Instagram Your Leftovers: History Depends on It

Sep 02, 2017 · 56 comments
Judy Wright (Nashville)
Somewhere around 2:00 in the afternoon, my mother would say, "What are we making for dinner?" This would happen whether I was visiting her with my children or when she was visiting my children at my house. It didn't matter. She had been cooking for her large family her entire adult life. She wanted to know what meat to pull out of the freezer and what veggies to get at the farm stand. Dinner for her always included a protein, starch, and vegetable. She modeled that for me. Now I blog about what she cooked. Would do anything to hear her ask that question again.
Dago (Queens)
Spot on: I know a person orders the best produce from fresh direct then order Indian food for dinner! People are funny ! This is why I'm not on any social media , I don't believe in perfectness , while the life we are living far from perfect . My hairdresser tight herself up to look slimmer and take pics to post on social media !! There u have it!
Robin (<br/>)
I disagree, we share too much as it is
Jim (MA)
Julia Child insisted there were no cooking disasters, just to gussy it up and that no one would even notice. Let's just eat and move on shall we?
Boregard (NYC)
I have never posted a food picture. Never will. As Ive never posted any other pics of anything else in my life. Im one of those...I know, one who refuses to join-in on the inane (IMO) practice of sharing everything with everyone, while no one at the same time. Im no Luddite, I love my tech devices, I just use them for more pedestrian things...like reading, researching and composing. (Or like now watching the US Open on my tablet)

I'm a middle aged guy, now single, who cooks all his own meals, have for a very, very long time. Rarely eat out, even more rare is take-out. I eat to live, not live to eat. I make very savory, male oriented meals. Protein, veggies, and some complex carb. I make enough for leftovers for lunch. I come home each day, and prep the dinner meal, then do my chores, or workout. I make things simple and easy...my carbon footprint will mostly be an aluminum foil mountain. Put the ingredients in a foil package, bake or grill them. Sometimes I saute, when Im not crunched for time. My presentations (on the plate) are not artistic. But they look good enough to eat. And they are!

Family and friends always tell me I should start a Blog, or a Video channel on how men can cook for themselves, partners and/or family and make it more healthy and not be boring. (I like a lot of spice) Seems like a lot of work. Maybe, who knows...

Food for me is a nutritional pursuit, because Im very active. How do I get enough of X, Y and Z and make it very palatable each day.
Melinda (Just off Main Street)
People must have an exaggerated sense of self-importance to imagine that strangers care one whit what they cooked or ate for dinner.

Following what strangers eat must be for people with a LOT of free time on their hands.
sjs (Bridgeport, CT)
History is in the mundane and the trivial.
CTCajun (Milford, CT)
Loved this. You're so right.
SteveRR (CA)
Yeah - really - just don't - if ur life is becoming consumed by sharing stuff on social media - then you are losing at life.
Get-a-grip!
EAK (Cary, NC)
"President Harry Truman, for instance, once hosted a dinner for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, hoping to encourage his young democracy to tilt toward the United States in the Cold War. The menu featured roast turkey, cranberry sauce and a molded ginger-ale fruit salad with toasted Triscuits — a short course in the history of American cuisine and a remarkable example of patriotism made edible. This meal was practically singing the national anthem. (Nehru was unmoved and remained skeptical about America for years. Was it the Triscuits"

Instead of a chauvinist display of American patriotism, Truman's menu should have shown sensitivity and appreciation for the culinary preferences of his guest. More important than Instagram photos for foodies would be a lesson in cultural differences. Don't serve meat to a Hindu.
Sarah (Baltimore)
I loved this! Thanks! It was that last paragraph with the farmer's market and ordering out that led a guilty chuckle - here I thought I was the only idiot that did stuff like this! A few nuggets of culinary history for you:

