“Oh, look at the size of that abalone!”
“The beef looks really tasty!”
“I really want to eat some!”
I am standing in front of a glass case framing the entrance of a food court at Incheon International Airport, South Korea (henceforth Korea). I overhear these exclamations as I watch three teenage girls swarm around me to press their faces against the glass. The case is filled with Korean dishes served in the adjacent food court with brief descriptions and prices. My mouth waters as I lay my eyes on dishes such as bibimbap (rice mixed with meat, vegetables, and a spicy pepper paste called gochujang) and bulgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef) over the teenagers’ shoulders. But alas, we are all deceived. The dishes we have been salivating over are not edible. They are in fact fake, made from plastic.
Why have inedible replicas become normalized to stand in for real food? What are the consequences of the proliferation of fake food models in the culinary landscape? And more importantly, why do plastic foods that fall outside the food cycle of production, preparation, consumption, and waste have authority over the way we produce, prepare, and consume food?
This paper examines Korean plastic food models as tastemakers that standardize food production and consumption practices. Plastic food both literally and figuratively orders gustatory and aesthetic taste and serves as a tool for social distinction within Korean culinary culture. Firstly, I will explore theoretical approaches to conceptualizing plastic food models as tastemakers. Then, I will examine plastic food models within the political economy of taste in Korea since the 1980s. Finally, I will take a close look into three manufacturers’ techniques and approaches to understand how plastic foods are made.
This analysis of the Korean plastic food model industry is based on a total of eight months of fieldwork research and semi-structured interviews conducted from December 2011 to January 2012 with three of the twelve manufacturers in Seoul, South Korea. To protect the identity of my informants, I refer to them as the Pioneer (37 years of experience), Exporter (20 years of experience), and Franchisor (10 years of experience). The Pioneer, a leading food model specialist, was one of the first Korean manufactures who produced Korean models for domestic consumption. His models can be found in major museums and airports across the country. The Exporter is famous for inventing techniques and also producing for a global market. Many of her Korean models are displayed in restaurants in North America and Europe. The Franchisor is one of the largest producers for mid-range chain restaurants and cafes around the nation. His models are up-to-date with current food trends and are showcased at popular franchises. These three professionals not only have gained public recognition as plastic food experts through public competitions, mass media coverage, and government commissioned work but also are known to produce high-quality replicas by hand. Therefore, these three were not randomly selected but chosen to consider various production approaches, capture generational difference, and trace the development of the industry since the late 1970s.
Plastic Food Models as Objects of Inquiry
Plastic foods are created explicitly for the purpose of not being eaten, however, they impart “taste” in two major ways. Firstly, food models regulate the perception of gustatory and aesthetic taste by communicating flavors, mouth-feel, and visual properties of food through precise replicas. Secondly, models influence social behavior by defining what is culturally and politically appropriate. Food models are made with a variety of materials found in nature (wood, metal, precious stones, and cloth), edible matter (sugar, marzipan, chocolate, and butter), and inedible substances (plastic and wax). Among these materials, plastic is ideal because it creates the most durable and vivid three-dimensional models. Plastic can be manipulated freely with the application of heat and requires very little maintenance over time. Plastic allows for more precise molding and coloring, producing replicas that look more real than the original. Some may argue that fake models are mere hyper-real objects since the real and the simulation are seamlessly melded together and reproductions hold more power over the way reality is experienced (Baudrillard). Post-modern scholars such as Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco argue that the production of an absolute fake to satisfy the need for the real results in the rise of simulacra, which are representations that never existed or no longer have an original. I, however, argue that plastic foods within the Korean context rely heavily on originals and reinforce the authority of the original.
The analysis of plastic food models can be conceptualized within the broader theoretical framework of uneaten food. This category encompasses food that is elaborately prepared for ritual but discarded, and foods that are considered inedible in different cultural contexts due to religion, customs, politics, and social norms (Douglas; Gewertz and Errington; Harris et al.; Messer; Rath). Analyzing plastic food models as a part of the uneaten food economy opens up analysis of the interrelationship between the physical and conceptual realms of food production and consumption. Although plastic models fall outside the bounds of the conventional food cycle, they influence each stage of this cycle. Food models can act as tools to inform the appropriate aesthetic characteristics of food that guide production. The color and shape can indicate ripeness to inform farming and harvesting methods. Models also act as reference points that ultimately standardize recipes and cooking techniques during food preparation. In restaurants displaying plastic food, kitchen staff use the models to ensure consistency and uniform presentation of dishes. Models often facilitate food choice by offering information on portion size and ingredients. Finally, as food models become the gold standard in the production, preparation, and consumption of food, they also dictate when to discard the “incorrect” looking food.
