From controversial canned pineapple on pizza to ‘basic’ pumpkin spice lattes, there’ve been a lot food wars online lately.
I’d been doing a pretty good job of ignoring the food fights on the internet, but I knew we’d reached new heights last autumn when it suddenly involved apple cider. Apple cider seemed to me like the least controversial food or beverage on the planet, but maybe I’d been naive. Suddenly my social media feeds included people who were really mad at the “pumpkin spice people” and proudly declared themselves “apple cider people.” There were memes. There were claims that apple cider was the real beverage of autumn and all other beverages were merely wannabes. I squinted hard at my screen. I knew I had to try to wrap my head around the food wars going on all around me.
The phenomena of people loathing other people’s food choices is not a new one. But as with so many other things, the internet seems to distill and intensify our tendency to judge what others do, including what they put into their mouths.
Of course, we can’t talk about internet food wars without discussing the pumpkin spice latte. According to Starbucks, the drink was conceived in 2003 in a place called the Liquid Lab by a bunch of folks literally hanging out in the springtime with a bunch of fall decorations and pumpkin pies (and, of course, espresso). It’s a little hard to believe now, but back then there was nothing like it on the market, and after having success with seasonal espresso drinks for winter, they wanted something for fall. Since the drink included autumn spices, they toyed with calling it the fall harvest latte before settling on pumpkin spice. It was a hit, and over the years the drink became incredibly popular. Suddenly PSLs were offered at other chain coffee places and little indie cafes as well, and an explosion of pumpkin-spice-flavored items ranging from toaster pastries to soy milk appeared in grocery stores. Although Starbucks created the drink before Facebook, Instagram or Twitter even existed, they used social media amazingly well to market it.
All of which made it ripe for a food war. On the surface, you might think it was a simple issue of “haters,” but you would be wrong. It’s true that when something is intensely popular, it’s easy for some people (including myself) to push back a little too hard, but what has made the fight about the PSL so intense is that it encompasses much, much more. With Starbucks popularizing expensive coffee drinks with silly names, there was already a lot of mockery of coffee shop culture in general. According to my research, the fight heated up in the fall of 2014. The PSL, and the internet, seemed to give the conversation a laserlike focus.
Then a blogger criticized for spreading pseudoscience published a now-infamous post (complete with infographic) stating that the Starbucks PSL is harmful to your health and also does not contain pumpkin.
Since it was made to complement a slice of pumpkin pie, the PSL’s lack of gourd puree was about as surprising to me as the fact that there is no actual pumpkin in the tiny container labeled “pumpkin pie spice” in my spice rack, but many people were outraged. By 2015 the pressure was so intense that Starbucks actually added a small amount of pumpkin to the beverage. But I expect the debate over whether the pumpkin spice latte is an acceptable thing to enjoy to rage on this autumn and into the future.
The great pumpkin spice fiasco is a perfect backdrop to internet food wars in general. Largely waged through memes and tweets, these arguments may start as fairly lighthearted, but they can also get vicious. Some, like the PSL, gain more momentum because they involve larger issues, while others, like candy corn, seem to be simple cases of folks extrapolating from “I don’t like this” to “Anyone who likes this is horrible.” Seasonal foods seem to be particularly good targets, but they aren’t the only ones. Kale became a popular “superfood,” which predictably spawned a lot of hate. Apparently I’m part of the 54% of people who don’t think hot dogs are sandwiches, but I don’t feel especially strongly about it (when I very informally polled my neighbors on the subject, one of them started yelling). The internet has become the place we go with our overwhelming feelings about condiments, such as ketchup, mayonnaise and ranch dressing (and what people should, and shouldn’t, be allowed to put them on). And in 2015 the New York Times told us we should put peas in guacamole, and people lost it.
And of course, I would be a bad millennial if I didn’t mention the small matter of avocado toast and whether it’s preventing my generation from being able to afford houses. It, um, isn’t.
In the 1960s a man in Canada by the name of Sam Panopoulos had the idea to throw some canned pineapple on a pizza and call it “Hawaiian.” In February of 2017 Guoni Johannesson, president of Iceland, told a group of students that if he could he would ban pineapple on pizza. Sam Panopoulos died this June, but the debate on this issue rages on. Pineapples aren’t Hawai’ian, and the history of pineapple in Hawai’i is one of plantations and colonialism. The fact that throwing pineapple on pizza doesn’t make it Hawai’ian is a valid criticism that should be heard. But the vast majority of the criticism I’ve seen of the phenomena of pineapple on pizza isn’t about the colonial legacy of the fruit; it’s just plain that people think pineapple on pizza is gross. It looks like Johannesson isn’t alone in his strong feelings about this. People can get incredibly and impressively nasty about people who like the way a pineapple pizza tastes (in the interest of full disclosure, I like pineapple on pizza, sorry not sorry). On the other side of the aisle, people who don’t like the tangy fruit on their pizzas have been called anti-Canadian.
As a person who mostly doesn’t care what other people eat, these arguments can seem a bit silly and humorous. So why is food such a big deal for so many people? While debates about food do often touch on issues of race, class and gender, and there’s nothing at all wrong with questioning things like cultural appropriation in the “foodie” world, the majority of the “food wars” I looked at weren’t about valid social critique. Instead, they were something far uglier: people insisting, at the top of their lungs, that they deserve a say in what someone else puts in their own mouth. This is food shaming, and while it has always been present in our culture, it has reached new heights online. Like any other form of bullying, it does not exist in a vacuum and isn’t exempt from the prejudices of our society.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving, or hating, specific food items. We all have taste buds and, with them, somewhat unique tastes. I was an extremely picky eater as a kid, and I get what it’s like to feel very strongly about the foods you dislike. But there is a massive difference between me sharing the fact that the smell of tuna makes me gag, and me saying that therefore it’s practically a sin to eat it and no one should ever do it again. The idea that people who don’t share your tastes have bad taste is almost shockingly narrow-minded. I want to believe in the good in people, and I would hope people would learn to bring a little nuance to these food discussions, to realize that the people who like things they don’t are in fact human beings. I want that to be true.