I recently saw a photo on Instagram of an ethereal plate of pancakes. I don’t know how @ondejeune managed to make pancakes ethereal, but that is how the picture made me feel: the naive circles blessed brown where the pan had touched them, the confiding eggs leaning in, the bacon strips spanning a rumpled bridge to the potatoes. A ridge of triangular toasts rose to the east like cartoon mountains. The pancakes were borne up by a white plate on a white paper table covering, and crayons — purple, red, and yellow — lay spilled out at inviting angles. The pancakes were serene and dynamic all at once, seeming to emanate from a dimension in which life feels exactly like it is supposed to feel — uplifted, eternal, athrum with the diversity that unifies as beauty.
In fact, the photo was taken at Beauty’s, a Montreal diner where I had been just a few days earlier, eating the very same pancake dish. It did not feel ethereal, however, partly because I was having breakfast with my parents, who were bickering about whether whippets are “small.” Whippet size is apparently a touchy issue for them. “They’re the fastest in their weight class,” my dad insisted. “What I said is that greyhounds being big doesn’t make whippets small,” my mum responded. My pancakes subsided into a puddle of egg yolk, doing very little metaphorical work. I’m a slow eater, and everything got cold.
When people post photos of their meals instead of themselves, they create, in a sense, the food’s desire
If the internet were a country, its cuisine would speak to a turbulent civic life. Highly regional, subject to incongruous fads breezing in over muddy trade routes, dominated by monopolies yet regulated by no health standards, the food culture of this space suggests a civilization at odds with itself. But more than this, all food grown in the terroir is by definition unpalatable. The internet is like a metaphysical takeout window — there is no for-here option, everything must be passed through the square opening before it can be consumed in the traditional sense. Yet the way food is consumed online is meaningful precisely because it’s all metaphor.
In 1961, Roland Barthes wrote about the American preference for sugary foods (at the time, annual sugar consumption in the U.S. was 95 pounds per person; in France it was 55 pounds), and the class significance of choosing bitter foods over sweet. “For what is food?” he wrote. Above all, it was “a system of communication.” Bread could simply be bread, or it could be made to mean celebration (pain de mie), or refinement (brown bread, in that period). The grammar of food was in separating out what was and was not meaningful, and determining into what categories different foods might be pressed into service as signifiers.
What is virtual food and what does it mean? Our word “company” comes from the Latin companio or “bread fellow,” someone with whom we eat bread. Bread-fellowship online enlists digital intermediaries to enact ancient customs of sharing food with friends, enemies, and strangers — to cement alliances, to pledge an end to hostilities, or to propitiate the gods. You never know when Athena is looking at your Instagram feed, so update generously, remembering to give thanks for being #blessed. Likewise, our notion of diplomacy has long relied on commensality, or sharing a table. Our exchange of food photos and videos is a type of treaty we offer each other, a set of proposals for mastering our common interests. A grammar of virtual food, attempting to discover the categories of meaning in which watermelon Oreos, cake fails, and baconator samosas find their truest expression, might begin with three areas: sex, death, and transcendence.
All languishing photos of food online have something of Petrarch’s Laura about them — they celebrate pure devotion, an affair in which the love object can never be defiled by actual contact. Food is our most significant other, the other that can and must be absorbed into the self, and in our physical lives the relationship is consummated several times a day. Online, the seduction is always incomplete.
On the peep show that is Instagram, the quintessential food porn is glossy, melting, and shot in close-up. I am looking at a corned beef sandwich in Newport Beach that is particularly revealing — the torn pinkness that falls between the demure and the obscene, the tumbling sauerkraut, the Swiss swooning off the edges of a marbled rye. As I look, it seems to me a current of desire develops between me and the loved object — which one of us is the idealized absent lover? The corned beef sandwich is so concrete, I start to feel myself becoming abstract. When people post photos of their meals instead of themselves, they create, in a sense, the food’s desire — by insisting on food as a subject for portraiture, they endow it with inner life.
Of course, the food as sex category isn’t always dealing in naked desire. Instagram’s food photos can be virginal as well — a shyer archetype, shot from a discreet distance. A pair of hollowed-out coconut halves in Utah projects innocence; they’re filled with orange smoothies topped with oranges cut into daisy shapes, halved blueberries showing spring-green insides. A pebbling of raspberries, a light rain of nuts and oat flakes. The photo is a celebration of nature rather than an evocation of sin, the kind of Edenic sex where guilt plays no role; it’s not to everybody’s taste.
