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Poetry in Food August 23, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
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atelier crenn

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

One of the great obstacles to thinking of food as a form of art is that we are accustomed to thinking of food as a collection of flavors and textures that, although pleasurable, lack meaning. Flavors and textures, so it is argued, are not about anything and thus are not representations of an object, place, or person. In this they differ from painting, linguistic arts, and more controversially music, all of which have meaning and which thus qualifies them as art forms.

Chef Crenn, owner of Atelier Crenn, a restaurant in San Francisco, is pushing against this view and understands the depth of meaning that food can have.

Ms. Crenn’s dishes, which she dubs “poetic culinaria,” are all meant to express artistic ideas, in the same way that a line of poetry is meant to communicate more than the sum of its words. A recent 12-course, $160 grand tasting menu was also written as a poem. On the menu, the line “a shallow pool stirs,” for example, accompanied a dish of radish tea with sea urchin and caviar; “as first buds appear” went with a dish of oysters and egg-white foam decorated with tiny flowers.

The rest of the article describes how Crenn used a bird’s nest spotted on a walk as inspiration for a dish called “Birth” which resembled a bird’s nest and which signified the new beginning she must undertake after the foie gras ban in California goes into effect.

One could argue that Crenn’s cooking gets its meaning and thus its artistry from the stunning visual appearance of the food and the title of the dish. Thus, it is poaching on the visual and linguistic dimension for its claim to be art. In other words, the flavors and textures, the elements related to taste, are not doing much artistic work. Having not tasted Crenn’s intriguing culinaria I cannot say what work flavor is doing to enhance the perception of genuine artistry. But there is nothing in the nature of art that entails that art can employ only a single sensory modality. Film for instance employs many sensory modalities. And the dish did include remnants of her foie gras supply, thus clearly flavor and texture contribute to the meaning of the dish.

Many works of art get some of their meaning from language. We would be hard pressed to grasp the meaning of a work such as  Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) if he hadn’t given it that title. Yet surely instrumental music is an art form despite the difficulty in locating its meaning.

The exclusion of food (and wine) from the realm of fine art increasingly seems like a mere prejudice (or a matter of historical practice) thanks to chefs such as Ms. Crenn, whose cooking I look forward to sampling the next time I’m in San Francisco.

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