And yet! Despite all this! There’s a good chance, still, that the tides of history are stacked in favor of amateur food photography. That Top Chef’s tribute to Instagram, this week, represents a kind of normalization of the relationship between food and social media.
And there’s a good chance, too, that there is nothing at all wrong with that.
Seen most optimistically, the age of Instagram is bringing Americans back to an older age of food consumption—a time before industrialization and mass-production, and a time before a general cultural bias toward efficiency made eating an often very solitary affair. Instagram—and, with it, the rise of food blogs and Top Chef-style cooking shows and food-focused verticals at BuzzFeed—ultimately highlights the gorgeous communality of that oldest of things: the meal. Food may be, to an extent, cultured, and class-inscribed, and gendered. (The ladysalad! The manly t-bone!) It can be expensive; it can be egregious; it can appropriate; it can offend.
For all that, though, food is universal in a way that few things are, or have ever been. The bright bite of lemon juice; the earthy umami of an oil-roasted mushroom; the sour-sweet of dark chocolate—these are experiences that people across cultures and races and genders and generations can understand. They are relatively apolitical; they are relatively transcendent. Eating is biologically banal, but dining—the ritual, the event—is deep and social and shared.
The food-based Instagram taps into all that. It reflects a very human thing, a thing that has been part of culture, and for that matter of religion, for millennia: the desire to share our meals with other people. To break bread together. To take a picture of a meal, and to share that picture with friends and family with the help of the World Wide Web … that may be an act of performance, but it’s also an act of invitation. It’s extending, basically, the number of people at one’s table.
This week’s Top Chef challenge celebrates all of that. (It also takes a subtle victory lap, since Top Chef has—along with Chopped and Iron Chef and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives—helped to turn images of food into their own forms of celebrity.) Yes, it makes jokes about #foodporn. Yes, it uses the episode to reveal the identity of the Instagrammer @chefjacqueslamerde, overuser of the phrase “soigné” and poster of satirically beautiful plates. On the whole, though, it emphasizes how cool it is that food—that most intimate and physical and transient of things—can now be captured, and remembered, and shared. That food can become media. And, with it, art. Chefs are fond of remarking that people “eat, first, with their eyes”; Instagram is simply bringing more truth to that truism.