“…non-art is more Art than art.”–Allan Kaprow, The Education of the Un-Artist Part I, 1971
Everything about food is performance. We know this, intuitively and otherwise. We know it from restaurant experiences, where we have complained about service or praised presentation. We know it from Teppanyaki to such feminist statements as Janine Antoni’s 1992 “Gnaw” and Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party.” [Martha Rosler’s 1975 “Semiotics of the Kitchen” deserves a post all its own.] We know it because Rirkrit Tiravanija served up rice and Thai curries in the MoMA, using cookery as an installation that connected artist and audience. We know it from every hostess who has been shamed because a meal lacked something or praised because she pulled it off perfectly. We know it from statistics about hunger, nutrition, starvation, mid-day meals, school lunches, and more–used to dance political dances of one sort or another. We know it from maps of food deserts and food swamps–more data to enact more arguments. We know it especially from the current food styling food gawking food blogging craze that has seized us in a peculiarly intense virtual engagement with this most non-virtual of our human needs.
[One of the more captivating beliefs of our times is that Information is Beautiful. Alongside this, the renewed conviction that food is beautiful, worth gawking and drooling over to the point where “food porn” is the best of what’s out there. None of it is a coincidence–but leave that for another time.]
Let’s consider cooking classes for a moment. The one I attended on Bali (with Paon Bali) this past November was my first. More than wanting to learn recipes or techniques, I was curious about how one ran a cooking class. What were its logistics? How did it happen? What were the interactions like? I went to the class as though going to another Balinese performance like the Kecak or Wayang Kulit or Legong.
“Food and performance converge conceptually at three junctures,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett tells us. I’m borrowing her tripartite framework below to re-perform the class anew.
The class had three distinct parts. We went to a “traditional market” in Ubud, and then to briefly acknowledge the rice fields. Here, we understood the sources of food.
Next, we arrived at our hosts’ home, which doubled as the class location. Here, we understood ingredients, methods, and techniques. Last but not least, we ate the food we had prepared. Here, we understood gastronomical enjoyment.
(For the little ones reading over their parents’ shoulders: spot the spider in the photo above? He’s magnificently camouflaged!)
I’ll have more to say about the wet market and rice field visit later. For now, just the in-home performance, shown below not sequentially, the way it unfolded, but in terms of how “performance” is broken down.
First, to perform is to do, to execute, to carry out to completion, to discharge a duty–in other words, all that governs the production, presentation, and disposal of food and their staging. To perform in this sense is to make food, to serve food. It is about materials, tools, techniques, procedures, actions. It is about getting something done. It is in this sense, first and foremost, that we can speak of the performing kitchen.
What we did, we did with traditional things–for the most part. We watched the making of coconut oil, and cooking over coconut husks, in a traditional kitchen. We got to pound with mortars and pestles, large and small.
We got to chop with Balinese knives, on Balinese boards.
We got to pack fish into banana leaves, and to fry tempeh to crunchy perfection, to taste things like lesser galangal, and to smell fragrant pandan leaves. We even got to learn to tackle the flies by covering food with colorful covers.
What we did, we did to be convinced of the authenticity of our actions. What we did, we did to know that we could do this no place other than Bali.
Second, to perform is to behave. This is what Erving Goffman calls the performance of self in everyday life. Whether a matter of habit, custom, or law, the divine etiquette of ritual, codifications of social grace, the laws governing cabarets and liquor licenses, or the health and sanitation codes, performance encompasses the social practices that are part and parcel of what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus. To perform in this sense is to behave appropriately in relation to food at any point in its production or consumption or disposal, each of which may be subject to precise protocols or taboos. Jewish and Hindu laws of ritual purity and formal etiquette stipulate the requirements in exquisite detail. They involve the performance of precepts, as well as precepts of performance.
We behaved, and were called upon to behave, as tourists–hungry for food and experience–but not much more. We were directed to wash hands and given plastic gloves, aprons, and towels to feel the cleanliness and orderliness and professionalism of everything.
We worked not as the Balinese might have, but as tourists would on Bali. Around allergies and sensitivities, around vegetarianism and pescatarianism, with bottled water and beer.
