The Digital Fantasy of Laborless Cooking

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The invention of the recipe long preceded the invention of hours, minutes, and seconds, yet invention has always been about saving time. There are three small Mesopotamian clay slabs at Yale University, dated to 1700 B.C, which are widely considered to be the oldest known written recipes. Their cuneiform writing lists ingredients with simple instructions on preparation but the steps are not described within the boundaries of time. I suspect it wasn’t until much later, after we invented time to regulate work, that cooking restructured itself around the metric. (Time plus energy plus bodies equals labor.) Still, the learning of cooking truths has always been grounded in oral tradition and do-it-yourself mystique. Such are the traits of any alchemy. The matriarch knows when the dish is done just by smelling it.

Some believe the invention of cooking marks the beginning of human evolution. Our primate counterparts still spend most of their days chewing fibers so that they are soft and small enough for their bellies. We copy these motions with the assistance of knives, graters, and Magic Bullets. We boil water to transfigure the potato. Since the invention of cooking, our brains have enlarged and our mandibles have slimmed. Our incisors and molars have blunted; today, we take care when biting into hard things.Had our predecessors never learned to tame fiber and flesh, they would not have had the time to evolve into higher-thinking homo sapiens. We would still be stuck chewing. This still holds true today, in another sense: aren’t we still very much consumed with the labor of consumption?

In reality, one minute is just enough time to peel an apple. On the Internet, one minute is enough time to watch a video of someone making an apple pie from start to finish. Immediacy is the governing rule of the Internet and to be an Internet user means to neither wait nor need. Videos purr on command.

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Buzzfeed’s Facebook page Tasty originated the 1-minute recipe video. A juggernaut in lifehack media, Tasty videos collectively average 2 billion views per month. Like in all classic tales of capitalism, the original now has to compete with hundreds of imitation brands. Food videos are one of the breakout content categories of video publishing. This is a personal impression, certainly, but there is evidence of a structural shift. According to Tubular Labs, a startup that monitors cross-platform video publishing activity, Buzzfeed’s Facebook page Tasty has, since November 2015, consistently ranked as the most-viewed video publisher in the world. Tastemade, a competitor and successor of Tasty, usually ranks 8th or 9th with around 400 million views per month.

The recipe video is supposed to feel like progress because “the lifehack” is supposed to be synonymous with innovation. Cooking and labor are avatars of each other. Yet, since industrialization and capitalism, food production has been focused on the project of reducing the labor (or the impression of labor) of cooking, especially for the white middle class. Historically, labor has always fell on the shoulders of women, unless those women were white and had some means, in which case the burden fell onto people of color. The mass production of processed foods began as an ode to white feminism, marketing itself to housewives who wanted to spend less time cooking, and more time breaking the glass ceiling. The kitchen became another site of middle-class meritocracy, where those that worked efficiently were the hallmarks of society.

Food media assisted the transition. Television packaged cooking into half hour segments; Rachael Ray’s 30-minute meals became a household sensation for busy, working moms. Television chefs chopped and sautéed while offering cheerful asides about how they pack lunch for their husbands, make snacks for their kids’ soccer team, and still have time to host “lunch with the girls”. In contrast, slow food or fine dining or ethical eating, and the popular media (think Chef’s Table or Omnivore’s Dilemma) that portrays them, has always been dominated by white men.

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There is a 33-second recipe video sponsored by Take5 candy that keeps popping up on my Facebook newsfeed. It’s as morbidly interesting as roadkill on the freeway; I don’t know how it got there; I’ve still looked at it more than once. The recipe is for Take5 Pancakes and its process is comically banal. The entirety of the recipe involves the addition of small pieces of Take5 chocolate into pre-made pancake mix. The batter is supposed to be a miraculous invention, but the recipe is a non-event. Sort of. It feels like nothing has happened, yet, a stack of pancakes somehow magically appear by the end of the video. It feels like nothing has happened, yet the video’s comment section is overflowing with affirmation and some PR intern at Take5 takes the time to respond to each user with a grateful flurry of emojis. (Is this “connectivity”, Mark Zuckerberg?)

The video recipe compresses time to decouple cooking from concepts of hard work, aspiring to a post-mise en place homeostasis where everything is cleaned and ready for easy consumption. The moment the feeling of work is too discernible, the lifehack fails. This is why recipe videos police the very gestures of cooking. Cleaning, peeling, chopping, mixing, seasoning, tasting, waiting, etc. are sped up or skipped over. It’s almost as if the Take5 video should include a warning for wrist pain, in case the few moments of whisking and pancake-flipping in the recipe are still too exhausting for some.

