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Not Just a Pretty Picture

April 27, 2015

We taste food with our eyes. Give most people a brown ice cream and tell them that it’s chocolate, and they’ll experience it as chocolate, regardless of whether or not it contains any true chocolate flavor.

I may have ice cream on the mind after Saturday’s Tour de Soft Serve 2.0 but I needed to take a break from thinking about frozen swirls of dairy for a while after consuming so much of it in a short period. The official results should be up tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another blog or two where you could read the unofficial results today.

The point is, what we see has an impact on what we taste. One way you can demonstrate that is by removing vision from the equation. Wine professionals have been embarrassed in the past by not being able to differentiate between a red wine and a white wine when blindfolded.

This makes pictures of food really important. I’ve been following Peck’s Arcade on social media for a while now, and I’ve eaten the restaurant’s food with my eyes long enough to know that I really want to eat it with my mouth.

But what if the picture is a lie?

Just to be clear, it’s not a lie in the case of Peck’s. They are taking real pictures of their food, and it looks amazing. As are most great places in the Capital Region. Sweet Sue posted a picture of a cupcake with lemon and blueberries that looked amazing.

With phones and photo editing software, small business owners really no longer have to hire professional photographers to get vivid, appetizing shots of their products. Although true professionals are still amazing at what they do. Back in the day when I was working with Taco Bell, the agency brought in a guy who worked miracles.

I’m bringing all of this up today because recently Elizabeth noted that the picture which got me all excited about Ethiopian food locally, wasn’t actually of the local restaurant’s food. The image came from a Reno Gazette-Journal article about one of their local restaurants.

One could argue that all Ethiopian food looks pretty much the same. And you’ would have a point.

Let’s skip the part about copyright and attribution, and suffice it to say that I think artists should be compensated and acknowledged for their work. I also know that especially in today’s modern world, information wants to be free. And those two ideas are challenging to balance against each other, and that discussion is probably better suited to some other venue.

Businesses try and make their food look better all the time. You’re guaranteed to never get a Big Mac that looks anything like the one in the commercial. Food stylists agonize over every detail to make it as perfect as possible.

But at least they are starting with their own food, and that provides a modicum of integrity.

Food styling itself can be mighty treacherous and misleading. However, it’s so much a part of everyday life that nobody ever expects their burger to look like it does on the menu board. I’m really shocked that people don’t get more upset about this. People get upset about everything these days.

Regrettably there are businesses that take shortcuts and will use stock photography, or pictures swiped from the internet, instead of documenting their own food.

Pizza places are often guilty of the total bait and switch. Pizza parlors have a signature style. It takes a while to learn these, but my friend and fellow pizza judge Renee impressed the hell out of me when she looked at a slice of pizza and knew its origin based on visual identification alone.

These days you can go into a pizza shop and see pictures of pizza that are totally not representative of the pizza made within those walls. It’s staggering. And it’s more than a little bit upsetting. Sure, stock photos make short work of posters, menus, and other marketing materials. I get it. Small business owners are busy and this can saves time and money.

The problem is that these businesses are no longer marketing their own food. Their sending customers the wrong visual messages about what an idealized version of pizza should be. And even though an average consumer may not expect to have that image delivered on his plate, these pictures absolutely play a role in how we think about food, our decision about what to order, and our choice about where to spend our money.

Bravo to all those small restaurants who hold the line and take great shots of real food. You’re doing the world a greater service than you may know. Keep doing things the hard way. It’s the only way that’s truly worthwhile.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 27, 2015 11:24 am

    Well said. But your thoughtful tone implies there is some grey area when there is not. Advertising your restaurant by showing photos which are not your own is unethical and lying to your customers; if you do not have permission to use those photos it is also illegal.

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