Pictures of Food Have Always Been About Status

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Photo: Getty Images

The desire to share elaborately staged food photos — say, imported macarons and champagne among a sea of peonies — may be at least 500 years old.

For a new study, researchers from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab looked at more than 750 food paintings from the years 1500 to 2000, and focused on 140 canvases that depicted family meals rather than lavish banquets.

They found that most of the foods shown were not ones that people typically ate: It was mostly about bragging. For instance, Italian paintings didn’t include olives, but they showed up in the paintings of countries that had to import them. More than half of Dutch paintings had lemons, which are also not native. Shellfish, especially lobster, was popular, despite being rare. Across the board, fruit was much more likely to be shown than vegetables.

They explained: “The bias of either the artists or the patrons seems to have been in the direction of painting either special or aspirational foods, or aesthetically pleasing foods.”

It’s a mystery though, as to whether they did eat that.