This New York Times article (which we are, inevitably, reading on our phones) is yet another call to put down our phones and EXPERIENCE LIFE!! As is the video that provoked it:
I get it: I’m that person at the restaurant watching my friends watching their phones, simultaneously annoyed and self-pitying. Both for being ignored by them when they ostensibly wanted to have lunch with me, and also because for many years I did not have a smartphone of my own.
But what is interesting to me is that the article brings the conversation back to, of all things, food. Now I would call this inevitable, but I’m a little biased towards the viewpoint that food is the genesis of all things human (I’m not alone: Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, has linked the creation of culture to cooking).
The author, Nick Bilton, compares our current phone-obsession to the early days of television, when families rolled the box up to the table and enjoyed the novelty during dinner. Nowadays, we do everything from Instagram our courses to Yelp our opinion of the meal.
Eating around the TV became gauche, and I think many wish the same would become true of phones at restaurants (or concerts or playgrounds or what have you). One LA restaurant has even experimented with giving a discount for those willing to ignore the screen for the duration of their dining.
But here is one interesting idea to consider: while television made food worse, I would argue that phones just might be making it better.
TV is a passive medium and demands attention. When it entered our homes, it required us to stop life and watch. It led to the invention of a whole new food category – the TV dinner – that relied upon quick, easy warming (not cooking) and effortless eating (stab, bring fork to mouth, repeat), all intentionally designed to maximize tube time.
Now we all know what crap is in TV dinners – they are pretty much the foodie equivalent of heresy. And they taste bad. And they look worse. Thank you, television.
So how are phones different? You still stop your life to pay attention to them. True. But they are interactive in a way TV can’t be; they are social in a more real, immediate way than watercooler talk about what was on last night.
Let’s consider what is trendy when it comes to phones and food:
It is showing off photos of what we are eating and what we’ve cooked. I have one Facebook friend who changes her cover photo nearly daily to share whatever incredibly delicious creation she has produced that day (including, of course, a title in a cute font and an old timey wash on the pic).
It is faithfully reviewing restaurants and religiously checking reviews before setting foot in a new one.
It is sharing and evaluating recipes, making cooking essentially a social experience, the modern equivalent of the village firepit where our ancestors swapped ideas and tested what was good – and safe – to consume.
No longer are cooks confined alone to the stuffy kitchen all day – they need only wander over to Chowhound or Epicurious to find like-minded individuals with whom to share tips, substitutions, or hard-won advice. Cooking is once again a communal experience, thanks to our constant access to social media via the handy little devices that are smaller than a cookbook.
Another boon specifically from our phones (with, yes, a good dose of TV’s help via Food Network and Top Chef) is that beautiful food is desirable again. If it isn’t worth Instagramming, it shouldn’t be on the plate. Presentation has always been important to cooks, but now it is reaching into all levels of society, all types of dining experiences. The TV dinner made food into mindless fuel to be consumed with no care for appearances (honestly, it was better if you didn’t look); Instagram has relaunched the aesthetic value of what we eat, and, in turn, woken up a new generation to the visual pleasure of eating. The first taste is always with the eyes.
But the next taste (and thereafter) is of course the most important factor. And this is where all those reviewing apps come in handy. We can immediately tweet the location of a fantastic food truck, or post a status to warn friends off a hot new place that’s only about the scene, not the food. We can find out about holes-in-the-wall we might never have heard of and the best dish to order there. Together we push up the ratings of the best food, thereby raising the game for all restaurants. We have begun to demand better tasting food, and that is a trend I am solidly behind.
And then the trend comes home – that Facebook friend with all the beautiful food photos? People clamor for her recipes, so they can recreate the magic. Suddenly we want to cook again, and share this food with our families and friends, and we reach for stronger skills and harder recipes and actually practice to become better cooks, as if we were going to be reviewed ourselves. Not because we are putting on pressure, but because we are rediscovering the Joy of Cooking – and eating!
All of this together – the sharing, the reviewing, the celebration of visual appeal and chefs who please the palate, the home cook elevating her weeknight meal – has reasserted for us the importance of eating well. And if cooking is what makes us human, then anything that promotes a higher level of this art will only make us better as a species.
So post on!
All Instagram photos are my own – the pics and the meals!