Edited from original post, 6/20/17
At its heart, Porridge.blog is an investigation into modern food culture, framed by the oldest food in the world. One of the foundational texts in this research is Michael Pollen’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. You can find our critical synthesis and expanded thoughts on the book’s themes here, but the gist is that for most of human history, people have survived by answering the question, “what am I going to eat for dinner?” Until relatively recently, getting enough food has been the struggle. In many parts of the world, that is still true. However, industrial processes made lots of varied food available to the general population of the first world. Now, choosing what to eat carries political, economic, nutritional, and philosophical connotations.
The requisite knowledge for this article is that processed food took America by storm in the 1950s because it was successfully integrated into a greater domestic campaign that convinced Americans that they should want to be middle class and white, and then they would live easy, convenient, abundant lifestyles. Because America was the cultural world power during the Cold War, processed food was exported around the world as a modern luxury – McDonald’s imperialism. There’s classism in the way the Western world talks about “health food,” because the desire for health is the will to power and eternal life. “High cuisine” coming out of first world countries should aspire to be more than an elite club of expensive ingredients, restaurants, and nutrition buzzwords.
Oatmeal is the millennial’s answer to the Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2017
A lot of people like oatmeal, young people, old people, American, British, French, Japanese, you name it. Oatmeal is awesome. This article is focusing on the social media savvy demographic of first world millennials who eat oatmeal, because I am one, and so I feel confident making sweeping statements. This group is unified in that many of them are making the adjustment to living on their own and the necessary responsibilities that come with independence; #adulting is essentially to feed oneself. What to eat in 2017?
#oatporn is a social media trend in which people post photos of their oatmeal. Recipes are varied, but most are breakfast bowls that combine fruit, nuts, and yogurt with a bowl of grains. #oatporn is neither popular enough to be considered mass culture, nor edgy enough to be a counterculture. The most widely known and accessible store of #oatporn, along with other easy cooking advice and hacks, is Buzzfeed Food, an internet aggregate of consumer driven articles, or a populist recipe book. The publication mediates between its readers’ understanding that healthy #adulting involves vegetables and their desire to eat the industrial comfort foods of their childhood. Thus, Buzzfeed Food has become popular in part for its lists about how to hack chicken nuggets to modify them into “healthier” home-cooked versions.
Here, we get into the class conflict of the omnivore’s dilemma, when Whole Foods becomes Whole Paycheck, and eating healthy cheaply is presented as an impossible feat. An internet recipe for Cauliflower “Chick Fil A” would be considered impure by the foodie elite for several reasons: the recipe is relatively boring, it is presented as little-to-no-effort cooking and therefore lacks integrity, and the finished product has been shaped and tainted by industrialism, even if it is trying to move away from processed ingredients. The Slow Foods philosophy is to embrace honest ingredients; when preparing chicken, or cauliflower, a true chef should consider the unique qualities that make this meat “chicken” – its texture, flavor, historical culinary context, etc – and emphasize these traits in their preparation of the dish. There’s a big emphasis on locality, which is antithetical to grocery stores. Is cauliflower in season where you live? Avocados are in season basically nowhere, and yet they are the staple of mass health food!
Alice Waters, one of the leading intellectual chefs of the New California slow foods movement, has more or less posited that anyone not taking the time to grow all of their own produce in a garden ( buying from farmer’s markets might suffice), is an asshole. In her words,
“we have been thoroughly indoctrinated from childhood to think that we can’t grow our own food-or cook, for that matter- because it is too much work and takes too much time, that the climate is not right, or that there isn’t enough room. but that is not so.” — The Art of Simple Food II
She goes on to say that she had a garden in her backyard as a child, and that many Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, who had his own personal garden in addition to his slave-tended plantations (plantations, by the way, being the earliest incarnations of industrial farms that Waters hates so much because they have bland-ified all of our produce), have always kept gardens, and it is really easy and we should all be keeping gardens.
