Pinterest and the inedible edible

Nutella Crepe

It’s too pretty to eat. Whether uttered in response to an intricately iced cookie or a photo of a vivid soup, this expression shifts a meal’s meaning from nourishment to beauty. Thanks to food porn, and its adeptness at highlighting food’s non-edible meanings, the phrase is increasingly common. From Instagram and Pinterest to blogs and television, contemporary food photography presents dishes as products to be observed like pop art. Rather than depict the meal as a wholesome reality, food porn examines the recipe as a material reality. The dish, which exists within a certain time and place, merits a creative effort previously reserved for high art. When photographed like a portrait, the camera’s gaze shifts the discourse of the dish from eating to gazing. This unflinching examination allows the cook to obsess over ingredients and turn the edible good into an inedible experience. Not only is it too pretty to eat, it’s so interesting it’s gone beyond food.

Society’s objectification of food dominates blogs geared toward high-volume Pinterest clicks. If a successful social media post depends on addressing the user’s emotional and physical needs, a blogger must reference both types of desire to ensure a recipe will go viral on social media. An acceptably attractive photograph of a potato gratin isn’t enough. The creator must layer on social and nutritional meanings — or emotional and physical importance — to acknowledge the user’s identity and humanity in an impersonal digital atmosphere.

Pinterest’s customisable user interface aids the blogger in supporting their audience’s selfhood. The site’s operations are simple: an individual creates a profile, chooses accounts to follow and uploads images to virtual inspiration boards from websites or their computer. Theoretically, this provides a group sourced collection of popular images. Yet, the website presents pins custom chosen for the individual based upon their pinning history and previous pins.[1] With the help of Pinterest, bloggers can target their audience in a personalised manner, presenting their images as selected specifically for the viewer’s interests and needs.

Since visuals drive Pinterest, the pinned photograph must clearly present the key ingredients of a given recipe to prompt an intense reaction and incite a click. Lists of the site’s most popular recipes suggest that a viral dish will present an easy, novel twist on a common recipe or flavour combination.[2] Although the images accompanying Nutella brownies might not be the most enticing, it layers ingredients, innovation and familiarity so that each component is visible. Components that cannot be seen, such as the Nutella in the batter, are either displayed in the background or reinforced through words in the foreground. In this case, pasting the word Nutella onto the image allows the viewer to connect the slick spread to the brownie’s Photoshop-sharpened corner. Citing Nutella allows the product’s intangible qualities combine with the brownie’s physical attributes — fudgy, chocolate-y, rich — to attract the viewer to the supposedly personalised image.

Yet, Pinterest also presents recipes that obscure their ingredients and mimic inedible products to elicit an emotional response and click. Whether it be cupcakes that look like Christmas trees or truffles that resemble like Santa hats, these dishes urge the viewer to consume a cultural construction rather than dessert. There are no carefully edited, beguiling Nutella-thickened brownie corners. Instead, the dish’s adorable appearance tempts the pinner’s aesthetic sense. Bloggers emphasize the look of these recipes over their taste, ‘who could resist a super cute Santa hat cheesecake?’ The edible portion, the cheesecake, becomes secondary to the inedible idea, the Santa hat. Rather than presenting a delicious treat, the bloggers creating these desserts assert the precedence of the expressed notion, suggesting that their food nourishes the mind and identity, not just the body.

The way in which these recipes explicitly state the food’s ornamental purpose highlights the dessert-as-doppelganger trend, ‘these festive Christmas Tree Cupcakes serve a similar function as part dessert, part decoration for your holiday table.’ The inedible signified trumps the edible signifier, though eating remains attached to the treat. Demoting consumption to a secondary attribute pardons statements regarding bounty, typically taboo in regards to food, ‘imagine an entire forest of these edible trees lining your holiday table’. When the food object is no longer edible, social restrictions regarding excessive consumption and immoderate desire are mitigated.[3] Rather than encouraging their drive for destructive excess, the viewer transposes their desire for more onto the intangible experience and emotion the recipe inspires.

Much has been made about the social implications of a hyper-connected and personalised digital media society, but these assertions rarely focus on the consequences for food. If contemporary food culture is divided between Big Food convenience and Slow Food idealism, the inedible edible describes the average American’s — or average Pinterest user’s — experience of this tension. They wish to consume more, but understand that experiences should precede food. Big Food remains present in the background of doppelganger treats. This can be as a cultural idea, such as a Santa hat, or as a mass-produced food, such as Nutella. While a regional Thanksgiving casserole or popular newspaper recipe might generate a similar reaction, it would necessarily be localised and unable to generate a wide-reaching emotional impact. To become viral on social media, the ingredient needs Big Food’s wide reaching social capital. Thus, the edible product remains, at least in part, tied to the current food system.

Yet, Slow Food and anti-corporate messages also generate the significance that prompts the viewer to stop scrolling mindlessly through Pinterest and click on an image. If these inedible edibles translate products into shared cultural experiences, they mirror Slow Food’s mission to champion local products and regional traditions. A Santa hat represents the child’s joy of Christmas and elicits the same uncontrollable glee. The Christmas tree cupcake becomes the magical wonder of nature transformed. A highly clickable recipe needs to associate Slow Food significance with Big Food products to pardon a consumerist response to emotional consumption.

Food has eclipsed food. When browsing Pinterest the viewer doesn’t simply consume tempting images, they consume their cultural norms while reinforcing their relationship to the products they love. On one hand, this is an understandable response to a consumption-focused culture. With the opportunity to create everything using anything, the cook can transform the edible into the inedible and vice versa. On the other hand, this response confuses consuming food with consuming social norms and subverts both by being neither. The future of these connotative recipes depends upon the whims of society. In the face of political and economic woes, people likely turn to these inedible edibles to physically possess what may be out of reach either monetarily or socially. As social media becomes an established way to represent food, how bloggers and users communicate and respond to consumption will necessarily change. Whether ideas or taste wins, however, will be up for the clicks to decide.

[1] Buzzfeed, while not undergoing strenuous research, suggests that beer cheese dip, parmesan hash brown cups, giant chocolate chip strawberry muffins, and Nutella brownies, among others, were the most popular recipes in 2013.

[2] The website’s gender, age and location bias also complicates the notion that it’s truly a group source barometer of what’s popular on the web.

[3] Parasecoli, F., (2008) ‘Hungry Memories: Food, the Brain and the Consuming Self’ in Bite Me Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture Oxford: Berg. pp. 15-36.

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