Bill Rugen loves cookies. Last January he ate 60 of them, mostly chocolatechocolate chip. He also frequents Mexican restaurants, avoids vegetables (except french fries), sometimes binges on M&M's and begins most days with yogurt and fruit.
I've never met Bill Rugen, but I know all of this because he photographed everything he ate last year and arranged the evidence in a stunning online mosaic entitled Consumed. After shooting the foods in a flash-blasted style that evokes fashion photographer Terry Richardson, he tagged them by their ingredients, meal type and place of consumption. There are some 1,400 unique tags in all, displayed in a vast word cloud.
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Recording meals for posterity isn't a new idea. We've learned from cave paintings that Mayans had a way with maize, and tomb etchings tell us that ancient Egyptians thrived on bread and beer. We know that medieval feasts were epic displays of wealth and edacity, thanks to the ur-food writers who chronicled them.
But the food journal has entered a new era. It has never been easier to share one's daily intake with the world, and more people are sending their diets into the digital sky for all to see and appraise, with reactions that range from a virtual thumbs-up to alarmed concern. When a camera flash goes off in a restaurant, I no longer look around for the birthday partyI look for the food blogger.
As eating becomes a sport, it is also becoming a spectator sport, with a fan base that grows by the click. Is this a natural by-product of our oversharing ways? An obsession with foodand ourselves? Thanks to social-networking tools like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, we can not only find out what friends (and complete strangers) are having for dinner tonightwe can see, in real time, when they arrive for their reservations, look at photos of their dinners-in-progress and comment upon their choice of entrées.
As a food amnesiac, I can tell you that this is intimidating. Without careful deliberation, I can't recall what I made for breakfast on Tuesday or ordered at a restaurant last Fridaywhich is bizarre, given how much of my life revolves around what I eat. Unless I'm taking notes for a story, the only records I have are the murky photos my girlfriend takes with her phone whenever I cook dinner. (This way, she says, she can ask me to prepare a particular meal again, as I will probably forget what I've made by morning.)
If I can't remember what I eat, why would anyone else want to have a record of it? To see what it would feel like to put my diet in the datasphere, I launched my own Twitter feed (@spilledmyguts). My goal was to document every single thing I digested, from mundane snacks ("Banana-sesame muffin for breakfast; too dry, ate half") to an embarrassment of food consumed during a weekend in Austin. To paraphrase epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: I'll Tweet what I eat, and you tell me what I am.
I also embedded myself on Foodspotting, a website and iPhone app that lets its 400,000-plus users share photos of their restaurant endeavors. Images are geotagged to their origin so other Foodspotters can visually browse menus nearby. It's a fun way to eat with your eyesas long as the photos flatter the food. (Many don't, including my own.) When she launched Foodspotting early last year, Alexa Andrzejewski realized this and engineered the system so that it would display the prettiest pictures first. Users single out their favorites by flagging the photos with a "Nom," an onomatopoeic blue ribbon abbreviated from "om nom nom" (the lip-smacking sound a person might make while eating something extremely delicious).
Racking up "Noms" is a competitive pastime. The more (and better) pictures you take, the more points you earn. "It's become a game among my friends," says Manya Susoev, a Las Vegasbased "Super Spotter." "It lets you say, 'I got to eat out more; I tried more dishes than you did.' " Chris Connolly, a San Franciscobased web designer, hauls his Canon DSLR camera wherever he goes, then touches up his photos before posting them. "Bad shots degrade the food," he explains. "I try to make the food look better that it really is." My own Foodspotting efforts earned me a solitary "Nom," of which I am proud.
Perhaps the oddest mash-up of food and digital culture, and a logical progression from Foodspotting, is the "food haul" video. Inspired by one of the biggest web phenomena of 2010the "haul video," wherein young women play show-and-tell with their latest shopping finds in front of a webcamfood hauls are a chance to share a meal before you've even made it. On the YouTube channel Farmers Market Hauls, you can watch people surveying countertops full of edible loot. "I found this melon at the market this morning," one poster gushes on her video. "I don't know what it is or what it tastes like, but it smelled so heavenly I couldn't resist."
Sharing food finds is one thing; disclosing one's dietary addictions and inhibitions is another. The most popular feature on the food blog Grub Street is the New York Diet, in which celebrities and cultural figures like writer Jonathan Lethem and actress Alicia Silverstone (and F&W's Dana Cowin) chronicle a week of their eating lives. While it's reassuring to read that Miss USA Rima Fakih likes Shake Shack and Michael Pollan buys prepackaged sushi (in a pinch), the real fun begins in the comments section, where the anonymous jury enthusiastically voice their approval or (more likely) criticism. "Food obsessives enjoy the opportunity to judge people based on their diets," explains Grub Street editor Daniel Maurer. "It's the one time when you can look at a gorgeous model and say, 'No way would I ever want to be like that if it means eating flax bars every day.' On the other hand, people enjoy feeling like they have something in common with a favorite rock star or chef, even if it's just that they go to the same banh mi shop."
Bill Rugen doesn't invite commentary on Consumed, but that doesn't stop it from reaching him: "I meet people, and they say to me, 'Man, you do not eat well. How are you still alive?' " He says he'll aim to eat in a more well-rounded way in 2011. "My doctor says I'm very healthy," Rugen says. "But I haven't shown him my website."
Three weeks and dozens of Tweets into my own food journal, I had zero followers. Frankly, I was somewhat relieved that nobody had analyzed my weakness for Swedish Fish or attacked my lopsided food photos. But I was critical enough on my own. I found myself styling food in restaurants and abstaining from second helpings at dinner parties, lest someone re-Tweet my gluttonous ways. I may be an anomaly in this era of oversharing: a person who is too private to feel comfortable revealing his half-eaten banana muffins to the world.
But this digital exercise has had its benefits. Despite my food amnesia, I've always believed that if a meal is memorable, I'll remember it. But I don't. Thanks to my digital record, though, at least I won't forget the best beef ribs I've ever tasted (at the Salt Lick Bar-B-Que near Austin). And I've become aware of some dietary quirks previously unknown to me. (Like Rugen, I apparently enjoy cookiesa lot.) I've also found myself paying more attention to my food. And when I've eaten a meal alone, I've had fun composing a Tweet or taking a picture and posting it online as a way to share the experience with friends.
Now that my digital food experiment is ending, however, I've decided to take my diet offline and record my meals the old-fashioned way: cave paintings.
Nick Fauchald, a former staffer at F&W, is the editor in chief of Tasting Table, a daily epicurean e-mail.