In September 1962, Sylvia Plath published a poem about picking blackberries that were growing, improbably, by the ocean, and described them briefly: “Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes.”
It’s sort of a scary way to describe a berry, which is why it would also work to describe the zombie berries of Instagram, which have been haunting me now for an entire week.
To be more specific: I’m talking about the glowing, ghostly, grayed raspberries and blueberries and blackberries and strawberries in every image posted by every smoothie bowl influencer with north of 50,000 followers. These undead-seeming fruits are reposted by startups, like Persona, one of half a dozen Instagram-friendly vitamin subscription services, or Alexo, a millennial-targeted concealed carry activewear line, and they fill up entire Pinterest boards of “beautiful food.” They are possibly the inspiration for the entire brand aesthetic (and maybe even the product line!) for the smoothie subscription box startup Daily Harvest.
The ghost berries are everywhere on Instagram, which becomes clear to me after I click from tagged post to profile to tagged post to profile for two and a half hours without blinking. Over here, some ghost berries in a rainbow smoothie jar. Over there, some ghost berries in a smoothie bowl that also has entire roses in it. Ghost berries in smoothie bowls with pine needles. Ghost berries in heart-shaped smoothie bowls spritzed with heart-shaped confetti. Ghost berries on toast with white chocolate stars.
None of it looks like food. But all of it — excepting the pine needles — is food. The neon colors are created using “rainbow superfood powders,” such as those sold by the Swedish brand Rawnice or its Australian competitor Unicorn Superfoods. The photos scream with effort to make natural foods look unnatural, and to spin something Lisa Frank-y out of the dusty produce bins of the world, and I really need to know why.
Katja Meier, a nutritional science teacher and the photography hobbyist behind the account @breakfastwithflowers, explains to me in an email:
There is a trick to make berries look like this. I don’t buy frozen berries (they are ugly, believe me!), I always choose the most beautiful fresh berries and freeze them in a single layer for at least 24 hours. When taken out of the freezer, it takes about 10 minutes before they look this way. And that’s it.
Sarah, a food photographer and stylist from Toronto who runs the account @sculptedkitchen, says the key to the frosted look is to work fast, as it only lasts a few minutes, and then take it to Lightroom and edit the berries further.
Luisa Gaffga, of @LulusDreamtown, uses the same tactic, and explains its popularity by saying, “I guess not that many people knew about how beautiful berries could look. ... To some people, it still looks like magic.” She offers online courses in food photography for $60, in which she’s happy to share the intricacies of “the frozen berry secret.” Participation in the course also comes with access to 55 of her Lightroom photo editing app presets, a type of trade secret that has become increasingly profitable among influencers who have spent time customizing photo filters and trademarking a visual style.
But that doesn’t exactly explain the ghost berries, or their unnerving surroundings, or why they bother me, so I reach out to Allie Wist, an artist and researcher who currently teaches classes about food and the media at the New School in New York City. She takes a few days to peruse Instagram, and then we speak on the phone.
“A lot of this seems in direct opposition to the good food movement, or the movement to reject artificial foods, processed foods, coloring, and flavoring,” she tells me. “The word ‘artificial’ has been totally demonized, but it’s looped back around to being somewhat of an aesthetic priority on Instagram.” It’s funny, she acknowledges, because these foods are mostly not artificial. These are “healthy” and organic vegan meals, sometimes adorned with mermaid tails.
“Maybe it’s an example of the kind of dissociation that can occur on a platform like Instagram,” she guesses. “The images of the food can have absolutely nothing to do with reality itself.”
I ask Meier, somewhat awkwardly, “Why berries?” She says, “They are tiny, but they have so much detail. They always look incredible. And berries are a little more expensive than other fruits; probably most people don’t eat them on a daily basis.”
Wist also points out that all these Instagram posts have color palettes that adhere to current branding trends — pastels paired with rich, oversaturated accents in the marketing materials for companies like Daily Harvest and Thinx. In the age of Instagram, she says, food is even more of a product than it was previously, and this is another small piece of evidence.
