The fantastic guys at GastroGays got an interesting chat going on Twitter over the week about the rise of Instagram and the decline of food blogs (according to the Observer Food Monthly Awards) that got me thinking.
I like Instagram much more than I expected when I joined up but I feel very much like I follow a timeline there that’s the equivalent of hanging out with the alternative kids at school who snuck off to smoke behind the bike sheds and wander round with their sleeves pulled down over their hands looking moody.
I’ve deliberately avoided most of the people who embody Instagram food culture because ultimately I find those super glossy photographs with gorgeous grey backgrounds, perfect lighting and a high avocado count to be rather soul-less.
Yes, I don’t care for #eatclean culture generally but more than anything else I dislike the humblebrag and underhand showing off inherent in those photos. They are as much about wealth and class as parking your Audi on someone’s lawn.
I know some people really enjoy and excel at photography and I don’t want to knock that because I don’t. One of my favourite bloggers and Instagrammers is Miss Foodwise who takes stunning photos which show her love of the art of photography and food. A good food photo is a thing of pleasure for sure.
What gets me is the people who have clearly spent hours and a lot of money on their Instagrams and then tried to present it as easy and casual and accessible.
I saw a well known vegan cookbook Instagram account say a few months back that it was simple to get their look. They had set the spare room up as a studio and their basic camera kit was only around £800 to get started. For most people both of those things are beyond their wildest dreams or would need to be saved up for gradually and with a certain amount of sacrifice.
And that’s before we look at the kind of food these people photograph. It’s usually a cold dish such as a salad or ‘Buddha bowl’ or a cake or energy balls that uses obscurely expensive ingredients. It’s never a cake for the office bake off or a kid’s party made at 9 at night or a plate of pasta or even the Sunday roast you are proud of.
It’s always the kind of food that shows you have access to specialist food shops, time to read about new trends, cash to spend trying new stuff out and the leisure time to do it and spend on photography. (That account I mentioned also said they spend around 4 hours per photo all in.)
Not for them putting dinner on a plate and snapping it before it gets too cold to eat or while other people wait for you to sit down and eat up. I suspect many of them can afford to make an extra portion simply for the photo.
There’s a certain sense of posturing to it to me rather than someone excitedly showing you something they want you to share in. Theoretically everyone wants to be seen on social media if they post, but I find this heavily curated style over food to be excluding people. It’s look but don’t touch.
I always wonder how interactive it’s meant to be as the more styled the photo, the more emoji’d the caption and the more the glowing comments underneath, the less detailed or creative the recipe is.
Part of this is that I like the immersive style more. The context of the recipe, the instructions, the whole picture, not just the image of the finished item. Some of it is that’s what I’m more comfortable doing myself. Writing a recipe to me comes naturally and I know it may not to other people.
But when we type the thumbs up emoji under someone’s Instagram of 3 ingredient clean fudge or a doughnut that can only be bought in a very specific place you must be in the know about, what are we appreciating?
Are we simply passing casual comment like saying ‘oh that looks good’ when a co worker brings in lunch or are we rewarding people for being the cool kids? Do we hope some of their sheen will rub off on us by doing so or are we just being nosey?
I do worry that this trend is undermining the people who put time and effort and skill into writing about food. In the same way professional writers worried that bloggers would undermine them, I worry that food media that is entirely about the image (both literally and figuratively) is devaluing good bloggers.
Why spend all week working on a piece about travel or food culture or creating and testing a recipe when you can take a photo of something, run it through an app or filter and post it up to what feels like considerably more and instantaneous attention?
It took me serious time and effort to hone my writing skills as I blogged. I’d never written in a way that wasn’t for academia when I started blogging and I couldn’t cook that well either. The internet was slightly unfamiliar too and frankly it was nervewracking and stressful in many ways.
I wasn’t doing it to garner attention and adulation or get free stuff but because I wanted to. In some ways having that lack of pressure allowed me time to find my own tone and pace, but at other times it felt like I was talking to no one and getting nowhere fast as I had nothing to gauge it against.
I can see why people like the more immediate sense of one image but I do feel it’s even harder to be accepted and well received there on merit rather than materialism. To be a successful blogger, you do have to have some resources that aren’t available to everyone.
Yet with hard work, a USP and the internet connection and basic camera on a phone that many people have, you can make a good readership and presence. There are plenty of good bloggers still using basic and free online tools to stand out year on year.
