In Praise of Ugly Food

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Let's start with chicken and dumplings.

Few dishes come closer to what I imagine the cafeteria rations in heaven will mercifully taste like than perfectly executed chicken and dumplings. Then again, perhaps no other dish looks quite so, well, regurgitated, either. So, at a recent Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, when world-renowned chef Sean Brock served up a batch he'd cooked—with his very own mother—some of my fellow diners were in a visible tizzy about what to do.

Throughout the event, we'd all been posting hundreds of images of each course to our Instagram accounts. The slice of golden skillet cornbread, the glistening bowl of butter beans, and the Technicolor-green pickles were all objectively lovely. But chicken and dumplings, it seemed, was the whiz kid who couldn't find a date. And as people wavered and then lowered their cameras without snapping a shot, I found myself downright upset. I mean, this was a rare privilege: An A-list chef and the woman who'd pretty much taught him how to cook, putting their down-home dish on a pedestal in front of some of the biggest names in the food world. And we were shying away because it was homely? Screw that, I thought. This is honest food, and it should be honestly portrayed. I steadied my phone, clicked, and posted. The caption: "Some food isn't pretty and does not need to be."

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As a food writer, I've found myself both annoyed and a bit mystified that the social-media value of our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners is considered almost as important as their gustatory properties. While the nose never lies—and neither do the taste buds—the eyes do, all the damn time.

I've been thinking about ugly food, and ugly things in general, for an awfully long time now. I still remember using my post as a high school yearbook editor to make sure the wallflower kids were just as well represented as the tall poppies in our class. Sure, they weren't the prettiest of the bunch, but I felt a certain solidarity with them. I knew we had a special value all our own. As a girl who figured I'd never measure up as lovely enough (mostly because so many people flat-out told me so), I had always identified with the ugly and the overlooked—the teddy bear with the wonky eye, the holey thrift store dress. I understood these things. I celebrated them.

The foods that pleased me the most were the objectively ugly ones: the stews, gravies, gumbos, curries, goulashes, mashes, braises, and sauces that were cooked long and low until they slumped and thickened. Maybe I knew that these foods, like all the ugly ducklings in this world, had to work harder to get their proper due. It takes time and effort to transubstantiate flour and fat into cocoa-dark roux, a rough hunk of muscle into sumptuous brisket, and raw, tough leaves and tops into sweet, savory greens. Time, it seems, can make some foods taste like heaven, and look like hell.

It's a good reminder that aesthetics are a poor predictor of goodness; that there are other qualities to consider—the most important of which, to me at least, is the olfactory. When presented with, say, a muddy bowl of beef stew, I'll sweep my nose down low over it and inhale, like Hawkeye Pierce over his powdered eggs in the M*A*S*H mess tent. For him, it was probably preventive. For me, it's a tease of impending pleasure. But before I take my first bite, I will lovingly snap a photo of it and post it to Instagram or Facebook, chronicling the dish the same way I did my dorky classmates back in high school.

I know it may seem foolish to use a visual medium to capture the way we eat, but until Smellstagram and Snaptaste technology appear, it's one of the best ways we have to celebrate the overlooked, while at the same time documenting our not-so-camera-ready colloquial chow for future generations. Unless, of course, we want them to think we were a civilization fueled entirely by green smoothies, avocado toasts, and baked goods tied up with red and white baker's twine alongside mini milk bottles. Such a twee vision of our culinary culture would be a tragic misrepresentation of the foods America does best. I fear that Instagram, blogs, and glossy mags continually bump my favorite foods from their collective menus in favor of eye candy. I'm terrified that the less-lovely and monumentally delicious ducklings will be lost to the ages, overshadowed by prettier dishes in this new era of visual gluttony. If they aren't beautifully documented, Pinterested, or posted, they must not be worth it.

When exactly did we start losing purchase on this slippery slope? I can't help but point a finger or two at Martha Stewart. Starting in the 1980s, she was the one who helped make clench-jawed perfection de rigueur for home cooks, rather than the bailiwick of restaurant chefs, caterers, and civilians with cash to burn on personal kitchen staffs. With beautifully packaged features and photographic technology in her arsenal (not to mention a team of food stylists who must have suffered from debilitating tweezer-hand cramps), she was a driving force in bringing food's physicality to the spotlight. And while I've never found myself under her sway (mostly out of self-preservation and, for a long time, personal brokeness), I have seen some of my favorite people—rational human beings whom I care about deeply—reduced almost to tears because their perfectly delicious pâte à choux didn't puff up as prettily as Martha's does.

Martha wasn't the first person to challenge us to such impossibly high standards, though. A paw through my collection of vintage magazines and home entertaining books—The Art of Serving Food Attractively (1951) and The Perfect Host: A Husband's Guide to Home Entertaining (1975) are particular favorites—underscores the importance of polished silver service and a wide array of molds from which to deploy aspics, meat rings, and unnerving desserts. (One chapter of the former provides detailed instructions on fashioning a lettuce skirt for a "lady China figurine," while another suggests crafting a clown from spiced peach halves, gumdrops, and wads of cream cheese!) Then again, those books were meant for entertaining company. With the launch of Martha Stewart Living magazine in 1990, however, such aesthetics were promoted as something we should incorporate into an everyday lifestyle that allows for—even insists upon—devoting time and energy to optics on a daily basis.

Until the age of Instagram and bloggers with DSLR cameras, it didn't occur to me that we mortals were on the hook to make our food look as good as Martha and her predecessors once did. But I was still taken aback when a commenter on my Instagram account took time out of her day to tell me how vomitous she found my wedding food—including my dad's goulash and my mother-in-law's chicken and dumplings—to be. She was, so far as I could recall, not on the guest list. I'm not the only one held to the task. Even Martha was hoisted with her own petard after she posted images of dishes (granted, from restaurants, not from her own kitchen, but still...) that commenters likened to all manner of bodily secretions ("spit," "poo," even "cat vomit"!).

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Yes, Martha's images were poorly lit, blurry, and bizarrely framed. Yes, the fault was clearly the photographer's. But behind the big, steaming heaps of schadenfreude, there was plenty of condemnation of the food itself. And that freaked me out. Martha was partially responsible for taking food presentation and photography to an almost absurd level. And sure, she was contradicting everything she had taught us by taking some pretty terribly lit and unfocused photographs. But is French onion soup even supposed to be très jolie? Isn't the job of chicken liver pâté to simply taste good? Do they really need to strut through Instagram's version of a swimsuit round? Does every dish, no matter how unattractive it may be, need to aspire to the level of food porn? (And what is food porn, anyway? Did you ever find your grandfather's stash of food porn wedged behind the busted toaster and kidney bean cans in his basement workshop? When you were growing up, did your mom emerge flush-cheeked from the pantry with a fluted tart pan, some Demerara sugar, a hank of baker's twine, and a fancy-ass camera?)

So be forewarned: The next time someone trots out "You eat with your eyes" in my presence, I'll seriously consider testing that theory by flicking biscuit crumbs toward their tear ducts and spackling their sockets with room-temperature (I'm not a monster) cream gravy until their face is smoothed over from the cheekbones up.

I don't know your particular life. I hope that it's grand and delicious and satisfies all of your senses. I only know that when I'm hungry, my sight is the last thing that needs to be fed. And while I will continue to document my favorite dishes with a point and a click, there's no need for the perfect shot, no mandate to try to make it pretty. If I share a photo of a bowl of soup or a mess of greens with you, I'm sharing it because there's something more than meets the eye. An uncelebrated beauty. If you see an ugly duckling, look closer; imagine what it smells like, and how it tastes. Lo and behold, you might just see a swan.