Why So Serious? Escaping Food Media's Uncanny Valley

Illustration of rainbow cheese product being sprayed out of a can, landing on a cracker and pretzel.

[Illustrations and animations: Alyssa Nassner]

Editors' Note: Welcome to Why So Serious?, a series by Allison Robicelli about embracing misfit foods. Stay tuned for the next installment in August.

If, like me, you wisely spend several hours a week monitoring advancements in the Japanese AI sexbot industry, you are most likely familiar with the concept of the uncanny valley. For those of you who are foolishly not monitoring the greatest threat humankind has ever faced, allow me to enlighten you:

The uncanny valley is the grotesque sense of unease that occurs when you’re looking at something that is supposed to resemble a living being, but something about it just ain’t quite right. It’s why no one likes going to Chuck E. Cheese. It’s the reason Al Gore never became president. It’s why you have recurring nightmares about The Polar Express, in which Conductor Tom Hanks tortures you in ways that even Japanese AI sexbots would believe are “a bit much.” Now you’re probably asking yourself, “What the hell does any of this have to do with food?” and “Why does she keep bringing up sexbots? Is she trying to win a bet?,” to which I respond “plenty” and “the less you know the better.”

In this age of unbridled innovation and the relentless pursuit of optimal performance, the concept of the uncanny valley is slowly permeating everything around us. Today’s modern, young go-getter understands they’re not a human being, but a “personal brand.” Their life can’t be given over to the chaos of reality; rather, it must be a hyper-curated experience that’s well-documented across multiple platforms, not only for posterity, but in the hope that the internet at large will validate their choices. They may be screaming inside, but there’s an Instagram filter to hide that. There’s a filter for everything.

And when you filter out your life’s flaws, when you insist on a standard of perfection that makes everyone and everything exactly the same, you have taken up residence in the uncanny valley.

But flaws are the things make us wonderful! Our quirks, our idiosyncrasies, our valiant tries and spectacular failures—those are the things that differentiate us from the technically flawless and soon-to-be sentient sexbots. And the uncanny valley has not only taken up residence in obvious places, like our curated social media personas or the lies we sell on Tinder. It is slowly, and detrimentally, warping our relationship with the foods we love.

Animated illustration of a person taking a photograph of a messy tray of cookies, then swiping a filter over the image to make the cookies look perfect.

I understand the irony of making this statement on Serious Eats, a website dedicated to culinary perfection, one that researches and tests recipes over and over and over again until they have reached their flavorful apotheosis. And while you can be sure that whatever Kenji or Stella or any of these other nerds present to you on your screen is, perhaps, technically perfect, they’re still missing something important: you. It’s your tweaks, your impulses, and—yes—your tiny little screwups that make the food you cook wonderful by tethering its very existence to your own hands in that exact moment of time.

So, being that this is Serious Eats, I’ve come to the table with a piece of evidence to back up all of this crazy talk: GRANDMAS.

If you’ve ever read a single piece of food writing, you know that 99% of chefs and authors think the greatest cook they’ve ever known was their grandmother. And if you’ve ever read a church cookbook, you’ll know that everyone’s grandmothers—except yours, of course—were likely spectacularly shitty cooks. I loved my grandmother’s cooking more than almost anything I’ve ever eaten, but by today’s highly technical standards, dear God it was total freaking garbage. My grandmother once heard a co-worker say she’d read an article about food poisoning, and that was all the science she needed to hear to commit to a lifestyle where all meats had to be cooked at least 50 degrees past well done.

She never used the “best” ingredients, because the best ingredients were never on sale, and even if they were, they’d still be too expensive. The 20th-century American grandma boiled her vegetables to oblivion and thought it was totally acceptable for cheese to come out of an aerosol can. But you still loved the hell out of all of it, didn’t you? You loved every soggy noodle that overcooked because the phone rang, every inappropriately crispy piece of baked ziti that burned because she had to attend to the laundry, every dubious casserole that existed because in reality your grandma had no idea what she was doing. Grandma was nowhere close to perfect in any way, shape, or form, and you’re lucky your grandfather didn’t have the option of replacing her with Uber Eats or a Japanese AI sexbot. Grandma taught you things don’t need to be perfect to the world to be perfect to you.

I’ve been in the food industry as a chef and writer my entire adult life, and I’ve eaten so many exceptional things that you have a right to be envious. But for all the Michelin-starred meals that were so perfect they seemed celestial, the flawless pastries that were so beautiful that eating them felt like a sin, few have excited me more than peeling an accidental glob of burnt cheese off a pizza box, or finding a tiny dark brown nub of a French fry hidden at the bottom of the box like a salt-encrusted prize.

Surprises wake you up and make you feel alive, guilty pleasures plunge you into a secret world where nothing matters but your own rapturous joy. Your screwups and mistakes can lead to brilliant and unexpected moments that you never thought to look for. Your failures aren’t existential disasters—they’re mistakes you’ll know not to make the next time. And if everything goes wrong, you can just cover it all up with chopped parsley or a dusting of powdered sugar and no one will be the wiser.

I’m certain that the fight against the uncanny valley will be a losing one. We’ve created multibillion-dollar industries around the concept that our flaws must be erased at all costs, and a society of constant self-flagellation is necessary to prop those industries up. Of all the flaws we have, perhaps the greatest is our inability to accept them. But for the good of our souls, and for the good of humanity as a whole, we need to lean into these mistakes and celebrate them. We need to stop labeling food as right or wrong and just let people like whatever the hell they want to. We need to fight against the uncanny valley for our children and our children’s children, for one day all they’ll know is the taste of a Blue Apron meal prepared by a sexbot that’s been integrated with Smart Appliances and can be activated remotely via smartphone. Most of all, we never need to feel shame about enjoying lumpy oatmeal, undercooked cinnamon buns, ultra al dente pasta, or dried out rice stuck to the bottom of the pot, because even though they’re not textbook specimens, in their own special way, they still taste really freaking good.

And with this, we begin our exploration into the foods that are, to the sophisticated palate, shondas of the highest degree. These are the foods for those of us who eat in the shadows, who revel in our guilty pleasures because we also love the taste of shame. We’ll delve into the edible intimacy that can only develop when no one is watching, upend every rule, and flatly reject the quest for perfection in favor of oddities, idiosyncrasies and absolutely limitless possibility.

Life's no fun when it’s always "serious." It’s about damn time that we got weird.