“Tending the soil, planting, and growing food in this way has had a long and important history in this country. If we let ourselves, we can easily return to this tradition, and what a revolutionary idea: that we can preserve the land by nurturing the vital link between taste, cooking, and gardening! It can be as simple as putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow.” –The Art of Simple Food II
Her garden-fresh recipes are delicious, and I don’t mean to disrespect the sentiment, which is overall a nice idea, but, I planted my first garden this month at the age of 21. I was able to do so because I moved to a duplex with a yard, and my landlord allowed me to plant a garden. It cost about $100 for materials and plants. Now, there are squash bores eating my squash, and the solution to the bugs is a lot more complicated than putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow. To say that gardening is so passive is an insult to gardeners. To say that it doesn’t take time or space or money is an insult to economic and social realities. Renters can definitely keep herb gardens, and should be encouraged to do so, because herbs taste awesome. Growing food is frustratingly difficult, but very rewarding. Anyways, the point is that it is not a realistic possibility for everyone, and it is glib to say otherwise. The counter argument sounds like Cartman from South Park – “screw you, don’t tell me what to do.” He’s not wrong. He’s tragic, because companies have told Cartman what to like and buy and do. He is not free in the capitalist society.
I digress momentarily to make the extrapolated point that all home cooking should be encouraged, even if it’s not your personal taste of food. Homemade Chik Fil A is cool because it doesn’t have to be bigot chicken! Also, providers of cooking advice – chefs, media, food companies – bear some responsibility in educating people about sustainable agriculture, because that is important to everyone who wants to live on a future planet.
Lifestyle Culture and Instagram, or, How Cartman is being manipulated
Because processed food practices and “American portion sizes” led to an obesity epidemic, companies have seized on national weight anxiety to create an industrial health complex. Membership based fitness studios, organic juice chains, brand name leggings and more have all become products, many of them expensive, that function as status symbols in a culture that has associated fitness and nutrition with vanity. Members of the new leisure class are those who can afford to spend time at the gym and money on acai bowls. In exchange for their money, customers seek not only a beautiful body, but that je ne sais quoi glow of endorphins/superiority. Because consumers worked and spent for that beautiful body, their appearance or consumption indicates willpower, perseverance, and economic privilege. In exchange for consumers’ hard work, companies promote rewards: “#treatyoself” with indulgent “clean food” desserts or new workout gear. And then, viciously, the cycle begins again: consumers are guilted into burning off their dessert and putting those new sneakers to use.
Online, the health movement manifests itself most forcefully on Instagram. Social media is appearance oriented in form, especially Instagram, where users only post photos. Psychologists have found that Instagram is the most detrimental of all social media platforms for users’ mental health : the app exacerbates low feelings of self-worth and body image, competition with celebrities and real life acquaintances, anxiety about missing out, and deprives its more obsessive users of sleep when they wake up in the night to check new posts. By formal definition, the app explicitly encourages self promotion. Given the context of the health movement’s guiding fear of obesity, appearance oriented Instagram becomes a political arena of virtual quantifiable popularity contests. Amongst photos of yoga poses backlit by a setting sun, green smoothies in mason jars, water with lemons in mason jars, and body positive post workout selfies, one can find countless photos of #oatporn. These pictures might be interpreted as a prideful comparative statement, “eat like me to be like me,” a conspicuous consumption of a doctored life.
The fad’s etymology is telling. Pornography is passive. It is a private, bastardized act of appreciation that has been commodified, depersonalized, and reappropriated, looked at in secret, often shamefully. It glorifies a limited beauty standard that has been subjectively defined, and certainly not with health in consideration. There is also so much porn – it comprises 30% of all internet content. A nice looking body and a bowl of oatmeal both become anonymous and meaningless when scrolling through photos en masse. Porn, like rich chocolate peanut butter oatmeal, is indulgent. Our society struggles with incompatible desires for food and health. Advertisers have exploited this tension not just to sell products, but insecurity, disproportionately to women. Eating disorders have become pretty common since many people struggle to balance eating what they want with looking how they want, especially while faced with infinite food choices–and, unless they turn off their phones, which is more difficult in practice than it is to glibly state, infinite social pressure. Some users do look at #oatporn in secret, starving, bingeing, ashamed. But the virtual community is an accepting space for those who want to be told that what they eat in the morning is a healthy breakfast, even if it tastes like dessert. Just as pornography is a substitute for a much more sincere personal intimacy, for many, #oatporn is a temporary safehold in a transitional time, a substitute for eating with company, in aspiration of a meaningful life and relationship with food.
