#134: The Tea and Cake

Why do we take pictures of our food?

Browsing my phone for a possible object, I stumbled across this: a purposefully arranged photo of some tea and cake.

It was good cake — coffee and walnut — a favourite of mine that I had spied atop the cabinet and desperately hoped I had correctly identified. And the tea was just tea. Hot. Comforting. Something I have oddly only recently begun to drink.

But surely the point of food and drink is to eat and drink them rather than just to look? Why did I decide it was necessary to preserve something whose very existence was intended to be temporary, to be consumed?

There are two clues here: firstly look at those plates. Dinky and patterned, carefully fitting into recent vintage trends, practically begging to be photographed. The second more obvious clue, what I actually did with the photo: post it on Instagram.

The way we eat out has changed. It has become a show. And both customers and food outlets know this. What was the point of drinking that huge sugary, calorie-filled milkshake if you didn’t show people? Did you really eat that rainbow layered cake if you don’t have a picture to prove it?

The problem is that not all food is pretty. The trend of posting images of food on social media has started impacting the food served by cafes and restaurants. And it’s not really for the better.

Think of a nice hearty roast. Crisp potatoes with fluffy insides, a Yorkshire pudding drowning in gravy… Most of us would love to eat that, but let’s face it, it doesn’t make the most attractive picture. The food is all varying shades of brown and pretty shapeless. It only looks good because we know what it tastes like, not because of the aesthetic attractiveness of the food.

And this is not good news for servers of roasts or other less dull-looking foods. If they want to hit certain markets, cash in on the free publicity of a customer’s Instagram post, then the food needs to be photo-worthy. This can cause a sacrifice in taste for the benefits of aesthetics. Not exactly what you want from an object that at the end of the day is meant to be tasted.

Think of food adverts. Often the food pictured isn’t the food sold. Sometimes it’s not even food. It’s substitutes or it’s been dyed and isn’t something we would actually ever want to eat.

So what’s the alternative if we want to declare ourselves 'anti-insta' and supporters of truly tasty food? Do we post detailed written reviews to our social media? We can’t after all publish the taste of something for our friends to sample. And besides, haven’t cookbooks, food magazines and adverts been relying on visuals for decades?

Perhaps the point is not to be careful about posting images but to be careful about how we choose what we eat in the first place. Think of flavours rather than attractiveness. Pick our food from its description on a menu not because it caught our eye. It’s no new experience to find our eyes are bigger (or have different priorities) than our bellies.

Eleanor is a writer using her skills in over-analysis to write a weekly blog post about everyday objects. To read more, check out her blog Object, a collaboration with fellow Medium blogger Katie.