by Johannah King-Slutzky
Small-batch pickles, Greek yogurt, and quinoa are all high-stakes trendy foods with loads of moral and aesthetic baggage. We ingest them to prove to ourselves that we are ethical by way of being health-conscious, multicultural, hard workers. Of course, the labor required to produce and consume a pickle won’t have any measurable effect on the health of your body, the quality of your soul, or the degree of your authenticity. This constellation of foods, which might be crudely labeled “hipster food,” are the means by which our sense of goodness is outsourced through our gut.
The antithetical culinary trend of hipster food, snackwave, seizes on its puritanism and refutes it through slovenliness, shopping mall imagery, and pro-capitalist branding. It is the first prong in the anti-hipster food backlash. As Hazel Cills and Gabrielle Noone write in The Hairpin, snackwave “trickled up from Tumblr dashboards” to counter “Pinterest-worthy twee cupcake recipes.” It is chiefly defined by excessive consumption of junk food and is often couched in the doctrine that women, especially, can do whatever they want to their bodies. An important element of snackwave is its individualism: the meal is communal, the snack is individual.
Normcore food will be the second prong in the anti-hipster food backlash. Normcore and snackwave, though opposites, are both cultural formations that will teach us how to finally stop eating kale. There have been a couple anemic attempts to define normcore food, and they are usually wrong. For example, people who believe normcore food is just junk food done up in a chef hat — your David Chang-type cuisine — are confusing it with typical hipster fare. Bon Appetitmade a better go of it with their April Fool’s Day slideshow, which included items like yogurt and chicken fajitas, and at least one food blogger got it right when she identified the BRAT diet plus plain chicken and bok choy as normcore. In the realm of fine cuisine, The New York Times has unknowingly alluded to at least one normcoreish food movement in a trend piece on “refined slob” nineties food writer Laurie Colwin. Besides normcore being a running joke, it is also very attractive, as increasingly elaborate (or else humblebrag-y) food exhausts itself and gives way to a minimalism that is not regressive or folksy.
If normcore fashion is not just hipsterism made over in worse nineties clothes — which is a common critique — normcore food should also have its own menu. Specifically, it must exclude any variety of trend-forward food: kitsch Americana, artisanal products like pickles and jams, and snackwave-like excess. As with its fashion equivalent, the goods must be ugly and plainly dressed.
Normcore food is all of the following:
2. Homemade but not artisanal
3. Would have been popular in the early nineties without becoming a nostalgia fetish item
4. Healthy but not cleansing
5. Can be made or purchased in batches large enough for a family but is usually eaten alone
6. Might use ethnic ingredients, but never in order to claim authenticity
Like snackwave, normcore food takes its cues from the internet. But where snackwave revels in brands like Taco Bell, normcore food is clean, anodyne, and a little uncanny, just like the rolling pastures on Stonyfield yogurt cups. Normcore is not Molly Soda Tumblr; normcore is The Jogging Tumblr. Normcore is #aloewave. Normcore is Google Maps. Though both normcore and snackwave play with capitalism, anonymity, and technology, while snackwave is defined by excess and cliche, normcore is minimalist and inoffensively healthy.
These principles don’t just make dialectical sense; they also reproduce normcore fashion’s source texts. Although normcore’s boundaries are contested, one premise about normcore fashion has remained universally unchallenged: Jerry and George would have worn it on Seinfeld. The question that naturally follows is, What would Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza have eaten? Having watched a lot of Seinfeld and also having researched “Jerry Seinfeld food” on YouTube I can tell you: tuna salad on toast, not-actually-spicy kung pao chicken, single-serving take out soup, Junior Mints, brandless cereal, and scores of dehydrating pretzels.
In 1998, Jerry Seinfeld had a comedic bit — the gist of which is “What’s up with supermarkets??” — that exemplifies exactly how Jerry Seinfeld approached food in the nineties. He admits to feeling compelled but befuddled by health consciousness, literally dazed by the organization of aisles and inaccessible exits, and challenged by the folksy received wisdom that has since become de rigueur for foodies. He is particularly baffled by seasonal fruits. In other words, Jerry Seinfeld is inexpert. He is also (unlike practitioners of snackwave) not polemic. He wants to be healthy but is neither forward thinking nor atavistic enough to adopt the ethos of “fat free” or organic. Seinfeld’s food is also multicultural but never authentic: George eats spicy kung pao but reverts to milder stuff after sweating too profusely in the presence of his boss; Jerry and Elaine visit a soup stand for ambiguously ethnic food on the go. The group’s snack food is not indulgently deep fried, like potato chips; they eat pretzels and mints. Jerry and co. are always eating standing up. Even at the diner, they come and go interchangeably. There are no five-seater golden turkey kitschy-nostalgic American meals on Seinfeld.
