Don't take your expectations to lunch
A week or two ago, I read an exposé on vividly luscious food that magnetizes eyeballs in magazines and clicks on the web. Wd-40 and Microwaved Tampons: Secrets of Food Photography revealed the tricks of the booming food styling trade in which highly paid professionals brazenly manufacture charisma that makes us lust after prepared food. We salivate. We need it, want it right now. Ka-ching!
I'm sadly familiar with what honest cooks call food porn. Years ago, media plate preening, the nefarious make-up and manicure of food, made otherwise delighted catering clients question why my grilled meat didn't have the perfectly spaced black stripes of the grilled steaks pictured in popular magazines. They were so disappointed, I had to explain it was simply because I didn't paint lines on mine with India ink and a ruler. If my honey glazed fruit tart didn't glow like a 100 watt bulb, it was because I didn't varnish it--or my crusty breads. I could tell some of my clients couldn't tell if it was me or the magazines lying to them, but I reckoned disappointment had a lot less liability than death by varnished food.
That was long ago before I became a Buddhist taught to be wary of appearances. How tricky they are. This story revealed such new reality-defying deceptions as lipstick on strawberries, using shaving cream as whipped cream. Those uniformly firm burritos you see are stuffed with mashed potatoes, the glorious red glow on the roasted turkey on the cover-- totally raw inside, comes from artificial food coloring applied with a paint brush. The cereal isn't soggy because it's not in milk; it's atop soft stuff from a hardware store.
Food stylists wanted to expose these deceits not to shame themselves but so ordinary people could make their own cooking look more impressive in the camera lens. I just got a catalogue that urged me to buy the featured plates and napkins so my table could be much more Pinterest ready.
Evidently food is not always picture perfect enough, sexy enough, not photogenic enough to be acceptable in our television age. Instead we are served images of thoroughly processed, artificial, tarted up and lethally inedible food. (There was an aside in the story about somebody swiping a finger through what they thought was whipped cream only to scream in disgust and spit the Barbasol out.) The most wildly popular food blogs are consistently those with the most pornographic and high styled photography, not those by the most knowledgeable cooks.
What makes this diet of deceit so lethal is that the only thing it nourishes is expectation. It leads us to believe what's on our home plate is supposed to look as impeccably glamorous as the Photoshopped, phony food version. And if it doesn't, woe to Mom or the restaurant chef or you who made it. What's wrong with you that your tacos are so messy? You don't glue tortillas together and stuff them with cosmetic sponges?
For tastemakers, food is no longer about nourishment and survival, even sharing the love. It's about the look that generates fascination, titillation and above all, entertainment. That's what most people now expect from a meal: the exhilaration of being in a fantasy. Just read restaurant reviews on Yelp! The common key ingredient for a rave review is razzmatazz; even if the food was fine, without showmanship the customer is profoundly disappointed.
I suppose this shouldn't be surprising. The American public is so addicted to entertainment, particularly escapist movies and TV, we everywhere conflate scripted outcomes with expectations for real life. Since we no longer separate actors from their assigned roles, the Terminator got elected governor of California not long after the Gipper got elected President and a TV star became Senator from Tennesee. The brash macho reality TV boss of The Apprentice has become front runner for the US Presidency because people like hearing him shout at others: "You're fired!" More than half the country thinks our troops should shoot 'em up and be victorious like John Wayne. My grandmother blamed my mother's death from cancer on my choice of bad doctors because in the movies people are heroically saved at the last minute and she wasn't. Everything including restaurant meals has to be airbrushed with sparkly Disneyworld excitement. The downside is the millions who need drugs to dose their disappointment in the relative drabness of reality.
I work in and with food, so it's easy for me to see how we are misled to disappointment by obsession with appearances. We suffer from "should", chasing these delusions of grandeur like foxhounds. They make us afraid...of not rising to the occasion, being good enough, not getting what we pay for. We suffer from seeing as believing.
About the time I read those sickening secrets of food styling, I saw a headline about an Instagram teen sensation with 612,000 awestruck followers who abruptly cut her feed and removed her posts. It turns out that after a year of posing and preening and promoting, Essena O'Neill discovered social media "is not real life. It's contrived perfection made to get attention." She was tired of being phony. It was too much work. She wanted to find out what life was really like.
These stories turned into a genuine teaching moment for someone always trying to fathom the difference between appearance and reality. That's the essence of Dharma practice: distinguishing so we can hunker down with absolute reality, never to be fooled again. It's not hard to see how easily humans want to mistake fussily manufactured appearance--sexy virtual reality, for the real, far less glittery and less certain alternative. Wanting life to be the brass ring on every go round, we insistently bring ourselves nonstop suffering, debilitating angst over our seemingly intractable imperfections and inadequacies. We're so hooked on seeing is believing, we even berate ourselves in the kitchen when we are just trying to eat and the what we put on the plate doesn't look like what's on the page of Bon Appetit.
The promotion of food styling and the rejection of social media imagery underscored the Buddha's great insight, his main teaching that mistaking appearance for reality is what keeps us drowning in the ocean of Samsara, or if you prefer, spinning around and around into dizzy ignorance. He says we are already perfect with everything we need to be good to go; we don't need a look, just a little food from time to time. The Buddha wants to help us get over separation anxiety as we sort tamper proof truth from all the balderdash and leave the latter behind like a childhood toy. I reckon we can start easy without all the metaphysics and Madhyamika, simply by not taking Photoshopped expectations to lunch.
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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