Emily Contois and Zenia Kish discuss their edited volume, Food Instagram


Until recently, if you perused the scholarship on Instagram, the app might have appeared to be a relatively benign, homogenous stepchild to its social media forebears. More visual, more commercial, less political, less weighty. Instagram was a place for diet fads and celebrity selfies, not a site for important developments like the obsessively analyzed Facebook or Twitter. While its status has begun to shift and be rendered more complex, the first book devoted to the platform, Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (Leaver, Highfield and Abidin) was only published in 2020, a couple of years after the platform had reached one billion monthly active users. Meanwhile, those users relentlessly cultivated new media practices and relations on the platform through endogenous aesthetic conventions, emergent subjectivities, and political contestations.

Our new edited collection, Food Instagram: Identity, Influence and Negotiation (University of Illinois Press, May 31, 2022) opens up new lines of questioning about Instagram practices and relations through the medium of food. Food offers varied and delightfully visual points of entry for exploring social media practices across diverse geographies, coalescing around the central category of “food Instagram.” We identify food Instagram as not just a common subject, but a quasi-genre on the platform distinguished by a shared focus on representations of food, eating, and food-related phenomena circulated by both everyday users and industry professionals.

Reflecting the heterogeneous content of food Instagram, the book brings interdisciplinary lenses to the platform’s food images and processes of image-making, drawing on media studies, food studies, gender and sexuality studies, sociology, anthropology, art theory, political theory, and other fields. The book brokers conversations beyond academia, too, including chapters from a food journalist, feminist artists, and a food influencer, KC Hysmith, who baked, styled, and shot the cover photo. Carefully positioned, basked in natural light, shot from above, and purposefully colorful, the photo replicates the food Instagram aesthetic as it critiques it. A knife slices through a photo of “Instagrammable” cake, rendered in pink frosting upon a phone made itself of cake, visually representing the layered and deconstructionist work of the volume. In this way, the book contributes to our digital food culture as it comments on it, considering both food in media and food as medium.

When we composed our call for abstracts in 2019, we were delighted to see it travel far and wide across social media and listservs. From the dozens of submissions that we received, we crafted a collection of essays that draws together an international community of scholars, opening up conversations far beyond the US focus of much research on Instagram. Contributions feature food influencers in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and the US. Chefs and restaurateurs in France, Denmark, and Thailand appear in the book, while other chapters examine how Canadian and Australian farmers use the platform. Overtly political representations of food are explored in an Israeli nation-building project and in the posts of populist politicians in Brazil and Italy. Several chapters focus on regional food identities in North America, from biscuit restaurants in the US South to organic farmers in the cross-border Pacific Northwest. Food Instagram is thoroughly emplaced, rooted in locally evolving food cultures and taste politics with global implications.

As these chapters show, Instagram has become an important site for producing our mediated food system through its visual economy. From producers’ photogenic narratives about our food origins, like compassionately raised “happy meat,” to the stylings of brightly layered, extravagant “freakshakes”

in an Australian café bought by some customers only to photograph, not eat—food is consumed as much by the camera as by the mouth. As Gaby David and Laurence Allard recount in their chapter on food porn, when asking after dessert recommendations at a Parisian restaurant, the waiter replied, “Well, one is served warm and is very tasty, but the other one is more Instagrammable.” Food has always been valued for its visuality, and food porn long predates digital media. However, as a digitally networked commodity, food-related content can travel further and faster, and reach different, often broader audiences than previous food media. Everyday media users also become food content producers outside of professional spheres much more than before, altering the dynamics of food systems. Suddenly any point along the food chain could become a socially networked object accessible anywhere via the platform.

