The Art of Food

By Ivana Wijedasa, class of ’22

Art is everywhere, from the photos and posters on your wall to the street signs that you pass on your way to work. More subtly, but perhaps most importantly, art exists in the very thing that sustains us: food. In the culinary world, strawberries are transformed into roses, chocolate molded into sculptures, and cake shaped into everyday objects (popularized by a recent Tik Tok trend “Is it real or is it cake?”). Food has become a medium for artwork in numerous different ways, from intricately decorated cakes to decaying bananas. 

The image depicts strawberries that have been delicately cut to appear as roses. Photograph: Nathan Congleton, TODAY.

There is a common saying that cooking is chemistry, but I want to focus on the phrase “food is art.” Culinary means “related to cooking,” and arts refers to any broad area of interest. Therefore, culinary arts refer to the art of preparing, cooking, presenting, and serving food. The presentation of food has always intrigued me the most. On popular cooking shows like “Chopped,” time constraints are no excuse for poor presentation. There is an art to food in not only how it tastes, but perhaps, more significantly, in how it looks. A new popular phrase that demonstrates this is “phone eats first.” Today many people take pictures of their food before they eat it, to both save to admire later and share on social media for others to see. Self-proclaimed foods have come to value food for its aesthetic appeal over its taste. One of the clearest examples of this is in the craft of cake making.      

The popularity of cake decorating and sculpting is evident through the many shows that revolve around it, such as Cake Boss, The Great British Bake Off, and Ace of Cakes. The process of constructing cakes into a form of art is one that requires patience and a lot of time. The Alice in Wonderland inspired cake pictured below represents the artistic techniques bakers employ in creating cakes that resemble art more than food. Before decorating this cake, the sculpting of it is essential. The cake is composed of four teacups stacked upon one another, balancing asymmetrically. The construction and balance of the cake takes on a process similar to creating sculptures. This process perhaps requires more precision than traditional sculptures, as the material used is a sponge-like, crumbly cake, in contrast to solid stone or marble. The baker uses fondant to construct figures that resemble the characters from the movie and in transforming the sculpted cake into teacups. This cake demonstrates the painstakingly detailed artistic elements of cake decorating. 

Photograph: Mike McCarey, Mike’s Amazing Cakes. 

The influence of art in cake making is not just evident in their visual appeal and construction, but also in the message that they display. The trend “is it real or is it cake?” popularized on TikTok has demonstrated the power of art in food to make the viewer question reality. It focuses on the prospect of deception and the connection between reality and fictitious worlds. Similar to the purpose of traditional forms of artwork, it highlights the limitations of our eyes and makes us question the truth of what we see. In the image below, we see an example of a hyperrealist illusion cake created by Natalie Sideserf. At first glance, the image on the left side appears to be a regular onion ready to be chopped up and sauteed. However, as the image on the right reveals, it is actually a cake. 

Photograph: Natalie Sideserf, Sideserf Cake Studio 

Beyond the art of food that is visible in our homes and on social media, the artist Dieter Roth uses food in an unconventional, yet insightful way. He examines the symbolic nature of food’s temporariness in comparison to human life. In a talk hosted by Harvard on March 31, titled “Food in Art,” the speakers discussed how Roth uses decomposing and rotten food as material in his art. Two examples of Roth’s work with food that the lecture mentioned include his “Pocket Room” and “Chocolate Lion (Self-Portrait as a Lion).” The “Pocket Room” consists of a slice of banana pressed onto a card with a rubber-stamped image of a table placed in a plastic playing-card box. The banana slices have gradually grown mold and decomposed. In “Chocolate Lion,” the artist uses chocolate to construct the figure of a lion. Roth uses chocolate as a material to represent himself and to manifest the truth of his human body with how it ages, deteriorates, and turns to dust. Roth chose chocolate because it is known for its immediate consumption and not longevity—just as life is not permanent but temporary.

Roth draws connections between art and food in his physical use of food as material in his artwork and in its deeper representation of life. Art is often associated with its most represented forms as paintings, sculptures, or drawings, which museums display, such as our very own McMullen. But evidently, art takes on more unconventional forms in food. Perhaps art in food will encourage us to examine the less traditional and unexpected forms of art in our everyday lives. 

On the left: Dieter Roth (Hanover, Germany, 1930–Basel, Switzerland 1998), Pocket Room, 1969, banana slice tacked to stamped paper in a plastic box stored within a custom-made cardboard box. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, ©️ Dieter Roth Estate/Hauser & Wirth. On the right: Dieter Roth (Hanover, Germany, 1930–Basel, Switzerland 1998), Chocolate Lion [Self-Portrait as a Lion], 1971, marbled chocolate. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, ©️ Dieter Roth Estate/Hauser & Wirth.

Works Cited

Dellatto, Marisa. “What Does the ‘Is It Cake?’ Meme Trend Mean on Twitter and TikTok?” New York Post (blog), July14, 2020.

Ruby Awburn, Lauren Hanson, Leonie Mueller, and Julie Wertz. “Food in Art.” Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, March 31, 2021. 

“What Is Culinary Arts?” Accessed April 20, 2021.

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