This is the third in a five-part series about the problems with contemporary food culture.
In cooking school, they tried to impart to us the importance of presentation. Food cannot simply taste good, our instructors said. It must look good, too — because we eat first with our eyes.
They could not have imagined a future in which social media had altered our consumption habits such that instead of eating first with our eyes, we buy first with them — an era in which appearance often trumps flavour, and taste has become almost irrelevant.
The war of style vs. substance has been waged forever and a day. But in the world of food, there’s been a recent development: style has won.
Not long ago, I was at a restaurant in Toronto that served a dish, promoted on Instagram, featuring noodles that seemed to float in the air. We had to have it, right?
When the dish came, a waterfall of noodles hovered a foot above the plate, a pair of chopsticks embedded in it as if held by an unseen hand. The owner told me of his experimentations with the dish — a fork or a hidden wedge of raw potato creates the illusion. What he didn’t talk about was the taste, because it did not matter. And what right do I have to complain about the flavour of something I bought purely on the basis of its appearance?
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- The trouble with food culture: How chefs became rock stars — and why that’s a bad thing
- The trouble with food culture: How restaurant owners buy buzz
- The trouble with food culture: How the restaurant industry exploits millennial diners
In the last few years, we’ve been overrun by an invading force of image-based food designed to be photographed, not eaten. I once saw a woman throw her charcoal ice cream in the garbage after snapping a photo of it. We are under attack by cotton-candy burritos (the wrap component is made from a substance famous for its lack of flavour and the unpleasant residue it leaves on your hands). When I was a kid, we checked the packaging to make sure foods contained no artificial colours. And yet the resurgence of food colouring — rainbow bagels and grilled cheese, unicorn toast and frappuccino — has been met not with condemnation, but with lineups out the door.
The end result is food and money poured out in pursuit of social-media engagement — likes and faves are harvested like corn and wheat.
And the wasteful march of image-based food is not confined to the hospitality industry.
Which brings us to the “Pinterest fail.”
Pinterest is described by its CEO as “a catalogue of ideas” and by The Atlantic as “a database of intentions.” It’s so common for people to poorly execute the lusciously photographed cakes they’ve seen on the site that Netflix has monetized the phenomenon through a show, Nailed It!
In each episode, amateurs try to reproduce complex cakes created by professional bakers. The goal is not to watch them succeed, but to be entertained by their failure.
The show works because host Nicole Byer is so charming and funny that she diverts attention away from the cynical concept.
But what’s essential to the show’s premise and success (it launched in March and is already on its second season) is that the audience is already familiar with the public’s willingness to waste time, food, and money attempting to reproduce a professional photo of a professional cake, something they know cannot be done.
So the joke is on us, because we know that we are being duped, that the flatteringly lit industry of aspiration — armed with professional chefs, bakers, stylists, photographers, and publicists —is selling us something unattainable.
We cannot make that pink ombre cake on Pinterest any more than we can perform brain surgery. The $250 copper egg spoon on Goop will not let us brunch like chef Alice Waters. And we know that the models tearing into burgers on Instagram are tossing the food out after the “regular folks” photo op.
We do not care. We think it’s funny. And as we subscribe, like, and share (with ironic detachment), we invite these images into our lives, ignoring the fact that this is all advertising, that its makers don’t care about the difference between good attention and bad attention as long as they get our attention.
Yes, people still value good food. And, yes, carnival barkers have long tricked rubes into buying gimmicky food. Overly styled photos of food are not new. Magazines have been stacking impossibly high sandwiches to fit the shape of their covers for as long as I can remember.
But Instagram has turbo-charged the hustle of image-based food by merging splashy magazine photography with the carnival barker’s persona, extending the reach of the carny’s megaphone while transforming consumers into marketers — diners need to have not only the latest fad dish, but also the social cachet of sharing it with their audiences.
When delicious-looking food grabs our attention online, we might ask practical questions. Does a milkshake topped with a doughnut actually sound like it would be good to eat? Is an ornately decorated seven-layer cake within our skill range?
Or does it not matter at all? Do we know that we are being sold junk, but just like enjoying the anticipation?
“I love advertising because I love lying,” said comedian Jerry Seinfeld, while accepting a 2014 Clio award for advertising.
“In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised — because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy. And that’s all I want. We know the product is going to stink. But we’re happy in that moment between the commercial and the purchase. And I think spending your lives trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy, because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good.”
I think Seinfeld is right.
In that moment between ordering the floating chopsticks dish and tasting the noodles, so salty they were barely edible, I enjoyed the brief moment of happiness that I’d bought.