Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thoughts on Food

(written as a reaction to "Rude Food" by Alan Saunders, a reflection on restaurant critics published in the book "Critical Perspectives")

I find it strange, Saunders' emphasis on the restaurant as the 'artwork' rather than the food.
What is different about food that it needs to be treated differently to other arts?

It is time-based, for one thing - so is music and film, but unlike these you can't eat precisely the same dish twice. In this way perhaps it is more like live performance - repeated but never exactly the same.

It is similar to - or at least starts off like - visual art, the bizarre deviation being that the art is destroyed (transformed, if you prefer) in order to engage with it.

It's something of a multi-layered experience as the visual becomes taste, becomes part of your body, is digested and extruded. Food then needs to engage with digestion as part of the medium; perhaps the difficulty there is that no two bodies are identical - but then neither are the minds that 'digest' other artforms.

Food is a work that continues after you have left the venue.

Saunders mentions the trap of liking food to sex - it is a live 'performance' that engages with you physically - but unlike sex, food engages impersonally. At a stretch you are engaging with the chef, but food isn't about people. The closest related medium I can think of is instrumental music.

Saunders makes a similar connection, though for the reason that music and food are both abstract aesthetic experiences that cannot easily be analysed - their 'form and meaning are one'. I don't wholly agree, as it's not true that music is entirely without literary themes, without metaphor and imagery. There are perhaps corresponding elements to food, however rarely if ever does food attempt to express an actual story.

Does the cook imbue their work with meaning? Or rather do they play with aesthetic? I find the latter more likely, and certainly it is what most customers expect from the experience.

It is odd then, that food is a bit of an improvisation on the part of the customer - most dishes are not required to be eaten in a certain way (mouthful to mouthful), so even if it were possible for two customers to eat the exact same meal, they would not eat it in the same way. Because of this there will often be too much sauce in one mouthful, too much salt in another. I suppose in a way this is true for all art - people respond differently to the same things, taking in different aspects of a work in a different order to other people experiencing the same work (such as focusing on the lighting at one point in a theatrical performance rather than the music) - yet with food you can physically witness the art being processed, which makes it able to be controlled to some extent.

It's also usually up to the customer to choose the course of their meal, progressing from dish to dish, which could conceivably be disastrous for the overall experience (the difference similar to that between an album arranged by intention and a musical library set to random) - unless the menu is somehow composed such that all variations will blend well.

The biggest difference between food and other art forms is that food is very much functional, expected to satisfy a physical need - so who has the time or money to risk experimental, perhaps indigestible, meals that may have more 'literary' merit, more of a story, more meaning to them?

Perhaps food is more comparable to design artefacts, especially considered on a sliding scale - 'undigestible' books may be considered to have great merit, uncomfortable but fashionable shoes may still be worn, but if food is not especially edible, no-one cares what its 'meaning' is.