While it’s true that many important, objectively good things happened in the food world over the last decade, it is also true that all sorts of dumb shit happened, too. Rainbow bagels. Salt Bae’s down-the-elbow seasoning sprinkle. The continued existence of Thug Kitchen. Gordon Ramsay’s ongoing career as the caricature version of an abusive chef. But by far, one stupid development stood out among all the others, and Grub Street is ready to declare it the Decade’s Absolute Dumbest Food Trend: Viral milkshakes.
This is not to say that all Instagram-y food — or even all gimmick-y food — is bad. Dominique Ansel’s Cronut was a sensation when it debuted in 2013 because it was a fried croissant, which required real technical know-how. It was actual innovation. The egg-salad sandwich from Konbi in Los Angeles is just straight-up beautiful and who knew egg salad could ever be pretty? Even the monstrous KFC Double Down, which ushered in this entire decade, required someone, somewhere to think, “What if bread was made of fried chicken?” Moments of inspiration like that don’t come along every day.
The Viral Milkshake, on the other hand, requires no actual talent to create. You know the type of milkshake we’re talking about: Oversize glasses, filled with standard-issue milkshakes, covered with a bunch of hard candy, gummies, cotton candy, cake, or whatever else will stick to the rim. That’s it, that’s the food. They’re the dessert version of those loaded Bloody Marys, and, like those over-garnished behemoths, raise the same question: Why?
As New York critic Adam Platt pointed out when documenting “the great line apocalypse” that gripped New York City in the mid-2010s, they only existed to be Instagrammed and that is just not good enough.
As an autopsy of this unfortunate trend shows that the over-the-top milkshake appears to have come out of Australia in 2015. But the trend’s zenith arrived the following year, when a burger shop in Soho, called Black Tap, exploded its own garish version onto the scene. (It is perhaps only fitting that the chef who invented this food-world scourge once worked as a chef for Donald Trump.) At one point, the store attracted a standing 90-minute-long line of people, all waiting to try the exclusive, impossible-to-find-elsewhere taste of store-bought ice cream and bodega candy.
What is truly so irritatingly dispiriting about these milkshakes, however, is not their existence. It is that they were met with so much hoopla in the first place. There may be a time when it is appropriate to wait more than an hour for food, but that time is not just so you can post something to Instagram.
Milkshake virality ushered in a world of rainbow bagels and unicorn frappucinos from which we have still not fully emerged. At the moment, there are over 700,000 Instagram posts tagged #milkshake, some arriving under a stack of pancakes, others finished with cannoli or slices of cake.
It’s true that there are probably more important things to worry about, and Grub Street is not typically in the business of, as the saying goes, yucking anyone else’s yum. We love ranch dressing and Doritos tacos and cold-brewed pumpkin-spiced lattes with weird, fake “foam.” It occurred to me that perhaps I was being too hard on this milkshake, so I stopped into my nearest Black Tap location — at last count, there are now 14 outposts, including one in Singapore and another in Switzerland — and ordered the Bam Bam Shake, made with Fruity Pebbles straight from the box, for a cool $15.
The shake arrived crowned with a pie’s worth of whip cream, some sort of Fruit Pebble Rice Krispies bar that tasted as much like real fruit as grape cough syrup does. There was also half a Strawberry Pop-Tart, Laffy Taffy, and a Maraschino cherry. (The cherry was, I would soon learn, the best part.)
In addition to the fake flavor, the structure of this beast was roughly as stable as the president’s ego: As soon as I took a spoon to the whipped cream, the Pop-Tart fell off. A chunk of whipped cream plopped on to the plate, like an iceberg calving, then another. (It was quite the scene.) I didn’t know how to eat the cereal festooned to the side of the glass like confetti other than to pick the pieces off, with my fingers, one by one.
As I left, I saw a group of French tourists arriving and and wanted to reach out to them: “You don’t have to do this!”
It occurred to me, walking back to the office, that the Cronut originated at a bakery just two blocks north. Is that hybrid pastry — arguably the original social media food sensation — partly to blame for paving the way to these milkshakes? Sure. It may have spawned a legion of gimmick-food copycats, but at least the Cronut required creativity and talent. A candy-coated milkshake, on the other hand, is a depressing pulse check on food culture, and the predictable ways in which our world, in general, has been transformed by social media into one giant attention economy.