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The Taste of Others

Food film as a genre is relatively new, and Lindenfeld is one of a handful of researchers worldwide studying the subject in-depth, as well as, to a lesser extent, food television. Though many scholars write about food and culture, Lindenfeld goes a step further, examining the politics and ideology. Her research has been published in scholarly journals and the popular press, and she’s at work on a book, Feasting Our Eyes: Food Films, Cultural Citizenship and American Identity.

In recent years, food media have broken out of their niche market and into the mainstream. August 2009 saw the highest viewership in the Food Network’s history. Movies such as Ratatouille and Julie and Julia marked the transition from small-budget art-house film to big-budget box-office appeal. Magazines such as Bon Appetit give those films plenty of ink. Now, more than ever, food is entertainment. Food media shape the way we eat and, Lindenfeld argues, the way we see the world.

But there’s a liability in that.

“For many of us, a lot of the way we experience otherness and difference comes through media,” Lindenfeld says. “If the media have a narrow focus, as many of these food films do, there’s a danger of creating new ideas that are derogatory, inflammatory or even just limiting. What’s so problematic about these films is that they’re not overtly racist, in the way you usually think of racism. They even look progressive, but they’re not.”

Lindenfeld’s research centers on food films made between 1992 and 2007. In these films, food is a main character, with its own stylists, lighting designers and, in some cases, its own musical score. It’s all very lovely and delicious. It has the sheen of authenticity. It looks–and feels–good enough to eat.

These are, for the most part, smaller-budget, art-house movies that tended to attract a small, well-educated, foodie crowd. According to Lindenfeld, that audience thinks of itself as having progressive values, but, in the end, many of the films in her study serve up a less-than-progressive view of race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality. It’s just packaged in a slightly different way.

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