In September 2018, perennial fast-food favorite Popeyes rolled out boneless wings battered in champagne and coated in 24-karat gold. Available at just a handful of locations, the price of the one-day-only offering was surprisingly egalitarian, at just $5 for six wings and a biscuit. Nonetheless, the ostentatious menu item was an eyebrow-raising outlier for the fried chicken chain, which is more known for its buttery biscuits and red beans and rice — but Popeyes is merely the latest restaurant to climb aboard the obnoxious gilded and glittery food bandwagon that’s already gone on for far too long.
“There’s no ambiguity, it seems to me, about what’s on offer with gold-plated burgers, wings and more,” menu consultant Nancy Kruse said at the MUFSO restaurant conference last month in Dallas, citing shiny and sparkly food and drinks as a major nationwide trend. “Operators are going for the Instagram gold as a means to build buzz and generate traffic.”
What began as a trend propagated by the kind of Brooklyn or LA restaurant that lures in influencers with over-the-top creations like mermaid bagels and glitter lattes has now trickled down to the mass market. Popeyes was seemingly inspired by the golden chicken wings served at upscale NYC sports bar the Ainsworth, a glitzy collab with Kardashian hanger-on Jonathan Cheban that was unveiled last May, and gold glitter-sprinkled wings have also popped up at populist sports bar chain Buffalo Wild Wings. For Valentine’s Day, Shake Shack served a glittery strawberry milkshake. In the spring, an EDM festival (which, admittedly, is maybe the most appropriate venue in which to consume sparkly food) in Southern California sold tater tots adorned with purple glitter, and the restaurant inside the uber-hipster Detroit Foundation Hotel began serving glittery frosé.
Like iPhone-toting magpies, we flock to document all that is shiny and sparkly for Instagram — and, once it’s been photographed from every possible angle, to eat it. Actual consumption is secondary when it comes to these kinds of foods and drinks, as gold and glitter add nothing in the flavor department (and the sparkle may add a bit of unpleasant grit).
“Instagram food has almost nothing to do with consumption as a gastronomic endeavor; instead, consuming Instagram food means acquiring it, and sharing proof of your acquisition,” Amanda Mull wrote on Eater about influencers transforming the act of eating into an aesthetic pursuit. “From brands and influencers looking to profit, the result is a dictation: Eat with your eyes, not with your mouths. This food is made for it.” Instead of eating for gustatory pleasure or for sustenance, we’re assembling Instagram feeds full of pointlessly sparkly cocktails and doughnuts that only serve to show off how easily we fall victim to “ooh, shiny!” in pursuit of likes.
Glitter is for strippers, children’s craft projects, and Mariah Carey; it is not for gravy and certainly not for pizza. It does not belong in your digestive tract (not intentionally, anyway), and while edible glitter is technically safe to eat, doctors nonetheless say it should be kept to a minimum.
Gold, meanwhile, has long been consumed by humans in various cultures, and though research on long-term consumption of gold is limited, it is thought to pass through the digestive system without being absorbed into the bloodstream. Small amounts of gold leaf are a popular garnish for sweets in India as well as plated desserts in high-end restaurants, but as Helen Rosner writes in the New Yorker, “...the megaphone of social media has allowed the recreational ingestion of gold to reach its peak as a form of conspicuous consumption.” Though chowing down on gilded wings may be harmless to the human body, in a country where 40 percent of food intended for human consumption is thrown out, eating gold is a bleakly overt display of the fact that some people have entirely too much while others have far too little.
Are gold and glittery foods merely another much-needed distraction from the ongoing stress of the increasingly combative political climate, depressing news cycle, and millennials’ inability to afford homes of their own? Perhaps so, but surely we can find culinary escapism in a less shallow form, one that’s got more substance than tasteless glitz and glam. Thankfully, menu consultant Kruse also says she sees a backlash to the Instagram food trend spreading, in the form of homey, “ugly delicious” fare like the brown-on-brown stews and soups that David Chang is so fond of. Here’s hoping for less sparkle in our Instagram feeds and tastier food in our bellies.