Food as subject matter has inspired artists for centuries: How many times have you seen a bowl of fruit immortalized in drawings, paintings and sculptures? In recent years, however, edibles have moved beyond the realm of fine arts and into the world of crafting and toy making. Playthings mimicking items found at farmers markets, restaurants and butcher shops have a surprisingly wide fan base that includes suburban mommies, designer-wearing bobos, comic book geeks and foodies alike.
Both manufactured and painstakingly handcrafted items can be found anywhere from craft fairs to boutiques. But the biggest hub for food toys? The Internet. On etsy.com, food toys are so popular they’re actually sub-categorized: crocheted, dessert, felt, fruit, knitted, vegetable and wooden. “Play food” is a popular search term that encompasses everything from crocheted cupcakes to felted sushi to plush fried chicken. If it’s edible, it’s likely someone has made a stuffed version.
From teddy bears to plush steak
One designer who takes her food seriously — but not too seriously — is San Francisco-based Lauren Venell, whose Sweet Meats line of plush toys includes spot-on renditions of a T-bone steak, bacon, whole ham and pork chop. Each has its own cheeky name, and can even be gift-wrapped in butcher paper. The relatively simplistic, somewhat pop arty look of the toys belies the amount of time and research that goes into depicting each one accurately. Transforming a piece of meat with so much marbling and texture into a two- to four-color form isn’t easy. According to Venell, the T-bone steak (now in its fourth iteration) “originally looked like a uterus, then a heart” before she got it just right. With the maiden name Fleischer (“butcher” in German) and as the granddaughter of butchers on both sides of the family, it’s not surprising that the source of Venell’s inspiration is a 4-H pocket guide to identifying different cuts of meat.
Once a hobby, now a thriving business
For many crafters and designers, the art of making cuddly facsimiles of food started off as an individual project or hobby, which then expanded into cottage industries or full-blown businesses as interest in the genre has grown.
When crafter Karen Duncan of Rochester, N.Y., started a Weight Watchers program a few years ago, she had to give up most of the foods she used to love. To get her “fix,” she began making amigurumi (the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small stuffed animals or toys) play food and selling it on etsy.com and at local craft shows. While strawberries are her bestseller, she sometimes starts a project based on things she makes for dinner, such as tamales or spaghetti and meatballs.
“When I started dieting again, I noticed everything [I crocheted] became more sugary,” said Duncan, whose newest addition is a set of gas station desserts: a snowball and two Swiss cake rolls (chocolate and jelly-filled).
Unlike most designers, Beijing resident Julie Hu isn’t interested in making anything more than once. A mechanical engineer by day, Hu sells the patterns for a large assortment of felt food that she designs under the name Fairyfox on etsy.com. Getting into the craft started with the birth of her daughter, for whom Hu wanted to make toys that were safe to play with. For the sake of her own creative standards, however, getting the pieces to look realistic — both in color and texture — was just as important.
According to Hu, “fake food” seems quite popular in her native China, but most are made of resins and plastics and are cheap, mass-produced toys. In her opinion, only a small portion of the population there has a deep appreciation for homemade crafts. Part of the reason she has done so well here in the United States is the resurgence in the DIY trend.
“More and more people are interested in making things by themselves,” said Hu. “They want to make them as gifts or toys for their babies or friends. It is easy for beginners to use felt, and felt toys look so real.”
Why toys? Because food makes people happy
Sarah Jo Marks, an avid collector of plush food who happens to distribute designer toys globally for a living, believes the popularity of food-themed toys is due in large part to their universality.
“People really respond to it,” said Marks. “It’s certainly something that everyone can relate to. You don’t always get to eat the donuts and cupcakes and ice cream,” but having the toy version is a fun alternative. “It’s cute and it’s harmless.”
Marks owns 100 or so food-themed toys — all plush, most with faces — that are showcased in a china cabinet in her dining room. One of her favorite pieces is a bacon-wrapped enoki mushroom on a skewer. Her love of these types of toys is so great that she even put together a plush food exhibition in Los Angeles called “Stuffed” in 2007. She is planning a sequel in the near future in the form of a large-scale installation show, and has also been busy working on a book about plush food slated for 2012 publication.
Stuffed toy food, like edible food, comes in many different styles, flavors, and price points. Whether you collect them for their kitsch factor, as an alternative to stuffed animals or as a way to enjoy certain “bad foods” every day without actually ingesting them, they definitely encourage behavior that is otherwise mostly frowned upon: playing with your food.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photos, from top: Crocheted cheeseburger. Credit: Courtesty of Karen Duncan
Sweet Meats’ plush T-bone steak. Credit: Sandra Wu
Crocheted pizza slice. Credit: Courtesy Karen Duncan
Felt dim sum and Chinese sweets. Credit: Courtesy of Julie Hu