I wonder how many of the Instagram only people will be doing the same in a few years? Will the change to the algorithms and awards create more of a bubble than now or not?
I’ll still be using the site to get dinner inspiration, feel inferior about my average photography and strangely find cats more interesting there than anywhere else online, but I also won’t be giving up good old fashioned blogging.
I haven’t written anything for weeks because I haven’t cooked anything for weeks beyond the narrowest repertoire of pork shoulder steaks, rice and chicken and rice. I feel like all my meals are one drizzle of gravy away from being confused with what people feed the dog.
My body which isn’t good with fruit or veg at the best of times appears to have completely and utterly rebelled and is refusing to let me consume anything green or leafy at all without throwing an epic tantrum. I’m at the stage where I’m dreaming of crunchy kale and lightly steamed broccoli.
The problem is that I haven’t stopped buying vegetables or trying to eat them because I love them more than they love me. It leads to something I’m almost ashamed to admit in our current climate: not only do I not green juice, my diet is paler than most people’s complexion in early February, but I also throw food out all the time right now.
This feels akin to saying I also tap dance on rescue puppies or shout at sleeping babies in the street. The world is full of articles and initiatives about reducing food waste and I seem to be chucking food out left right and centre.
It’s particularly galling as I live on a really tight budget and literally can’t afford to be throwing money away, but I also can’t face not buying fresh food because it feels like not trying or being defeated by dietary issues. I can’t decide if I’m more governed by my own tightness or bloody mindedness.
I slightly miss having flatmates who would just steal all your food and then lie to you that they had in this situation. (I lived with a guy like this for several years and it drove me and my other flatmate so mad, we once took a solitary but overlapping bite out of the Nando’s he’d brought home and then convinced him he’d done it himself when he was drunk as revenge for his thieving ways…)
Slightly less pettily and a lot more environmentally friendly, I’ve just signed up to the new Olio app which has launched around London. You take a photo of what you’ve got a surplus of and a description and it links you up with someone who wants half a bag of dried beans and some coriander for example. It’s like Tinder for groceries.
I’m quite excited to have solved 90% of my problem while being glued to my phone as per, but now all I’ve got to do is tackle my other bad habit of leaving things to go off in my depths of my fridge. If anyone actually wants a bag of yellowing Brussel sprouts, I don’t want to meet them…
These kind of articles are clickbait pure and simple, based round the idea that endless amounts of people are saying they don’t like stuff by calling it an allergy instead, all written by someone who doesn’t know what an allergy is versus an intolerance. Even the good ones like this are designed to make readers sneer.
Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition of an allergy: A damaging immune response by the body to a substance, especially a particular food, pollen, fur, or dust, to which it has become hypersensitive.
1.1 informal A strong dislike: their allergy to free enterprise.
You’ll note that while they have some overlap, they aren’t the same thing. In very general layman’s terms allergies tend to cause immediate reactions such as hives, swelling of the throat and lips and anaphalyxis. Intolerances tend to have delayed reactions such as diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, bloating, fatigue and joint pain.
People can be born with allergies or develop them as they age. They can also grow out of them as they age as is not uncommon with cow’s milk protein rather than lactose. Intolerances can be inherent like the billions of people who are lactose intolerant or be brought on by other things such as a virus or food poisoning or pregnancy. Both involve the human immune system which is a fiendishly complicated beast that even doctors and scientists barely understand in its complexity.
Medicine is a constantly evolving thing and for example only a decade ago fodmaps had never been heard of even though people were having issues with them. Nut allergies killed children for generations but people thought they had choked on the nuts rather than had anaphylaxis. Babies and children were labelled as ‘failing to thrive’ when they had what we now know as coeliac disease or allergies.
One big problem is that a little bit of information can be incredibly dangerous and leads to the cult of the Deliciously Ella style wellness bloggers attributing everything to gluten and woo. These people are actively detrimental when they suggest cashew nuts and avocados can cure cancer and I have no time for them at all.
But other people suffer from the too little information, too many opinions issue too and that’s the ones who read or write these clickbait articles and don’t actually read about about the subject beyond fleshing out an anecdote akin to the episode of Sex and the City where Carrie said she was allergic to parsley when she just didn’t like it. They never seem to speak to people with intolerances or learn about the complexities of living with them.
