I was at the New York Wine and Food Festival's Meatball Madness event last Thursday night when I was suddenly struck with the bizarreness of celebrity food paparazzi. I was part of the starstruck crowd gathered around Giada de Laurentiis's meatball stand, hoping for a glimpse of the Food Network star. She was there, looking (surprise) exactly like she does on her show, smiling with remarkable persistence.
"Take a bite for us!" shouted a photographer jostling behind me. "Giada, can I have your balls?" cried someone else.
I secured myself one of her pepperoni-spiced meatballs and tried to lose myself in the crowd to enjoy it in peace. When you think about it—I mean really think about it—there are very few foods that are attractive to watch being eaten. The only exceptions that come to mind are the Pringles commercials, and the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp.
Meatballs, on the other hand, aren't exactly hot stuff to look at. As soon as I turned away from Giada to consume her relatively unattractive meatball, a guy with a very large camera appeared. Startled but admittedly flattered, I smiled and held up my plate, pretending I was a venerable guest instead of a recent college grad with a lucky press pass. He took a picture and frowned at the result on his camera screen.
"Can you take a bite?" he asked, leering closer behind his apparatus. Without thinking I complied, closing my eyes to avoid looking at him. The flash went off with my eyes shut, fork in mouth, looking for all I know like a wannabe Nigella caught in a moment of oral pleasure.
What can I say? I felt disgusted with myself afterward. Eating in front of the camera shouldn't automatically feel suggestive, but everything about that moment seemed wrong. Why couldn't I just smile and brandish my fork dorkily? Would this camera man have requested the same for a male guest? I suddenly felt very sympathetic towards Giada, who probably can't eat anything in public without flashbulbs going off.
That minor encounter last week has got me thinking about the dilemma of women food celebrities and the suggestive photos that inevitably pop up of them eating. Sure, food is related to sex—just think of all the words (luscious, appetite, pleasure) that are cross-listed between the two. Yes, eating can be carnal, relating to or given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites, according to Merriam-Webster. But does it have to be scintillating to sell? We've got our share of food celebrities, from dowdy to delish, but there seems to be a universal code that dictates female food personalities should always be photographed eating something.
Have you ever seen a photograph of Alton Brown biting sensuously into something? This was the closest image I could find, which is as far from sexy as, well, Alton Brown feasting on asphalt.
Men in the food business are masterful about their food, whether it's Bobby Flay gripping a spatula like an axe, or Ace of Cakes' Duff Goldman holding two pastry bags like tattoo instruments. B is for bad-ass bakers, and all those motorcyclists out there with a sweet tooth.
I'm not trying to spin a few pictures out of context, but it was pretty easy to find suggestive photos of Giada, Nigella, and even Paula Deen. And I'm not going to mention Rachael Ray—she seems to be branching out into an entirely non-culinary field altogether.
But can food men be sexy too? Of course—there's Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef! How much sexier can we get? Turns out that no one likes to picture him with his eyes closed, moaning about how good something tastes. Leave that to the women.
Perhaps the only woman who is safely out of the realm of the sexual is Martha Stewart. Prim, matronly, and somewhat frosty, she is reserved where Paula Deen is exuberant: the Hillary Clinton of the hearth. I found no pictures whatsoever of her eating, and if this pole-dancing is her only venture into the risqué, I'd say she's safe.
I'm not sure what this means for women food celebrities who do not have Martha's intimidation factor nor her street cred (prison is tough, yo). Seems to me that Giada, Nigella, and Rachel will continue eating for the camera as long as there are hungry viewers to watch them.