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Erica Berry: The Instafam’s Table

A journey towards cold, hard, shiny food.

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Image from Flickr user Leo Hidalgo

By Erica Berry

In late January, my grandmother sent me an iMessage from the mountains of western Montana. “Taj Mahal Chicken,” she wrote, out of the blue. A few minutes later: “It won’t send. I’ll keep trying.” The photo arrived half an hour later, a yellow-lit pile of saucy bones sprinkled with a confetti of green herbs on one of her floral kitchen plates. I texted her back a photo of the carrot cake I was sharing with her daughter—my mother—in Portland, Oregon. My mother did not think anything of me pausing, fork in one hand and iPhone in the other, to document our dessert. She had already Instagrammed it herself. Her caption was “Interlude.”

The word “interlude” connotes both a pause in time—a void—and an event in itself, as in a show performed during theater intermission. My mother meant an interlude in our afternoon, a pause for cake. But there was also an interlude in our eating. A pause for a photo, then a pause to share it. This pause is an act in itself. Like many rituals, it is strange, until—after enough exposure—it is not.

*                      *                     *

I have a college friend who thinks there are only two types of mothers: those who buy their children Lunchables, and those who do not. She is the proud spawn of a Lunchable mother, and she does not mean this as a value judgment. I am not. My parents both grew up rurally, eating hand-kneaded bread and garden vegetables marked by that sweet, rusty taste of soil. On soggy elementary school field trips around Oregon, I would often find myself on sweating plastic school bus seats next to a Lunchable girl. After a glance at the jam-soaked wheat bread of my PB+J, she might take pity, quietly handing me a shining square of pre-cut cheese or a few M+Ms. Afterword, she would pull out a glittering, candy-bar-like iPod mini and her headphone splitter so we could bop our heads in unison.

I envied the other girls’ literacy with pop culture and PG-13 humor as much as I envied their food in its bright, crinkly packages.

There is a particular, familiar shame that comes with being a tween, and I won’t pretend like mine was unique. For fourteen years, I attended an “independent coeducational private school,” which means I was enrolled in a bubble of skewed socioeconomic privilege. I went to slumber parties in the sprawling suburban basements of friends who would one day transfer to all-girl Catholic high schools. We drank flavored water while reading the jokes printed on the sides of the miniature plastic bottles, and we ate microwaved Hot Pockets while playing X-Box on the sprawling leather sectionals.

I envied the other girls’ literacy with pop culture and PG-13 humor as much as I envied their food in its bright, crinkly packages. I remember returning home from these sleepovers and coercing my younger sister, Annika, to double-team my parents at their most vulnerable: when they were getting ready to leave us with a babysitter for a night out, when we were stalled in zippers of red-lighted traffic. We wanted MTV. We wanted pink Gameboys. We wanted CapriSuns.

Recently, talking to my mother about the red-cheeked tenor of this pre-adolescence, she said I had it wrong. “I don’t think you guys complained,” she said. She didn’t sound defensive, just matter of fact. “I didn’t know you missed those things.”

I wonder if she was right. Every night, my family would tell stories around the kitchen table. Afterwards, Annika and I staged musicals and learned multiplication tables and gave our dolls mullets. Before bed, we read with our parents, often from my favorite young adult genre, “orphans in Britain.” On the weekends we decorated cookies, played rec soccer games, and attended art classes where we pinched red clay into misshapen vessels that my parents treasured, until, one day, they did not. We were, in other words, lucky.

During those years—the high single digits of my life—my father worked at a software company, and my mother was an editor for a local Pacific Northwest guidebook. When she was reviewing restaurants, we got to eat out for free. But there was a premium on cooking and eating together at home, because it brought us together in the kitchen. Once, during a weekend away at the coast with friends, we covered a roasting chicken in clay. After pulling it from the oven, we painted the earthenware bird until the rainbow brushstrokes blurred to a rash of lavender.

There was also a quiet de-emphasis on technology, because small screens were, by nature, isolating. My father was clear: video games were bad, but handheld gamers were worse. My sister and I were each slotted a sliding window of daily “technology time” to watch Arthur on PBS, or, later, to choose wallpaper for the door-less rooms where we let our Sims procreate and die.

And then, sometimes—on public transportation, or in a dentist office waiting room—we would borrow our parents’ Nokia brick cell phones to play Snake. Like Eve, the serpent transfixed me. I became the snake. I binged on apples. I lengthened my pixelated body until, within minutes, over-consumption killed me.

*                      *                     *

When I was in middle school, my mother received an email invitation to be traded on the ABC reality television show Wife Swap. None of us knew what the show was. I realize, perhaps, this was part of why they had selected us. I believe they offered to pay us $10,000, a sum that my sister and I thought would pay for a great family vacation to somewhere fantastically exotic, like Fiji, or Nantucket. My mother barely remembers the incident now, a telling barometer for how little consideration she gave their offer.

