Fancy Feast

The aspirational fantasies in photogenic food

On Instagram, the promotional video for Moon Dust, a blend of powdered mushrooms, barks, and root extracts that sells for $38 per 1.5-ounce jar, begins with words in a thin white sans serif font flashing across a gauzy purple background to the sounds of samba music: “INTRODUCING” “THE” “NEW” “MOON DUSTS.” Clouds of the stuff are drawn out of a jar and tossed into the frame by a white woman’s hand. The texts continue: “SUPER” “POTENT” “SUPER” “SIMPLE” “SUPER” “HERB.” By the time the video concludes, we’ve learned that we should be adding these dusts to our tea, pancakes (presumably the vegan, three-ingredient kind currently popular on food blogs), yogurt bowls, smoothies, and green juices. The implication: What we eat should be more than just food. It ought to be supplemented by fairy dust that promises to rev up our cognitive, bodily, sexual, and even spiritual prowess.

This is the new health, same as the old. Beautiful, slim, wealthy white women — long the keepers of purity, health, and hygiene in the American imagination — are again advising the rest of us how to care for our bodies through state-of-the-art technologies. In the case of Moon Dust, the white woman in question is Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of the Los Angeles chain Moon Juice. Her deployment of supply chain management, centralized manufacturing, branding, and other technologies of verification is seemingly magical. She turns the gummy raw materials for her products, derived in large part from the cuisines and medicines of a panoply of brown people, into spiritually potent “moon dust.”

At stake in this new wave of healthy and photogenic food trends is a history of multiple dimensions of oppression along with a chance to interrogate them

Health and aesthetics are inseparable for Bacon, who rose to notoriety after the publication of her “food diary” on Elle.com in May 2015. “I usually wake up at 6:30 a.m.,” she reports, “and start with some Kundalini meditation and a 23-minute breath set — along with a copper cup of silver needle and calendula tea — before my son Rohan wakes.” Pre-breakfast is a “morning chi drink on my way to the school drop off, drunk in the car!” Things get more intense from there. Breakfast is “16 ounces of unsweetened, strong green juice,” an “alkalizer, hydrator, energizer, source of protein and calcium, and overall mood balancer,” along with her company’s own bee pollen formulation, “activated” cashews for “brain chemistry magic,” and a concoction of grapefruit juice and turmeric root. Lunch is zucchini ribbons with pine nuts and basil. After that, Moon Juice smoothies and a hemp milk-based shake, a seaweed salad, mushroom broth, another of her own proprietary juices, a two-hour yoga class, and a bottle of tonic with flakes of raw cacao and mushroom chocolate complete her day. A satirical dramatization of her food journey puts the cost for all the ingredients at $1,210.97.

Throughout Bacon’s online journal, her meals are precisely planned and perfectly plated for maximum nutritional and cognitive effect. Multicolored, multi-textured (when solid food is involved), and conspicuously starch- and animal product-free, they evoke peace and simplicity without being boring: purity that doesn’t come at the expense of variety. To create this effect, Bacon borrows and mashes up foods and techniques from different ethnic cuisines and geographical regions. At the same time that she demonstrates her cosmopolitan expertise as a food guru, her maternal instinct is also on display, with her son joining her in several of the images of her day. She can be mother and entrepreneur, worldly and domestic, rich and self-employed, and virtuously healthy all at the same time, without any mention of partners or extended family. She has it all.

These visualizations of Bacon’s lifestyle and the Moon Dust line exemplify how food trends can reveal the unacknowledged hopes and fears that motivate members of modern societies. Decoding Bacon’s activities and those of current, similar diet and lifestyle icons reveals some of the dynamics of gender, race, and class bubbling below the surface of American culture. The cosmopolitan surface of diet trends belies the situatedness of the white, middle- and upper-class women who so often promote them. At the same time, elevating such spokespeople as cultural icons reinforces a historical trajectory in which white women are implicitly trusted as the arbiters of bodily hygiene and proper morality.

Bacon’s aesthetically pleasing health magic brings to mind another recent food trend: unicorn food. From unicorn noodle salads to unicorn breakfast bowls served in the shell of a dragonfruit to unicorn smoothies garnished with a naturally-tinted, Whole Foods analogue to Lucky Charms, and finally to the short-lived Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino, the trend swiftly moved from food blog curiosity to mainstream trend. At stake in this new wave of healthy and photogenic food trends is a history of multiple dimensions of oppression along with a chance to interrogate and work to dismantle them as we move into the future.

