For many Americans, social media is an important part of the modern eating ritual. Whether we're tweeting photo of your cooking process at home, or posting an Instagram of a perfectly plated meal at a restaurant, it's undeniable that for some people sharing our food images is on par with sharing an actual cooking and eating experience. But when we let well-prepared food get cold while we hem and haw over the perfect photo angle, it begs the question: Have we gone too far? To discuss this question, Francis Lam turned to Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris. They both are writers and thinkers on all things culture and technology for The New York Times. They also cohost the highly engaging podcast, Still Processing.
Francis Lam: You are two of my favorite thinkers about pop culture and technology and what they all mean. I'm excited to talk to you about what I’ve come to realize is the operating assumption on my career. So, I hope you agree with me. I think that for the past ten years or so, food has been moving closer to the center of our pop culture. What I mean is in the way that we used to care only about movies or music, we now care about food in a similar kind of way. The reason why I say, “in the last ten years” is that when Twitter started getting big, I remember everyone busted on it. It was sort of embarrassing. People would say, “Like anyone really wants to know what you had for breakfast.” That was the line when you wanted to cut down someone who had just joined Twitter. Fast forward however many years later, and Instagram has almost three times as many users as Twitter. I swear half of Instagram is literally what people had for breakfast. Did something happen? Did our attitudes change?
Jenna Wortham: I think you're right. I would agree with that. Food is a big part of how we express what we're into, who we are, and what trends we're paying attention. There's so much signaling we do with our diet – where you go, how cultured you are, what your food experiences are.
Wesley Morris: I also think that it's one of the last experiences that can't be changed. One of the things about food is that it's personal, communal, and visual. I've been reading that restaurants are now thinking about how to maximize their Instagramability, and how to serve and plate so that the food is Instagrammable. I could see this happening at the beginning, too, where I was one of those people who was interested in taking pictures of food. I think my Instagram avatar is still a fish I ate in Eataly in 2010.
FL: Long live that fish.
WM: Long live that fish. It was a branzino and it was really good. But then I stopped taking pictures of food.
WM: It kind of made me feel sad.
JW: It's a funny experience, to be in a restaurant and watch someone who is really obsessed with taking a picture of their food, of their plate, of their meal. I don't know that it's sad, necessarily; it's curious. I think it's a very curious to watch someone stand there while the thing is getting cold – the chef wants you to eat it! – and try to get all the right angles.
WM: It is a different way of blessing your food though, right? You're not thanking God, you're offering your meal to Instagram instead.
JW: Thank you, Kevin Systrom.
WM: It's a weird development.
Francis Lam couldn't resist the temptation to grab a selfie with our guests Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham.
FL: I try not to harbor any judgment about anyone and what they do with their food. You do what you do. Do what brings you most pleasure and sustenance. But, I do also have a little bit of a pang when I see that. Part of it is because, even at home, I get pretty live if I'm like, “Dinner's ready,” and my wife is playing Words with Friends or whatever. I'm like, “Babe, let's eat, it's hot. Come on over.” And she'll say, “Alright, I'll be there in a minute.” I'm watching the food die; something about its spirit is lifting with the steam. But again, I'm not eating that food, you are. I look at that and I wonder. You're seeing someone in the moment where they should be having this intimate bodily experience, and they're mitigating it. They're putting this thing in between themselves and this other thing that should be feeding your bodies. Maybe there's just an instinct there that feels weird to me.
JW: Maybe it's a reaction to the notion that when we sit down to break bread, it's a moment of communal sharing. It's almost like a meditative experience of the act of eating, chewing and swallowing. Or maybe that's how I idolize it. Whenever I see someone taking a picture of their food, I'm really happy, because – this is really sad to say out loud – but I get a lot of my nutrition information via Instagram. I love seeing how other people are doing healthy living via Instagram. I get really into #whole30.
WM: What is #whole30?
