You’re sitting scrolling through Instagram, when something catches your eye. It's a fresh chocolate-chip cookie, slightly gooey-looking and possibly still warm. There’s something pink on top. Is it icing? No, that's not it. On closer inspection, you see a tail. Its rubbery, fleshy texture. This is not just a cookie -- this is a prawn cookie. “Finally, some fine cuisine”, one user comments. “This makes me horny”, says another. “Awesome high protein recipe”.
For as long as humans have walked the earth, we've been fascinated by gross stuff. It's why people flocked to see public hangings and pay money to watch cinematic abominations like Saw and The Human Centipede. Now, the latest development of humanities appetite for the repulsive is the rise of gross food on social media.
On Instagram, countless meme accounts post, debate and salivate over the kind of food that defies the expectations we have for food online. The subreddit r/shittyfoodporn has over 1.5 million subscribers, while the group ‘Wait a Minute… This is Not Flavortown, Where the Heck Am I?’ on Facebook has a dedicated following who gleefully share nutritionally deficient nightmares. Often they’re served up on a single paper towel, as if pulled straight from the fridge during a midnight forage, or sinisterly masquerading as other, tastier treats. What looks at first glance like sushi could be cheese and hotdogs rolled up in rice and nori.
One of the most popular Instagram accounts posting these cursed images is @boyswhocancook. Run by an anonymous meme lord who wishes to be known only as Head Chef, the page celebrates kiwi on pizza, toothpaste stuffed crust and hot dog water jello. “I had this idea to make a food meme page when I saw a meme that showed a guy cooking a milk carton in a pot of nothing, with the photo captioned ‘boys who can cook 😍’,” Head Chef explains over email. “I thought it would be a good theme and name for the page so I kind of ran with it. I knew food was a big category on Instagram and I wanted to make fun of it and be part of it. Ironically some of the world’s most prestigious chefs now follow me”.
The genius of @boyswhocancook comes from the way humour intersects with the grotesque. In his book, The Meaning of Disgust, Colin McGinn notes that, “laughter is the natural twin of offence”. Tagging your pals in these pictures gives them two reactions; that visceral grossed out feeling that buries itself deep in your stomach and, at the very least, a pained smile.
For 24-year-old Glaswegian foodie Sarah Hendry, there’s an absurdity to these pages she enjoy that combines with a curiosity about exploring our threshold for disgust in a safe way. “It’s one of those things that makes me laugh as I scroll past it but wouldn’t really have a clear answer to why I find it funny if I had to explain it to someone else,” she explains. “I think it’s where my line lies with gross-out humour. I’ve never been a fan of like body shock stuff and @boyswhocancook makes me laugh mostly because of the absurdity of it. I don’t know if it’s because we’re quite used to seeing very carefully constructed and even doctored images on Instagram -- but a low quality picture of a shrimp on top of a cookie is like a breath of fresh air”
According to James Allen-Robertson, a digital sociologist and lecturer at the University of Essex, it isn’t surprising that accounts like @boyswhocancook have blown up, as they fit our expectations of internet culture in two distinct ways. “There is both the role of parody and the role of anti-establishment humour,” he says. “The ‘shitty’ genre really is a whole genre in itself on the internet.”
James points to the idea of 'Internet Ugly', a term coined by Nick Douglas (the extremely online guy who set up comedy YouTube channel Slacktory and the now defunct Valleywag, a Silicon Valley gossip site) in a paper for the Journal of Visual Culture. “Internet ugly parodies pre-existing conventions,” James says. “There’s a self-aware twist as the creator knows that it’s terrible but they’re using the language of the culture, by saying ‘I’m so proud of this’. In this case it is food blogs and recipe blogs -- it’s a sendup of those practises. The audience is complicit too, as you will see the guys in the comments playing along as if it’s the most amazing food ever.”
It’s a funny yet cynical way to fill the void left by the ridiculousness of “foodie” Instagram, and there’s a heavy element of nihilism, says Head Chef. “I think the golden age of food on Instagram died in 2016 with all the rainbow milkshakes and unicorn frappés, so I’m hoping to fill that space with garbage. I think it’s part disgusting, depressing and relatable. Plus most people have different tastes in food and it’s great to see people arguing about whether the food is good or not”.
It's unsurprising that many of us are a little frustrated with the hyper-polished lifestyle blogs that infiltrate our feeds, especially through targeted ads, touting the spoils of late stage capitalism. Sharing shitty food porn is a way of proving that you reject these aesthetics and dismiss these values. “It highlights the artificiality of what’s being parodied,” says James. “There’s a formula to becoming an Instagram influencer, it’s algorithmic, and people are reacting to that because they realise it’s so constructed. They’re now going to create the ultimate anti-establishment reconstruction of it”.
And, as Sarah says, shitty food porn can bizarrely sum up our anxieties about the world outside our phones. “I think internet humour nowadays is kind of geared towards the chaotic. When it comes to political comedy it’s as if either everything has already been said, or that trying to make light of it is just too sad. If you’re trying to sum up the ridiculousness of our current climate then yeah, putting Nesquik and mayonnaise together in a glass is as good a way as any.”
Beyond the humour, is there anything new to learn about food from the cesspool of flavours burned into our minds via the internet? “I have eaten plenty of the things I’ve posted,” says Head Chef. “My favourite thing I ate was a steak with hot sauce and peanut butter. Some people loved the idea, others despised it, but I like that we can argue over things that don’t matter/”
A menu of spicy PB steaks and a side order of the futility of human experience? Sounds delicious. Bone apple teeth!