Places like Salt & Straw, founded by Kim and Tyler Malek in Portland, Oregon, or Wanderlust Creamery, founded by Adrienne Borlongan and Jon-Patrick “JP” Lopez, have taken ice cream flavors to total extremes. Salt & Straw flavors range from weird but interesting, like “Churro Horchata” or “Strawberry Mango Milk Bun” or even “Ubetasic,” to totally absurd, as demonstrated by the “Avocado Toast” or “Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese” flavors that are also served on a pretty regular basis. Whether the appeal comes from a genuine interest in moving towards more savory desserts, a societal fascination with absurdities, a strong rejection of all things simple and basic to evolve for the sake of evolving, or a combination of all of these, I can only be certain of one thing: contemporary media is at the forefront of this experimental and aesthetically pleasing ice cream era.
My Instagram Explore feed, which was once full of talking bird videos and pictures of beautifully frosted cookies, is now completely imbued with videos of people pouring black ice cream into equally colorless cones, chopping up mix-ins, rolling ice cream into little spiraled cylinders, or preparing milkshakes topped with whole cupcakes and an abundant variety of toppings. These videos are, undeniably, visually satisfying and intriguing, but I don’t know how far from my usual scoop of cookies and cream with rainbow sprinkles I would actually be willing to go.
Food trends have been around since long before the “trend” existed, but these more recent Instagram-able trends are surely the result of new media and its influence in the notion that we eat with our eyes first. For example, Charcoal is not an inherently amazing ice cream flavor, but its pitch black hue makes for incredibly enticing pictures that people consume in excess while they scroll through their feed.
This “gastroporn,” as it is referred to in “Eating with our eyes: From visual hunger to digital satiation,”(1) is manipulative and enticing because it allows us to participate in so-called “visual gluttony.” In this article, the authors argue that by participating in food trends passively – through watching cooking shows, Instagram videos, commercials, and other things of that nature – we are allowing ourselves to live vicariously through others and seeking satiation through visual content because an unhealthy lifestyle is becoming less and less acceptable in society, which has been defined by mainstream media. This content consumption may seem perfectly fine because people are not actively eating everything that they are seeing, but the romanticization of gluttony on our screens can actually have long lasting effects on our brains. In the best cases, people increase their daily caloric consumption due to their idealized view of what good food should look and taste like. In the worst cases, this can perpetuate eating disorders.
This issue is not confined to the world of desserts and sugar-based treats, but things like ice cream with exceptional aesthetic appeal draw people out from behind their screens to indulge in the culinary fantasies they are visually assaulted by on a daily basis. The added curiosity that comes with the notion of something new and absurd is what perpetuates the development of these trendy flavors and specialty dessert places. Personally, I try to avoid big trendy chains in lieu of supporting smaller, local dessert shops, so I have never had the pleasure of getting to try Avocado ice cream with little bits of toast mixed in. However, there is no doubt in my mind that when I do decide to visit Salt & Straw, I will be sampling it, which, I guess, makes me an active participant in a very problematic cycle.