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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

"Digital Food"

That's the name of a relatively new book I've been reading by Tania Lewis, a professor of Media and Communication. No, the book is not about manufacturing food through 3D printing. "Digital Food - From Paddock to Platform" is a review and analysis of the impact of the digital world many of us spend an increasing amount of time in on many aspects of food and eating. It goes beyond that, actually. Sharing pictures of what you chose from of a lunch menu or what you've made for dinner shares something about you, and does something for you that goes beyond the immediate benefits of eating that particularly compelling plate of food or preparing a noteworthy meal. Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and other connection points to this digital world are facilitating new and fascinating consumer behavior when it comes to food too.

For one thing, I wasn't aware how many food photos are circulating in cyberspace; how big a behavior this is. There are probably more than 200,000,000 #food posts on Instagram, projecting from what was reported in a 2017 article cited in this book. The author posits that taking and sharing food photos, as well as images of other everyday objects and occurrences, speaks to a movement towards making our mundane, post-capitalist lives more interesting. That we imbue symbols of "domestic drudgery and housewifery," like meal preparation, with creative expression, pleasure, leisure, and aesthetics.

I can see how we are looking to attach more meaning to more of what we do, especially when the tools make it effortless, and to broadcast this within our circles to help our followers help us define and redefine who we are. A picture of food can be that impactful? I guess so. Five years ago already my niece was expending time and energy curating her social media story. After celebrating a milestone birthday at a place-to-be-seen restaurant I asked her why she hadn't yet posted one of the several pictures she had taken of her plate. She had told me she was waiting for the best time to get the most likes. Food can be a key ingredient in this unrelenting popularity contest, apparently.

I see what sharing food photos does for the sender; a picture of an awesome dessert in front of a smiling, knowing, self-satisfied face showing off glowing skin, braces-free teeth, and a great hair day. But what does it do for a follower on the receiving end? Do you envy the sender for discovering and enjoying this awesome dessert? Does she reaffirm that she's an influencer when it comes to food, and beyond, and that you are truly a follower? I wonder how many of these food photos streaming on your feed spur you to seek out an awesome-looking dessert. Or to ask for the recipe for that whole foods, plant-based lasagne basking on the kitchen island. Maybe it's just more food porn, like what many get out of the impressive scale and breadth of food preparation videos thriving online. YouTube research suggests that 50% of U.S. adults watch food-related videos on YouTube, and a Chinese online cooking video show called Day Day Cook gets between 200 and 250 million views every month.

There's more to it than food porn with food videos online, though. Watching home cooking shows on TV is mostly passive. It's entertainment, whether it's marveling over a celebrity chef's handiwork, or sympathizing with an amateur struggling to reproduce a dish under time constraints. You might look up a couple of recipes and file them away for the right occasion, which may or may not arrive. If, on the other hand, you've determined to make profiteroles, say, for a real occasion, there are a hundred how-to videos online to guide you through the process. (Gordon Ramsey's tutorial has 1.7 million views at last check.) You have the luxury of choice. You can find a famous chef, a non-food celebrity, an amateur cook, or member of your "tribe" that speaks to you. There are different formats too. In addition to on-demand videos, those looking for instruction, inspiration, entertainment, or even community can choose live-streaming, interactive content. The digital world continues to deliver on this over-abundance of choice for consuming food without eating it.

I'm intrigued by a smaller, but growing behavior around meal sharing. There's an app for everything, so, no surprise that there are apps to facilitate meal sharing. At its peak (before shutting down in the pandemic) Home Cook connected home-based cooks - 40,000 of them - with some 3.5 million folks across several Chinese cities willing to pay someone else for a home-cooked meal. Eat With takes a different tack. It offers a platform for an amateur cook or up-and-coming chef to turn their home or other venue into a restaurant of sorts for discrete occasions. It's a dinner party you invite yourself to through the Eat With app. The price tag for one of these events near me is $120/person. Clearly, this is an upscale experience. Not a humble bowl of food delivered by someone in a neighboring high-rise. And then, there are an uncounted number of meal-sharing "pop-ups" enabled by social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Imagine a homemaker posting that they're making a batch of something or other over the weekend, maybe a signature lasagne, and then taking orders from folks in their network. It's happening. For a little extra cash. Or to provide meals for free to those in need.

This grey market for prepared meals seems fraught. There is always the threat of health departments cracking down on this food gig worker for not having a license. And as we move beyond the Covid-19 crisis and start adapting to social life that is framed by a heightened awareness of viruses and germs will many of us want to engage in these kinds of meal experiences? How many of us will feel comfortable trusting private cooks, maybe only somewhat more skilled than ourselves in the kitchen, in kitchens not very different from our own, to make and sell us a meal we pick up on the way to or back from work. Some of us will.

On the one hand there are those who take all sorts of risks to endure or enjoy an experience. An elusive or exclusive experience. A meal and the context - the stories that complement the food - that only a few others can also claim to have consumed. Another photo op to share with those from whom they seek validation.

And then there's the struggle for too many in this country to secure their daily bread, while food goes to waste in many other households. Apps that connect those who need a meal with those who can provide one can and will create a necessary exchange platform. I see the opportunity to also connect people who want to eat healthier food but who don't have the means, time, or skills to make more nourishing food with competent cooks who can share an affordable, better-for-you meal.

There's more to the exchange of a meal you've made with someone in your physical proximity whether there's money involved or not. There's the exchange of goodwill that builds with each transaction across a community. Goodwill that makes neighbors out of strangers. I'm reminded of ethnography work we did when I worked on Banquet frozen foods. We saw how frozen and refrigerated foods are stored across several extended family homes because nobody's fridge is big enough. It's a pain, but how many extra bonding visits this creates...


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