At this time, my parents had left their other jobs and gone into business together, he managing code and she managing words for an online food community and recipe database they created. This involved convincing cookbook publishers that digital was the way of the future, still a hard sell in the early 2000s. But things were changing, and my hometown was ground zero. Farmers markets were sprouting up in clusters. In 2002, the USDA released national standards for organic products, mainstreaming the movement. Whole Foods Market hit Seattle in 2003, reaching Portland soon after. In 2007, the New Oxford American Dictionary dubbed ‘locavore’ the word of the year. People were sick of Red Delicious and hungry for new, old cultivars of local apples.

Simultaneously, this stripe of America was falling for Apple. On February 23, 2006, the iTunes Music Store sold its billionth song, and, in September of that year, changed its name to the iTunes Store when it began selling videos. Eventually, my parents’ website found an audience that cared about where food came from, and wanted to read about it on laptops and email recipes to friends.

Meanwhile, I got a cell phone to make carpooling easier. It was a slippery slope. When I stealthily created an AIM account—snoopy4eva666, the key to talking with the sweaty-palmed thirteen-year old boys I went to school with—my parents let it slide. Soon after, I got a MySpace, and my father helped me find the HTML code to eliminate the hierarchical “Top 8” on my profile. My parents’ culinary Twitter started getting thousands of followers. Suddenly, we seemed progressive.

*                      *                     *

I was a member of one of the first freshman classes required to have laptops at my high school. My sister and I spent long afternoons posing in front of the built-in camera, simultaneously a fun-house mirror and a fashion shoot. When my parents called us down to dinner, we would take our places around a kitchen table pushed against the wall: Annika and I on one side, my mother at the head, and my father on the far side, next to a camera tripod and flash lighting screens.

We took turns taking photos beneath the tripod, putting the fork on and taking it off, playing with the various shadows from the screens that hulked above us.

Finding photographs to accompany the recipes on my parents’ website was “a good challenge,” and in these years, our kitchen—black-and-white checkerboard linoleum, walls the color of raw steak, a string of chili-pepper lights around the window—became the laboratory. A publisher had sent my parents a book of professional food photography tips, suggesting we use hairspray to shine up raw fruit and vegetables, and mashed potatoes as a substitute for ice cream. We gawked, silently vowing to stay amateur. Annika, always fated for the art school that later accepted her, picked the appropriate ceramic dishware and tablecloth. Matte glazes often photographed best. Green salads looked good on white, burnt red, or royal blue plates.

I do not know when our preparation became a game. Each meal was a new chance to win—one plate per person, each person his or her own server. We took turns taking photos beneath the tripod, putting the fork on and taking it off, playing with the various shadows from the screens that hulked above us. My father had an eye for drizzling sauces. My mother had a talent for getting clean slices of things with layers: lasagna, casseroles, cakes. My sister won most other meals. I either played half-heartedly or lost so many times that I tell myself that for my dignity’s sake.

Around this time, in June of 2007—the year after Michael Pollan released The Omnivore’s Dilemma, alerting this niche streak of America to the crisis of culinary options—Steve Jobs released the iPhone. My father frequently went to the I-OS developer conference in California (“To collect the commemorative t-shirts!”), and he may have been at this one, I don’t remember. I do know, however, that a small, white box appeared in our house soon after.

*                      *                     *

When humans harnessed fire, we began to grill. When we hammered pots, we cooked with water. When we mastered micronutrients, we leavened bread, and we brewed beer. Sooner or later, all human invention reaches the table. “Cooking is not a single process but, rather, comprises a small set of technologies,” writes Pollan in the preface to Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. “They changed us first as a species, and then at the level of the group, the family, the individual.”

We have a tendency to treat these iPhone photos like their porcelain-plated subjects, dishing the images out before they lose their heat.

When did our culture become obsessed with recording our meals? I don’t know, but I imagine it came with the ability to instantly share them. We have a tendency to treat these iPhone photos like their porcelain-plated subjects, dishing the images out before they lose their heat. Sometimes we save them for ourselves—the equivalent of takeout, microwaved leftovers—but more often we take them for the people we wish to instantly share them with.

The summer before college, I visited a roadside taco stand in Los Angeles with a disposable camera and a far less-disposable boy, photographing our lunch in an attempt to memorialize it. When I picked up the roll of developed prints a few weeks later, I found a grinning red-eyed bride and groom superimposed on my carnitas burrito. The man behind the film counter was abstractly apologetic. His shrug said: It happens. Who cares. What would you do with a burrito photo anyway?

We don’t ask such questions with our iPhone meal photos, because the stakes are so low. We take photos of stupid shit (?) all the time. And we rarely question the iPhone as utensil. I have internalized it, and I am—almost—at home with its place at the table.

Pollan writes that the average American now spends only twenty-seven minutes a day preparing food, and yet we spend more time than ever talking about it, observing it on television, and interacting with it two-dimensionally. In late 2013, the Journal of Consumer Psychology published an article about the effects of viewing food photography before eating it. The subtitle says it all: “Evaluating foods decreases enjoyment of similar foods.”

