SANDI TOKSVIG on selfies
Food is one of life’s pleasures and Sandi Toksvig is delighted that you are enjoying your meal. Just don’t send her a picture of it
The other day, someone sent me a photograph of their prawn cocktail. It wasn’t someone I knew all that well, and I wasn’t sure what the correct response was supposed to be. I didn’t think we were the sort of colleagues who shared crustacean compliments or even delighted in each other’s freedom from seafood allergies. To be honest, I was unaware that the prawn cocktail had even made a comeback. It had been a very popular dish back in the Seventies, but that was also the time when orange juice served in a small glass on a plate with a doily was considered an acceptable start to a meal.
It made me think of the thoroughly entertaining Emperor Elagabalus, who ruled the roost in Rome from 218 to 222. Most emperors aren’t noted for being a laugh, but this one came to power at the age of just 14, which is never a good age to be made omnipotent. When my kids were that age, they weren’t even allowed power over the TV remote control. Elagabalus thought it was hilarious to invite poor people to dinner and serve them paintings of food in lieu of an actual meal. My prawn cocktail photo arrived just as I was stuck on a train with no buffet car and I felt unexpected sympathy with the hungry of Ancient Rome.
Photographing one’s dinner and sending the images out into the world is quite the thing these days, and I’m not at all sure why. I constantly have to be restrained in restaurants from going up to couples who are sitting together bathed in the glow of light from their respective phones while not saying a word to each other. I long to grab their devices and make them swap the world of modern communication in favour of something old-fashioned like a conversation. I’m afraid I doubt that the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ will work for a marriage where, after 20 years, you find all you have are a thousand pictures of shepherd’s pie but no idea what your partner is thinking.
Apparently, there are people who even ask for better-lit tables in restaurants to make sure their dinner photography is suitably illuminated. I can’t think of anything worse than sitting in a spotlight so the world can watch me spill soup down my front. I don’t want people to watch me eat at all.
I read about a new phenomenon in South Korea called mukbang, which means ‘eating broadcast’, where people tune in to watch someone eat vast quantities of food live. I used to do that at home when my son was a teenager, but I can’t say I would have paid for the privilege.
They say the computing power of the modern phone is greater than that used by NASA to send men to the moon in 1969. As it happens, because of my dad’s job, I was at mission control in Houston when Neil Armstrong became the first man to step out on the moon. I saw those computers and watched the live pictures come up on the big screen, and not once did Mr Armstrong send anyone a snap of his dinner. He and everyone else had better things to do. Now we hold in our hand the ability to access the world’s knowledge and we use that power to send each other shots of salad.
I suppose human beings have always wanted to record something of their existence. Cave people were obsessed with showing each other what a bison looked like, even though the creatures must have been running about outside for all to see. If not depicting animals, then there were also plenty of Palaeolithic people who rather more drearily wanted to share the shape of their own hand. The irony is that by recording something, we actually enjoy it less. Apparently, the squinting that we do when trying to capture an image has an effect on us. We start using the processing part (the left side) of the brain instead of just revelling in the enjoyment part (the right side). So the very act of telling everyone how happy we are diminishes the actual happiness.
While I was writing this, my prawn cocktail correspondent sent me a picture of avocado on toast. It looked like… well, avocado on toast. I decided I needed to respond but all I had in the fridge were some ancient carrots and a little weary beetroot. I arranged them into a slightly rude still-life homage to Elagabalus and sent it. I’ve had no reply, but I’m ashamed to say my pleasure was immense.
By recording something, we actually enjoy it less