The Internet Cannot Get Enough of Wacky Sculptures Made of Food

Bon Appetit - Mon May 16 21:30

Before I even started the five-second video clip my husband sent of a chef’s knife plunging clean through an adorable miniature tortoise, the sight of the thumbnail already had me moaning, “No, no, no!” The animal’s beady black gaze remained unchanged as the blade descended through his squishy, polygon-patterned shell to reveal layers of spice cake and kelly-green vanilla buttercream icing. Horrified but relieved, I proceeded to watch pastry chef Natalie Sideserf’s macabre cake reveal at least another half-dozen times, wondering how on earth she pulled it off (and also, maybe, how she sleeps at night).

In every corner of the Internet, I’m seeing sculptures made from food. My personal favorites lean gentler, silly even: a tiny armchair fashioned out of butter and sliced with a knife on a continuous, soothing loop. A grainy, vintage magazine photograph of a deranged-looking radish pig with toothpick legs. And a seriously convincing electric kettle that steams, made by chef Tuba Geçkil. The latter category of hyper realist bakes inspired the Netflix series Is It Cake?, which debuted in March and features skilled pastry chefs recreating everyday objects out of dough and fondant—like hardshell tacos and sewing machines—that are hidden amid decoys of the real thing to try and fool a judging panel.

It’s not surprising that these playful images, which are all art imitating life, took off in a culture underpinned by Tweeters besotted by the meme-ification of, well, everything. Combine that with roughly two years of confinement to home and screens due to the pandemic, and you get a sculpted food obsession spectrum spanning from cute butter furniture to cakes mimicking a human foot wearing a strappy sandal.

But what makes us so perennially fascinated by food made into lifelike objects? Psychologist Jennifer Drake says that, regardless of the medium, we humans are wired to marvel at skill. “Which is recognized when we’re surprised that an object is not what we thought it was,” says Drake, who’s an associate professor of psychology at Brooklyn University. And we especially consider art more valuable when it’s unexpected, like “when we are told a piece takes a long time to make,” she says, or when we find out a realistic work is actually a painting and not a photograph.

It makes sense, then, that we can’t look away from shows like Is It Cake?. Watching a contestant manipulate a thin rope of fondant into the stitching on an edible handbag offers a porthole-view into the artist’s genius. Then there’s the oddly-satisfying shock-factor; it’s not art in the way we traditionally think of mouthwatering food meticulously arranged on the plate—and so our brains scream, “Don’t you dare eat that tortoise, even if it is a sweet, tender cake!”

Still, food and art share similar appeal, says Tommy Walton, a senior lecturer in the fashion and architecture departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). “Art is consumable just like food—and if it’s good, we want more.”

In fact, there’s even a word for this visual trickery—edible or otherwise. Illusionist cakes, puff pastry fish, pâte à choux bun nuns, and carved apple swans make up the culinary subcategory of what’s known in the art world as trompe l’oeil, or art that tricks the eye. Trompe l’oeil works date back to ancient Greece, when the artist Zeuxis is said to have painted convincing enough grapes that birds tried to peck at them.

Walton’s work traces culinary trompe l’oeil back to at least 15th century Europe, when hedonistic banquets were held nightly at Versailles and the palaces of Italian and Dutch nobles. Access to rare, often imported ingredients like artichokes and pineapples—along with a gaggle of talented chefs—allowed the uppermost echelons to flex their wealth and cement their status while also providing entertainment for guests.

“The food was grand, unbelievable—roasted peacock, grilled flamingo, gelatins in different shapes,” Walton says. And sculptural food displays “that weren’t necessarily edible” were brought to the tables between courses or displayed as centerpieces, like spun sugar sculptures, which 18th century French celebrity chef Marie-Antoine Carême was known for.

