San Francisco is a city of long lines, and on a Saturday afternoon few lines here are longer than the one in front of the Chocolate Chair in Japantown. The Chocolate Chair's specialty is Dragon's Breath, neon-coloured balls of puffed rice cereal soaked in liquid nitrogen. When you take a bite, the nitrogen-infusion fills your mouth with a dense, smoke-like gas. Breathe the gas out through your nose or mouth, and voilà, man becomes dragon.
The Rainbow Grilled Cheese. Image: Chomp Eatery
Its popularity is not due to its taste. Dragon's Breath is, in fact, kind of disgusting. When fresh, it tastes kind of like fruit loops, but most of the time Dragon's Breath is served stale, its taste more reminiscent of cardboard. The appeal comes instead from its aesthetics. Walk by its corner of the mall on any given day and you'll find it surrounded by throngs of smartphone photographers. It is the food that launched a thousand Instagrams.
With the right aesthetic, food can now go viral: Dragon's Breath, ice cream logs, the rainbow grilled cheese, the raindrop cake. These foods are designed to be filtered. In the age of Instagram, the way food looks is more important than how it tastes.
The Chocolate Chair is a typical viral food success story. It got its start selling ice cream made with liquid nitrogen a few years ago before its L.A. outlet debuted Dragon's Breath last spring. Thanks to a catchy name and visual effects, thousands of Instagram posts and a flurry of press coverage followed. No one said it was good, but it didn't matter. Because damn does it make for a good Instagram selfie.
Makeup looks are now designed to look better on Instagram than they do IRL. The same thing is happening to our food.
Rainbow grilled cheese topped with sprinkles swept our social media feeds this year, but the idea of actually eating it is mildly nauseating. Black Tap Burger & Beer in New York famously serves a gut-buster milkshake with toppings such as a whole slice of cake, but more people want to take a photo with it than finish it. The Raindrop Cake, made to look like a beautiful over-sized bead of water, reportedly tastes like literally nothing.
And yet, there are thousands of posts, dozens of hashtags devoted to these foods and countless fawning news stories devoted to these foods. Black Tap's milkshakes rocketed it from an unknown NYC burger joint to bi-coastal acclaim. The Raindrop Cake, a weekend pop-up started by an advertising guy, has been so successful that its creator recently quit his day job to focus on making tasteless gelatinous cakes full-time.
"Food has become an accessible status symbol," said food futurist Anna Griggs.
Over the last year or two, she told me, she's noticed a significant uptick in foods that are popular for reasons besides taste. "It's something that we've been seeing across categories -- in food, fashion, makeup. It's the popularization of these looks that are just designed to be photographed for Instagram," she said. "People will wait in line for hours just to get a photo of a Black Tap milkshake. You put in the time and effort to wait in line and get the shot. And then people want the validation of the likes and comments."
Pretty food, of course, is not new. Throughout history -- and especially among the upper crust -- certain dishes have proven popular mainly because of their elaborate presentations. In the 19th Century, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management suggested that the Victorian middle class arrange their salads to look like elaborate cakes. The Victorians were also obsessed with jellies, a gastronomic craze more about wobbling, high-stacked spectacle than taste.
Victorian salad arrangement advice. Image: Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. And at four-dollar-sign restaurants, intricate plating has long been part of the draw. Back in 2014, the New York Times food critic Pete Wells coined this "camera cuisine," noting that at high-end eateries in particular, its rise seemed intrinsically linked to a decline in taste.
"A side effect of the digital age in food photography, camera cuisine is any dish that was inspired by a picture or aspires to be one," he wrote. "Like any genre of cooking, camera cuisine varies widely in quality, but in its purest form it is both exquisitely photogenic and peculiarly bland and lifeless."
What's new, Griggs told me, is that this obsession with a meal's aesthetics has now filtered into mass culture. The fixation has in turn prompted purveyors of food to cater to Instagram's foodie set. At the top of its menu, New York City's Empellón include a message noting that "Empellón strongly discourages the use of mobile phones, unless you're posting food porn on Instagram. #Empellon." Several times, I've seen restaurant chefs spot a food-photographing diner and pull them into a spot with better lighting and restaurants now dole out free meals to Instagram "influencers" for a shot at going viral. A New York Times review can still make or break a restaurant, but now so can Instagram.
Remember when Martha Stewart tweeted a photo of a wedge salad she had made and was immediately shamed by Twitter for its less than desirable aesthetic?
Iceberg wedge with homemade Russian dressing. Perfect salad for the onion soup lunch pic.twitter.com/KQatWUKUdl
— Martha Stewart (@MarthaStewart) November 17, 2013
Griggs recounted for me her experience with rolled ice cream as evidence.
"I loved watching it being made, and then I was just so disappointed," she said. "I would have been so much happier with an ice cream cone."
Already, the pretty-food movement has inspired satire and ridicule. This summer, IKEA ran a popular ad campaign mocking Instagramming your food by imagining how it would have ruined 18th century meals. Man Repeller spoofed Instagram food porn by going on the "Instagram Foodie Diet" for a day, and then barfing. The truth is, ugly food is still delicious and the rise of pretty, gross food has begun to spur a divergent ugly food movement. The subreddit "Shitty Food Porn" collects images of food people are eating that they would only share with the anonymous internet.
Maybe it's ok, though, to value food more for how it looks than how it tastes.
Darren Wong, the proprietor of the Raindrop Cake, rejects the premise that food even needs to be about taste. His Raindrop Cake, made from a gelatin-like substance called agar, was inspired by mizu shingen mochi, a Japanese dessert he discovered online.
"The cake itself is really about texture," he told me. "For most people with an American palate, taste is the most important thing. But in many Asian dishes, the dish is really built around texture. I didn't approach this as a food item. I approached it as an experience. It doesn't matter what it tastes like."
Wong went to Japan and studied the dessert, then spent months trying to create a cake that almost perfectly resembled an oversized raindrop, a cake that would be like eating water. He debuted it at Smorgasborg in Brooklyn last March to much acclaim. Wong credits social media, and in particular Instagram, almost entirely for its success.
Food, though, has always been about more than just the taste of what we put in how mouths. We also value the atmosphere of a restaurant, or the company of family and friends. Maybe Instagram has just shown us another way to enjoy food -- taking in not just how it looks, but the social media conversation those aesthetics spur.
"I did think a lot about visuals when I launched it," Wong told me. "The majority of my customers, the first thing they do before taking a bite is take a photo."