In the 2009 documentary Objectified, former New York Times magazine columnist and branding guru Rob Walker said something especially cogent.
“If I had a billion dollars to fund a marketing campaign,” said Walker, “I would launch a campaign on behalf of things you already own.” The idea, he went on to explain in OnEarth magazine, would be to shift consumer attitudes regarding the value of “newness.” He wrote:
Whatever the effect of any given advertisement may be, the cumulative message of the branded marketplace … boils down to celebrating the new and simultaneously making you feel just a little self-conscious about the old. What interests me is the possibility of … conferring coolness on something because it’s already owned and, more specifically, because someone has figured out how to re-tailor, redefine or repurpose it.
I have been especially interested in Walker’s line of thinking as it applies to the kitchen. Because where else do we tend to feel self-conscious about the old than when we’re staring at the contents of our refrigerators, trying to get excited about making dinner?
Take those cannellini beans you cooked a few days ago, that nub of parmesan, or the multiple cans of sustainably caught sardines you bought in bulk because they were such a great deal. If you were to slip them in the trash, would anybody else have to know?
In fact, that’s precisely how the average American throws away an average of 20 pounds of food each month costing them between $28 and $43: very quietly.
All this was going through my mind when I landed on Handpick, a “food discovery app” that has positioned itself as a solution to food waste, and has already received $3 million in Series A funding in its first year.
Efforts to use social media to inspire people to cook are everywhere, but apps like Handpick–and the more established Gojee–hope to get those people cooking what they already have. Users can browse and share ideas and recipes based on ingredients and find a treasure trove of pairings, recipes, and photos.
“If we function as a recipe site, we’ll be giving instructions to people to go buy 10-15 ingredients for a specific meal and they’ll be left with extra ingredients,” says Handpick’s 26-year-old CEO, Payman Netaji. “So we’re trying to reverse-engineer it and say ‘let’s start with the ingredients you have on hand.’”
Netaji says that the way people cook, when they cook, is ripe for a social overhaul. “If I want to cook, I don’t go to a recipe site, I go to social media,” he says. And he hopes that other eaters in his generation, the same group of consumers who are spending more on organic and other food they deem better for them, will respond to Handpick’s intuitive approach to cooking and eating.
Netaji, who was raised partially in the U.S., but moved back here last year after living in China, says he’s been shocked by the waste in this country. “People in Asia are very careful about food and creative about how to use it all.”
Indeed, Handpick has already been in use for a while outside the U.S. Last week, I reached 24-year-old beta user Jorge Martinez over Skype to discuss the app. The marketing student, who lives in Mexico City, met Netaji in San Francisco last year and has been using Handpick since then.
“I wouldn’t say I cook a lot, but I try every now and then,” Martinez told me, shyly recounting his efforts to cook with kale, which he discovered in the U.S., and Aztec Cake, a form of Mexican Lasagna. He’s also used it to figure out what do with milk, when it gets close to expiring. “I’ve been making a lot interesting milkshakes,” he said.
Of course, there’s a fine balance between inspiring newbies to start cooking intuitively using imagery and teaching them the basics of a sound recipe. And while some of the images that pop up on Handpick’s curated stream are linked to recipes, many come straight from Instagram. But Martinez says he doesn’t mind. “I still find the pictures inspiring, even if they don’t explain how to make it,” he said.
If Martinez sounds like a novice, that’s exactly what makes him Netaji’s dream audience. “We’re not targeting people with families who already use recipes,” said Netaji. “We’re going after younger targets, people who are just graduating, just getting their own place, their own fridge.”
In other words, he’s hoping to grab potential cooks in a kind of pre-recipe stage, and one that could, just maybe, help to begin to shift the collective mindset about what food can be made delicious, and at what point in its shelf-life.
“The idea is to create good habits that can be sustained over the long term,” Netaji told me.
Whether or not an app can truly help us make this kind of shift is another question (and one we should probably be grappling with more often in the food world). But technology is changing the way our brains work, whether we like it or not. And it’s good to know that some of it might also change our relationship with food–and especially the food we already have–in a constructive way.