Three Saturdays ago, I went to watch a friend showjump. We sat in the sunshine on plastic chairs in front of the stables and listened to a nasal MC gush about lilac ribbons to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga.
The sweet woman selling breakfast rolls out of an upcycled horse cart refused to give me a second slice of limp bacon, “Madam doesn’t allow it,” she told me. Then a small dog peed on my coat.
So we drove to an office park in Ferndale, sat down at the corner Italian under a green umbrella, and ordered Sangria and calamari fritti and stracciatella soup. It came, delicate fronds of egg swimming in a warm parmesan broth: a Roman grandmother’s hug in a bowl. It was one of those moments when everything makes sense again.
We passed around the spoon.
“Shame, you really can’t take a photo of that,” my friend Karin said.
We stared at the bowl, pale and beige and lumpy.
My main, an enormous dish of trippa, was equally unphotogenic. I considered my plate. The strips of tripe, slow-cooked to the texture of butter, in a subtle red sauce creamy with meat juices and melted fat, was never going to be an Instagram ingenue. But its reality could take on a million Pinterest “Things I want to eat” walls in an instant, leaving the crumb carcasses of blueberry and goat’s cheese pizzas in its wake.
How did truly good food get trumped by prettiness?
By its very nature, food is honest. We eat what we like, what we can afford. It’s deeply revealing about socio-economic status, class, culture. Yet, smartphones have brought a bizarre competitiveness to the dinner table: the need to record a moment, to share it, to feel smug.
But food is hard to photograph. Your camera eschews dim restaurant lighting, anything in a bowl, anything brown. Chefs - who want your lunch to go viral, because it means more reservations for dinner - know this. So there’s a real and present danger that your desire to crow over your overcooked salmon topped with a perky dill foam may make your next meal camera-friendly, but less tasty.
It’s what one New York Times reviewer labelled “camera cuisine”; and while everyone - the kitchen, you - fiddles with your plate, draping that pea frond just so, your food gets cold.
One New York restaurant went back to its pre-smartphone CCTV footage and discovered meal-length had almost doubled in the last decade with an additional 50 minute food photo shoot.
We forget, food is about context.
The meals most worth remembering are often those lived most fully, uninterrupted by iPhone flashes and hashtags; shared afterwards in stories that tell of it all: the place, the people, the smell of the evening, all that is beyond the plate.
A year ago, I found myself eating meatballs on a stone-floored verandah clinging onto a darkened hillside, on a thyme-covered island in the Aegean.
It was a long table, surrounded by an eclectic gathering of filmmakers, journalists and screaming children, scattered with tender lemon-drenched zucchini, spicy local sausage and perfect tzatziki. But it was the meatballs - tiny, searingly hot, slightly crisp and disintegrating on the tongue to nothing but rounded juicy goodness - that sent me in search of the cook.
And at three o’clock in the morning, on a hazy night filled with raki, barrel-fermented wine and bare-footed zeibekiko, the 84-year-old pulled me into his kitchen and pulled open the fridge door.
He pulled out an enormous steel bowl of mince massaged with Ouzo, garlic and homemade bread crumbs, roadside herbs, egg yolks and sea salt, and pushed my nose into the meat. When I looked up, he was grinning proudly, having shared his family’s meatball recipe with no common language, no words.
I awoke the next morning in the same clothes to a sun-dappled valley, with no digital record of the evening other than a nameless phone number, and its promise: of secret recipes and more dancing.
La Mama, Ferndale, +27 11 7927111
Meatballs on Tinos, in the Greek Cyclades, +30 6973818156