"Eating, like sex, is among the most easily chronicled of pursuits."
The other day, my sister caught a rare glimpse of my dad poring over an old family photo album. Hunched over at the edge of the bed, he studied the giant cloth-bound tome, nodding thoughtfully as he turned the pages. From time to time, his face would light up with delight, then occasionally his brows would furrow – as if deep in the grip of nostalgia.
We’re not a sentimental lot. But ever since my parents became empty-nesters, there’s been a notable surge of emoticons in their texts, and a softer edge to their voices. At times mum would even surprise me with a friendly shoulder grip – if only to let me know I was blocking her view of the TV screen.
“Had our parents been lonely?”, my sister wondered. It wasn’t until later that she realised there wasn’t actually a single picture of us in the album. Instead, there were pages after pages of food photos – heaped plates of noodles, buttery cakes and colourful, exotic drinks – all the things that he and mum had devoured on their travels. And because dad doesn’t believe in storing his most precious memories in a smart phone, he’d gone and printed out physical copies of the best looking dishes for his offline perusal.
At one stage, I was tempted to ask if he’d replaced our old photos with still lifes of their dinners. But seeing that my dad is the kind of person who regularly reads takeaway menus to unwind after a hard day’s work, a part of me dreaded the answer.
Of course, my parents haven’t been the only ones busy meal-snapping. According to a recent survey by Digital Marketing Agency 360i, 52% confessed to taking food photos with their phones at least once a month and around one in five would upload their culinary conquests online. And most of us are doing it for no other reason than to “document our lives”.
So what explains our rampant food exhibitionism? “Eating, like sex, is among the most easily chronicled of pursuits,” writes journalist Michael Idov in a recent piece on New York Magazine. In other words, so long as you have the right ‘talent’, all you have to do is point and shoot.
And since food is now seen as a “legitimate option for a hobby”, what better way to define ourselves than through an Instagram mosaic of what we eat? Idov explains that whereas ‘fine dining’ and other gastronomic pursuits were once seen as a pastime for stuffy, affluent folks, finding the right place (and things) to eat has slowly gleaned a new underground status – with trendy eateries resembling less like a communal dining experience and more like an indie rock scene.
While I recognise the sport of ‘foodtography’ can be immensely annoying for both fellow diners and innocent Facebook friends (so much so that various Tumblrs have been created to document this cringe-worthy phenomenon), I must confess I am endlessly fascinated by what our random food photos say about us.
First, there are the ‘competitive eaters’ – serious ‘foodies’ who take as much pleasure in beating their friends to the newest food spots as curating their delicious finds. One adventurous eater, Carmen Costano, compares artisanal food markets to the “vintage record shops of 2012”, “There is something attractive about finding something no one else has and then sharing it,” he told the New York Times. These pictures tell the stories of 10-course degustations, of braised tails and fried snouts – they project an image to the world that advertises their adventurous spirits. But like the holiday slideshows of yesteryear, they are more for the benefit of the takers than the viewers.
Then there are people who upload pictures of what they cook. Sites like foodgawker is a good place to get a glimpse of strangers’ secret culinary lives. Often accompanied by encouraging tips and personal anecdotes – they are not so much mood boards of cooking achievements as an aspirational canvas. I might not be able to make ‘blackberry ice cream with Amaretto’ but yoghurt in a cute jam jar? Hey, maybe that’s for me! Those lovingly rendered images always fill me with food envy – and more importantly, hope.
My favourite kinds of all, however, are the food photos that fill my social media newsfeeds. These are the pictures of Kit Kats, of failed roast chickens and cupcakes (My god are they filled with cupcakes!). Seen from an ‘entertainment’ perspective, they can be comprehensively dull. But they are also full of the most honest and uncensored descriptions of everyone’s lives.
Acquaintances who don’t normally bother with status updates might suddenly post pictures of their gourmet home cooking – discreetly announcing to friends they are very much in love and in a nesting phase. Or a mum-to-be might subtly alert the world she’s about to go into labour by posting a picture of a “three bean salad” tagged at Royal Women’s Hospital, captioning it simply as, “last meal”.
Then there is my friend, Dave, who shared a picture of his work drawer that’s filled to the brim with junk food one day. The picture was cheery, but the subtext was alarmingly clear – my usually health-conscious friend was comfort eating. Within a few weeks of the picture going live, he’d quit his crushingly stressful job.
Food photos, for all their annoyances, can be a gentle way of telling the world about who we are without spelling it all out. They can be a projection of our personality, of our passions and obsessions. And for the less vocal among us, they can simply be keepsakes from transitory moments of happiness – or postcards from loved ones that say, without a word, that they wish we were there.