“Hot girl food”: How food porn changed in 2022

By Ashlie D. Stevens (originally published in Salon on January 2, 2023)

Cheese pulls and fried egg-topped hamburgers are out. Popping open a tin of sardines is in.

When Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to describe his test for obscenity in 1964, he responded: “I know it when I see it.” And for the last decade or so, the same could be said for food porn

The phrase “food pornography” was likely coined by feminist critic Rosalind Coward in her 1984 book Female Desire.” She wrote that cooking food and presenting it beautifully is often an act of servitude and signals an “enjoyable participation in servicing others.”

“Food pornography exactly sustains these meanings relating to the preparation of food,” Coward wrote. “The kinds of picture used always repress the process of production of a meal. They are always beautifully lit, often touched up.”

Through time, especially in the social media age, the meaning of the phrase has flattened — largely shedding its connection to an interrogation of domestic labor and instead conjuring images of decadent slices of chocolate cake dripping with glistening chocolate syrup or triple-stacked cheeseburgers oozing cheddar. Food porn became a comically large pat of butter melting down the contours of a giant stack of pancakes and a rack of spice-rubbed ribs coated in sticky barbecue sauce; it became “cheese pulls” and “yolk porn.” It became the slow-motion video I recorded of me gently pushing the tines of a fork into the yellow center of a fried egg, set to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” which I ended up deleting from Instagram because my mother told me it was shameful. 

But something has changed. 

Tinned fish is “hot girl food” (as is oatmeal and buttered toast). Gorgeous, gorgeous girls love soup. And a negroni sbagliato with prosecco has enticed drinkers all across the country. The aesthetics of food porn have changed, which intersects — or is perhaps driven by — a shift in which foods are considered “sexy.”

In 2010, Amanda Simpson, the creator of the site Food Porn Daily, told The Daily Meal that food porn is classified as “anything that makes me drool.” Several months later, Urban Dictionary provided this definition: “Taking mouthwatering pictures of delicious foods and proliferating them throughout various social media websites as status updates, thus tempting all those not even currently hungry into getting a food hard-on.”

Those definitions of “food porn” tie into an even earlier term,  “gastro porn,” which the late journalist Alexander Cockburn described using the words “excitement” and “unattainable,” which mimics, obviously, a key part of the appeal of actual pornography. The sex that you see depicted in most mainstream pornography can often be comfortably defined as a performance; in many cases, there is even costuming, acrobatics and narrative conceit to bolster said production. 

In many ways, food porn has traditionally mimicked that template of inciting desire via performative fantasy. A quick search of the hashtag #foodporn on Instagram returns 292,896,962 results, the majority of which don’t depict the types of foods most of us every day: an entire tablescape covered in nachos, a hoagie that appears to be composed of nacho cheese and pork floss-covered French fries, impossibly tall layer cakes. Many are captioned with a variation of the query, “Smash or pass?”

As noted in Signe Rousseau’s “Food ‘Porn’ in Media,” which was published as part of the “Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics” in 2014, the connotation of “food porn” is often that of guilty pleasure or allowable indulgence, however the term can also (sometimes simultaneously) negatively connote food which is regarded as “bad” and which should be avoided. Thus, in a culture that prizes thinness and pushes deprivation as a virtue to achieve it, food porn of that ilk offers a kind of gustatory voyeurism.

As Molly O’Neill wrote in 2003, “Given the dissonance between food fantasies and everyday eating, the birth of food porn was all but unavoidable.” 

While this new genre of food porn — tins of expensive sardines, citrus-flecked pots of beanseffervescent cocktails — may present as restrained, or even sexless, in the face of its predecessor, it’s simply playing into a different kind of fantasy, one largely shaped by the pandemic. 

In early 2020, monotony and isolation left many people feeling both destabilized and desexualized. Harling Ross succinctly put it for the fashion publication Man Repeller, “I Don’t Know How Else to Say This, But… I Miss Feeling Hot.” She wrote:

My three main activities are sleeping, working, eating, and re-watching Game of Thrones (currently on season four, thank you for following this journey). I haven’t worn pants without an elasticized waist in weeks. The word “eyeliner” might as well sound like “googoogeeksejkak”–i.e. pardon me?…The two most recent photos in my phone are of a massive tangle in my hair that I’m choosing to ignore and a piece of quiche I ate cold at 3:25 p.m. because I was too lazy to microwave it. Not hot–literally.

Seemingly to combat this, there was a distinct period of time during the first wave of the pandemic where everyday domestic activities and products that evoke a certain casual cool were romanticized. Ogling over an absurdly decadent restaurant-prepared (or influencer-prepared) meal was out. Popping open a tin of olive-oil packed sardines was in. 

As Bettina Makalintal reported for VICE in 2021, tinned fish saw a tremendous spike in popularity amid the pandemic. In some part this was because of convenience; the pandemic caused us all to rethink the types of foods we kept in our pantries. But Makalintal argues that an equally important part of the equation is tin fish’s cultural makeover. 

As she wrote, Caroline Goldfarb, co-founder of the trendy tinned fish company Fishwife, termed it the “ultimate hot girl food” in a 2021 interview with Nylon. “There is no food that will make you hotter than tinned fish,” she said. “Straight up. Do you know a hot girl who doesn’t exist on protein? I don’t.”

“One risk of spending time on social media in the post-Megan Thee Stallion world is an affectation to describe everything as an extension of “hot girl s**t,” Makalintal wrote. “As many people have written on the subject, a ‘hot girl summer’ and the ‘hot girl’ descriptor are now more than indicators of attractiveness, but an invocation of confidence and ownership over one’s place in the world.”

She continued: “‘Hot girl s**t’ is both something anyone can do and something anyone can aspire to.” 

And as such, “hot girl food” can and could really be anything, though much of it runs parallel to current wellness trends — as Goldfarb’s comment suggests — and is guided by a desire for more authenticity (or at least the illusion of authenticity). This is further reflected by the changing aesthetics of food media at large, a shift described by Zoe Suen in Feb. 2022 as “lo-fi food.” 

“Online, plates on my Instagram feed – taken by chefs, home cooks, food stylists or diners – are looking much more lo-fi,” Suen wrote for AnOther. “The photos themselves have also shifted gears from bright, high-contrast birds-eye views to seemingly unfiltered frames filled with negative space.” 

This paradigm “is a reaction to the moment that came before it,” Laila Gohar, a New York-based artist, told Suen. Gohar’s own art is constructed from carefully stacked fruit, “boob mochi” and carved butter. “Gohar says that, in the wake of the pandemic, people are craving a pared-back, comforting approach,” Suen wrote.

Even some of the more whimsical food trends of 2022 emerge from that place. Aperol spritzes, for instance, speak to an aspirational desire to to vacation after now years of being in and out of lockdown, as well as an increased cultural interest in low-ABV beverages. 

“A bunch of ardent connoisseurs, including the NYT, called this drink an omnipresent internet trend bound to die just as quickly as it started. The pandemic was supposed to be the final nail in the coffin,” David Den, a viticulturist and distiller, told Paste. “But with well-being on the forefront of our consciousness [and] a desperate itch to soak [up] the sun, Aperol found itself hitting the sweet spot (again)—a well-priced drink that can keep up with the long conversations without the glitter and over-the-top intoxication.”

It’s a subtler seduction, but seduction nonetheless. It will be interesting to see what 2023 brings in terms of temptation.

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