What Does it Mean For Food To Be A Luxury?


A new fashion spread in I Love You magazine’s Diet issue explores the idea of food as a luxury object. Pheasant and octopus are framed and lit like expensive handbags. A model regards an enormous ham with envy, like she’s sizing up a rival at a party. It’s a provocative editorial, and I reached out to the photographer, Elle Muliarchyk, to talk more about it.

Muliarchyk is from Belarus, but her parents were in academia and the diplomatic service, so her childhood was spent largely in Vietnam and in various countries of Eastern and Western Europe. She remembers being exposed to many different kinds of food and cultural ideas around food and eating. “I ate brains of just-killed monkeys and pizzettes topped with scorpions in Vietnam,” Muliarchyk wrote in a short piece for I Love You that accompanies the spread. “In Indonesia I ate birds’ nest soup, which is made of the bird’s saliva, sticks and pieces of dirt. We hunted wild boar in Belarus and ate its tongue, heart and made blood sausages using the intestines.” In the summers, she went to a Soviet-style children’s camp in the Baltics “where I learned how to tenderize my leather shoes and belt, cut them into paper-thin slices and eat them for survival.”

But, at sixteen years old, “diet” acquired a different meaning to me. I came to the US and became a model. I ate celery sticks, almost exclusively, for the next eight years while discovering Atkins, Okinawa, Raw, Glycemic Index, Blood Type and Microbiotic diets. For the first time in my life I saw people treating diet as a fashion trend and status symbol.

The spread shows the South Sudanese model Ataui Deng interacting with, venerating, and glorifying food — but never consuming it. It depicts the suckling pigs and roast ducks with which Deng surrounds herself like luxury objects, or works of contemporary art. (Muliarchyk mentioned Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde’d tiger shark.) It’s a provocative spread because a lot of people who work in and around fashion do treat food as an accessory, something they perhaps want to be seen with at a party but not actually eat. At this past fashion week, waiting for an interview, I stayed long enough at one event that I overheard two publicists talking as they were packing up. One publicist said to the other, “You know, it’s funny, we have no gift bags left over — and all of these lunches. And we started off with the exact same number of gift bags and lunches.”

It’s appropriate that this critical story was shot for I Love You‘s “Diet” issue. Diets are about restriction, and treating certain foods as “luxuries.” (How many women’s magazines talk about food in precisely that way, without acknowledging the extraordinary privilege it implies?) Both food and fashion have a relationship with the body that can be simple or vexed, depending on culture, advertising, gender norms, and the media. For most women, a diet is the only way of “achieving” the kind of body that fashion calls aspirational. The luxury body that can wear luxury clothes. In certain social contexts, flaunting that kind of body isn’t so different from flaunting a Birkin bag or a Prada dress.

And, of course, for many, many people in this world and in this country, food is a luxury item in a much more life-and-death sense. In a world where malnutrition is, according to the World Health Organization, the biggest cause of child mortality, the ability to afford rich foods like those depicted in Muliarchyk’s story is literally a luxury.

It was important to Muliarchyk that the food they used not go to waste, or be rendered inedible by food styling or being kept at unsafe temperatures. For the shoot, they used food prepared by the New York City chef Frank Prisinzano. According to Muliarchyk, he designed the shoot’s “menu” so that all the foods could be later incorporated into dishes served at his restaurants (Sauce, Frank’s, Lil Frankie’s, and Supper). “He used the shoot as an opportunity to teach his junior chefs how to cook those dishes,” says Muliarchyk.

“All food photography is a lie,” Prisinzano told the magazine, “so it helps to start shooting with some basic truths…When we shot this series, we began with the Sauce concept of honoring whole animals and practicing total utilization. We then thought of how to represent it and bring it into the collective visual memory of every eating experience.”

Our food usually comes to us in unrecognizable parts — parts that we cannot usually trace. The whole, on the other hand, tells us everything we need to know. It visually and emotionally connects us with our prey. Some parts are recognizable only when seen in their full context. The world often lies to us through partial presentation that, in reality, can only be understood as a whole.
I feel this shoot is a very important metaphor for what should always be seen, prepared, and evaluated as a whole: our food.

Click through the rest of the slideshow. One image is NSFW due to fashion-boob.

I Love You [Official Site]

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