Eat More Ugly Things: How Social Media is Changing the Way We Eat
I have a serious problem with avocado on toast. You’ve seen this picture on Instagram before. A piece of artisanal toast with mashed avocado and strategically scattered pepper flakes, rests on a piece of crisp white china. A rustic tea towel garnishes the background as the mid-morning sun flows in from a window outside the frame. #avo #toast #soyummy #brunch #healthy #nomnomnom #instagood #igers
Let me clarify. I love avocado on toast. I do, however, have a serious problem with being charged 12 dollars for avocado on toast. I have an even bigger problem with this being snapped on carefully executed Instagram pictures and publicly lauded as a ground-breaking food trend.
The fact that avocado on toast has been popping up on menus across the western world is indicative of a few things:
1. “Healthful” or “whole” eating has become deeply tied to issues of social class and elitism.
Access to healthy foods in restaurants remains unaffordable. Compare the price of a sausage breakfast sandwich at Tim Horton’s with an acai bowl from The Grow Op. The healthy food option costs $10.95, while the non-healthy option is priced at $3.29 (including coffee and hash brown).
2. Millennial relationships with food are tied deeply to nostalgia.
Consider the proliferation of food trucks, the mundaneness of the term “gourmet burger”, the re-constructed grilled cheese, and the ubiquitous use of mason jars in fine dining. These shifts are far from aesthetic. They show changing relationships with what we eat and different imaginings of class and comfort among a generation that faces more financial insolvency than any other. For more on millennial relationships with food and politics of nostalgia and for an in-depth look on the birth of the avocado on toast read, “The Trend is Toast”.
3. The globalized nature of social networks allows for culinary appropriation that may replicate postcolonial power dynamics.
The avocado, in this instance, features heavily in South American cuisine, but taken out of context (eg. being mashed on toast), it loses its stories, history, and cultural significance. At the same time, being featured as a key ingredient in the new Western food trend ‘avocado on toast’, it becomes associated with the nostalgia of toast, thereby linking it to industrial processes of production and capitalist structures.
4. Social media networks have shifted the value of food to be primarily aesthetic, rather than taste oriented.
I think this is where social media has played the largest role in shifting our relationship with food, local restaurants, and what we eat. Instagram, the main channel where foodie cultism is bred, is a medium biased towards the visual. Whereas taking a picture of your food may have been ridiculed 20 years ago, it is now a new ritual of appreciation and method of class assertion among Millenials. The posting to Instagram is an assertion of value (I ate here, I made the choice to eat this). These public assertions of what we eat, align us with broader social and cultural dynamics. A woman who posts a picture of a midnight slice of pizza, for example, is associated with different notions of personality and value than a woman who posts a picture of herself slurping a bottle of green power juice. And this of course, leads us to the quintessential Millenial question: If you eat a meal, and you never take a picture of it, did you ever eat at all?
So here, is the crux of my problem.
Instagram makes us eat with our eyes, and not with our mouth and our mind. Consequently, it is no longer possible to be noticed as a restaurateur, home cook or chef, by taste alone.
Twenty years ago a restaurant might have been able to gain a level of notoriety and legitimacy simply by being talked about. Now, restaurants must have an overarching aesthetic, and think about the photographic quality of the food on the dish in addition to taste. In a world of constant visual stimulation, it is more important to be photographable than delicious, to get people into the restaurant. This makes the ugly (but delicious) foods of the world, that no one wants to photograph, fall out of menus and cultural consciousness. Take for example, tripe soup. Tripe soup is ugly. It is not “instagrammable”. A good tripe soup can be a beautiful and transcendent experience. With solely word of mouth, this tripe soup could gain notoriety. The speaker could walk their audience through the experiential flavours and emotional associations with this food. The story, the preparation, the texture, the taste, the experience of eating is primal in aural storytelling. It allows ugly foods to be elevated to the status of the glorious and rejoiced. The visual quality of the food may have been addressed (you might describe the vivid red of a beet, or the beautiful glaze on a freshly roasted chicken), but the visual descriptors were hardly what brought someone to a restaurant. Instagram has turned this relationship on its head.
The tripe soups, the fried fish heads, all those succulent ugly ducklings of this world are no longer allowed to shine. We risk slowly closing ourselves to the wealth of joy that ugly foods can bring us. The fresh crisp of a Jerusalem artichoke, the sinewy bite of a chuck steak have begun to disappear as options. Food is more than a beautiful picture. Eating is a beautiful experience, so gather your friends around and eat some ugly things.
*this post originally appeared in the Ryerson Digital Media Review*