A Moveable Feast

Indebted to Imaginary Pleasures

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Photographs of food can be equally appetising

MY HUSBAND makes fun of my one-minute homage to my lunch—I arrange the two vegetables and a small helping of rice on my plate, with a bowl of dal, another of yoghurt, and a glass of lassi forming the outer ring, and then gaze at it—before I pick up my fork to eat. Well, don’t you eat with your eyes first, actually, first with your nose, then with your eyes, and only then do the hands and fingers and mouth get moving? What’s wrong with wanting to gaze at a pretty plate of food? Nothing much, no, if it is physically in front of you, and you are about to satiate your hunger.

However, what if the plate is in a photograph, and it was sent to you via Instagram by a friend. Now we enter a dangerous zone. We can’t eat it, but our brain has already signalled to our stomach that food is ready. Studies have shown that looking at food photos activates the same ‘taste’ and ‘reward’ sections of the brain as actually eating something. New technologies like Photoshop allow us to make our food photos prettier, and are enhancing our exposure to digital food images divorced from the natural, physical act of consumption. The internet abounds with tips on food photography— beige and brown work well to represent savoury flavours, geometric background patterns can make your food pop, and most importantly, how you display the food on the plate is key. You can also find, on the internet, the best way to plate the food. Experiments on plating have shown that an upward orientation of the dish was preferred over its elements pointed downward or toward the observer, or else pointed to the side. A triangle formed by the three principal elements, and the direction in which these V-shaped elements pointed, affected people’s judgements of the ideal orientation of the dish as a whole.

So what’s the problem, you may ask? After seeing a beautiful photograph of food, we may enjoy our meal even more. That’s what those promoting Instagram, Tumblr and other social media want us to think. Well, think again.

What if you see the photograph after a heavy lunch. We are like rats in a lab—visual hunger automatically triggers our appetites regardless of whether we are actually hungry. It can lead to a range of possibilities—mostly negative—of weight gain, gluttony, physical ailments and psychological distress.

The obsession with watching food shows on TV while eating (mea culpa) is a form of vicarious gluttony (people end up consuming high-calorie foods after such viewing), our reaction to the message of healthy eating promoted everywhere these days. Studies have calibrated the brain’s responses to photographs of food and found that we process within a few hundred milliseconds, the fat/carbohydrate/energy value, that is, the pleasantness of food, resulting in an alerting of the brain. When we are hungry, our attention is captured by food photos, and by high-fat foods rather than a plate of cucumber or a bunch lettuce. Some cultures are more drawn to these photos than others. A study found that the visual attention of Chinese participants was directed a little later to the food in the images than their North American counterparts.

Instagram is full of such photographs that beckon your senses—a roast chicken on a bed of spinach, and a tiramisu, where each layer is a different colour—coffee, cream, biscuit.

Now replace the whole chicken with butter chicken (a dish with gravy), the tiramisu with a bowl of rasgullas (all white in a colourless sugar syrup)—and see how many likes you get. Depends on where you are. Curry is the most shared meal on Instagram in the UK with half-a-million posts on it on social media. But if you were in the US Mid-West, you may get far fewer likes for a curry as compared to a roast turkey or roast chicken.

New technologies like photoshop allow us to make our food photos prettier and are enhancing our exposure to digital food images divorced from the natural, physical act of consumption

Our response to a food photo is governed by our cultural tastes. Our eyes may salivate over the photographs, but our (let’s say, a non-vegetarian Indian’s) stomach knows that a butter chicken, twice-marinated, once in lemon juice and the second time in yoghurt, swimming in a gravy of butter, masalas, and tomatoes is far more satisfying than a dry roasted chicken. Yes, the picture of the gravy looks like vomit, but you will ignore that image and crave it anyway.

You may say that sharing a photograph of a thali meal with a friend is akin to inviting her to be part of the experience, to join the table virtually. Perhaps, but just think what these thousands of photographs you scroll through, sent by friends of friends of friends on Instagram are doing to your sensory experience. If you keep reading trashy novels or only read government reports, your language will suffer. If you keep seeing photos that are sub-par, you will not be able to distinguish between a beautiful photo and one that is not. You also won’t be able to savour the experience of the meal that you have been so frantically photographing and sending to all your friends.

It seems to me that the photograph is a weak second to our imagined image of a dish. Picture this scene, evoked by the writing of a skilled gourmand, French gastronome Eugène Briffault who writes in Paris à Table about the memories of a Lady Morgan of a dinner at the home of Comte de Ségur. Yes, this is from mid-19th century Paris.

‘No more English spices, no more black sauce: quite the opposite, delicate flavors and the aroma of truffles...The vegetables still had a vibrant hue; the mayonnaise seemed to have been whipped in snow...the plombière with its sweet freshness and the taste of its fruits, took the place of our bland English pudding. The dinner was served among orange trees, in a hall shaped by a pavilion in white marble, where the air was refreshed by the proximity of small fountains spraying pure and shimmering waters. The crystal-clear day was ever present in the thousand rays of the setting sun; the silverware gleamed with even greater brilliance; the porcelain, more precious than gold or silver because of the perfection of the work.’

When I read this, I am among the scented blooms of the orange trees, and the scene I imagine is far more striking than the one captured by a photograph. I don’t know what a plombière is, but I can imagine tasting it. Our ability to imbibe the experience of such a feast is not just imaginary. Research by Carey Morewedge and others at Carnegie Mellon examined ‘habituation’, a neurological process that determines how much we consume of a food or a product, when to stop consuming it, and when to switch to consuming something else. When we eat an aloo tikki, we crave more tikkis. By the tenth tikki, your craving for the tikki may disappear or become more muted and this is the phenomenon of habituation. Eventually, our desire for a thing is counterbalanced by habituation—you get used to the taste of the tikki and stop experiencing the salivating thrill of the first few you ate.

Morewedge’s experiments—asking participants to imagine eating M&Ms or a wedge of cheese, and then giving them the actual thing—revealed that those who had imagined eating large chunks of cheese and dozens of M&Ms before actually eating them, ate less of it (in fact 50 per cent less) than those who had not imagined it. His conclusion was that habituation is not only governed by the sensory inputs of sight, smell, sound and touch, but also by how the consumption experience is mentally represented: ‘To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience. The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed.’

I am not surprised by this conclusion. When we read a novel or a travelogue, we follow the traveller-author in our mind’s eye, and when we travel in reality to those same places, there is a sense of familiarity, as if we’ve already encountered a Corfu or Kashmir before. So why can’t the same principle work in the case of food? Why not create a new diet in which you eat what you love—burgers, red meat, buttery croissants— but before you do so, you have to imagine eating many plates of it, and imagine eating it piece by piece, bite by bite. It might be interesting to conduct an experiment where some of the participants in the imaginary diet are shown pictures of their favourite food, and others are asked to imagine them, and see if their actual consumption patterns, and the kilograms they lose, differ. Also, training your mind to imagine food without seeing an actual photograph will help you in other ways—sharpen your memory, avert the onset of old-age memory loss and other ailments of the mind. Let’s all say aye to The Imaginary Diet.