If you asked someone 50 years ago what junk food was, they might have responded with answers such as fish sticks, French fries, PB&J sandwiches, marshmallows, and vanilla ice cream. Those responses no longer cut it.
With the evolving tastes and demands of the foodie millennials – who all but own the voice of the internet and wield an ever-growing pocketbook of an estimated $1.45 trillion USD – the junk foods of yore are undergoing a global makeover that will forever change the way they are experienced.
In today’s most popular restaurants, you’ll find PB&J sandwiches presented as cheesecakes, marshmallows as popcorn, fish sticks as organic green wraps, and French fries blended with almost any flavor profile you can imagine. YouTube has enabled the new generation of culinary expressionists to instantly share their takes on craved favorites worldwide, layering in any one of their food preferences or current trends of choice, and often with the theatrical flair necessary to engage today’s attention-deficient youth.
Today’s changing culinary landscape is seeing haute-junk-food dining establishments emerging all over urban centers in North America and globally, each reinventing snack foods with their own culinary flair. Fueled by the millennial generation’s gentrified tastes, self-identification through food, the global health and wellness revolution, and nostalgia for childhood comfort foods, this movement is forever altering the way we see and experience fast food. Whether it’s New York City’s EXO bars providing cricket-as-protein chocolate bars, Japan’s Ice-Tengoku developing beer or miso-ramen flavored ice cream, or Washington DC’s Birch and Barley’s PB&J Cheesecake, it’s evident that the millennial obsession with reinventing snack foods of yore isn’t going anywhere.
Jon Polubiec, owner of Come and Get It, an haute snack food haven in Toronto explains: “There is an element of nostalgia in comfort food, and we try to capitalize on our creativity while ringing a nostalgic bell with people from a flavor standpoint, and a structure standpoint.” He cites their Hawaiian pork belly slider as an example. “Growing up, I loved Hawaiian pizzas – the pineapple, the bacon – and we [wanted] to elevate it: Use pork belly, have a hoisin glaze, grilled pineapple salsa. But it reminds me of the childhood crappy delivery Hawaiian slice.” Come and Get It applies this re-appropriation to their entire menu, allowing any item to be served as poutine, slider, wrap, salad, or flatbread.
Despite such indulgence, health remains a priority for Polubiec. “Freshly made ingredients and freshly sourced products will translate into a better experience and better health than something that is mass produced.”
This reinvention of junk food owes its roots in part to the global health and wellness revolution, and the millennial obsession with “nerding-out” and hacking everything to find better ways of doing them (and then of course showing it off online). Body-hacking, food-hacking, and new age dietary preferences ranging from veganism to gluten-avoidance converge around our favorite snacks of old to provide a playground of inspiration and creativity for today’s gastronomic artists.
But the restaurant isn’t the only venue for this sort of culinary performance. A recent study by digital marketing agency 360i showed how widely social media is used as a channel to show off food creations, reporting that half of all images taken with mobile phones are food-related, and that more than 20% are posted online – attributing this to the “millennial show-off culture.”
YouTube has also become home to a new and growing breed of food theatre performance artists, airing their original takes on junk food in bite-sized, internet-ready video morsels. Examples include Epic Meal Time’s extreme food performance and deep-frying anything from mac and cheese to tequila, and Bitchin’ Kitchen’s rock star-chic take on snacks, who have taken their success from YouTube web series to mainstream television.
Up-and-coming YouTube personality Candice Hutchings runs The Edgy Veg blog and YouTube channel, and recently signed with the same studio as Epic Meal Time. Fatigued by the options available to her as a vegan, she instead chose to re-purpose familiar favorites.
“Everything was green and boring – like the granola I was told to eat for protein… I wanted familiar and exciting foods to come back into my life, so I started experimenting. No one has brought the junk food element to vegan cooking.” Instead of oddities like “weird bread out of beans and kale,” Hutchings reverts to the more traditionally appetizing. “The recipes I feature are dishes that we are all familiar with, [like] a big juicy McChicken burger, or messy hot wings.”
It is obvious that this nostalgia for and obsession with deconstructing our most craved childhood bites serve as this generation’s inspiration for edible art. Those old PB&J sandwiches, mac and cheese dishes, Twinkies, and Pizza Pockets will never be the same. It’s about time we reset the way we approach junk food and found an exciting and creative new culinary space, where we can have our “cake” – and eat it too.
Photo: Candice Hutchings