#1 orange jello with carrot shavings - Yikes!
#2 a picture of an xmas dinner 1950ish - 8 adults and the bowls on the table were none too full. Perhaps they thought it a feast, but by modern standards things look decidedly skimpy.
#3 This one's a keeper - sub fresh summer tomato slices for the cheese in a grilled cheese (p.s. don't try this with a grocery tomato)
Michael N. Alexander (Lexington, Mass.)
Thanks, NY, Times, for giving free advertising, disguised as a feature article, to Instagram. Some distance from the old "all the news that's fit to print" standard, isn't it?
BGZ123 (Princeton NJ)
Dear Everyone,
*Please* stop posting pictures of food. Almost no one cares. Really. And surely, we all have better things to do, than posting and especially than looking at these. Really. . . Please. Just. Stop. . . Thank you!
Eli (NC)
Oh yes, let's encourage those with time on their hands to document the minutiae of their lives.
Jane Eyrehead (<br/>)
Every once in a while i will post a picture of something I made, with a recipe, and people seem to like it. I have friends who post every restaurant meal, and that is ridiculous, although it does give me a clue as to why a couple of them ended up in the ER with heart attacks.

I recently found an old diary with menus listed for every dinner I gave in the second half of the 'seventies. First--I had no money then, yet I regularly hosted crowds for dinners. Second--Veal and elaborately iced cakes are no longer on my repertoire. Third--But some things are--roasted chicken, pasta al pesto, and fruit pies. Finally, the hand-cranked ice cream (In a second floor apartment in San Francisco) was an all-time winner. I think it was responsible for my husband.
Amy L CLark (MA)
I love this! That's the whole premise of my blog--that our lives are made up or ordinary accidents, and if we chose to love them we chose to love our lives. I post weekday recipes and unflattering food photos along with stories from my life and adventures. Here's a post sort of explaining the philosophy of that: http://settlerslikeus.blogspot.com/2015/11/aspirational-blogging.html

And here's a totally average picture of some weeknight edamame soba noodles: http://settlerslikeus.blogspot.com/
Liz DiMarco Weinmann (New York)
Food stories that could be movies if only...
1. Boyfriend I was crazy about 40 years ago barbecuing steaks at sunset. Urged him to turn on patio lights - I liked medium-rare and he liked well-done. As I cut into mine, it was inedible. Smiling "I told you so" turned into a raging fit from boyfriend, as he hurled plates & utensils across the room, steak in flight. Dumped the hothead that very night.
2. First time future husband met my father, Dad made an over-stuffed lasagna from scratch that Bob lapped up, not realizing Dad was also roasting chicken for our 2nd course. The look on my young man's face as Dad presented 2nd course w/maitre d's flourish was pure fear. Not a glutton, but Bob paid his respects. Married 35 years this year.
3. Seven Fishes dinners celebrated on Xmas Eve by Italians (and wannabes) could be a movie genre (or several: rom-com, slasher, sci-fi) all their own. First time hubby came to one, my Mom made a dozen different fish dishes, hordes of relatives showed up, invited and not, it was right after an acrimonious election, and debates ensued that rivaled cable TV shout-outs - but much more friendly. Hey, Italians are passionate.
4. For 20 years, my husband (now a superb chef) has hosted raucous Male Bonding Weekends and friend-raisers at our VT home, cooking steaks for up to 2 dozen guests (he/she/they) from all over. NYC swells and VT neighbors alike agree: Bob's is the best steakhouse anywhere, what happens here, spread the cheer.
J (US of A)
If the future wants to know what we are eating it will be more than adequately documented. If anything look at General Mills quarterly statements.

You have selected 4 instagrams that are beautiful and include professional chefs at at least 1 James Beard Award Winner (Ms. Bass).

Its a bit like saying you want to see the local high school 10th grade performance that the Tony Award winning play. They are different things and the photos shown are extremely high-level foodies that make our world more interesting and beautiful.

