Glazed and confused
From the synthesised splash of sugary fizz to 3D-printed hamburgers, the future of food goes way beyond the real thing
The power to redirect light is a formidable one. Reflections entrance and confuse, an unexpected twinkling will draw both our eyes and our attention. Human beings are hardwired to notice shiny, iridescent things; indeed, perhaps sunlight dancing off water was the shiniest thing ever seen by prehistoric man, and a potentially life-saving observation Those adept at finding glittering pools of water would tend to be healthier, more reproductive. This evolutionary success is then displayed. Human health is publicly demonstrated by shininess – in eyes, in teeth, nails and hair, in disposition. To be attractive is to be radiant.
Can the same be said of our food? Though water, that life-giving liquid, may have an enticing lambency, foods that glisten tend to be sweet or sticky.
For the Autumn and Winter 2011 London Fashion Week, style magazine Glamour collaborated on a special product with the great American confection and scourge of traditional spelling, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. A new duo of doughnuts was designed, each with bespoke coloured toppings. Bright purple and orange glazes were made to be extra shiny and reflective, and laced with an edible glitter. The irony that nobody hoping to fit in to any of the clothes promoted at Fashion Week should ever even go near a box of sugary glistening doughnuts appeared to be lost on the participants.
The photographs illustrating the magazine feature show a box of texturally ambiguous objects. The doughnuts could be a collection of glazed ceramic rings with hard, glass-like surfaces, but they also look as if they might be flexible and gummy like polished rubber. Most promotional photographs of this kind aim to make their subjects appear as appetising as possible, but these doughnuts barely look like food at all – the glaze in which they are coated looks more like lip gloss. These doughnuts appear to be wearing make-up.
When Roland Barthes flicked through a copy of Elle magazine in the late 1950s he was struck by the photographs of shimmering meals that accompanied the recipe pages. These glazed items exist, as Barthes puts it, in ‘a dream-like … fairy-land reality’,  perhaps the same reality in which visitors compare sugary baked goods at fashion shows.However the couture Krispy Kremes weren’t shiny like cooked meat or a polished apple: their sheen left them looking inedible, even alien, from another place or time.
In Japan, distinctions between food, jewellery and toys appear to be dissolving as more and more innovative, gleaming products are developed. Leading the food / toy movement is Kracie, a Tokyo-based company which, as well as producing food, manufactures cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Kracie’s Popin’ Cookin’ range of food toys are clearly informed by these other two enterprises. The box contains a web of conjoined plastic moulds and a selection of powders in foil sachets. These toys are like chemistry sets: mixing and heating freeze-dried substances together with water produces tiny replicas of common meals.
The most popular Popin’ Cookin’ toy is the fast-food style hamburger and French fries. There is a powder for each of the ingredients: the bun, patty, fries, cheese, ketchup and even cola. Each powder must be poured into relevant moulds, mixed with the right amount of water and then heated in a microwave for a few seconds. The patty solidifies into a shiny brown disc, the buns eerily rise like real bread, the cheese paste is flattened into squares and the cola powder sits in a thimble-sized beverage cup fizzing into life when water is added. Although the box is styled like confectionery, when finished these spongy creations smell like synthetic approximations of real burgers and fries. The taste is unsettling: the patty tastes like a weak beef stock pellet and the French fries like soggy crisps. The point of Popin’ Cookin’ toys is to assemble perfect miniatures like moulded plastic models. Kracie’s products have a colourful delicacy or kawaii, a distinct type of cuteness popular in Japan (see ‘Cute culture’, Eye 44). The lip-gloss doughnuts, miniature Japanese hamburgers or the silvery displays that Barthes balked at in Elle magazine, are novelties made conspicuous through the luxury of shine. Glazed food has been toyed with and transformed to attract our attention, and though it may be superfluous, a glaze can be a tool used to demonstrate wealth.
