The hot new thing, I’m told, is Instagram, and I have been spelunking this Cthonic hellscape so that you, my readers, can spare your delicate sensibilities. Instagram food becomes a genre unto itself, because it propagates under different constraints from actual food. In meat space, food trends are driven by deliciousness, availability, and ease of reproduction, but on Instagram, they are subject only to selective pressures along the axes of color and photo composition.
In short, the idiosyncrasies of the platform establish the norms for the content it supports. As bored white collar workers on your commute, I know that you are hungry for pictures of neon pizza milkshakes, and as a social media mogul, you know that I am hungry for attention, which I quantify in likes and pageviews. Note that neither of these things will sustain us.
I have about four seconds to grab your attention as you scroll through your feed, and in those four seconds, I have to entice you with slightly more than half a square inch of glowing pixels. You’re not going to click on something brown. Consider the garish monstrosity above, a classic example of what Instagram does to food. Does this actually look appetizing to you in any way?
Close your eyes and imagine you just got home from your job browsing facebook, fully two hours from the last time you ate an industrial simulacrum of a muffin, and you come home to this visual tour de force, poly-scintillant dye leaking mineral hues into the bread, the cheese stringy and dry from being overcooked, the bread somehow under-toasted at the same time.
Does it get your gastric juices flowing? Ah but I intuit that many of you are trying to double tap your screens.
We are all, by now, aware of the treachery of images, We know that the rainbow sandwich above, is not a sandwich in fact, but merely a picture of a sandwich. However, I claim that it is not even a picture of a sandwich, it is a picture of a dramatic portrayal of a sandwich. Regarding the subject of the photo above, there was no point in its lifecycle in which it was intended for human consumption.
That “sandwich” might be edible, but it does not constitute food. You already know this, too, because it never even occurred to you to ask: what does it taste like?
I, culinary chromonaut that I am, have prepared and eaten technicolor foods, and I assure you that they all taste the same, i.e., like nothing. You may be thinking, “It’s a grilled cheese, it tastes like a grilled cheese, I didn’t wonder because I know.” You are mistaken. For various psychogustatory (term of art) reasons, it is a flavor void.
If you put red food coloring in Chardonnay, even wine experts will tell you it’s Pinot Noir. We think orange juice dyed green tastes like limeade, and we think coffee in a white mug tastes sweeter than coffee in a blue one. Long time readers of measure and stir may remember this eldritch horror. I served three completely different drinks, all colored with squid ink, and my guests could not tell the difference between them.
I’m told this is largely determined by expectation and cultural conditioning. I have no doubt that if you had been raised in a society that always only served green orange juice, and orange lime juice, your predictions and experience would be reversed. Ultimately, the source of our gastro-optical predictions does not change that we have them.
Social constructs exist because they are useful, and the fact that a norm is socially constructed in no way necessitates its malleability. Long before food dyes were used to enhance the colors of agricultural products, farmers practiced the venerable art of plant husbandry, and you can be sure that they chose to breed those plants which bore the most visually appealing fruits.
Adulterating foods to make them prettier is nothing new. French patisseries used to color their blancmange with arsenic and 16th century Germans would literally burn you alive for using yellow colorants to move counterfeit saffron.
What, intrepid reader, would they make of mermaid toast?
I harbor no contempt for Ms. Waugh. Her creations are beautiful and she well deserves any fame, accolades, and liquor endorsement contracts she has accrued. With a couple of mini cookie cutters and a jar of Blue Majik, you, too, could hop on these hot Instagram trends. 1000 likes, here I come!
Unlike the rainbow grilled cheese, mermaid toast has no illusions. It’s toast and cream cheese and gold flakes. As with the grilled cheese, you could, technically, eat it, but then you could technically eat an airplane. Blue Majik contains twenty-two times as much iron as spinach, but your typical airplane contains one hundred metric tons. And it flies!
Tired: Blue spirulina is the new healthy superfood.
Wired: Cessna-150s are the new healthy superfood.
Many uninitiated plebs are shocked to learn that the color of their precious Campari comes from crushed up Cochineal bugs, but yes, food dyes come from surprising places. At least we stopped using red lead. Blue Majik’s marketing team claims that it is 64% protein, and that this fact, along with its nutrient density and anti-oxidant content makes it desirable. 64% protein times a 1 gram dose is, in fact, 640 mg of protein. It’s a substantial meal for a Cochineal bug, but we humans have much greater caloric needs. The health benefits of anti-oxidants are also wildly overstated.
