Why you can't stop watching food videos

If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube you’ve seen them – Taco Bell copycat Crunchwrap Supremes and jalapeno corn poppers, Tinker Bell cupcakes and unicorn dip, caramel apple cheese balls and Oreogasm skillet brownies.

I’m talking about those strange time lapse food videos — filmed from above with just a pair of disembodied hands making cheesy, fried, sugary food with little regard paid to any actual recipe.

The most popular brands are Delish, owned by the massive media conglomerate Hearst, and Tasty owned by Buzzfeed. These videos amass thousands of views and shares. They even play in supermarkets, streaming from televisions propped above food aisles. They are the millennial Food Network, and the true definition of “food porn.”

So, what is it about these videos that appeals to us so much?

The vision of food

I chatted with UBC Sociology Professor Amy Hanser, who teaches a course called “The Sociology of Food.” Although there is obviously something deeply psychological about the appeal of these videos — the instant gratification and the intense pleasure that fills our brain when we watch a recipe made to completion—there are also fascinating sociological implications.

To start, these videos represent a new way of envisioning the food that we eat.

“Food wasn’t always an object of such careful representation,” said Hanser.

The evolution of food representation has sped up, predictably, with technological advancements.

Years ago, recipes were passed down orally through family members and friends. Later, they were written down and compiled into cookbooks. Then, with the advent of photography, those recipes started to be accompanied by pictures. Decades later, television channels began featuring hour-long segments devoted entirely to food. And now we have the Delish-style videos, which have become an unending fixation for the internet, saturating every socialmedia platform with countless hours of quick, colourful and immensely satisfying content.

As the visual access to food has increased, the weight and importance of the contents – the actual recipe – has fallen away. Watch a Delish video. They’ll tell you to throw eggs into your cheese cornbread. But how many? Who knows?

With the proliferation of food in visual media, there also comes a surge of what Hanser calls “food talk.” These are the think-pieces about dishes written like album reviews and the sections of magazines devoted to finding the best restaurants, food bloggers, vloggers, critics and “food destinations.” It also is responsible for the surge of multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns around “super-foods” like kale.

But, as Hanser points out, “there’s only so much food you can eat.” Three meals a day and some light snacking is enough eating for most, but there is still, inevitably, a limit which food videos do not have.

“You can watch all the videos you want, and can you ever get full?” said Hanser.

The only limit is time.

Another byproduct of food’s ubiquitous media presence is the way identity has formed around it.

“[Food is] a site of personal, individual investment,” said Hanser.

Think about the way many vegans and gluten-free folks self-identify with their dietary choices nearly in the same breath as their first name.

The politics of the foodie

Vancouver is a hotbed of the many food movements, from vegetarianism to locally-grown diets to the paleo diet to everything organic. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t always like this.

Hanser traced many of the food movements back to the 1970s. The hippies identified food as an object of “political and moral concern.” Perhaps we are reliving that era. To the hippies, something like Wonderbread—chemical-ridden white bread that lasts for months on the shelf—was everything that was wrong with industrialized, mass produced food. To reject Wonderbread in favour of crusty brown bread from your local baker was a kind of political statement condemning capitalism and corporatization.

And to make your own bread was even better.

“It’s virtuous,” Hanser said regarding at-home cooking.

And there is something satisfying and wholesome about making your own food, even when it turns out less delicious than what you could get at a restaurant.

Perhaps this explains some of the appeal of Delish videos, which makes homecooking seem effortless and accessible.

The other way to stay virtuous, while maybe eating something better than your own home-cooked slop, is to become a foodie.

The foodie is all about authenticity and local flavours. They’re a backlash to the stuffy, elite world of overpriced gourmet cooking. They’re not without their own snobbishness, though. All foodie-worthy food must be “elevated.”

Take, for example, a McDonald’s burger.

“Foodies do not go to McDonald’s,” Hanser said.

But a local restaurant that makes their own version of a Big Mac? A foodie would certainly try that.

To me, this sheds new light on Delish videos. Many of the recipes and videos are for “copycat” versions of low-quality, high-fat foods you’d find at Starbucks, Wendy’s or Applebee’s. The thought may be that if you make a meal at home, it has to be better for you. And you get to feel great – saintly even – doing it.

Foodie culture, then, is a skirt-around to the strict rules of many food movements. Health-conscious and organic food movements usually condemn fried, ultra-sugary foods. But, if you go out and buy a $4 Cartem’s donut, well it’s elevated so it’s different. And, if you make that food at home, digging your own fingers into the flour and dough, well that’s even more different.

So, from all of these factors those two-minute-long food videos on your Facebook timeline take on a role as a hybrid extension of both the virtuousness of at-home cooking and the modern foodie ethos. They are simply another way food has become an object; of identity, morality and media representation.