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Food Porn: Love It Or Hate It?

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Food porn. Some love it. Some hate it. Some celebrate it like a third wave feminist declaring sex on screen as an all-inclusive empowering party of the senses. The question is: like porn porn, do you know it when you see it?

At last night's Piglet Party hosted by food52, former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni led a panel discussion about food porn with restaurateur Frank Falcinelli of Frankie's and Prime Meats, Eater.com co-founder Ben Leventhal (and now-editor of NBC's Feast), and Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman.

The panel tried (successfully, to a degree, but this is tricky stuff) to (a) define what food porn is, and (b) decide whether it is good or bad. Everyone seemed to agree that food porn involves extreme close-up images of food in a raw state about to be eaten, emphasizing its juicy inner-workings, exploring its nooks and crannies, often with steam rising.

Perelman suggested the example of "an extreme macro-close up of caramel dripping down the side of a pot," to which Bruni responded, "a suggestion of fluid and dripping. That's a pretty literal definition." The precise subject matter -- uncooked pink pork flesh, peeled purple heirloom carrot, intertwined spaghetti noodles -- doesn't seem to matter. Food porn is defined by the way in which the photo is shot.

Falcinelli suggested that food porn centers around "an overindulgence of presentation. It could just be a hot dog on a bun... Food porn is when you photograph food as if it was a person or something else entirely. The perfect pea. The perfect cucumber in the sunlight. A dry aged steak. When it definitely ceases to be just food anymore. When the viewer is going to say, 'He's got some weird obsession with a piece of meat.'" Bruni asked, "Do you remember how old you were, and where you were when you first saw food porn?" For Falcinelli, it was "an ice cream sundae. In the Bronx. With my mom."

Leventhal, the panel's strident food porn censurist, described Eater's two strict editorial rules from the outset: 1) no reviews and 2) no food porn. Dubbed by Bruni as Eater's "porn police," Leventhal tried his hand at defining it: "They're images that..."
Bruni: "Arouse?"
Leventhal: "...um, we banned it because they are distracting images that fetishize food on a plate."

So is food porn by definition, good or bad? Or is it neutral, and some iterations of it are good and some are bad? Is good food porn actually food erotica? Leventhal made a point that food porn is basically indefensible. "I say this to a food porn loving audience... Food porn is bad because it is about looking at food and getting distracted from how it tastes... When aesthetic trumps flavor, that's when it becomes pornographic." For example, when a food pornographer goes about photographing food in a restaurant, the viewer is lead to a less-than-relevant questioning of how the chef got the garnish to sit just so.

Bruni read off a list of top NYC restaurants, asking "Which is XXX? Which do you need a shower after?" Leventhal suggested that at both Eleven Madison Park and WD50, where the plate is a canvas, presentation is just as key as how something tastes, but for the average viewer, "the problem with food porn is that it sets the wrong expectations of what food is supposed to taste like." Falcinelli, on defending why they strip down styling at the Frank restaurants, suggested that if you look to presentation at an Alfred Portale restaurant, it's all about stacking. (Bruni chimed in "Mine is bigger than yours?")

So were Leventhal and Falcinelli suggesting that EMP, WD50 and Gotham Bar & Grill are sacrificing substance for sensation? No. Perhaps it is that these days most food porn -- like porn porn -- crops up online, where amateurs are trying to do the work of professionals, with less than savory results.

But no one can deny that there is some really great amateur stuff out there. And a lot of people prefer it for its realness, its spontaneity, the inevitable human mistakes. Speaking in defense of the blogger, Perelman said, "I have a recipe and cooking site, so I am trying to show my readers what they will actually do and see when they cook." That being said, all shots are not purely instructional. Take for example the four shots of a finished cheesecake in our slideshow, each from a different angle and with slightly adjusted positioning on its journey from plate to mouth. Or a shot of fleshy peeled tomatoes that can be purchased to hang on your wall, or as in convenient portable wallet size to stuff in your back pocket for your time of need.

And who says that the photographer behind the lens isn't really shooting this stuff for himself, and then sharing it with the world as an afterthought out of either generosity or for bragging rights? Falcinelli admitted he has shot and distributed loads of food porn in his day, and that he's often absorbed by the process. "You get so into it that you beyond taking a picture. You've fallen in love with the turnip."

Leventhal prefers the real thing to the drippy images. For him, it's about being involved with every sensory aspect of the act of eating, "Eating should be a 360 degree experience, not just about seeing it." But one astute audience member challenged Leventhal about the standardly smutty coverage over at Eater, asking why writing about food is any different from shooting it, making an analogy to the Penthouse's raunchy front-of-book story telling.

In summary, Perelman peddles the smut for a living, Falcinelli admitted to indulging in it every once in a while, and Leventhal thinks it's cheap and disgusting, but knows that there's a time and a place for everything. In fact, Leventhal might have given us a glimpse into his next project when he suggested a "Hot or Not" website for food porn, featuring food porn pics and a viewer rating system.

Speaking for the masses, a food porn advocate from the audience piped in, "If you're talking about images of food that turn people on, of intimate photos with food, I say it's terrific."

Food Porn: A Case Study
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