Magnum ice cream thrives on the pseudo-pornographic. It is an indulgence, suggests the skinny woman in the silky blouse as she opens the door to her freezer. Her manicured hand reaches for the pint of ice cream, and her hair hangs in her face as she presses the sides of the container together. Then: KKKRAAACCRRRKKKK. The hard chocolate top of the ice cream shatters under her strength, and soon a spoon finishes the job with a powerful CCHUUUCCCKK. In another Magnum ad, a woman biting through a chocolate-coated ice cream bar sounds like someone set up a microphone inside a collapsing Jenga set. It is jarring.
As someone with a smattering of misophonia (basically someone who experiences the opposite of the bliss ASMR is supposed to induce), it’s become increasingly obvious (and alarming) to me that food is starting to sound very weird. There was the Magnum ad, the sizzling and saucing of the Dexter opening credits, the viscous chew of Tom eating Logan’s chicken on Succession. By the time I watched the first episode of Season 3 of The Crown, and heard Queen Elizabeth slapping marmalade on a piece of toast so loudly it sounded like an army brigade tromping through the mud, I needed an answer: When the fuck did food get so loud?
The rise of food-based TV in the early ’90s created “food porn.” After all, you can’t eat the food that’s on TV, so it has to appeal to the rest of your senses, or at least the ones TV could reach: sight and sound. While the sight of a steak with the fat still sizzling may have been the bulk of the draw, creators learned that sound was an integral part of capturing the audience’s attention, whether it was the soft whipping of a whisk in creamy frosting, or the sound of a knife hitting a butcher’s block after a journey through an onion. In 2006, Bill Buford of The New Yorker spent 72 hours watching the game-changing Food Network, which launched in 1993, and emerged with a new awareness of the sounds of his kitchen. “I set out to prepare some supper, and as I removed a loaf of bread from a paper bag I was struck by an unexpected sound: the dry, crisp noise of the bag being disturbed,” he wrote. “I’d never noticed this before. It was loud and crinkly: so utterly brown paper.”
Then-Food Network head of programming Bob Tuschman told Buford the primary production goal was a beauty shot of the food, the image that would stop someone from clicking from channel to channel and watch whatever Giada de Laurentis was making. But audio was still a component. Buford watched cameraman Al Liguori shoot a glass of milk being measured out. “This required three takes and was followed by a ‘sound pass’ — same event, but with a microphone close up to get the acoustic ripples,” Buford wrote. “They would be amplified and edited back into the final version. Milk as waterfall.” And now, when the main competition from a TV show isn’t the next channel, but the viewer’s laptop or phone, sound is possibly more important than ever, the thing that would snap your head back to the screen if it had drifted to… a different screen.
Cooking sounds may be appealing and evocative of a delicious meal, but eating sounds are a different story. Outside of food-specific TV, loud food sounds have often been used in Western media to indicate when a TV or movie viewer is supposed to think someone is gross, as in Western culture, making noise while you eat is inherently rude. In many parts of Asia it may be polite and correct to audibly slurp noodles, but according to American advice columnist Emily Post, “All rules of table manners are made to avoid ugliness; to let any one see what you have in your mouth is repulsive; to make a noise is to suggest an animal; to make a mess is disgusting.” Even from infancy, Post writes, table manners should be taught to build silent eaters: “Its first lessons,” she writes of a baby, “must be to take small mouthfuls, to eat very slowly, to spill nothing, to keep the mouth shut while chewing and not smear its face over.”
Perhaps it is because the chews and burps of eating draw attention to the business of digestion and the body, but being noisy while eating in “polite society” is shorthand for being a brute. When the Blues Brothers dine out, Elwood and Jake intentionally slurp their wine and chew shrimp with their mouths open to be as openly detestable as possible, and you can hear it. The joke is that loud food sounds don’t belong in fine dining, and capturing that on film emphasizes the disdain refined diners feel for them... and vice versa. “If you want to highlight anger, disgust, or any emotion, sometimes it’s easier and more effective to do that with actions and sound than dialogue,” said Dan Bouza, an audio engineer at Buzzfeed News.
When captured on film, food sounds made during consumption become part of a narrative, signaling something about the person making the sounds. Take a movie like Phantom Thread, where the sound of a knife on toast can trigger a meltdown. Or hearing Call Me By Your Name’s Elio press his finger into a ripe peach and slurp the meat off the pit, and how it evokes other wet, meaty noises before he even gets to the risque part. “Audio is used to help put you in a space, it’s a huge part of story telling with pictures. So I think that audio engineers just have naturally evolved to be more creative sonic story tellers,” Bouza said. And food naturally became a place to experiment, as the sounds could be used for more than just to signify when someone was an unmannered pig.
There is also a new influence on the way many viewers think about sound: ASMR. As Jamie Lauren Keiles writes in the New York Times, Jennifer Allen coined the phrase “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” in 2009 to describe the “brain orgasm” she and others felt when listening to noises at a certain whispered volume. The naming of the sensation launched an entire entertainment market, where people chew and slurp and crunch and smack on YouTube all to calm their audience. Pair that with its foodie cousin, mukbang, and the act of hearing someone eat turns into not just entertainment, but a fully extrasensory experience. Maybe it’s therapy, maybe it’s something sexual (or maybe it, per Keiles, is “doomed to appear sexual” because our language for physical sensation is so focused on sex). Either way, for a younger generation, the concept of sound is inextricably linked to it.
ASMR has floated its way into mainstream media, sometimes as obviously as being featured in a Super Bowl ad showing Zoe Kravitz delicately cracking a Michelob Ultra against a microphone. But according to sound mixer Eric Hirsch, ASMR hasn’t consciously reached the minds of many mixers. “There’s a tendency to look at YouTube content as hopelessly low-rent and devoid of production values at all,” he says. Part of that is defensive, as the DIY aspects threaten to “render the professional class of sound mixers and high overhead post-production facilities that spend thousands of dollars on software just totally moot.” He also pokes holes in my theory about food sounds in general, saying that aside from a few shots on Billions (like the one where they crunch into decadent Ortolan), he hasn’t been asked to raise food-related noises, and in fact has often been asked to lower them because of (music to my sensitive ears) misophonia.
However, he does provide evidence of a backhanded way that these food sounds have become more pronounced through my ears. Bouza notes that more people than ever are consuming media through headphones, or on laptops, and that audio engineers are working on how to change their sounds to match that experience. But Hirsch says that increasingly there isn’t the time, or the money, to listen to audio on both the state-of-the-art sound systems mixers employ, and on laptops or through tinny headphones to make sure it sounds good in all spaces.
“It’s possible that this is connected to your thesis: Laptops and phones and tablets are much better at reproducing mid- and high-frequency content than they are at reproducing low frequencies,” Bouza says. “So a mix that sounds balanced when listened to on kickass stage speakers winds up sounding disproportionately loud in higher frequencies, which mouth noises are, when played back on non-kickass speakers.”
So maybe it’s harried sound mixers who don’t have the time or money to check whether or not that egg cracking into a bowl sounds like sloshing bathtub on every possible device. Or our shitty speakers. But I also believe there’s been a shift in consideration of what our food media sounds like. As Buford showed, the more we hear food, the more likely we may be to keep hearing it. After decades of Food Network and Top Chef, we are probably more primed to notice food sounds everywhere, whether they’ve been intentionally turned up or not. Then again, maybe my horrible ears are too sensitive for Magnum’s sexy chocolate and its thundering crack.