In a piece for Quartz last year, Tisha Dejmanee, an assistant professor of communication at Central Michigan University, also categorized as “food porn” the lifestyle blogs in which recipes are nestled inside a whole universe of housewifely care and attention. “In this way,” she writes, “food is used as a substitute for the female body; food bloggers offer intimate domestic details from their kitchens, rather than their bedrooms.” Chocolate chip cookies, homemade chocolate-mint Valentine hearts, and crock pot pork chops create the children that mommy bloggers are blogging about.
I would also categorize under sex the multiple food apps that are designed to enhance hunter-gatherer prowess — the locators, the organizers, the mood suiters. Restaurant finders like Zomato, seat savers like Open Table, or sommelier recommendation apps like Delectable all allow the user to gain easy entry to an insider class of those in the know. Urban competence can be read as a way of demonstrating reproductive fitness, which is why the obsession with finding the best restaurants gives off a tremor of desperation. Many of the messages conveyed by online food are about success. You won’t starve if you don’t know where the best pho is, but you may fall prey to other risks that come from being out of touch.
The skyrocketing expectations around food preparation and consumption imbue our leisure time with the work ethic of our paid hours
It’s notable that photos of food are almost never photos of eating. Food is beautiful, but mastication is ugly, an act of deformation in which the face’s underlying brutalist architecture is revealed. The fellowship created by sharing virtual sex disguised as virtual food allows both these shameful cravings to be fulfilled without the vulnerability that attends them in physical space. In the same way that we can endlessly message over dating apps without ever meeting in person, we can share food without ever having to watch each other eat.
The world of food apps veers from sex into death rather precipitately. Whenever I read about an app that promises to organize my grocery list, coordinate shopping with other members of my household, and cross-reference with the discounts available at the grocery store nearest me (apps like Favado, Mealime, Avocadolist, or Flipp), I feel like I’m reading an emergency plan devised by an on-call medical team to manage my life’s permanent state of crisis. This is not food as pleasure or food as personal expression; it’s food as necessity, threatened with scarcity by overwork and low wages. The user is embattled rather than desiring.
Many of the cooking videos aimed at millennials seem to me aimed at ramping up this anxiety provoked by the conditions of contemporary working life. Sophistication about food has become a mandatory skill rather than a quirk of personality, and as I watched a video suggesting that I should or could make a croquembouche tower — a nuptial profusion of pâte à choux balls filled with pastry cream, piled into a Christmas tree shape, and drizzled with caramel sauce — I was seized with rage. How dare anyone suggest this feat as a realistic goal for me? The video I watched was on BuzzFeed’s Tasty channel, which specializes in frenetic mixing of ingredients scored to hold music and, in this case, narrated in pinched executive assistant tones that assured me most people have all the necessary ingredients in their pantry. “You caaaaan use vanilla extract,” she says, “but real vanilla beans offer much more intense flavor.”
The footage is sped up so that seven to ten minutes of beating milk with an egg-and-sugar mixture takes 30 seconds — the milk yellows and thickens in about the amount of time it would take in real life to locate the milk carton in the refrigerator. As the disembodied hands whipping and stirring onscreen begin piping the pastry batter onto a cookie sheet, we learn that this recipe makes 150 dough balls. I don’t even own one cookie sheet, let alone the 10 I would need — along with an industrial oven — to bake these all at once. The skyrocketing expectations around food preparation and consumption imbue our leisure time with the work ethic of our paid hours. Watching this video made me worry that I could never master the skills required to remain a paid-up member of our society, and that I would be led to the edge of a cliff somewhere and gently encouraged to find my level at the bottom.
Conversely, my favorite iteration of death food in digital life is in the photos and videos that embrace food failure. A new Netflix show called Nailed It! pits terrible bakers against each other in re-creating complicated dessert recipes; the network got the idea from the perfection-resistance army who post photos of recipes gone wrong — #cakefail, #foodfail, #badchef. These would-be culinary artistes often pair pictures of what the food was supposed to look like (adorable “pupcakes” in the shape of furry white dogs with chocolate chip eyes and noses) and what it actually looked like (a sort of vanilla frosting Guernica of tortured forms screaming at the ceiling). A quizzical Rice Krispie reindeer turns out as a sloth with crossed M&M eyes; cheerful rubber duckie cakes emerge from the oven with beaky frowns melting down their scarred faces, crying tears of food-coloring blood.