The second widely embraced source text for normcore is a certain kind of internet art — minimalist, often inspired by “postinternet art,” and collective or anonymous. The Jogging, a user submission-based net art Tumblr founded by Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen, is definitely normcore. (The normcore/The Jogging connection is kind of intuitive, but if you want further proof, Art F City claims that normcore started out as The Jogging co-founder Brad Troemel’s in-joke about DIS Magazine.) This kind of net art is fixated on food and therefore makes an ideal library of what normcore food is or will become. Going by culinary images on blogs like The Jogging, normcore food is unattractively butchered salmon, dry cornflakes, white onion with Jell-O red marinara, and kebabs. The K-Hole “Youth Mode” report’s normcore section also features a very Jogging-y photograph of a Del Monte fruit sticker slapped onto a banana-yellow snake. These foods are ugly, inexpert, and neither healthy nor unhealthy. Like the kebab, they are occasionally ethnic but not fetishistic. Not that these foods should be taken literally — no one is suggesting you eat a whole unchopped onion out of a frying pan — but read in the right spirit, these images are a legible normcore food archive.
These qualities are reproduced in normcore fashion. In her New York Magazine article, Fiona Duncan introduces readers to normcore when she admits to no longer being able to distinguish art kids from “middle-aged, middle-American” tourists:
Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfortable sneakers, both types looked like they might’ve just stepped off an R-train after shopping in Times Square. When I texted my friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on the latest urban camouflage, I got an immediate reply: “lol normcore.”
One salient feature of normcore is that it is middling: middle-aged, middle American, and implicitly upper middle class. Normcore is also a peculiar blend of labor and leisure. Wearers look like they “just stepped off an R-train” (meaning they have been busy) yet they look like tourists (they have been on vacation). This labor/leisure mixture is reproduced in normcore’s affection for sports. Normcore sportiness, like Duncan’s apocryphal Times Square tourist, looks physically active but not productive. Three icons of normcore are the white athletic sock, the baseball cap (extra points for Nike logo), and the Nike or Adidas track pant — all generically athletic, usually paired with something that neuters the wearer’s capacity for physical exertion, like stiletto heels.
Examining the stilettos with gym-sock as normcore synecdoche, we can see what might make this middling athleticism attractive. The stiletto/sock combo appears cobbled together in a way that — to borrow food diction — you might call homemade but not classic. That is, it is inexpert — neither professional nor folksy-conventional — and uses genuinely sentimental ingredients without aiming for authenticity. The stiletto-with-gym-sock combines glamorous working-girl imagery (popular in fashion spreads since 1960, when young women began to live and shop outside the family) with lumpy apparel you can buy in packs. Gym socks are not just ambiguously “dad-like,” they’re what a family buys when it shops in bulk. So the stiletto/gym sock combo alludes to at least three self-moderations: individualism within the family, leisure within labor, and constructed inexpertise.
Normcore foods are attractive because they’re a middling response to the aesthetic and political problems posed by the hipster. The worst part of hipster food is its fetish for authenticity. Not only is it pretentious, it can have real world effects like raising the price of quinoa above its farmers’ purchasing power and gentrifying low-income black people out of purchasing the formerly affordable greens that are a staple of soul food.
A case study in normcore food is Stonyfield Cream Top yogurt. Stonyfield yogurt is way less interesting than other kinds of yogurt. It looks like the Windows XP home screen. It’s the Times New Roman of yogurt. And yet: Snacks are in. Yogurt is a snack. Unlike other zeitgeist-y snacks, however, Stonyfield yogurt isn’t obsessed with itself. It’s not curated, and it isn’t a bottomless pit of teen nostalgia. Stonyfield yogurt is a snack that won’t make you feel clean or sad. Therein lies its mystique. It doesn’t trade on any ethnic subculture. It also bridges the gap between youth (e.g. snackwave, David Chang couture cereal-milk ice cream) and responsible adulthood (Whole Foods, small plates, farms). Stonyfield yogurt will be THE yogurt of the late twenty-tens because it is post-hipster, yet offers an alternative to the anti-authoritarian individualism and wryness of snackwave.
