In his 2008 essay ‘On Food’, Mark Grief lamented that eating had become a hobby, “one pastime among others”. Food and the act of consuming it had been transformed into a mode of entertainment. That was more than a decade ago. In 2020, I’m more likely to watch food for leisure than actually eat it.
I don’t choose to watch all the food that I do. We are surrounded by images of food through advertising, and passively consume vast quantities of it. As good as it feels to look at food in this way, you’d be right in thinking that it isn’t really a hobby – we don’t exactly volunteer our time or eyes to bus stop KFC adverts. But whilst marketeers and food companies might hold us hostage to some images of food, a large number of us actively seek them out.

Deliberately watching food isn’t a novel phenomenon: Come Dine With Me has (unfortunately) been running since 2005 and, though it’s difficult to believe, Mary Berry did have a TV presence before The Great British Bake Off. Up until a few years ago, though, when we actively looked at food on the television or in a magazine, it usually meant looking at a person too. That person was a celebrity chef like, say, the acclaimed food writer Nigella Lawson, or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, founder of the River Cottage enterprise. The former would make a pavlova for an impromptu, dimly-lit gathering of beautiful people at her central London mansion, and the latter might knock up a 5-cabbage coleslaw to share with his rosy-cheeked, hobby-farmer pals. Sure, the dishes looked great, but mostly we were watching people, people engaged in lifestyles and processes performed through food. It was easy to pretend that, were we to cook the right stuff, we might, for the duration of a meal, be blessed with envious curves and a gift for alliteration, or the kind of earthy, rugged charm that only comes with milking your own goats.
But the power and presence of TV food personalities is fast diminishing. Sure, the Bake Off is still a phenomenon, and it did bring us the national treasure that is Nadiya Hussain; but it’s difficult to ignore recent casualties. Industry giant Jamie Oliver’s restaurant empire lies in tatters, and Nigella hasn’t released a new book or TV show since 2017. We’re no longer interested in the people who made watching food a primarily personality-, lifestyle- and TV-based activity.

Today, actively watching food means foraging for content online, where the most popular cooking videos and images feature almost no human presence at all. Not only is the way we’re sourcing food images changing, but who’s watching has also shifted. TV cooking shows are perhaps, unsurprisingly, associated with the middle-aged and the middle-classes, but research by Google reveals that millennials watch 30% more food content on platforms like YouTube than other adults. One of the biggest producers of online food content is Tasty, a division of Buzzfeed which creates videos shot in an overhead format so you can only see the hands of the person cooking. There might be the odd voice-over, but for the most part, they’ve cut out the middle-man so it’s literally just you, the viewer and images of food. The Tasty formula is simple: videos are short and densely packed with shots of protein- and fat-heavy foods in motion. It’s a model that’s been replicated by similar brands across platforms – it’s almost impossible to open the discover page on Instagram and not encounter several hundred 20-second food videos that end with a cheese pull. Social media is bursting with repetitive food content of this kind and, with each video boasting thousands if not millions of views, it’s content that is being consumed a dizzying rate.

Rather puzzlingly, the lack of variety or discernible culinary skill in these videos doesn’t appear to be a turn-off. I mean, how many 3-minute variations on beef lasagne does it take before we get bored? But the truth is we’re not watching for the recipe; no one really contemplates making a giant bread cheese cube or a 5-layer, mayonnaise-based chocolate fudge cake. In reality, we’re simply obsessed with consuming highly aestheticized images of food that convey an almost grotesque level of abundance.

You might argue that watching someone make a ridiculous amount of energy-dense food isn’t that bad, but with a few clicks you can now witness someone consume a crap-ton of food too. ‘Mukbang’ is a phenomenon which originated in South Korea, but has since garnered an international reputation. In any given Mukbang video you can watch someone eat several days’ worth of calorie-rich food for no other reason than the entertainment of their viewers.
There is something deeply disturbing about this level of visual food consumption. Some experts have warned of the potential psychological and physiological implications of our newest food-related hobby: it’s possible that watching food in this way could provoke our appetites, negatively engage our brains, encourage unhealthy habits and endanger those suffering or at risk from eating disorders. Despite these worrying effects, watching food doesn’t seem to have particularly negative cultural associations. Visual food content is often categorized as ‘Food Porn’, and although the term has a pejorative ring, it’s not often used in that sense. I can proudly caption my Instagram of an oozing egg yolk with the hashtag #foodporn and encounter none of the censure that is directed at other forms of artificially simulated desire.
Whilst watching food is stimulating, it is also comforting and strangely numbing. When we’re entertained by images food we rarely have to critically engage with it. Talking about what we physically consume in our day to day lives is exhausting. What you eat, where and even how you eat it signals our ethical and political concerns (or lack thereof) in an all-too-simplistic way. It can feel like important discussions about food take the pleasure out it. So we stop talking and start watching, because it’s easier. Ironically, though, the way we now visually consume food is desensitizing in the extreme and, like any addiction, more and more is required to feel satisfied. If we truly want to enjoy, appreciate and understand food, we need to challenge how and why we watch it.