Nihilism is a step further down the spectrum of disastrous food. YouTube shows like Epic Meal Time celebrate terminal excess in food creation. Their Million Calorie Lasagna contains 120 packs of bacon, 60 boxes of duck fat, 16 bottles of rosé sauce, 15 bricks of lard, 10 cartons of cream, eight wheels of brie, and 10 bags of mozzarella. As the team of bearded, ball-capped, hoodie-wearing cooks crams the nine-layer lasagna into the oven, it burbles sickly over the side of the pan. As the only-sort-of-rapping narrator remarks, eating this many calories would literally kill you. In a 2011 interview with ABC news, creator Harley Morenstein said, “In this day and age, I feel like there’s a big emphasis on organic foods or a lot of negative media in regards to obesity and stuff like that. We are there eating this, and [viewers] are eating vicariously through us.”
A lot has changed since 2011, and now the show reads to me as culture rather than counterculture — its wares are disgusting and over-the-top and deadly, which seems to be where we are right now. Where sex food is coded feminine, death food seems to be an expression of toxic masculinity. Real men don’t eat quiche, real men aren’t vegetarians, real men aren’t afraid to destroy the world and themselves with it. In the last years before we annihilate ourselves through climate change or nuclear war, why not use up all the resources in an orgy of self-harm?
The literal death on view in virtual food culture tends to be animal. I flirt with vegetarianism, and when I find myself getting too lax I rewatch the 1999 PETA documentary narrated by Paul McCartney, If Slaughterhouses Had Glass Walls. The digital realm is certainly rife with graphic reminders of the mistreatment of animals — and photos of meat that feel like the worst kind of depictions of sex. But meat photos come in another genre as well: photos in which harvesting an animal does not rob the creature of power, but reveals a different kind of force. Lately, I’ve been mesmerized by Instagram photos of seal meat in Inuit communities. In Aupaluk, in northern Quebec, I am looking at the brightest meat I’ve ever seen — fuchsia and purple, with braids of mauve. The cuts are unfamiliar to me; a long, ridged curve reminds me of an octopus tentacle. A photo of plucked ptarmigans in a cardboard box shows them as waxy heart-shaped plums, their small beaks like polished boots. Where some of the meaty photos on Instagram bear mean-spirited #vegan misdirects, these photos are tagged #aqiggiviniq, #puijiviniq, and #decolonizeddiet.
Food as a site of cultural struggle intimately informs online commentary. Under a Tasty compilation called “Six Vegetarian Chinese Takeout-Style Dinners,” commenters wrote things like, “As a Chinese girl. I have never cooked or seen my family cook with corn in just random dished and this is more American inspired Chinese not actually Chinese food … Tasty, China welcomes you (maybe come do some research?)” Another commenter wrote, “Tempeh is clearly from Indonesia not Chinese … Just a quick reminder.” Resistance to the appropriation of cultural food practices shows up in lists like BuzzFeed’s “17 Foods White People Have Ruined.” Pho with broccoli and quinoa; multigrain croissants; kaleamole. It’s notable that these white people foods are “health foods,” ignoring the fact that the encroachment of whiteness has been synonymous with death for many people of color and many cultural practices.
When food stands in for death in online spaces, what’s shared is the vibrancy of our fear. The very brightness of food photos seems to emphasize their function; they’re there to push back the dark.
Part of what made @ondejeune’s pancakes from Beauty’s and my pancakes from Beauty’s different is the stillness and silence that give photos a tonal advantage over real life. Many digital representations of food culture have a prayerful quality: sleepyhead German rolls quiet in their cloth; sashimi roses tilting their faces towards the light. Photos of food don’t invite action the way food videos do — the food’s simple existence feels like a goal attained, the endpoint of a journey. Where the photos and apps in which food is a proxy for sex leave an implied gap for the lover, the prayerful photos of food seem complete in themselves — eating the pale rolls would be sacrilegious.
