Food For Thought

Food brings people together and not only does it fill stomachs, but when coupled with artful intentions and critical cultural discourse, food can also fill minds.

It may sound simple, but sharing a meal opens up a great deal of potential for developing social and emotional bonds between diverse groups of people. This is largely because food, like visual art and education, is a gateway to cultural understanding and appreciation. The culinary arts foster a dialogue about our unique and collective identities in a positive and empowering setting. Contemporary artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Rakowitz, Heather Hart and Jina Valentine (Black Lunch Table) and Rirkrit Tiravanija, have used food and the sharing of meals to raise awareness about community and the multicultural issues that affect the way we interact together, relate to one another and learn collaboratively.

In 1971, Matta-Clark, dancer Carol Goodden and performance artist Tina Girouard, co-founded FOOD, a restaurant in SoHo, New York, which was managed and staffed completely by artists. FOOD was a significant innovation that combined a passion for fine dining with artistic discourse and experiential art making. When FOOD came on the scene, SoHo was in the midst of becoming a major artistic destination, however, there were limited spaces for artists to come together and enjoy a good affordable meal. While Matta-Clark and Goodden typically assumed the roles of chefs, they often invited guest artists to curate meals and take on various roles as the restaurant staff. The restaurant was significant in employing and feeding a diverse group of creative individuals. There was no menu, just whatever inspired the chef and staff on a given day. In addition to providing a good artful meal, FOOD gave patrons an opportunity to meet within a safe space for cultivating creative ideas. Many art and cultural collectives such as the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Mabou Mines dance troupe, were frequent visitors. While FOOD closed after just three years, it established an important legacy within New York’s urban cultural environment and inspired numerous advancements within the fine art and culinary fields (such as the open kitchen, the offering of seasonal ingredients, vegetarian meals and food themed installations and performances which were all fairly revolutionary for restaurants at that time). At FOOD, food ingredients became the art materials, cooking became the artistic process, and communal meals were the product of artful expression.

In 1990, Rirkrit Tiravanija similarly rejected the notion that to be an artist one must produce objects (typified as traditional forms of art) such as drawings, paintings, films, or sculpture, through the staging of pad thai at Paula Allen Gallery in New York. Instead of displaying objects on the walls of the gallery, Tiravanija cooked meals for gallery visitors that reflected his diverse cultural background. These meals shifted the focus of the art gallery from an extravagant commercial space into an equitable communal environment where a wide range of people came together to share a unique experience.

Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (2003-ongoing), utilizes the making and serving of food as an expression and celebration of intersectional identity, collaboration and empathy. Rakowitz’s project was inspired by his Jewish-Iraqi background and the desire to illuminate Iraqi culture to unlikely audiences throughout the United States. Because issues pertaining to Iraqi culture have been either portrayed as negative or simply ignored by the collective culture within the United States, Enemy Kitchen serves delicious food and a powerful and positive message of cultural awareness. With the help of his Jewish-Iraqi mother, Rakowitz compiled a series of essential Baghdadi recipes.

Enemy Kitchen eventually took shape as a food truck where American Iraq War Veterans worked alongside Iraqi Refugee chefs to make kebab, kofta and kubba (among other dishes) and served it to the public. The intimate experience of veterans who fought in Iraq learning to make traditional Baghdadi recipes by hand from Iraqi nationals, is evident of food’s power to unite seemingly different groups of people under a common humanitarian goal: to feed the hungry.

Enemy Kitchen also takes the form of an ongoing workshop where Rakowitz introduces and co-creates traditional Iraqi meals in the kitchen with middle and high school students. One of the goals for the project is to incorporate these dishes into New York City’s public school cafeteria lunch menus. The overarching idea for Enemy Kitchen is that food nourishes the body and opens the mind to an alternative discourse around the cultural visibility of Iraq within the American landscape.

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Black Lunch Table’s “The People’s Table” session at the High Line on 7/11/18.

Artists Heather Hart and Jina Valentine also address issues of intersectionality through their Black Lunch Table initiative. The project combines oral history, formal conversation and community building around the sharing of a meal and personal expression. Inspired by the traditional lunchroom environment, Black Lunch Table’s The People’s Table brings a diverse group of participants together around a lunch table to engage in candid discussions that are prompted by questions written on cards relating to topics such as identity, equality, equity and the nature of public spaces. The questions are geared to focus attention on marginalized groups within the community. The prompts provide a platform for individuals with varied life experiences to speak about how they perceive inequality and reflect upon how heterogeneous groups within the community can come together to dismantle institutional racism. The discussions are structured to give everyone a voice to discuss the aforementioned topics and to be active listeners to others who have different life experiences and/or perspectives.

All of the aforementioned projects have strong learning capabilities in schools. In the classroom environment, a pot-luck meal, which celebrates the intersectionality of each student’s identity can be planned and implemented. During this process, students will also work collaboratively to create a limited edition cookbook featuring the recipes that are most meaningful and representative of them as individuals and/or as a collective. Students will be prompted in-class with several open-ended questions about what food means to them, their family and their community. They should have ample time to discuss their answers in groups and make notations about their classmates’ similar and different food-related experiences. Additionally, students will be encouraged to interview family members about their favorite culinary experiences and record specific family recipes to share with the rest of the class.  If an actual meal is to be carried out in class/school, it is vital that students and parents inform the school and teachers about any food allergies or dietary needs.

The meal and the related discussions can be documented through photo, video and exit interviews, which also serve as assessments. The realized cookbook should be aesthetically pleasing, featuring signs, symbols and other artistic elements inspired by the diverse range of cultures that are represented in each recipe. A communal meal provides nourishment to the body, mind and spirit, which is essential for our personal growth and understanding of each other. It produces literal and figurative recipes for success.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Waxman, Lori (2008). “The Banquet Years: FOOD, A SoHo Restaurant” (PDF). Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 8 (4): 24–33.

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