Stonyfield not “artisanal” (like Greek yogurt) but it’s not junk food; it’s family food your mom might’ve purchased but is often eaten alone, on the go; and it belongs to, yet refutes, the ideology of snacks — which are adolescent, unhealthy, and eaten alone (or at least not at the dinner table). Cream-top yogurt is a snack that is self-contained, minimalist, and unsuitable for a sleepover.
Similarly, SodaStream is normcore because its bottles looks like Clip Art — and a food product is always normcore if its packaging looks like it was designed in Microsoft Word. Additionally, SodaStream is photographed in generic stock image style, straight on or sometimes at a slight downward angle, but always in a vacuum. Finally, SodaStream is homemade but not artisanal; vaguely ethnic (seltzer is Jewish); and can be made for a family of four but consumed alone.
Boring fruits like apples, oranges, bananas, cherries, apples (anything stock enough to appear on slot machines and candy) are normcore. Kale, collard greens, lychee, mango, etc. are not. Peas are normcore. Red leaf lettuce is normcore. Iceberg lettuce is not normcore. (Too kitschy.) Generally if you can tell me about a fruit or vegetable’s cultural history it is not normcore. On the other hand, prepared foods are usually not normcore because normcore must be inexpert and family oriented. Lean Cuisine, which is disgusting, is normcoreish. If the normcorer must eat prepared food, he should eat Lean Cuisine.
Fast food can be normcore if consumed in moderation. Taco Bell is never normcore (too snackwave, too ironic), but McDonald’s and Burger King can be normcore. McDonald’s and Burger King are generic but not kitschy, “wacky,” or borderline artisanal. Mega brands like McDonald’s are consistent with normcore because they’re culturally unspecific; they don’t make you feel like a fuck-it-all underdog. Fuck-it-all underdog is never normcore. Applebees is not normcore; gas station food is not normcore. The irony and kitsch potential is too high, and normcore is hesitantly sincere or else incredibly dry. Normcore food, like normcore fashion, is urban. That means many rural and suburban dining choices are not normcore.
A handful of foods are normcore but not uniquely so. Normcore is okay with this. This means Coca-Cola, cheap beers like Budweiser or Corona with lime, and bland roast chicken are normcore. The New York Times coverage of young New York writers’ surging interest in nineties ‘slob’ food writer Laurie Colwin includes a large inventory of potentially normcore foods. The article mentions creamed spinach (no, too kitschy), baked mustard chicken (yes, because limply spicy mustard; no if made with Panko crumbs), black beans (yes, black beans are ugly beans), lentil soup (no), and potato salad (indeterminate). Likewise, most normcore food is homemade with standard but inexpertly combined ingredients. Examples include curried chicken salad made with copious mayonnaise, bean salads made with ugly beans (like kidney beans), or ants on a log made with hydrogenated peanut butter or cream cheese. Also, lots of nineties-style tupperware like this.
So what? Is normcore food all a big fart that goes nowhere? Probably. Maybe delis will sell more curry chicken salad. Maybe the canned tuna market will shoot up. For sure, Greek yogurt is fucked in the long term; that market is saturated. But normcore food is not a branded movement, so industry-based change will be limited, and snackwave will offset any normcore anti-junk food zeitgeist. Normcore food is more significant as an index of our puritanism, whose contemporary cultural relevance is bizarrely unnoticed. Normcore is not purely puritanical; it’s too middling, and it doesn’t want to purify so much as stabilize. It’s about self-moderation. That’s why it mixes mega brands like Nike with nondescript unbranded white shirtsleeves, or why it neuters high-end luxury goods with tube socks.
A lot of cultural critics can’t see this, partially because the dividing line between “normcore” and “hipster” is muddled when it comes to clothes. For example, many people wrongly assume mom jeans are normcore. They’re not; they’re the same stuff American Apparel has been peddling for years. This is one of the ways that thinking about normcore through food, instead of fashion, can be helpful. In food, these distinctions are clearer. We know juice and kale and quinoa are cleansing, puritan, and that chicken salad with mayo isn’t. It’s easier to take notice of our puritanism through food. So long as puritanism remains culturally viable, normcore will be attractive.