The spaces of food consumption have likewise been adapted for the camera lens, as restaurants, shops, farmers markets, and kitchens are redesigned to produce a grammable experience. By 2019, an estimated 78% of restaurants in the US used the platform, and both dishes and restaurants themselves have been redesigned to conform to Instagram aesthetics. Public appetite for continuous visual content as an extension of these spaces can lead to a convergence in aesthetic styles, as Fabio Parasecoli and Mateusz Halawa show in their edited volume, Global Brooklyn (2021), which traces the reproduction of the New York borough’s industrial hipster style across food hotspots around the world. Hashtags and geotags are additional place-making technologies on Instagram, creating meaning by both locating images geographically and linking content across space. In the world of food, they can serve to both localize and globalize food-related images, which can be seen, for example, in the use of the hashtag #foodporn. David and Allard note that although 80 percent of Instagram food posts in France are in French, the majority of hashtags are in English to intentionally engage with global users. These citational practices fuse digital and physical places, as food images index local identities while plugging into transnational networks.

Food subjects are also produced in this visual economy, and Food Instagram offers rich and provocative examples from not just the influencers and celebrities for which the app is most closely identified, but also restaurateurs alongside everyday cooks and food photographers. Representing a kind of networked star system held together by the density of their connections and followings, the influencer economy commodifies corners of food culture by driving attention and selling lifestyles. Contributor Mimi Okabe looks at how Japanese diet product companies mobilize influencers and everyday users to reproduce a hyperfeminine girl culture privileging thinness, while Tara Schuwerk and Sarah Cramer explore how wellness influencers rely on highly gendered visual conventions and questionable claims of expertise while prescribing healthy eating choices. Influence can also stir up bonds of community, such as digital practices of hospitality and communal cooking fostered during the pandemic by Black women linked by such hashtags and accounts as #blackgirlcooking and Vegan Soul Food, as examined by Robin Caldwell. Similarly, Alex Ketchum shows feminist restaurateurs adeptly blending a longer history of analog media, such as cookbooks and newsletters, with social media content like Instagram stories as a means to sustain their communities’ political commitments amidst food offerings, recipes, and event listings.

The volume also shows how food subjectivities exceed familiar categories of cooks and eaters, for example by looking to farmers carefully curating their feeds to depict the idyllic origin of crops and livestock, and populist politicians connecting with their publics using posts of what contributor Sara Garcia calls “food puritanism,” identified as ostensibly authentic (traditional or comfort) foods shared without embellishment or editing. Digital platforms like Instagram thus mediate food and identity through visibility, storytelling, and networked communities in ways that can deepen connections or fragment them.

In our introduction we offer up a framework for analyzing these and other themes that locate the book at the crossroads of a number of conversations in media studies and food studies. Proposing a “feed supply chain” analysis of food Instagram, we suggest that one of the aesthetic appeals of the platform is its ability to offer the illusion of frictionless access to beautiful images, including food. We write, “The platform helps to foster the fantasy of shortened food (and image) supply chains through its aesthetics of liveness, intimacy, and authenticity” (p. 13). By examining how the platform supports a visual food ecosystem all the way from raw inputs—including everything from attractive food and photographic labor to celebrity appeal and user attention—to distribution, consumption, and waste along the feed supply chain, we push fellow scholars of media and food to integrate image analysis into broader engagement with the politics and economics of constantly feeding the feed.

For the fields of media studies and food studies, this approach provides new access points for familiar topics like celebrity, influencers, food porn, virality, identity, digital and culinary labor, and the cultures of connectivity, among others. It also invites us to bring food Instagram into other emerging interdisciplinary conversations, such as the role of social media in increasing food waste through excess consumption; the often-hidden forms of labor supporting food Instagram such as farm workers, delivery people, and content moderators whose exploitation may be exacerbated by their relative invisibility; the carbon footprint of food tourism and the vast archives of unused photographs stored in the cloud; and social media’s role in the changing political economy of both our food system and platform capitalism. Instagram has significantly shaped what, how, and why we eat. As editors, we sincerely hope that Food Instagram documents how food also shaped Instagram, as the volume charts the myriad aspects of this transformation still left open to explore.

Use promo code S22UIP to receive a 30% discount on Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation  through the University of Illinois Press website (good through December 31, 2022)


David Sutton on his book, Bigger Fish to Fry

Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples

Interview by Ariana Gunderson


Ariana Gunderson: You write that “cooking involves a code and its instantiations,” (Sutton 2021, 15). Do you consider the code of cooking to be analogous to linguistic codes? If so, how?

