food as eating choreography*

*Post commissioned by Nicola Twilley (edible geography /foodprintproject / GOOD Magazine) as part of FOOD FOR THINKERS – An online festival on Food and Writing (18-23/01/2011)

Courses are served on a table. Dishes are set on a rigorous manner. But does the subsequent experience of eating leave place for interaction among the companions? Each culture places cutlery in such a way that the subsequent freedom of movement is already predetermined. It is mostly remarkable between Western and Asian cultures; if the former pleads for a hierarchical untouchable order, the latter prefers a higher degree of spontaneity and unplannedness. The fact of using generic chopsticks instead of specific tools for each meal is directly translated into how guests relate themselves to space through their eating choreography. One dish surrounded by dozens of additional cutlery pieces Vs. dozens of dishes surrounding a pair of chopsticks.

In Korea, a meal consists of dozens of atomised courses scattered all along the table, letting each guest choose the actual order, rhythm and combinations of the meal. Sweet, cold, calm, sour, Kimchi, warm, roasting, Kimchi, cold, chilling, faster, tea, sweet… Every item – and every rest – plays the main character on stage. In the same line, Chinese table setting introduces a new component. Courses are decomposed in fewer dishes and are laid on a revolving surface, which guests decide when – and how fast – to turn around to pick the desired piece for their following bite. A constant negotiation with your sitting neighbours. Far beyond, Japanese sushi conveyor belts impersonate the paradigm of this choreography of freedom, where courses are on a constant move. Same food, countless different meals.

On the other hand, Western culture inherited Bourbon and Versailles customs, and still needs to deal with this burden. Having only evolved to a slight simplicity of their past lavish versions, banquets nowadays still consist of appetizer, main course, second course and dessert. And don’t even dare to alter the order, for God’s sake! Once every course is placed on the table, food is served among guests. Always following the cutlery and glass hierarchy. Once a course is finished, dirty plates, forks, knives and spoons need to be replaced by clean ones. And next course, of course. Clean cup, Clean cup, move down!

There have been some reactions against established codes of dining orders (leaving snobbish experimental cuisine restaurants aside). In the 1930s, Marinetti already proposed a Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, where “the perfect meal demands:  general harmony among setting (glassware, dishes, decoration), flavours and colours of the food, […] the abolition of knife and fork, […] the rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination.”

If the rules are to be broken, why not creating a colourful week diet and table setting out of one Paul Auster’s character? Mixing reality with fiction, and back to reality reinventing fiction, Narrative Artist Sophie Calle ventured into The chromatic diet in 1997. [In SORIANO, F.: Fisuras Magazine N.9. 2001]

But if dishes are to follow a strict composition of order, then Junya Ishigami’s  Table, makes dishes stay still at their most accurate coordinates in the immensity of the eating surface. Only four legs support a magic span, with a scarce 3 mm thick, almost flying, panel. The objects layout must remain untouched, static to death, so that the structure of the table stays in the most pure horizontal.

Radical poetic experiences can teach us that a general demand for a more relational space seems to be needed at our obsolete everyday eating site. This space should rather be exclusively composed of relations between viewers and objects, participants and events. Like in Martí Guixé’s Mealing, a meal-in-motion prompting guests to interact. If not, this space is not even invisible; it almost does not exist.

[1> Korean table setting via visitkorea][2> Chinese table setting via corbisimages][3> Japanese sushi conveyor belt via WN][4> European table setting via dw-studio][5> Sophie Calle’s The Chromatic Diet via harpreetkhara][6-8> Junya Ishigami’s Table via east-asia-architecture & flickr][9,10> Martí Guixé’s relational Mealing for Performa09 via eat me daily]


  1. Yen

    One of the interesting things about Asian eating is that there is very much hierarchy and rules – but it has more to do with the relationship between the people dining than the food or table itself. For instance one can’t eat until the eldest person at the table starts or invites everyone else. The choicest pieces are always saved (and sometimes served) to the oldest or conversely the youngest person at the table. Honored guests are often served by others at the table. It feels to me as if the table setting may be democratic (equal access to every dish) but the relations between people create the rules and hierarchy.

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