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How does Food become an Experience?

More than a century ago, the Futurist movement sought to disrupt the very foundations of social life through “courage, audacity, and revolt” with their pledge to “sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Futurists turned their attention to food, in an attempt to shift our most fundamental perceptions of eating. In one of the most controversial passages of a wholly controversial book, Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook outlined the rules for a perfect meal. Some of these include:

  • The invention of appetizing food sculptures, whose original harmony of form and color feeds the eyes and excites the imagination before it tempts the lips.
  • The abolition of the knife and fork for eating food sculptures, which can give prelabial tactile pleasure.
  • The use of the art of perfumes to enhance tasting.

These and other rules would be used to create dishes such as the iconic ‘aerofood’, where the diner is served from the right with a plate containing some black olives, fennel hearts and kumquats. From the left he is served with a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk and velvet. The foods must be carried directly to the mouth with the right hand while the left hand lightly and repeatedly strokes the tactile rectangle. In the meantime, the waiters spray the napes of the diners’ necks with a conprofumo[perfume] of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent conrumore[music] of an aeroplane motor and some dismusica [music] by Bach.

At the time (and indeed for some time after), those who didn’t scorn the ideas in the Futurist Cookbook outright considered the work ‘an artistic joke’ that was more about challenging the intrinsic stubbornness of Italian traditions than it was a commentary on actual food itself. Indeed, Futurist inspired dinners have been served as extensions of museum exhibitionsand some have attempted to recreate the dishes to varying degrees of absurd results. While there is no denying that some of the recipes are difficult to imagine taking their place in the canon of any food culture, Marinetti’s attempt to reshape food into a multi-sensory experiment that challenged diners to remove “everyday mediocrity from the pleasures of the palate” contains a crucial message that rings truer today than ever before. No matter what you eat, or where you are, food is more than a means to stave off hunger: food is an experience.

But how does it become so, and why? And what does it matter for those of us working in the field of food innovation? To be sure, a very substantial amount of anyone’s life is spent eating to survive throughout the course of their daily activities, and much of the technology that we create around food is designed to streamline this process and make it healthier. Food is also a precious commodity in too many parts of the world, and as we look to the future we must tackle incredible challenges to overcome the scarcity of resources, dwindling food supplies, and a steadily increasing population. Many of our most innovative projects, concepts and products will rightly focus on addressing these challenges and meeting them with creative solutions that focus on sustainability and regeneration of the planet. These areas of the global food system require our urgent attention as well as the best that our collective creativity can offer.

Yet for each of us food, and eating, holds a greater meaning than simply that which is served on a plate. There is a point at which the thing itself transforms into a lived moment that is felt not only in the satiation of an appetite or the quieting of a grumbling belly but in an intangible, almost ethereal way. Each one of us, regardless of our stations in life, knows that a celebration calls for a special meal. We take our loved ones for intimate dinners, not because our bodies tell us to do so but because there is a search for communion, achieved through that communal bread breaking. Our most beloved holidays are spent around a table with whatever feast is within our means, and the traditions that help us to recognize those days are often centered on the menu that we prepare. We mourn what we have lost by searching for comfort, and that very often entails preparing foods that provide us with that solace. We look to food as a language to translate our feelings to those around us, and we imbue it with a meaning that helps us define who we are. As Chef Andoni Luis Arduriz notes, “eating is sensorial. More than that, it’s about interpreting the information that your senses give you.” There is a reason that good food makes us happy, and that happiness is what remains with us long after a meal has finished.

Indeed, the experience of food is often the experience of togetherness, of the company that we keep. Food is an evocative vehicle which is best when shared, comparing notes and bites and describing our favorite parts of a meal to each other. The grandmother who prepares a Sunday lunch for her family stands over the table and watches for satisfied swallows and grunts of approval, the appetite of her guests acting as a mirror for her own enjoyment of the flavors. Any of us who have ever been tasked with making a large meal know that by the time it is all served we’re hardly hungry at all: perhaps it is because we feed on the experience of sharing it with those for whom we have prepared each dish, for whom we chose every ingredient. We feast on those moments and our nourishment comes with having provided that experience to others. And while we may just as easily have a wonderful meal alone, don’t we always miss something when there is no one sitting across from us with whom we can urge to try a piece? We have all felt that twinge of sadness when, in a crowded restaurant full of couples or families, ours is the table set for one. Why? Perhaps it is because we miss the thing that makes a meal worth eating, the smile reflected back on us that widens our own. Even old Marinetti, for all of his surrealist solipsism, knew that a great meal needed a great crowd.