David Sutton: This question is really at the heart of what I was trying to do in this book. Because when I started studying cooking, I was very far from a structuralist perspective, and was much more drawn to approaches to cooking as embodied sociomaterial practice. Much of my work on cooking that was based on my video ethnography, especially in Secrets from the Greek Kitchen, focused on skill, tool use, the kitchen as environment, and other concepts that I adopted from people like Tim Ingold and Jean Lave. But what kept nagging at me was that cooking clearly wasn’t just emergent. We don’t just start out with a random set of ingredients and see what bubbles up; we set out to make something. So the whole dialectic between structure and practice that was so much of my graduate training seemed relevant again, and especially in the form that Sahlins writes about, since his approach is all about understanding the riskiness of all practice. And of course he was drawing from and modifying the linguistic-derived approach Lévi-Strauss. And then of course there was Mary Douglas’s work on food categories. So I think that at first I believed that these new approaches were what I needed to understand cooking, but the book is really about reconciling a dynamic structuralism with a more embodied phenomenology.

Ariana Gunderson: Might we consider recipe-writing a process of entextualization? Is the moment of recipe inscription a risky one?

David Sutton: On the one hand I have long felt that the moment of entextualization of recipes has tended to be problematic, a claiming of authorship that has often privileged male chefs over “anonymous” female cooks, a point made by Luce Giard, among others. And this appropriation of power often occurs in the process of inscription, whereas oral transmission is still controlled by ordinary women. So it’s risky from the point of view of who gets credit and who gets forgotten. It’s also risky in the sense that a recipe is always a “moment in time,” as Jacques Pepin puts it, the freezing of a process, which is the opposite of an approach attuned to contingency. So inscription is also translation, a translation of an assemblage of experiences; it is doubly risky. Perhaps triply so because in many culinary memoirs the moment of writing down the recipe from an older relative almost always presages impending death. At the same time, I think that the written recipe has a function, at least as a memory jog. Although the more I think about it, I realize that on Kalymnos this function is served by other people, mostly women that share the matrilocal kitchen space, and who constantly remind each other of the ingredients, proportions, and tricks that are involved in each dish.

Ariana Gunderson: Your research has been rooted in Kalymnos for decades, enabling you to examine long-term change and continuity in this new book. What do you see as the connection between an extended period of study and paying attention to small scale change?

David Sutton: I’ve always admired long-term fieldwork and the insights that come from it; I think it provides insight into continuity and change, or “changing continuities” as my mother, Constance Sutton, described it based on her long-term engagement with Barbados. Given that my initial fieldwork on Kalymnos was about historical consciousness, it’s also been interesting to see how ideas about the past change over time, and especially how small-scale change can lead to bigger changes. But small-scale change is important in other ways, in that you can see it happening ethnographically much more clearly than you can see a change, let’s say, from so-called traditional to modern world views. So I’m suggesting that focusing on something like cooking allows us to see the process of change (and continuity) in action, rather than comparing how things were at two points in time and making assumptions about what happened in between.  

I’ve noticed how many social theorists use the metaphor of recipes to talk about various social processes, though as with my comments above, I think the idea of the recipe can be problematic. On the other hand, I like to think about how much of the activity of cooking is similar to anthropology: attention to detail, participant sensing, focus on parts and wholes. Making cooking more explicit as part of our research can illuminate a lot of the social processes that we are interested in.

Ariana Gunderson: In an autoethnographic interlude, you describe recreating your late father’s spinach casserole in search of his voice. This calls up Annie Hauck-Lawson’s use of the concept of food voice to assert agency and the real-world impact of non-verbal, edible communication. Can you speak to how you find the concept of food voice useful in your ethnographic work?

David Sutton: I’ve always liked Hauck-Lawson’s concept of food voice because it can both extend and stand in for other ways that people express themselves. In Greece food voice is expressed at least in part through smell as neighbors pay attention to, and comment upon, the smell of what’s cooking next door. But I think I was most directly influenced by Carole Counihan’s slightly modified use of food voice, or what she calls “food centered life histories.” Especially in her book A Tortilla is Like Life, she uses the concept to get at the very distinct personalities, and distinct life trajectories, of the Mexicana women in southern Colorado that she was studying. I tried to do a bit of that in my previous book Secrets from the Greek Kitchen. In a way I feel like food voice does some of the work for me at the micro-level that gustemology does at the collective level. Both are about exploring peoples’—individual and collective—food-centered world views. I feel that the best ethnography moves between these two levels.  

