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Take a Break From Instagram Aesthetics and Enjoy Some Good Ol’ Slop

In this era of photogenic cooking, what if you... just didn’t?

Toasted Pictures/Shutterstock

It’s May, and you’ve been locked down for weeks, wearing sweatpants with such frequency that they may as well be a skin graft. The concept of presentability has long been cast aside, hung up in a closet alongside jackets, scarves, and other things that only have utility when you have access to a world outside your residence. Even notoriously formal fashion figure Tim Gunn has caved, and cast aside his suits in favor of more comfortable attire. Effort is out, and relaxation is in — well, except in one realm of home life: the kitchen.

Food websites are seeing increased traffic, and celebrity chefs are live streaming on social media, indirectly pressuring the less-skilled masses to Get Better and Make The Most Of The Pandemic. This idea of having something to show weeks of sheltering in place is nice in theory, but ignores the fact that COVID-19 is causing anxiety and depression aplenty.

In short, it’s a moment for comfort. And in that spirit, I have a proposal: Don’t stress yourself out learning how to make butter, charcuterie, and other products that are best left to the experts. Don’t bother trying to improve on that picture-perfect loaf of bread with an aggressively firm crust. In fact, don’t make anything that aspires to being showy, or to garner Instagram likes. Break out a Dutch oven, pile in the beans, ground meat, spices, and liquids, and make flavor-loaded, soul-warming, brown-as-dirt slop.

I’ve long been an evangelist for not wasting my time on food presentation, and slop is the edible embodiment of this attitude. Fancy-looking food does have its place, and that place is in (generally upscale) restaurants, or for special occasions like dinner parties — neither of which is an easy option during a pandemic.

The ideology behind slop isn’t “don’t try,” but rather that all energy should be directed towards flavor, with minimal energy spent on presentation. Slop doesn’t have one definition, but generally speaking, it’s unassuming — it’s not much to look at, but done right, it should be supremely tasty (there’s an added bonus where slop sets a diner’s expectations low, making for a pleasant surprise), and with a hearty and/or homey aura.

Of course, this isn’t a totally new idea. David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious — and his longstanding hashtag of the same name — loosely orbits around the concept of glorifying non-photogenic food. Guy Fieri, meanwhile, is a literal embodiment of the idea: the aesthetics (of both the chef and his food) may be off-kilter, but there’s no denying the commitment to flavor. Slop is not specific to one cuisine (every cuisine has versions of it) — chili comfortably qualifies as slop, made better with add-ins like beer and chocolate; as does French onion soup, or Persian dish fesenjan, where the pairing of walnuts and pomegranate molasses yields an absurdly cozy, deep-brown stew.

“Slop,” in this context, is not necessarily a stew-adjacent dish. “Slop” can be a verb, applying to any dish that involves the slapping together of ingredients without regard for presentation. These dishes are usually monochromatic and without wildly contrasting textures. It’s not that they’re texturally unappealing — they’re just not too texturally diverse. These brownies with tahini and halva (I’ve also thrown in berries for good, sloppy measure) could be a baked version of slop, and slapped-together desserts like bread pudding are sloppy in spirit. Even a smoothie could be a breakfast-forward version of slop.

“Slop” sounds derogatory — but this is because ugly food has historically carried a bad reputation, especially when it’s a bit soupy and served with a ladle. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist features one of the most notable literary representations of unappealing food: gruel, an object of disgust that is served to orphans three times daily.

Dickens’ estate should probably pay damages to the world’s hard-working oat farmers, because gruel is nothing but defamed oatmeal. Even in the 21st century, oats get a bad rap as an unappealing and ugly food. On CBS reality show Big Brother, slop — an unpleasant oatmeal dish — has been served to contestants as a punishment for 15 seasons (and counting).

While Big Brother slop is obviously deliberately bad, its existence speaks to a broader demonization of homely and utilitarian foodstuffs, from oats to ground meat (the sloppy joe, done right, is another textbook case of delicious slop). In a hierarchy, it seems obvious to place these dishes a rung below foods that require more precision or expertise to get right, from steak, to a layered torte.

This is a fallacy that conflates aesthetics with flavor: two characteristics that need to be disentangled. Many of us learned in elementary school art that mixing all the colors together will make an unpleasant muddy color, and that aesthetically speaking, this is Not Good, and we should exercise restraint to avoid it.

But the same idea doesn’t apply to home cooking. Instead, I subscribe to the school of More Flavor, where the more elements (and the browner the dish), the greater the potential for a rich, layered dish (even if you have to sacrifice a little texture). It’s certainly possible to over-flavor something, but this can be avoided with common sense, and by adding flavor incrementally — two tablespoons of ground cloves might create a richly brown slop, but it’s obviously a bad idea. Besides, if you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer intense flavor over something that’s bland because the cook exercised too much restraint?

None of this is to wholly dismiss good-looking food, but there’s a time and a place for it. And unless you’re truly feeling it (and at this point in a pandemic, few of us are), it doesn’t feel necessary to channel long hours into cooking something stunning for an audience that can look but can’t touch.

If you’re in need of beautiful food, perhaps order take-out. If you just want to create something beautiful, consider painting or sewing — at least then the fruits of your labor won’t become poop 24 hours later. Take a cue from Tim Gunn: now’s a time for comfort, not for style.