Feast Your Eyes

Behind that old saying my eyes were bigger than my stomach stands a basic food truth: Visual appeal counts for a lot.

From a very young age, we’re all discouraged from judging something by its looks: You can’t judge a book by its cover, beauty is only skin deep, and all that jazz. But if looks are so unimportant, why do we then have a Food Network? I mean, after all, what is food without taste, substance or scent? Um, the answer would seem to be pretty much “nothing.” After all, a picture of food will do you about as much good as a telegram about a painting. So why do so many of us stand there in front of the tube, transfixed, with our stomachs grumbling?

For the answer to this conundrum I talked to Katherine Alford, the test kitchen director for the Food Network Kitchens, a place that just might be the universal epicenter for thinking about the visual appeal of food. What I didn’t understand, Alford explained to me, is that visual appeal is more than just a pretty face: It’s what humans use, usually subconsciously, to gauge how nutritious, healthful, restorative or just plain “good” the food in question is.

“Natural visual pop is one of the things we talk about all the time behind the scenes,” Alford said to me, “with the emphasis on natural.” Basically, she said, there are two main characteristics that make food look good. First, there’s how “homemade” something looks; second, there’s color.

Eye-Catching Eats

One thing cooks at home don’t think too much about, says Alford, is the importance of showing “the evidence of cooking.”  Grill marks, irregular edges — this is what we interpret as proving that our food is coming from a person, not a factory. “If a pot bubbles up, if there’s some splatter, if one part of a crust is darker than another, all of that is proof that someone made this, with love, and with real ingredients,” says Alford. “That’s a basic rule of thumb we use: The less sanitized something looks, and the more homemade, the better you’ll respond to it.”

When Alford told me this, I felt like someone explained something as basic to me as gravity: So that’s why homemade, lumpy cookies are so much cuter than a stack of Chips-A’-Cardboard from a plastic bag! That’s why those whole-grain loaves of bread from a bakery look so much better than a commercial white-bread brick! Because, subconsciously, we always know that something homemade is going to taste better, and be better for us, than something made at a factory with dough softeners and bleach.

Color is the other side to visual appeal. If you think about it, a bright yellow banana is more attractive than a pale green or spotty brown one for good reason: Bright color is nature’s way of communicating that a food is at its height of ripeness.

“Color is important from many points of view,” Alford told me. “Generally, the more color you have in your food, the more vitamins you have. There’s pasta, which is nice, but then there’s pasta with red and yellow peppers and green broccoli, and that’s fantastic. Leave the skins on your red potatoes when you mash them and that’s going to add fiber and vitamins, as well as color. Add some escarole to those potatoes, and you’ve got lots more fiber and vitamins.  More color is more nutrition.”

This idea of more color equaling more nutrition is borne out in contemporary studies. The darkest green vegetables, like broccoli and kale, are top cancer fighters. The brightest red options on our shelves, canned tomato products, brim with heart-healthy, cancer-preventing lycopene. The brightest orange vegetables, like squash and carrots, burst with beta-carotene. Blueberries, wine grapes and pomegranate seeds, saturated with antioxidants and phytochemicals, are so intensely colored they’ll stain your fingers.

So, I asked Alford, if color is the key, is that why bright green springtime peas turn camouflage dull when you boil them to death? It turns out that Alford had little experience with the inner workings of mushy gray peas, but a lot of her tricks for increasing the visual appeal of food are in the Food Network Kitchens’ latest book, Making It Easy (Meredith Books, 2004).

Using that book this past winter, I learned some quick recipes to get collard greens and sweet potatoes into a single pot, to turn pantry basics like canned tomatoes into a colorful dinner, and about a dozen ways to jazz up everyday chicken breasts — with color and, as I know now, with vitamins.

Who knew visual allure could be so healthy? Turns out that sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover. Or at least by its color.

Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Twice nominated for James Beard Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she received the award for her restaurant column in the Village Voice–owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been selected for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003 and 2004.

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