The primary power of plastic food models as tastemakers lies in their ability to seamlessly stand in for the original. Only fake models that are spitting images of the real have the ability to completely deceive the viewer. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin asserts that for reproduction to invoke the authentic, the presence of the original is necessary. However, an exact replication is impossible since the original is transformed in the process of reproduction. Benjamin argues, “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence and, in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced” (221). Similarly, plastic models of Korean food are removed from the realm of culinary tradition because they deviate from the conventional food cycle but reinforce culinary culture by regulating aesthetic values and food related practices. The notion of authenticity becomes central in determining the strength of plastic food models to order culinary culture by setting visual and social standards. Plastic food models step in to meet the beholder on various occasions, which in turn solidifies and even expands the power of the original. Despite their inability to impart taste and smell, plastic models remain persuasive in their ability to reinforce the materiality of the original food or dish.
Plastic Food Models and the Political Economy of Taste in South Korea
While plastic models are prevalent all around the world, the degree to which they hold authority in influencing production and consumption practices varies. For example, in many parts of the world, toys are made to resemble food for children to play with or even as joke objects to trick others. In America and Europe, plastic food models are mainly used as decorative elements in historical sites, to recreate ambiance in dining rooms, or as props at deli counters to convey freshness. Plastic food models in Korea go beyond these informative, decorative, and playful functions by visually ordering culinary properties and standardizing food choice.
Food models were first made out of wax in Japan in the early 20th century. In 1932, Takizo Iwasaki founded Iwasaki Bei-I, arguably the first plastic food model company in the world. As the plastic food model industry flourished in Japan, some of the production was outsourced to Korea to decrease costs. In the late 1970s, a handful of Japanese-trained Korean manufacturers opened companies in Korea and began producing for the domestic market (Pioneer). Their businesses did not flourish until their products became identified as a tool to promote Korean cuisine to a global audience.
Two major international sporting events triggered the growth of the plastic food model industry in Korea. The first was the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the second was the 2002 World Cup. Leading up to these two high-profile international events, the Korean government made major efforts to spruce up the country’s image for tourists and familiarize them with all aspects of Korean culture (Walraven). For example, the designation of kimchi (fermented pickled vegetable) as the national dish for the 1988 Olympics explicitly opened up an opportunity for plastic food models to represent the aesthetic values of Korean cuisine. In 1983, in preparation for showcasing approximately 200 varieties of kimchi to the international community, the government commissioned food experts and plastic model manufacturers to produce plastic replicas of each type. After these models were showcased in public they were used as displays for the Kimchi Field Museum and remain as part of the exhibit today. The government also designated approximately 100 tourist-friendly restaurants across the country, requiring them to display food models during the games. This marked the first large-scale production of Korean plastic food.
The second wave of food models occurred in the early 2000s in response to the government’s renewed interest to facilitate international tourists’ navigation of Korean culinary culture during the 2002 World Cup. According to plastic food manufacturers, the government was less involved in regulating the use of plastic models this time, but offered subsidies to businesses to encourage their display for tourists (Exporter; Franchisor). After the World Cup, the plastic food industry continued to grow with demand from businesses, as models become staple objects in public places. Plastic models are now fully incorporated into, and even expected at, mid-range restaurants, fast food chains, and major transportation terminals. Businesses actively display plastic models to increase competition and communicate what they are selling at one glance for tourists and non-tourists alike (Exporter). These increased efforts to reassert Korean culinary culture in public spaces have normalized plastic models in everyday life.
The persuasive and authoritative qualities of plastic foods regulate consumption practices in Korea. There are four major ways that plastic food models influence food choice and consumption behavior. First, plastic food models mediate between consumer expectation and reality by facilitating decision-making processes of what and how much to eat. Just by looking at the model, the consumer can experience the sensory qualities of eating the dish, allowing decisions to be made within 30 seconds (Franchisor). Second, plastic models guide what types of foods are suitable for social and cultural occasions. These include during Chuseok (the harvest festival) and Seollal (New Year), when high-end department stores display holiday gift sets containing plastic models of beef, abalone, and pine mushrooms. These sets align consumer expectation and experience by showing consumers the exact dimension and content of the gift. They also define the propriety of holiday gifts. These types of models therefore direct how food is bought, exchanged, and consumed during holidays and reassert a social code. Third, food models become educational tools to communicate health recommendations by solidifying types of dishes and portions appropriate for individuals based on health status, age, and gender. This helps disseminate a definition of a healthful diet and adequate nutrition to guide food choice and consumption. Fourth, plastic food models act as a boundary marker of what constitutes Korean food. Applying Mary Douglas’s notion of food as a boundary marker of ethnicity and identity, plastic food models effectively mark Koreanness to reinforce a certain set of ingredients and presentation as authentic. Plastic models create the ideal visual representation of Korean cuisine that becomes the golden standard, by which dishes are compared, judged, and reproduced as Korean.
