Dissecting the modern phenomenon of “food porn”, food stylist Maggie Ruggiero and Oxford professor Charles Spence explore how we feast with our eyes.


We are living in the era of crazed oral gratification. From worms of pici writhing in butter to runaway yolks and the unctuous, glimmering meat of an oyster, ‘food porn’ feeds our appetites and desires. Serving as visual hors-d’oeuvres, sharing, snapping and salivating over images of food has become a part of the way we consume. Like the possessed we click, drool and repeat, always hungry, never satisfied. And we are proliferating the feast at an incredible rate, with and a quarter of a billion food images on Instagram alone and 69% of American millennials immortalizing each meal before the first bite. Whilst it has always been a divisive subject between gourmands, ‘gastroporn’ has become part of the modern eating ritual.

 

Connecting us to our audience through shared experience, these images are visceral, emotional and rarely about food. Tied up with taste with a capital ‘T’, lifestyle and status, these visual snacks hold the power to sway the eating habits of a generation. Whilst the ‘80s saw the birth of restaurant culture and the rise of the “foodie”, recent times have seen food culture become youth culture. With droves of hungry young adults queuing around the block for a shot of a raindrop cake or a lightbulb juice. Living in a time when pixel-perfect photography is at our fingertips and followers are hungry for the next hit, our dining habits are increasingly driven by aesthetics and identity.

We spoke to image-creator and food stylist Maggie Ruggiero and Charles Spence, Oxford Professor of Experimental Psychology about the power of ‘food porn’ and the ways it has changed our eating culture.

(Photography -Wladimir Schohin, Stilleben, 1910; Nobuyoshi Araki, Colourscapes, 1991; Martin Parr, Pink Pig Cakes, 2002)

Charles Spence

That what our brain devolves for. Sort of a triage of forging, feeding and… something else

“Nothing that gets people’s brains more excited than a picture of food when you’re hungry.” Charles Spence explains, “and, we can’t turn off that evolutionary part” Photographs of tender pink steaks, sugar-dusted donuts and oozing chocolate fondant hits something primal in us. Drawing on a fundamental quirk in animal behaviour, they rouse the hunter-gatherer psychology hardwired in our brains.

We do a quick scan of the image, calculate our desire, weigh up its nutritional density of the dish and our bodies start to prepare for the first bite. This explains why protein-rich foods like steak and burgers take the top spot on Instagrams heavy-hitters list. And, as off-putting as it sounds ‘protein in motion’ shots rank even higher. Food that moves implies freshness and brings us closer to the experience. Weighing in, food stylist Maggie Ruggiero adds, “There’s this famous thing in food styling called ‘The Cheese fall’ when you have something that has cheese in it and it pulls apart like that people go nuts. It’s all about suggestion”

(Left – Photography – Keirnan Monaghan & Theo Vamvounakis, Styling – Maggie Ruggiero)

Maggie Ruggiero

He took the dishcloth, tucked it in the middle and said ‘it should take the shape of a women’ Him, giving it that shape transformed it into something desirable.

As a food stylist, Ruggiero is in the business of seduction. “Good food photography has to has to be titillating” she explains, “you’re trying to trigger everything, you’re trying to tap into that human desire.” Part of the new wave of independent food journals that play with innuendo, humour and 70’s nostalgia, the images she creates seduce in new ways. Visceral and dripping in symbolism, this more explicit style of photography touches on excess without being aspirational. Flicking through her archive, invariably, the conversation turns to the marriage between food and sex.

(Right – Photography Grant Corret, Styling – Maggie Ruggiero)

“We get there through the suggestion of shape if it’s phallic or yonic. Oysters and muscles, all bivalves are little sex organs really.” She goes on, “You have to keep things wet, moist. Glistening always helps, there’s this promise of succulence… it takes you places.” Emphasising the tactile, glistening surfaces, and the suggestive shapes, shots of food become a meditation on pleasure, lust, and yearning in all its glory.

Perfectly epitomised in the fetishized M&S adverts, we know that sex sells. Playing with the concept of “sensation transference”, an unconscious transfer of ideas about one thing onto another, fetishizing consumer goods is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Experimenting with other variables that can modify perception, Spence has proven that colour, sound, and setting all have an effect. Tapping into our previous experience, lime green juice seems more bitter, food served in heavy bowls seems more dense and blue food somehow saltier.

