construct people’s belief of what is ‘good food’ and whether it overstates the relevance between the look and the quality. Moving to food presentation, by abandoning harmonious ingredients combination and well-designed plating, we also aimed to reverse the normalized idea that only specifically-presented food can bring pleasure and property. We put bananas with black peels on top of fried rice and discarded plates. It is asked, why do we even need plates if the rice was already well-suited in the pot?

Including food selection, presentation and other interactions with food, we created freedom for ourselves to “not be governed so much” (Michel Foucault) by tossing out any constructed preconception of how cooking should be done, but still obtaining a highly pleasing and fun experience while also enjoying the final product.

Similar to Rousseau’s description of food media, the more we are being governed by food aesthetic, “the less incentive we have to think for ourselves about what we eat” (Rousseau, xx). However, being aware of the over-influence the discourse, we should all trust our own agencies starting with not prioritizing food aesthetic over the food itself.

With the rise of industrial agriculture and alternative food movements alike, we are entering a new episteme in how we consider our food and food choices. Those food choices are paradoxical: consumers are simultaneously dependent on food ‘experts’ that dominate our mediated spaces and yet they are held responsible for the repercussions of those eating habits. Our project attempts to embody Michel Foucault’s analysis on discourse and critique when he defines critique as “the art of not being governed so much” (Foucault). By assessing food media’s prioritizing of food aesthetics and the visual perception of food preparation and presentation, we were able to invert those same value systems in a conscious effort to create a sense of freedom. This practice helped us rediscover the sensuality in eating and food, the eroticism of food porn in creating a fantasy of the unattainable (and then attaining it), and to confront the expectations of food aestheticization. Just as in traditional pornography, food media creates heightened expectations for consumers, which oftentimes become unrealistic. Our rejection of media conventions and authoritative knowledge models helped us to trust our own agency in making food decisions, and ultimately translates to understanding the discursive structures that govern the rest of our lives, as well.

 

Bibliography:

 

Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. , 2013. Print.

Rousseau, Signe. Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday

Interference. , 2013. Internet resource.

Mills, Sara. Discourses of Difference Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2003.