German company The Deli Garage takes this idea to its illogical conclusion. They create and manufacture cooking products branded and packaged like workshop tools. The company’s aerosol lacquers, which come in a variety of metallic colours, are capable of coating almost any food, so you can dust your roast chicken or lobster with a layer of fine golden paint, or turn your spaghetti into an abstract chrome sculpture. The company’s product description ‘Certified edible and tasteless’, presumably refers to both sensory and cultural taste, as the gilded food in the photo and video demonstrations has the unconvincing burnish of imitation gold plastic or bright nail varnish. These glazes objectify the food onto which they are sprayed, making decorative art objects out of commonplace meals. The food begins to seem virtual.
Lobster, 2012, gilded with The Deli Garage’s edible food spray, claimed to make ‘high-gloss, lacquered objects your eyes can’t get enough of.’
Top: A Krispy Kreme ‘Glamour Glazed’ doughnut, made in collaboration with Glamour magazine.
For computer imagery, smoothness and shininess are desirable qualities. The first computer programmers to construct three-dimensional polygons sought next to illuminate them, to see them rotating and reflecting light. Such graphics abhor visible roughness and pixels, and strive for the smoothness of complexity.
First drawn in 1975, the Utah Teapot was the first three-dimensional computer graphics model to represent a real-life object. This simple model is now an archetype; ubiquitous in design tutorials, it has become something of an in-joke for computer animators, even cropping up twenty years later in Pixar’s 1995 debut Toy Story. Though based on a genuine porcelain teapot, the Utah Teapot usually appears in virtual chrome, its smooth, rounded edges used to demonstrate the ways in which 3D computer models can reflect light.
This is particularly relevant in the promotion of food, whereby graphic simulations allow liquids and gels to be manipulated in ways their real-life counterparts cannot. Software programs such as RealFlow have been developed specifically for the simulated pouring and splashing of liquids and other thicker, glutinous substances. When a close-up is needed of cascading beer churning into foam, or whisky and cola fizzing over ice-cubes, it is now the job of programs like RealFlow to simulate and render it.
The liquids in these simulations move, much like real liquids, by means of a multitude of independent flowing particles. These virtual particles are subject to the pre-programmed laws of the software such as gravity, buoyancy and viscosity. When animators are happy with the way the particles flow they are then meshed, that is, a skin is constructed around them, transforming them from animated powder into liquid. It is this skin that can then be rendered, coloured and lit and so made to ripple, to glitter and sparkle.
These computer-generated liquids (beer, cola, caramel, gelatine) are illustrations, both hyper-real and hyperactive. Theirs is a twinkling shininess untainted by impurities, dust or fingerprints. Their physicality is jubilant: poured into virtual containers they ricochet with an exaggerated, sloshy enthusiasm. Like almost all modern advertisement techniques (chocolate bars rotating in colourful voids, for example), these simulated substances portray impossible, idealised materials. Though their qualities are regulated not by physics but by algorithms, these simulations act more like liquid than actual liquid does. Milk strikes cornflakes with unnecessary force and breaches the edges of bowls, gliding fruits disrupt ribbons of falling cream, disobedient juices spray from plastic bottles in colourful jets.
In the simulated world, writes philosopher Jean Baudrillard, ‘the real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, memory banks and models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times’. In reality these substances are as messy as they are shiny. Computer graphics allow you to splash virtual cola around as much as you like without staining your trousers.
Such techniques appear in the 1999 science fiction dystopia The Matrix (a film partly inspired by Baudrillard’s ideas around reality and simulation) when Neo, the protagonist, is entranced by a peculiar-looking mirror. As Neo reaches out and touches the mirror it reveals itself to be viscous and his reflection is suddenly distorted by ripples. As he pulls away it sticks to him and a drop of liquid mirror remains perched on his finger like mercury. The blob begins to propagate, spreading over Neo’s hand and then, distressingly, up his arm. He panics, squirming as the mirror-liquid reaches his neck, emerging from the collar of his T-shirt and over his chin before plunging down his throat, the camera following as Neo’s gurgling scream descends into blips of digital interference.
The malicious mirror-liquid is used to illustrate the corruptible virtual reality of The Matrix. After swallowing the surging mirror Neo awakens in a real, grim world in which humans are farmed as an energy source for a race of dominant machines. The film uses food to illustrate the disparity between the virtual and the real: one character, Cypher, grows so sick of the nutrient-rich gruel consumed in the post-apocalyptic real world, that he is lured into betraying and murdering his comrades on the promise of ‘juicy and delicious’ virtual steak. ‘Ignorance is bliss,’ announces Cypher as he puffs on a virtual cigar.
