Social media as a prism for consumption
In L.A., the easiest place to get a rainbow grilled cheese is Chomp Eatery in Santa Monica, a juice bar and organic food restaurant. In late September, two friends and I went to Chomp Eatery to try the sandwich for ourselves. The Yelp photos don’t show this, but the restaurant is in a strip mall next to a 7–11, a metroPCS, and a donut place that proudly advertises its own Snapchat filter. I ordered a ‘unicorn melt’ and asked the cashier about this food phenomenon. The main demographic is tween and teenage girls. They are almost always in groups, with an adult in tow. There has been a steady stream of orders — about twenty per day — since they started selling the melt on April 27th. The sandwich itself contains a mixture of fontina, asiago, provolone and Parmesan, all dyed with vegetable-based food coloring on sourdough. Almost everyone who orders the sandwich takes a picture before eating it.
Once our unicorn melt arrived, we immediately started taking pictures. We had fallen under its spell, just like the teenage girls.
“Oh, it’s it tastes like a regular grilled cheese,” I muttered. I had expected something different. Something more vibrant? The artificial colors, milk fat, and familiarity created a dissonance, but I kept eating.
“It’s good though,” one friend said.
It was. We sat there nibbling our now congealed melts, scrolling through our recent photos with greasy fingers.
The rainbow grilled cheese isn’t famous because it’s delicious. It’s famous because it looks delicious. It’s that one photogenic friend. Even if she is boring in person, she’ll still get likes. The food-coloring trend is very much connected to our image-based lives. It’s real-life Photoshop, saturation heightened, brightness bumped up. Rainbow coloring is a fairy-dusted manic pixie dream girl Snapchat filter. It’s GOOP with the dial turned up to 11.
We are on the tail end of a rainbow-food renaissance. Bagels, grilled cheese, wontons, sushi and even coffee have all been layered and dyed into technicolored marvels. The trend peaked this spring and summer. A search of #RainbowFood on Instagram leads to healthy Gwyneth Paltrow-approved wraps, ROY G. BIV vegetable platters, or artificially colored junk food.
On Pinterest, there are pages and pages of different rainbow recipes. Rainbow fudge, rainbow waffles, rainbow pasta, rainbow hamantaschen, and (my personal favorite) rainbow pigs in a blanket. Black foods like IKEA Japan’s hot dog and have ice cream become popular too. These are playfully associated with goth and metal culture as well as self-deprecating “black-like-my-soul” jokes. Galaxy print is not only for your tights anymore. Galaxy apples and donuts are there to complete your glittery cosmic brand. It’s like rainbow, but a little nerdier and more refined. If there’s a lifestyle you want to pursue, there’s an artificially colored food to match your a e s t h e t i c.
Most of the food-coloring trends are Asian in origin. The earliest traces I could find of the rainbow grilled cheese are from Hong Kong in September 2015. The all-black Kuro burger from Burger King was in Japan a year before a version came to American Burger Kings Halloween 2015. In Los Angeles, you can buy fairy dust wontons at 626 Night Market, an Asian-American centered food venue.
Photoworthy food is aspirational but also clearly fake, or at least manufactured. It inhabits a fantasy space; associated with unicorns, fairies, and glitter. In the popular YouTube series, Man vs. Pin, a husband and wife both attempt to recreate Pinterest posts à la “Pinterest fails.” The series is comedic and decidedly campy, but the viewer can live vicariously through the couple with relatively low risk. Lately, their channel has posted a lot of food coloring tutorials. The couple demystifies the rainbow-unicorn-glitter aspect by actually making the food. A rainbow grilled cheese isn’t all that special when the only difference is five dollars’ worth of Betty Crocker food coloring. The video series show the cracks within the mask. Suddenly anyone can access the galaxy or goth lifestyle brand and do it badly. But people still subscribe and watch.
We know social media is a façade, but we still participate. Instagram doesn’t show our everyday lives; it’s a collection of the best parts of our lives. It’s cold brew without the annoying silt at the bottom. It’s a wonderful night out with friends without waiting for people to show up. The food-coloring trend may seem juvenile, but it’s no different than a filter or even choosing to take a photo in the first place. The only difference is that there is now active documentation in hopes of sparking envy. As long as flatlays are a thing, we will have this dynamic.
As humans we have to consume things. Food is essential! It’s basic biology. But since the rise of social media, we are now fixated on the idea of showing our consumption. “Look at the beautiful grain bowls I eat!” Our public image is tied to what we document, and it’s easiest thing to document is our consumption, but only the best parts. With this mind-set we are not only performing consumption, but viewing everyone’s lives through technicolor lenses.
Rainbow grilled cheese is an easy way to one-up that paleo friend of yours who can’t stop posting pictures of papayas, or the health goth posing in front of white-brick walls. The best thing about rainbow food is there’s very little sacrifice. The food tastes exactly the same but now it gets more likes. Just make sure the lighting is good.
Jacky Train is an art person, writer, and IKEA enthusiast in LA. He likes to eat things and quietly judge. Feel free to judge him quietly at www.jackytran.net