Particularly notable is Adeline Waugh’s “unicorn toast,” first featured on her blog Vibrant and Pure in July 2016 and then picked up by such outlets as Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and the New York Post. Vibrant and Pure features pages of recipes directing readers how to make food that is both healthful and colorful. Indeed, her food is so colorful that the food often appears artificial, almost more vibrant than biology could possibly produce. But it is actually made, Waugh writes, using “only the purest of real food ingredients.” The unicorn toast’s striking colors come from plant-derived ingredients: hot pink cooked beets, blue and purple frozen blueberries, uncannily blue powdered mushrooms, and green chlorophyll, all mixed with almond-milk cream cheese from Whole Foods. The ingredient list is hardly what Michael Pollan had in mind when he began advocating for his readers to “eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.” But the ingredients are close enough to nature to plausibly differentiate them from more familiar processed-food villains like high fructose corn syrup. And they are impressive to behold.

Waves of green and blue, cyanobacteria powder and chlorophyll infused cream cheese are artfully swiped across a grainy slice of toast — a childhood princess fantasy for the 21st-century woman

While the food Waugh presents might, in another time and context, be deemed appropriate only for children, it is contextualized on her site as healthful, natural, and whole, fit for an image-conscious adult woman. This meeting of infantilization and gendered aesthetics in goods targeted at women is well documented, especially in critiques of contemporary women’s health activism. As a culture, we can’t seem to shake the idea that we want our women beautiful, slim, and slightly childish. An April 2017 entry on how to make “mermaid toast” made this side of the colorful food trend even more explicit. Waves of green and blue, cyanobacteria powder and chlorophyll infused cream cheese are artfully swiped across a grainy slice of toast — a childhood princess fantasy for the 21st-century woman.

What, then, to make of Moon Dust, rainbow bowls, and mermaid toast? These culinary artifacts are odes to a specific ideal of the modern capitalist woman: the woman who can have it all, the entrepreneur who can get a quirky idea to land in the overcrowded marketplace of quirky ideas, the well-off person who can turn their love for travel into profitable expertise, all while being beautiful and decidedly nonthreatening. They signify being able to chase your dreams and catch them, the sparkling fairy dust of success.

But while a diet of rainbows, mermaids, and moon dust may seem harmless enough on its face, the ephemeral nature of the fantastical register they evoke obscures some of the gender, racial, and national imaginaries that lend these trendy foods their power. Waugh’s recipes arrived on the foodie scene at a moment of deep suspicion about foods perceived to be especially “processed,” such as manufactured, petroleum- and corn-derived food ingredients, and especially so-called artificial colorings and flavorings. Her food, like Bacon’s diet, pulls liberally from a wide variety of global cuisines, climates, and species, yet her magic touch turns it into something both desirable and approachable. It draws a sharp contrast to the plain, brown, musty bulk foods aisles of co-operative food markets past, with their organic and natural selections inspired by the foodways of previous generations. Waugh’s and Bacon’s artful foodways are to the Michael Pollan– or Mark Bittman–style of whole, simply prepared food as the exercise experience at Soul Cycle is to a stroll through a slightly neglected public park. It is intensified, elaborated, and offered in a slick package shot through with additional layers of status signifiers.

The purity fixation of our current food moment — exemplified by the preponderance of vegan, whole, clean, natural everything on even the most ordinary supermarket’s shelves — is part of a larger cultural investment in what I’ve called “the hygienic sublime.” This builds on historian David Nye’s “American technological sublime”: the idea that technology — both awe-inspiring and terrifying, a national treasure and a force to be directed and contained based on our political desires — will save America as a nation and as a people. The hygienic sublime draws similarly on a constellation of imagery, imagined futures, fears, inducements to action, and technological tools, but these are used not merely to save America but to purify American bodies, homes, and minds to allow certain Americans to become their best selves. Through hygiene, this discourse tells us, lies a future of strong bodies, morally upright citizens, and financial success.

