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What Is a Snack, Really?

How we choose to snack is tied to how we live our lives — or how we want to.


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Illustration of several snacks

Illustration by Goldsuit

What is a snack?

It’s one of those questions that doesn’t seem like it should be a question. Everyone knows what a snack is: It’s that thing that happens between meals, that thing you didn’t have to prep or cook or otherwise expend any meaningful effort to propel into your mouth. It’s that thing that came out of a bag. Unless it didn’t: Maybe it came out of a deep fryer, or a tub of Betty Crocker Rainbow Chip frosting, or even, god forbid, from a box of Sun-Maid raisins. Maybe it’s an anchovy impaled on a toothpick with an olive and a guindilla pepper. Maybe it’s a triangle of cooked rice, gift-wrapped in nori.

Just like the snacker, a snack contains multitudes, belying the monosyllabic limitations of the word itself. It’s like that old proverb: Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are. Show me what you reach for when you’re hungry, or procrastinating, or bored, or trying desperately to sublimate your emotions, and, well.

The idea that snacking is so closely tied to who we are is one with broad implications, both for armchair philosophers and the processed-food conglomerates that have significant investments in appealing to our sense of self through calculated product placement. On its website, Herr’s International, the potato chip manufacturer, states that its purpose is to satisfy the tastes of “the snacking community,” a term that is both meaningless and bald-faced in its attempt to pander to the human need for connection — and, moreover, connection through food. But Herr’s is hardly unique in equating snacking with community: Kellogg’s touts the “physical, emotional, and societal interconnections” that can be found in its Pringles and Cheez-Its, while the Frito-Lay’s website emphasizes the presence of its snacks “at tailgates and in lunchboxes, at picnics and in pantries,” selling, again, the notion that snacks mean togetherness.

And yet the snack companies may be onto something. In November 2019, Mondelez International, the corporation behind such snacking stalwarts as Sour Patch Kids, Oreos, and Ritz crackers, released its loftily titled State of Snacking™ report. Conducted across 12 “markets” (or “countries”), it analyzed snacking behaviors worldwide, and found that more people snack than eat full meals, a trend driven by (wait for it) millennials. Although the report is a hellscape of marketing speak — its summary is titled “the Global Citizens of Snacking,” and its research reveals “the rise of the $1.2 trillion snacking opportunity” — it, too, is grounded in the language of connection and wellness. The majority of millennials, it tells us, “use their snacking moments as an opportunity to slow down and find moments of quiet, mindful reflection,” while across the world, snacking is a way for people “to connect to their culture and share their sense of identity with their communities and families.” And, apparently, to connect to themselves: “the majority of people,” the report states, “say snacks are just as important to their mental … and emotional … well-being as their physical well-being.”

The jokes come prepackaged: Who hasn’t encountered mental and emotional well-being in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s? But setting aside for a moment the inherent absurdities of corporate consumer trend reports, what emerges is, again, the idea that how we choose to snack is tied to some larger idea of how we live our lives, or want to. Brands want to sell us on this idea, but even so, plenty of people are willing to believe it, whether because a love of certain snack foods actually is part of their identity, or because it’s true that what we eat is part of how we see ourselves, and the lives that we aspire to. There’s some poignancy there, in the idea that the appropriate snack can soften the human condition’s serrated edges, that a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos can act as an emotional fallout shelter.

At a time in history when systems and institutions have repeatedly proven themselves to be intractably corrupt, a pandemic is changing the rules of society, and nature is exacting revenge of Biblical proportions, a snack promises what the world cannot: safety, consistency, a lack of judgement, an antithesis to life’s fiendish complexities. While that may be true only if you don’t look too closely — there is nothing simple about the machinations of multinational food corporations, much less their products — it doesn’t change the idea that a snack can answer the fundamental question of what we need, and what we need is tied intrinsically to who we are. Perhaps, in the moment, you are a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Perhaps you are a box of Sun-Maid raisins. Perhaps you are the void left in a tub of Rainbow Chip frosting that has been scraped clean. What is a snack? It’s whatever we want it — and ourselves — to be.

Goldsuit is a painter and graphic designer based in Seattle.

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This post originally appeared on Eater and was published September 14, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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