Think about crème brûlée. Now. What happened first? Did you see the flambéed crème or rather taste it on your tongue? Or did it both happen at the same time? The question of separating taste from its visual representation is almost as tricky as the question of the chicken and the egg. Yes, we like looking at food. And yes, the things we eat should look appetizing. And yes again, a cookbook without pictures is about as appealing as a seat in the theater from which you can’t see the stage. Taste rarely comes alone – but why is that?
Underlying our sense of taste are strongly subjective perceptions, which might be the reason why taste is difficult to single out. Taste, and the pleasure it gives us, is inseparable from our own palate – it’s developed there and nowhere else. Unlike a song, which can be stopped, rewound, and played back, culinary joy is ephemeral. Taste combined with images however, create an unbeatable team.
Nature bestowed upon us the remarkable gift of being able to separate the good from the bad. To avoid ingesting rotten food, we are able – through or sense of taste, smell, and above all eyesight – to discern what is good or bad for us. A defense mechanism, if you will. Green mold on bread acts as a warning sign for us to stay away. Comparatively, a bright red strawberry packed with vitamin C seduces us into grabbing it. From a biological perspective therefore, it’s sensible for us to also eat with our eyes. The eyes are a decisive factor in determining whether we desire the food or not.
Poached arctic char with sweet cicely root, topped with a red onion emulsion sounds incredibly poetic on a menu, but it also demands a certain level of imagination, knowledge, and time from the customer. Fast food restaurants, as the name already implies, need everything to go a bit faster – including communication. From picture menus to plastic models of the food in the display, the food service industry knows the advantages of the universal language of images. A picture is not only worth a thousand words, it also talks much faster. In the accelerated Information Age in which we live, it comes as no surprise that taste is described visually. The phenomenon of posting food photos is further proof that taste is best shared by capturing it in pictures.
But the connection between taste and images is not only a symptom of mass communication. Pictures, rather, are proportional to nutrition, illustrated literally for the masses and ultimately define how taste is created. Take a cookbook for example. In the 1950′s cookbooks were a mere boring staple of the household; today the selection is more diverse than the array of fusion food. Cookbooks are tailored to anyone, whether it’s a globetrotting history enthusiast, an environmentally conscious vegan, or a bachelor shy of cooking. Images pinpoint and re-contextualize nutrition to which people can connect.
That’s how a sushi cookbook can make do with the slightest bit of text. Minimal pictures, set against pristine lab-like backgrounds, show step by step how a fish is turned into the perfect nigiri. The allure lies in perfecting the technique the process demands. Here, cooking is turned into a science and recipes become instructions for experimentation. Cookbook photography, which celebrates a pure love of life and a proximity to nature, feels anything but sterile. For those who love a more rustic, down to earth and organic lifestyle, cookbooks simply demonstrate that cooking and nature are indispensable from one another. Herb garnishes that look like they’ve just been picked in the wilderness, are sprinkled on generously, and the eating, needless to say, takes place outdoors.
Without pictures, it would be hard to imagine cookbooks ever making the leap from being mere instruction manuals to becoming type-specific consumer goods. Regardless of whether in cookbooks or on TV, pictures have the power to show that eating is so much more than just eating, and that taste is just the final link in the long chain, one that is becoming increasingly invisible. The highly technological lifestyle of an industrialized society, progressively detaches itself from the origins of taste, the result of which is a need to close that gap using information. Pictures help show us nutrition in its entirety, so that we don’t forget the tuna’s habitat, the tortilla baker’s traditions, or the bird in relation to scrambled eggs.
Both within cookbooks and beyond, the matrimony between taste and image perfectly depicts the subtle complexities of nutrition. The fact that taste needs pictures is therefore by no means a weakness. As nature shows us: it’s a clever tactic.
Images: One Third by Klaus Pichler
According to a UN study, one third of the world’s food goes to waste – the largest part thereof in the industrialised nations of the global north. Equally, 925 million people in the world are threatened by starvation. The series “One Third” describes the connections between individual wastage of food and globalised food production. Rotting food, arranged into elaborate still lives, portrays an abstract picture of the wastage of food, whilst the accompanying texts take a more in depth look at the roots of this issue. “One Third” goes past the sell by date in order to document the full dimensions of the global food waste.