What We See When We See Food

Are we looking at our food wrong?

In 2010, Lady Gaga attended the MTV Video Music Awards clad in a dress made of raw flank steak. Designed by Franc Fernandez and styled by Nicola Formichetti, the Gaga meat dress accomplished what she hoped: It drew attention in the press, dominated social conversations, brought the ire of animal rights groups, and solidified her status as a pop icon. Later on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Gaga claimed that the dress was her statement on being viewed as “a piece of meat.”

Jump ahead to the current day, and Tasty videos, courtesy of Buzzfeed.com, have proliferated social media feeds. These videos show how to make easy, everyday meals, but they do so by speeding up the image to race past the time of cooking and preparation. Interestingly, the videos will often slow down and cut to a close-up of an action. These cuts are almost always suggestively erotic. The term “food porn” has been bandied around recently in conjunction with the plethora of cooking shows on TV, but Tasty takes that to the next level by turning the food into a form of pornographic desire.

But Tasty, Gaga, and cooking shows can’t hold a candle to Harley Morenstein and his web series, Epic Meal Time, which gives a one-finger salute to serious cooking—with recipes like churro poutine, Doritos Mac & Cheetos, and spaghetti Western omelet sandwich pizza lasagna.

The food that Morenstein and company appropriate for Epic Meal Time serves more of a comedic sensibility than anything else—you might be able to eat their concoctions, but it would be advisable not to. Gaga used food to make a political statement—much in the same way that Andy Warhol used food, notably commercial food, to make an artistic one in 1962—but all of these, Tasty how-to videos included, divorce the image of the food from the original intent and purpose, namely sustenance for humans and animals.

This idea is far from new, but it is getting stronger. Movie screens, TV shows, and internet advertising…all shape how we view and define the world around us, and as our perceived definition of these images changes, so does our understanding.

“Hollywood sidelines film products that fail to promote the mainstream vision of food as an expendable consumer product,” Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, and Mark Bernard write in their critical study on food and film representation, Appetites and Anxieties. “[P]rofit-driven films deliver a circumscribed picture of food that emphasizes consumption rather than labor, and immediate pleasure rather than long-term consequence.”

“What I find interesting is the way that it is the benefit of both the food and film industry that people think about food as just a commodity,” Baron says. “As just something to consume and throw away.”

Dr. Baron, a professor of theater and film at Bowling Green State University, points out that it isn’t just the production and transportation that isn’t depicted in mainstream film and television, but the waste and disposal as well.

“You hardly ever see clean up, and never disposal,” Baron says. “So, it just magically appears, and it magically disappears?”

That “magical” aspect Baron refers to is the labor involved—labor that occasionally makes an appearance in independent productions but rarely graces mainstream screens.

“There used to be, in the 1920s, regularly circulated movies…about working-class characters,” Baron explains. “Those films have all been eliminated…The labor involved in running this beautiful country has just been eliminated. It has to be wiped off the screen.”

Audiences demanding escapist pleasures and entertainment drove labor from the screens. Why pay money to sit and watch someone work? And what do people do while they watch movies? They eat. Which is how the theaters make money in the first place.

“Watching Killer of Sheep [Charles Burnett’s 1978 drama about an African-American family living in Los Angeles’ Watts District], particularly the scenes in the slaughterhouse, doesn’t really want to make you gulp down that Coke or chomp on that popcorn,” Baron says.

Realism is not the aim. Getting the customer to buy another Coke or a Snickers bar is. As Appetites and Anxieties put it: “Advertisers and lobbyists work overtime to keep food and film consumers focused on the pleasures of the FMCGs, the ‘fast-moving-consumer-goods’ sold by the linked industries.”

And if food has no value beyond a consumer product on our screens, how can we expect it to overcome that handicap in real life?

Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. Movie images courtesy Peg Leg Films.

Jenny Rustemeyer is one-half of the documentary team behind Just Eat It: A Food Waste StoryUpon learning that 40% of the food produced globally ultimately ends up in the trash, Rustemeyer and her partner, Grant Baldwin, undertake a self-imposed six-month challenge where they subsist on nothing but “rescued” food. Most of this food is taken from the dumpsters, but Rustemeyer and Baldwin don’t live off table scraps—the food they find discarded is perfectly fine and fully sealed.

Watching Just Eat It is both fascinating and infuriating as Rustemeyer and Baldwin try to understand why perfectly good food would go to waste when so many are hungry. But as Rustemeyer and Baldwin find out, what gets discarded and why stems from a root assumption about how food is seen.

Just Eat It identifies three instances where the majority of food waste takes place. The first occurs in the field where perfectly fine food is discarded out of necessity: celery pickers hack off four to five stalks per bunch—so it can fit in the plastic bag it will be purchased in. This waste is a practical one; the bag’s not big enough. Then the food travels to the supermarket, where it remains unpurchased by the consumer and eventually discarded by the store because something about the product looks off. This waste is an aesthetic one; paying customers want to buy the best-looking product. Then the food goes home, lives in the fridge or on a shelf where it is forgotten and spoils. This waste is neglect. While the first two forms of waste may be understandable, home waste seems the most infuriating and confusing. The consumer voluntarily and willingly purchased the product from the store, took it home, and completely forgot about it. Why?

“Talking to one of my friends who grew up in a low-income family, having abundance in her house is really important to her,” Rustemeyer says. “She doesn’t want to feel like she’s poor; she wants to feel like she’s providing for everybody. That’s a tough thing to balance. Of course, we want to have enough food, and we want to have enough extra food so that if someone drops by, you can serve them too.”

That transforms home waste from one of neglect to one of social participation. Rustemeyer’s friend wants to prove that they are a valuable provider: An abundance of food equals an abundance of wealth. Oddly enough, the same equation doesn’t carry over when the food is tossed out. Wasting food is not like wasting money. Considering that few people are free of any form of debt—student loans, mortgage, car payment, credit cards, etc.—it seems absurd that amount of food voluntarily purchased should be wasted.

“We have a strange mental process that once we buy the food, we put it in our fridge and forget that we paid money for it. And it doesn’t seem valuable,” Rustemeyer says. “That’s a big social shift that has to happen. That’s why I see a lot of campaigns trying to appeal to people about the money.”

Rustemeyer is quick to point out that for some, the ethical offenses of food waste will motivate people to change. That is where food banks come in. Or the Daily Table in Massachusetts, a nonprofit retail store that sells rescued food that would otherwise be wasted by other supermarket chains.

As Just Eat It shows, there are plenty of ways to reduce individual waste and help be a part of the solution, but if major change is going to take place, we must first start by acknowledging what the food on our plate represents. Food is the product of sacrifice, hard work, and time. But that is a major change in everyday thinking. To get there, we are going to need a very tall pulpit and a very large bullhorn. Maybe the movies can help.

A version of the above essay first appeared in the Boulder Weekly‘s special edition, Boulderganic 2016, “What we see when we see food.”