If Paul Cezanne were alive today, he’d probably spend most of his day on the /r/FoodPorn subreddit. He’d be well received by a community dedicated to sharing simple photographs of stunning food—some of Cezanne’s most famous paintings depict fruit bowls and decadent meals. Now a new study from Cornell Food Lab analyzes the phenomenon of #foodporn throughout history, and attempts to explain why we love looking at pictures of delicious meals.
“Over-the-top meals aren’t a modern invention,” said coauthor Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food Lab, in a press statement. “Paintings from the age of Michelangelo were loaded with the foods modern diets warn us about: salt, sausages, bread, and more bread.”
But the food porn phenomenon is nothing new. Indeed, admiring unattainable foods from afar appears to be a uniquely human passion, hundreds of years in the making. For this new study, the authors began by choosing 750 classic food paintings from the years 1500 to 200, found in books such as Art And Appetite and Food In Painting, and then narrowed their sample down to 140 paintings that depicted family meals (not fruit bowls—sorry Cezanne). They then identified the foods visible in each painting, and categorized them by country and time period.
Across years and countries, the authors found that roughly 20 percent of the paintings included at least one vegetable, 75 percent contained fruit, and 40 percent contained meat. What stood out the most, though, was that some of the most common foods in paintings appear to have been the least common foods during those time periods. Artichokes were the most common vegetable in these painting, followed by tomatoes, onions, squash, and radishes. Exotic fruits, rather than apples and oranges, carried the day. Shellfish, a rare delicacy, was the most common entree.
In other words, the authors conclude, the most commonly painted foods of the last 500 years were not representative of a typical diets. Instead, the paintings tend to depict foods that are fun to paint (the curves and shadows of an artichoke are a worthy challenge) or fun to imagine eating. In that way, the authors note, food porn simply hasn’t changed much over 500 years. We still love looking at unattainable foods—upvoting, double-tapping, or Liking dishes that contain odd but aesthetically pleasing ingredients, even though we know our odds of eating them are slim.
“We found that most things depicted were visually appealing, like exotic fruit or shellfish,” said coauthor Anupama Mukund of the University of Washington, in a press release. “Next time you’re at a museum and see paintings of different dinner settings across different time periods, remember that these aren’t things that people actually consumed.”
“More likely they depicted things that people wanted to be eating.”