FoodIssue 8

The Fetishisation of Fodder

The British Museum of Food, 1 Cathedral St, London SE1 9DE. Open until early 2016.

I pick up the chopsticks, hold the rim of the steaming noodle soup, and reach for the tiny bowl of pickles. But I am not about to eat; I am about to Tweet. Rearranging the bowls into a more pleasing pattern, I hover above them, frame my iPhone shot, choose my filter, and ready my meal for immediate consumption – on Instagram and Twitter. Only then can I start my supper. My dinners nowadays are consumed three times: first with the eyes, next by my followers, and only then by the mouth.

The advent of the Pill or the Brixton riots, Jimi or Mick, Thatcher or Uber: no British revolution of the last half-century has affected our daily lives as much as this, the revolution of our cuisine. A praxis of boiling vegetables to oblivion; a culture whose chief gift to the globe is the fry-up; a population who patronise Wetherspoons for the £5 Curry Club…something amidst all this is undergoing a sea-change. In the ‘noughties’ one could be a ‘hoodie’ – now one can be a ‘foodie’. If you’re not smashing avo on your sourdough à la Nigella, crumbling za’atar on your aubergine al Ottolenghi, or spiralising your vegetables, you’re toast. Food has become per­formance art and pastime, hobby and high culture. To microwave a meal now puts you into the kind of underclass that used to drink gin in Hogarth’s alleyways. To undergo the sacred pilgrimage to San Sebastian and gorge on their Michelin-starred pinxtos – leaving only a trail of crumpled napkins and shady Instagram shots – is the new pilgrim’s way.

Food has, of course, always signified identity. The roast swans and porpoises that graced the table of Henry VIII left no one in doubt that he was the first among men – in riches, rank, and power, as in girth. If the King’s servants subsisted on brown bread and salted herring during Church fast days, Henry also fasted simply: on lampreys, lobster and custards (to start.) So lavish and so necessary was food as a demonstration of power and wealth that, for centuries, a visit from the King’s Court could well precipitate ruin and famine for the noble house that hosted them.

But if, like me, you’re a commoner, you can now be privy (from outside the Privy Council) to the lavish tables of culinary kings in a way heretofore rare: you can eat online. We (the subjects) can steal an eager glimpse into the tiny aesthetic morsels the Chiltern Firehouse lays out before Lindsay Lohan; we can gaze and salivate at the thick steaks of The Hawksmoor; or long monastically for the ascetic purity of the courgette ribbons and gluten-free granola of Deliciously Ella. In the modern world our survival instincts have been sent into hyper-drive. Food is cheap and plentiful, yet the insatiable drive to hunt, eat, and gather must masticate on something. Have we responded by holding food up as an art form, by making it – from barista coffee to bao tse – rarefied?

In the spirit of the aestheticisation of food as experience, Bompas & Parr – the zany food technicians behind the setting of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship in 55,000 litres of jelly – have opened the British Museum of Food. It’s a narrow two storey house near Borough Market, with their Alcoholic Architecture bar in the basement – where you can try to hyperventilate your money’s worth in breathable G&T. Bompas & Parr – two sprightly lads who present the videos with Art Attack levels of enthusiasm – hope for it to become a permanent space. In its current in­carnation this seems unlikely, but certainly the aspiration for a British Museum of Food has never seemed more auspicious. Britain has its food worshippers: now it needs a temple.

But the name was always going to be a hard one to live up to…we have a British Museum, unlimited by a sub-clause. And it is, inevitably, a misnomer: one imagines rooms of morsels curated under glass; histories of plaque on plaques; diets tracked across cultures and countries rather than meals and days. I wanted to inspect our national dish – chicken tikka masala – plucked out of time, forever mid-bubble on a platter next to a pile of lurid pilau rice, its history of appropriation, colonisation, politicisation and multiculturalism teased apart on the placard by a curator with +9 glasses from Boots.

What one gets is more of an ‘experience’ space than a museum. The first experience to digest is just that – a bolus simulator. You sit in massage chairs richly cushioned in lumpy, muscular, intestinal-red, that have been sat on in turn by a hundred other sweating strangers that day, and which then proceed to squeeze and ripple over your body. All the while a pair of grimy headphones pump narration into your ears in the terrifyingly emphatic tones of B & P, and a vast screen takes you through the colon. As you would expect, from the inside, it looks much of a muchness – and one is at least spared the exact ending of the colon. Were we meant to learn from this anything other than the ticklishness of massage balls on the soles of the feet? How did we feel like food, which does not feel? Who can empathise with a bolus?

Next, one is invited to participate in psychological research – on how music affects your perception of chocolate tasting sweet or bitter. Eat a chocolate drop in one of four booths playing different soundscapes…and rate whether each tasted sweet or bitter. My suspicion was that all the pellets were identical, but here, again, one wasn’t expected to learn – one ‘gets’ to be a test subject in the research, not to be privy to its conclusions. One is usually paid to submit oneself to study, not vice versa.

The halls and staircases were plastered in a variety of ‘art’ photographs of food, all so poorly lit and placed that they were neck-achingly difficult to examine. In one photograph, two white napkins lie over the heads of tiny ortolans, a French delicacy where the birds are overfed in darkness (by disrupting their circadian rhythms you can get them to eat all the time) before they are drowned alive in Armagnac. The napkins are for the diner, to place over their heads as they consume the ortolan whole: head, beak, bones and all. The napkin has two functions: to concentrate the succulent vapours rising from the bird, and to hide yourself from God as you swallow beautiful for pleasure. It is illegal to eat ortolans, and this photograph represents the ‘last meal’ of former French President Francois Mitterand – a man after Henry VIII’s stomach. It constituted the final course of a meal including oysters, capon and foie gras, and was eaten a few days before Mitterand died of pancreatic cancer. Mitterand died in 1996. I wonder now if we would bother to cover our heads at all or rather, given such a rare and unusual eating experience, we would covertly snap a photograph under the napkin.

The final chamber was a butterfly room. It felt like a Damien Hirst leftover, and not just because it was hot and moist. Feeble signs describing the importance of butterflies as pollinators desperately attempted to link the exhibit to the production of food – but why not, then, bees? Because, really, we were all there to look at the pretty blue butterflies flap their brilliant wings above our heads. This was all too familiar: like the butterflies themselves, all style and little substance.

This ‘experiential’ fairground seems, one can’t help but feel, a response to the fact that eating can’t yet be sated digitally, can’t be acted or synthesised: it’s one of our remaining essential physical drives. That no matter what pictures we consume on Instagram or Twitter, our appetite for luxurious rich food, or the perception of luxury, is never sated. The growth of immersive theatre, with the rise of companies such as Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train, plunge us into holistic worlds where we act spectator and participant. The popularity of Escape Rooms – where you can pay to be locked in a mock-up prison cell or pharaoh’s tomb with a bunch of strangers – testifies to the same cupidity. As we are sucked deeper into the Internet, into experiences we cannot touch, smell or taste, we counterbalance this evanescence by seeking out full-on, offline experiences to immerse us totally. The increasingly holistic and theatrical presentation of food – as representative experience, as curated ‘performance’ – is the logical end-point. A true British Museum of Food that examined such trends could be fascinating – but this one is a paltry symptom of our condition, and not a diagnosis.