Ariana Gunderson: Did writing Bigger Fish to Fry change how you cook? Do you hope it will change the way readers cook?

David Sutton: I think it did and I hope it does. One of my targets in the book is the idea of culinary perfectionism, what John Finn calls “culinary fascism.” It’s the idea that there is one right way to do some kitchen task, or one best recipe for any dish. I think there are a lot of lingering problematic assumptions in this approach to cooking, which can lead to things like molecular gastronomists claiming to separate old wives’ tales from scientific truths about cooking. My focus on risk and contingency, I hope, challenges the idea of perfection: in other words, I suggest that, like the Kalymnians, we should imagine good cooking as managing contingencies (material, sensory and social), rather than achieving perfection. Also, I think that the idea that I develop from Sahlins that every reproduction is also a transformation suggests a greater willingness to accept and enjoy the differences and similarities when we cook a familiar dish. I think that if we think about what makes cooking cooking in terms not of a product but of a process of confronting all the contingencies that arise both in and out of the space of the kitchen, and developing our own tricks to deal with these contingencies, to improvise, we might develop a healthier, more equanimous attitude, rather than the more dichotomous one of success versus failure, which can lead to stress and frustration.   

Lauren Crossland-Marr takes the page 99 test

Re-reading page 99 of my dissertation, I’m snapped back to the mosque in Milan, Italy that I came to know so well. Where public school children convened to learn about Islam, and a first grader asked if he was no longer a Muslim because he accidentally ate pork. Where, almost every Friday, I sat in the back with my hair covered, surrounded by other women, who expertly moved their bodies to the rhythm of worship. Where I walked, day in and day out in order to enter the offices of Halal Italia.

Page 99 sits towards the end of a chapter about the community running Halal Italia. I’m drinking tea and eating pastries with an Algerian friend who mentions that the group I work with is “not really Muslim”. What my friend was alluding to is that labeling food is powerful and can create legitimate actors and legible worlds. This is especially relevant in Italy for two conceptual reasons that have empirical effects. Italy has a global reputation for “good” food, and Muslims outside of Muslim majority countries play the leading role in determining what is certifiable as halal. Through my entanglement in daily work life, I found that the established culture of made in Italy products was a powerful force in shaping values within the Italian halal industry today.

This notion of value itself is complex. And perhaps it is due to this complexity, and the limits of the ethnographic written form, that I end my dissertation with a passage from Italo Calvino’s (1972) Invisible Cities. In the book, the emperor Kublai Khan tells Marco Polo that he can describe real cities he has never seen, his cities are based on elements in which all cities should possess. However, the Khan is unable to describe any of the cities Polo has encountered. Polo responds, “I have also thought of a model city from which I derive all others… It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions… But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would arrive at cities too probable to be real” (Calvino 1972:32).

Similarly, I show that the project of the certifier is to operate within a world that is empirically true but is also one of discourse, and like Polo’s cities, their projects are limited by, and shaped within, the food worlds they inhabit.

Calvino, Italo. 1972. Le Citta Invisibili. Turin: Einaudi.

Lauren Crossland-Marr. 2020. Consuming Local, Thinking Global: Building a Halal Industry in a World of Made in Italy. Washington University in St. Louis, Phd.

Leigh Chavez-Bush’s “Chefs, Cuisine, and Convergence”

My dissertation explores media networks within the Chicago culinary industry. At three fieldwork sites I conducted participant observation and employee ethnography with media producers, chefs, and software app developers at the intersections of food and media. My main theoretical focus is on how different actors experience and adapt to digital media’s impact on culinary culture. Using the concepts of hypermediacy, authenticity, and immediacy, I demonstrate the struggle emerging between these networks and highlight the very real barriers to successful collaboration prosumerism is breeding across production cultures.

