Forty-two pictures of a hotel buffet lunch in Mexico. Soggy lobster ceviche that had been messily scooped onto wilted romaine lettuce near stacks of stale nacho chips, a few greedy dollops of guacamole and plates of succulent grilled jumbo prawns with charred strips between bright pink and white chunks of meat. The plate — sandwiched between an ex boyfriend’s hands reaching for a sweaty margarita — is reflecting too much sunlight. It looks messy beside another plate holding strips of papaya with jewel tones, so ripe the orange faded into red and stained our lips as we ate.
“Don’t move your hand,” I instructed, having read recently that featuring hands in food photography can add depth to a frame.
“Um … Okay,” he stuttered, rolling his eyes as I — sensing the table to our left glance towards me in disdain — resisted standing on the chair to get a better shot.
I didn’t know it then, but the meal would be the source of a weeklong stomach virus, making me sick for the rest of the trip. Even if it hadn’t, why did I need 42 nearly identical pictures as reminders of a mediocre hotel buffet lunch? Flipping through my camera roll I remember the quiet, fuming breakfast, followed by a dinner I forced the server to throw away because the smell of broiled sea bream made me want to hurl. I did it because the lighting was good, of course, and I hoped my own distaste might fade like a sunburn if it were treated to the warm stream of Instagram likes like a soothing paste of aloe vera.
Everyone at the table ends up hating me. I hate them back for not letting me get a good angle of my bucatini in peace. The act justifies the whole process of eating out
It’s my job to photograph food before I eat it, and to then send my pictures to editors to run alongside the pieces I write. When I get invited to a restaurant launch or food event, it’s assumed I will photograph the dishes and share them via Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Everyone else at these events knows the same is expected of them. If everything goes to plan, we all walk away from the experience getting what we came for: Bloggers and writers get a freshly farmed batch of food content for their publications, along with the justified feeling that we are still relevant enough to be invited out; and the company hosting the event gets the publicity they were hoping for.
The pictures I take have to be just right: no shadows and lots of natural light. Nice napkins and cutlery are not for wiping and eating, they are props that turn good food pictures into great ones by providing necessary context. My editors have given me these instructions, and I don’t mind following along. I have taken pictures of food out of my own free will since the mid ’00s, before the phrase “food porn” ever existed; toggling with iPhone and Blackberry cameras before my mother caved and bought me a professional DSLR for my 19th birthday. I still photograph dishes that I eat on my own time.
The inevitable conclusion to this is that people call me a “foodie,” not only assuming that my dining experiences are amazing but that I have many of them all the time. The truth is that usually by the time I get to eating the dishes I’ve labored over with a camera, they’re cold and soggy; and if I’m eating with people who are not looking to capitalize off our meal in the form of Instagram likes, everyone at the table ends up hating me. I hate them back for not letting me get a good angle of my $28 bucatini in peace. The act justifies the whole process of eating out, which, without a picture, has started to feel like trying to enjoy a good steak without a glass of red wine.
The lived experience is rarely as good as the idea the picture preserves, not because of mediocre food or forced dinner conversation, but because reflecting back is often so much better than existing in a moment — one which almost guarantees an awkward amount of food is going to get stuck between your cheek and lower jaw, forcing you to self-consciously poke your tongue at it to fish it out. Of course this only happens if you’re dining with someone you’d like to impress. The smells and sounds of bright red chilis roasting over an open flame on the beach in Mexico are one thing; the version of that memory pickled in a brine of likes and filters, without the headache you had that afternoon and the fiery mosaic of mosquito bites and sunburn on your skin, is another. What matters is that you’ve preserved the essence of the parts you’d like to keep.
Food is a visual medium. Neuroscientist Dana Small writes in the Scientific American that we consume food with our eyes as well as our mouths. A 2012 study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior found that seemingly insignificant details about a dish, like “gloss, evenness, and shape,” are capable of changing how we perceive it to taste and smell. Creating images of food can have similarly positive effects: In New York magazine I examined how the quest for a mouthwatering image can complement the entire dining experience similarly to a great appetizer or glass of wine. This happens because the act of taking a picture before eating — including all of the natural-light seeking and angle tweaking that goes into it — forces us to focus on the dish by delaying gratification, heightening anticipation and ultimately making your first bite that much sweeter.
If you are posting the resulting picture to Instagram or the like, the favorable experience is further improved by the dopamine response social media triggers, so the hunger for creating, sharing and looking at images and short videos of avocado toast with bursting runny yolks on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook persists no matter how much we feed it.
