Food porn isn’t Indian

Food porn isn’t Indian
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First Published: Sat, Mar 21 2009. 12 30 AM IST

 Big bite: Lakshmi’s book has 256 recipes. Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet / HarperCollins
Big bite: Lakshmi’s book has 256 recipes. Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet / HarperCollins
Updated: Thu, Mar 26 2009. 09 20 PM IST
Who needs old-fashioned khana-pakana when we can have food porn. In a Harper’s Magazine article titled “Debbie does Salad”, Frederick Kaufman charted the emergence of gastroporn, the reinvention of cooking as salacious spectacle, designed to titillate all our appetites, gustatory and otherwise.
Kaufman’s piece focused on the Food Network channel shows, featuring dishy chefs creating just-as-gorgeous dishes, aimed not at stodgy little housewives but “that choice prime-time demographic, the 18-35-year-old male can’t-cook-won’t-cook crowd—the men who like to watch. As people cook less and less, they ogle cooking shows more and more”. Where there are foodie celebrities—chefs, hosts, food critics—there will be cookbooks, gastroporn’s equivalent of literary smut. For example, HarperCollins India’s latest offering, Padma Lakshmi’s Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, a title seemingly chosen to describe the author rather than the book, contains nary a recipe for any tart, hot or sweet. The bootylicious host of Top Chef is the very epitome of food porn. Lakshmi’s self-made career as a culinary hottie was sparked by her first cookbook, Easy Exotic, its name well-matched by its photographs—of Lakshmi kneading dough in a cleavage-popping lace dress, leaning over a frying pan in her silk slip. Her new book—in India, not in the US, where it was released in 2007—is demure in comparison, but no less intent on self-promotion, with glamour shots of Lakshmi vying for space with those of her dishes.
Big bite: Lakshmi’s book has 256 recipes. Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet / HarperCollins
Moral priggery aside, the kind of foodie smut peddled by the likes of Lakshmi is problematic for two reasons. One, it transforms its intended audience into passive consumers. Her recipe books aren’t designed to inspire us to cook, but merely look, and not even at the food. As with the Food Network shows, it offers voyeurism in place of participation. Second, they also mark the ascendance of a Borg-like celebrity culture that is transforming the publishing industry into an extension of a public relations campaign. In a promotional interview for Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet with Vanity Fair, Lakshmi offered this revealing insight into her career ambitions: “‘Padma Lakshmi’ she hoped, might one day be on as many food labels as ‘Paul Newman’—‘a big hero’. Soon there would be Padma jewelry and fashion, ‘like Jennifer Lopez’, she said, and television and cookware, ‘like Martha Stewart’.” Cookbooks, jewellery, movies, commercials, it doesn’t matter what Lakshmi is hawking, we can rest assured that she’ll be putting her body literally on the line.
The good news is that gastroporn doesn’t seem to have made much headway in India, apart from the popularity of Nigella Lawson—the so-called queen of food porn—on the Travel and Living channel. The longest running show on Zee TV is hosted by the decidedly un-sexy Sanjeev Kapoor.
As with our cooking shows, so it is with our recipe books, which we still buy for the recipes and not the pictures. Unlike the West, most Indians still cook their own food at home, every meal and every day. It’s why our authors are far more prosaic in their offerings, like Anuradha Ravindranath’s The Rice Cookbook: 101 Simple Recipes, recently released by Penguin for “busy people with no time to spare so they can create menus based on ingredients available in the kitchen”. The Rice Cookbook offers no hint as to whether Ravindranath would look good in a thong, and so it should be. As all wise Indians know, porn belongs in the bedroom, hidden under the mattress or locked in the cupboard. Anywhere but the kitchen.
Write to Lakshmi at postscript@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Mar 21 2009. 12 30 AM IST