While studying for a master’s degree, Eve Turow started noticing something interesting happening among her friends and classmates. “Everyone was always talking about food,” she recalls. That simple observation spawned a four-year research project and eventually the book A Taste of Generation Yum (Pronoun, 2015). In it Turow examines why millennials (also known as Generation Y) — the 80 million people born between 1980 and 2000 — have traded in the bright-orange mac and cheese of their childhood for craft beers, artisanal cheeses and organic, free-range everything.
It seems that our culture as a whole is becoming increasingly obsessed with food. What makes millennials so unique?
Eve Turow: I asked myself that question, and after talking with hundreds of people across the country, I came to the conclusion that what sets my generation’s interest in food apart is our relationship to the digital realm. Millennials grew up with one foot in and one foot out of the digital boom, learning how to use the Dewey Decimal System in grade school and then becoming fully immersed in technology and social media by early adulthood.
But why food as such a defining topic instead of, say, music or fashion?
ET: Previous generations definitely defined themselves by the music they listened to (and drugs they did). But my generation is looking to food — making it, eating it, talking about it, learning about it — as their own form of entertainment and self-expression. As I wrote in the book: “If you wanted to pick up a chick in the East Village in the ‘80s, you walked around with a guitar strapped to your back. Today, you get a tattoo of a carrot on your forearm.”
The confluence of social media and food obsession has resulted in a seemingly endless array of food blogs and Instagram food porn. What’s the point of it all?
ET: In some ways, food is being used and the “anti-technology.” It satisfies our need to connect with real people around a table (even if we tweet about it), experience new tastes, smells and textures, and get our hands dirty by growing and cooking food. But food has also become a huge part of Gen Y’s self-branding. We’ve come of age knowing that how we represent ourselves digitally is extremely important. We use food as a representation of our values and personal brand. When you post a photo of your organic kale salad from Whole Foods on Instagram, you’re saying a lot about yourself: that you have enough money to shop at Whole Foods, that you eat healthy food and that you care about supporting organic agriculture.
So is it just narcissism or is there something bigger at play?
ET: We have been labeled the most-narcissistic generation, and that may well be true. But our self-interest in food does have a broader implication. Part of our obsession with food and chefs and restaurants and farmers markets is a drive for transparency. We really want to know what we’re eating, and that is resulting in a push for food providers to be more transparent about their products, use healthier ingredients, protect the environment and work on sustainability.
Do you think millennials will be able to channel their love affair with food into some meaningful change in the food industry?
ET: I do. I think that food policy issues are going to be huge for this generation. We care if our elected officials support farm subsidies for organic farmers. We are appalled that a nation like ours has so many people going hungry. And there’s starting to be momentum around food waste and figuring out ways to use “ugly” fruits and vegetables, food scraps and other perfectly edible stuff that mostly ends up in the landfill.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.