When it was first released in 1952, the TV dinner tray was a relatively benign invention, designed for families who wanted to dine in comfort while watching I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show. But for anyone watching food television these days, the tray serves a new purpose: Providing a visual shield for your uncomfortable erection.
Food Network is the new Skinemax, and shameful as it may seem, you’re only human if you’ve felt a slight stirring in your shorts during an episode of Giada at Home. The personalities themselves are partly to blame, all big hair and boobs and sensual diction. So, too, is the softcore editing engineered to make you think maybe that cucumber is more than just a cucumber. But above all else, the thing that sends the whole throbbing euphemism of food TV over the edge is the foodgasm—that moment when the apron-wearing vixen (or frosty-tipped bro) bites into the dish at hand and makes the type of face that’s usually reserved for the bluest corners of the Internet.
What is a foodgasm?
While it hasn’t yet snuck into the Merriam-Webster dictionary alongside other ridiculous new words like emoticon and European Union, the term foodgasm has entered the popular lexicon and shows no sign of going away. The general concept makes sense: Eating is undoubtedly a sensual experience, and we’ve all devoured something so tasty that the experience was almost as good as sex. But the keyword here is almost—it’s safe say that erotic and gustatory stimulation are entirely different, and the notion that both would make you convulse with pleasure in the same way is absurd.
To smile when eating something delicious seems like a natural human reaction—one need only watch a baby tucking into some Gerber to see that. But gasping with delight, or moaning mmm while rolling your eyes into the back of your head? Not so much. If you’ve ever actually walked away from the table with a wet spot in your pants—unless you were the recipient of an under-the-table foot job—you’ve got some explaining to do.
Food TV programming, and the advertising sold around it, lies at the crux of this bellwether moment for the culinary orgasm.
The foodgasm, then, must in some part be a social phenomenon, likely born from society’s increasing fetishization of food. I’m sure Henry VIII belched his approval of a nice piece of spit-roasted meat from time to time; Marie Antoinette, too, might have muttered a few breathy superlatives about all the pastries she was eating. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of art history, Shakespeare, and Chaucer knows that gastronomic aphrodisiacs and forbidden fruits have been around since forever. But the sexed-up histrionics of eating itself are a more modern development, one that goes hand in hand with an era when food is having its pop-culture coming out party.
From the shared spaghetti plate between lovers to the cheekily consumed banana, food has always been used to turn us on. But now, it’s taking us to completion.
How did we get here? Food TV programming, and the advertising sold around it, lies at the crux of this bellwether moment for the culinary orgasm. In the past, programs revolved almost entirely around prep and cooking, with little time, if any, devoted to the act of consuming. Today, eating on camera has become a fundamental element of many shows, forcing on-screen chefs to develop an arsenal of fluttering eye-rolls, lip smacks, and other reactions to adequately express how YUM-O AMAZEBALLS everything is. (There’s something particularly masturbatory about this act when it involves a chef tasting his or her own dish.)
With celeb toques hamming it up like never before, we sifted through the archives to better understand the anatomy of a foodgasm, as portrayed by the stars and starlets of food television. The results are by turns arousing and revolting, but they paint an intriguing picture of how the “O” face has seeped into the very core of these shows.
The female foodgasm
Not surprisingly, the female foodgasm is a far more nuanced and beguiling case study than its male counterpart. For better or worse (probably worse), a lot of the female foodgasms we see on TV appear to be a conscious response to the relentless push to sexualize celebrity chefs. Women’s rights have come a long way since Marguerite Patten graced the screens of postwar England, but so too has the power of the horn dog in the media. No one plays out the struggle to reconcile these two trends quite like the celebu-chef babes of Food Network.
Of course, some famous foodies manage to steer pretty well clear of sexualization—Martha Stewart’s type-A priggishness tends to make her a boner killer, and Paula Deen is Paula Deen, despite what Maxim will have you believe. But others, like Cat Cora and Sandra Lee, are forced to navigate the fact that some of their viewers tune in for the boobs, not the bouillabaisse.
Stuck smack in the middle of this push and pull is Rachael Ray. While she flirted with a tarted-up image in her much-discussed FHM shoot, the Food Network royal has generally taken pains to keep her girl-next-door brand wholesome, and unsullied by any trace of eroticism. Her noticeably restrained on-screen foodgasm style says it all: It must have taken years of practice in the mirror to master such a generic reaction, which appears carefully calibrated to convey a message that’s more yum-o! than youknowyouwantme!
It’s implausible to imagine a person in the real world being that predictable in their response to tasting good food. Ray’s pre-scripted gesticulations are exceedingly polite, with the requisite mmms forced through locked lips where others would open their mouths. Sometimes her head shifts to one side, or her eyes roll up into the head, but even these flourishes remain controlled and mechanical. The problem is that in her quest to color inside the lines of decency, Ray strips the act of all its power. The key with a fake foodgasm—like its bedroom equivalent—is to never get too predictable.
If you’re going to fake it, at least go big. That’s the approach favored by Nigella Lawson, Britain’s queen of domesticated sauciness. From the beginning, Nigella put the sensuality of cooking front and center in her show, using her show-stealing assets and sultry voice to seduce viewers. Her brand is built on wink-wink naughtiness and indulgence, as is clear when you study her full and unabashed embrace of the flirty foodgasm. The sensual lick of the chocolate, the sucking of the fingers, the tongue in the side of the cheek—these little tricks are part of her game, always suggesting the possibility of a quick fiddle in the pantry while the oven comes to temp.
