There was a moment last year, halfway through series six of GBBO, we sat staring at the TV screen bewildered. As half a dozen contestants unveiled their attempts at a cake designed to look exactly like a tennis court, all we could think was, “I want to eat them. I want to put those tennis courts in my mouth.” Now we like racket sports as much as the next person, but… So what’s the deal; why do we see a cake and want to eat it?
According to Sam Bompas, co-founder of food studio Bompas & Parr, it’s down to “consuming labour.” We’re enticed by the sheer amount of work that’s gone in, “when something is very, very complex and can obviously be seen to have a lot of love in it, a lot of thought, a lot of intelligence,” he explains. But what about that time your mate made an almost-raw chocolate cake for your birthday and you still hungrily took a slice? “If someone’s demonstrating either value or care, what they’re really saying is “I think you’re so important I’m going to spend several hours of my day doing something I really don’t have to for you”,” Bompas explains. Even on TV we might not know the contestants, but we know how much effort they’re putting in, and we root for them. And we want to eat their food.
But there’s a bit more to it to that, especially when looks are involved. Karen Haller, an expert in colour psychology, explains; “We eat with our eyes and we have a connection with colour first; whether that has a cultural significance, like a white wedding cake, or a colour that reminds us of something to do with our childhood or elicits a positive feeling.”
So while a Victoria Sponge isn’t typically fancy, “its tradition and nostalgia,” says Haller. It’s also packed full of red jam. “Reds are telling your body is that it’s high in nutrients, and that goes right the way from our ancestors who liked delicious red and orange fruits,” says Bompas. “That’s why a lot of fast food providers use the same colour palette in their packaging – McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, they’ve got those warm food colours in their brand heraldry because it basically says put me inside you, it’s going to be rewarding.”
That works the other way, too. “If you have colours that look like mould, your body naturally doesn’t want to eat it. There’s very little blue food because millennia of training has told you that this is going to be poisonous,” says Bompas. That doesn’t stop bakers using it to clever effect, not to mention in novelty cakes. Hands up who *loves* chowing down on brightly dyed fondant icing? Us neither. But as Haller explains, “you’re looking at the fun, the enjoyment.”
And that leads us to something else: the modern spectacle. No Instagram feed would be complete without those glorious food shots, but social media has redefined what makes our mouths water. “If you want to document the story of your amazing life, then you need something new that’s going to impress your friends and followers,” says Bompas. “There is this weapons race for novelty or innovation. And in order to deliver that then you need to move beyond the scale of just the cake itself.” It’s about more than just what’s come out of the oven. “Framing mechanisms are important; the same apple that’s sat on a pedestal in an art gallery is a very different apple to the one that’s in your fruit bowl.”
Remember that, next time you’re secretly wondering what a tiny yellow tennis ball would taste like.
The Great British Bake Off is on BBC1 tonight at 8pm.
The leaves have started falling, which means outside explori ...
Imagine if the gluten-free idea kicked in earlier, and had m ...