Summer, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573. (Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris)
A year or so ago, I was invited to tea, with perhaps half-a-dozen other women, at the home of the mother of one of my children's friends. Upon arrival, I noticed that a long table had been set up in her living room, upon which lay every confection known to man — and then some. There were edible decorations and disposable trays and even, God help me, chef hats.
It quickly became evident that tea wasn't the half of it: we'd been invited to get creative with cookie-decorating.
Appalled by the industrial-strength quanities of sugar fueling this little exercise in domestic nonsense, I rolled my eyes at a friend, who quickly consoled me. "Think of her as an artist," she suggested. "Sugar is her medium."
Unconvinced — and enroute, as it happened, to a mammogram — I made tiny breast sculptures crafted from Mallomars and meringue to bring to the radiologist. They turned out to be rather enjoyable to make, and the activity, though ludicrous, put a minor dent into what was (is) a source of annual anxiety for most women.
In an age in which permanence requires being uploaded, digitized and exiled to microfiche, things that are considered ephemeral take on added significance. Of course, the very question of what is, or is not, ephemeral is itself something of an oxymoron: technically speaking, if you save something, how can it be ephemeral? Clearly, an abbreviated life adds to an object's essential allure, and it is probable that this very fragility reminds us, in no small way, of our own mortality. Something meant to inhabit this world briefly — a ticket stub, a butterfly wing, a cookie — will inevitably decompose before we know it. Does an intervention to extend its life render us heroic, or just mildly delusional? Making design out of something ephemeral raises this proposition to an entirely new level: on the one hand, you could easily liken such behavior to, say, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And on the other?
Welcome to the world of foodistry: design with food.
Ever since the 16th century Italian Mannerist painter Arcimboldo made portraits from the detritus of his dinner, the relationship between the visual and the edible has been something of a puzzle. But it is one thing entirely to photograph a banana peel or paint a bunch of grapes — virtually rendering a natural form inert and, by conjecture, consigning it to a kind of pictorial permanence — and another to base your creation on a soufflé that is doomed ( perhaps momentarily) to deflate. What can be said of the parents who spend hours each day making charaben — preparing narrative scenes in their childrens’ bento boxes? (And what, indeed, of the person who chose to render the likeness of Bill Gates in an assortment of luncheon meats?) A recent article in the New York Times described the rarified art of professional garnishing, in which a certain slim, curvy knife transforms the mundane into the magnificent. (Like any field, there are insider secrets: “Jicama, along with daikon and rutabaga, are favored for carving three-dimensional figures because they are firm and don’t brown.”)
Evidently, not every food artist can claim control over the gestational imperative of the medium. (Consider the poor ice sculptor.) Indeed, the more complex the elements, the higher the risk of melting, breaking, imploding or worse. At the extreme end of this spectrum are the gravity defying feats of professional pastry chefs, whose complex constructions involve exotic trickery made from things like spun sugar. And at the really extreme end are chefs who apply similar techniques but recognize the implicit, aesthetic need to to self-edit, to interpret food presentation with a kind of less-is-more panache. (On the down side, the result often favors the elf-food portion size familiar to all chic dining establishments: a fileted raisin, a teaspoon-sized dollop of gelato, a glazed chocolate-dipped espresso bean suspended in mid-air from a piece of candied dental floss and voilà. Check, please!)
I confess to being one of those people who sees a disposable plastic bottle and thinks about the chocolate sauce I will dispense before plating a dessert that very evening. As a tired working parent, I am no culinary goddess, but put me within five inches of anything chocolate and I am creating typographic swashes for any dish that will have me. (Don’t dismiss it before you’ve tried it. Highly addictive, particularly the chocolate part.) But I know my limits: I melt, I draw, and I'm done. Not so with food designers who pride themselves on their dexterity with what is, by definition, a perishible medium. Or is it?
Clearly, there are a number of artists — Andy Goldsworthy, Walter de Maria, and the late Robert Smithson among others — whose fascination with the erosion of the natural form underscores great bodies of serious, respected work. Is it ridiculous to compare, say, a carving of a chocolate swan to the spiral jetty — or is one person's mud another person's Mallomar? Ephemerality, it might be said, is in the eye of the beholder. (Or in the case of food, I suppose, in the mouth of the receiver.) Arcimboldo's critics apparently wondered if his fruit portraits were whimsical or the result of a deranged mind. I'm guessing neither, or perhaps both — which might be said to characterize anything really memorable, anything truly brilliant. And one has only to look at the work of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer to realize that blessedly, there's nothing ephemeral about that.