I told her what I was doing but I couldn't shake off the self-consciousness her question had raised. She had effectively popped my solitary bubble of pleasure. I felt exposed, and even worse, corny. It was all so Sienfeldesque. The question hung in the air between us. Why indeed?
I was doing as my people do—taking photos of food. Although my higher mission was to create a visual record for future use, I was also indulging in one of my favourite pastimes. Telling her I was taking photos of my doughnut and coffee to send to friends seemed so ridiculous and, probably from her perspective, incomprehensible
I could rationalize the photos on my phone that were destined for my blog simply as a means of communication. I'm practicing a populist form of connecting. But that's just the thin sugar glaze of it. Things aren't quite that neat. Thinking of it as a record of mundane life—a modern form of diary keeping—also falls short of the mark. Such excuses have the potential to relieve me of temporary discomfort but there's still something in her question that needs addressing.
There could very well be some truth to the idea that I don't want to be alone, but not always (thank you very much Louis C. K.). And I'm not convinced that some covert corporate force encourages this so they can track me, recording and manipulating the rate at which I consume. I don't think of myself as that interesting. I consider these half-truths and, more importantly, I'm done swallowing Catholic guilt for this lifetime.
The truth is I actually like doing it. As silly as it may seem to some, taking photos of my doughnut and coffee, and sharing it on my network, brings me pleasure.
But I can't deny that when I hit the send, post, tweet, retweet, favourite, heart, or pin it buttons I'm participating in a socially complex activity. On that morning I wanted people to know I was having breakfast at the Doughnut Plant in Manhattan. I hoped it would be of interest to my social media connections because that would mean I was interesting. Crazy as it sounds, that seemingly innocuous activity affirms me. I was certain too that just being in New York would increase the interest factor. It's among a handful of world cities that have an aura of importance concerning food. That photo of my coffee and doughnut signaled that I was in the know, not lounging on the provincial sidelines.
I'm bridging the communication gap to leverage a rise in my status and travel is an important tool. My attempt to gain social rank via a doughnut is little more than a feeble, middle class assertion when compared to sharing pictures of a dinner at Noma or Faviken. But it's what I can currently afford.
Status on social networks is usually reflected in follower count. When you're a culinary rock star like Ruth Riechl, Anthony Bourdain, or Rene Redzepi, with follower counts in the 10's or 100's of thousands, Twitter adds a light blue check mark to your account. They call it verification and it signals to all that the messages therein are direct from a source worth noting. On Facebook an expansive friend count requires a move to a Page in order to accommodate the follower pool. And so it goes. Right in line with my humble doughnut, my followers number below a thousand and I've had to work at that for three or four years.
Having sizeable follower counts means that companies and publicists look on you with favour hoping to gain access to your connections. Publishers will send you cookbooks, appliance companies will outfit your kitchen, car manufacturers will loan you new vehicles for your next food and wine adventure. Or, juiciest of them all, you'll receive an invite to an inner sanctum event by the food elite who are tirelessly pursuing and creating the next big thing. It's a fine line many run between quality association and selling out. Personally I'm holding out hope that the Doughnut Plant will take me on. I'd gladly sacrifice some of my own feed for a weekly delivery of their best offerings.
But it's more than just broadcasting. Being heard is good; being acknowledged is even better. It's easiest with those closest to me on my social network and I like it well enough. Some damn fine friendships and professional connections have begun for me as 140 character conversations.
But when someone at a distance with some culinary clout—a big follower count or real food credibility—connects, it's another kind of validation altogether. Social media can shorten or forge lines between people in very different stratospheres. I've squealed with excitement, shown my phone to all about me, fired off emails of delight on more than one occasion from tweet backs from celebrities such as Danny Meyer, Gael Greene, Michael Ruhlman, to name a few. On one occasion a piece I wrote was retweeted by a venerated foodie and hits to my website set records that day. I rode shotgun on his celebrity social network stream and got a taste of his public reach.
But I also like to keep things in perspective because I am really not that important. And that elderly woman was in part asking me just how big a deal a coffee and a doughnut could possibly be? I love it when others, like Louis C.K., parody the blatantly ridiculous in social networking or how skillfully a TV series like Portlandia illustrates the craziness of food culture. Recently a Montreal restaurateur posted an Instagram of homemade ice that made me laugh out loud. It perfectly demonstrated just how absurd all this posturing for place is in relation to food. It's a good reminder to stay real, laugh at oneself and not take it all too seriously.
And thankfully for me, there are times when the doughnut and coffee just won't cut it. When my personal delight at some delicious thing or illustrious place will fall on deaf ears and remind me of my insignificance in the social sphere. When it will be a beautiful moment with just me and a doughnut and coffee on a bench in Manhattan.