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On Selling a Lifestyle
The food content ouroboros.
Something is happening to the food writers: We’re losing our minds. This job requires knowledge of not just food and cooking, plus whatever one’s niche is that makes them desirable on the market, but also to be a photographer (not new) and now a videographer—perhaps with three cameras in various positions in order to ensure a cinematic result, when we go on to act as editors. Oh, and we should maybe know how to host a podcast and edit audio, for good measure.
We are food stylists and recipe developers and restaurant recommenders. We are everything, because there’s no other choice. “Being a freelancer means you’re also an entrepreneur, which means you’re every department of your company,” says Abigail Koffler, whose newsletter This Needs Hot Sauce comes out biweekly. I am loath to think of myself as an entrepreneur. Yet here I am.
We’re not toiling in the mines as writers, the cultural critic Rachel Connolly helpfully reminds us on Twitter with necessary regularity. But the expectations on food people working in media specifically are a stretch (they’re also deeply gendered, a topic for another essay).
I’ve been attempting to separate myself from my own “content creation” for social media, because I am increasingly confused about what I or anyone else gets out of it. I am increasingly confused about how people perceive exactly what it is I do, as I regularly field questions about whether I work in restaurants or sell cakes. Countless people have assumed my first book, which will be out next year, is a cookbook, when I only started to regularly publish recipes at the end of 2021.
I accept more that my presence in the digital space, which was for so long where I felt more free to be myself than in the “real world,” is now a representation of what I seek to represent. I’m there somewhere, under the layers, shouting about eating more vegetables. My presence is a commercial for my brain.
A question I’ve been grappling with is whether to show a life is to sell a lifestyle. Many food people are on Instagram actually making money (I am not one of them); they’re shilling pots and making deals with KitchenAid. Supposedly, brand deals are now the only way to survive. My own spice collaboration has yielded much appreciated surprise checks this year, I will say, and it will also be the extent of my product hawking. I don’t want to be a marketer.
I’ve settled into an aesthetic groove with my photos that I’m quite proud of, until someone mentions to me that they like them for being tossed off or imperfect, and then I feel embarrassed. It’s hard to deviate from what is understood as “good” food imagery. For a while now, the visual culture of Instagram has defined the visual culture of food, but that’s changing. More trend pieces are pointing to TikTok, which doesn’t offer up a defined food aesthetic but does encourage people to use jarred garlic (apparently). (Jarred garlic is fine.)
Instagram maintains its personal-professional sheen, though, as the space to show who you are and what you do (over and over and over). I wrote for Gawker about the cultural turn toward recipe developers and away from bloggers, as well as the parasocial nature of the fandoms, which comes with assumptions around how much personal information is owed and the sense that every food person’s home and refrigerator is ready to be shown off at a moment’s notice. Baker Hetal Vasavada of Milk and Cardamom recently posted, “Spending more time making things out of joy versus appeasing the algorithm. Feeling happier and better for it to be honest.” I think this is where more people are landing, but it doesn’t mean that it will… work out.
This isn’t a healthy economy—money- or attention-wise—for food folks. So much popularity is concentrated at the top, dependent upon whether you were in a certain test kitchen at the right time, and that popularity comes with many material benefits. Social media and the shitty nature of actually having a media job have enabled a rise in utter individualism when it comes to food, and the competition is as fierce as the algorithms are unpredictable. Trying not to have a scarcity mind-set becomes a spiritual pursuit. Trying to maintain originality, too.
The patterns of success tend to mimic the patterns of media hiring: thin, affluent, mostly white. (TikTok, where everyone seems to become a star to the point that follower counts are of dubious significance, does challenge this archetype.) This sameness then echoes through what is a successful aesthetic, which then gets emulated in a trickle-down pattern. This is the food content ouroborous: what is original will be replicated so much that it will become dull.
I started to feel like I’d gotten lost in all of it, like I couldn’t sense myself in the weeds of all the aesthetic input, when I was embarrassed by videos of a dinner I’d made for friends because the lighting in what was our dining room was atrocious. I had already thought about moving the table to the living room, but what made it feel necessary to me was that serving in that room looked bad. (There also isn’t enough airflow.) Could people believe my food tastes good, that they should cook my recipes and read my essays, if it didn’t look good? “Bad” photos are in, but the thing about them is that they’re not really bad or even insouciant: They’re just a different approach, less big bright lighting, a little grainy, still beautifully plated. Every anti-aesthetic eventually becomes an aesthetic.