The act of taking a picture before eating — including all of the natural-light seeking and angle tweaking that goes into it — forces us to focus on the dish by delaying gratification
People who seek to consume images of food are looking for a different experience than that of eating it. Imagining an experience is its own experience. Like porn, we use “food porn” to imagine ourselves in situations we may not want to be in without the safety of a screen separating us from it, or at least situations we don’t always have the energy to find. Downing a double bacon cheeseburger topped with gooey mac and cheese might make you feel terrible, but looking at it, in all its outlandish glory, fills you with something like desire — a desire that persists no matter how much we feed it, and carries no repercussions other than affecting your follower to following ratio. This safely administered dose of desire stirs us from the humdrum of our lives, waking us lightly enough not to be rude and giving us access to access to palates and tastes we might not have found on our own.
As with regular porn, consumers of food porn don’t have to experience what they’re looking at to decide whether or not they enjoy it. Like patrons of theater, whether or not the actor had a good or bad lived experience is often beside the point. As psychiatrist Deirdre Barrett documented in her book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran their Evolutionary Purpose: “The essence of the supernormal stimulus is that the exaggerated imitation can cause a stronger pull than the real thing.”
Like any form of currency, the pursuit of increasing capital can cause the product, in this case the food, to fall by the wayside. If you have ever tasted a rainbow bagel, the one self-professed foodies flocked to Brooklyn in droves for this summer, you’ll know they taste more like Play-Doh in bagel form than anything you’d like to place under cream cheese. It only takes one homemade acai bowl to realize the careful blending of six-plus ingredients and topping arrangement of six-plus more is rarely worth the effort for something nearly guaranteed to turn into a soupy mess within two minutes, which is the minimum amount of time you’ll need to secure a good picture. And no one needs to have eaten a crazy “fun” viral milkshake complete with donuts, cake slices and candy, piled high over blended ice cream, to know doing so is probably going to make the rest of your afternoon far from fun.
“Sometimes I think maybe we should make a viral menu-item just to get more people in the door,” executive chef Wayne Morris of Boralia, named one of Toronto’s top restaurants, once confessed to me. “It’s a formula you can follow, but that’s not what we want to do. I’d rather have people come and be open to the entire menu, rather than come for one item and leave.” As nauseating as it might be to purveyors of the art of dining, the guarantee of a good ’gram is a different sort of draw. Chefs might view the food critic or blogger with disdain; words rarely come close to describing what the artist intended. But food writing, blogging and photography are all ways fans of the art help the medium live on long after service is over and digestifs have been drained.
Some of the most beautiful meals I have ever eaten have been ruined by the time I got around to taking a bite: miso-glazed black cod with umeshu butter reduction, where the decadent plum wine and butter sauce grew a thin, glue-ish film from sitting out too long (“It’s stupid good,” I later summarized in a review); heirloom tomato salad with a delicate squash blossom, bathed in rice flour tempura, crispy quinoa and cucumber gelee, where the picturesque orange blossom went soggy as I moved it around to various restaurant windows and snapped away (“The dish comes from one of the best spots in the city,” I recalled); Daniel Boulud’s air-dried rotisserie chicken with a hypnotizing, crispy, buttered golden skin, where the flesh turned cold by the time I was satisfied with my photographs and could actually get to eating it (“A beautiful example of quality French cuisine,” I would later gush).
Tuna tartare is a shining example of a classic dish that is an exception to this rule, and I would recommend serving it — with its assortment of ingredients that rarely go cold or warm or get soggy — if you ever find yourself in the nightmarish position of having to feed a hyena-like arrangement of food bloggers. If, like tuna tartare, a dish does manage to stay perfectly intact by the time you get around to eating it, there often remains an anxiety that it is eaten with. You wonder if you got a good enough shot, and try to resist looking through the often identical stream of pictures on your camera roll to make sure, knowing you’re supposed to be focusing on the unfiltered food in front of you.
Sitting at a table with a group of silent people all standing up on chairs, or climbing up ladders often laid out by PR people to get the best angle of an assortment of wood-fired pizzas that are rapidly getting cold is a particularly strange experience. No one wants to read about how, in order to get the perfect shot, you stood on a retractable step stool, which you carried to the restaurant along with an assortment of miniature studio lights that you had to set up while willfully ignoring the table sitting across from you dispensing dirty looks like too much laundry detergent in an effort to wash you away. But I established a rapport with the aforementioned sentiments early on, as one might do with annoying coworkers craning their heads into your cubicle asking what’s for lunch today. There is a thrill in making food seem more appealing than it could ever have been in the moment.
Anyone who has experienced any sort of traction on a social media post knows that the rush of attention is addictive, and that like a great meal, it never lasts as long as you’d hoped. You have to find it again. But the pictures belong to you — an image of untouched guacamole as much proof of your existence as anything else. It is yours to keep; to reference; to remind you and everyone else that you were here. “Wow,” you think to yourself, scrolling through your feed alone late one night when you have a headache and can’t fall asleep. “That looks perfect, and it was mine.”