Page 99, just shy of the conclusions drawn from my first ethnographic research site, is set during a food-focused audio competition. It opens with an intern commenting on the user-submitted short documentaries she remixed into a teaser for the competition’s main event, an “Audio Feast” announcing the winners:

I really respect and admire each person that submitted a piece, I feel like they put so much thought and effort into each second…that you may not know listening, but when you’re producing or editing them you discover all these things, like taking out a little silence to make the story tighter…

The Audio Feast brought in five famous chefs to represent the winning documentaries in a food event focused on dialogue rather than degustation. The awkward premise shined a light on the highly divergent perspectives, processes, and products of the participant groups. Audio producers use scripted material and careful production to simulate the authentic through hypermediation. Chefs, on the other hand, deliver authenticity through the immediacy of production, distribution, and consumption.

As the event organizers, the media experts dictated logistics, creating a counterfeit culinary environment in which the media novices, the chefs, were required to perform. The chefs found it challenging to adapt their production culture and largely defaulted to the immediacy-focused taste, temperature, and timing of their milieu, even though the audience would not eat their food. When chefs were able to sublimate their own ethos and embrace the hallmarks of new media, crafting (inedible) Instagrammable food and sharing emotionally compelling narratives, they achieved some level of audience connection. But the collaboration, on the whole, was fraught with conflict and consternation and showcased the lengths to which media novices will go to avoid media production—even at the cost of their own authenticity. Ultimately, the Audio Feast exchanged participation for exposure, allowing the chefs to sidestep media creation and prosumption while shining a light on the spoils prosumerism promises to deliver.

My dissertation draws from this example as I move through the interconnected web of the culinary community, further exposing the trajectory of a culture growing increasingly more reliant on hypermediation to discover, feel, and claim tangible human experiences. How will this change the way we eat? We can only anticipate the #flavorofthefuture.

Leigh Bush. Slow Food and Fast Fast Flows: Chefs, Cuisine, and Convergence. Ph.D. Dissertation. Indiana University, Bloomington, 2017.

Leigh Bush earned her PhD from Indiana University’s Food Studies program where she researched the effects of new media on the culinary industry. She studied and worked in wine, dairy and meat production in Europe and the United States before doing her ethnographic research on food, media, and tech startups in Chicago. She has been a fellow at the IU Food Institute and at the travel and exploration digital media company, Atlas Obscura/Gastro Obscura. She has been host of the wine documentary Hoosier Hospitality: Wine, and guest-host of WFIU’s syndicated food radio program Earth Eats. Currently, she works in the tech industry in Colorado, writes freelance for the publication, Westword, and teaches adjunct at Johnson and Wales University, Denver. You can reach her at leigh.bush@gmail.com.

Local Food: What Counts?


by Jennifer Meta Robinson

“Local” has emerged as one of the hottest food and cultural concepts in the United States in the past 25 years. Many people choose to buy local, read books written or published or bound locally, wear clothing made from homespun fiber or fashioned nearby, ride locally made bicycles, recreate locally, and build homes with locally sourced materials. Three-quarters of Americans say that they are highly influenced by labels that indicate food is “locally grown.” Food industry giants that regularly source from around the world, such as members of the National Restaurant Association, the largest food service trade organization, and Walmart, the largest US grocer, identify “locally grown” as a top food trend in recent years. The term’s ubiquity alone begs examination.

In a new book with co-author James R. Farmer, Selling Local:  Why Local Food Movements Matter (Indiana University Press 2017),


we report on our research over two decades that includes hundreds of interviews and site visits and thousands of surveys to understand why local matters to the people involved and how they live it.  Our focus is on people associated with farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) in the Midwest and in the central Appalachian regions, but we also range far beyond. Here is a brief glimpse.

 What Counts as Local?

Research and experience point to many appeals to local food—social, economic, and environmental factors.  But the definition remains elusive.

On the surface, localism seems to be all about proximity–what is sourced nearby has more appeal than what is transported from far away. But defining local in terms of distance turns out not to be very definitive, even among its advocates:  400 miles, within state lines, within a day’s drive?  Proximity, it turns out, is only part of how people define local.  A passionate statement by a ten-year local grower, market vendor, and CSA provider we will call Sage Goodell helps open up many of the values that define local.

