A scroll through the internet’s most viral food videos is not much of an inspiration for home cooks. A burger wrapped in 24-Karat gold leaf, which exponentially increases its price without imparting any flavor. A cotton candy burrito filled with ice-cream, hard candy, and sprinkles that the human body is likely incapable of digesting. A tuna roll that is actually an elaborately disguised chunk of watermelon. All of it is edible, all of it is prepared in a kitchen using ostensibly real ingredients. But is any of it really...food?
What is food, exactly? It is the basis of our material existence, the matter maintaining the skin sacks enclosing our souls. But it has also long surpassed the bounds of biological utility. Food is pleasure, food is entertainment. So strong is its allure, that in a world obsessed with visual presentation, food itself is becoming secondary. The idea of food, the image of food, the vibe of food—this is the content we crave.
Digital food spectacles, which take many forms and attract millions of viewers, all require their audiences to engage in a uniquely digital trompe l'oeil—one where we must not only believe in the veracity and volume of the flat image before us, but envision its accompanying scent, texture, and flavor without ever experiencing them. In exchange, this content relieves us of the responsibility to ever drive the act of watching it to its logical conclusion—the recreation or purchase and eventual consumption of the actual food displayed. A minute-long video of prosciutto-wrapped, deep-fried, ground beef-filled shredded zucchini boats is doubtful to be widely followed as a recipe, despite being retweeted 67 times. When these spectacles do inspire consumption, such as when people flock to a particular ice cream shop or café, the attraction isn’t necessarily that the food is good, but that it looks stunning in a photo.
This type of striking, often viral food content is twice removed from utility. Firstly because the concoctions it depicts are hardly the kind that would properly nourish and sustain our bodies (though this is true of most of what we eat, from refined sugar to dairy to various chemicals and preservatives.) And secondly, perhaps more significantly, because its purpose was never really dietary in the first place. It exists physically, sure—someone out there really did carve up an entire block of cheddar for a monstrous “2 Pound Scramble”—but its value is not determined by this existence, but rather by the image rendered from it.
It’s no revelation that food, when prepared laboriously and creatively, can be an aesthetic as much as a physical experience. A masterfully decorated cake, an artfully arranged plate of sushi, a fragrant and fluffy loaf of fresh bread. But where does this leave the giant hollowed-out hunk of cheese wrapped in tortillas and bacon and stuffed with eggs, the mashed potato slathered steak “cake,” and all their bombastic and grotesque brethren, all of which are neither appetizing nor beautiful, and yet still demand to be looked at?
In the ranking of the senses that has dominated much of philosophical history, sight has always been at the top, deemed the most civilized and actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. Taste, on the other hand, has long been grouped with smell and touch—earthly, unrefined senses incapable of serving as conduits to transcendence. The carnal pleasures that these faculties allow us, this hierarchy holds, can only satiate our most selfish animal impulses—nutrition, procreation, survival. Moreover, sight and hearing seem to be the only senses that can come in contact with the objective world without absorbing it into the self. To touch or taste something, on the other hand, is to force it into the confines of your subjectivity, to consume it rather than simply observe its existence.
Like all hierarchies, these too have cracked under the weight of new ideas and scientific explorations. And though they still impact our cultural and social reality (think, for example, of our legal system’s trust in the power of witness), it’s not hard to see where they fail. Visual perception is often just as defenseless against our internal needs and desires, and thus just as incapable of learning the truth as any other sense. And if the attention economy has anything to teach us, it’s that eyeballs can consume just as well as mouths and hands.
Aesthetic pleasure has always bridged the sensuality of touch and taste with the distanced, removed appreciations of vision. And culinary pleasure has, historically, rested on this bridge—beautiful food is more delicious, and delicious food is more beautiful. It’s a triumph of the dialogic relationship between our body and mind, a welcome disruption of the sense hierarchy that creates divisions where there are none.
It makes sense, then, that the worlds of gastronomy, sensuality, and spectacle flow in and out of each other seamlessly; that the word “taste” refers to the experience of eating as much as it does to the perception and discernment of beauty. Or that the word “aesthetics” originally described that which we experience through our senses, and only later became the title of a philosophical discipline.
But the proliferation of food-related digital content complicates the equation by doing the impossible: completely removing physical experience from the way we consume food. The appeal is difficult to explain, and yet it’s the same kind of combination of disgust, fascination, novelty, and mindlessness that defines so much of what we view on the internet. No one asked for these fifty-pound margaritas and quadruple-stuffed cheesecake-cake pop-ice cream sundae sandwiches. They simply appear and we watch them, wanting to scroll away but conceding to stay for thirty seconds to see if they’re really going to put that entire wheel of brie and dump that whole carton of cream into an already sauced-up serving of chicken alfredo pasta.
A friend once told me that, from a biological standpoint, the first bite of food is always the most delicious, simply because our mouth is producing the most saliva, which allows our taste buds to more completely feel the flavor of whatever we are eating. Afterwards, our mouth becomes used to it, similar to the way our nose adjusts to a bad smell after only minutes of being surrounded by it. At the time, this amazed me. It turns out, we can’t help but be obsessed with novelty, endlessly searching for the pleasure of that first bite. Perhaps that’s what makes viral food videos so popular—every single one is a new burst of flavors, however abrasive, to our visual tastebuds. They never really fill us up, aesthetically or physically, because in their world, the most delicious first bite is one that you never take at all.
In 1990, the marketing firm Young & Rubicam ran a series of television ads for Jell-O. The protagonist of the ads is a cop made out of gelatin, who runs around avenging children whose Jell-O is stolen from them, reminding them Jell-O consumption is a sacred American liberty; a patriotic duty, no less. One attended to by the devoted Jell-O police state.
It’s fitting. What brand better illustrates the U.S.’s twisted relationship with consumption? Norman Rockwell and Bill Cosby, after all, are the other two most famous faces of Jell-O. The food has been hailed as “all-American” and "America's one 'national' commercial food,” which, maybe, is accurate for reasons other than supposed national unity: Jell-O is served widely in U.S. prisons because fruit is “too expensive,” and much of its popularity dates back to a decades-long commercial marketing campaign to white, upper-class American housewives, which promised a gelatin-enhanced version of womanhood.
The idea that eating Jell-O is a patriotic act is laughable, even if it’s loosely tied to corporate America. But food propaganda has a long history in the U.S., dating back to World War I, when anti-German sentiment renamed sauerkraut as “liberty cabbage” (mirrored later by supporters of the Iraq war, who briefly called French fries “freedom fries.”) Such propaganda derives, in part, from the food rationing efforts of the wartime years, when the U.S. embarked on a massive marketing campaign to limit domestic consumption of some goods in support of the military. At that time, allegiance to the state was measured by the foods people ate; “patriotic food” fairs were held; the government handed out red-white-and-blue recipe pamphlets. Ignored, of course, were the millions who lived, already, in scarcity.
It’s strange that, in a time where climate change demands serious changes to food supply chains and the way we eat, such wartime propaganda is all we have to look to for precedent. In the 1910s, the U.S. government crusaded against meat consumption; now, every so often, a UN committee puts out a feeble recommendation that, maybe, the rich should consider eating fewer steaks, while Mike Pence sows panic about Joe Biden’s impending war on red meat. I guess he’s just promising, like the Jell-O cop, to protect that inalienable right to consumption.
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