Perhaps it is ignorance that gives these shiny examples their appeal. We rely on reassurances from disclaimers and health guidelines as proof of what we can and can’t eat. If the text on the tin or pack confirms the edibility of the stuff inside, then we shouldn’t have any reason to think it otherwise. Our actual understanding of the ingredients of such products is limited by our knowledge of European Union chemical categorisation, or E-numbers. The Deli Garage’s Gold Food Finish spray is made up of E943a, E943b, E944, ethanol, flavouring, E555, E171 and E172. That’s butane, isobutane, propane, potassium aluminium silicate, titanium dioxide and iron oxide. These chemicals are harmless in sprayed, film-like doses – hence the edibility of the product – and many of us, like Alice confronted with potion and cake in Wonderland, will happily consume anything labelled ‘Eat Me’.
Digital dinners / Computer-aided dining
Virtual food has leapt from television and cinema screens to restaurant tables. In some cases, the tables have become the screens. In Inamo, an Asian restaurant that opened in London in 2011, ceiling-mounted projectors transform tabletops into touch-screens. Diners select and preview the dishes on offer by swiping and tapping the table like a giant smartphone, causing images of meals to come sweeping onto their plates. They simply tap an ‘order’ icon when they find something they like the look of, and soon enough a waiter materialises with a real, edible version. The projection tables are essentially interactive picture menus, serving much the same function as the plasticised meals in Japanese restaurants. Here the display meals are beamed onto the customer’s plates like ghostly premonitions – plates are joining books, telephones, cameras, and newspapers on the growing list of objects replaced by screens.The projected meal options have the manicured finish of a photographic cookery book or weekend supplement. Anyone who has been inspired to recreate one of these photos at home will know that the results rarely live up to the promises of the images. Food has long had photographic or illustrated counterparts to fail to live up to, but these images have not, until innovations like Inamo’s, been broadcast directly to our plates. These images are only part of an ordering system, pre-empting the arrival of traditionally prepared dishes. There are some who believe that in time this too will change.
‘Food is the next frontier of 3D printing,’ says speculative designer and 3D printer Janne Kyttanen . ‘One day we will be able to 3D-print a hamburger, and once you do, you won’t want to print a traditional hamburger; you can print the weirdest thing you can imagine.’
Edible 3D printed objects already exist. Tracing specific digital blueprints, food printers build objects by extruding quick-solidifying paste through a syringe, forming layers. These objects, formed from cookie dough or corn starch paste and flavoured with chocolate, are mathematically proportioned, spotless realisations of wire-frame computer designs. They resemble novelty pasta shapes but they have the textural coarseness of dog biscuits.
Kyttanen explains that ‘any matter that you can put into an extruding nozzle you can already print in. You can make anything you want, whether it’s jelly or chocolate or some pastries or some marzipans or whatever, in principle you can make it.’ Surely it is only a matter of time before a sugary Utah Teapot emerges, before touch-screen photographic menus lead wirelessly to dinners printed onto tables.
To make what we eat appear synthetic or virtual is to extend our capacity as eaters. Developers of 3D printed foods are particularly excited about the possibilities of revolutionising long-term nourishment for astronauts, doing away with freeze-dried proteins and introducing more nutritious alternatives. Dutch venture capitalists Mars One are currently recruiting volunteers for a 2023 one-way colonial mission to the red planet. The aim is to form a permanent settlement on Mars, a place with deadly radiation from solar winds and a toxic atmosphere, a place where a 3D food printer could prove as essential to the survival of the settlers as a shimmering pool of fresh water was to their prehistoric ancestors.
1. Barthes, R. (1973) ‘Ornamental Cookery’, from Mythologies p85
2. Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation p2
A computer-generated simulation of a ‘bourbon-like’ liquid made by Sven and Björn Pfister (Geminus 3D).
Tom Harrad, writer, London
First published in Eye no. 87 vol. 22 2014
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