The Food Book Fair Gives Us Food for Thought

The culture of food, past and present, and how it is more nourishing than ever
The Food Book Fair took place this weekend in Brooklyn.
Sean Sullivan

The Food Book Fair took place this weekend in Brooklyn.

The first day of the Food Book Fair started the weekend off by covering a gambit of attitudes and thoughts about food and our relationship with it, leaving us all with something to chew on.

Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, and author of her latest book Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, kicked off the weekend by discussing the societal disconnect to food brought on as a result of the deregulating of our eating choices by putting them into the hands of commerce industries which are more interested in promoting profit than promoting health. "Waistlines grew as a result of Wall Street’s shameless need for growth."

Trim and well spoken, Dr. Nestle walked us through the past 30 years, which, as a result of the Farm Bill and its subsidies to farmers to grow copious amounts of corn and soybeans, cheap and nutritionally poor foods became our mainstay. This, coupled with a shift out of the kitchen, which we were convinced was drudgery, and onto fast-food restaurant lines for salty, fatty, calorie-dense meals (we "Deserve a Break Today"), lead to losing our social and personal connection to food. Calories became "misused, anti-cultural, irrelevant, and miscounted."

Next on the agenda was FOOD + ART + MEDIUM, which paneled five artists, Lisa Gross, Victoria Yee Howe, Tattfoo Tan, and Michael Harlan Turkell. Though all working in different mediums, (photography, performance art, community art), each tapped into the deep social connections that foods play in our lives. Far away from the thermal effect of a kilocalorie or chemical bonding, these artists worked with the social bonding affect of foods, how it brings us together and how we interact.

Lisa Gross, founder of the Boston Tree Party, developed a program of planting heirloom apple trees across the greater Boston region. The trees nourished the communities they were planted in, not just by bearing fruit, but as Gross said, "Cross pollination between trees leads to healthy growth and success. Bringing together the people to plant those trees also resulted in a cross pollination of ideas, which leads to a healthier and more successful community overall."

Victoria Yee Howe feels that to her food is meaningless — it’s the symbolism, the socializing, and the making of food that has real value. Both she and Jennifer Rubell create art pieces using food that involve the audience. Rooms made of cotton candy that participants had to eat their way out of. Rows of iconic condiments and a grill master churning out burgers that resulted in guests stepping into the familiar rhythm of a barbeque without thinking. These audience-participated performance pieces reveal that the culture around food and sharing is within us, ingrained in us and has a collective same place in our being.

We do this without knowing the origin of the lettuce leaf, the background of the beef, or even the cooking process that brought it to the table.

It was during the third panel of the day FOOD + TECH + CONTENT, that addressed the using of todays technology to bring back some of those lost connections. Technology can be a conduit to help form communities between people with interests in food and history and recipe sharing. As an example, in fact, The Daily Meal.

With the fast growing world of technology, we can more easily record and share our connections to food. Heirloom recipes can be cataloged and accessed, but also, enhanced technology may someday enable you to create a recipe that has the ability to link out to a local farmer that provides the ingredients you need for that dish. There can be technique and methods embedded as video to replace the stool in your grandmother’s kitchen that you may have sat on as she nimbly crafted family dishes. The tablet is thought to be the most important kitchen tool in the near future.

Often thought of as distancing and removed, computers and these sites and applications may just bring us back into the kitchen in ways that we tend to be nostalgic about. Gathering in the kitchen has always been the heart of the home. The process of cooking has tremendous alchemy to bond us, connect us, and gathering around a table has always been a great circle of strength for any group.

Mid-century technology and progress detached us from our hearth and home. We lost our way and fell into an oblivious relationship to eating and the planet that it comes from. Now technology may bring us back together and reconnect with food and the community, which nourishes us in so many ways.

More coverage and interviews from the Food Book Fair.