Against Food Selfies

Don't listen to food bloggers.

by Johan Kugelberg
06 November 2014, 12:35pm

Image by Nick Gazin

The sons and daughters of the middle class have over the last few years uncovered a new pursuit to keep them busy and feeling good about themselves: Photographing their food, and posting it on your blog alongside a write-up.

This represents a sea change in how we talk about the things we put in our mouths. Back in the 20th century (ages ago, when I was young), there was a food guide called Zagat where people would write in their restaurant ratings. The Zagat Guide would compile these together with pithy quotes about the joint in question. A lot of people, especially in New York City, would utilise this guide as their sole cue to where they were going to have dinner. The problem with the Zagat was that the people who contributed their opinions about restaurants were the people who liked to contribute opinions about restaurants. People who could not be trusted to steer you on a worthy course, in other words - people who routinely mistook the picturesque for the sublime. Nowadays this is the norm: Food bloggers, food instagrammers, hell, anyone who describes himself as a "foodie" can under no circumstance be trusted to midwife your next meal.

If a restaurant is declaring itself as tasty and cozy, and presents the insignia and symbols of tastiness and coziness, then people who visited the restaurant in meatspace will declare it tasty and cozy in cyberspace no matter what the food tasted like or how it felt to eat there. This has to do with how the web makes us feel: The mass distribution of our opinions makes us feel omnipotent, like we can control the discourse in the same manner as a paranoid schizophrenic chooses the direction cars turn from the vantage point of his bedroom window. Every food photo or blog entry or Yelp comment feels as if we've yet again made our humdrum existence important through connoisseurship. And then the snowball starts rolling. Every dinner is now a media event as well as a meal. With Instagram a meal can be a media event while you are in the midst of noshing. This becomes competitive really quickly, between friends, between strangers, and between the friend-strangers who constitute the totality of our online communication. This accumulating one-upmanship leads to a online food culture desperate for novelty.

Food blogging is not about communication, not about food as communion, nor is it about sharing enthusiasm. It's about showing off. You've done something other people haven't done. You've eaten something other people haven't eaten, you've experienced something other people haven't experienced. Soon, of course, this desire to flaunt your life online bleeds over into your decisions in your real life. You choose restaurants and eating experiences that mingle novelty and gestures of authenticity. Possibly as an attempt to silence those doubting squeaky-balloon noises in your head that are telling you your choices as a consumer are of no importance to anyone but yourself.

Cue what I'm going to call "stupid food".

You drank a bloody mary made from pigs' blood.

You ate a grilled sausage of salmon guts that was made right in front of you.

You chose huitlacoche as the topping on your pizza.

You dined at a restaurant that was harder to get into than Blofeld's sub-oceanic lair.

You ate that 25-course tasting menu at that impossible-to-get-into Bushwick invite-only restaurant where a customized vinyl-only soundtrack accompanied each course and each glass of wine, and you had to pretend to have heard of every chateau in every micro-growth region of Borneo.

Stupid food makes you feel afraid that you are stupid about food, and that your pals and peers and work buddies are all eating tastier, more authentic, and weirder foodstuffs than you. And that this somehow has something to do with your social status. 

A lot of this can be chalked up to the stressfulness of these heady years in your 20s, the frenetic, hectic pace that the world demands. You have to be worldly while still fresh out of college. No more lingering residue of child, now only a bon vivant, a connoisseur, someone in the know, someone who knows. Someone who knows more. Maybe more than you, so better to trump them with your insider knowledge before they trump you with theirs - which is how you end up howling about the right amount of quail eggs stirred into the shaved yak tartare atop an aged oaken table in some hip new sincerity restaurant.

The flipside of this form of conspicuous consumerism is the dudebro yearning for booze that tastes like toasted marshmallow and candy. Food bloggers and basic dudes who pound protein shakes and Fireball in equal measure may despise each other, but they're basically the same when in comes to seeing mastication as a form of tribalism. 

A place that titty-twists comfort food with luxury ingredients will always serve stupid food. If the restaurant deconstructs childhood foods or fast food items with a restauranteur je ne sais quoi, then you can immediately identify it as a stupid food establishment.

The motive behind these food businesses seems to be to provide fresh-out-of-college millennials with something picturesque to do, something they feel proud and entrepreneurial about. Something to tell people at dinner parties or at the bar that they are doing that sounds cool, ahead of the curve:

"I own a food truck. We serve Korean-Mexican fusion tacos".

"I've opened a speakeasy in Crown Heights. You have to whistle the first bar of 'Careless Whisper' to be let in".

"Oh, I just opened a restaurant with my college roommate. We are a omnivore-locavore bistro specializing in offal prepared in the Northern Portuguese style".

So what is so bad about that? Well: All these spots are curated. The meals are curated. Getting into the restaurant is curated. Ordering drinks is curated. That guy over there isn't your waiter, he is your food and drink curator. These people are selling you things to eat and drink and acting as they are doing you a favor, as they are experts and you are a lowly peon who is lucky that you even knew the location of their establishment.

I wonder if this is because the sons and daughters of the middle class are now working in a service industry, and thus feel compelled to describe those jobs as the height of bourgeois refinement? I mean, running a food cart back in the 50s was a pretty low-grade job - no way in hell you could brag about that at a dinner party. Same with restaurant work. Or selling coffee in a coffee shop. 

One of these joints goes out of business every 20 minutes or so, and that is sad. These post-college dingbats borrowed money from their moms and dads and grandparents to realise an entrepreneurial dream, a cozy vision of a place in meatspace where all the community we crave (and never get) in cyberspace can be delivered to us. It is possible that the elitist connoisseur stance of most new sincerity restaurants and cyber-foodies is the result of a deep-rooted yearning to experience the sublime through food, and that they (we) end up getting lost in the picturesque of alienated consumption instead, is just more society-of-the-spectacle stuff: The basic humanness of sharing enthusiasm for food getting lost in translation. This goes for customer as well as restaurateur.

I think that when food bloggers food-blog, they aren't just curating a meatspace experience, they are translating said experience into an exclusionary  white middle-class patois that only really exists in cyberspace. They are turning the physical sensation of tasting something nice into a public spectacle, a status symbol. It's not what you eat, it's about how you eat it and how you tell everyone what you're eating.

Calvin Trillin, who might be the tastiest food writer in this nation, once wrote about how he'd sit in a Michelin-starred something or other, eating a free-range something or other with a truffled something or other, sipping on a perfectly temperatured something or other, wondering why all of it doesn't taste as good or vibe as nice as the sausage-and-peppers hero you had for lunch at Parisi Bakery.

And that is my answer to the new foodie culture. When people tell you about a new restaurant, tell them about an old restaurant, when people tell you about an exclusive restaurant, tell them about a non-exclusive restaurant, and when people show you something tasty online, take them somewhere good to eat. 

Johan Kugelberg runs the project space/archiving company ​Boo-H​ooray. They are hosting a show in collaboration with Emory University of William Burroughs Cut-Ups that opens on Thursday at their Manhattan Gallery. Follow him on ​Tw​itter.

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