Late Irish Summer Dinner:
Snapchat and Food Amnesia

Ingredients:

12 new season potatoes

Iceberg Lettuce

Bacon

Croutons

8 deboned chicken thigh

Parmesan cheese

200ml soy sauce

1 egg yolk

Half cup olive oil

Garlic, 6 cloves

I wanted to put some recent thoughts to a kind of random test and decided to have a dinner and try and record the recipe by way of Snapchat and create a ‘story’ out of it. My Story, as the app would have it. The dinner itself would be the result of my sentimental memory of dinners from childhood at this time of the year: mainly new, steamed Irish potatoes that are floury, fluffy and crumble apart in a way I knew it would be impossible to replicate. Then a Cesar salad and lastly some soy sauce marinated chicken – in short the kind of dinner my mother would make me, all served to the backdrop of the BBC Proms in London or something, the August air sated with lingering sunsets to the west, the faint memory of sea salt from swimming in the ocean, the sound of combine harvesters in the hayfields.  

Social media is used pervasively by chefs, restaurants and diners alike. And when Michelin star chef Alexandre Gauthier apparently banned diners from taking pictures of his food in his restaurant La Grenouillère, one of the more interesting things I found was that he maintained he merely ‘would like people to be living in the present.’ We live in the great age of distraction, aided by our mobile phones, and taking photos and sharing them is even distracting us from enjoying our food and drinks. There is something to this: to be acutely distracted and yet go on living in the present, living in the moment, it seems this is the unique problem of our time. It’s a conundrum and one that I’m particularly fascinated by in relation to my own mobile phone addiction seeing as it feels like I don’t spend longer than a few minutes at a time without checking in on Snapchat or Instagram. Added to this somnolent restlessness I feel I’m increasingly sentimental, in general, for reasons that I don’t fully understand. I’m unsure how, but I feel that the two are somehow connected.

But what about Snapchat and food – what is to be gained (or lost) by chefs and restaurants using this app that allows users to send videos and photos to their friends only for them in turn to disappear, never to be seen again? And when you consider that according to a recent article in Fortune magazine, Snapchat now has more daily users than Twitter and new users are growing faster and couple this to the fact that the most common thing people send is either ‘food you are about to eat’ or ‘an alcoholic drink you are about to drink’ it seems like the perfect marketing tool for the food and drink industry. It is certainly now a lot more than some app that allows teenagers to sext each other.

Sharing a familiar sounding origin story for such an app, Snapchat was founded by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown in 2011 albeit the latter was shafted by the other two in a very unpleasant legal battle, and while he came up with the idea of images that vanished after being viewed (he had deeply regretted sending to a friend a photo once) he seems to have gained little if anything from the company’s subsequent success. When Spiegel presented the idea in spring 2011 as his final class assignment as a product design major at Stanford his classmates allegedly laughed at the idea, thinking that in the age of Photoshop and Facebook tagging mania, a disappearing act would appeal to exactly nobody. But that was the initial point and something that Spiegel went on to emphasise, writing on the company’s first blog post a year later, ‘Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion—not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.’ The numbers seem to prove this early belief to be correct: in 2016 the company is aiming for $1 billion revenue shares and unlike other social media platforms, what is different about Snapchat is that its users, up to 60% of them, actively create content while using it, this is far greater than its nearest rivals. It’s not a passive medium. The simplicity by which people can shoot, edit and create a story is phenomenal, and while it may well come and go like so many other Silicon Valley developments, leaving its human users a little stunned and a little changed in their physiognomy, it feels that moments such as hosting a dinner party or shopping for the best new season potatoes will increasingly become edited visual narratives that we share with our bemused, indifferent friend circle, only too happy to be distracted by the crap we feel the need to share.

