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A Feast for the Eyes

Talia Lavin on the voyeurism and excess of Food Insider's wildly popular videos
By Talia Lavin|
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For years, I have been obsessed with food videos. You know the kind – they swim through your timeline on Twitter or Facebook, promising a glimpse of the biggest, best, strangest food around. They feature well-dressed and slender journalists slogging to New Jersey or Long Island or much further afield for short featurettes on the World’s Biggest Pizza Slice or an enormous mass of polenta eaten straight off a table or impossibly elaborate fondant-sculptured cakes of unsettling realism. There are triple-fried confections, or comically oversized candy, or, in one recent video, a hideous concoction known as “avocado beer.” The videos I most persistently watch, drawn by equal measures of compulsion and repulsion, are from Food Insider, the juggernaut spinoff of the Business Insider brand, whose videos regularly garner hundreds of thousands of views. There are other subsets of the repulsive and magnetic food video – BuzzFeed’s Tasty brand, which pioneered the tightly-shot overhead cooking video and often features improbable-to-disgusting recipes, certainly merits a mention – but for me, Food Insider offers all the allure of indulging a particular itch of fascination without even the faintest suggestion that I might attempt these feats in my own undersized kitchen.

For years, an online friend and I have traded the worst of the Food Insider videos as something between an inside joke and the shared, horrified fascination of two people who discover they’re both really into watching car crashes or train derailments. I’ve been watching the well-kempt, business-casual correspondents of Food Insider try out the most deluxe and exaggerated versions of common dishes – pizza, tacos, ramen – for about half a decade, sometimes over and over, without quite being able to tease apart what draws me back. The videos are short – one to three minutes, with a jazzy, upbeat soundtrack, and also designed to visually arrest those scrolling through a muted feed. They’re petite consumables, created to slide harmlessly into the mind without causing undue ripples; ships-passing in the night reminders of other lives, more glamorous and laden with taste than ours could ever be. The chief correspondent in these videos is a phenomenally put-together woman named Herrine Ro, and chief among her no-doubt-many talents is her ability to take dainty bites of items so absurdly gooey that a lesser soul would emerge with a faceful of glop. This is, of course, an innate part of the illusion presented: it is possible, these videos tell us, to engage in purposeful excess without showing any of the signs of such indulgence. Having arrived at feasts even our most gluttonous ancestors could never have imagined, we may partake with politesse, and never lose our dignity. Or at least Herrine – and her fleet of blondes and brunettes and the occasional modish-haircutted gentleman – can achieve this feat, and we can watch.

Why not, after all, cover a pizza in pickles or supersize a pupusa or turn pizza into an affair so bound in cheese-rope the average domme would blush? Insider’s wildly attractive presenters have mastered the art of taking neat bites of improbable food items, then turning them, oozing and gushing and gold-flaked, toward the camera for us to consume with our eyes. It’s an exercise in inspiring the well-known loathing that truly drives legions of clicks; an exercise in transforming food into status symbol, stunt, curiosity — as far as possible from hearth, home and humility. And I’m… obsessed. I can’t stop watching and sharing, though the videos consume me with a plangent, heartsick kind of sorrow. I am threatened yet compelled by oversized editions of ordinary food items; I do not want to know, yet I must, what makes ramen “chuggable.” Having become one of the millions captivated by these cheerfully-soundtracked orgies of consumption, I wonder: is this keeping my existential angst at bay? Or is it inflaming my dread like the lining of a bowel exposed to an extra-spicy taco served in a coffin?

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One persistent feature of the Food Insider videos’ quest for the most profound excess in foods is a moment that they call the “cheese pull.” It’s when, to demonstrate the cheese load in such items as enormous grilled cheeses or eight-pound pizza slices or cheese-wrapped spicy chicken, the food item is cleaved in twain and pulled apart, so that the strings of melted cheese form a camera-friendly, trembling, fat-filled bridge between the two halves. Its counterpart is what I call the “ooze shot,” which has similar goals – demonstrating the statistically improbable amount of cheese strategically inserted into dishes like cheese-filled burger patties or risotto served in a 50-pound cheese wheel. The strategy is simple: slice in, then let the molten cheese swell softly out into glistening pools of savage opulence. Every instance of food in these videos is cued towards maximum visual impact; every cookie is baked from rainbow dough, every slushie adorned with glitter and a Lisa Frank color palette, to be held up and consumed in a small, pretty way by a small, pretty mouth.

The strategy is simple: slice in, then let the molten cheese swell softly out into glistening pools of savage opulence.

These moments are a mimicry of eros, performative on-camera releases. In my own stout body in my bed in the apartment I haven’t left in hours, I know I won’t venture forth into the complex universe of excess presented by these bingeable videos. In a sense it’s a microcosm of all that the Internet has done for us: we live in mirror worlds, never quite sated by the excess we see, and see, and see, and never touch. In real life, the thought of consuming an eight-pound slice of pizza – and, as a fat woman, being seen consuming an eight pound slice of pizza – fills me with a sense of unease and social disquiet. There’s one video I keep returning to – a mini-feature on the Peanut Butter Bar in Sydney, Australia, in which creamy peanut butter of an unsettling beige runs endlessly out of a tap, and is poured over brownies, pancakes, cookies, and gelato. The plates run to the rim with proteinaceous excess, the “endless tap” keeps pouring on loop, the presenter nimbly dips a finger in and licks it and smiles archly. I don’t even like peanut butter, but my cup runneth over from afar, filled with a hunger I can’t name – to be her (capable of retaining dignity in such a situation), to be there (in a country I have never visited), and to taste with my real and ungovernable mouth what is presented to me so neatly. But instead, through the confines of social media, I am free to feast only with my eyes, a bellyless Argos with a thousand eyes on a bright, foreign, far-away cheese-filled world.

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