From the bottom of your feed they rise, imposingly, as if from the crumbs of a humbler sandwich.
The familiar elements are all there, or at least some of them are. Chromatic cheese cascading down layer upon layer of glistening meat. Sauce with a milky pallor dripping lustily into a puddle of excess. A blast of egg yolk; perhaps something fried. A pop of red or green from a tomato or pickle. And holding the overstuffed mess together — tenuously, helplessly — are two pieces of bread, which look at you resignedly, as if to say: What exactly are we supposed to do here?
These are, for lack of a better phrase, Instagram sandwiches. Ostensibly conceived for their outward appearance as much as their taste, they arrive as the natural byproduct of a restaurant industry that, like most industries, has had to adapt to fit the demands of the all-powerful photo-sharing app.
Yet, while these Instagram sandwiches certainly titillate, their strenuous architecture is such that they aren’t always practical to eat. Or good. For example: do those fried accoutrements make that burger more flavorful, or do they turn the whole thing into indistinct mush? Can I really open my mouth wide enough to take a bite of a doubled-up fried chicken sandwich without destroying it? And if I can’t, well, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of eating a sandwich?
To be clear, many Insta-worthy sandwiches are not unwieldy, and some classic sandwiches have had aspects of a quote-unquote Instagram sandwich long before Instagram came along. The New York Italian hero has always been varying degrees of ginormous; deli sandwiches, from Katz’s and Frankel’s, to name just a few, are as overstuffed as anything populating your feed today. And, as several chefs reminded me, they’ve always tried to make their food photogenic, regardless of whether it would be photographed.
“Food is a sensual experience, right? So you have to pay attention to every sense, and, frankly, the last sense that anybody applies to their food is taste,” LA-based chef Eric Greenspan, the proprietor of several delivery-only, sandwich-heavy shops, said. “The first one is sight.”
What’s changed is the emphasis placed on a sandwich’s appearance.
“I think the growing competition for diners has forced chefs to create food that not only tastes good, but looks good, too,” chef Chase Devitt, of Denver’s Brider, said. “Beautiful garnishes have now become an important ingredient, instead of just an afterthought.”
Greenspan believes Instagram has added at least one item to many chefs’ menus that may not have been there before — a dish whose raison d’être has more to do with catching someone’s eye than simply tasting delicious. Though other chefs I spoke to, such as Jaime Young of Sunday in Brooklyn and Michael Simmons of Chicago’s Café Marie-Jeanne, said that Instagram doesn’t directly factor into their menu creation.
“I don’t think that anyone has opposition to doing something that would look great on Instagram, as long as that part comes second to their menu development,” Heidi Hageman, president of Chicago-based hospitality PR firm, H2 Public Relations, told HuffPost. “I think where some of my chefs are not on the same page is to start the process by creating something specifically so it will look good for social media.”
Other chefs looking for a competitive edge, however, are doing just that, going so far as to hire consultants, like Devour Power, to not only photograph their entire menu for social media, but help with special “off-menu” items. Rebecca West-Remmey, who runs the NYC-based company with her husband, Greg, told HuffPost these creations skew towards the “food porn”-y stuff their Instagram account is famous for. Hence, the Devour Power burger at Breakroom NYC: a monstrous double-patty situation, complete with a tempura onion roll, pork belly, and mac n’ cheese. (I know, I know — a burger isn’t really a sandwich; but for the sake of this article, let’s say that it is.)
West-Remmey said Devour Power only posts sandwiches they’ve tasted and would recommend themselves — even if it means occasionally deconstructing one to make it easier to eat. Jackson Cook and Graham Burns, who run a creative agency in Williamsburg, as well as a popular food Instagram account, The Brothers Buoy, operate under the same principle. And yet they’re not sure why the crazier, more difficult-to-eat sandwiches — which they tend to avoid — spark the most engagement.
“It’s the spectacle,” Burns hypothesized. “Anyone can see a normal sandwich. Everyone knows what a normal, good sandwich looks like. But when they’re on Instagram, I think the things that stand out are the things that tend to be a bit more extreme.”
Ultimately, Instagram is an aspirational medium. We don’t want to look at travel posts from the park down the block; we want to look at a windswept somebody frolicking on a faraway stretch of shoreline. We don’t want to look at typical sandwiches; we want to look at the kind of sandwich Guy Fieri might audibly salivate over at a diner somewhere (although, perhaps sans Guy Fieri). The same goes for over-the-top iterations of other Instagram-ready foods — gigantic burritos, insane pizzas, gold-coated buffalo wings. They’re essentially virtual billboards for their less extraordinary brethren. But unlike those dishes, the Instagram sandwiches’ very Instagram-ness can be incompatible with what makes it a sandwich in the first place — i.e., a hand-held food with a relatively sturdy structure.
“Everyone’s feeling about stuff like this, it’s very mixed right now, because some people want it to be like, ‘Why can’t it just be my food? Why can’t it just be my sandwich that I painstakingly crafted? Why does it have to be this thing that’s covered in cheese or whatever to get people to give a shit?’” Cook observed of the industry. “But it’s just kind of the nature of things.”
“For me, it’s like porn,” Greenspan said. “People are just looking at stuff and going, ‘Oh, that’s fucking crazy. [But] I don’t want to eat that.’”
These sandwiches may get someone in the door, Greenspan said, but, “At the end of the day, you’ve got to have a supporting cast bedsides the quote-unquote ‘hot girl’ that brings a level of foundation to what you’re doing, and gets people to come back.”
It would be wrong, then, to say sandwiches in general are getting bigger, gooier and more over-the-top, despite what Instagram may have you believe. Rather, the Instagram sandwich represents the apotheosis of food porn — which, by definition, contains an element of impossibility. Maybe we don’t like seeing typical sandwiches on Instagram because they’re attainable; maybe we only want what we can’t have.
A little more sandwich porn for the road ...