Our hosts were cultural interpreters. They explained why, in one residential compound, there seemed to be so many houses. They explained strange ingredients. They kept us engaged and laughing with jokes that cut across cultures: an MBA is a “Marriage By Accident,” we learned, as Puspa Aunty gestured to belly swelling. Talk would be cut short lest “your lunch becomes your dinner!” They explained how the sate lilit gets its name: by snaking around a skewer (“lilit” means to wind around).
Wayan and Puspa Aunty made us feel at home, and were obliging to all requests (including mine, for a fresh piece of lesser galangal and pandanus to plant–I was most grateful).
All around us but rarely around for photographs, a small army of workers bustled: clearing, cleaning, prepping, organizing, fishing what we had started so that we could enjoy what we started and not be burdened by the tedium that is also cookery.
They dissected each dish and presented its constituent parts to us with small artistic flourishes. Their actions, over anyone else’s, ensured that everything moved smoothly and stayed beautiful.
They behaved, too, so that we could remain tourists witnessing an artistic production, never becoming tired, sweaty cooks in the kitchen. And in this was the grand irony of it all: the success of the cookery class rested in not doing too much cooking.
Third, to perform is to show. When doing and behaving are displayed, when they are shown, when participants are invited to exercise discernment, evaluation, and appreciation, food events move towards the theatrical and, more specifically, towards the spectacular. It is here that taste as a sensory experience and taste as an aesthetic faculty converge. The conflation of the two meanings of taste can be found both in Enlightenment aesthetics and the Hindu concept of rasa alike.
And oh, were we ever shown! We were shown ingredients like we were shown dance steps, set amidst a kitchen garden, adjacent to a traditional kitchen (but ourselves using only gas-powered cooking stations). We were shown all that we’d cook, and then the display was taken apart and returned to us in miniature assemblages for the re-construction of each separate dish. We were shown how to wrap and roll, how to sauté and swirl. We were told our tasks. We paired up at one of several stations, and switched roles after each movement.
At each stage, there was time to “make photo-photo.” The photographic recording of the entire cooking class experience was built into the cooking process, almost like the cleaning. It became the mode by which to take in the aesthetics of the entire event, and to wow at the spectacle of Balinese cuisine steadily unfolding before us. We had to remember nothing (we had the photographs, after all) and memorize nothing (we’d get the printed recipes to take home).
Even our lovely host, Puspa Aunty, would pause her commentary on occasion to allow the cameras to capture her best smiles. “Hoo hoo,” she’d say and turn her head coquettishly, and we’d click and laugh on cue. There wasn’t a moment when we could complain about being too tired, about things being messy, or the complete sensory experience being anything but delectable. All things were made so that taste as a sensory experience and taste as an aesthetic facility could converge without us ever knowing that there could have been a distinction. There was no choice but to relish it all, without reserve.
When it was time to eat, eat we did. From a clear vegetable broth all the way to dessert, with multiple interruptions of tea (or beer) in between. And we talked amongst ourselves, Scotts and Californians and Vancouverites and Aussies all (plus the one lone Indian woman), forgetting that we were, supposedly, the stars of the show. Pushpa Aunty never joined us, claiming to have eaten too much already, and her husband had long before disappeared.
When all the food was had and the bill was paid, we dispersed, too. Quickly, as would any theater-going crowds after a show, before the afternoon’s mugginess released as a spectacular downpour.
Ten Lessons learned at Paon Bali:
- Tell the story of food in broad strokes. Not much more.
- Showcase traditional methods, tools, and ingredients.
- Take apart each dish and reconstitute it.
- Take apart the work of preparation and reconstitute it. Segregate tasks.
- Supply welcome drinks with frangipani flowers stuck together with lime slices on the rim.
- Don’t let your guests get too tired. They’re there to have a good time, not to get tired cooking.
- Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!
- Recognize that food photography is just about as important as cooking and eating, if not more.
- Provide a taste of everything, with the difficulty of nothing.
- When it’s time to eat, let the class morph into a restaurant.