The Perception Versus the Reality of Food Blogging
Social media has become one of the most powerful tools civilisation has; it can drive political change, launch and destroy careers, allow old friends to connect after years of separation and can provide hours of videos of cats. Without being aware, it can affect almost every part of our lives- from what we wear to what we buy to where we take our holidays. Allowing us to ‘follow’ particular groups or personalities and having platforms such as instagram that suggest media that would interest us means ensures we are never far from inspiration. Looking through my own instagram feed I can see images of bikes, Balearic islands and food. Lots and lots of food. It all looks amazing; from colourful salads to succulent BBQ cuts to refreshing cocktails. Some of it, I’m not even sure what it is! There are however common themes; well shot, perfectly presented and aspirational. On the rare occasion that whoever made the food is in the picture they are more often than not as well presented as the food they are showing off. I’m as guilty of this as anyone- I enjoy composing my dishes to look good and spend time taking all manner of photos from all sorts of angles to get just the shot I think shows of the dishes attributes. What you won’t see in my photos (any almost any of the others out there) is the stack of mixing bowls, sticky utensils and scatterings of flour, splashes of milk or drips of sauce that have gone into making the dish. Nor will you see that often I have just got through the door after work, need to feed/change/bath a toddler, need to sort out chores at home and at some point catch up with my wife who has had an equally hard day. Why would you- this would detract from the beauty of the dish and anyway, its not attractive, it is not the image I want to publicly broadcast. But does this also make it less accessible. Does the perception of perfection make us less likely to try these recipes. I worry that despite having all the recipes we could ever attempt not only at our finger tips but actively thrown in front in front of us that actually the perception that our cooking should also conform to such appearances is making people less likely to attempt them- I mean who every really scatters edible flowers on a weeknight dinner or pre-work breakfast!
I have been working with Wren Kitchens’ Little Kitchen campaign to try to explore some of the barriers that families face when trying to cook family meals. We both believe that eating well as a family is a key part of a child’s development and plays such important role in the health of our families both now and into the future. We also feel that it is a key component of a solid family though recognise that there are so many other external pressures that the chaos of daily life often means that it is difficult to find the time (and energy) to cook and eat together! This article is the the result of the meandering thoughts of a tired dad exploring just one of the possible barriers that families may face when trying to attempt new recipes.
Food as art
I was looking through a 1970s cookbook at my in-laws house a little while back and I was struck by how boring the photos were. Ok, a lot of the recipes were also fairly boring however the way they were shot was so plain. Nothing looking that exciting however reflecting upon it, I find myself now thinking that everything also looked very achievable. Comparing that book to modern cookbooks or social media images of recipes is a world apart. The plate is now a canvas and it would seem at least as much thought goes in to how a dish will look as well as how it will taste. Edible flowers and fresh herbs are scattered with wanton abandon (ok I have a few plants in the garden just for this) and meals are eaten off of slates, blocks of wood, stone tiles or just about anything other than a round plate (again guilty). None of these make the food taste any better but they certainly make it look good (ever eaten an ‘edible’ flower- blurgh!). Perhaps this adds pressure to people who also feel their food should look this good- especially if trying to entertain? In an era where we should be doing everything we can to encourage people to cook meals from scratch perhaps presenting food in this way is a damaging force. I feel it’s a tricky line to walk- you want to make meals eye catching and inspirational without making them seem unattainable. It makes me think of the fashion model world- designers wanting to sell clothes using models often airbrushed and with unattainable physiques for most. You can’t deny they make the clothes look good but there is also link to eating disorders and body dissatisfaction amongst young girls. Is how we are portraying food damaging the very point of us putting it up in the first place. I’m not sure
Food as a lifestyle
Food has moved on from what was cooked in that 1970s cookbook and we are more experimental and embracing of new technologies, ingredients, techniques and flavours than we have ever been. Food has also become a lifestyle of its own. #paleo #eatclean #foodporn #vegan. Food is no longer just a functional way of getting nutrients into our body, food is now a key way people can define themselves and find a niche they feel comfortable in. Whether that is a particular diet or a fitness regime that promotes a particular way of eating. Similar to finding your group of friends at school and playing the same sport, listening to the same music it would appear that food is now part of various subcultures. Certainly I have found that including different hash tags gains ‘likes’ from different people. Following links to the bio’s of these people gives an insight into who is enjoying your posts. Often you will see what else they enjoy- include #eatclean and #protein for example and you might find a lot of people into resistance training often with accompanying muscle bound fitness shots. Food is clearly an important part of this lifestyle but I hope that people who may want to try this are not put off by its associations with a seemingly unattainable lifestyle. Hopefully most will see individual recipes as just that- a standalone meal to try at home while those who feel that it fits with their lifestyle also can enjoy it.