I can buy this, sort of. But I’m not convinced that this is what drives our cultural binge on culinary Pinterest and food-porn Instagram. These photos strip food of sensuality—taste, smell, nutrition, texture—but they bring us some satiation. We have a hunger, and it is more than belly-deep.

*                      *                     *

My great-grandfather recently friend-requested me from his senior citizen home in Montana. Or, rather, he sent a Facebook reminder—something I did not know that you could do—about a first request, which I realize I had ignored for around a year. His cover photo is solid black. His profile picture is a deer-in-the-headlights selfie that decapitates him just below his white collar and pink tie. His daughter, my grandmother, is one of our two friends in common. She is a “liker.” I am ignoring the request, which makes me either overly cruel or overly sentimental. To deny it is to confess that I have 1,128 friends who can see my new profile picture but that he will not be one of them. But to accept it is to concede that no relationship is too sacred, too fossilized in tradition to be digitalized. I am procrastinating. I am “sitting on it.” I am lost.

Two winters ago, three generations of my mother’s family gathered together for dark beer and crusty pizza in a Missoula tavern. Afterwards, walking into the frozen dark of the parking lot, my great-grandfather told me it was a matter of time before my parents stopped sleeping together or stopped working together. He slipped twenty dollars in my pocket and told me that he might never see me again but I should either marry a Jewish boy or get into the tech business. Like his Facebook friend request, I tried not to think too much about this.

At the time, I was in love with a Jew-ish boy, a boy who could almost code and could almost cook. When he had flown to meet my family in Oregon, he brought little glass bottles of artisan olive oil and syrupy vinegar reductions as presents. That year, we had celebrated my birthday in a trendy, dusky New York paella restaurant. “People used to join together before a meal to say grace,” he said, as we each raised our phones above the steaming cast-iron pan. “Now we pause for the sacred silence of iPhone photos.” The meal was delicious, and I remember it well: mussels foggy with heat, jutting out like rocks from the Arborio rice and chorizo. Or I don’t remember this, and I am recalling only the image I had texted to my parents.

I have records of the pastas and the pastries that we shared and not even the hands of the person I had shared them with.

On that birthday night, I thought of the iPhone photo as a culinary postcard, a virtual wish-you-were-here to the family I once shared my birthdays with. When I see people doing the same thing in restaurants, I try to forgive them. I think of my father, whistling as he adjusts the camera flash screen at our kitchen table. I think of my grandmother, thousands of miles away, photographing drumsticks of her Taj Mahal Chicken against a soundtrack of televised Jeopardy.

Rediscovering the paella photo, I consider all this. But I also think of the boy I was with, which makes me realize that I was consistently too shy to turn the glassy eye of the lens up to him. I have records of the pastas and the pastries that we shared and not even the hands of the person I had shared them with.

*                      *                     *

Over the last few years, my parents have worked to redesign cookbooks as iPhone and iPad apps. These are beautiful pocket-sized alternatives to the heavy paper forefathers, and they have all the bells and whistles we might expect: recipe timers, automated shopping lists, tutorial videos, an option for digitally dog-earring favorites. Swiping through the clean interfaces, I am often struck with envy. My mother and father have—perhaps—aged gracefully into technology. They consume and they produce. They receive jar-filled holiday gift-baskets from New York cookbook publishers who are, finally, grateful to be digitalized. At home, they cook with a combination of grease-stained books and recipes on the iPad, which now sits on a music stand next to the toaster. My mother jokes about the need to invent a “kitchen condom” for our cooking tech, a plastic sleeve to shield the screen from floured fingers and sticky hands.

Sometimes I think about that hour of daily “screen time” from my childhood, wondering how we would interpret it today. Now, when my sister and I return home to visit our parents, we often spend our evenings all together. Some nights we grill pizzas in the backyard, but some nights we just sit around the fire, toe-to-toe on the couches, typing behind four glowing laptops. When we are apart, we contribute photos of hikes and haircuts and habaneros to a communal “Photo Stream” that my father has organized across our phones.

Recently, my parents downloaded Snapchat. They are amused by the multi-second updates that my sister and I sometimes send, but it is not a reciprocal game. I have received only one Snapchat from them, and it was a blurry photograph of my father, his eyebrows raised and my mother’s finger-scrawled announcement in red pixels below his neck: “Dad needs a snack.” I remember watching the image for six seconds—his half smile, our kitchen windows, gray Oregon sky—and then, quietly, the screen went black. I don’t know what my father ate afterward. The interlude had passed.

Erica Berry hails from Portland, Oregon, but is currently an MFA fellow in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota. Last year, she worked in Sicily to co-produce a documentary about the island’s endangered food traditions. Her essays and journalism can be found (or will soon be found) at Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, The Morning News, High Country News, Nowhere Magazine and Culinate. She tweets @ericajberry.

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