Make forgettable meals immortal on Instagram

NEW YORK •I am a culinary historian and scrolling through the endless food on Instagram makes me hungry.

No, not for the fresh-baked sourdough rolls nestled so prettily in a linen napkin or that jaunty tumbler of strawberry mousse sporting its shiny green sprigs of mint.

They look delicious, but what really makes my mouth water is the thought of all the stories behind them - everything that happened in the kitchen before you picked up your phone and clicked.

I'm hungry for a look at the messy, bulging envelope where you keep the recipe. I want to see the toddler plunging a dirty fist into the strawberries and the scenes from your shlep through four markets as you searched for some decent- looking mint.

Add a caption and tell me who came to dinner but refused to taste the rolls - "No, thanks, I'm gluten-free" - and who turned out to be allergic to strawberries and whether you went to bed swearing never to cook again.

Both by instinct and by profession, I've always been curious about people's eating habits.

So I've tried to latch onto the astonishing culinary kaleidoscope that is Instagram, poring over the images of avocado toast and seafood paella in search of whatever they can tell me about taste and cultural identity and the secrets of appetite.

After all, that's what food does - it talks to us.

Former United States president Harry Truman, for instance, once hosted a dinner for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, hoping to encourage his young democracy to tilt towards the United States in the Cold War.

The menu featured roast turkey, cranberry sauce and a moulded ginger-ale fruit salad with toasted Triscuits - a short course in the history of US cuisine and a remarkable example of patriotism made edible.

This meal was practically singing the national anthem. (Nehru was unmoved and remained sceptical about America for years. Was it the Triscuits?)

But no matter how hard I scrutinise the pictures on Instagram, they don't speak up. Or rather, they all say the same thing - "Look at this amazing food!"

To be fair, that's what high-style food photography was invented to do: It has always been far more interested in our dreams than in our actual meals.

The best-selling Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book set the tone for food photography in 1950, with page after page of lurid baked hams and frosted cookies.

Later came gigantic coffee-table cookbooks, with sumptuous photographs of laughing families gathered for summer lunches in Provence, or sari-clad Indian home cooks sitting on the floor crushing spices.

Today, we have Instagram, overflowing with glamorous images created not by professional photographers, but by home cooks in kitchens around the world.

What an opportunity.

With its vast reach and the technological savvy of its users, Instagram could go beyond mere glamour and open up a domestic world that has always been elusive. I'm talking about ordinary meals at home - the great unknown in the study of food.

Sure, we have agricultural statistics and marketing surveys; we have household records from 18th-century castles and charts showing the average consumption of popsicles in the US from 1953 to 1982.

But there's nothing to tell us what a schoolteacher in Connecticut served to her family on a Thursday in 1895.

Or what she was thinking when she boiled the string beans for 45 minutes, put ketchup in the salad dressing and decided to try her neighbour's recipe for rice pudding, the one with a little cinnamon.

Could Instagram capture today's version of that story?

Could it zero in on the third consecutive night of frozen tacos or the mug of milky Sanka that makes you feel like somebody's grandfather, but has become an unexpected nighttime addiction?

Next time you eat a meal that's certain to be forgettable, that's the very moment to pull out your phone and hit "share".

Start with the refrigerator - anything good in there? And who's standing next to you, stuffing himself with handfuls of cereal because he can't wait another minute? Hand him an apple, figure out whether there's enough cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich, check the bread for mould and click.

Add a hashtag admitting that you found a few green spots.

When he's finished, don't forget to take a picture of the plate with most of the sandwich still on it. Make it your own lunch and take a selfie.

There will always be room for adorable cupcakes and whole roast pigs, but if you're a food lover with a smartphone, don't limit yourself to these social media classics.

Do a huge favour for culinary historians and offer us a glimpse of the ordinary.

If there's nothing on the breakfast table except a slice of cold pizza - click.

If you've just returned from the farmers' market with bags of fresh produce, but you're ordering Chinese anyway - assemble a picture.

Show the mess, show the kitchen flops, show the dumb choices we all make when we're standing alone at the refrigerator. You can even skip the filter.

A hundred years from now (assuming somebody has figured out how to archive this stuff), scholars will be riveted to your images of the everyday and you - or at least your Instagram handle - will be immortal.


• Laura Shapiro is a journalist and culinary historian.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 10, 2017, with the headline 'Make forgettable meals immortal on Instagram'. Subscribe