The Current

How Instagram saved the egg: Author argues social media has changed the way we eat

Food writer Bee Wilson says that the food we eat has changed dramatically over two generations, and so has our relationship with it. Her new book explores how the pressures of contemporary life has left us all eating the same thing, but without really much time to eat it, and sometimes not even knowing what we're putting in our bodies.

Bee Wilson explores our ever-changing relationship with food in her book The Way We Eat Now

Student chef Jessy Pamela Christian takes a selfie with a plate she created featuring rice, mushrooms and fish, at the Hoteliere D'Haiti cooking school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on April 27, 2017. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)
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Our relationship with food has changed dramatically over the past 50 years.

Social media, social pressure, accessibility and availability and our notions of time pressures have changed how we view food and how we consume food, according to food writer and journalist Bee Wilson.

She explores these changes her new book The Way We Eat Now.

"'I'm aware it's a really presumptuous title because people do not eat the same way, even in the same family, even across the same dinner table, never mind across the whole world. Or that was what I thought," said Wilson.

"And then, when I began doing the research for the book, I was stunned to discover the extent to which we do eat in the same way."

Wilson spoke with The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay about our ever-changing relationship with food, including eating at our desks, social media's effect on what we eat and what we value in food, the online phenomenon of mukbang and much more. Here is part of their conversation.

Bee Wilson is the author of The Way We Eat Now. (Charlotte Griffiths)

I don't see many people going out for lunch any more. What what on earth has happened to lunch hour?

It's so sad. And it is happening all across the world. We've become a culture that thinks time is very important and money is very important and we think food and feeding ourselves is not very important.

The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson (Basic Books)
And I'm a huge hypocrite in this regard because I've written a whole chapter about it in my book. And I'm working freelance so I could give myself a whole hour but I so seldom do you because I just think there's one more email. I could just finish off this little deadline. I could just get something else done.

But if we never give food the time that it's due it's sort of saying feeding ourselves doesn't matter that much.

You look at jobs like nurses. And back in the 1970s, certainly in the U.K., they weren't just allowed to take a full hour of lunch break. They were expected to take a full hour of lunch break.

I interviewed someone that was a nurse back then and she said she used this lovely phrase she said it was like a break in music. It was there to revive you to change the rhythms and to prepare you for what was to come.

How has social media changed the way we eat now?

One of the biggest ways is it has made us completely obsessed with what food looks like at the cost of what it tastes like or even whether it's nourishing or good for us.

And that's kind of messed up, because I mean yes, sure, we eat with our eyes, and it's nice to have a beautifully presented plate. We can all appreciate that, but it's probably the least important thing about food.

We're kind of ignoring our other senses: we're forgetting how to smell food, how to touch food...

Having said that, there are fantastic things about social media and food. I think the main use of the internet is just as a giant recipe swap. I've learned more about different ways to grill asparagus in the past five years just through [the] internet.

I love this thing you wrote — it said that in many ways, Instagram saved the egg. Tell us about that.

Well if you think back to our parents and grandparents, there was a sudden moment when people were really terrified of eggs because of the cholesterol. And we stopped eating eggs, which is so sad because it's such a basic and wonderful foodstuff.

Because we're obsessed with the colour and look of things, nothing instantly adds colour better than a fried or poached egg — and they become like these kind of rounded symbols of happiness.

Instagramer Shiho and her friend look at their mobile phones after taking photos of Anywhere Door's Cotton Candy Ice during the Photogenic Sweets Festa at a shopping mall in Tokyo on Sept. 15, 2017. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

We spoke the beginning about how you've seen the same things happening no matter where you go in the world, in terms of how we're eating and what we're eating and and why we're choosing to do these things.

But I want to pick up on a specific example ... called mukbang, and it's it's Korean. It's a portmanteau of basically eating and broadcast. But explain it beyond that.

Mukbang is that you might be at home in your room eating your own dinner, or not eating, and you're watching these people on Youtube who are consuming huge amounts of food and talking to you as they're doing it.

And these people — they've become huge stars. They make lots of money from it and they might consume ... 10,000 calories' worth of something like chicken katsu curry and rice, or some kind of junk food — multiple, multiple hamburgers and loads of french fries all at once.

Food-eating livestreams gained popularity in South Korea, where streamers like The Diva consume voluminous amounts of food while talking with fans in the chat. (The TV Diva/YouTube)

And the bang stars are usually these beautiful, incredibly skinny people. And you're kind of thinking, "Where's the food going?"

The darker side of Mukbang is probably that they must be going and throwing up at some point afterwards, which is not too nice to think about.

But it's become this way of people almost feeling kept company. I think it's kind of [the] flipside of the fact that so many of us are eating alone now. You got up to a third of all households in the U.S. consisting of one person. So who keeps us company at the table? It's our smartphone, and on our smartphone we can look at somebody who's eating way more food than we are.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Mac Cameron. Produced by Susan Mckenzie and Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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