Why Instagramming your Food might just save Civilization

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).

Family around TVThe 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 ledTvdinner 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.

Steak au Poivre with duck fat fries

Steak au Poivre with duck fat fries

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. BrunchWe 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!

The elevation of lunch at home

The elevation of lunch at home

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!

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A Foodie’s Prayer

O Lord, refresh our sensibilities.

Give us this day our daily taste.

Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice.

Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity.

Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard.

Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations.

Above all, give us grace to live as true [humans] – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand.

Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.

Amen.

– Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

Raising a Foodie, Part 3

I didn’t really expect this to stretch to three posts, but turns out I have a lot to say on this topic!

"Freedom from Want" by Norman Rockwell

 

 

In the end, the primary reason for raising little foodies is found in the more intangible benefits of truly enjoying eating. I speak here of fellowship with other human beings, the satisfaction of being able to appreciate fine food, knowing your meal was prepared with love and care, and the connection, I believe, that we make to our spiritual selves when we acknowledge the provision of our food, the bounty of this incredible world, and the care and attention with which we are fed with so much diversity and flavor and fun by God.

 

 

And this necessarily must involve feeding others: you cannot fully enjoy filling your belly if your neighbor is hungry.

And, of course, it will involve our religion, for Christians (and those of many other faiths, in differing ways) believe that God has fed us with Godself, and continues to do so week after week, becoming, literally, part of us, as we ingest the Divine.

I feel like, when I feed my kids, I’m not only teaching them about how to taste. I’m teaching them about how to be human – how to be fully human (which, according to Iraneaus of Lyons, is the glory of God). How to interact with others, how to share the deepest bond we have – the very stuff that gives us life.

I’m teaching them to think beyond their own tastes and hunger when choosing what to eat, to consider also the farmers, the animals, the earth. To think about how far their food has traveled and what that’s done not only to the environment, but to its composition and flavor.

All of this, unfortunately, I teach only through example on many days. I’m not yet sermonizing at the dinner table (though that day will inevitably come). But I suppose I preach through their plates.

I do wish they could grow up thinking it’s so totally normal to eat tomatoes only in season that they wouldn’t dream of trying to find one in winter.

I want them to look for all the colors of the rainbow on their plates and protest when there’s no vegetables.

I want them to be lonely if they try to eat alone, to feel it’s not really a meal without company, believing it normative to eat with family or friends and share lively conversation. (I actually feel this way, so kudos to my parents!)

And I want them to see every meal as an occasion: an opportunity to share love, friendship, creativity, and deliciousness.

Every meal can be a feast; every bite, God’s love made edible.

Raising a Foodie, Part 2

Yesterday I blogged about how I’m trying to train my kids’ palates to enjoy real, good food. But I have to admit: I live in a place of tension about this. I simply can’t be perfect in what I feed them, and it is only going to get worse.

At first, we tried very hard to only feed the children exclusively organic food. Then that kept getting messed up – sometimes accidentally, sometimes because we couldn’t afford otherwise. Plus you go to grandma’s and all your good intentions go out the window; or you eat out, and God only knows what they’ve been doing to the food (the one thing you can count on, according to Anthony Bourdain, is that your food is swimming in butter).

So I do my best: they mostly get organic produce and meat, but I’ve had to compromise on most grains. I try to only buy conventional of the safer produce, and with dairy, if I can’t get organic I at least get it without rBST and other hormones. Of course, when we were on the government WIC program, we couldn’t get any organic dairy (though we could get organic produce, and even shop at the farmer’s market).

One thing I tell groups when I speak is that the most important change you can make in your family’s diet is to switch to organic dairy. This is the consensus based on the hormones and what-have-you added to cow’s diets, not to mention the treatment of the animals. And the fact that dairy makes up a huge portion of most kids’ diets. So if you only can do one thing, switch your milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream to organic.

It’s a constant struggle, a constant compromise. I did what I could when we were poor: I found a store that took WIC and only sells cage-free eggs: voila! I even used food stamps at Whole Foods…did you know you can do that?

