Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Food Porn Addiction: Diagnosis and Warning Signs

The psychopathology of reading about cooking.

I can admit it now: I’ve spent hours and hours over days, months, and years, laying around in bed reading books and magazines filled with voluptuous and enticing voyeuristic descriptions of other people eating. Indeed, I have contributed some portion of my budget to various forms of food pornography. 

There are three levels of food porn addiction, which are worth watching for in yourself or your loved ones: 

1. Classic Food Porn Dependence:  If you can call anything invented in the last few years “traditional,” the traditional use of the term “food porn” (as used by the new generation of so-called “foodies”) refers to a prurient interest in erotic photographs of elegantly presented dishes. In my house, we have a stash of books with titles like “Tuscany: The beautiful cookbook." The ratio of carnal food images to text should set off an alarm about what’s going on in people’s minds when they open up such books. It reminds me of my younger days when men used to subscribe to Playboy, and claim “I only read the articles!” Indeed. 

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2. Recipe Obsession.  I propose that the term “food porn” be expanded to deal with cases in which the pornography is presented in seductive verbal collages. I live with a woman who not only subscribes to the magazine Cook’s Illustrated, but has also purchased at least 20 books in which the editors of that same magazine have collected those same recipes into sets (Best Slow and Easy Recipes, Best Make-Ahead Recipes, Best Light and Hearty Recipes, Best-Ever Recipes, and so on). The series comes from the so-called “test kitchen,” an organization which preys mercilessly on these victims, like heroin pushers in schoolyards. 

3. Twice-removed Food Voyeurism. Not only is my house full nearly to the ceiling with books about food itself, but we have spent another portion of our son's college fund on books about other people's amorous misadventures in the culinary underworld. Just today I felt compelled to buy the book Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. The pages are worn out on my copy of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Hell, I've even spent good money on a book about Phoebe Damrosch's adventures working as a waitress in New York's Per Se (it's called Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter).

I know I’m not alone, because the local bookstore has more space devoted to books about cooking (as well as books about cooks, and books about people who know cooks in fancy restaurants) than it does to books about love or sex.  

Like those people who have been addicted to drugs and then become counselors, I think I have something valuable to say about the roots of this kind of obsession, but I have to get something to eat. I’ll return soon with a review of the latest science book I’m reading: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (no, I’m not kidding, and it’s a scrumptious set of arguments, very “nicely presented” as the foodies would say). 

Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. You might be able to find the book in your local bookstore, if you can make it through the sections on books about cooking, books about cooks, and books about working in restaurants. If he really knew anything about the true meaning of life, though, he’d have skipped sex and murder and written a book about food.

See also: 

Food porn addiction II: Etiology and treatment.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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