Digital food is fantasy, and we are free to overconsume
Virtual food is also transcendent in its role as a vehicle for the pure expression of color. In predicting which food trends would be ascendent in 2018, Denise Purcell, a manager at the Specialty Food Association, told QSR magazine that in 2017, the demand for color on Instagram and Snapchat had made Cinderellas out of beets, turmeric, and matcha. I have been torturing myself with an ice cream shop account featuring soft-serve cones swirled in two-tone combinations: blueberry sorbet with Haitian vanilla, taro and passionfruit, cherry and black sesame. The cones are often posed against a wall striped with yellow, mauve, and pale green. I am willing to wager this ice cream is as good as it looks, but the correlation between food’s photogeneity and its taste isn’t always strong. For the Guardian, Ruby Tandoh wrote in 2016, “Sometimes, when I go on to eat the food in front of me, I don’t even like it. That pretty orange and pistachio thing I made is bitter because the oranges have gone rancid.”
Then there are the quizzes that make food into a star chart or diagnostic tool; I learned that because I prefer pizza to salad, and pie to doughnuts, I should be a politician. The tea that suits my personality best is Blossoming Rose Rooibos, because apparently what a wanderlusting free spirit like myself wants most is to buy Starbucks’ Teavana products. Given the choice of different types of pie to bake, I would choose a fruit pie in a blue-and-white china pan with ice cream on top; this means my puppy soulmate is a corgi in a nigiri outfit.
Foods that make us question the nature of reality — the cognitive dissonance foods — also fall into the category of transcendence. When a friend of mine moved to New York State from Montreal, she started posting weekly dispatches called “What the Food Fridays.” The foods she invited us to comment upon were things like Tropickles (fruit punch-flavored pickles), Chicken in a Biskit (chicken-flavored crackers), and Armour dried beef that had been ground, formed, and sliced. These foods were only jokes once they made it onto the internet to an audience for whom they were not originally intended, but the internet also loves intentional joke foods: a cake that turns out to be layers of cabbage and carrots, a Fanta bottle that turns out to be a cake, a banana doctored with edible paint to look like a cucumber.
Part of the fascination of watching cooking videos is in being there for the transformative moments — when individual ingredients lose their identity, coming together to make something new. Recipe sites are about personal reinvention, which is why so many feature long narrative sections seemingly unrelated to the recipe at hand. I’ve waded through a dozen pictures of someone’s trip up the Oregon coast, accompanied by meditations on the eternal mystery of the ocean, wondering how this could possibly segue into the recipe I was looking for, to come upon the phrase, “Unlike the ocean, this Pâte Brisée holds no secrets.”
When virtual food seems to call us out of the earthly realm into a sacred shock of experience, we call upon each other as witnesses. A portal into pure raspberry color threatens to engulf us — beckoning others within sight of the burning bush lets us confirm what we see, but it also protects us from being consumed.
In a sense, virtual experiences of production and consumption protect us from the dangers of our often fraught relationship with food. Digital food is fantasy, and we are free to overconsume. There are Instagram feeds that leave me worried about the health of the account holder (should a person really be eating Korean hot pot, bagels and lox, and chicken and waffles in such quick succession?), but in general the worldwide potluck allows us to eat in theory what may not be possible, or wise, to access in reality.
Simulated eating, however, won’t keep you alive. And the culture of online food “sharing” lacks an element of true reciprocity conveyed in the historical importance placed on sharing meals. Barthes conjectured that food’s meaning would become more and more associated with leisure as distinct from celebration, a prediction that seems to have come true. But the virtual sharing of food, as distinct from an actual sacrifice of resources, adds a ghostly postscript to any clause in the treaties we make online. “Look at this. Now look at your dinner. Now back at this. What are you eating? Is it this? I didn’t think so. Now back at your dinner. What did you do today to end up eating that? Now back at me.” This about a glistening line of sushi. The grammar of virtual food’s meaning comes out of a disjointed communication model, in which speakers and listeners largely stay hidden from one another. To break bread together is a sign of covenant, a pact of non-aggression, but watching each other eat alone affords no such protection.
This essay is part of a collection on the theme of PICTURES OF FOOD. Also from this week, Mila Samdub on village food-prep videos encoding fantasies of the good life, and Anya Metzer on why the hunger for food photos is insatiable.