Finally, no discussion of lady-chef “O” faces would be complete without Giada De Laurentiis, the perky Food Network star whose public appearances literally attract frat boys looking to get their salami signed. Though she’s not as much of a self-styled sex goddess as Nigella, she may be the most conspicuous foodgasmer on television. Jet-skiing and jiggling aside, it’s hard to imagine that she and her producers don’t know what they’re doing with sequences like the one below, which would make most grown men blush if they were watching it with their mothers:
Not to mention this one, which is just catnip for the stay-at-home masturbators of America.
The Padma and Kate effect
Since advertisers will use sex to sell anything, they’ve been instrumental in giving us the most egregious examples of the hypersexualized foodgasm. Few companies have pushed the envelope as far as Hardees/Carl’s Jr. One spot depicts Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi tonguing a bacon double cheeseburger like she’s starring in a Brazzers skin flick called “Boobs BBQ IV.” In another, Paris Hilton washes a car in a skimpy swimsuit and then, for no particular reason, chows down on a Spicy BBQ Burger that appears to have spent some time in the sandwich equivalent of a penis pump. Needless to say, Kim Kardashian got in on the act, devouring salad to salacious effect. But the eating-as-boning crown goes to Kate Upton for her banned-from-TV (but viral on YouTube) romp with a patty melt in the back of a convertible.
Anyway, you get the idea. Advertisers will continue to conflate “food” and “porn” until we stop loving them both, which won’t be anytime soon.
The male foodgasm face
This is a less savory topic by most accounts—but one that’s important to address. Since the vinegar strokes are notoriously unsettling to non-participants, male chefs have a different set of concerns to contend with when calibrating their on-screen “O” faces. The key is to not take it too far. Imagine trying to share your côte de boeuf with someone who looks like he’s unloading Peter North-style beneath the tablecloth. Not cool.
For the likes of Bobby Flay and Molto Mario, it’s a balancing act between the impulse to dramatize deliciousness and the need to not look disgusting. Perhaps as a result, or maybe just because they have worse manners, male stars tend to move more swiftly to verbalization, lingering less on the mmms and ahhs of a foodgasm. Guy Fieri, in particular, is well-known for his full-cheeked endorsements.
In addition to being talkers, a lot of leading men attempt to accentuate their manliness through the way they eat. On Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, noshing with testosterone-fueled gusto is an integral part of the Fieri package. A few hallmarks include big bites that often involve bunching up the fingers to force food into his mouth; the lowering of the head toward the plate, not unlike a pig diving into a trough; and the complete lack of concern for juices running through his goatee.
Adam Richman, of Man Vs. Food fame, has a similarly manly eating style to match the show’s celebration of boldface gluttony. However, his post-gorge rapture is often characterized by a puppy-dog goofiness. With food still filling his cheeks, he’ll devolve into a drooling state of imbecilic rapture. Whether this move is meant to soften the brute force of his eating is unclear. At any rate, it paints him as the type of man who is hyper-aggressive in the sack, but cries after he ejaculates.
Not everyone is so melodramatic, though. Anthony Bourdain has written of his disdain for the foodgasm trend in Lucky Peach, noting that people who use the word foodgasm on blogs “create a picture in my mind of a tragically obese person, fingering themselves in front of a laptop with one hand while mashing the tiny keys with the greasy, oversized fingers of the other.” True to his word, Bourdain never goes for the big reaction shot on his own shows. Instead, he appears to eat like a normal person, in appropriately sized bites, with only the occasional expletive-laden expression of approval.
Is there a middle ground between Fieri-brand brashness and the Bourdanian poker face? Enter Andrew Zimmern. As one of food TV’s most lovable characters, he keeps his foodgasms G-rated without completely evading the issue. Regular viewers of the show will be familiar with his three go-to reactions, which translate as, “this is literally disgusting,” “this is interesting but I don’t really love it,” and “this is genuinely delicious.” The third is often accompanied by a shaking of the head and a sort of are you kidding me? disbelief that something could taste so good. (Indeed, the look is often followed by the phrase, “Come on…that’s insane!”)
The future of the TV foodgasm
Like anything that becomes popular and profitable in this country, food has seen a meteoric spike in its sex appeal of late. Chefs are treated like rock stars. People say things like, “Kale is hot,” without a hint of irony. And as we’ve seen here, a Google search for Giada can take you into NSFW territory quicker than you can say chicken tetrazzini.
In this brave new world, food television will keep getting porno-fied. The last vestiges of credible TV chefs—the Ina Gartens and Jacques Pépin—will likely give way to a full cast of charlatans who know their way around an innuendo, if not an immersion blender.
A Google search for Giada can take you into NSFW territory quicker than you can say chicken tetrazzini.
It’s worth remembering that Alton Brown, one of the Food Network early innovators, came from a theatrical background rather than a culinary one. He chose to use his acting skills to create a quirky, Mr. Wizard-style cooking show called Good Eats. Acting may be similarly fundamental to the future of the network. But you can bet that, unlike Brown, the next generation won’t be looking to children’s programming for inspiration.
—Additional reporting by Hannah Norwick. (Sorry, Hannah.)