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The struggle of eating right amidst the ambiguous food culture

For final corrected version with complete notes and illustrations, see Performance Research 4, 1 1999: To quote or cite, please refer to the published version. Playing to the Senses: Performance, Food and Cookery, a conference organized by the Centre for Performance Research in Cardiff 13-16 January 1994 was a food event in its own right.

Bobby Baker performed "Drawing on a Mother's Experience," in which she recited the painful story of her life, while flinging onto a white sheet the contents of her shopping bags--cold roast beef, tomato chutney, sponge fingers, brandy, black treacle, sugar, eggs, Guinness, flour, skimmed milk, tinned black currants, frozen fish pie, and Greek strained sheep's milk yogurt--finally rolling herself up in the sheet.

We feasted at Happy Gathering, a nearby Chinese restaurant, sampled Welsh cheeses, and alternated roasted meats and rounds of polyphony at a Georgian banquet in a local church. We watched an instructional video on how to slaughter and butcher a pig and another of street vendor in Thailand tossing morning glory water convulvus in a glorious arc from his fiery wok to a plate held by a waiter across the street.

We cooked our own Welsh breakfasts of sausage, laverbread seaweedand eggs in iron skillets on stoves brought into the conference space for the purpose--preceded by a lecture-demonstration, of course.

We "harvested" our lunch in the edible greenhouse, entitled A Temperate Menu, created by Alicia Rios. Attentive to what is performative about food, we looked at the most ordinary and the most extraordinary food events and not only at domestic and professional cooks, but also artists who work with food. Since cooking techniques, culinary codes, eating protocols, and gastronomic discourses are already so highly elaborated, what is there left for professional artists who chose to work with food as subject or medium to do?

Food, and all that is associated with it, is already larger than life. It is already highly charged with meaning and affect. It is already performative and theatrical. An art of the concrete, food, like performance, is alive, fugitive, and sensory.

Food and performance converge conceptually at three junctures. First, to perform is to do, to execute, to carry out to completion, to discharge a duty--in other words, all that governs the production, presentation, and disposal of food and their staging.

To perform in this sense is to make food, to serve food. It is about materials, tools, techniques, procedures, actions. It is about getting something done. It is in this sense, first and foremost, that we can speak of the performing kitchen. Second, to perform is to behave. This is what Erving Goffman calls the performance of self in everyday life. Whether a matter of habit, custom, or law, the divine etiquette of ritual, codifications of social grace, the laws governing cabarets and liquor licenses, or the health and sanitation codes, performance encompasses the social practices that are part and parcel of what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus.

To perform in this sense is to behave appropriately in relation to food at any point in its production or consumption or disposal, each of which may be the struggle of eating right amidst the ambiguous food culture to precise protocols or taboos.

Jewish and Hindu laws of ritual purity and formal etiquette stipulate the requirements in exquisite detail. They involve the performance of precepts, as well as precepts of performance. Third, to perform is to show.

When doing and behaving are displayed, when they are shown, when participants are invited to exercise discernment, evaluation, and appreciation, food events move towards the theatrical and, more specifically, towards the spectacular.

It is here that taste as a sensory experience and taste as an aesthetic faculty converge. The conflation of the two meanings of taste can be found both in Enlightenment aesthetics and the Hindu concept of rasa alike. During the Enlightenment, aesthetics was realigned from "a science of sensory knowledge" to a philosophy of beauty in relation to sensory experience.

The sensory roots of aesthetic response were, however, preserved. While taste as an aesthetic faculty lacks a dedicated organ, Enlightenment aesthetics thought of it as "le sens interne du beau" or the "sixth sense within us, whose organs we cannot see.

  • These objects materialize "the body in pain," to use Elaine Scarry's phrase;
  • Some projects are documentary in their conception and execution, while others are live actions in real time which may or may not leave some material trace or record.

Touch in this context both concretizes emotional response, and speaks to what el-Khoury calls the "tactility of taste. As a sensory experience, taste operates in multiple modalities—not only by way of the mouth and nose, but also the eye, ear, and skin.