I first approached my GP about food making me sick and fatigued in 1992. That was the year that I developed chronic nausea. I haven’t had a day when I don’t feel sick at least some of the time since. That was also the year when I developed another period of mysterious fatigue attributed to glandular fever and missed an entire term of school.
I was told for the next four years despite missing more school than I attended, losing almost three stone in weight, vomiting and passing blood, regularly experiencing pain bad enough to black out and having my hair fall out, that it was all in my head.
A lot of it was explained by gallstones and the removal of my gallbladder. I stopped vomiting blood at least but eating was still like culinary Russian Roulette. I could find no rhyme or reason to why I constantly felt so ill and had diarrhoea so badly I had to be rehydrated on a drip on more than one occasion.
I saw doctors and and gastroenterologists and dieticians. It was complicated further by having a diagnosis of ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This is an illness with a tortured identity. Many doctors (and journalists) don’t believe it exists. It was known once as ‘yuppie flu’ and the NHS regards it as ‘psychosomatic’ at best and ‘malingering due to psychological issues’ at worst.
In the UK, 250,000 people have it (four times the number of MS sufferers) and is now believed to be an neuro-immune illness equal in severity to HIV and Parkinson’s. The only drug treatment to have had success so far is a drug also used for cancer patients . It affects more women than men and is heavily stigmatised with sufferers literally being told it is all in their head. In the UK, the only ‘treatment‘ is Graded Exercise Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to challenge negative beliefs about your health.
I was 10 when I got it and went from running around everywhere to being bedbound. Quite the trick to keep up as a kid and then for another 27 years. It took me 25 years to get pain relief for the muscle pain that characterises the illness (the myalgia of the name and not unlike it’s close cousin fibromyalgia) because the disease is treated by psychiatrists in the UK, not neurologists.
Imagine then how difficult it was to get a roomful of shrinks and GPs who’ve only heard of ME as a made up attention seeking thing shrill women have to take my food issues seriously. (Food issues that also mutated into an eating disorder because I was so frightened of eating.) And that’s before you encounter the NHS issue of seeing each symptom separately in chronic conditions so joint pain isn’t connected to nausea.
It was quite literally the 15th gastroenterologist and 16 years after my gallbladder removal I saw who mentioned fodmaps and yes, I thought he was crazy when he said it might down to garlic and onions. It seemed like bullshit and wishful thinking. And then I did the exclusion diet with an NHS dietician and my life was transformed.
Not simplified though. On top of the fodmaps, I’m fructose malabsorbing (a fancy term for fructose intolerance) and my gut flora is destroyed by complications of the gallbladder surgery. I probably have ‘leaky gut syndrome‘ but the NHS doesn’t believe in it. I’m also having liver, pancreas and small bowel issues investigated.
It’s complicated and distressing and incredibly boring. It feels like 90% of my conversation revolves around my bowels and my diet. It feels like 110% of my inner thoughts revolves round my guts and my dinner. I have spent the last 6 weeks being so strict on avoiding my trigger foods that I thought I could cheat and eat some crab in garlic butter the other night and was thrilled to see that I didn’t even feel bloated. A refreshing change after the surprise dried onion in a burger one night that made me literally shit myself.
Except that the morning after the (amazing) garlic crab my joints were so swollen and tender I couldn’t get out of bed without crying and needing painkillers strong enough to be classed as a controlled narcotic. I still felt fatigued and shaky the next day. No more garlic butter for me clearly. You live and learn the hard way.
I know not everyone who has intolerances to fodmaps (one of which is wheat by the way) or lactose reacts that badly. I’m unlucky in that respect. But we also live in a society that sees illness as weakness and always viewed as something to be ‘cured’ not chronic. Auto-immune diseases such as ME/fibro/lupus and things like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome are more prevalent now because modern medicine ironically makes us well enough to have chronic illness.
Nearly all these illnesses include gut issues such as food intolerances but are essentially invisible so they confuse healthy people because there might not be a crutch or wheelchair to indicate disability and they aren’t as easy to explain as say, a stroke. They fluctuate and they take a long time to be diagnosed and even then little is known about them and there’s little biomedical research happening. My practice nurse at the GP who gave me a flu jab this week had never heard of ME/CFS for example so I don’t expect the general public to be experts.
