It might have flashed across your social media feed at some point over the past week: an image of a lifelike sculpture of two severed solitary feet — not fashioned from marble or wood, or even (heaven forbid) human flesh, but rather from … raw ground beef.
You might recall the revulsion you felt when you registered the details. Rounds of white onion at the “ankle” mimic the cross section of bone that would be revealed after the ruddy, necrotic-looking appendage had been chopped from a human body. But the extra-shuddery sensation you might have felt probably came from the concoction’s piece de resistance: rounded slivers of onion perfectly formed into ghostly, grisly toenails that no manicurist in their right mind would touch.
The simple caption added to the gross-out effect. “Feetloaf,” it reads.
Perhaps you have stopped reading right here and are clicking around somewhere else looking for videos of baby animals in the hopes of purging this image from your mind’s eye. No one could blame you. This is grade-A sickening stuff.
But for some reason, many of us love it. Or we “like” it, at least — the original photo has been liked on Twitter nearly 28,000 times and retweeted nearly 9,000 times. People have reacted with memes registering their disgust. Others posted their own attempts at the dish. But many have kept it simple and just posted the picture with its revolting portmanteau of a caption.
You can blame this recent collective wave of nausea on Richard Wilson, a Tulsa rapper who goes by Lil Rich Aka Crash. He’s the one who took the picture and posted it this month. But Wilson did not mean to make you ill, friends.
In a phone interview, Wilson says he was just trying to make a funny dinner for his five kids. He was inspired, he said, by something his family would say about one of his aunties, when he was growing up. “We used to say that she put her foot into her food,” he said. “That’s what all us young ’uns said — so I thought it would be a good joke to make a foot.”
Feet and food might sound incompatible, especially in what was supposed to be a compliment, but that’s how the expression goes. In Southern African American slang, saying that someone put their foot in their cooking is a compliment of the highest order.
Feetloaf actually predates Wilson’s stroke of genius, however. Recipes for it have been popping up for more than a decade.
The origins of feetloaf aren’t, unlike a perfectly sawed tibia, clear-cut. References to the dish begin to appear on blogs around 2009, with one early poster describing having gotten the recipe for it from a pamphlet she randomly bought while standing in line at the grocery store. Here’s her story:
“There at the check stand, I found a little book with several Halloween recipes in it, and the following recipe (with my alterations) gets made at our home every year in time for Halloween. While truly, it looks kind of nasty (the whole toenails thing — gag!), taste-wise, this rivals my grandmothers meatloaf, yet it is much easier than grandma’s!”
In a giant missed opportunity, the dish isn’t referred to as feetloaf, but rather as “Bloody Stump” or “Feet of Meat.” It also calls for Brazil nuts or almonds to serve as the toenails, which make the final creation resemble a cartoonish monster paw more than a realistic severed human appendage.
Since then, it has circulated around the Internet, some with lifelike (deathlike?) flourishes. It seemed to have a bit of a moment in 2014, when it was among the Halloween foods the hosts of NBC’s “Today Show” sampled. Kathy Lee Gifford might have spoken for all of America with her initial reaction to its unveiling: “Oh.”
We even tried our … hand at creating the dish, doubling one of our meatloaf recipes and using various online iterations as models for sculpting it. (One pro tip for helping the meat keep its shape was chilling it in the fridge after assembling, but before baking. And for an extra Dexter-esque touch, we served it on a quarter sheet pan that looked like a laboratory pan and swapped a serving knife for a little handsaw.)
Okay, so we might know how this dish made its terrifying way into our social media feeds, but the better question is (and please read this in your head delivered in a despairing shriek): whhhhhyyyyyyyy?
One reason is that it’s just the entry du jour into the burgeoning category of Halloween foods, a genre practically made for social media, particularly Pinterest, where craft tutorials and DIY culture flourishes.
In the not-so-distant past, traditional Halloween “food” was mostly candy: sugary corn kernels in bowls on office desks and handfuls of mini-chocolate bars coveted by trick or treaters. The holiday didn’t have a strong culinary heritage, like Thanksgiving, with its turkey and stuffing, does. Easter has its hams, the Fourth of July has its barbecue, and Christmas, of course, is the time for cookies and eggnog.
And the celebration once known as All Hallow’s Eve was long considered a kids’ holiday in modern history — but that’s clearly changed, says Chris-Rachael Oseland, a food writer whose “Dead Delicious Horror Cookbook” is filled with recipes for dishes that look like disassembled body parts (her “Sweet Flayed Corpse,” for example, uses crepes to mimic flaps of skin).
Halloween is “a contemporary adult holiday,” she says. “But there aren’t traditions, so we have to make it up as we go along.”
And where do we look for ideas of any kind these day? Scrollscrollscroll.
“Social media is often what tells us how to perform the rituals of this holiday,” Oseland says.
But feetloaf has a gross-out factor that goes beyond many of the dishes you see on your cousin’s “Creepy Halloween Ideas” board on Pinterest. Some of those might fall into the kinda-cute category, like mummy dogs (franks encased in crescent dough, often with olive pieces for eyes) or cupcakes sprouting spider legs. Others are more realistically macabre: There’s an entire genre of severed-finger-shaped snacks made of sugar cookie dough, hot dogs and more.
Even in this bloodbath of red food coloring and pumpkins vomiting cheese dip, feetloaf stands apart.
Emily Contois, a media studies professor at the University of Tulsa who studies food in pop culture and social media, says it’s not just run-of-the-mill spooky but particularly transgressive.
As many of us become ever distant from the origins of our food, the feetloaf’s jutting tibia and meaty flesh remind us we’re about to eat the slaughtered carcass of a living thing. “The visible bone and the literally ground meat that comes from an animal forces us to think about the violence inherent in eating animals,” she said. “Meatloaf in a pan wouldn’t have that effect.”
Oseland notes that the photos that seem to have provoked the strongest reaction, including Wilson’s, feature the meaty concoction in its unbaked form. That’s when it’s at its most frighteningly realistic stage, she notes, before the heat of the oven renders it more formless and the color less raw-flesh-like.
And then there’s our collective deal with feet. Sure, some fetishists get their kicks from toes, but a more common reaction to an exposed lower extremity is revulsion. A dish modeled after a human hand wouldn’t have quite the same resonance, Contois notes. “It’s an appendage that’s connected to the earth and to the dirt,” she said, adding that other people’s feet often bring up feelings of disgust while our own might make us feel shame.
And yet feetloaf strides on, not despite the repugnance we feel when gazing upon it but because of it. And that just might be the true spirit of Halloween, the holiday that’s based on celebrating not birth or rebirth, but the blurring of the line between the living and the dead. It’s also associated with the temporary lifting of societal norms (scary is good! pranks are allowed!), making feetloaf the meaty embodiment of the holiday’s ethos.
“That’s what Halloween is about,” Oseland says. “It’s pushing boundaries, and being giggly and subversive at the same time.”