Surviving the Age of Instagram
The poached egg on your plate at breakfast is not dirt; the poached egg on the floor of the Reading Room of the British Museum is. Dirt is matter that has crossed a boundary it ought not have crossed.—Anne Carson
In the mid-1800’s, Sylvester Graham, a Seventh Day Adventist Minister and chief medical officer of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, invented a diet to thwart sexual deviance. He believed that rich, wet foods irritate the body, causing mental and physical illness. Graham’s nutritional doctrine promoted a vegetarian diet with restricted dairy intake. Meat, sugar, and strong spices were strictly forbidden. The Graham diet was founded on a conviction that fiber was the healthiest substance to ingest. He determined that whole-wheat flour was more nutritious than costlier white flour, which had previously been considered a class symbol for moral and spiritual superiority. Graham felt that moral purity was evinced by bodily purity and could be obtained by eating lowly coarse, brown, dry foods—hence his invention of the eponymous cracker. Just as Americans jumped off the bacon-and-eggs bandwagon after Dr. Atkins kicked the bucket, Graham’s untimely death spurred popular abandonment of his nutritional regime. But his insistence that fiber could cure moral slackness was furthered by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s invention of “Granula,” the first dry cereal product, now known as Corn Flakes. Kellogg himself took the fiber-cure to disturbing extremes, from an interest in regularity to an obsession with expulsion. Besides cereal, Kellogg was a proponent of hydrotherapy techniques, colon cleanses, yogurt enemas, forced sterilization and eugenics.
If you have wifi and a kitchen, you’ve probably scrolled through a food blog: the technological successor to the cookbook and popular source of procrastination. I’ve had my eye on a particular blog that has become popular over the past few years among a contingent of domestically inclined young ladies. The original entries were simple recipes for meals made with vegetables and whole grains, accompanied by ethereal pictures of fresh-looking dishes posed elegantly against pristine wooden surfaces. “Lemon Olive Oil Banana Bread,” “Kale Market Salad,” “Ginger Poached Noodles.” Then came a palpable shift from an archive of glamorous comestibles to a dogmatic display of ascetic, even downright anti-social meals. Recent recipes include: “Mung Yoga Bowl,” “Detoxifying Mint Tea” and “Immunity Soup.” The blog now engages more with a language of immunity, purity and cleansing that eerily recalls Kellogg’s extremism. The curative or medicinal powers of food have been studied for centuries, and I’m not knocking ancient practices of Chinese herbalism or Ayurveda, or even the merits of the old “you are what you eat” aphorism. But there’s something more unsettling than raw kale salad about a glamorized cult of self-protection, sensitivity and “intolerance.” I read a story a few years ago about one of those old, famous Pizza joints in Brooklyn. The ones that don’t have set hours, close whenever they run out of dough, and pack in regulars like sardines against tourists and newcomers trying to Instragram a slice at 11am. The story goes that a health inspector came in and made the shop remove an old woodblock countertop they had been making their dough on for a million years. They complied reluctantly, reopened and, tragically, their pizza was never the same again. Whatever bacteria had been cultivated in that old wood surface was getting into the dough and making it delicious. A cautionary tale in which primordial dirt wins out over a modern impulse towards cleaning up.
Does knowledge really feed us, or does it just make us anxious? We want to know where our food comes from; proponents of the local food movement want to bring the masses closer to the sources of their nourishment and to simplify the complex systems underlying production (farming) and consumption (eating). But the drive to “know more” exists uneasily alongside the idea, equally widespread in healthy eating circles, that simplicity is healthy. “Knowing more” about the production of our food makes us more responsible consumers, but in a culture of smartphone users, the quest for knowledge can be anything but simple, and there’s a fine line between curiosity and mania. The psychiatric establishment is currently trying to decide whether to include “Orthorexia Nervosa,” an eating disorder defined as a “fixation on righteous eating,” in among clinically diagnosable eating disorders. Symptoms include obsession with healthy food and nutritional value, superiority complexes, extreme dietary restriction and social isolation. But how fair is it to pit dirty fingernails and sustainability on the one hand against food porn and eating disorders on the other? Are these phenomena as paradoxical as they first seem? Or are these just different expressions of people with a tremendous amount of knowledge at their fingertips, struggling for a sense of where they stand in a culture lacking ritual and tradition? Blogs, diets, trends and fads are rituals, which might be helpful even if they lack in tradition and sensuality.
