This was going to be a story about how actress and comedian Chelsea Peretti eats cake, but then Kylie Jenner ate cereal. A week before that, then-aspiring gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon had controversially eaten a bagel.
“Famous people eating things” is its own special genre of celebrity coverage, distinct from “famous people doing things” and “famous people interacting with other famous people.” The particulars of each case are different, but the general mechanics of a celebrity eating incident are more or less the same: A famous person eats or does not eat something in a manner that is considered either very “weird” or very “normal,” and then the internet erupts. Usually, opinions are divided; always, they are very strongly held.
The passion (great) is disproportionate to the degree that Chelsea Peretti’s mode of eating cake affects our lives (not at all). And yet we care. We care deeply. Even people who are not 100 percent sure who Chelsea Peretti is, which was me until a few days ago, care how she eats cake. Because how a celebrity eats — more, even, than who they date or how they dress or what they choose to name their children — gives us a window into who they are, and by extension, who we are, which is all we’ve ever wanted from them anyway.
The anatomy of a celebrity food incident
Last weekend, Peretti, best known for her work on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Instagrammed a photo of a deconstructed slice of cake. As seen below, she had eaten the cake parts but avoided the frosting, and the result was an uncanny buttercream outline of where cake had once been. “This is how I eat cake,” she wrote. “I just don’t like frosting that much.”
Her followers became extremely invested in this story, and then so did everyone else. “Same,” wrote one commenter. “THAT SHOULD BE A FELONY,” countered another. The cake post currently has 2,396 comments on Instagram. It became a trending “event” on Twitter, where it was posted under the carefully moderate headline “The way Chelsea Peretti eats cake has divided a lot of people.” The controversy was rehashed by People and BuzzFeed and Time and the Washington Post.
But a celebrity food incident does not have lasting power; unlike the ongoing saga of a celebrity relationship, a celebrity food incident never evolves, and so we move on.
Luckily, there are plenty of them. A few days after #cakegate, Kylie Jenner, the “self-made” lip-kit billionaire and non-self-made Kardashian, tweeted that at age 21, she had just consumed her first bowl of cereal with milk. “Last night I had cereal with milk for the first time,” she marveled. “Life changing.” The denizens of the internet, who have very conflicted feelings about dry cereal, lost their collective mind.
Emily Contois, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa, suggests that these deviations are compelling in part because they “dismantle culinary grammar.” Cake, in general, is supposed to have frosting (though obviously not all cakes do). “Refusing to eat part of it changes the expected formula for what cake is,” she says. Likewise, cereal — though often eaten dry — categorically goes with milk.
Food gives us the impression of intimacy
Obviously, we are fascinated by celebrities in general, and between paparazzi and their own social media, we have unprecedented access to them: Here is a beautiful person in sweatpants! Here is a beautiful person whose toddler is having a temper tantrum! We don’t want idealized images; we want visual proof that stars, they’re just like us, even if we know that’s kind of an illusion too.
“People like knowing really personal things about celebrities, stuff they wouldn’t ordinarily be privy to,” says Julie Klam, author of The Stars in Our Eyes: The Famous, the Infamous, and Why We Care Way Too Much About Them. Food is intensely personal, in that we literally ingest it.
A celebrity food incident is inherently small. It is trivial. It is not sponsored by a brand, although brands are often mentioned. And the triviality is the power. A celebrity food incident contains multitudes: It’s a tiny detail that means so much more.
Kylie Jenner’s cereal experience is not just about cereal, although it is also about cereal. Kylie Jenner’s cereal experience is about what kind of person Kylie Jenner is. This revelation feels unintentional, and therefore authentic. It feels authentic even when — as is true with both Jenner and Peretti — the celebrity in question has sparked the incident themselves.
last night i had cereal with milk for the first time. life changing.— Kylie Jenner (@KylieJenner) September 19, 2018
That Jenner apparently has weird cereal habits “puts her in this weird, normal light,” suggests Lindsey Weber, a writer and co-host of the celebrity gossip podcast Who? Weekly. “It’s this idiosyncratic thing about her that we can identify with.” In another way, though, it makes her seem less relatable, a (rich) person unfamiliar with the conventions of American cereal.