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The goal of lifehack media is to use the fantasy of easy, labor-free consumption to trick the economic agent into buying something. This is interesting, considering that lifehack media is proliferated by powerful capitalist structures that want, more than anything, for people to work until they die. Although capitalism depends on labor, it has never valued the working body. Systems of wealth accumulation in this country are built on the very backs of the slave, the farmer, the builder, the mother. Removing the body from the imagination has always made it easier to justify labor. It makes sense then that one of the characteristics of the recipe video form is the absence of a body. Disembodied hands are the subject of the video; its frame hugs their actions tight as they float through a sweatless performance of metamorphosis. But to whom do these hands belong? Are they meant to feel like your own?  In the typical workday, the middle-class sedentary body is possibly just as disembodied; our hands dredge along at a computer keyboard for what feels like most of our lives.

The first-person perspective in recipe videos is meant to create a sense of inclusion, yet it is unclear to me whether they are actually intended to compel people to cook in real life. I suspect Take5 doesn’t care if you make a single damn pancake. Truthfully, nothing is easier than cooking—even the cooking that has been lifehacked—than watching someone else cook. The recipe video capitalizes on this axiom, creating a digital fantasy where Internet users can indulge in food pornography and never have to lift a finger. After all, digital consumption is the most laborless form of consumption. Every view or like or share, no matter how passively performed, is a win. Virality, after all, is what publishers like Tasty are selling and promising to their corporate sponsors.

It is already common knowledge that the things we type and click on the Internet are rerouted as user data to the companies publishing advertisements on our digital spaces. The corporate calculations that govern our newsfeeds are increasingly explicit yet Facebook still flatters itself as site of serendipity and Zuckerberg’s evergreen safeword, “connectivity.” Critics say humans tend to be nostalgic for the good times of 40-50 years past. But in those peculiar late nights when the Internet wormhole feels like the beginning and end of time, nostalgia runs a little short-sighted: do you remember the days of the ad-less, newsfeed-less Facebook?

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Like many other male-led institutions, Facebook regularly assumes consent when it’s not actively given. The Facebook user is encouraged to feel autonomous–creative, even–with the choice to “follow”, “like” and accept friend requests. The mysterious algorithm that pushes content to your newsfeed is at best, a curator, and at worst, a colonizer. The origins of this content feel outside of our own logics and engagements. Unsurprisingly, our suspicions are answered with the catchphrases of non-consensual transactions: “but you asked for it”, “but you liked it.” (The double entendre in the latter is painful.) To be fair, the changing infrastructural landscape of social media has provided unprecedented space for a lot of cultural production and creativity, especially by and for young people of color. But still, it has become exhausting work to make your digital space truly yours. There is the labor of blocking and un-friending, of deciding to teach the bigot or choosing to step back.

As usual, form follows function follows form follows function. Facebook started publishing ads on the borders of the page in 2004 to make the website more profitable. In 2006, Facebook introduced the newsfeed, in part, to sanctify a content space as separate from advertisement. This didn’t last long. Ads and corporate sponsored content started infiltrating the newsfeed space then in 2013, Facebook released another iteration of its non-consent ethos: the video autoplay function. Since then, video viewership on Facebook has increased astronomically, with Facebook reporting in 2015 that the autoplay platform served more than 3 billion views per day. (There has been recent scandal around this number, as Facebook has recently admitted, to the fury of their corporate partners, that this number is an overestimate.)

A minor Internet scandal ensued on September 11, when a Facebook page called Cooking Panda published a video recipe for Sweet Potato Pie. As of this writing, the 49-second video has 2.7 M views, over 30,000 shares, and 8100 comments. The video appeared on my newsfeed, probably because several Facebook friends of mine had shared it to laugh at it. Sweet potato pie is a black, Southern dish brought to the United States by African and Caribbean slaves. It was then co-opted and reproduced by the dull palettes of white supremacy. The video begins with a whole sweet potato sitting on a pristine cutting board. Then suddenly, the potato is boiled and mashed. The hands add evaporated milk, eggs, sugar, and butter in quick succession. A premade piecrust materializes in the frame and the hands start to pour in half of the batter. Then the most fraught step of the recipe: 1 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese is added. The hands add the rest of the batter and then the pie is baked out of frame. The hands present the finished pie; it looks edible, in the way playdough is for children.

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Black Facebook users mocked the recipe hilariously, calling it “white witchcraft” and a grave insult to their black ancestors. People take turns spitting insults and the digital crowd roars at every effusion. The inclusion of Parmesan was blasphemous, the absence of cinnamon and vanilla also inexcusable, the very type of sweet potato in the video vetoed. Cooking Panda responded with little apology, choosing instead to address the incident by publishing another recipe for sweet potato pie that does not call for Parmesan cheese. When the Hydra’s head is chopped off, several more grow back to take its place.

Today, storytelling is usurped by content creation. The compression of labor that typifies the video recipe—and the digital world at large—also compresses history into invisible silence. The communal and conversational aspects of cooking have always made this great necessity of life feel less like work. These are the timeless questions: Who grew this potato? Under what conditions? Who showed you how to make the pie, and who showed them? We used to write down recipes to remember what we were taught about how to survive.

laborless 7Images: stills from myrecipes

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