I used to work at – and get food from – a pantry that had a lot of organic. I’ve researched the dairies providing our stuff and found the ones whose methods I can live with. And nowadays I try to get our meat only from either a local ranch or the farmer’s market, or occasionally Whole Foods (because at least they have some standards).

Yeah, it’s a hell of a lot of work, and I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I’m not going to trust the government – or the industrial food complex – to provide the highest level of nutrition as well as protection for animals, farmworkers, and the environment. That just ain’t gonna happen: it’s a business, first and foremost. A business, I might add, whose co-opting of the words “natural” and “organic” is driving me insane!

But anyway, back to feeding our kids.

Beyond the issues of organic vs. non and all that trendy green stuff, I live with tension about nutrition. Of course I would love for the kids to only have a taste for vegetables and whole wheat bread, and only want to drink water (and eventually, wine). I would be so relieved if they didn’t have to struggle with extra weight. I would be proud if they ate for maximum nutritional value.

But you know, there’s a lot to be said for taste as well. And I don’t care how you dress it up, tofu or seitan are never going to be remotely like a steak swimming in butter and blue cheese. Whole wheat pasta is hard and chewy. There are times in life that call for ice cream and cake. Would life be worth living without french fries and potato chips? (I don’t mean the fake kind, I mean fresh and homemade)

Plus, I’m a big old hypocrite if I don’t let them eat some treats now & then. Lord knows only my Haagen-Dazs has gotten me through several dark periods. I sometimes get a craving for fast food (that I can usually quell) or a snack cake (which I try to feed with real cake instead). But I have my major weaknesses, and there’s just no way I can explain away the fact that I love that horrible hydrogenated grocery store bakery white cake, with extra frosting. I have been known to eat it for breakfast on my birthday, and every day thereafter until it is gone.

I live in Texas, where Chick-Fil-A is ubiquitous, and my kids love their nuggets (at least I always get a fruit cup, and the nuggets are actual meat). I love salt and vinegar Kettle Chips. I love cheese fries (but not queso aka Velveeta!). I love things that taste good and aren’t good for you. Sure, lots of delicious things are good for you too…but that’s not all there is.

And really, how can I give my child fruit-sweetened cake with no topping? What about the time-honored tradition of the child smearing the frosting all over himself? How would we have the appropriate first birthday photos? This isn’t just fun in my family of origin: it’s a bona fide rite of passage. It’s tradition.

The fact is, Halloween candy is part of life nowadays; so, unfortunately, is Valentine’s and Easter candy. I’m surprised there’s no Fourth of July candy, although I suppose we’re all to busy stuffing our faces with hot dogs and potato salad that day.

Anyway, I’m just not going to be one of those parents who denies their kid sugar. They’re not getting it often or in large quantities, but I agree that there’s no better way to set up bingeing than to deny. I know this from personal experience.

So it’s a balance, and it’s moderation. That’s how I see it. And I also believe strongly that I simply can’t live my life one way and not allow my kids some measure of it. Not that they get to eat exactly as I do, since I hope for better for them.

But birthday cake in our house will always be real cake (they get homemade) with lots of frosting, you can bet on that!

Raising a Foodie, Part 1

I’m a relatively new mom – I have two children, ages 1 and 3 (3 1/2, she would correct me) – and one of my primary goals for their physical and spiritual well-being is to raise good eaters – by “good”, I mean responsible omnivores who love all kinds of food. Unfortunately, at their current ages, I am failing at the non-picky part. But I try.

I actually started feeding my kids a varied diet before they were even born, and during their exclusively-breastfed months. I ate a wide variety of foods, particularly focusing on spicy foods and vegetables. I’ve read that babies whose mothers ate lots of broccoli while they were in utero come out liking it, so I loaded up on broccoli and spinach and whatever else seemed especially nutritious.

