Barthes’ “Ornamental Cookery” in the age of Foodstagram

“Ornamental Cookery” (as it is titled in the translation) is one of my favorite essays in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, not least because of the vivid and whimsical descriptions of the food prepared and styled for the pages of Elle magazine toward the end of the 1950s.

There is an obvious endeavor to glaze surfaces, to round them off, to bury the food under the even sediment of sauces, creams, icing and jellies… Glazing, in Elle, serves as the background for unbridled beautification: chiselled mushrooms, punctuation of cherries, motifs of carved lemon, shavings of truffle, silver pastilles, arabesques of glacé fruit… Ornamentation proceeds in two contradictory ways, which we shall in a moment see dialectically reconciled: on the one hand, fleeing from nature thanks to a kind of frenzied baroque (sticking shrimps in a lemon, making a chicken look pink, serving grapefruit hot), and on the other, trying to reconstitute it through an incongruous artifice (strewing meringue mushrooms and holly leaves on a traditional log-shaped Christmas cake, replacing the heads of crayfish around the sophisticated bechamel which hides their bodies.

You may be able to imagine these “frenzied baroque” creations if you happen to have some of your grandmother’s old cookbooks featuring sculpted cream cheese dip, meatloaf encased in ketchup, and Jell-O salad of every flavor. But to assist your visualization, I came across this menu offered by Air France to tempt American passengers to book a transatlantic flight:

There’s a pheasant paté flamboyantly reconstituted into a birdlike shape (top right), a dessert that certainly does appear to involve a “sediment” of icing and ornament (bottom left), and whatever unrecognizable “fleeing from nature” is going on with the lobster (center left).

These elaborate creations are the stuff that Pinterest Fail is made on: complicated and dependent on some happy combination of special tools, food styling cosmetics, and good lighting; the sort of thing that looks great on a social media feed when done well, but which opens up an abyss of frustration and feelings of incompetence when tried at home. But Barthes argues that the images of meringue-studded logs and pink chicken chaud-froid on Elle‘s pages are not truly meant to be cooked by its readership, which included a substantial percentage of lower-income and working-class women. In contrast with more upscale food magazines of his era, which featured rustic cassoulets and stews (such as those made popular in America by Julia Child, who insisted that anyone could cook them), mid-century Elle food spreads were fairytale banquets which are meant to be consumed with the eyes. The edible part is cleverly disguised, and the glossy coatings and decorated surfaces appeal primarily to the sense of sight, “a genteel sense.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this short but meaty essay. As with the rest of Mythologies, the purpose of “Ornamental Cookery” is to examine the signs and significations of a cultural artifact to reveal and problematize the ideologies (or myths) that are reproduced when the artifact is reproduced. The artifact here is a kind of cookery that is intended to be “genteel,” and the myth of this inherent class value is buttressed in several different ways. For one, we’ve got the assertion that sight is a genteel sense, which I can’t argue; I’ve noted before that vision and hearing have historically been considered more aesthetically proper than taste and smell. So, if we’ve absorbed that mythical hierarchy of senses, and if consuming classy food is important to us, then we’re going to want food to appeal more to sight than the so-called lower senses. (Indeed, we may find that we enjoy a certain amount of synesthesia when apprehending a visually pleasing dish, allowing the color and apparent texture to activate the appetite.) We’ve also got the assertion that the food is in “disguise”: what is being hidden is the labor and process of production. To use an example from the airline menu: we don’t see the flesh and bones of that pheasant; it’s all discreetly blended into a paté, which maybe is not very visually appetizing, so the paté is elaborated ornamented. Third, the food as pictured in the magazine shoot is decontextualized, often photographed from above, evenly lighted, and placed  in unremarkable settings to emphasize the remarkable styling of the dishes. These compositional choices, along with the ornamentation itself, play into the impression of magical or fairytale dishes. “The genteel tendency of the magazine precludes it from touching on the real problems concerning food,” Barthes writes; “The real problem is not to have the idea of sticking cherries into a partridge, it is to have the partridge, that is to say, to pay for it.”

So, alongside his gleeful ridicule of fussy food, Barthes is seriously critical of the way carefully styled food photographs depict a fantasy of food in which capital, labor, and even the base pleasures of flavor are disguised. That criticism should sound familiar: every now and then someone will pen a screed against the tyranny of Pinterest perfectionism (or simply post their shortcomings to Pinterest Fail) or complain about hipster youths taking smartphone photos of their food, supposedly instead of savoring it; some folks criticize food television for making us couch potatoes (i.e. feeding the fantasy rather than providing practical instructions) and others criticize food writers for telling us to cook more without acknowledging the cost of labor. All of these branches of contemporary food discourse share a common root in anxieties about class mobility and access. We blame the food writers and the nebulous, general body of Pinterest for being elitist and depicting beautiful, fairytale fantasies of food production that are not affordable or possible for most of us; we consider foodie-ism to be the province of the tastemakers and the upper class. At the same time, we are intensely critical of people who indulge in those visual fantasies of food without the practical application: we attribute laziness to the food television fans who don’t cook and tackiness to the foodstagramming youths. In other words, our current food discourse reproduces the myth that beautiful, complicated food is for the wealthy and sophisticated.

However, recall who was meant to (visually) consume those fantasy food spreads in Elle: readers who were not expected to have the means to cook them. Middle- to high-income readers got the approachable stews and classic French cuisine; lower-income readers got the kind of ornate and stylized dishes that would likely have been Pinned if such a thing existed. Likewise, social media sharing of aesthetically pleasing food is aspirational; good food might not be accessible to everybody, but good food fantasies certainly are–and today’s fantasies can still be unpacked to examine the preoccupations and prejudices that inflect our prevailing sentiments about class and appetite.

Related:

“The Politics of Ugly Food” by Lilian Min, which inspired this post. In addition to considering how class affects food aesthetics, Min also notes how ethnic food fits into ideologies about visual appeal.

Martha Stewart is one of the most prominent culinary tastemakers and her media empire plays a major role in setting and reproducing the aesthetic standards for contemporary cooking. So when she turned out to be terrible at photographing food, the public celebrated with much schadenfreude and glee.

I know I talk about Jacques la Merde all the time, but his Instagram is such a perfect parody of food that is designed to be eaten with the eyes. His plating, with artistic drizzles and crumbles, is aspirational; the Fritos and ranch dressing he uses for those components are not.

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One response to “Barthes’ “Ornamental Cookery” in the age of Foodstagram

  1. Ah funny, coincidentally I’m writing about this amazing new book, a kind of feminist-lit-crit-art-historical look at “the recipe” by Susannah Worth called Digesting Recipes:The Art of Culinary Notation. There’s a lot that owes to Barthes in it but takes her looking around so much farther. Really really good and reading your blog, I think you’ll love it.

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