Wednesday, November 2, 2016

How Instagram is Changing the Way We Eat

I often post pictures of my food online before I have tasted it. I take the photo, adjust the brightness, contrast and saturation, upload it to my social media accounts and rejoice in how amazing it is. Sometimes, when I go on to eat the food in front of me, I don’t even like it. That pretty orange and pistachio thing I made is bitter because the oranges have gone rancid. The photogenic Italian sfogliatella pastry, which I bought more or less entirely to take a photo of, is actually pretty tough. I am left chewing the pastry long after the “likes” have stopped trickling in. The interaction was sweet while it lasted, though.

We love to share our food. Not necessarily in the physical sense, because that would mean giving away something substantive and delicious. That gesture is still reserved for the people around us who we love and care about. But for the rest of the world – the school pals and the random followers and our prying family friends – we share our food online. We are sharing more food in this way than ever before, and a huge amount of this hungry, food-centric media revolves around food photography and short videos on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

The annual Waitrose food and drink report, released on Wednesday, focuses on the way in which food has become social currency thanks to how we share and discuss it online. It is impossible to wade through the quagmire of social media without segueing into virtual treasure troves of #foodporn, #instafood and proudly #delicious content.

According to the report, one in five Brits has shared a food photo online or with our friends in the past month. We have managed to forge what looks like a rare pure corner of social media, where pleasure is the order of the day. No matter the poster or the politics, food shines bright as something that all of us can aspire to, if only we curate our lives and our diets carefully enough.

Most of us who document our meals online are amateurs, but there exists a sizeable, and hugely profitable, industry of professional food bloggers and Instagrammers, whose pristine food styling sets the tone for a whole aesthetic movement.

Take Sarah Coates who, off the back of the success of her blog The Sugar Hit and her 36,000 followers on Instagram, has released a cookbook and shaped a particular niche for herself in the online baking world. Hers is a self-avowedly saccharine, indulgent kind of food. Unlike much of the more earnest online food world, her photographs are bright, flooded with light and popping with flashes of colour, vibrancy and life. Punchy tones and patterns give the photos a kind of levity, in spite of the (wonderfully) butter-heavy, cloying sweetness of the food itself. Certain foods become emblems with a life of their own: waffles made in a round waffle-iron; doughnuts glazed or rolled in sugar; funfetti sprinkles. These posts amass huge amounts of interaction from followers, and spawn food trends of their own. First come the savvy Instagrammers, then the foodie public, and then, once we have all moved on to something new, the traditional food press. Glazed doughnuts from the Sugar Hit blog.

Once these Instagram-friendly foods go viral, they can completely change the way we eat. Breakfast, for example, has shifted from a decidedly unphotogenic cereal or marmalade on toast to the bright hues of avocado toast (there are nearly 250,000 #avocadotoast hashtagged photos on Instagram) and smoothie bowls. Even the humble fry-up has been rebranded, in the hands of the Hemsley sisters, as an oven-baked, meticulously arranged, “healthier” big breakfast. It looks great and presumably tastes awful, the oven tray divided into neat strips of colour, from leathery lean oven bacon to overdone eggs.

Among the foods billed to gain traction in 2017, today’s Waitrose report points to Hawaiian poke and even, in an alarming twist, vegetable yoghurts. No doubt these will be helped along in the likability stakes with their colourful, snappy Instagram vibe.

There is a big generation gap in this movement, though. According to the Waitrose report, 18- to 24-year olds are five times more likely to share photos of their food online than the over 55s – and that is certainly reflected in the types of cuisine, styling and tone that are popular in the online food world. So you are unlikely to find photos of old-fashioned sherry trifles, unpretty Irish stew or traditional meat-and-two-veg meals, unless it’s in a shrewdly ironic way.

Instead, there are fun, irreverent Instagram food circles, all funfetti and ice-cream sandwiches, and – in a twist that is so very 2016 that it makes my soul scream – flamingo pool float-shaped cakes. But just as popular are the serious, aspirational channels popularised by accounts such as @violetcakeslondon and @skye_mcalpine. Here, you will find beautifully shot, intricately staged photographs of the food and, crucially, the lifestyles of successful, creative thirtysomethings. These are wishful odes to how serene and perfect your life could be, if only you had the money, the £50 ceramic platters and the time. Perhaps in keeping with the broader asymmetry between the numbers of social media users in different generations, there’s a lot less to be seen of older people, or past food fashions, in this smart, moneyed, and overwhelmingly young world.

And yet it would be wrong to assume that this online culture doesn’t bleed through to tint the ways that real people cook and eat. For every wildly successful professional food blogger, there are countless amateurs posting the minutiae of their gastronomic day online. Meals that are Instagrammable – take, for instance, Borough Market’s Bread Ahead doughnuts, of which there are nearly 5,000 tagged photos on Instagram – become viral content in their own right. These foods become the must-eat and, more importantly, must-document meals of the moment. Restaurants such as London’s Bao keep punters queuing out the door just through the photogenic strength of one good dish. (For what it’s worth, I went to Bao to try their cloud-soft steamed buns and they were as good as they looked). Going green: fresh avocado and guacamole.

Increasingly, we are being influenced not just in the types of food that we eat, but how we cook and eat that food. The Waitrose report also states that almost half of us take more care over a dish if we think a photo might be taken of it, and nearly 40% claim to worry more about presentation than they did five years ago. We might include a garnish of picked thyme leaves to bring a pop of colour to a lemon drizzle cake, even if that thyme doesn’t really stand strong against the punch of the citrus. I am guilty of weeding out the messy and the misshapen from a batch of doughnuts or muffins before I take a photo. I might add a glaze that nobody wants, just because it will make the afternoon sun catch and glint in the furrows of the churros I just fried. It’s aesthetic first, taste later and, quite often, no taste at all.

by Ruby Tandoh, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: healthyeating_jo/Instagram