Published in August 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
I have a new morning routine. Wake up, tap the Instagram icon on my phone to open the photo sharing app, check the number of “likes” my photos have received overnight, put the kettle on, scroll through the images people have tagged with the keyword #foodie. @Jamieoliver, 2.9m followers, has posted another bowl of pasta. #Davidlebowitz, a Paris-based food blogger, 83,800 followers, is having coffee and a croissant. Another Paris-based blogger, @hinalys, a Chinese-Cambodian amateur pastry chef with 10,100 followers, is showcasing a loaf of pull-apart brioche. @Gastroart, 148,000 followers, has posted another delicately-crafted plate of brightly-coloured food that looks like a Kandinsky painting.
Instagram users upload a picture, add a caption sprinkled with hashtags and click “share.” People see your picture and tap the screen to like it or to follow you. It is growing faster than any other social media platform. For me it is an outlet, like this column, for the food-happy part of my life that doesn’t fit into my day job as a foreign correspondent. I love to cook; I love to eat. Now I take pictures of these activities on my iPhone and send them out into the world. I am hardly alone in this. If the internet is all about cats, Instagram is all about food.
The fun thing is the sheer range of stuff out there. From the circles and swooshes of conceptual dishes from cutting-edge restaurants such as Noma and Mugaritz, to snaps of restaurant plates from blogging reviewers, to greasy lumps of someone in Oregon’s half-eaten dinner, to a plethora of lifestyle memes to suit any taste—southern barbecue, deep-fried, healthy-slim, green-vegan, paleo, Parisian patisserie. Search #breakfast, for example, and you can go around the world from congee to bacon-and-eggs-and-pancakes to more images than you could possibly imagine of patterns drawn in cappuccino foam.
I started on Instagram this spring, using the name @23wendell. I mostly take pictures of things I am cooking. A bowl of vongole, big fat juicy steak, zucchini and pine nut salad, carrots bubbling a la crème, pink shrimps next to a dollop of glossy yellow mayonnaise. At first I had only a few followers, who were my friends. But after a couple of weeks a picture of a bowl of raspberries and cream I posted suddenly went viral (relatively). I got more than 150 likes in 24 hours! My number of followers climbed to triple digits. This is very small, but very exciting for me. Many of them I didn’t know, some were in California, others in South Korea. One was a chef. I was hooked. “It’s like crack,” said one Instagrammer friend of mine.
Soon I discovered that I was using Instagram for inspiration. Food and Wine magazine posted a beautiful picture of a Moroccan carrot salad. The caption said the dressing had been made by reducing the carrot cooking water into a syrup to make a dressing. I tried it out and it was sweet and nutty and delicious. Then I noticed several pictures posted from a restaurant in my neighbourhood. I rang to make a reservation and hours later I was eating the same frito misto I had admired online only hours earlier.
“I post every day,” Julie Zwingelstein, a Paris foodie, told me. “There are no holidays. Even when I am stuck at home working, thanks to Instagram I can travel with a picture.” I came across Julie on Instagram and we met in a bistro on the rue Saint-Honoré; she was en route to a pastry tasting at the Bristol Hotel next door. Julie is in her early 20s, comes from Strasbourg and trained as a lawyer. She came to Paris for a year out to spread her wings a little, but two years later she is reviewing restaurants for several Parisian online sites and a career in law is on the back burner. When she first came to Paris she didn’t know anyone and Instagram was a way to connect and make friends.
Food trends now travel the globe with the speed and ease of a finger tap. “Like avocado toast” explained Julie. “In France we didn’t know anything about it. But it’s popular in Los Angeles. And now via Instagram it’s in trendy places in Paris, sometimes with spices, sometimes with a poached egg.” Its the same for iced coffee, apparently unheard of in Paris until recently, and meatballs, and “Le Sunday Roast,” which has started appearing on French menus.
The image is the universal medium of communication. Food is the universal communion. In the process, it is crossing borders, connecting new networks and making communities.