Sadly this ignorance doesn’t stop people who can’t even spell ME offering (often well meaning) advice when you mention it. Rest assured I have thought of trying yoga in the last quarter of a century, but unfortunately it doesn’t have magical abilities. If I had more energy I’d find it grimly amusing that people who insist that those food intolerances don’t exist, believe yoga and pilates and green juice can cure a disease that can be seen as altered spinal fluid in lumbar punctures.
But it’s exhausting dealing with all that repeatedly when I just want to order an appetiser. I appreciate genuine questions and thoughtfulness about my health more than I can tell you. But I want to talk about nice things over lunch. I don’t want to be forced tell a waiter or a friend of a friend about private, intimate, embarrassing, distressing things (that’s why I have a blog after all) just to choose soup or a salad.
Sometimes when people start to argue with you over what you can eat, you just want the whole subject to go away and you say you’re allergic to garlic because you cannot face this battle again. Allergy is a magic word that people don’t argue with and if like me you sobbed this morning while eating an egg because you are grieving all the foods you will never eat again, you need to avoid drama to survive with your sanity intact.
I do feel guilty about abusing the word allergy but when the option is argument, embarrassment, opiates or incontinence, then I can’t beat myself up too hard. The thing is that you can’t tell why someone is using the word without interrogating them.
They may call an intolerance an allergy to feel listened to after years of being ignored. They might tell you they are avoiding gluten or wheat because the Kardashians are doing it because that’s less shameful for most women than talking about their bowel movements. They may not know exactly what is causing their health issues and be in the reintroduction stage of an exclusion diet which is why they ate cake, not garlic bread. Or they are worried people will think they are a Kardashian loving airhead if they mention a dietary issue that’s actually causing great distress so they head the criticism off first self knowingly. Or maybe it’s a first date and not great timing to mention gassiness…
They might be feeling the peer pressure to order dessert because women are socialised to eat together to assuage guilt. They might be feeling left out because food is sociable. They might because of a lack of education or a brainfart, not realise the dish contains the thing they are avoiding. They may be having difficulty coming to terms with not being able to eat freely and sabotaging their diet. They may not really know the difference between an allergy and an intolerance themselves. They might just be tempted to see if they can cheat. They might not know what lengths a kitchen has to go to over allergies. Or they might just be human and thus illogical and imperfect and inexplicable. It’s very easy to expect perfection in someone else’s diet rather than our own.
We have a responsibility as decent human beings not make anyone else’s life harder. So if I lie and say I’m allergic to peppers when I just hate them, I’m harming other people. But if you insist on a full medical history and a quasi legal case as to why they ate X and not Y and sharing those clickbait articles then you are probably making a sick person’s life harder. If the person chooses to share their details with you that’s different but wait to be invited first.
I’m sure everyone is now going to rush to tell me about all the food related pisstakers they know, but in my experience it’s like claiming benefits. Bring up the subject and everyone knows someone their aunt’s friend’s co worker lives next door who is a benefit cheat. Yet the official figures don’t back it up and when pushed they’ve never actually met one for sure themselves because laypeople aren’t privy to medical details and have to go on a certain amount of trust instead…
I know I sound completely obsessed by Fodmaps at the moment and I think I probably am. You can’t make a major dietary change and stick to it for life without going a bit tunnel vision in the process. Not only does it help focus your mind, it distracts you from the sense of tedium you get as you eat the same meal again. And again. And again.
I’ve been attempting to be free of my particular Fodmap triggers since just after Christmas so have managed the guts (pun intended) of six months of it and learned plenty along the way so thought I’d share a few nuggets of information I’ve picked up. I’m pretty much fine with wheat and lactose unless I combine them with other Fodmap triggers, so my experiences might not be as helpful for the wheat-free brigade, but you never know.
The main thing I’ve learned is that people will put onions and garlic in every single bloody thing possible. I won’t even be surprised if someone serves me an onion based dessert or sticks a clove of garlic in my cocktail (and yes, I do know there’s a bar called Garlic and Shots in London before you ask. I had a terrible night there once.)
Being an allium dodger in this town is hard. No cuisine completely eschews them and between onions, garlic, shallots, spring onions, leeks and their powdered versions, there’s a lot of ways to add them to things. I find lunchtime easier because not only am I lucky enough to be able to eat a sandwich, eggs are still on the menu before 5pm. Variations of breakfast and brunch food work well here if you avoid black pudding with its dried onion evilness.