JW: It's a style of eating. Basically, it’s prioritizing unprocessed foods, lean proteins, fresh fruit, et cetera. I like seeing how people are organizing and doing meal prep and meal planning, which are things I didn't grow up with. I grew up in a very Southern household. Shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, stuff that for my figure – now that I'm in my 30s – is not going to work for my day-to-day. I can't bring in a tin of country fried steak in for lunch. As much as I'd like to, I can't. So, I need information about how to live and how to be. I like seeing how other people construct and organize their week of eating at the office.
WM: I've no doubt on this with the picture taking, but I wonder if it's the same thing. I'm sure there's data that can be applied to this hypothesis that I'm about to offer you two, which is that I think it's the same dopamine rush that people have when they're willing to risk their whole life to be on the phone and almost die. That moment when you're dragging three roller bags and you've got your phone in one hand, and you're in the subway station and you're a half-inch from falling onto the tracks, but you don't care, because you're on your phone. You're so high on the phone, and the experience of communicating whatever it is that you're experiencing, whatever it is that's on the phone, that all your other pleasure sensors are aimed at this one device. It's not shutting off your brain completely, but I do think you're estranged from your gustatory and olfactory senses in that moment.
Hear more cultural commentary from Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris on the podcast Still Processing, produced and presented by The New York Times.
FL: You're just feeding a different instinct, feeding another pleasure zone. It's interesting what Jenna is saying, too. On one hand, if you look at that moment of the person taking the picture, there's that kind of vibe where they are removing themselves from that experience. You're thinking of what they're potentially losing – if that's the sort of attitude you have towards that. The other thing is that you have this incredible community that you can feel, where you know that you're a part of this larger system now, this larger organism that's creating inspiring moments for other people, and you're taking inspiration from it. You are offering your meal to Instagram.
JW: I also think there are other reasons beyond social sharing that people take pictures of their food, especially now that smartphones have gotten so much better at aggregating and organizing information. I have food diaries on my phone where I just want to see how I was eating seasonally. Or I wanted to share them with one friend. I tend to go through periods where I'm fermenting a bunch in my house, or I'm only eating fermented food, or I'm only eating things that are liquid. It becomes like a running joke. It's a way for me to be in conversation with one person who's like, “Look at my smoothie again!” I'm taking a picture, but it's not necessarily for anyone other than myself or one other person, which I think is also an important part of food being social but not publicly shared.
WM: I take pictures of meals or things I’m in the middle of cooking and send them to Jenna. I have a friend named Danny Chau who lives in LA. And Danny Chau eats everything, like a lot of good LA people do. He eats everything and everything he eats he puts on Instagram. The pleasure of following Danny Chau – which you should do if you want to see his meals – he doesn't offer a great deal of commentary, but there's so much pleasure in just the way he shoots these images. They're handsome; the food looks great. Sometimes it's at a restaurant that I'm familiar with. Most of the time, as a person who only visits Los Angeles, it's some place I've never even heard of before. It's the gamut of every type of eating experience you could possibly have. That is a form of meal for me. I can't eat most of what he's taking a picture of, but it does satisfy some basic food-oriented curiosity that I have about other peoples' dieting out habits as well.
JW: Especially now. Going to back to Instagram, it's evolving as a tool, and you now have the ability to collect images and make collections, you can bookmark things. I had a couple of friends who were all in Japan recently and eating all over country. I don't have plans to go to Japan, but when I do, I'm going to go in that collection and find out where they ate because I want to eat there.
FL: It opens up that experience and brings your imagination there.
JW: Absolutely. I also love Instagram food crazes. Like when people go to Black Tap and want the giant sundaes on top of the brownies with the M&Ms and a three-pound gummy bear on the top that you can't eat; you go and spend 60 dollars so you can take the picture. People want the cronuts and the cronut bacon egg and cheese sandwich. I know it's gimmicky and silly, but all of that stuff actually brings me a lot of pleasure. It feels like a weird new, obviously very capitalistic, brand of food culinary creativity that I'm used to only seeing on reality food competitions. It feels just like a thing that exists alongside of all these other categories of how we eat now, but it brings me a lot of joy to look at it.
FL: Who doesn't want to feel like there isn't a Willy Wonka somewhere, right?
JW: Yes! That's exactly what it is.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.