I'll stick with their renditions of food; I've seen plenty of low level cooking and food in this country from friends and acquaintances...I'm going to aim higher.
Boregard (NYC)
Future gens will look at our enormous mountains of garbage and wonder why we threw out so much food. While some regions had so little...
lwittern (Albany)
What a wonderful writer! This is blogging/op-edding of the highest order. Shapiro has taken a rather mundane subject with a mundane plea (photograph more and post more) and elevated it with imaginative prose. I think I'll go order her book...(and no, we are not related).
Ruth Nichols (Madison, WI)
I loved this article. It's the same way that I search old photographs to see the background--what were they growing in that garden, ooh, that crazy kitchen. Even my own old photographs--what was once mundane becomes amazing. I started writing a cooking journal where whenever something I make turns out fantastic or is a disaster, or when there is an interesting cooking companion who teaches me something new or strange I write an entry. My son, living with us temporarily, and I merge recipes to make an occasional masterpiece. I do this to boost my memory. I will start adding pictures. Including the disasters.
Andy (Salt Lake City, Utah)
I wonder if culinary historians ever studied anthropology. More specifically, archaeology. You want to know how archaeologists figure out the mundane dietary habits of our ancient ancestors? They dig through dead people's garbage. Seriously. They call the trash piles middens but effectively they're ancient garbage cans. You'd be surprised how much your trash says about you as a person. Think about it. You don't need a selfie of my undressed tuna fish sandwich. You can just look in the recycle bin and find the empty can.
Boregard (NYC)
Andy - and there's your art project...!
brifokine (Maine)
Oh honey, have I got what you want
di (california)
No need for this call to action--there are already plenty of mommy blogs about how Mom is too frazzled to make a grilled cheese sandwich and lives on her picky kid's scraps. The last thing mothers need is encouragement to seek validation for honesty and humility (or at least a show of such) by advertising themselves as incompetent.

Not seeing men being asked to Instagram home repair project oopses...
Ingrid Spangler (Womelsdorf, PA)
When I was in graduate school back in the mid-90s, I did a short film entitled, "You Are What You Eat," in which I shot myself eating and simply naming the meal I was eating: "breakfast! Lunch! Dinner!" usually said with a full mouth. It was intended to be a glimpse into my "everyday" and it ended up being a commentary on my "typical" American lifestyle, namely that I am able to eat three times a day and have the leisure to document it.
Susan S. (Delray Beach, Florida)
My girlfriends and I refer to the lurid photos of Betty Crocker as, "The Gallery of Regretable Food". Savory aspics with hard-boiled egg slices. Multiple jello salad recipes. Many more recipes which relied on canned or pre-made ingredients.....as if the food shortages and rationing of World War II was still very present in the minds of the author and editor. It is the evil twin of the farm-to-table movement. Betty Crocker emphasized presentation over nutrition or flavor.
karen (bay area)
then why were people normal sized in Betty's era and over 50% of us are now morbidly obese?
Meg Pidgeon (Doylestown, pA)
Stopped reading at the gratuitous derision of gluten free diets in the second paragraph. Why be mean about a food allergy people are suffering through in the first place?
m.pipik (NewYork)
@Meg
You don't suffer through a food allergy unless you eat the food. Those of us who grew up with food allergies early on learned to avoid the foods and often ate very limited diets. You did it because you didn't want to be ill.

No one I knew with allergies ever begrudged anyone else from eating the offending foods, even at the same table (except those few foods which could be deadly).

It's insulting to those of us who do have allergies to think that we can't abide others enjoying food that we can't eat. Most of us are not that self-centered.
Margaret (Fl)
Thank you for making me laugh really hard! Your project sounds like side-splitting fun. Part of that fun is to imagine the psychological manhandling instagramers would have to inflict on themselves to post anything less than 1000% perfect.

Seriously, to comply with the writer's wishes would require a complete renunciation of what Instagram represents for its contributors. It obviously isn't life as it happens, as it is lived. Instagram doesn't bear witness. Instagram serves the dream of life as a stage.

