Food & Drink

Why edible rainbows have taken over the Internet

A tray of baked Rainbow Bagels at the Bagel Store in Brooklyn.
A tray of baked Rainbow Bagels at the Bagel Store in Brooklyn. Yana Paskova/The Washington Post

Dorothy could. But social media cannot get over the rainbow, at least when it comes to food: We're seeing more and more of the color spectrum in our cakes, cookies and even coffee.

Last month, a Brooklyn shop selling rainbow bagels reported waits of four hours to get its neon creations. Then a polychromatic grilled cheese lit up the Internet. That grown-ups have an appetite for nostalgic kid cuisine is nothing new, but lately, it's as if Funfetti is a virus, and nothing edible is immune.

There are cake balls that look as if they've been made from Play-Doh. Tie-dyed waffles, psychedelic s'mores. Orange peels filled with every color of Jell-O. Multicolored cookie parfait. Cakes with white frosting, but when you slice into them – surprise! A perfect ROYGBIV. Not even matzo is safe.

For makers of colorful icings and food dyes, it's a pot of gold.

"Everybody has a pleasant feeling associated with a rainbow. It's a beautiful thing," said Beth Somers, director of creative content for Wilton Brands, a manufacturer of cake decorating supplies and ingredients. "It's kind of a fun thing to put it into a food format, and just play with it."

Wilton, which sells 24 gel-based hues that can be used in icing and baked goods, has been flooding its Instagram feed with ombre and rainbow-colored recipes, like its candy curl rainbow cake and rainbow shot glasses. It markets its multilayer cake pan set as a tool for making the popular rainbow layer cake that has become a stalwart of birthday parties, same-sex weddings and Pride Week celebrations. Although the company has seen a sales increase in its icing colors since 2013, a spokeswoman said she could not directly attribute it to the trend.

For many of the recipes, the only special equipment you need is food coloring. It's “a little bit time intensive, but not hard. There's almost no skill to it at all,” said Somers. So Instagrammers – where these Rainbow Brite creations are incredibly popular – get “a lot of visual bang for your buck,” said Somers. And plenty of bragging fodder, too: In our photograph-everything era, the rainbow dishes seem like a form of visual one-upsmanship, with home cooks and professionals alike striving to make the most perfect-looking Crayola box of a cake.

“Seeing the colors flow in their structured form makes people feel good,” said Brittany Wright, a photographer whose Instagrams of rainbow-colored food, from vibrant citrus to prismatic popsicles, have earned her 160,000 followers.

But not everyone feels good about it. After all, the taste-the-rainbow-trend is at odds with the direction our food culture is taking.

It “seems to be going against the natural foods trend, which is that a symphony of brown is something to be celebrated, ugly food is delicious, heirlooms are beautiful and things don't have to look perfect,” said Tess Masters, the author of "The Blender Girl," a gluten-free, vegan cookbook.

Baked goods, where we're used to seeing fanciful colors, are one thing. But now there's rainbow savory food, too. In addition to the aforementioned grilled cheese, there have been two types of rainbow pizza. There's also rainbow pasta, made by dumping cooked noodles into bags of food coloring and mixing them together for a plate that looks like a Brice Marden painting. It's only just the beginning. Somers thinks we will see more artificial rainbows on the dinner plate as cooks' creativity reaches new and terrifying depths. What's next: rainbow sausage? Rainbow lasagna? Rainbow coq au vin?

“Meat of any kind seems like it shouldn't be rainbowed,” said Somers.

Many of these recipes aren't necessarily going to turn out looking as good as they do online. Food styling tips and lighting can make the rainbow appear more vibrant on a screen than it will be in your kitchen. And as every kid with a multi-pack of Play-Doh learned early on: If you mix every color in the rainbow together, you get a muddy gray-brown. The potential for Pinterest Fails is high. For that grilled cheese, for example, “you're only going to get that rainbow with the cheese pull, and it's really hard to do a perfect pull,” said Somers, referring to the just-melted, oozy strands of cheese. “I don't think the visual wow is the same as when you cut into a cake.”