The grotesque and subtly horrific has seemingly always factored into why we find food sculptures entertaining. Walton tells me of a favorite feast of 16th century English monarch Henry VIII starring a horrible, mythical creature called a cockentrice—the front half of a baby pig sewn to the legs of a cockerel and roasted—all the more terrifying for guests who at the time believed dragons were real. “People were horrified,” Walton says, “and still it was popular! I think this was the forerunner to the turducken.”

By the mid-1900s, home cooks were also serving up edible centerpieces as aspirational home entertaining ascended. Anna Pallai, the London-based literary agent and publicist behind the 70sdinnerparty Instagram and Twitter accounts, got the idea for posting vintage clippings of Spam witches, corn dog bouquets and carved apple turkeys by paging through her mom’s binders full of “Robert Carrier’s Kitchen” cooking magazines from the 1970s and '80s. These rags catered to women who were expected to work and host at a time when they increasingly relied on processed foods supplied by the industrial food chain, says Pallai. “This was convenient food with a flourish—hot dogs, but make it fancy.” You know, like a frankfurter peacock.

Though, at the time they offered a way to spruce up a tablescape, now the images Pallai posts mostly just make us snort with laughter. For Pallai, 70sdinnerparty is a rejection of the virtue-signaling on Instagram around food as wellness and an endorsement of eating for fun. “It’s a childish thing, you know?” she says. “People like crafts and making things. Well, this is the stupid end of it.”

But even lighthearted food sculpting bears links to the same impulses that draw us to fine art. Of course, you could argue that feet made of cake that are, say, hacked up by a sardonic, machete-wielding TV host don't get the same deference as renaissance oil paintings hung in famous galleries, but they command our attention nonetheless. Like me, Walton wonders why he continues to tune into Is It Cake?, a show that he considers “totally unwatchable.” Pausing briefly, he answers himself: “Because it’s spectacular entertainment, and that’s what the human animal wants.” It’s what we’ve always wanted.

The current surge in culinary trompe l’oeil might also be born of the endless stream of doom we’re constantly scrolling through. After all, outlandish art has often come out of challenging times. The satirical Dada movement and surrealist painting both flourished after World War I as artists grappled with the nonsensical horrors they’d endured. As people sought release and excess, Walton says the post-war era also saw the rise in technicolor movies and over-the-top entertainment in cities like Shanghai, Paris, and Berlin. World War II spurned the likes of avant-garde painter Salvador Dalí to cook up an outrageous, macabre dinner party against a flaming helicopter backdrop—one of many surrealist dinner parties he and wife Gala hosted through the years that would become fodder for his absurdist 1973 cookbook, Les Diners de Gala.

“Just like music and fashion, food follows the pulse of humanity and changing trends,” Walton adds. “Artists always make art for others to consume. Right now we want frivolity, silliness, and to be shocked.” We want light in the dark.

Whatever the format, art that we consume and craft ourselves also offers escapism. Psychologist Drake points out that the pandemic sent droves of us to the arts as a kind of soothing balm—owing in large part to the ability to view, share, and participate in it for free via the glorious and terrible internet. “Art allowed us to shift our attention away from our negative thoughts and feelings,” she says.

Just before we log off Zoom, Pallai asks if I’ve heard of the Lemon Pig Phenomenon that swept 70sdinnerparty back in 2017. That New Year’s Eve, she posted an old magazine clipping of a lemon pig with toothpick legs and a coin in its mouth to warrant good luck in the coming year. Before she knew it, hundreds of others shared their own lemon (or apple or banana) pigs—and now it’s an annual tradition. “In a collective sense, we can do something a little silly and fun for an evening,” she says. “Of course, they’re also completely cursed, these sculptures; everyone’s pretty much had awful years since 2016.”

In this time of globally shared existential crises, we face unprecedented political and cultural polarization. Yet one thing amidst the tumult is for sure: we can still gasp in fascinated horror at a doll skirt fashioned from lunch meat, or delight in ramming some toothpicks into a piece of citrus. And that, to me, is cause for celebration—perhaps over a slice of buttercream-filled tortoise?