The Politics of Ugly Food -The Toast

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“It looks like shit.” The words are said just loud enough to turn heads, including mine, but as soon as I register what’s happened, the perpetrator has melted back into the crowd. There’s nothing to do except refocus my gaze on what looks like, at a glance, a slop of offensively bubbling brown goo on my plate, which I then polish off completely.

The “offending” sight: homemade Japanese curry on rice, brought to the workplace for both budget reasons (a decent pot of curry can last me three days’ worth of meals) and for delicious reasons. Chock-full of tender meat, carrots, potatoes, and onion, Japanese curry is filling, easy to make, and most importantly, very, very tasty. It’s the perfect “I have $15 to spend on food for the week” dish; or its more social counterpart, the “I have to feed how many people?!” dish.

beautifulcurry The author’s delicious Japanese curry

It is also, by all accounts, very ugly. Sure, an Instagram search through #japanesecurry reveals some well-lit portraits of morsels of meat and vegetables seemingly glazed over by a light curry sauce. This is as “deceptive” as, say, selfies enhanced by contouring or lip-lining, in that the reality of the image is much goopier and objectively grosser once the benefits of flattering angles, lighting, and stillness are stripped away.

Japanese curry is far from my only culinary indulgence; all of my favorite foods are messy and/or smelly eats. Ribs? I once found sauce on my elbows, the morning after eating them. Crab? Discovery Channel predator special flashbacks. Korean BBQ? I would wear the smoky residue as perfume, if someone ever figured the formula out. If it’s rich and pungent and would leave intense stains, I’ll generally want to eat it, consequences be damned.

I grew up in a household that was comfortable with farts, burps, intense smells, and food that facilitated all of the above. My dad would eat raw garlic and chase my sister and me around the kitchen, and then the whole family would sit down for dinner rich in not just garlic, but also ginger, hoisin sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil, and a thousand other strong scents and flavors. By virtue of my grandmother’s cooking style, and later my mother’s cooking style, the food I grew up with was spiced, sauced, and sublime. Most of it was also, in hindsight, very ugly.

Eating aesthetics have always been important — there’s a reason that Iron Chef awards points for plating, and why everybody places more stock on Yelp’s photos than its written reviews. It’s tempting to blame the rise of “foodie” culture on social networks like Instagram, but the truth is, people have been judging each other’s eating choices since food evolved from survival necessity to global mega-industry, if not the global mega-industry. What social media has done is move the conversation beyond magazines like Bon Appétit and Real Simple to any person with a smartphone. There’s nothing barring you from documenting, nay, curating every meal you make and eat, and that’s just what’s happening, and while most restaurants implicitly embrace this reality by serving beautiful food, some are explicitly adding smartphones into the dining room setting.

This isn’t a condemnation of amateur food photography or the restaurant business, but the visibility of what “good” (desirable and photogenic, not necessarily nutritious) food looks like has created food sub-cultures, linking food not by its actual contents and taste, but instead by projected experiences and ideas. Pizza, fries, and burritos get the “Yaaass” treatment from snackwave enthusiasts; smoothies, pastel desserts, and fresh fruit dazzle the Instagram model-wannabe set. Dim sum, ramen, tacos, pho: All have risen to the forefront of covetable, camera-ready foods that carry with them new associations devoid of their cultural origins. Yet the discourse around food is seemingly more democratic and deep than ever, with the language of food criticism available at our fingertips rather than relegated to rarefied dining rooms.

But it’s not a mistake that pretty food is often more expensive or inaccessible, with the lone exceptions being those “authentic” cheap eats. Side-stepping the issue of authenticity, which is often argued over by people who have no business touching it, the main weirdness of modern food culture is that, like fashion, it’s totally disconnected from the reality of food production, preparation, and consumption. Food isn’t devoid of historical and cultural context, and it’s built on a foundation of blood, sweat, and well, shit. There’s nothing inherently wrong about thinking of food solely at the visual level, yet the ascent of such thinking isn’t without consequences. And of course, beautiful doesn’t always mean delicious, and may even detract from taste totally: who actually enjoys eating intricate fondant, or feels totally satisfied drinking a rainbow of raw juices?

It’s also fundamentally impossible to separate food aesthetic from its economic implications. The people who care the most about it are those who can afford to, or those who aspire to it. The percentage of people who share images of fruit-infused water and the portion of the population that actually stuffs lemon slices into Voss bottles are disparate, not least because the object is Voss and not Arrowhead or Poland Springs. And while pizza is generally affordable, the people most likely to vaunt its appeal are those who can afford to not eat it every day. The “broke 20-something lifestyle” still manages to include brunch, cold-pressed juice, late-night taco truck binges, and eating Thai takeout while watching Netflix in your sweatpants.

My first job out of college was as a publicity assistant in Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market, a covered, nearly-century-old space that hosts a wide variety of produce, dry goods, and nowadays, restaurants. Despite being neither new nor a restaurant, it made the coveted Bon Appétit Best New Restaurants list while I worked there, and I led food photographer after food photographer, whether armed with a DSLR or just their iPhone, through the narrow aisles packed with people of all ethnic and class backgrounds. That was part of the appeal of the place: it offered something to all economic levels of a rapidly changing downtown LA, but the comments I heard in passing betrayed a snobbish class distinction between the older stalls, run primarily by Asian and Latino workers, and the newer stalls, projects started primarily by white owners. While the admission wouldn’t come from the floor employees or owners themselves, management understood the visual disconnect between having a place that sold a $12 burger right across from a place that, at the end of the day, gave away their heat lamp-lit leftover food for free to anyone who lined up for it. Guess which one inspires gushy Instagram posts under the #grandcentralmarket tag, and guess which one is no longer in the market?

I suppose I too am to blame; one of my tasks there was to update the market’s Instagram. And when it came to choosing foods and thus businesses to highlight, I had to answer this question every day: What will look beautiful? Lighting apps and filters could “correct” raw images, but what did it matter anyway? The people who bought $3 jumbo tacos would continue to buy them regardless of how exposed or colorful their snapped counterparts looked, just as not posting pictures for the most popular stalls wouldn’t hurt their business; but sometimes, you couldn’t stop shit at any price point from looking like shit. Not that that ever stopped people from eating it.

Lilian Min wants to make you a mixtape. Read more of her work here and tweet at her here.

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