 

Maggie Ruggiero

Part of its porn is that it can be decadent and part of its redemption is that it can save you.

“Food porn” isn’t just about lust and gluttony, it’s about envy.” Maggie explains, “There’s so much vanity involved in food. Part of its porn is that it can be decadent and part of its redemption is that it can save you.” Whilst our love affair with aspirational, rare or visually appealing food is nothing new, the rise of image-sharing platforms has driven the food-social status nexus into overdrive.

Prompted by the supermarket revolution of the ‘60’s, food, like other consumer goods became a matter of principal and perfection. Organic and pesticide-free veg, still caked with the earth became brandished by the affluent middle classes and baskets were filled with obscure edibles. Whispers of purity and salvation hid in twine-tied asparagus and imported fruits. These days, technology allows us to share these moments of morality with the world.

(Left- Photography, Tim Walker. Self Portrait with Cakes, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, UK, 2008 )

The last few years has seen photographs of impossibly-perfect food leap out of cookbooks and ads and onto the feeds of “foodies” around the world. In this medium, our food is as a reflection of our personality, values and social set. The modern-day reckoning of ‘you are what you eat’, reworks food as a tool for public identity creation. This leads us to ask, how it is affecting our relationship to taste?

 

Maggie Ruggiero

I love things like jello because it quivers so wonderfully.

“We are starting to see a whole set of food that is primarily for visual consumption” Spence explains. Driven by our desire for newness the excitement of filing social feeds with otherworldly treats foods we saw the glitter-covered birth of fantasy foods. Black ice pizza, transparent desserts, and unicorn ice-cream are enjoying their 15-minutes. So is visual appeal starting to eclipse taste? Whilst Charles explains that if it tastes absolutely horrendous it won’t last long, he admits that, “there is an overemphasis on the beautiful and downplay on taste”.

(Right – Photography Grant Cornett, Styling Maggie Ruggiero)

Much to the outcry of the older generation, our social sharing habits are starting to alter the shape of the restaurant industry. Hyper-aware of the currency of food online, chefs around the world are plagued with the question “but, what will it look like?” Through the power of sharing and geo-tagging, our dinner-table snaps have become part of a clever grassroots advertising scheme that builds a restaurant’s name through authentic experience. Leaping on the opportunity, a restaurant in Israel went so far as to commission curved plates that included smartphone slots and framed the dish in a perfect arc of light. Studies have even shown that we are starting to pay much more attention to food presentation in the privacy of our own homes. In small ways in kitchens and diners, we are adding a new layer to our enjoyment of food by becoming accustomed to feasting with our eyes and our bellies.

Food has always been social but, the digital age has seen it skyrocket. Through a network of hashtags, we have carved out a corner of the internet where pleasure is the order of the day. Sharing our messy plates and the glazed treats that make us squirm with delight, stirs up memories of the past, moves us, turns us on and encourages us to communicate about one of our most complex and lifelong relationships -food.

Maggie Ruggiero

It gets me when I see something sizzling, dripping or if I see something running. God, people are so into the runny egg.

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BIOGRAPHY

Native New Yorker, Maggie Ruggiero entered the gastronomical world after selling her East Village bar and using the proceed to attend culinary school. She logged time in some of the city’s most esteemed restaurant kitchens before shifting her focus to food styling and recipe development. Her clients include The New York Times Magazine, Gather Journal, Vogue, Gourmet Magazine and many more. Follow her story here @maggie_ruggiero

As head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, Professor Spence has spent the last two decades researching how people perceive the world around them, earning him the international reputation as the expert in multisensory perception and experience design. He has popularized the term ‘gastrophysics’ and leads the field in this ground-breaking area of science that is rapidly transforming the way in which we all experience what we eat and drink. He has consulted for many multinational companies, advising on various aspects of multisensory design, packaging, and branding, and has conducted research with a number of world-leading chefs, mixologists, and baristas, including Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià. Purchase his book ‘Gastrophysics’ here.