The hygienic sublime is realized in part through a highly gendered, classed, and raced incitement to consume. In the American imaginary, a good mother watches out for the hygienic welfare of her nuclear family, spending responsibly on household appliances like washing machines, new bathroom fixtures, refrigerators, and other health-promoting tools. A young woman who is not yet a mother is seen mainly as a future mother. Her qualifications for her starring social role are evidenced in the way she cares for herself and cultivates good hygiene habits, displaying her moral worth in part by taking the right kind of care with her diet and appearance. If she is lucky, in the standard narrative, her good looks and character will attract a worthy heterosexual mate who can provide materially for the family. But because preparing for that future costs money, and because it has always been easier for white women to access better paying jobs in the U.S. than women of color, to be a good woman appropriately concerned with hygiene has often been highly racialized, at times both in practice and perception.

Society can make different decisions about which foods and food techniques should be expensive, valuable, and rewarded with high status

These equivalences have a long legacy in the U.S., with fears of immigrants, African Americans and other people of color, and the poor often articulated through a fear of disease and contamination. As a result, hygienic behaviors have often been a means through which an assimilated white “us” can be identified and observed to transcend a nonwhite, immigrant “them.” It separates “real Americans” from interlopers and leftovers. Logics and techniques of bodily purity — as well as the techniques through which purity is disciplined and surveillance — have helped to perpetuate white American leadership in politics, culture, and morality.

Hyperfeminized, aspirational food trends represented by high-profile white women recall some of these historical patterns. They are accepted as health authorities without scientific training on the strength of their apparent moral character (signaled by their appearance, command of jargon, and confidence) alone. Their food is marketed as pure and healthful but also pretty in a colorful, feminine, and childish way. In this context, as in others, white women appear to have the magic touch, creating expensive that manage to appeal to a seemingly universal desire for self-improvement.

At stake in the recent beautiful food trend, then, is not only the intensification of discourses that call us to perpetual self-improvement through better eating. At stake is also social reality in which certain gendered, classed, and racialized identities — namely, middle-class white women — are recognized as the moral authorities on what is right for individual bodies, for children, and by extension, for the health of the nation.

In pointing out the raced, classed, and gendered nature of current aspirational eating trends, I do not intend to denigrate as a marker of excessive privilege the pleasure the can be derived from an aesthetics of eating. We live in precarious times, and we must find pleasure where we can. I participate in aspects of the foodie and fitness prestige economies. I do yoga at the global center of a brand-name yoga school. I subscribe to a community supported agriculture scheme in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Sometimes I take the time to decoratively plate my food.

Moreover, I do not wish to further reify the idea of “whiteness as property,” as legal theorist Cheryl Harris put it in an influential 1993 essay. Whiteness itself is valuable, she argues, because of how it has been embedded in historical patterns of resource distribution and ownership. Being white also implies that an individual has special rights to certain forms of property, both material and cultural. There is a risk that my argument here so far might suggest that rainbow, all-natural, vegan, organic, plant-derived foodstuffs are — and will remain — the exclusive property of white people. But there is no inherent reason this needs to be. Society can make different decisions about which foods and food techniques should be expensive, valuable, and rewarded with high status.

Instead, following feminist theorist Donna Haraway, I am interested in placing our present food fixations into a context that recognizes the “radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects.” What are the historical trajectories that inform — but do not determine — these food trends? What ideas of the right ordering of self and society do they incorporate and reflect back to us, in all their sparkly, multicolored, palate-pleasing forms? How can we commit to enjoying our food and our bodies without reproducing exclusionary orders of power, prestige, and wealth?

Encountering Moon Dust and other “beautiful” foods in an American context in which white women are elevated as the privileged protectors of health and purity risks perpetuating accustomed orders, with their established beneficiaries and oppressions. But ill health is not the exclusive property of bodies recognized as nonwhite on the basis of certain skin colors or facial shapes any more than good health and beautiful experiences are the exclusive property of the lily white. Beautiful, delicious, nourishing food isn’t, either. Aesthetics matter for how we imagine ourselves, our allies, and our enemies, for better and for worse. The challenge lies not in simply denouncing material comfort such as we might be able to find in difficult times but in acknowledging the histories that give rise to its specific forms and spokespeople. Aesthetics is politics is pleasure all the way down, stars upon stars, dust to dust.

Danya Glabau researches, teaches, and writes, about gender, bodies, and technology in New York at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and NYU Tandon School of Engineering. She is working on a book on food allergies, gender, and capitalism.