This was something I wanted to ask Koffler about, because her newsletter doesn’t present itself as aspirational. It’s about the true day-to-day of cooking, enjoying meals with friends and loved ones, and going out to restaurants for the fun of it—oftentimes the same ones, over and over, which is how most people live.
“In New York, in the winter, the light goes at like 4:30 p.m., but I do not eat dinner at that time,” she says, by way of illustrating her photo philosophy. “And so if you want to have aesthetics as a priority, there’s a little bit more artificiality. I think it just depends what your goals are, but I’m never organized enough to cook my dinner at 4:30 p.m.”
She pointed out something I’ve noticed about myself, too, which is that I feel like I have to have two brains because I can’t have two lives or two apartments: In one, there’s the focus on “creation” for an audience; in the other, there’s actually eating and hanging out. Sometimes, they bleed into each other. This is where the problems come in, as demonstrated by my lighting freak-out: Where does my prop closet end and where do I begin?
It’s unavoidable: There’s always going to be a dominant look in food and we’re always going to want to look at pretty plates, so I think I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for moving the table. I do wish, however, that I didn’t think the success of my work would suffer because pasta wasn’t lit perfectly—that all imperfections need to be a studied choice, too. When I post something that’s not pretty, it must be clear that I know it isn’t pretty.
The sense that every meal is groundbreaking is exhausting to me, and I neither pursue it for myself nor as a recipe developer. I appreciate Julia Turshen’s notes in her newsletter that say “Not every meal you eat has to be the best meal you’ve ever had; Not every meal you eat has to go on social media” because these ideas go directly against the grain of food content expectations.
What is food media and food social media without its demand for consumption—without expectations of newness, freshness, bold colors and clear shots from people whose work is about (supposedly!) making good food, showing off that food, writing about food, thinking about food? But we can’t escape wanting to look at nice things, fancy things, extravagant things. We want our lives, lived and depicted, to be desirable. The question of the late-capitalist climate change age is, can we tame these desires? Can we make what is sustainable and real desirable instead? (Per usual, I feel conversations in fashion are ahead of food. Embedded did a fantastic transparent interview with an anti-fast fashion influencer.)
Basically, can we diversify our aesthetic desires? Can we appreciate a lifestyle without wanting to consume destructively to replicate it? Can we show our own lives, as ordinary as they most of the time are? (There is a move toward mocking influencer videos where people are shown waking up and that sort of thing, as well as people talking about romanticizing a “non-aesthetic life”—but again, the anti-aesthetic always becomes another version of the aesthetic... I never want to use this word again.)
The eternal question: Can we look at what someone else has and not believe we should also have it? I try to push this in my own way, with showing tropical fruits. Different lives in difference places—that should be the beauty of this whole thing. Wealth, though, or the appearance of wealth, the appearance of excess money, is what undergirds the entirety of social media food content creation. There is not just abundant food, but abundant plates and cloth and candles for styling said food. Because of the ongoing, relentless nature of social media, it’s not enough to occasionally flash a status symbol, to occasionally show off: It’s all day, every day.
Millicent Souris wrote brilliantly about the tension of watching rich people’s lives online amid a historic hunger crisis:
I don’t think I’m mature enough to witness the daily life of affluent people and what they want to share. I’m not wired for that kind of Aspirational Life. There’s a danger to it. Not an edgy, sexy danger but a negligent capitalist one that I just am not able to square with.
Aspiration as negligence—I think I believe in that (and should interrogate why I follow a woman with a closet full of The Row). I recently posted on my Story about going to Costco, and every time I do this, someone thanks me for doing so—for the relatability of it, for giving them some breathing room to go get what they need in bulk. This reminded me that even regular life is lifestyle, when made public. Even a banal choice can influence, for better or worse.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will include a recipe for pasetelillos, fried Puerto Rican empanadas, with both butternut squash and jackfruit fillings. They’re a nice fall snack! See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
There’s been eating but I couldn’t tell you about it because book revisions. Oh, but I do highly recommend Rachel Gurjar’s creamy mushroom and green bean masala! I made it with coconut milk, and Rachel recommends letting it simmer at the water stage longer when doing that substitution for heavy cream. Above is a caramel custard made with canistel.