What 24-karat gold chicken wings tell us about the return of food as status symbol

This is not your regular, golden brown and crispy chicken wing purchased from your local fast food joint. 

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Earlier this month one of the unholiest viral food videos to infect the internet spread across Facebook.

Jonathan Cheban, a celebrity food tycoon who calls himself “The Foodgod” and is family friend of the Kardashian clan, revealed his latest culinary invention: the golden chicken wing.

This is not your regular, golden brown and crispy chicken wing purchased from your local fast food joint. No, this wing is created by frying chicken in liquid, edible, 24-karat gold. Exclusive to New York City restaurant chain Ainsworth, it costs $3 per wing – bought in batches of ten, twenty, or for the low price of $1,000, fifty (served with a bottle of Champagne Armand de Brignac on the side). Cheban is touting them as the most expensive chicken wings in the world.

Social media, and especially Instagram, has changed the way we eat food. Oversaturated, contrasted, and multicoloured porridges, smoothies and desserts are impossible to avoid, with more than 159 million posts on the app tagged with the hashtag #foodporn.

Over the last five years, thousands around the world have waxed lyrical about the ills or virtues of our obsession with presenting what we eat. Discussions about how social media has changed the food industry have arguably reached their saturation point.

But Jonathan Cheban’s gilded monstrosity, although seemingly a part of that same trend, brings something different to the table. Beyond “who asked for this” or “why”, it poses questions about how what we eat in real life is being warped by what we see online. The motivation behind purchasing and sharing an opulent chicken wing goes beyond just looking for something bright to post online. Their draw isn’t aesthetic – it’s what they mean as a symbol of status.

Grand meals have, of course, long been used as a kind of medieval dick-swinging, and the Mad Men era of the fifties and sixties was rife with neighbours competing over who had the nicest Christmas dinner.

As recently as 2009, American comedy 30 Rock mocked this trend via their General Electric executive millionaire character, Jack Donaghy, when he talked about having a dessert called “Lover’s Delight” that cost $1,000 which, like the aformentioned chicken wings, also featured 24-karat gold, in an attempt to satirise the very real $1K Opulence Sundae at NYC restaurant Serendipity.

Expensive, showy food may have been relegated to the consumption discourse backbench by topics like clean eating and vegan diets over the last decade, but it has never gone away.

Thanks to Cheban and countless others, it is fighting for a comeback on the clean-eatters home turf of the internet. .

You can situate enthusiasm for obscenely over the top eating in the broader online context in which buzzwords such as “being extra” and “more is more” dominate, and there is a growing emphasis on maximalism over minimalism. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is reflected in the social media posts of people who have tried the Cheban 24-karat chicken wings, with captions like “Reserved only for the glitzy, the glam, and those who are feeling super ‘extra’ this spring and summer season!” and “Wings as EXTRA as we are” posted alongside the arguably unappetising pictures of this precious metal-covered chicken.

But while expensive culinary trends are typically left to the rich (the ones who can afford to eat at the fine dining restaurants that serve things like thousand dollar truffles and rare, aged ham), golden chicken wings are marketed like social media-driven popular foods. Despite their $30 minimum price tag, the social media storm around these wings makes them look as accessible as other comparatively cheap trends – foods such as black ice cream, unicorn frappuccinos, and rainbow bagels (all costing less than $6) – because they are treated in the same way online. They are snapped, shared, and storied on social media and seen as little more than the latest weird food trend that will ultimately be replaced by another.

But with most social-media-made popular food trends can arguably be deemed unnecessary, silly purchases, the prices still tend to be on the cheaper end. With golden chicken wings, however, we get a new, pressuring trend that is alarmingly costly; far more costly than its predecessors. Although this could be considered just one weird, and indeed tasteless food concept, we are seeing more and more golden delicacies and inevitably racing towards others trying to copy and top it.

Already, publications such as Business Insider and Popsugar have marked the rise in gold in our food at soaring prices, with items like golden pizzas, golden marshmallows, and golden grilled cheese costing hundreds and even thousands. But as we up the ante (the way we’ve seen it upped in the colourful food trends of so-bizarre-it’s-gross candy floss burritos or mermaid toast) it won’t just make food more weird, bright and eccentric. In the case of upping the decadence of our food, things will just become more expensive. And in terms of how that reflects on social media, it stops being about how trendy our culinary choices can be and instead it becomes about flaunting how much money we have at our disposal to spend on them.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.