I read a lovely story in Nigella‘s fabulous How to Eat about when she was pregnant and had the chance to chat up an OB at a party. He told her that breastmilk changes not only in nutritional content as the baby grows and her needs change, but also it varies in flavor depending on what Mom’s been eating. So, Nigella concluded, breastfeeding is really the best way to begin introducing variety in eating to a child!

Isn’t that the coolest thing? As a species, our most natural way of beginning life has been designed to include variety, to begin priming the palate for future adventure. What a wonderful concept. But we probably shouldn’t make too big a deal of it, or we’ll wind up with flavored formula from scientists trying to replicate the goodies.

Most of the world’s babies aren’t treated with the kid gloves we use when it comes to  spices (though they are exclusively breastfed longer), and so I have held back on super hot but certainly not flavorful ingredients. The kids get lots of curry, garlic, onions, peppers, ginger, and so forth. I try not to give them bland foods – while maintaining the natural taste, of course. Can’t mask the flavor, or they’ll never truly love the food itself.

Which brings me to one of my biggest gripes: children’s menus at restaurants. Ugh! The same crappy, flavorless six or so items on rotation: chicken nuggets, hamburger, mac and cheese, hot dog. All designed to appeal to the least common denominator while teaching our kids nothing about food and offering them nothing in the way of nutrition. Yuck!

I once went off on a poor waiter who brought my kid neon orange macaroni and cheese. The adult menu listed a four cheese mac and so we assumed the kid version would be a smaller portion of the good stuff. So when it came out Kraft, I said, “What is this?” And he said it was the “kid’s” mac and cheese. I said, “What do you mean? Do you think my kid doesn’t like good food? That she wants something that tastes like plastic and cardboard instead of having flavor?” And on and on about the sorry state of children’s palates today, and how of course they only want that stuff because that’s all we offer to them – we never challenge their palates so they have no idea what food tastes like!

Poor guy didn’t know what hit him. He did replace the orange stuff.

Before my eldest was even a year old, some of her favorite dinners included beets with goat cheese, coconut curry, sweet potato gnocchi with rustic pine nut sauce, and potato-green garlic soup. She loves broccoli (only raw) and tofu. Recently we had a seafood paella and she was not that interested in the rice, but begging for, “More squid! More octopus!!”

Her brother will eat anything as long as it’s in mac and cheese. So I throw kale in there, bacon ends, tomatoes, asparagus, etc. He also loves pasta with tomato sauce, which is easy to puree greens into, or he’ll shovel in mushrooms, onions and sausage as long as there’s pasta with it.

Both my kids love plain yogurt to death, and of course fruits. They think a frozen puree of watermelon or cantaloupe (in a cute shape, of course, thanks to IKEA ice cube trays) is a treat. And for each, their first solid food was guacamole – not avocado, which they can kind of take or leave, but GUAC!

Of course, now the three year old in particular now often turns up her nose at most of the strongly flavored things we offer. When this happens, the “Party in my Tummy” song from Yo Gabba Gabba helps a lot. I once told her that her tummy was sad and waiting for its party, because only vegetables get the party started – and it worked! Now often when she eats a fruit or veg, she’ll say, “Mommy, the strawberry/broccoli/apple/etc. got the party started in my tummy!”

And yes, I do bribe with dessert. Often. But if it’s good dessert – and one me and Daddy are planning to eat anyway – I don’t see much harm in it.

The fact is, introducing a child to the wonders of food in all its variety, color, flavor, and creative potential is just about the funnest thing I’ve ever done. And I really look forward to the days when the kids will be big enough to help in the vegetable garden and the kitchen (they do try the latter, but it’s kind of more trouble than help right now). They love going to the farmer’s market, and spend many hours watching my husband and I cook.

Most importantly, they know that food doesn’t come from the grocery store. They’ve been to farms, they’ve met cows, they’ve picked strawberries and gathered eggs.

Because really that is the most basic lesson that we all must keep in mind: that food comes from hard work and a generous God. And for this we must be grateful.