Different celebrities beget different types of celebrity food incidents
No two celebrity food incidents are exactly alike, which is the fundamental beauty of them, but most celebrity food incidents fall into a few basic camps. There is the “celebrity eats food a weird way” incident — #cakegate falls into this category, as does Michael Bublé’s corn-on-the-cob-eating strategy and Kourtney Kardashian’s approach to peanut butter cups. This is closely related to, but not the same as, “celebrity expresses unusual passion,” a robust genre including Ed Sheeran’s ketchup habit, Hillary Clinton’s preference for raw jalapeños, and Warren Buffett’s devotion to Coke.
There is the “celebrity has new food experience” incident — Jenner’s exploration of milk, if true, is an example of this, as is New England Patriot Tom Brady tasting his first ever-strawberry on national TV, and the time Rooney Mara tried pie.
And then there is the “celebrity misunderstands food” incident, which is usually — although not always — reserved for politicians, who try to use food to prove they are just like you but end up inadvertently revealing that they are very, very different. This is what happened when then-presidential candidate George McGovern ordered a kosher hot dog with a glass of milk in New York City, and also what happened when Gerald Ford tried to eat a tamale with the husk on at the Alamo.
This is not what happened when actor turned gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon placed an unconventional bagel order two days before the New York state primary, but many people thought it was.
Nixon, actor and aspiring governor of New York, went to Zabar’s, a New York City institution, and ordered a cinnamon--raisin bagel with lox, capers, tomato, red onion, and cream cheese. This was captured in the world’s most boring viral video. Some of the subsequent outrage was about the order itself, which, as the Atlantic explained, defies basic conventions of American cookery by mixing savory with sweet. The bigger issue, though, was that the order seemed to reveal that Nixon didn’t understand how bagels work and therefore could not be in touch with the people of New York.
Except that at this point, bagels aren’t a New York-specific food, and people eat them all kinds of ways. “We enjoy talking about these incidents as though they reflect eating rules that New Yorkers alone enjoy and intuit and share,” argued Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. But the rules of appropriate bagel eating are “by now vestigial or even quaint, rules we’re supposed to know rather than ones we really live by.” If we accept this premise, then #bagelgate was a hybrid, erroneously identified as a “celebrity misunderstands food” incident but actually a classic “celebrity eats food in a weird way.”
Toward a unified theory of celebrities eating things
A thing about celebrities is that they are humans, and just like us, they eat food all the time, and often there is photographic evidence. Usually, these incidents do not attract attention, but sometimes they do, and the reasons aren’t always clear.
But one possible factor may be “how much the food detail or confession adheres to or diverges from the celebrity’s persona,” Contois says. A celebrity food incident is more likely to blow up if it is superficially out of character but also confirms something we already suspect: that Cynthia Nixon, famous actor, isn’t really one of us; that Kylie Jenner is secretly just a regular cereal-lovin’ post-teen whose life is so rarified that she’s never experienced milk.
A celebrity food incident is also an occasion for people to do their favorite thing: talk about themselves. “By bagel-shaming Cynthia Nixon,” Weber proposes, “you’re saying, ‘Oh, I’m an expert on bagels, and I know the proper way to do this because I love bagels. You’re saying something about yourself.”
It works both ways. If you object to Nixon’s bagel order or Peretti’s cake, you get the joy of outrage. If you identify with it, you get the pleasure of feeling kinship with a powerful person. “I love Cynthia Nixon, and I’m a huge fan of savory toppings on a cinnamon-raisin bagel, so I felt like that meant we would be good friends,” Klam says. “I also like ketchup on a hot dog, so whenever I see a celebrity do that, I feel validated.”