How does food perform to the sensory modalities unique to it? A key to this question is a series of dissociations. While we eat to satisfy hunger and nourish our bodies, some of the most radical effects occur precisely when food is dissociated from eating and eating from nourishment.

Such dissociations produce eating disorders, religious experiences, culinary feats, sensory epiphanies, and art.

The struggle of eating right amidst the ambiguous food culture

Sensory Dissociations "The distinction of the senses is arbitrary. Such food may well be subject to extreme visual, and for that matter tactile and verbal, elaboration.

  1. Moreover, what we have here is not a one-time action or project of limited duration but a seasonal ritual that is part of a sustained way of life and committed set of attachments to people and places. Martin's School of Art in London, where he was teaching.
  2. In her massive potlucks, however, Lacy has taken the opposite approach, issuing invitation in chain letter style, leaving the "menu" to chance, and allowing the interactions to just happen. Provisioning The market has historically been a crossroads and vibrant site of food, conviviality, and performance, from the street cries and banter designed to sell goods to the formal Punch and Judy shows and myriad street performers.
  3. Accounts of Futurist meals spoke of exciting the enamel on the teeth, filling the nostril with heaven, choking the esophagus with admiration. In her massive potlucks, however, Lacy has taken the opposite approach, issuing invitation in chain letter style, leaving the "menu" to chance, and allowing the interactions to just happen.
  4. The paradoxical objectivity of smell is that it is more intruding, more immediate, than any other sensation, and at the same time essentially fleeting and elusive.

The showpieces in culinary olympics and exhibitions of pastry and confectionary are exhibited, but they are not generally eaten with the exception of hot entries. Eat them at their freshest and there would be nothing to exhibit. Wait till after the exhibition and they are not worth eating. They are literally a feast for the eye and they are called showpieces. Food stylists produce a toxic cuisine that may well look more edible and delicious than real food, particularly under hot studio lights.

Access Check

Featured in images that sell food, magazines, and cookbooks, dishes fashioned from substances never destined for the mouth "look good enough to eat.

The task of the stylist is to "show" sensory experiences that are invisible, or more accurately, to provide visual cues that we associate with particular tastes and smells, even in the absence of gustatory and olfactory stimuli. In this regard, the art of studio food is at once mimetic the dish prepared for the camera must look like it could grace the table and indexical the visual details must index qualities that we can only know from other sensory modalities.

From color, steam rising, gloss, color, and texture, we infer taste, smell, and feel, as well as whether the food in question is supposed to have been fried, roasted, baked, steamed, and grilled, and whether it is hot or cold. Taste is something we anticipate and infer from how things look, feel to the hand, smell outside the mouthand sound. We use these sensory experiences to tell, before putting something into the mouth, if it is fresh, ripe, or rotten, if it is raw or cooked, if it is properly prepared.

Our survival, both biological and social, depends on such cues. So does our pleasure. Our eyes let us "taste" food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell.

Even a feast for the eyes only will engage the other senses imaginatively, for to see is not only to taste, but also to eat. Television cooking shows—there are now entire channels devoted entirely to food—are a way of eating with the eyes by watching others prepare, present, and consume food, without either cooking or eating oneself. Cookbooks, now more than ever, are a way of eating by reading recipes and looking at photographs.

Those books may never see the kitchen. Indeed, experienced readers can sight-read a recipe the way a musician sight-reads a score. They can "play" the recipe in their mind's eye.

While not unique to the experience of food, visual aspects of food are no less essential to it. First, the eyes play a critical role in stimulating appetite. Visual appeal literally makes the mouth water, gets the juices going, starts the stomach rumbling—in other words, sets the autonomic reflexes associated with digestion in motion.

These responses—salivation, secretion of gastric juices, hunger pangs—are involuntary, spontaneous, instinctive, though the cues are ones that we learn. Second, the eyes are bigger than the stomach. This is a not only a reason not to shop for food when hungry, but also an incentive to feast with the eyes. Visual interest can be sustained long after the desire to taste and smell has abated and appetite has been sated.

