In pockets of boredom, a wonderful thing to google is "food styling tricks." If you've had the pleasure of going down this road before, you will know that professional food stylists stuff chickens with paper towels, pour Elmer's Glue into cereal bowls instead of milk, and paint prawns with clear nail polish to make them shiny. Even if these "tips" aren't true, they make me feel like less of a failure when I take a picture of my lunch and it looks disgusting. It takes talent to make food photogenic.
I think about these things when I can't sleep at night—when I'm laying flat in bed, going down Instagram wormholes and making my thumbs ache. During these episodes I'm generally hungry but too tired to make a snack, and to cure both ills, I find myself scrolling through the accounts of 'heathy food' bloggers, looking at all the fascinating foods they eat. Do this for a few consecutive nights and you start to notice trends rippling through the community: ingredient trends, photography trends, and—most gripping of all—styling trends.
My favorite of these is the recent rise of what I will call "Decorated Mush": bowls of hot cereal topped with a marquetry of healthy vegan ingredients. (When I say "mush," it's not a slur—I love mush and consume it daily! Usually oatmeal.) You can click through hundreds and hundreds of these bowls—each one different, but all answering a few specs:
-Must have a "base" of mush (oatmeal, buckwheat, chia pudding, quinoa flakes, etc.)
-Must have two or more toppings
-Must have fruit
-Must look pretty
-Must be accompanied by a description of ingredients
Other common motifs include fanned-out banana slices (how do they do that?), tidy puddles of nut butter, and superfoods like goji berries, chia seeds, cacao nibs, and maca (what is maca?). The particulars of mush-making—the handwork, the attention to detail and placement, the exchanging of tips and tricks—reminds me of letters Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, about cool sewing projects she was doing. You can tell that these people are enjoying the process. And if the resulting photographs are dizzying, the captions are even better, each one a haiku of virtuous sensory excitement:
"Vanilla maca oatmeal with banana, raspberries, almonds, white mulberries and hemp hearts, plus a morning time tea on the side"
"Rolled oats + cacao + chia seeds cooked in rice milk and water, topped with banana + honey + coconut flakes"
"Vanilla chai buckwheat porridge with banana, tahini, hemp hearts, coconut sugar and pumpkin seeds"
Is there an obsessive element to these bowls? Dunno. That word gets thrown around too casually where women and food are concerned, and if a preference for exactitude is all it takes to be obsessive, then anyone who's ever baked a successful cake qualifies. In my case, Decorated Mush fills me with an earnest, temporary avowal to eat more fiber-rich foods, as well as a curiosity about the costs of all those superfood ingredients. Perhaps I could incorporate one or two into my diet as a New Year's resolution.
As for the origin of this trend, I'm equally unsure—though it seems like a logical extension of Things Organized Neatly. There is certainly skill in Decorated Mush bowls, and there is also time: if these women took up painting, they could probably turn out some incredible geometric abstractions. But why should they? You can't eat a painting, and that's half the fun.