The way food looks affects the way food tastes. At school, I used to put green food colouring in my common-room-fridge milk, and although it meant I drank blue hot chocolate for a year, it also meant it was usually someone else’s milk that got stolen. On a World War II ship, the cook once found he’d run out of cherry-flavoured jelly; to still the complaints of the crew, he put red food colouring into the lemon jelly, and everyone was happy. If you give someone chocolate yoghurt in the dark and tell them it’s strawberry, experiments show they’ll believe you.
Where this gets really interesting is when the appearance of food begins to completely overwhelm the taste. Mediaeval cooks would sew half a pig to half a chicken and call it a cockatrice; their Victorian followers would make carefully-coloured ice-cream in asparagus moulds (”to produce this fancy ice you will require at least eighteen asparagus moulds made in pewter, and procurable at most ironmongers”, the instructions read).
Wedding cakes come at the modern peak of food-for-show. They’re rarely cheap, often massively expensive, and they usually taste, well, pretty nasty. This is where the cake rental companies that have been in the news lately come in. They provide a fake wedding cake with a tiny portion of real cake in a drawer, and a slit you can put a knife through for the ceremonial slicing. The bride and groom pretend to cut the cake together; they pull the little real slice out; and then the cake as a whole is wheeled off to be surreptitiously replaced in the kitchen with “here’s one I prepared earlier”-style slices of another cake entirely.
This seems, on the face of it, a pretty ridiculous idea, but fake cakes aren’t new. The rulesets (pdf) of cake-decorating competitions often allow the use of a styrofoam “cake dummy” instead of a real cake base; and if you’re more concerned with appearance than taste, why not? In fact, I almost want one, just to have lying around the house (”what’s that?” “oh, it’s just my cake dummy”). I’m not, however, convinced by the idea that “a fake cake displayed on a kitchen counter or dining room table is especially appealing when a home is for sale and on display for potential buyers”. The recommended cake in this version is papier-mache and uniced, and I can’t imagine it would stand up to close inspection, or that most people wouldn’t find it quite creepy (though perhaps a papier-mache oak tree and/or third bedroom would add to the resale value).
I lack the patience and skill for cake decorating; the closest I get to food whose appearance overwhelms its content is a two-pepper soup (where “pepper” in this context means “bell pepper” or “capsicum”). At first it just looks pretty, but give everyone a skewer and they’ll happily draw patterns until it’s gone cold. If you can manage to persuade them to stop drawing for a few minutes and eat it, they’ll find it tastes pretty good as well.
Distracting Two Peppers Soup
Four red peppers
Four yellow peppers
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic
1 litre veg stock
1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon paprika
120 mililtres double cream
Cut the red and yellow peppers into sections and remove the seeds. Rub the sections in two tablespoons of the vegetable oil and put them in an oven at 200C to roast until they start showing blackened sections on the skin, about twenty-five minutes. Take them out of the oven and put them in a plastic bag for fifteen minutes (this should make them easier to peel).
Peel the peppers, but don’t worry too much if you can’t get all the skin off.
Chop the onions and garlic, and then heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in each of two large saucepans. Fry half of the garlic and onion in each one until the onion starts going translucent, usually less than five minutes. Add half a litre of vegetable stock to each saucepan, then add the red peppers to one and the yellow to the other. Next, peel and dice the potatoes and add one to each pan, and then chop up the tomato and add it to the red-pepper pan along with the tomato concentrate.
Add half the cumin, coriander, and fennel to each soup, then the turmeric to the yellow and the paprika to the red. Add pepper and salt to taste as well (I tend to end up with about 1/4 teaspoon salt, unless the vegetable stock was very salty or unsalty).
Simmer the soups until the potatoes are beginning to fall apart, then take them off and let them cool.
Blend the soups, one at a time, in a food processor or with a stab mixer (if you aren’t going to clean it off between soups, do the yellow soup first). If you blend it thoroughly you shouldn’t need to strain it.
Shortly before you want to serve the soup, reheat it in separate pans, adding 60ml of cream to each pan.
Serve by pouring each soup into a jug, and pouring from the two jugs simultaneously (and slowly) into opposite sides of the bowl. This soup doesn’t have as much cream as some two-pepper soups, so it isn’t quite as thick, which means it might be a good idea to serve at the table - the soup can be disturbed quite badly if it’s carried around too much.
Offline sources: Wansink, Brian. Mindless Eating. Bantam Dell, New York: 2006.