Arguing online over food ownership

With the current state of U.S. politics, we’re all aware of the contentious debates that are taking place in many online spaces today.  But you might be surprised to learn how heated things have recently gotten on social media spaces dedicated to…cooking?  As this week’s RDM guest blogger, Jessica Giovanni, explains, Facebook’s “Tasty” page is a site that’s full of drama.

tasty-logo

Jessica writes:

Tasty specializes in video recipes that are both creative yet easy to recreate, thus their target audience is presumably people who enjoy trying new things and/or need an easy meal to cook due to their busy schedules, lack of culinary skills, or both. Most of Tasty’s videos contain simple ingredients, simple cooking methods, short cooking times, and an unconventional spin on established traditional recipes. So, as both a user of the site and a researcher of online discourse, I’ve been surprised to see the hundreds of people flooding the “Comment” sections of these videos with negative evaluations of the site’s recipes.

In last semester’s Discourse Analysis class, I chose to focus on comments responding to a Tasty video showing a recipe for a spaghetti and meatball bake.

spaghetti-meatball-bake

This recipe had a total of 11,542 comments and about 14 million views associated with it, for likely a couple of reasons. 1) Spaghetti and meatballs is a highly Americanized take on the classic Italian dish of spaghetti with meat sauce. 2) Also at issue is the way that the dish is prepared, namely, that it is baked. This unusual (at least from an Italian perspective) method of preparation serves Tasty’s main purposes: speed and ease of the cooking process.

I analyzed 50 comments from the video, as automatically sorted by Facebook’s Top 50 Comments algorithm. There were two main groups of people commenting in this space: 1) those who objected to the video recipe in some way, and 2) those who positioned themselves against the first group. Example 1 is representative of the first group’s comments, which dominated the data set, with 25 out of 50 comments.  (The second group was represented by 13/50 comments, and 12/50 were neutral.)

Example #1

Please stop fake italian recipes.

Remember, in real italian recipes:

-we don’t use paprika in any foods, paprika is not in italian culture.

-doesn’t exist pasta with potato or chicken, or KETCHUP. Pasta with ketchup is the biggest insult to the italian kitchen, please use tomato souce.

-we use garlic, not garlic powder, in italy doesn’t exist

-parsley with meat balls? Why?

-we cook pasta in boil water and only after it we bake it

-in Italy DOESN’T EXIST PASTA WITH MEATBALLS!! Is Ragú, is not with meatballs, google it

– what is Alfredo souce?!? And Bolognese souce?!? Please stop it, we call french fries, hamburger or hot dog with their name, please do the same with our foods.

The opening line, framed as a request (“Please stop fake italian recipes”) summarizes the main point of the entire commentary: This user objects to the recipe in the video because it is inauthentic.  As the text continues, the author of Example 1 establishes authenticity, both through contrasting constructions ( “fake” vs. “real” Italian food) and by making a series of claims about what “does not exist in Italy/Italian cuisine” (i.e., paprika, garlic powder – or any pasta dishes that include chicken, potatoes, ketchup, and, of course, meatballs).   These repeated statements about what does and doesn’t exist in Italy – combined with several first person plural pronoun “we” statements (e.g., “we use” “we don’t use” “we cook”) –  position the author as an expert on Italian food, and as a member of the culture from which the dish (ostensibly) originates.

In contrast, the second group of commenters explicitly react against the opinions of the people who have negatively evaluated the video.  Their comments focus more on who has the right to comment in the space, based on the presumed target audience of the page. Since Tasty’s videos seem to cater to people who either do not have the time nor the skills to put together complicated meals, the second group of commenters uses this line of argumentation to counter the comments made by the first group. This oppositional stance is illustrated in Example 2.

Example #2

Hey people please stop complaining! This is a site that is for inspiration… i think the idea is great… if i cook Bolognese sauce its always too much so i can make that on the next day… so i make my own sauce and i would rather take normal spaghetti and i would make my own way of meatball… everybody can make it in another way but the idea is good… and remember that there are people out there that are not good cooker and dor them this is easy to make… so PLEASE STOP BITCHING!!!

The author of Example 2 highlights Tasty’s intended purpose (“a site that is for inspiration”) and dismisses those comments made by the first group as non-legitimate, by referring to them as “complaining” and “bitching.”  This author stresses in different ways the main objectives of the cooking videos: to prepare food that is simple and quick to prepare (“easy to make”). In this way, the user projects his/her membership as a legitimate in-group member of the page’s intended audience, and positions those who are against the video as outgroup members, who are missing the point of the site.

Online discourses such as these reveal differing food ideologies.  The two groups’ claims to authority and their membership statements demonstrate opposing stances on the issue of whether or not it is appropriate to recontextualize ethnic cuisines. The first group’s comments indicate that some users reject any version of an original recipe that deviates from the traditionally accepted preparation methods of the origin culture, while the second group believes that traditional recipes can be altered, provided that the reasons for those alterations are made clear. Discussions such as these, especially in online spaces, not only reveal a range of beliefs about food “ownership,” but also reinforce and (re)circulate those ideas, by exploiting the particular affordances of the social media platform on which they appear. Having an awareness of the different ways that those ideologies are represented linguistically can help users identify the rhetorical strategies that are used in social media communications and to better understand what people believe as well as how they represent those beliefs to others. As social media continue to have increasing influence on/presence in our lives, it is more important than ever to become a critical consumer of online discourse and to consider its impact on our identities and cultures.

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