Twenty-two times as much Iron as spinach! so maybe, uh… .05 mg in a typical dose. You’d be much better off with some Flintstones gummies, though I admit they don’t photograph well. The perennial popularity of Campari is due to its appealing red hue, and the viral success of Blue Majik is mostly due to its vibrant color. How do you sell useless “chemical” food additives to people who are aspirationally into food purity? Academic.
It costs $4 for a 4oz bottle of blue gel dye, $65 for 50g of a proprietary spirulina blend. But who cares how much it costs, it’s all about that hashtag #healthyfood. If you’re the sort of person who
eats photographs smoothie bowls, you’re going to buy Blue Majik for the same reason I’m holding ethereum: #fomo.
Rainbow food isn’t real food, crypto-currency isn’t real money, and blue majik’s dubious health claims are an accent mark to its success.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the ascendance of rainbow food more perfectly than Starbucks’ recent Unicorn Frappuccino. I promise, they did not achieve this color with blue spirulina and beet powder, and no one cares.
This creation was vomited from forth from the collective unconscious of Instagram, which reached out with its glowing prismatic tendril into the minds of Starbucks’ marketing department, and used them as an avatar for its x-pro filtered thoughts.
“That looks delicious, I want one,” thought no one, ever. But one of the joys of logic is that the antecedent can be true regardless of the validity of the consequent. All marketing is about selling symbols. The signified is dead, the signifier is the only thing that matters, as reddit will attest.
No one expects symbols to point to real world objects. That kind of alignment has been gone for decades, but it took mass participatory media before we could find that consciousness in the average person. Artists and authors have known about the signifier/signified divorce since the 1950s, and their works have diffused into our culture, but the Instagram filter is the apotheosis of postmodern awareness.
We’ve been coloring our foods for much longer than we’ve been photographing them, but in the past it was always about enhancement; a greener pickle, a redder steak, a yellower saffron. The goal was to bring the manifestation of a symbol into closer alignment with its idealized form.
Rainbow food stems from an altogether different animus, from a desire to sever any link between ideal and instantiation.
Given all that, I wanted in. Whereas my mixological journey started as a quest for flavor and technique, it ended (or perhaps plateaued?) with the realization that narrative (set and setting) is the ultimate arbiter of taste and enjoyment. Aesthetic preferences are mostly fashion, loosely constrained by biology. As one wag put it, “I am not of the opinion that food has to taste good in order to be good.”
6 oz coconut cream
1 g blue gel dye or Blue Majik or whatever
In a blender, combine ice and coconut cream. Reserve half.
Add the blue dye, and blend up the rest.
In a hurricane glass, layer the blue and white slush, and then give it one small stir.
Top it with a black coral tuile* and a pink straw.
Do not drink.
*Tastes like nothing, made by frying oily flour in more oil.
This cynical recipe is not exactly the truth. The truth is I used some rosé and simple syrup and tried to make something kind of refreshing. I actually did try blue spirulina (though not blue majik) before giving up and using gel dye. The taste was fine, but it was also incidental to the recipe. Anything that won’t spoil the color is fine.
Another popular Instagram color scheme is “Galaxy”. This consists of black, blue, white, and sometimes, purple. I did not use any purple, but I had some beet powder out in my work space, just in case.
2 oz good amaro (or not)
2 oz white rum (or not)
1 oz lemon juice (or not)
1 oz orange juice (or not)
1 oz coffee liqueur (or not)
.5 oz simple syrup (or not)
3 oz coconut cream
1 g blue gel dye
1 tsp activated charcoal
a small dish of heavy cream
Blend half the coconut cream, rum, lemon, sugar, and blue dye together in a blender, and reserve in the freezer.
Blend the other half of the coconut cream, charcoal, amaro, and coffee liqueur.
Carefully layer in an oversize coupe glass and garnish by flicking little dabs of heavy cream on top.
Drink (or not). It tastes like sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In fact I did try with the second one (did I?) but it just didn’t matter. Nothing could punch through the overwhelming void of black and blue ice.