From the Dimly-Lit Meals Tumblr to Sad Desk Lunch, the internet is now a feast of sad food photography. Why this fascination with culinary car crashes?
My Instagram feed is full of artfully arranged snaps of fantasy dinners in exotic locations, where the photographer is using the highest-spec kit while dangling from light-fittings for just the right angle. Many chefs hate the amateur snaps we customers take of the food in their restaurants, and arguably, it's terrible showing-off disguised as gastronomy (yes, I'm every bit as guilty, only without the good photographs). But recently a new phenomenon has been creeping into our consciousness, culminating in an internet riot of glee over a site called Dimly-Lit Meals for One - "heartbreaking images of one man's home cooking gone wrong": the cult of the execrable food photograph.
Spaghetti with some sort of green sauce from Dimly-Lit Meals For One
There's no denying that pictures of sad food have become a thing. Dimly-Lit Meals for One now regularly publishes submissions of other people's sad dinners; then there's Sad Desk Lunch, detailing tragic, overworked American wages-slaves' al-desko meals with the tagline: "62% of American office workers usually eat their lunch in the same spot they work all day". The poignancy of the cheese string, plastic ham and lite-salt with Starbucks coffee is almost Hopperish.
Why would you? ... Cheese sticks and
Starbucks coffee from Sad Desk Lunch
Or the Instagram account @cookingforbae which genuinely makes one question what in God's name has motivated people to not only cook these atrocities - many of which look like forensic studies - but want to share them with the world. There's CookSuck which describes itself as "the internet's food police". It might be heroically overwritten, but once in, I can find myself scrolling through a roll-call of grey burgers, flaccid white-bread sandwiches and microwaveable meat pies for a worrying length of time.
Mash with some other stuff from Dimly-Lit Meals For One
Everyone has outbreaks of sad food. Fortunately, mine - platefuls of popcorn topped with tomato ketchup caused by having spaffed my entire first term's grant on a pair of cowboy boots; interminable vats of lentil soup that also went to feed the poor cat - were perpetrated before the days of social media. Even people you would think never had a dodgy pie in their lives have had their moments: chef and TV personality Gizzi Erskine confesses to having "fond but disgusting memories" of a pasta dish involving butter, cheddar and a squeeze of tomato puree. Sounds OK to me - less so her teenage habit of snacking on glasses of frozen peas coated in Marmite. "I think I should take this frozen umami saltfest to the masses," she muses.
Toast and unidentified food items from Dimly-Lit Meals For One
Urbane restaurateur Russell Norman, star of BBC's The Restaurant Man , looks as though nothing scuzzy would ever pass his consciousness, let alone his lips. But no. He recalls a poverty-stricken, improvised sandwich of "two nobbies" of white sliced bread, margarine, Marmite, salad cream and a packet of salt & vinegar crisps. "To my great shame, I still occasionally treat myself to one," he confesses. "Just, you know, for old times' sake." Oh, OK then.
Tuna and processed cheese on white bread from Dimly-Lit Meals For One ...
maybe it tastes better than it looks
But the accolade for the weirdest sad food habit must go to writer and performer Sara Barron, author of the about-to-be-published The Harm In Asking, whose flirtation with the zone diet meant she used to snack on easily-portable polythene bags of scrambled egg. Which she ate with her fingers. For some things, we can only celebrate the absence of a camera.
It's just sad ... bread, cheese and French mustard
from Dimly-Lit Meals For One
Why this fascination with culinary car crashes? A case of schadenfreude meets freakshow, at a guess: boy, Americans eat some eldritch stuff and I'm glad I don't have to. But it's not just me. The Dimly-Lit Meals Tumblr went viral in minutes. A lot of people have pointed out that since it has been filched from a real man's actual photostream, it's a bit mean. But if you will put stuff up on the internet ...
Mashed potato, fried onions and ...
what, exactly? From Dimly-Lit Meals For One
Anyway, forget poor, solitary souls with penchants for cremated oven chips; one of the most egregious perpetrators of the sad food snap is septuagenarian domestic goddess Martha Stewart, whose food photography has been variously described as "a dog's breakfast", "prison food", and "a toilet bowl after an attack of intestinal flu". And this is largely haute cuisine, so that's quite an achievement.
A chicken stir-fry, allegedly, from Dimly-Lit Meals For One
When even our own food god Yotam Ottolenghi has taken to posting pictures of a carbonised polenta hash that cheered me even more than his usual masterworks, it's clear the sad food shot is here to stay. I've just made a glorious-tasting beef rendang that looks like Pedigree Chum. Quick: where's my camera?
Top Photo: Even Yottam Ottolenghi has dodgy days ... the 'very badly made' polenta hash picture he posted on Twitter