On Ugly Food

Gravy, curry, casserole, beef stew ─ some of humanity’s most comforting, aromatic foods are the least photogenic. At Serious Eats, Kat Kinsman analyzes America’s obsession with culinary appearances and makes the case for learning to measure food by other, non-visual standards.

I’ve been thinking about ugly food, and ugly things in general, for an awfully long time now. I still remember using my post as a high school yearbook editor to make sure the wallflower kids were just as well represented as the tall poppies in our class. Sure, they weren’t the prettiest of the bunch, but I felt a certain solidarity with them. I knew we had a special value all our own. As a girl who figured I’d never measure up as lovely enough (mostly because so many people flat-out told me so), I had always identified with the ugly and the overlooked—the teddy bear with the wonky eye, the holey thrift store dress. I understood these things. I celebrated them.

The foods that pleased me the most were the objectively ugly ones: the stews, gravies, gumbos, curries, goulashes, mashes, braises, and sauces that were cooked long and low until they slumped and thickened. Maybe I knew that these foods, like all the ugly ducklings in this world, had to work harder to get their proper due. It takes time and effort to transubstantiate flour and fat into cocoa-dark roux, a rough hunk of muscle into sumptuous brisket, and raw, tough leaves and tops into sweet, savory greens. Time, it seems, can make some foods taste like heaven, and look like hell.

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