Limp slices of bread smeared with butter, a single sausage lounging in orange soup, a presentation of pork knuckles resembling discarded brains — this is far from the stuff you’d find on the menu of your local farm-to-table eatery filled with upcycled furniture. This is real food: the kind left out for hours on platters, or packaged and lingering for days on the dark shelves of supermarkets, or swathed tightly in plastic wrap. You probably won’t find photographs of these dishes on Instagram (#eeeeats) either, but they’re celebrated in Martin Parr’s new book, simply titled Real Food.
Published by Phaidon, the over-200-page book — with a soft cover resembling a plastic red-and-white imitation gingham tablecloth in both appearance and touch — chronicles the Magnum photographer’s international food surveys from 1994 to 2015. Within its pages, Parr lays bare our varied culinary lifestyles, highlighting quotidian views that can be oddly otherworldly or simply amusing: cherry blossoms poke out between the crevices of a mountain of canned Spam in Tokyo, while flat bread tans on the trunk of a car in Cairo. From Uruguay’s Punta del Este comes a veritable sculpture of assorted blood-pressure raisers jostling for real estate on one plate; from Finland’s Nousiainen, a presentation of clearly can-sourced veggies and the most nondescript boiled potatoes.
Rather than being organized by geography, though, the images are grouped loosely by subject: you’ll flip through sections of desserts (a stoner’s delight!) that leave you practically feeling the whipped cream from sundaes, cakes, and that plump slice of lemon meringue pie worm its way to your thighs. A series of food in transit to happy mouths — oozing oil, dripping with sauces — will leave you craving either a trip to a state fair or a salad.
The photographs aren’t accompanied by captions (an index at the back details their source cities), but each photo still presents a strong sense of place, suggested by, for instance, tacky tablecloths, or less subtly, a red, white, and blue cake elegantly iced with “God Bless America.” In many images of shops and markets, the packaging of foods wrapped, canned, and tinned also offers some hint of where you are: Japanese text is emblazoned on plastic while handwritten labels spell out words in French. More than taking a gastronomic trip around the world, browsing Real Food is like watching a ballet of gluttony, each photograph of fattening, processed, or simply sad food elegantly choreographed into a sequence that has its share of nauseating moments but, in the end, satisfies.