Plastic models are essentially objects that socially construct the perception of gustatory, aesthetic, and social taste. Plastic foods discipline and define taste by directing the gaze of the beholder, conjuring up social protocol or associations. Sociologist John Urry’s notion of the tourist gaze lends insight to considering the implication of the intentional placement and use of plastic models in the Korean urban landscape. Urry argues that people do not gaze by chance but are taught when, where, and how to gaze by clear markers, objects, events, and experiences. Therefore, plastic models construct the gaze on Korean food to teach consumers when, where, and how to experience and practice Korean culinary culture.
The Production Process of Plastic Food Models
Analysis of plastic models must also consider who gets to define and reproduce the aesthetic and social taste of food. This approach follows the call to examine the knowledge and power of technical and aesthetic experts responsible for producing and authorizing certain discourses as legitimate and representative of the nation (Boyer and Lomnitz; Krishenblatt-Gimblett; Smith). Since plastic model manufacturers are the main technical and aesthetic experts responsible for disseminating standards of taste through the production of fake food, it is necessary to examine their approaches and methods.
High-quality food models begin with original food to be reproduced. For single food items such as an apple or a shrimp, liquid plastic is poured into pre-formed molds. In the case of food with multiple components such as a noodle soup, the actual food is first covered with liquid plastic to replicate its exact shape and then elements are added on top. Next, the mold goes through various heat and chemical treatments before the application of color. The factors that determine the preciseness of the model are the quality of the paint, the skill of the painter, and the producer’s interpretation of the original. In the case of duplicating a dish with multiple ingredients, individual elements are made separately according to the process described above and assembled and presented in the same dishware as that of the original.
The producers’ studios look more like test kitchens than industrial factories. Making food models require techniques resembling conventional cooking procedures. The Pioneer, for instance, enrolled in Korean cooking classes when he realized that to produce convincing replicas he needed to understand how certain dishes are made. The main mission for plastic food producers is to visually whet the appetite by creating replicas that look tastier than the original. Since the notion of taste is highly subjective, the objective for plastic food producers is to translate the essence of the food using imagination and artistic expression to appeal to universal taste.
A fake model is more than just the sum of its parts because some ingredients are highlighted to increase its approximation of the real. For example, the Pioneer highlights certain characteristics of the food that he believes to be central to the dish while minimizing or even neglecting other aspects. When making models of cabbage kimchi, he focuses on prominently depicting the outer layers of neatly stacked kimchi without emphasizing the radish, peppers, fermented shrimp paste, ginger, and garlic that are tucked between each layer of the cabbage. Although the models are three-dimensional, they only show the top or exterior of the dishes from the viewer’s perspective. Translating dishes that have complex flavor profile and ingredients are challenging and require painstaking editing. The Exporter notes that assembling a dish and putting the final touches on a plate are similar to what a food stylist does because her aim, too, is to make the viewer’s mouth water. To communicate crispy breaded shrimp, she dunks pre-molded plastic shrimp into a thin plastic paste and uses an air gun to make the “batter” swirl into crunchy flakes before coloring it to a perfect golden brown. Manufacturers need to realistically capture the natural properties of food to help consumers imagine the taste of a dish. For instance, the Franchisor confesses that one of the hardest dishes to make is honey bread (a popular dessert at Korean cafes), a thick cut of buttered white toast served piping hot with a scoop of ice cream on top. Convincingly portraying a scoop of ice cream slowly melting over the steaming bread is challenging because it requires the ice cream pooling on the top and running down the sides to look natural. Making artificial material look natural is impossible without meticulous skill and artistic expression. These manufacturers bring plastic models to life by injecting them with their interpretations of the food’s essence, which facilitates food practices by allowing the viewer to imagine and indulge in the taste of the real.
Deception runs deep in the Korean urban landscape, as plastic models are omnipresent but their fakeness is difficult to discern without conscious effort. While the government’s desire to introduce Korean cuisine to an international audience fueled the increase in displays of plastic food, the enthusiastic adoption of fake food as a tool to regulate and communicate food practices has enabled integration of fake models into everyday life. The plastic models’ authority over daily food practices is rooted in its ability to seamlessly stand in for the real to influence the production and consumption of food. Rather than taking plastic food models at face value, I argued that deeper analysis of the power and agency of manufacturers is necessary. It is through the manufacturers’ expertise and artistic vision that plastic models become tools to articulate notions of taste. As models produced by these manufacturers proliferate both locally and globally, their authority solidifies in defining and reinforcing social norms and taste of Korean culture. Therefore, the Pioneer, Exporter, and Franchisor, are the true tastemakers who translate the essence of food to guide food preference and practices.
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