A few birthdays ago, a food-loving friend gifted me with a pair of earrings by Inedible Jewelry. They are polymer clay sculpted to look like two halves of an avocado; one side has the pit. They are pretty adorable! I wear them on days when I need a touch of whimsy, and when I won’t mind if people stop to talk to me about them, because people always do.
Sculpting tiny, perfect polymer food is apparently a cherished hobby across the globe, because occasionally I’ll see new tiny-food artists pop up online.
Shay specializes in jewelry; I’m not sure but I think the pizza cutter doubles as a loop so it can slide onto a necklace or attach to an earring hook.
There’s a mesmerizing video of her process which is charmingly styled as a “tutorial,” as though people are watching so that they too can make tiny, impeccably sculpted and textured Subway sandwiches.
So what delights us so about tiny food?
I’ve been sitting with this question for some time. As a child, I spent hours in the aisle of miniatures at the local craft store (not Hobby Lobby!) browsing tiny items for my dollhouses. I had several of the pressboard kind you glue together yourself and a mishmash of variously-sized objects from yard sales and thrift shops, but for a treat I’d purchase extremely small and exact replicas of mundane household items. The best miniatures were the ones with moving parts or even smaller components, often reproducing kitchen and grocery objects: a basket the size of my pinky fingertip containing miniscule Easter eggs, a tiny toaster with millimeter-thick wooden slices of bread. I don’t know that I admired the skill and craft of these tiny things so much as I loved the ability to collect them and arrange them in my best approximation of a home. Perhaps tiny things have a particular attraction for children, who can possess and control very little in a big person’s world.
But the ability to grasp and possess seems like too simple a motivation for grown people who make or collect miniatures. I like this more nuanced explanation by Steven Millhauser, published in the formerly renowned Grand Street magazine and now (I believe) free on JSTOR. Millhauser discusses the pleasure of possession–a dollhouse, he points out, allows us to see the entirety of a construction that we can normally only experience one room at a time–but also perfection. There is something sublime and occasionally grotesque about things on a gigantic scale, he says: because we can’t apprehend the whole, we are always a little uneasy with something that has been blown up to a monumental scale even if is idealized and beautiful, but especially if it is not. (He describes a scene in Gulliver’s Travels when Gulliver is appalled by the enormous hairs and moles sported by Brobdingnagian ladies.) But objects in miniature present the opposite experience: we can apprehend a tiny thing entirely and comfortably, and the more intricately detailed it is, the longer we can enjoy its apprehension. “The miniature seizes attention by the fact of its discrepency [in size],” he writes, “and holds it by the quality of its precision.” That seems like a good way to think about those impossibly tiny frosting roses, pepperonis, and cucumber slices posted above: a tiny sandwich would be interesting for a moment, but an intricately detailed tiny sandwich is a source of wonder or pleasant contemplation.
In another article which I can’t locate online, Anne Bromer suggests that part of the attraction of the miniature is that tiny things exquisitely rendered tend to appear flawless. “Blemishes disappear,” she writes of the tiny books illustrated by Picasso and Miro; they are replaced by a “fineness of texture.” I can get behind this, too: I don’t know if I would love my earrings more or less if they reproduced the tiny brown veins one often finds in an overripe avocado, but I am sure I would be put off by a life-size polymer clay avocado with the uniformity of color and smoothness of texture that make my earrings cute. Flawlessness in miniature is perfection you can hold in the hand; flawlessness full-scale is uncanny.
So far our unifying theory of the miniature goes like this: tiny things excite and please our visual appetites, which are comforted rather than threatened by gazing upon idealized objects that can be had but cannot be eaten or used–consumed–like the objects they so precisely imitate.
Convinced? I’m not sure I am, but I do feel that I better understand these tiny beautiful food sculptures today than when I first drafted a post on this topic, literally three years ago. If you have thoughts or know of any scholarship on miniature arts and crafts, I’m interested to hear.