Historical Analysis Shows #FoodPorn Predates the Instagram Era

DeAgostini/Getty Images A circa-1590 painting by Francesco Codino depicted candies, lemon, crab, lemons, capers and more.
DeAgostini/Getty Images A circa-1590 painting by Francesco Codino depicted candies, lemon, crab, lemons, capers and more.


Flick through your Instagram feed and what do you find? Juicy cheeseburgers oozing with cheese. Massive steaks lathered with butter. Deep-fried candy bars atop mountains of ice cream. Towering Bloody Marys topped with bacon and corn dogs and pizza and ... enough already! Who actually eats all this? When's this crazy obsession with #craveworthy #foodporn #noms going to end? Well, if history's any guide — and it is — not any time soon.

A new study out of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab has found that at least since the 16th century C.E. Western painters have depicted food more luxurious, rare and indulgent than what people of the time actually ate from day to day.

"Our love affair with visually appealing, decadent, or status foods is nothing new," co-author Andrew Weislogel said in a press release. "It was already well-established 500 years ago."

Narrowed down from an initial group of 750 paintings, 140 Western European and American paintings depicted small, family meals. The paintings spanned 500 years and depicted a grand total of 104 different food types. Focusing on a time of change in European and American cuisines allowed the scientists to look at a context in which medieval dishes and cooking styles persisted, but innovative techniques and newly traded ingredients from around the globe were becoming more well-known.

To analyze changes over the years, the researchers grouped paintings into three categories according to year of creation: the Era of European Exploration and Colonization (1500 to 1650), the Era of Enlightenment (1651 to 1850) and the Industrial/Post-Industrial Era (1851 to 2000).

The researchers focused their examination because most paintings of feasts or banquets — think something like Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" — were hard to square with what's historically known about how real people ate from day to day.

And just as nobody today is Instagramming their microwave dinners or boring old plates of box pasta, painters of yore also avoided the humdrum of ham and chicken drumsticks. In fact, the most frequently eaten foods (which also included chicken, eggs, cheese, milk and squash) were the most infrequently painted.

Here are some other interesting takeaways from the study: Italian paintings depicted sausages at more than twice the rate of other countries; more than half of the paintings from the Netherlands contained lemons, a nonindigenous fruit imported from the tropics; shellfish were most commonly painted in countries with the smallest coastlines, but its frequency dropped over time as shellfish became more prevalent in diets.

"Crazy meals involving less-than-healthy foods aren't a modern craving," said lead author Brian Wansink. "Paintings from what's sometimes called the Renaissance Period were loaded with the foods modern diets warn us about — salt, sausages, bread and more bread."