My other lunchtime option is always sushi or sashimi. Not only is it less expensive at lunchtime, it’s now relatively easy to come by on the go (just avoid Marks and Spencer here. Theirs is vile.) Scotch eggs are another potential if you don’t mind a blast of sulphurousness as an accompaniment to lunch. Cocktail sausages are surprisingly filling with a bag of crisps on the side and make any bus journey seem like an actual picnic.
Yet crisps are a Fodmap minefield. Gone forever are my beloved Tayto cheese and onion or a pickled onion Monster Munch, but so are just about any ‘fancy’ versions that sound like a meal in a bag. From prawn cocktail to roast pork with mustard or the suchlike, they will have dried onion in. I have become the person who always chooses ready salted now.
And don’t even think of trying vegetable crisps instead. The beetroot are little deep fried Fodmap bombs covered in salt. Kale chips smell like death itself and come doused in onion powder or garlic salt. Prawn crackers and mini poppadoms should be surrounded at parties and guarded fiercely because they are the only snack foods in town you can still eat. Cashews and pistachios inexplicably have Fodmaps and let’s not even remind ourselves of the existence of dip because it is gone to you forever. Lactose, pulses, vegetables and alliums combine to do their worst here.
Ironically the fact you have to basically give up savoury snacking (and sweet ones if you like Haribo. Those fizzy ones will kill you off trust me) means you will be even hungrier by the time of the main meal which can make it harder to concentrate and spot potential menu pitfalls. Instead of adding joy to life, chorizo adds problems to every dish it finds its porky charms into, which in 2015 is most of them. Soup is a complete no go as all stock will have onions in it. Pasta is problematic as a base and a vehicle for Fodmappy sauces. Pulses have to be avoided and the foodie fascination with avocado and cauliflower with their tricksy little polyols cannot end soon enough for my innards.
In fact this whole ‘healthy’ eating kick at the moment that constantly replaces certain foodstuffs with fruit and veg products is a nightmare for me. Date syrup or agave instead of sugar, root veg instead of flour, cauliflower instead of rice, green juicing and smoothies, all agonising for me. Especially accompanied with the constant refrain that they are ‘healthier’ so I end up with envy of other people’s cast iron digestive systems as I politely shuffle their wonder food round my plate without being able to eat it.
My failsafe on most menus these days is steak and chips or salmon and potatoes which means that ‘ethnic’ food tends to be a no no. I may think I’m all cosmopolitan living in Brixton but my small bowel is acting like UKIP and classing everything as ‘foreign muck’ to be viewed with culinary suspicion. About all I can eat from outside Northern Europe is dim sum and some Vietnamese dishes. On a recent trip to The Real Greek, the only thing on the entire menu I could safely eat were the boiled potatoes. Thank god for white wine.
Because the Fodmap fun doesn’t stop with drinks. Oh no, fruit juice is a complete no go for me now along with anything dandelion, fennel, chicory or chamomile based. Cocktails have to be checked carefully for certain juices and purees and rogue agave syrup. Red wine bloats me and gives me terrible hangovers in any amount. Beer, except oddly Guinness, is an occasional treat. Luckily prosecco and cava work fine as do espresso martinis, so I’m sure I’ll survive Happy Hour if not the main meal itself.
After years of mocking those people, I now understand why they bring their own portion of fish to be steamed alongside some rice. Only now that I’m in eating disorder recovery do I actually look strange around food. Alanis Morrissette would have a field day.
I’ve tried the Monash University Fodmap app and it’s mainly only been useful in acquainting me with the names of fruit and vegetable varieties. I cannot become the person who asks if the tomatoes in the sauce are baby plums or cherry or vine ripened after some of the responses from wait staff to queries about garlic and onions. I see why people with food intolerances stick to chains where they serve the same thing repeatedly and can consult their big binder of facts. Wahaca were helpful and can adapt five or six dishes for me. Nandos suggested the chips and shrugged on everything else but since I live in South London I can always go to the chicken shop on the way home or simply eat before I go out.
So if anyone has any tips on Fodmap free dips or tips on what the hell to serve wheat and dairy free Fodmappers who of course can’t eat fruit for dessert, do tell me in the comments. I’ll buy you a drink in thanks. We should both be ok with soda water…
*the trick is that you can’t live without potatoes on this diet.