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Let’s get visual

by Jennifer Brizzi
August 12, 2010 11:05 AM | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Trying to appreciate food without seeing it is like love with the lights out. When it comes to what we eat, taste is indisputably the most important sense, and of course smell is crucial, too. Sizzling food sounds don’t hurt, and the sense of touch comes into play in an important way in the form of texture on the tongue, an underrated major factor in the liking or disliking of certain foods. But after taste, I really think it’s all about what you see.

Dark Dining, a trendy concept invented by artist Dana Salisbury, is now practiced at restaurants around the world. Supposedly your gustatory experience is enhanced by eating blindfolded or in complete darkness. Often you don’t know what you’re eating as blind servers place food in your mouth and you’re forced to rely on your tongue rather than your eyes to identify each item.

This popular fad doesn’t come cheap. A California chain of three eateries called Opaque charges $99 a head for this sensory-deprivation experience. I think enjoying food, like any other sensual delight, is a multi-faceted thing that should not be distilled down to one or two senses.

Whether for a creative garnish like an edible flower or an artfully-laid-out Japanese bento box, the effort that goes into making food look good enough to eat is well spent. Our perception of a food before we eat it is a prelude to the devouring of it, like seeing how an attractive person dresses and carries themselves entices us to get closer. Liking the look of the food before we eat it increases our enjoyment of it. Discounting smell, if a plain brown beef stew is set before us, it might as well be dog food.

Our sense of sight lets us identify a food and appreciate its beauty, form and color, from the natural beauty of a sweet bell pepper to the artistic talent of a chef who creates a palette, a bas-relief, or a towering sculpture of food. The expressions “too pretty to eat” and “eating with your eyes” credit this.

“Friends have pointed out to me that many of my dishes are brown,” said Paula Wolfert in her “World of Food” (Harper & Row, 1988). “They’re right. I love dark, earthy food, sturdy, homey dishes...” Much plain brown food is delicious, and much of what I cook at home, where I don’t have to entice eaters. But in a restaurant the visual perceptions of the diners are crucial, from the décor to the crockery, the color and shape of the plates and dishes to the contrasts in color and form of the foods and the way they are arranged on the plate. We are visually oriented creatures, we humans, and we judge people, places, things, and foods on how they look.

In molecular gastronomy, a modern school of cooking based on many small tastes or artfully manipulated food, appearance is crucial. You’ll find wisps of nearly invisible vapors, airs and gases that taste like specific foods like bacon or horseradish. Thomas Keller’s signature trick, Oysters and Pearls, is made with caviar and tapioca, and Wylie Dufresne’s jagged, salty sesame crisps or octopus is compressed to look like cobblestones. Visual deceptions and jokes in this style of cooking make food an adventure as well as a surprise to the palate.

In the Japanese culinary aesthetic, food is simple, balanced and austere, dishes so elegant and beautiful that each one calls out to be admired for a while before digging in. The Japanese consider cramming a large assortment of foods on a plate, like we do at buffets and Thanksgiving, to be horribly vulgar. Even the bento box lunch, a bounteous food assortment that dates back to the 1300s, has its items, chosen for seasonality and contrast, placed in little compartments so nothing touches.

Beyond pure aesthetic appeal, some think the very color of food has psychological effects on us. Red foods like strawberries and tomatoes excite and invigorate, cheer us up and stimulate appetite. Green foods like lettuce and soybeans evoke nature and the outdoors, making us feel calmer and healthier. It’s said that orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes make time seem to fly.

Yellow rice, bananas and lemons increase happiness and energetic feelings. White foods soothe us, whether rice, bread, dairy products, bean curd or fish. Pink, too is supposed to be calming, like in ham, salmon or pickled ginger. Blue foods like blue potatoes and blueberries are said to suppress the appetite and calm us so much they risk depressing us.

Good color is crucial to good food photography. Black-and-white food pics may be pretty but they aren’t appetizing, and old lurid photos can put you off food for life. See The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks (Crown, 2001), or at http://www.lileks.com/institute/gallery/index.html. Thanks to a link to Picasa on my smartphone, I can please myself with tasteless, aroma-free food photos any time I want to. They call it “food porn” for a reason, because well done it can be pretty stimulating.

Like the still-life painters of centuries ago, scores of very talented photographers have turned to food as a perfect subject for creativity. I do it myself a lot, posting photos on Facebook at whim, of a golden frittata or a perfect pear that catches my fancy.

Food has long been a favorite subject for artists. It incites deep feelings and is easy to find. Works of art based on food can be comforting, nostalgic, sexy, or hunger-provoking. Some tattooed people take it everywhere they go in the form of a hot dog, peach, or ice cream cone engraved into their flesh.

Food can be not only art’s subject or muse, but a medium. Look at Saxton Freymann and Joost Elfers, who have done books for children and adults out of food items turned into whimsical creatures and dioramas. Jason Mecier paints pop icons with food, like Pamela Anderson made out of candy or Demi Moore made out of dog food. More recently, on the IFC network and YouTube, Thu Tran’s wild and wacky Food Party makes Cheeto parfaits and milks a psychic potato for chips, enhanced by cardboard sets, dolls and puppets made by the artist. “[Food]… doesn’t become something you eat any more,” says Tran, “it’s just something you look at. We just handle it as an art material.”

So before you dig into you next meal, take a good look at your food. Although there is more to it than meets the eye, that part is pretty crucial. ++

E-mail Jennifer Brizzi with questions, comments or recipe requests at jenniferbrizzi@yahoo.com, via her web site at www.jenniferbrizzi.com or by posting on one of her blogs at www.tripesoup.com or www.rbkgourmand.wordpress.com.

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