DHS Events

25 July 2016 -

How much can we understand about the tastes, techniques and aesthetics of historic tables without experiencing them for ourselves? 

Design historians often look to the furniture, flatware, crockery and dressings of consumption to tell us about cultural contexts of taste – both sensorial and cultural. Documentation, however, from published compendiums and serial advice columns to generational, family recipe books provide an opportunity to re-enact the designed experience of preparation, consumption and mediation of food. These texts not only describe dishes to prepare and eat, but also the class, taste, racial, gender and prescribed etiquette that inflect the basic need to feed with power and identity politics.

On 30th March 2016, the DHS collaborated with food and cultural historian Dr Jane Levi to host a practice-led workshop that investigated historical food culture and the methods of those who look to historical contexts of consumption to reveal critical insight into our relationship with food: its production, consumption and mediation. The session resulted in surprising confrontations of assumptions, collaborative strategies of preparing historical dishes without previous experience or knowledge and a satisfying outcome: a communal feast as well as perspective on experimental design history methods.

Thirty workshop participants were divided into five groups, and each was assigned a recipe to read, interpret, plan and prepare for an evening feast shared by all. Levi carefully transcribed 18th century recipes into accessible resources for each group, and with her guidance, provided carefully selected ingredients and tools. In her introductory talk, Levi explained that there are several strategies to reading a recipe, and the cookbook that often contains them. A reader can approach the resource for its ingredients and ask critical questions of what was used, left out, where ingredients were sourced, what tools were required. This latter feature leads to a process-oriented view as well, where cookbooks convey much about equipment, spatial requirements, fuels, measures, quantities, and tacit technologies (both assumed and explained). Reading for ‘the meal’ as a designed experience is the third: expertise, timings, presentation and selections of dishes for specific occasions inform this view. The cookbook as object - its provenance, structure, language and framing - are informative, as is the final, more abstract mode: reading for world view, which concerns the audience of the reader, time, contexts of consumption, motivation and experience of the author including identity and ritual beliefs.

With this perspective in mind, groups made six dishes: an elaborate and ornamental salad, baked fish, roasted quail, ice cream, shortbread and spiced biscuits and a frittata-like herbed dish from Levi’s resources. It was an exciting process to witness including ease in collaboration with delegation amongst the groups (from endless chopping and cream churning to gutting of fish) to the particular engagement afforded by haptic experience with historical resources. 

This is a pedagogical as well as experimental methodology that is gaining traction in the Humanities, and it has existed for decades in a theory-practice capacity in art and design colleges. Part illustrated talk, part paleography, part guided cooking class, this workshop gave participants the tools to get deeper inside the everyday life of historical consumption practices. Historical paintings and food texts, especially cookery and recipe books, household manuals, and gardening books are much more than curiosities. They are deeply revealing resources about their time, with a richness of detail about the everyday and social contexts. Reading is not always research enough: we need to smell, taste and feel our food. Implementing this approach into a public-facing forum is a promising and rewarding framework for teaching and learning as well as collaboration-building initiatives, because of its immediate accommodation of mutual experience, discussion and reflection.

In sum, Tasting the Table, an evening of critical discussion, speculative cooking and contented feasting welcomed a diverse group to the kitchen and gallery space at Cowcross Street. With only four DHS members in attendance, other participants included students from business and hospitality degree courses, creatives who work in the area, foodies and cultural historians alike. Due to the planning and varied modes of teaching and learning, Jane Levi’s workshop format was extremely successful in discussing how historical food cultures might be critically approached via documentation, dynamic ways of reading and interpreting history via its cookbooks, texts and paintings, and consideration of rituals of consumption, and how to improvise in a project of collaborative cooking.

As the Design History Society seeks was to engage audiences in the socio-cultural histories of production and consumption practices, particularly those of objects, systems and agents surrounding the movement of goods and materials, new formats for events, symposia and workshops present useful methods of inquiry. Please be in touch with ideas, questions or suggestions regarding our expanding programme of approaches to design history for diverse learning audiences. 

Maya Oppenheimer

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