Is social media a way to distance ourselves from the physical world, or a means of interacting with it? I’ve often wondered whether my own social networking habit is my way of grappling toward a sense of safety and community that I lack, since my friends and family are spread out all over the world. I’ve discussed this with peers who’ve similiarly analyzed their own habits and have come to think that there’s a relationship between my culture’s obsession with social media and its fascination with food that extends beyond the arena of food porn. Feeling alone or unsafe makes humans feel like they’re starving, and starving people become obsessed with what they lack. I often think of a passage from Benjamin’s essay on “The Storyteller”: “There once used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died […] Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity.” I have a fantasy of my family living in big house together, in an unspecified pastoral landscape. Blood, shit, tears and laughter abound. My crazy grandma is around somewhere, maybe in the basement or out in the yard, but it doesn’t matter—in this prelapsarian world, I would probably have four children by now and there would be enough new life to balance out the inevitable decay. Plus we’re friends with the neighbors and she couldn’t have gotten that far and well, if she’s lost forever she’s probably happy playing under a tree somewhere. But the facts are that my friends and family live all over the world. I’m gay, which complicates my fantasy of getting knocked-up “the natural way.” I could go home in search of my pastoral ideal and attempt to force my huge, typically fractured family—currently scattered between several Untited States, France and Australia—to quit their straight jobs and embark with me on a life of intentional homesteading. Instead, I live in Portland, Oregon, work on small farms and raise rabbits for meat in my backyard. When I talk to my friends in New York and wax nostalgic, they tell me the same things: there are no trees here, it’s too expensive, I want to grow things, I need space. And I remember that another way of saying that I’m living a cliché is to say that mine is a generation invested in roots. Young, educated, artistic people are buying derelict houses in Detroit, starting urban farms and revitalizing traditional domestic techniques. Food preservation has become nauseatingly aestheticized: we’re all sick of mason jars. But there’s something telling and apocalyptic about a culture obsessed with preservation. As if we’re all stocking up for a storm or drought, making a big, aesthetically pleasing joke out of our fear.
This culture infatuated with nutritional ablutions is also obsessed by archiving them. Millennials interested in farming, food preservation and domesticity also occupy themselves with Instagramming pictures of food. Before eating or while cooking, millions of people document their eating rituals up to the very moment of consumption, communicating the fact of their meal to the world before they eat it. And this phenomenon exceeds the private realm of personal routine. There’s also a popular impulse to photograph food in restaurant settings. What is the excited lady standing up on her chair to get a better shot of her brisket sandwich attempting to capture? A spontaneous experience? The joy of a beautiful encounter with a vital source? I’ve often heard the critique that taking pictures of a meal ruins the experience of the meal itself. Indeed, there’s something as anti-social about taking a picture of a meal you’re about to share as eating a mung bean yoga bowl alone in your kitchen. Taking a picture draws a boundary between the meal and its consumption, and, I think, a boundary between yourself and the people with whom you’re supposed to be breaking bread. Maybe when a cook anticipates a photo-shoot, a meal becomes more like getting dressed—curation and exhibition. Utensils and food receptacles (plates, bowls, cups), invented for the sake of efficiency, feed our idiosyncrasies as much as our hunger. I love observing my own and other people’s habits concerning what sized bowl we want to eat our cereal out of, preferences about plate shape. Small bowl people who like to take seconds, large bowl people who scoop up everything they want into their first and only serving. A dark mug for coffee when there’s cream in it, a light one to contrast against black tea. The mug with the star at the bottom reminds me of the one my grandma used to set aside for me, with a little three-dimensional frog glued inside.
And then there’s Rob Rhinehart, a software engineer in his mid-twenties and the creator of a product called Soylent. Soylent (tagline: “Free Your Body”), which takes its name from the 1973 cannabalistic dystopia, is marketed as a sustainable food alternative. Not a protein shake, but a mild, smoothie-textured formula that ostensibly contains all of the nutrients that humans need to survive and remain healthy, forever. Soylent emerges from the idea that considering food from a chemical standpoint is more frugal, efficient, and nutritious than trying to sustain yourself on “food” as we know it. According to Rhinehart, humans don’t need organic juice and kale salad, but a simple energy source to enable our more meaningful pursuits. Instead of grocery shopping, you could simply order a bag of Soylent powder: a day’s worth of food, just add water. Rhinehart advertises the stuff, which comes to less than three dollars a meal, as having “unmatched” nutritional value per dollar. Having escaped a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, Rhinehart is allergic to the language of fanaticism that surrounds health food culture. He’s dedicated to practicing an “evidence-based” relationship to eating. Rhinehart is a devil’s advocate against Michael Pollan’s culturally accepted idea that it’s healthiest to eat like a peasant. Eating like a peasant means living off of a diet of fresh vegetables, well-raised, preserved meat and coarsely milled whole-wheat products, which is either extremely expensive or demands a life of full-time homesteading. Rhinehart, on the contrary, is promoting a cheap way to make space for other things in your life besides eating. In his blog post debuting his new diet, Rhinehart wrote: “I resented the time, money, and effort the purchase, preparation, consumption, and cleanup of food was consuming.” Rhinehart’s idea is that food ought to be considered a “recreational activity,” rather than a survival mechanism: “Cooking should be a hobby, like hunting. People used to hunt for survival, now they just do it for fun.”