“Trendy colors in the ’60s or ’70s would be applied to interior design and fashion, but not food,” she says. “Now food has taken a place among the ranks of cultural products that color trends might be applied to.” I get that. Certainly, I wouldn’t be making kirsch martinis for book club next week if they weren’t such a lovely shade of pale pink, and if a lemon twist weren’t the suggested garnish.
What upsets me, maybe, is that the berries do not remind me so much of real berries as they do of a strange dystopian dinner party I attended in September 2017, hosted by the surrealist novelist Alexandra Kleeman. A lot of things we ate did not look like food. Everyone was very sad. For dessert, Brooklyn chef and artist Jen Monroe served a flat rectangle of gelatin divided in half — blue side flavored like bacon, pink side flavored like strawberry. It was the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted, which I told her.
“I decided it’s okay to serve food you hate to make a point,” she responded. “That would be the most sci-fi avenue, where we’ve abandoned food as food altogether.”
Monroe has made — as statement pieces — a lot of other food that would look at home in these Instagram feeds, among the ghost berries, including blackberries suspended in a clear gelatin mold and a strawberry-shaped candy sitting inside the heart of a real strawberry, captioned “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” She’s best known for the monochromatic dinner parties she hosts in Brooklyn; the blackberries were part of Black Meal. She explained them in 2016 by saying, “I tend to think of the color dinners that I do as somewhat absurd and far removed from reality, and for me, that kind of extremism is a commentary — albeit a pleasurable one — on alienation and on the ways in which culture has made us feel weird about food.”
The point of the odd berries and their lurid backdrops could also be “to add some levity and whimsicality to eating,” Wist suggests. “There’s a lot of heaviness around food. Diet culture is really didactic and can feel really oppressive. You’re being yelled at.”
She points me to Salvador Dalí’s 1973 cookbook Les Dîners de Gala. The images are totally bananas, and nothing in them is precisely edible. But, much like the bizarre smoothie bowls of Instagram, they are paired with real recipes — executable, if you totally felt like it. The only warning at the start of the book is that it is not for anyone who counts themselves “a disciple of one of those calorie-counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment.”
Wist also forwards me some photos of illustrations from the wildly popular Time-Life cookbooks published in the 1950s, writing “There is certainly a precedent for food not looking edible, but nonetheless being desirable.” These were mass-appeal consumer cookbooks, and the images are about as surreal as the Dalí works, and oddly scary. They have strange proportions and are full of things that spontaneously catch fire. Cups of ice cream sit in the middle of the desert next to an hourglass running out of sand.
It wasn’t that the foodstuffs in these books were so avant-garde (it’s mostly angel food cake and roasted chicken); it was that food photography was not yet very good.
“They had bright, harsh light. Food looked terrible under it,” Wist explains. “Trying to capture delicious-looking food was not easy, so instead they focused on all this other stuff — wild styling, props.” Today, excellent photography equipment is relatively accessible, and the photographers I speak to all own DSLR cameras. The challenge now, on Instagram, is to stand out from thousands of other food photographers.
“Maybe you pivot away from concerning yourself with deliciousness and you decide to focus on another quality,” Wist says. “It’s not necessarily going to make someone want to eat [the food] right away, but it intrigues them.”
I get it! I still don’t really like it. I do not like ghost berries spilling out of ice cream cones, lightly implying that I should eat fruit instead of ice cream. I do not like ghost berries arranged into a holiday wreath, lightly implying that I should eat sticks. I especially do not like ghost berries arranged on top of a jet-black smoothie bowl, captioned, “Can you guess what this is made from? There is no activated charcoal or black ink squid in there.” (I don’t want to guess!) (Spiders?)
All the Instagrammers I speak to agree that there is an imperative for health food trends to be more fun and surprising. They disagree with me when I say the ghost berry effect is upsetting.
“I have a friend that has had some complaints that the look is unnatural. I guess it depends on your perspective of what you use Instagram for,” Sarah of @sculptedkitchen says. “I think no one really wants to look at a bowl of oatmeal just the way it is. Everyone wants to see something visually stimulating.”