Perhaps for this reason, the most spectacular displays are likely to come at the end of the meal. The wondrous confectionary presented at the conclusion of Renaissance banquets, while technically edible, might never be eaten, though it together with the other courses might be enthusiastically applauded. Barbara Wheaton reports that, the struggle of eating right amidst the ambiguous food culture the appropriate moment, the table might be abandoned to pillage and the guests invited to demolish the exquisite conceits that had been set before them.

These "edible monuments," to use Marcia Reed's apt term, are performing objects of a special kind. Memorable examples are the pie with four and twenty blackbirds the birds would have been placed inside the crust after the pie was baked and then released when the crust was opened and the macchina della coccagna, an edible festival sculpture.

The macchina della coccagna represented paradise on earth, imagined as the Land of Cockaigne, itself an edible world where sausages, cheese, and pastries grow on trees. Such conceits, whether sotelties, surtouts, trionfi, or machines--literally perform.

According to Reed, eighteenth-century Italian edible masterpieces of the macchina della coccagna might feature fireworks spewing forth from a ram's head or pig's mouth, fountains flowing not only with water, but also wine, and pools of water with live ducks and fish.

Large, free-standing, and edible, such festival architecture and sculpture enacted its own ephemerality. When the king gave the signal, the gathered crowd scaled, attacked, and destroyed a Neapolitan cuccagna in the form of a temporary fortress adorned with food.

According to the program notes for Organoleptic Deconstruction in Three Movements, which she performed at the 1993 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Rios explored "the texture, sound, and appearance of various substances out of their usual context"—first and foremost, out of the mouth. Rios made chewing into a full body process. She externalized the mouth, extended the mouth's lining to the rest of her skin, and displaced the mouth's functions onto the rest of the body.

Her whole body became a masticating mouth. While etiquette books insist that one chew with the mouth closed, never speak with a full mouth or spit, and dispose of anything removed from the mouth discretely, Rios spokes with her "mouth" full. Paul Levy describes the event: Rios was arrayed in white—daringly, as it turned out. In the first movement, Ms. Rios placed bowls of 10 or so foods, which had in common only that they were coloured pink and white, on the lecture table…. She proceeded to "chew" each of these foods, but with her fingers, not her teeth.

Thus, the strawberries were reduced to squishy pulp, and the moderator of the session sprayed her fingers with cream from the can…. Rios had taken the act of masticating food out of its context, by using the larger, external sensory organs, the fingers, instead of the smaller internal ones, teeth, tongue, and palate. She had thus made public an act which is essentially private…. In the third act, Rios lay on a transparent mattress filled with potato chips, which she "chewed" by rolling around on it.

By externalizing actions internal to the mouth, Rios isolated mastication, made her fingers and even her entire body into a mouth, and disassociated chewing from tasting and swallowing.

  • Taking Francis Bacon's adage that "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to chewed and digested" literally, guests at a party in his home were instructed them to chew pages from Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture and "If necessary, spit out the product into a flask provided;
  • While I have considered historical examples of table and stage inspiring each other, experimental performance during the twentieth century, especially after World War II, offers a particularly rich array of possibilities;
  • Their challenge was to find a "compelling conceptual framework that could metaphorically extend this community action into the realm of art;
  • These events are not even an adaptation of the model;
  • The impression does not become more dense, it is not solidified as when we concentrate on a tone or a color;
  • The substance of food and corporeality of the body inform "Gnaw" 1992 , a three-part installation by Janine Antoni.

The substance of food and corporeality of the body inform "Gnaw" 1992a three-part installation by Janine Antoni. She presents a 600 lb. She has molded heart-shaped candies from the chocolate and 300 lipsticks from the lard.

While the teeth marks are clearly evident on the massive cubes of chocolate and lard, there is no sign of the rest of the body, except perhaps by inference from the sweetheart candy made from the chocolate she spit out and cosmetic lipstick destined to adorn the mouth.

Antoni's teeth have "sculpted" material that under other circumstances would be processed using hands and tools and cooked, before being placed in the mouth, chewed, and swallowed.