In “The End of Food,” and article published in The New Yorker last May, Lizzie Widdicome investigates Soylent and its inventor. Not only does she hold Rhinehart apart from his generation’s interest in sustainable agriculture, but she also notes that he seems somehow unaffected by his peers’ attachment to social media. She remarks that “since Soylent upends many of the behavioral trends of the generation that invented the lunch shared on Instagram, topics such as pop culture and gossip don’t come up much with him, and he seems unmoved by consumer culture in any form.” Has Rhinehart, then, having solved the problem of food, also solved the problems of distraction, procrastination, and time management? Has he exposed the urge to know where food comes from as a fruitless endeavor, as compulsive as checking how many “likes” have accumulated on our latest photo of avocado toast? Or has Rhinehart just taken this urge to the chemical level, and left it at that because he’s personally unmoved by the sensuality of survival? Moreover, do most humans actually want the time that a life of Soylent leaves us with? Widdicome shares her personal experience on the Soylent diet:
With a bottle of Soylent on your desk, time stretches before you, featureless and a little sad. On Saturday, I woke up and sipped a glass of Soylent. What to do? Breakfast wasn’t an issue. Neither was lunch. I had work to do, but I didn’t want to do it, so I went out for coffee.
Without the structure of thinking about food, life loses a lot of vitality. In his second blog post on Soylent, “In Defense of New Food,” Rhinehart writes, “I find the pleasures of discovery, creation, laughter, learning, or pursuing a passion far more satisfying than a stomach full of ancestral food. Man was meant to do more than subsist.” For me, there seems to be a kind of violence in the attempt to separate the social act of eating from the essential act of survival. Disentangling food and intimacy is like saying let’s make ourselves waterproof so we can get rid of architecture.
The first death I witnessed was on a Sunday morning before market. I’d driven from my house in Portland to the farm I had just started working at, in a neighborhood on the periphery of the city. I needed help getting the canopy on the truck. I was nervous about running late and I couldn’t see anyone else around to help me out. Finally, I caught a glimpse of one of the farmers emerging over the slope of the main field. I was surprised to see her here on a weekend. She looked distraught and I realized something was up, that there was a reason she had been called into work and it couldn’t be good. She explained to me that some coyotes had gotten into the chicken coop and we’d lost much of the flock. The coyotes had killed most of the birds; one of them was badly wounded, just barely breathing. She asked me if I would help put it out of its misery. I was touched and scared but sure that my answer was yes, of course I would help. We walked out into the field, overlooking a beautiful wetland. I held a soft, brown hen in my two hands and, squatting, placed her between my knees so my co-worker could access to the bird’s neck with one hand and hold her knife steadily with the other. She sliced through the jugular cleanly and the hen barely resisted. We sat in this position for a while, my own racing heart slowing down to a normal pulse, wondering how fast the woman’s heart was beating, squatting on the other side hen, knife still firm in her grip. We sat in silence watching the bright red blood drip onto the equally saturated green grass. The hen twitched a little and then stilled. I felt a warm sensation on my legs, was surprised that the hen was still bleeding out, half-wondering if I’d pissed myself out of nervousness, and then realized that the hen had shit profusely through her death-throes—a phenomenon I’d heard about but certainly hadn’t experienced first-hand. My co-worker looked embarrassed and, strangely, apologized to me. I smiled and said that it was okay, it wasn’t like she had shit all over my thighs. She smiled back. It was funny, sure, and all a little lewd, but it’s true that this was as tender a moment as any I had ever experienced, that I couldn’t name what it was we had shared, but that I trusted it completely.