I have recently put up a recipe for ‘posh fish fingers’. Quite a simple recipe of healthy salmon with an oat crust served with homemade tartar sauce with smashed minty peas on sourdough. I think the shots look pretty good and little man Jade and I really enjoy it. What I wanted to do however was to share the story behind it.
I had a crazy busy day at work and set off home late. I cycle to and from work so obviously in my rush to get home and make up time I hammered it more than usual on the way back and arrived hot and probably a little sweaty. Said hello to the family and set about thinking about how to make what I wanted. As usual with these things I had a rough idea of what I wanted but wasn’t exactly sure of how to put it all together. The back drop to this was that it was getting very close to Little Man’s dinner and because of this he was getting a little ratty (clock was ticking!). I had the idea of him helping me to collect some mint from the garden for the peas however this resulted in him just trying to pull the pots off the table and play with the egg shells I had put in them in a vain attempt to ward off slugs. He then ran off to play on his slide whilst I cut some mint on my own. We then headed in to start dinner, this of course resulted in a massive tantrum because I stopped him playing on the slide because left unattended in the garden would almost certainly result in a near death situation (jade was on a work phone call at the time). Putting together dinner I once again had the idea of getting him to help me cot the salmon in oats (he likes playing with gravel/sand etc so surely he would enjoy this?) Alas, this only resulted in him trying to throw the play across the room. This was abandoned. I then (alone again) put the salmon together until jade finished her call and arrived like the cavalry to whip up the tartar sauce. We served up Little Man’s portion of which he ate about half, the other half getting flung across the room before trying to get him into bed (him running around in a nappy with us chasing him trying to get his pyjamas on- clearly a hilarious game that he was winning. Finally with him asleep we cooked off our own portions, took some photos and sat down (me with beer her with wine) and enjoyed it in almost silence before leaving most of the washing up to the next day and crashing out in front of the TV.
Hardly aspirational however it still ended up producing the photographed meal. Would including the chaos and debris of reality make the food less appealing? Would there be less ‘likes’? I think I may put both up and see.
Going forward I will still put up photos I think ‘sell the food’ however don’t be surprised if a few shots of a toy-strewn living room or a child covered in his own dinner also make it up- this is the reality, please don’t judge too harshly!
As cooks, chefs, food bloggers and healthcare professionals we all have a responsibility to inspire and enable those in our society to make healthy meal choices and cook family meals from scratch. As we have mentioned, social media is a powerful tool to drive this however with power comes responsibility, etc. As long as visual media continues to be popular, food will continue to be staged and photographed in appealing ways however the foodie community must be wary of letting this evolve into the new ‘airbrushing’ and through the portrayal of ‘perfection’ intimidate the very society we are trying to engage with.
Those reading this who have seen these sort of photos and perhaps felt overwhelmed or intimidated please remember that the perception is often very different from the reality. Behind every photo is washing up, parenting stress, household chores and the other chaos of daily life. Give the recipes a go, serve them up on whatever crockery you have and sit down to eat them wherever you feel comfortable- even if that is on the sofa in front of the TV or (like us) on a dining room table that gets a lot more use for anything other than dining. Just enjoy cooking and see where it takes you
For a (and free!) e-cookbook with loads of fun and accessible recipes that families with kids of all ages can enjoy trying together then head over to the Wren Kitchens Little Kitchen campaign website and click on the ‘Free ebook’ link.