We call this thing that we are doing farmer. We are working hard to create a new definition for farmer. We are working hard to replace the image of big tractors and acres of corn with an image of farm diversity, creative thinker, healthy people, healthy land, life not death, vibrant nutritious living food, good land steward, responsible caretaker of this earth. Rather than a worn-out, sick “farmer” sitting in an air-conditioned tractor spraying toxic chemicals on a field, you see a robust, energetic, inspired, loving farmer on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots. Rather than going to Kroger and buying lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce, you go to the farmers’ market and shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables, harvesting them the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm. You develop a relationship with this farmer. She thinks of you as she harvests produce each week. She thinks of you at supper on market day, knowing you have gratitude as you nourish yourself with her produce. You have a relationship with the farmer that grows your food. This is the new definition of farmer.

In the process of defining her profession, Goodell articulates seven notable facets of the ideology of local.

  1. Local Is Temporal

Freshness is frequently cited as one of the most desirable qualities of local food, and Goodell references “vibrant, nutritious living food.”  Picked so recently, it may still be alive. She mentions “harvesting [produce] the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm.” The food she grows, like news, loses an essential quality over time. In addition, she references generational time, agricultural practices dying away with the conventional farmers while the “robust, energetic, inspired loving” next-generation farmers flourish.

  1. Local Is Healthful

Goodell describe a generational trajectory of improvement in healthfulness and sets local in opposition to conventional agriculture. She describes a shift away from conventional agricultural methods that involve “spraying toxic chemicals” for “lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce” and toward intensive methods that produce healthful food, “life not death.”

  1. Local Implicates Scale

She sets the scale of “big tractors and acres of corn” and rote, straight-line work against “an image of farm diversity, creative thinker . . . on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots.” The artisanal, or “small batch,” scale of local conveys desirable qualities beyond proximity or nutritional content. Indeed, food grown nearby but processed at large scale can lose the value it might gain from its proximity to origin, according to the ideology of local.

  1. Local Means Accountability

Goodell contrasts the traditional supermarket experience with going “to the farmers’ market to shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables.” That tangibility, an actual touch, enacts a “relationship,” a bond of exchange, a shaking of hands that may perform a greeting, a thank-you, or a contract. 

  1. Local Implies Environmental Stewardship

Goodell describes her goal of being a “responsible caretaker of this earth,” caring for it “down in the soil on my hands and knees, in the dirt.” Local food offers practical solutions to the environmental impact of agriculture in shorter transport distances, less fuel consumption, and less pollution, and many local food farmers strive to live with a small environmental footprint.

  1. Local Fosters Systems Thinking

In another conversation, Goodell described her work as “growing nutritious food the smart way” to benefit all, because “we are all in this thing together.” Her approach to land stewardship constitutes an “intimate relationship,” a “marriage” of sorts. The integrative nature of local informs “the new definition of farmer.”

  1. Local Is Oppositional

Goodell defines her work against capitalistic norms, setting corporate agriculture with its productivity ideal to “feed the world” against localism’s values of small-scale accountability and performative competence. The rich farmer with air-conditioned tractors is demoted, and the poor one on her hands and knees is elevated. The flawless and bountiful are toxic while the small and laborious are vibrant.

Local remains rhetorically ambiguous. It’s a fiddly notion that must be puzzled out differently by different people according to the contexts in which they find themselves.  Freed from a strict spatial definition that only reductively renders the spirit of the movement, local food in its many dimensions can become an activist tool for change–it’s not just about space but also about time, health, human scale, accountability, stewardship of environmental systems, and progress. It puts people inside a system with many actors who each play an important part.  As people and goods become more far-flung from their roots, the longing for connectedness and community become more intense. Local rehumanizes.



Many thanks to Sage for sharing her brilliance.  And thanks, too, to the many other farmers and customers of local food who generously shared their worlds with us.

Thanks to Indiana University Press for their faith in the project.


Jennifer Meta Robinson, PhD, is professor of practice in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology where she studies food, communication, and pedagogy.  She lives on a 40-year local food farm in scenic Greene County, Indiana.