Every evening after work, Jonathan and Linda Plazonja cook a proper dinner in their Brookline home. They serve the meal on placemats with full settings. Forks, knives, and spoons rest on neutral-tone cloth napkins. Salad has its own plate; wine is poured into cava glasses. But before they and their two children sit down to dine, their labors are photographed and posted on Instagram. “We want to give food the due it deserves,” says Linda, a former professional cook-turned-social worker who now owns a restaurant consulting business. She plates; Jonathan shoots and posts (@tuttomorso ).
Welcome to the cook-and-caption generation, where sharing a meal has taken on new gravitas. Years ago, nobody would have documented their weeknight tuna surprise or chicken casserole. But today, home-cooked meals are a luxury. As society laments the decline of the family meal, Instagram unites people over food like a grandma in days of yore. “In the States, we rush through a meal, but there’s a special feeling that happens around the table. The importance of mealtime has been devalued,” Jonathan Plazonja says. Social media, that hobgoblin of a million distracted minds, actually fuels the sense of togetherness. From Plazonja’s trusty smartphone, he creates instant nostalgia.
Ditto Wade Devers (@wadeforit), a North Attleborough father of four. “I’m just an average guy with awesome kids who love to eat,” he says. “The only shots I take are of food I made for my family. I think the pictures I take are important because they bring me back to those moments. I can feel the summer nights outside around the table on my patio when I look back at a picture of panzanella, or feel the warmth of my house on a cold winter Sunday morning when I look at a picture of a crepe,” he says.
Those who dismiss Instagram as a foodie fad should visit Wellesley College for historical perspective. Its “Feast Your Eyes” exhibit is on display through Dec. 21 at the school’s Davis Museum. It spotlights culinary art from the 17th century through the present day, from a Spanish still life of hanging beef to a Pop Art print of cantaloupes. It captures the instinctual human attachment to food and its preservation. “Food is beautiful, sensual, and it can provoke desire,” says Liz Gardner, the museum’s public and interpretive programs specialist. “There’s such a rich history of depicting food through art that it’s only natural that everyday people have started doing it as well.”
“Everyday” is the operative word when it comes to civilian Instagram. “My gas range is the most expensive thing I have. I own a poor man’s Le Creuset. I use one 8-inch chef’s knife. I’ve had one set of plates since I got married,” says Devers.
Twin bloggers Kara and Marni Powers (@twintastes) — a teacher and an event planner, respectively — share Devers’s straightforward ethos. They began food blogging and photographing as a centralized place to keep recipes, many inspired by their Greek grandmother. They started shooting meals in their tiny North End kitchen a few years ago and garnered a loyal following on their website, Twin Tastes, thanks to their down-to-earth aesthetic. “Our recipes and photos are fun takes on classic dishes. We like to appeal to everyday cooks like us. Our recipes aren’t elaborate,” says Marni. Neither are their tools. Like Devers, they use what they already own: a KitchenAid mixer, pasta bowls from Crate & Barrel, and vintage glassware from their mom.
Though this approach might make Martha Stewart cringe, that’s hardly the point, and even chefs who spend years striving for the perfect plate appreciate the instinct. Says James Beard award-winning chef Jamie Bissonnette, a prolific food photographer himself, “My dad takes food photos because he thinks it’s fun. He’s not the best cook in the world or the best photographer. But he’s really proud that he cooked dinner for a few people.”
Andrew Marcinek agrees. By day, he’s director of technology for the Grafton public school system. At his Brighton apartment, he’s an Instagram fiend (@andycinek). “Some people take photos of puppies or sunsets. I Instagram food. It’s part of the story of my life, a nice way to capture moments, share them, and hold onto them,” he says.
Like so many modern home cooks, he was empowered by a notable chef. He began chronicling his meals after a fortuitous encounter at Cambridge’s Russell House Tavern with then-chef Michael Scelfo, an avid Instagram user (@mscelfo). “Scelfo came to my table after I took a picture of his food and tagged him; then he started following me on Instagram. I started following other chefs like Jamie Bissonnette (@jamiebiss) and Matt Jennings (@matthewjennings). Then I started photographing in my own kitchen, thinking maybe they’d like something I made,” Marcinek says. Thanks to Instagram, it’s a possibility.
But unlike many restaurant chefs, Marcinek has little desire to brand himself on social media. “I just point and shoot,” he says. “I don’t fluff things up too much.” He does edit his photos. Hudson and Valencia are his preferred filters, which lend an artsy touch to his shots. He also uses white plates, which are more photogenic.
A prideful Instagrammer must take these extra pains, and the kitchenware industry has noticed. “I’ve gotten more and more people asking for white porcelain plates because they’re so good to photograph,” says Meghan Prestidge, co-owner of Concord Cookware, in business since 1983. “People will come in wanting to display something for a luncheon or a baby shower. Nowadays, people want to take pictures of all they accomplish in the kitchen.”
This desire doesn’t come without good-natured sighs from loved ones who just want to eat, though. Devers sometimes tries to conceal his shutterbug ways from hungry family: “I’ll tell everyone, ‘Sit down and start eating; I’ll be right in.’ Then, I’ll prepare my own plate in the kitchen with no spill marks, completely composed.”
He’s not always successful. “I get a lot of grief for taking photos, no doubt about it,” he says. But thanks to Instagram, there’s always a filter.
Wade Devers Use natural light. Carry your food to a window if you have to.
Andrew Marcinek Get as close to your food as possible to capture the details.
Jonathan and Linda Plazonja Shoot straight down or at a 45-degree angle, using white plates.
Kara and Marni Powers Let food sit a second. Don’t photograph something hot from the oven; it’ll steam up your lens. http://instagram.com/twintastes
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.