So, what does this mean for food innovation? With more than one billion people on the planet threatened by starvation, the path that agrifood engineers, entrepreneurs, inventors and organizations must take is well laid out. However, we must not forget that what we eat and how we eat it lies at the very heart of our collective narrative. The food experience is not limited to the upper echelons of fine dining, nor is it the exclusive domain of wealthy societies: indeed, it is perhaps the very thing that links us all together. Companies like La Belle Assiettebring qualified chefs to the home, which makes it possible to create a unique experience between friends or family in the environment that each of us chooses. What was once a luxury beyond the scope of most people’s budgets is now a practical alternative for people who want their homes to serve as the context for a great meal and for whom an international network becomes readily accessible. The democratization of the private chef through technology is an important addition to the future of food and one that reminds us how important it is to savor moments. If we miss the point of these efforts, we risk missing the larger point of the impact of food on each of our lives. It is at once both our most basic need and our most elaborate outlet, a union of form and function.

Indeed, the proliferation of technology and the integration of food into the Internet of Things does not have to mean that we are moving further away from the physical act of preparing and sharing meals. The Chef and the Dish, an online platform that brings together chefs and cooks with students from around the world through Skype based cooking classes, is an example of how technology brings people closer together to share their love of food. Passionate cooks from Italy to Japan to the American South share their knowledge with students from every corner of the world who learn the recipes that color their dreams. The beauty of this system is that is reciprocal: cooks who might not ever get to travel abroad meet people who might never get to visit them, and in the process become culinary ambassadors for their native or adopted homelands. Imagine the possibilities for cooks from around the world who need only an internet connection to bring their country’s cuisine to countless others, and the income this could generate for them. Conversely, the opportunity to teach not only the basics of a cooking technique but communicate the daily life of a place that previously existed only on a map means that food becomes a conduit through which we all learn a bit more about each other.

It is not just in our virtual world that innovation impacts our experience of food, either. As we travel further and explore more of the world, our love for food comes with us and often dictates the experiences that we have along the way. For anyone who has ever travelled to a far-off place, isn’t it the bewildering and exhilarating experience of trying to order off of a menu whose words you don’t understand one of the most indelible memories of that trip? Don’t we all search for that narrow trattoria where a stout grandmother serves us the best pasta of our lives, or that hole in the wall where we exalt in the greatest dish we never knew existed? Of course, being alone in a foreign place is often more intimidating than we’d like to admit, and we are all guilty of ducking into the nearest McDonalds when we just can’t figure it out anymore. The emergence of platforms like Vizeat welcomes visitors into the homes and kitchens of locals in over 130 countries to for a unique opportunity to dine with them without getting lost in translation. Others, like FoodieTrip, pair local guides with travellers to show them hidden cocktail bars in New York, tapas spots in Barcelona, and the best street food in Mexico City. Our experiences are expanding based on the freedom and connectivity that technology affords us. The more we realize that food is a language, the better we get at speaking it to each other.

Our shared understanding of what food means and how we experience our lives through it instead should be a guidepost for all of the projects we create and the visions we put forth for a sustainable food system. Feeding the planet is not simply filling our bodies with calories but is instead cultivating the environment where our experiences can flourish along with our food supply. Anyone who has ever watched their garden emerge from seed knows that the food they’ve grown is more than just a means to subsist but a source of pride, and happiness. Projects like Kimbal Musk’s Learning Garden, which teaches school children to grow food, helps to cultivate the experience of food along with the practice of growing it, and the results are a desire to know more, eat better, and dream bigger.

The experience of food also welcomes innovation onto the table and helps to integrate new food sources into the global diet and encourage experimentation with new flavors and new products. As Andonisays, “you don’t have to like something to like it”, and when the environment is right, most of us will try just about anything. Take for example, the rise of ingredients like insect proteins. As the population surges towards 9 billion and we are forced to look for new, sustainable sources of food, insects have gained traction as a possible alternative to traditional animal proteins. In the popular imagination however, using insects for food is a signal that we have moved firmly into a dystopian nightmare where life is nasty, brutish and short. Films like Snowpiercerhave a particularly gruesome take on food bars made from an unidentified insect mix that make the prospect seem unappealing, to say the least. However, we are perhaps not resigned to such a dire fate. The Finnish bakery Fazer has recently introduced a bread made using flour ground from dried crickets that tastes just like regular bread, and provides an easy way to familiarize people with insect based foods. In so doing, Fazer uses a familiar eating experience to introduce a difficult yet necessary product into the food system. If we want to be successful not only in developing but in marketing new products to a hungry public, we must understand the importance of experience in the foods we eat, and make this a part of our mission.

The Futurist Cookbook may have missed the mark on a few occasions (such as the ‘Excited Pig’, a whole skinned salami served with coffee and a “good deal of eau de cologne”), but there is a lesson to be learned from a future that the past tried to create. Marinetti understoodthat food played a critical role in how people live and think, and that the experience of eating was one that transcended the stomach and instead coursed through both body and soul. As we continue to chart a course further into the future of food, we would do well to remember that no dinner is complete without the diners themselves, and that our own love of food is what has drawn many of us to the pursuits in which we are engaged so passionately. Indeed, the transformation of food into experience is what makes it all worthwhile, isn’t it? After all (and much to Marinetti’s chagrin), Fellini was right: “life is a combination of magic and pasta”.

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