Eating alone is lonely. Cooking alone can be a harsh reminder of that. Someone who lives alone is less likely to spend an hour and a half preparing themselves a meal with complicated ingredients or a longer cooking time when they are able to subsist on eating out and prepackaged meal replacements: granola bars, the increasingly popular “meals in a bottle,” protein shakes, Soylent. What is healthy? What is filling? What is economically sustainable? What is environmentally sustainable? #oatporn is a reaction to overwhelming amounts of information and opinions.
Over time, fats, sugars, salts, and carbohydrates have all been indiscriminately targeted as the culprits of obesity, bad skin, low energy, etc. Carbohydrates are under fire right now because most carb-heavy foods have a high glycemic index, which means that they give you fast energy but don’t keep you full for long, and then eat more than you should. Carbs have been so villainized in media that standing in the cereal aisle is a very real reason for a meltdown – so many options, so many nutrition labels, so many claims of whole grain, healthy, puffed quinoa buzzword superfood. Eating oatmeal for dinner counters appetitive indecision because it is a familiar, cheap, and instinctual substance. Oatmeal is a reliably “healthy” food, by foodie, advertising, and nutritionists’ standards. Quaker Oats became the first specific food to receive an FDA approved health claim, that “soluble fiber from oatmeal may reduce the risk of heart disease,” in 1996. It is simple and easy to digest, and is compliant with most specialty diets. It has that magical low glycemic index everyone wishes for. Oatmeal is a comforting callback to baby food that not only easy to eat, but easy to make, and can be prepared in less than a minute as an individual serving. The cooking is only as complicated as you make it, which encourages cooking at home. Like the food, the nutrition and cooking information are also easily digestible. Many #oatporn recipes are found in listicle format.
Because for many, #oatporn isn’t a contest between who is the healthiest (skinniest) best cook, but a more innocent grassroots archive of inspiration and information for those seeking guidance on how to care for their bodies. In the 1950s, nationally syndicated magazines and recipes on the back of food brands assumed the role of the nation’s parents. Betty Crocker taught young housewives, separated from their families and living on their own in the brave new world of the suburbs, how to prepare food for a dinner party. Most of these recipes were technically simple, meals anyone could make. Thus they were an opportunity to showcase a homemaker’s individuality, like the 1950s classic dessert, the bundt cake: every cake came from the same signature pan, but each family could put their own twist on it. Today’s iteration of the young modern pioneers, those moving out on their own, are crowdsourcing advice not only from celebrities, but from friends and the real people behind blog posts and popular instagrams. Through #oatporn, an online community punctuated by searchable tags, individuals are able to seek connection and affirmation by sharing their eating experience with others, thus alleviating the loneliness of eating alone. It’s generally accepted that today’s youth are untethered from local communities, and that alienation is a marker of the postmodern condition. Community is found in subscription-based gyms, and it is found in hashtags and fan groups. We may be moving towards a collective singularity, but humans are still individual beings. Like the bundt cake, oatmeal lends itself to individuality. It is a canvas for toppings, add ins, liquids, etc (check out porridge.blog’s porridge matrix for some inspiration for your own creative oatmeal), so each #oatporn photo is an opportunity to express personality: your porridge is what you make of it.
What is celebrated by posting to #oatporn are the people who are proud to be making their own oatmeal. Something that all strands of resistance to industrial food agree on is that a breakfast made at home is a step up from a breakfast picked up at the convenience store. #oatporn posters and consumers are connected with their food. In taking a photograph they have stopped for a moment to be mindful of their meal. Is a bowl of instant oats stirred with protein powder, chocolate, and topped with a banana so different than a deconstructed granola bar? No, but if that’s something you find yourself being judgmental about, consider where you lie on the scale of social moralizers. Cooking oatmeal at home, as low and as slow as you please, is a meritorious cooking adventure. #oatporn may be self promotional, vapid, and silly, but it’s also charming, and for some, deeply meaningful. If everyone began their morning with a bowl of pornographically delightful porridge, the world would be a happier place.