Note that nobody in the comments so far has left their links to leftover tapioca and neither will I, lol.
nurse (CT)
Oooh! I read this too late! Last night was making a delicious stew of chicken broth, spinach, sausage and beans. Unfortunately I got engrossed in some work email and broth evaporated. The blackened burnt beans made a lovely mosaic in charred pot. Would have been perfect for you!
Heather (<br/>)
I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only person who spends a half hour on CSA pickup day trimming, washing, storing all the bounty only to pick up the phone and order pizza!
M Bloom (New Jersey)
Full complement Chinese after grocery shopping!
Patti (Tucson)
I invite everyone to check out #cookingdisaster and #iateitanyway on Instagram. You'll see hilarious cooking mishaps, including some of my own. And yes, except for the ones burnt to a crisp, I ate it anyway, unphotogenic and uninspiring though those dishes were.
Lisa (Canada)
I love the concept, but I see these all the time on social media, except the posters think that they belong in the "inspiring and beautiful" category. There are way too many people photographing everything, and much of the "what I made for dinner" photography turns my stomach. I don't want to see your first attempt at chili boiling away on your dirty stove, thankyouverymuch.
Patricia VanderPol (Alabama)
Often I share photos of my kitchen adventures with my adult children. We live thousands of miles apart, and it's a way to keep our family close. Usually the photos evoke memories or funny stories, and it's almost like we're around the table together again. The foods pictured are interesting, but so are the old plates and bowls. and our family history is shared through these photos. Not long ago our son found an old bowl at a thrift store, an exact replica of my "potato salad bowl" from my grandmother. He sent a photo of it--filled with my daughter-in-law's family recipe for potato salad.

There is always enough food at our table to set one more plate, but I have no need to post these food photos on Instagram. I don't understand why everything needs to be public. I generally avoid social media to protect my privacy and that of my family. It seems we are becoming a nation of voyeurs for no good reason.
Stacy Mann (San Diego)
Recently I have been thinking about foods that are dated. It started when my Bestie was convinced to make a tuna salad jello mold by her dear elderly friend. It came with raves galore. The friend suggested it for the brunch meeting of soon to be new grandparents. Luckily she made two, a big one and a little one. With the lemon jello, mayo and tuna and chopped celery it may have looked perfect but the recipe did not taste good. So it got me thinking which foods have passed the test of time? Grilled cheese, mac and cheese, meatloaf etc. We have updated old favorites, dressed them up, but the comfort they give is the same and good. Some into vintage archives and the disposal of time.
Cathy (Hopewell Junction NY)
Will my children view the chicken I sauteed in in wine and lemon with the same disdain I view tuna noodle casserole? Maybe, because I used lemon juice and cheap wine, and left out the mushrooms because of a family history of anaphylaxis.

What will be the mushroom soup of our generation? Kraft mac and cheese or jarred pasta sauce? Taco sauce? It is hard to imagine everyday eating to be quite as bad as what the WonderBread, Jello and canned Cream of Soup generation did to us.

Instagram away. Maybe it will show a nation in recovery.
James m Hurtt (New York City)
Ms Shapiro is on to something important for the future history of culinary taste. We need more recording of our daily meals and not just the special occasions or special restaurant meals. Back in 2011 I recorded every dinner that my husband I cooked at home from Jan. 15, 2011 to Jan. 15, 2012. It was a record of each course -usually just 2 or 3 and the wine served and the china used and what cookbook was used for each recipe. Many times there was no recipe as my husband knew how to make chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff by heart.
We ate at home almost every day except for once week when we went out to join friends. We also entertained friends at home and these more special events were recorded as well. I look bak at the menus and am amazed and charmed.
I did not take many photos and have never posted on Instagram but my menu book will be a future source for food historians.
Some Name (Natick)
Once this takes its toll, cooks will stop making delicious food to start making history. Cooks will stop taking culinary courses but start taking photography and writing courses (to write impressive comments so that they can be in the history books easier :-D)
Now not being skeptical, I think it is an interesting thought to catalogue and study food consumption. It helps people understand the history of food consumption - how people started eating different food in different times. May be there is a pattern that the future generation will discover.
Susan Bishop (<br/>)
I love the idea of sharing "everyday" food picture! I hardly ever Instagram, but I'm going to resurrect my account and do this once in a while. Hope lots of other non-fancy cooks will do the same.
George Gollin (Champaign, Illinois)
I love to eat, and I love to cook for family and friends. I tend to use Instagram to document dishes that are eye-poppingly gorgeous. It's not a Ken Burns historical documentary I'm aiming for--"here is bad food we've eaten"--but instead something more aspirational. Nothing wrong with that!
Joshua Schwartz (Ramat-Gan, Israel)
This is more or less the equivalent of the still life in art of the late medieval or early modern periods. This type of thing is important not only for culinary history but for the history of material culture in general, even if much is more wishful thinking than reality.
It is unlikely though that any of the "Instagram leftovers" will make its way to the National Galleries.
Tuvw Xyz (Evanston, Illinois)
Kudos to Ms. Shapiro for hitting the nail on the head: indeed, much of human history has been made by food. When one reads about the grand meals that accompanied international negotiations, conferences, and congresses, one wonders whether the world would be as it is today, if the delegates found the food served unpalatable and, in the custom of the day, turned their plates upside down as a sign of insult, while continuing to smile and converse with their neighbors at the table.
Somehow I find it difficult to identify Harry S Truman's menu of the dinner he gave Nehru as quintessentially American or Usan, except for the roast turkey. But the Usans have degenerated to a nation of hamburgers-with-ketchup eaters.
Hopefully, Ms. Shapiro's writing will help restore the people's palates, reeducate their tastes, and create a true haute cuisine à l'Américaine.
Diana Frances (<br/>)
I love this. It's so true. The mundane can be sublime.
Concerned Citizen (Anywheresville)
Speaking of that Betty Crocker cookbook: for my money, it's the best EVERY published and I own a lot of cookbooks. Every recipe in it is wonderful! and the lurid color photographs are adorable.

