Jessica Helfand | Essays

Reflections on the Ephemeral World, Part Two: Food

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [7]

There must be a meaning to what Latins used to say: memento mori,as we humans keep wondering about time and imagination,and fears and why this and why not that?I must quote "Blessed is he who can stop halfway and before old age comes on can marry illusion and preserve it lovingly," Pirandello wrote in 1887 in a letter of his future plans.


On a another reminder of time and ephemera,although quite macabre,is the ticket I have from 2004,when i went to Poland for the first time,took my sons to see and understand their background and understand why they do not have a family. I went to Auschwitz where my mother was a prisoner during the IIWW. The ticket was for paying for parking a car in Auschwitz. I am constantly reminding myself of the absurd.Looking at that Bilet Parkingowy
seria D Nr 39128 Panstwowe Muzeum Oswiecim
agenc jaochrony ochrona ltd
nr rej.poj ...KVA 4928
data .....21.07.2004

Kwota : 7 zl

Good stuff. Made me think of Armando Testa's Meat Chair and while searching the internet for images came across some other interesting things made of meat.

Joe Moran

Jessica you are SO right.

My greatest joy in life is appreciating culinary artistry—probably because my own cooking sucks. Great chefs and restaurateurs create some of the best and most approachable aesthetic experiences to be had in our world. Eating Wyley Dufresne’s tasting menu is like spending three hours at an avant-garde gallery and enjoying the art without having to read the artist’s statement twice to figure out what the point is. Alice Waters grounds her work in simplicity and tradition, using an ephemeral media to make us appreciate the ephemeral nature of reality itself. And the staff at the Inn at Little Washington have elevated the meal to a sybaritic experience that could not be exceeded without engaging a host of courtesans.

And on the other end of the spectrum is the classic Japanese tea ceremony. Its minimalist perfection forces one’s imagination to see something that isn’t there to begin with.

And in between we have all the less-refined art of the meal. The steak sandwich grilled at a mall food court with four tablespoons of homemade mayo. A boiled hot dog purchased in a traffic jam outside the Lincoln tunnel. That fabulous waitress who taught us how to eat Ethiopian. Chefs who don’t flinch at working with delicacies like baby rabbits, live octopus, and traditional Nigerian women who leave the hair on the goat meat.

If anyone has connections at the French laundry, please let me know, because I gave up on getting that reservation years ago.
James Puckett

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?

To be a bit of a word nanny for a moment, I think the better word is "emphemera"; the flotsam of life that would otherwise be tossed; things insignificant that nevertheless signify (to be sort of postmodern about it).

I keep ephemera. Like the tattered 50s-era card from the Penguine Aubergine in Paris, where my parents met. Love letters from boyfriends who have passed into the great beyond.

Anyway, I love your site and your design work and links and all.
Suzanne Tourtillott

One of the first paintings I ever did was a still life of a bowl of veggies, because I didn't have any fresh fruit on hand. My parents graciously hung it in their kitchen and it's still there.

That painting you posted is crazy. When I looked at the date it was painted I was shocked. Glad to see not much has changed in the last 500 years :)

Your writing is great by the way, keep it up.
Shawn Adrian

You do not need write an essay to justify your work. That which is beautiful, is both eternal and ephemeral at the same time. Great art should also have a sense of humor, like your tiny breast sculptures crafted from Mallomars and meringue. The next time, you find yourself rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, please snap a picture of it and upload it to this blog. Then title it voilà.
Carl W. Smith

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