These days, eating has become almost performative. The millennial adage “pix or it didn’t happen” applies particularly to food, whether we’re chasing highly coveted viral sensations like sushi donuts and raindrop cakes, or seeking out high-end chefs’ exclusive creations like ramen burgers or the famed cronut. According to The Independent, 69 percent of millennials photograph their food before eating it. Even in an Eater article otherwise maligning the whole culture of viral foods and social-media influencers, Amanda Mull admits that Instagram’s “emergent aesthetic tropes are as essential to [today’s] zeitgeist.”
Photographing our meals for social media isn’t just about showing our friends all the delectable digestibles we’re consuming; it also enhances our experience of actually consuming the food. The Cut reported on one psychological underpinning of the urge to post those food pix: A series of studies found that a short ritual performed before a meal — such as, say, pausing to frame up, snap, and share that perfect image — “positively influences our perception of the food on our plates … making [it] seem more delicious.”
To take a deeper dive into this fascinating topic, Per La Mente gathered some experts to discuss how social media has impacted their lives and work. Hear from Instagram chef Lucia Lee, food photographer Andrew Scrivani, food critic Scott Lynch, and mixologist Stacie Grissom, who share thoughts on how serious we should be when taking snaps of our dinners, the phenomenon of chefs plating food for the camera rather than the consumer, and the sense of fun and community that a great food photo can create.
As Greg Lofts, food editor of Martha Stewart Living, told the Chicago Tribune, “The last thing we do with food is taste it. The first thing [we] do is see it.” But the psychology of food photography goes deeper than just whetting appetites. Brooklyn restauranteur Dean Jankelowitz told Grub Street, “It’s very comforting for people to see the restaurant first on Instagram, [then] step inside and have it match up exactly.” In fact, according to CNBC, from 2015 to 2017, “users searching for restaurants or foods that include the word ‘Instagram’ has surged by about 3000 percent.”
It’s not just food — the way we imbibe has also been irrevocably altered by social media. Cocktail bloggers are democratizing the mixology world, one that has traditionally been somewhat closed-off and elitist. As Will, one half of @kaleandcocktail, told Vine Pair, “Instagram is making craft cocktails seem much more approachable to home bartenders or cocktail enthusiasts. [It] has ‘lifted the shroud’ in a sense that may have been preventing less-experienced drinkers from trying new things.”
Social media has also made viral sensations out of drinks in totally unexpected ways. In Milwaukee, there’s a full-on “garnish war” when it comes to bloody marys: Across the city, bars and restaurants are outdoing themselves to come up with the most ridiculous toppings possible, including a mound of fried onions, a bacon-wrapped burger, and even an entire fried chicken.
All this isn’t just a matter of changing the way we experience what we consume; the social-media effect has begun to shape everything about the aesthetics of the dining experience, from placemats to dishware to bathroom wallpaper. Gone are the days of high-end French chefs banning smartphones from their Parisian gastronomiques; now restaurants are reinventing themselves specifically to appeal to the social media crowd. In New York, one “beach-to-bowl” shop has an “Instagram moment” wall complete with neon lighting, tropical wallpaper, and a wicker swing, and the owner of a sustainable seafood spot admits that “Instagram was 100 percent taken into account” while designing that space. In L.A., some restaurants like are choosing to serve their fare in costly and labor-intensive vessels like halved pineapples and coconuts, simply because the beautiful dishes are so wildly shared. That sort of social media presence is what turns restaurants into destinations — the co-owner of one San Francisco restaurant notes that her establishment brings in tourists all the way from China and Japan. “They [see] the photos and they say, ‘I want that for my Instagram,’” she told the Verge.
Plenty of establishments are beginning to try even harder to court these elusive “likes.” A dimly lit restaurant in Boston has a bright private table set off to the side that’s specifically reserved for food photographers and social-media influencers. Another in San Francisco has a custom lamp at each of its bar’s 25 seats, allowing patrons to individually adjust their lighting, and the lamps’ necks even feature a place to put your phone while working out that perfect selfie. And across the pond, one London chain goes so far as giving its diners Instagram kits, which feature “a portable LED light, multi-device charger, clip-on wide-angle lens, tripod, and a selfie stick” to help them best photograph their meals.
Given the ever-increasing saturation of social media in our lives, fighting the “Instagram effect” is no longer an option. And why would anyone want to? It’s pushing restauranteurs to make their establishments more beautiful, consumers to seek out more exciting foods, and passionate, dedicated communities to form around niche culinary elements. Besides, we all have to eat, so we might as well do it beautifully — and tell our loved ones all about it. After all, as the owner of a beachfront café in Malibu puts it: “A meal that is not photographed probably did not happen.”
To learn about what Instagram can tell us about international tastes, go here.
For a short history of food styling — and some tips from the pros to liven up your own feed — click here.
To hear more from Stacie Grissom and watch her mix a custom Fernet-Branca cocktail, head here.
For a picturesque look at Instagram-worthy Fernet-Branca cocktails and the feeds their makers follow, try here.