This was the cookbook my mom got when she was married in 1952; used it probably every week of her life -- countless recipes, plus it was stuffed full of her handwritten notes and things she cut out of magazines. Tragically, this original cookbook was lost when my family moved -- oh the heartbreak! I eventually found not one but two replacement copies -- one hardcover, and another in a very practical binder with removable pages! (Both were somebody else's mom's cookbooks -- stuffed with THEIR recipes and handwritten notes!)

So it lives on....I've found other copies and given them to my all of my kids and stepkids. Seriously, this is a WONDERFUL cookbook, despite the funky period details and gaudy color photography. Good food doesn't change all that much; cooking is still cooking.
CJ (CT)
I agree. My mom had this cookbook too and I still use it. It is full of classic dishes that are easy to make, with photos and clear directions and it remains one of my most used cookbooks.
Malathi R (Indiana)
I have never understood how and why books get lost during a move. I have moved so many times and each time I lost a few favorite books. I assume we packed them from our bookshelves with other books, in a box. But they didn't turn up at the new places. Did we lose more than the ones we notice missing and look for frantically? Did we lose whole boxes or two along the way each time but are unaware of the full losses. It is such a tragic mystery to me -- the how and why!
Donna Delahanty (Kentucky)
My grandmother was a waitress at the Union League in Philadelphia for almost thirty years. I have several of the menus for special occasions going back to the fifties. I used to stop in once in a while, visit the ladies in their locker room and watch the chefs prepare meals. Once I saw a gigantic sea turtle laid out alive on the prep table. It was crying. I will never eat turtle soup. I sort through the menus and remember my grandmother and the accomplished way she could perfectly debone a fish before putting it on my plate. She was a very good cook.
Diana Frances (<br/>)
So sad about the turtle. I haven't seen it on any menu in years.
Jean (Holland Ohio)
Not what I wanted to read. I worked on scientific expeditions for endangered sea turtles.
Gerard (PA)
Was it cultural imperialism or insensitivity that put such American food in front of the Indian Prime Minister? You do not win allies by force feeding them Americana. Something pleasing to both palettes, a fusion of cuisine, would have better shown understanding and a willingness to meet.
Ivy (CA)
You are kidding, right? What were you eating on mid, late 50s?
Anything else that was "cuisine", ha ha fusion, would have started a new Cold War front.
Turkey and cranberry was find, skip the desert, thanks!
SR (DC)
Of course it was a nationalistic meal, but you're asking a lot from a c. 1950 state dinner if you genuinely think the Truman White House should've served US-Indian fusion.
Cristina Potters (Mexico City)
Harry Truman was president from 1945 until 1953. It's easy to look through our 21st century retrospectoscope and say what might have been better done, but who had that perspective in those days, nearly 65 years ago? Can't think of a soul.
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