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Why “food porn” is not so exciting … they’re faking it

I love food, if you’re reading this chances are we both love food, and it’s a pretty passionate affair. But like every other relationship, it doesn’t always work long-distance – as in, on TV. If food is the new sex, then is watching it on TV a bit like watching (food) porn? Like other porn, it doesn’t really work for me,  not so much on moral ground – and at least, in food there’s no women being treated as sexual objects…oh no, wait, that’s Carlo Cracco surrounded by naked models - but because it’s ultimately unsatisfying and can leave you with a bad aftertaste. And exactly like for porn, most of it it’s fake anyway…

Heidi Klum burger ad  Carl's Jr. and Hardees

Model Heidi Klum in a recent commercial promoting a 960 calories Jim Bean Burger for Carl’s Jr. (US fast food chain). Not sure she did swallow…

Don’t get me wrong- I do like my odd Masterchef episode (strictly the Professionals one). But when it come to food on TV, I sometimes think it’s a case of too much of a good thing. I feel nauseous and bloated by just thinking of the endless stream of Saturday Morning Kitchen, Great British Bake Off, The Great British Menu and so on. Some TV chefs are bonkers, some are silly, some are great – I have a weakness for Michel Roux Jr. and Tom Kerridge – but cast in boring formats such as Food and Wine. One thing that never fails to amaze me, though, is the “food porn” element itself: what it is that makes the food on TV (or magazines for that matter) look so tempting that you want it, like, NOW? How do they make the dishes look oh so irresistible?

Each cheftestant is asked to make an extra “food porn” plate, which is whisked away as soon as time’s up. “We take them back into an area where we have set up our food porn area and there’s everything there, from Q-tips to Windex, to beet juice, to an entire toolbox full of things that makeup artists use,” says the show culinary producer.

(from: CREATING “FOOD PORN”: HOW “TOP CHEF” MAKES VIEWERS LOVE FOOD THEY CAN’T TASTE, FastCo.Create, March 2013)

I started googling and discovered food styling includes a whole world of techniques sitting at the crossroad between art, science, craft and plain deception. Some dishes are recreated from scratch by the “culinary producers”, especially in Masterchef-style contests – meaning that the producers themselves have some cooking skill. Moreover, there are some genuinely ingenious techniques which I found intriguing. I didn’t know that white glue was used to shoot cereals and granola, as they would do immediately soggy with milk (thick cream is used now as glue has been banned); and beetroot juice is used to give back a rosy touch to meat when it goes grey (well at least that’s edible).

food porn TV overdose food styling tips

Then, of course, there is the dark – or at least grey, depending on your moral compass I guess- side of food styling. Like, for instance, when junk food is made to look like fresh, natural and “clean” by sheer amounts of ingenuity and Photoshop. A video about how McDonalds makes their food “look good enough to eat”, supposed to be a smart PR move from them, went viral and ultimately backfired…You must give it to McDonalds though, their pics always look yummy and that requires some serious photography and handiwork.

Hamburger photography is challenging because the buns dent easily and an assembled burger is quick to lose its visual appeal. When assembling the burger, the ingredients are held in place with toothpicks and the meaty interior of tomato slices is removed to avoid juice discoloring the ingredients. The meat patties are superficially cooked, the edges browned with a torch and the meat made to look more appetizing with a colorant. The edges of melted cheese slices may be brushed with household cleaner to make them look freshly melted longer. Condiments such as mayonnaise are applied to the edges with an applicator bottle.

(from Wikipedia- “food styling” entry)

I found it quite amusing that the challenges to photographing an hamburger that looks good are pretty much the same of actually MAKING a good burger! Cue the dry bun, the overcooked meat, the soggy interior, the elusive gooey cheese. But add the fact that even the most amazing- tasting burger doesn’t photograph as well (as endless Instagram pictures prove) and will look much less amazing after 20, 30 or 40 minutes. It may be cheap fast food or a fancy gourmet burger, but it still will need some “pimping”.

how McDonald’s makes its food look good enough to eat

Credits: Mc Donald’s via GristList

 

So now you know – behind the scenes of TV food shows, magazines and advertising, behind every shiny tomato, juicy steak and taut egg yolk, there is quite a lot of work. In the end, food on screen seems to share at least two things with porn – it takes a lot of work to make it look decent, and in the end, very little of it is real. Personally, I prefer keeping my relationship with food very, very close up and personal-  it’s just not the same if it’s long distance!

What did you think about the good and the bad of food styling? Let me know in the comments

 
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