Why Nigella Lawson's Caramel-Covered Photo Shoot Was Food Porn

Last week, renowned chef, TV personality and self-proclaimed Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson appeared on the cover of free London weekly magazine Stylist in a close-up shot of her face dripping with caramel. The thick amber liquid drips down her forehead, along the hands clutching her cheeks, over her perfectly shadowed eyes, along the side of her nose, with drops artfully placed along her lips, plus a strand making its way down her chin, practically demanding the viewer at least consider licking some of it off of her. According to Lawson, however, the image is not erotic. "I've never done double entendre in my life, I'm not that kind of person," she claims.

I agree with the Daily Mail that this image is not about double entendre at all, but the full immersion into the joy of caramel, and, by extension, lust -- for food and for life.

Lawson is drawing no separation between herself, literally and figuratively, and her desire for the salty-sweet treat. Just as some claim that those who don't like to eat food aren't good at sex, an appreciation of the sensual nature of food, rather than simply its utilitarian purpose in fueling us, is part of what has driven the genre known as food porn. Even as cultural critics like Michael Pollan have seen success singing the praises of healthy eating, so have blogs like Food Porn Daily, Foodgawker, with the tagline "feed your eyes," and Tastespotting, all highlighting particularly tempting examples of food photography. While not explicitly sexual in nature, food porn earns its name because it evokes desire and hunger in the same way traditional pornography does.

Whether Nigella Lawson wants to admit it or not, and whether one wants to smear their body with caramel or any other food item, food represents more than simple sustenance. Food blogger Erica Rivera, author of the memoir Man Eater, says, "This image evokes the intense sensations that people who love food experience. For me, cooking and eating are very sensual and tactile. Those who want to see something erotic in this image will find the eroticism. What I see is a powerful image of a gorgeous woman in a state of ecstasy. Why that's immediately slapped with the 'erotic' label is beyond me. If Lawson did a full-frontal shot that included her slathering the caramel on her breasts, then, yes, I'd call it erotic. This is just an image of a woman enjoying something she loves. What's offensive about that?"

I don't think you have to see the photo as "erotic" per se, meaning a turn-on, but to claim it's simply about a love of food misses the photo's power. It's the kind of photo that could make even caramel haters suddenly want to know what's so special about it that a famous woman would risk ridicule by slathering herself with something that, while she may find it delicious, is surely challenging to remove.

Sploshing, also known as wet and messy fetishism, takes the combining of sex and food to its extreme conclusion. There's no denying that Lawson, while showing only her face, evokes the fun, sensual side of sploshing. I asked famed fetish photographer Charles Gatewood for his take. "Several years ago, I published Messy Girls, a 350-page photo book. After each shoot, I asked the models how they enjoyed the experience. Almost all said that getting messy (especially with food) was one of the most exciting experiences of their life -- and most found it very arousing."

Caramel especially is a rich substance, sweet, sticky and, when drizzled on anything, evocative. It was immortalized by Suzanne Vega in the sultry song of the same name (sample lyrics: "So goodbye/sweet appetite/no single bite/could satisfy..." Even Lawson's own words in her Stylist cover story negate her claim. "I am in the middle of a love affair with salted caramel. It's heady, it's passionate, it may -- like the stalker's obsessive focus -- not be entirely healthy, but I take the view that few in this world have the luxury to be blasé about pleasure...True, for many, self-denial has its own exquisite agony, but I am not among their number. For me, a 'more is more' kind of a person, I don't want merely to experience pleasure, I want to wallow in it -- gloriously and gratefully -- while it lasts." How can the buzzwords "love affair," "passionate," "exquisite agony" and "pleasure" be taken as anything but sensual, if not erotic? Lawson evokes the language of desire and romance, as if the food item were wooing her, luring her with its forbidden siren song, and she proudly admits to giving in to its allure. So why not go all the way with the analogy?

I wrote an erotic short story called "French Fried," inspired by a friend's visit to Paris. She spied a woman eating fries with a fork from a plate with a burner under it to keep them permanently warm. In my fictionalized version, an American tourist enters such a café and seduces both the woman, and her food. "The fork lingers between her perfectly manicured fingers, but she puts it down, then picks up another fry and runs it along my lower lip. I dart out my tongue, teasing the fry, running my tongue up its length, licking the salt off."

Admitting the connection between sex and food doesn't mean we have to have an intimate moment over our morning omelet, or that every morsel that passes through our mouths is a form of foreplay. It's simply an acknowledgment that texture, taste, chemistry and biology all mix with desire when it comes to eating. Think about offering a bite of your meal to a dining companion; whether they're a lover or not, there's a marked intimacy contained within that act, from the sharing of saliva on the fork or spoon, to the pressing of the utensil into the other person's mouth, and that counts double if you're bypassing utensils altogether in favor of your fingers. We use at least four of the senses in the process -- sight, smell, taste and touch -- and the Stylist cover photo is simply a literally in-your-face reminder of how these factors come into play.

You don't have to be a splosher or a glutton or a television chef to admit that, whether it's an explicitly sensual food like oysters or caramel or a burgers, a vegetable, a cheese, a chocolate mousse -- pick your favorite -- the experience of placing food on our tongues, of taking the time to taste and savor and appreciate what it offers not just our mouth, but our soul, is a powerful act. You can enjoy the meal version of a quickie or a Tantric session of extended, elaborate, sultry enjoyment. But you're denying an elemental part of yourself and human nature when you claim that the pleasure of food is divorced from its sensual side.