Of course that which makes Snapchat unique could also be its undoing: nothing lasts longer than the My Story option (24 hours, and then gone for good, although of course you can save it to your phone before it vanishes). But I want to argue that this also could be its appeal: for the professional (or indeed amateur) chef it allows an obvious slapdash style that doesn’t entail a lot of work and isn’t obviously pandering to the standards of a TV show like Facebook Live does. When she appears on my Newsfeed I watch my favourite baker Lorraine Pascale often and when she tried to demonstrate recipes I found myself frowning at the chaotic camera work and frankly confusing execution (much better are her frank and open Q&A sessions when she rambles on about whatever her viewers ask her about). I asked her to comment on Snapchat but as yet, she has not replied. The rapid editing and easy to copy text overlays allow a kind of frantic edit to Snapchat My Story and as we’ll see presently, this is something, as an adult who should really know better, I find amusing in a perfectly silly way.

But as ever, I want to try and talk about that which I don’t fully understand, sentimentality and an awareness of past memories from the vantage point of this distracted present in which I find myself. Food is the perfect trigger of memory, we have so many thousands of pages born of Proust’s madeleine to prove as much. But also family dinners – the scene of so much intense familial moments, those incidents of holidays, funerals and weddings, all captured by so many amateur photographers: these dinners are revisited again and again in the cache of photographs families once gathered in dusty albums. Sentimentality is usually the enemy of writers such as myself, it is emotional and manipulative: it’s lazy and obvious and wholly impossible to properly translate the subjective nature of it. My family dinners as a child will simply bore the socks off you. Unless I start crying or something as I tell it.

In a way I suspect social media gives a lie to the idea that to be social is not to be sentimental: socializing is only the seed to memory and memories need to take root before easy sentiment can grow. Social media is present tense, we all know that, and perhaps I could stretch it to state that is why it is so well matched to the celebration of food, to the eating of meals in convivio – we take pictures as we’re seated, waiting staff are practically professionals at the art of family portraiture, foodporn let us not forget, is something we all regard with the same dumb inevitability as the cow we have just eaten once looked at the grass he ate.

The difficulties of cooking with Snapchat are obvious: you may well only have one hand free, so preparation will largely have to be done off camera. I noticed while trying to do a survey of online recipes cooked and demonstrated with Snapchat that many chefs instead opt for photos with text overlay. But that seems to take away the personality, the emotion, that goes with cooking and which Snapchat is so good at capturing. For my own cooking session (and remember who is to say how much of it was acted out, reshot, edited and manipulated, especially considering that it was borne out of an article I was writing for publication?) I found myself making a kind of video diary with running commentary. I’m not the world’s best photographer – or chef – I admit and so was heartened when I read one prolific food blogger, Pioneer Woman, write about her Snapchat experience:

Here’s the thing about Snapchat: You really don’t worry much about making the photography fabulous. It really is about capturing a moment, and that doesn’t mean using your best lens and making sure the light is hitting your potato just right. It means pointing your phone toward the potato and snapping, no matter what the lighting is like and no matter how many smudges you have your teeny iPhone lens. Production value isn’t what Snapchat is all about—again, it’s just capturing things as they happen.”

How did my potatoes fare? My Story of this dinner is a somewhat squeamish (at least for me), laughable piece of throwaway visual fluff, that really should be deleted forever and really is of no interest to anyone anywhere, much less than from the vantage point of the future. The goldfish bowl that is Snapchat is perhaps a good place to enjoy sentimental amnesia, but the results are not always about the food in the manicured sense that a lot of foodporn is (just check out how bad my salad looks – though my guests said it was delicious, I promise) but more a record of the emotion, the chaos of the kitchen, that goes into the preparation of any meaningful meal. Just don’t forget to press Save before it’s gone forever.

And to use a filter or two.

Method:

The day before crush a clove or two of garlic and add to the soy sauce, season, and add the chicken to marinade overnight.

Wash potatoes and put them in a steamer for approximately 40-50 minutes. Meanwhile to make your Cesar Salad dressing add some crushed garlic to your olive oil and then put in a blender with the egg yolk. If you wish add some anchovies, but I go without. Add seasoning and some parmesan cheese. Fry your bacon lardons, cut the iceberg lettuce roughly. Toss with croutons and bacon, poor over the dressing.

The chicken only takes around 25 minutes in the oven on a medium heat.

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