Afterthoughts: Food for the Eye

What do you do with a collection that is goofy and useless? Curate it and call it a day.

Photo: Linny Morris

"What do you collect?” a lady asked me at a recent Hawaiiana Show. Well, two things. One of my passions, vintage jewelry, is well known to my friends and family. I wear it, I research it, I troll garage sales looking for mid-century jewelry. The other thing I collect? I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this … fake food.

You know, fake food, like you’ve seen in sushi joints around town, the rubber noodles in a bowl with the resin broth? Perfect specimens.  

It’s odd, my fixation with phony food, a sensation I can liken to having a weird, specific phobia—only in reverse. It started early. In fourth grade, while my classmates were using clay to sculpt bowls, I was shaping life-size fried eggs and painting on yolks. I hoarded boxes of play food, cherishing a jumble of plastic spaghetti and meatballs. And don’t get me started on the joys of a wooden bagel.

As an adult, I’ve kept this obsession on the down low, as fake food seems like a childish and frivolous thing to love. My collection lives under my bed, in a box, rarely seen even by me. But covertly, I would order a cinnamon bun, scented like the real thing. Or treat myself to a fake fried-chicken leg. Will that $45 replica of a grilled cheese sandwich really hurt anyone? Some wives would be thrilled to have their husband bring home flowers. I was far happier when my husband showed up one evening with a fake soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone, a prop from a McDonald’s commercial he’d just filmed.

I even made the pilgrimage to Kappabashi, a Toyko district known for kitchen supplies, in search of highly realistic “sampuru” food replicas. (Don’t let the exotic name fool you; it just means “sample.”) I spent a three-figure sum on some exquisite fake sushi, which I adore and which I have absolutely no idea what to do with.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

I suppose I could blame this trait, like eye color or height, on genetics: Some rare mutation causes a passion for everlasting cuisine. There are several problems with my disorder, however. It’s an expensive habit; good food replicas are made of silicon and foam, and a classic bacon breakfast plate alone costs $43. Cheaper ones are made of wax, and the super cheapy, kids kind? Well, I only steal those from children when they are napping.

A larger issue, though, is what one can possibly do with a collection of non-edibles. One of the websites selling food replicas proclaims it is “for home, hands-on or commercial use.” Hands-on? My hands are wrapped around a fake turkey burger, and then what?

Another catalog claims to be my “one-stop shop for all your fake food needs.” This highlights a stumbling block: I don’t need it; I just inexplicably want it. People who need it use it for staging real estate or for grocery-store décor. Other professions get to play with fake food as movie and theater props, or, if they are really lucky, to set the tables at museums. In my line of work, there’s no justification for splurging on fake fish sticks.

I suppose I could get a glass display case for my desk, but that seems a little over the top.

A friend, though, has set me straight. “It’s industrial art!” he said in his best gallery-tour voice. “Quirky and highly specific, but legitimate.” Really? You mean this is socially acceptable? I feel liberated. I’m coming out of the false-food closet.

Now all I need to do is install spotlights on my faux lemon pie, eternally beckoning to passerby and making them hungry. Fake food may be goofy and meaningless—but isn’t a lot of art?

For more of Wagner’s writing, see her online column, “Guilty Pleasures” at