Presentation: Why a food’s appearance matters

In Food by Lenore NewmanLeave a Comment

I was at the market yesterday and I came across an amazing pile of baby purple artichokes. I like artichokes, but I don’t often make them as they are such a lot of work, but these ones were so striking I had to buy them, if only to put them out on the counter and cheer up the kitchen. I like pretty food, and what is interesting is that most culinary traditions value appearance as well, sometimes to the point where it impedes taste. The look of food matters; given a choice we crave a good variety of attractive foods.

It is interesting to wonder why such things matter. Is it a leftover ability to search for ripeness or detect spoiled food? Or are we just such incredibly visual creatures that we want our food to look interesting? Mind you, humans also crave a variety of textures and smells, so perhaps our desire for sensory stimulation to prod appetite and increase enjoyment goes beyond the visual.

Whatever the reason, our desire for interesting and attractive looking foods is bad news for futurists who imagined people eating their meals in pill or tube form, and is excellent news for farmers growing heirloom or unusual varieties. I know that I greatly enjoy the availability of red and purple carrots; apparently they contain important nutrients, but I simply like the flavour and colour. The purple carrot looks particularly striking raw in a salad.

In 1918 Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in “Pied Beauty” about the value of all things counter, original, spare, and strange. The industrial food system can’t deliver these qualities, and to me this is reason alone to sing the praises of the rise of local food, farmers’ markets, and small-lot farmers from the rooftops. My artichokes are purple this week, and it is grand.

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