Food as Fashion in the Age of Instagram

Fashionable Foodies Discuss Today's Food Trends at The Food Book Fair

Food Features Instagram
Food as Fashion in the Age of Instagram

As of this writing, the hashtag “#avocadotoast” has 117,564 posts on Instagram, with ”#avotoast” trailing behind at 21,433 posts and ”#avotoastagram” netting 302 posts from the early adopters. The varying shades of greenstagrams feature the meticulously arranged flatlays that have come to dominate social food photography. #Bonebroth and #poke are similarly popular.

In 2016, it comes as no surprise that food can get Instagram #famous and hashtags run rampant. But what effect does this frenzy of fashionable foods have on food culture and food systems as a whole? What do we call this particular moment? How do trends take off, and what do they say about our relationship to health and self-image?

A panel of food purveyors and industry tastemakers took on these meaty questions at the fifth annual Food Book Fair, held at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg on May 1. Titled “Food as Fashion, Food and Fashion,” the panel included Koel Thomae, co-founder of Noosa yoghurt; Maria Rodale of Rodale, Inc.; Christophe Hille of Fleishers Craft Butchery; and Doria Santlofer, a fashion stylist and the executor of her late mother Joy Santlofer’s forthcoming book Food City: Four Centuries of Food Making in New York. Noah Fecks, a food photographer and the author of The Way We Ate, moderated the panel.

There are many handy comparisons to draw between the fashion industry and the food industry. In both, Fecks pointed out, trends are cyclical — the mini-skirt’s entrances and exits, the rise and fall and rise of smoked meats.

“Food, like fashion, follows an editorial calendar,” said Fecks, who used to work as a fashion photographer. “You have your spring looks and your fall looks.”

Perhaps most importantly, fashion and food media both trade in the creation of desire. Fecks kicked off the panel by talking about the “shrinking world” of food — the idea that social media and online publishing platforms allow a Japanese pickle, for example, to travel around the world much more quickly. He asked the panelists to name the most important current trends, and they were quick to agree that the return of dietary fat is among the most exciting.

“When I was growing up, it was all about weight loss. Fat was demonized,” said Rodale. Rodale, Inc., which publishes Women’s Health and Organic Life, among many other health and lifestyle magazines, was founded by her grandfather, J.I. Rodale. Raised around food and health media, Maria Rodale has a unique long view on food trends. She sees a link between the rise in popularity of holistic “real food” over the last decade and the return of fat.

This phenomenon has been apparent in Hille’s business as well. At Fleishers, “the fat used to go in the garbage — such a high quality product that no one wanted,” Hille said. Now, he said, more customers want the whole cut of meat, fat and all.

As Noosa makes a full-fat Aussie-style yoghurt (hence the yogurt-with-an-h spelling), co-founder of the company Thomae is also thrilled that fat is trending. When she launched her company in 2010, she knew it would be an uphill battle to sell a full-fat product in a skim milk landscape. But she stuck staunchly to a “selfish, stomach-inspired venture, believing that people wanted that full-fat yoghurt.” It turned out she was right. Certainly, one reason for fat’s comeback has to do with medical advice — recent large-scale studies on the effect of fat on health and weight are beginning to reverse the stigma against saturated fats.

But, according to the panelists, it’s not just health guidelines that make foodie millennials flock to brands like Noosa and Fleishers.

“It’s not as all-or-nothing with this generation,” Thomae said. “You can have a green smoothie in the morning and then go drink and party and eat pork belly at night.” Hille described a trend towards “healthy hedonism,” an interest in living a healthful lifestyle without cutting all the foods and beverages that activate the pleasure centers of the brain. Santlofer, who works primarily in fashion, has noticed a similar trend in her industry. Ideas about which body types are acceptable in print and on the runway are not quite as rigid as they were ten years ago, she said, although there’s still a long way to go.

It’s hopeful to think that the interaction of so many food and fashion trends is leading to a more balanced approach to food, bodies, eating, but that’s hardly the only cultural message at work in today’s food media. Orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by a consuming obsession with eating healthy, is on the rise as well.

Orthorexia’s uptick can’t be blamed on a single factor, but the nonstop parade of picture-perfect vegetables, jars of juice, and toned abdomens tagged #cleaneating (with over 21 million posts on Instagram) and #healthyfood (clocking in at over 12 million posts) certainly seem like the the bread and butter of obsessive health fixations.

The panelists didn’t devote much talk time to the downsides of new food trends and the way social media can cut both ways, but the same technology that expands taste horizons and feeds the curiosity of would-be pickle eaters can make it feel like the whole world is skinnier and healthier than you at times, creating a performative, deceptive two-way mirror in social media.

One trend that the panelists did take on critically was the quest for “authenticity.” It’s a slippery concept that Hille believes is often based on wrongheaded ideas about cuisines from cultures outside the eater’s own (see also: “exotic” and “ethnic”).

“Food isn’t static anywhere. Cultures have the right and the habit to change,” he said. Hille is more interested in the shifts he sees toward building relationships with food production and food history.

When an audience member asked the panelists to put a name on the current food moment on view that morning from the Wythe Hotel — the mish-mash of DIY and clean eating and hedonism and hashtags and fermentation and full-fat dairy and street food from across the globe — Hille said he favored the acronym DIT, as in “Do It Together.” He sees a food movement based on collaboration and real curiosity about the origins and meanings of what we eat.

Other panelists were more hesitant to attach a specific label. Rodale was quick to interject that many of the current food trends are not really new. “Having lived through the hippie era, this seems like the second wave of a global movement that’s gotten stronger, more accessible, and less sprouty and stinky,” she said.

Santlofer thought it was too soon to draw conclusions. “We’re still in it, so can’t put a name on it,” she said. “It makes sense that I’m on a panel about food and I work in fashion — that’s the moment we’re in. I don’t have to put a label on it.”

It may not be possible to pin down the name and meaning of the current fashionable food moment, but luckily there are plenty of lamb shoulders, full-fat yoghurts, and #avotoasts to eat in the meantime.

Molly Jean Bennett’s poems, short stories, strongly worded letters, and fashion articles have appeared or are forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sou’wester, Word Riot, Bustle, Dilettante Army, The Masters Review and elsewhere. Her chapbook Paper Apartment is forthcoming from Essay Press. She lives on the northern edge of Bed-Stuy.

Photo by Yagan Kelly CC BY-SA

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