London: “Food: Bigger than the Plate” @ the V&A

The V&A’s exhibitions have been quite fashion-heavy of late (Dior, Mary Quant), and whilst I do like historical fashions, I’m not so keen on designer-based things (I seem to be in the minority though, as I think Dior is completely sold out for the rest of its run, and you’d probably be wise to pre-book Mary Quant). So I was glad to see they were offering an alternative to fashion in the form of Food: Bigger than the Plate, which runs until 20th October and is all about the future of the food industry.

 

I tend to book ahead at the V&A just to avoid queuing at the ticket desk, but it probably isn’t necessary for this exhibition, at least on weekdays. Admission is £17, which is a lot, but as usual, I only paid half with National Art Pass (if you visit as many exhibitions as I do, you definitely end up getting your money’s worth). There weren’t many people inside the exhibition, but I had to wait for a few minutes to enter because they were changing over staff at the entrance. This wasn’t a problem for me, but it clearly was for the old woman behind me who passed the time by loudly complaining about them (and possibly me, for not just walking right in? It was hard to tell who she was angry at. Everyone, I guess). After dealing with people being rude to me and my volunteers on a regular basis at the museum where I work, I have very limited tolerance for this kind of behaviour, so because I wasn’t at work and was free to do so, I may have made a comment right back to her. Seriously, please do not be horrible to customer service people who’ve done nothing to deserve it. Their jobs are awful enough without having to deal with your abuse.

 

At least the mean lady had the decency to disappear quite quickly after we got inside the exhibition (I think she might have been embarrassed after I called her out), so I didn’t have to keep awkwardly bumping into her as I wandered round. The exhibition covered four separate themes: composting, farming, trading, and eating, but it was more free-flowing than a typical exhibition here, which is probably why they had a round flow-charty thing serving as a map in each room to indicate how far along you were. And I have to say that the exhibition was definitely bigger than I was anticipating, certainly “bigger than the plate.” (Huurrrp.)

 

Of course I think sustainability is important, but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s the most fascinating of topics, so I was impressed that the exhibition held my attention throughout, right from the toilets near the entrance, though they definitely were display-only (I did kind of have to pee, but not in public)! They were water-free toilets, where the poop is caught in some kind of biodegradable bag. To be honest, the mushrooms grown out of bags of used coffee grounds were way grosser – just look at them! I’m not a mushroom fan at the best of times though.

 

There were a lot of examples of plant-based leathers and plastics, a collection of leather goods made from the hide of one poor cow, maps showing fruit trees in London where you could do a bit of urban foraging, and zines covering how to make beer from things like yogurt, but lest it all become a little too crunchy, there was also this great booklet/artwork parodying sustainability taken to extremes by offering ideas on how best to capture your tears to either make your own salt (you need something like 200ml of tears for one gram of salt) or to feed moths (and believe me, the pictures of moths licking tears off someone’s face were terrifying, especially for a lepidopterophobe like myself).

 

And then we got into farming, which was a mix of delights and horrors. There was a collection of tinned pork products that had all come from one pig who had been followed from birth to death by an artist. This was accompanied by a video of the pig’s life, up to and including slaughter (hence the horrors). I watched a bit of cute baby pig doing pig stuff, but moved away pretty quick before they got anywhere near the slaughterhouse. Since I don’t eat them, and I know damn well what happens to them (I’ve watched enough PETA propaganda films in my day), I don’t particularly want to watch it happening again, but I think it is good that it was there so those who do choose to eat meat can at least see where that meat is coming from (I’m really not a particularly ethical vegetarian, but I do think it’s only right that if you’re willing to eat it, you should be willing to watch it die).

 

On a happier note, chickens! Some guy is trying to breed healthier chickens through crossbreeding (as an example of how factory farming has destroyed the health of most modern breeds, a woman had attempted to make bone china from the bones of factory farmed chickens vs. organic chickens, and the factory farmed china was all grey and crumbly and horrible. Made me sick just looking at it), so there was a chart of chickens showing the breeds he had mixed and some (admittedly taxidermied) examples of the new breeds he created. There was also Florence, an adorable little strawberry plant who was having her environment monitored by a computer, and you could ask her questions about her mood, interests, etc, and get a fairly incoherent response in return. And after passing through all the horrors of factory farming, we got to sample an herb-based beverage from a kiosk, though sadly not the cherry one that was sitting out on the counter.

 

On the subject of beverages, the trading section (which was the smallest section here) contained the recipe for Coca Cola, at least as determined by the company that makes Cube Cola, after much trial and error. And now I guess you’ll be able to make it too, though I strongly doubt many of us are going to go out and buy nutmeg oil and powdered caffeine. There were some nice posters in here, and it’s always interesting to think about how far some food travels, like bananas to Iceland, which was the subject of a video here, though I confess I am definitely not a locavore sort of person (though we might all have to be if Brexit goes ahead. Have you actually looked at how many things in British supermarkets are made in the EU? Because it’s seriously most foods. It’s almost like no one actually thought this through…).

 

I was most excited for the eating section – the name was a bit of a misnomer, as there was only one thing you could eat in here, but I’m way more interested in culinary history than eating weird “foods of the future,” so that wasn’t really a problem for me, at least until I got to the diagrams of various cakes known only in Portugal. My experience of Portuguese baking (as sold in London) has not been great, but some of these cakes looked awfully tempting! I can’t say the same for the cheese made from celebrity cultures, including a cheddar from Suggs’s ear wax, and a Comte made from Heston Blumenthal’s pubes (I’m throwing up in my mouth a little just thinking about it). I guess I would eat cheese made from my own bacteria, but I can’t imagine it would taste particularly nice, as anyone who has smelled my feet would likely agree.

 

This section wasn’t only about food, but also about the nature of consumption. There was a display of pottery with designs depicting the early sugar cane industry, and all the slavery and suffering that went along with it, and objects from the intriguing project “Enemy Kitchen” by Michael Rakowitz, who started serving Iraqi food in Chicago during the Iraq War, to try to increase cultural understanding. He even served a dinner off of Saddam Hussein’s personal china, and imported a box of dates into the US from Iraq just to show that despite the difficulties that arose during the importation process, it could be done.

 

The last section of the exhibition was a massive dining table set with different dishes at every place – some were examples of art, others were inventions that could help people with various disabilities, like Parkinson’s, to feed themselves – and a counter where you could order your own food of the future. You didn’t have a choice of dish, you just selected three qualities you thought the food of the future should have (such as sustainable, vegan, delicious, affordable, etc), and they would make you a teeny cracker based on your choices. I am far too much of a picky eater to gamble like this, but Marcus gave it a go and ended up with some kind of courgette crisp topped with mushroom puree. He said it tasted sort of like pizza.

 

I have to say that I enjoyed this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the emphasis on the future of food (when I’d usually prefer to learn about the past). I learned a lot, and it is definitely interesting, though not always appetising, to think about what food might become in the future. If I had one complaint, it’s that this exhibition featured an awful lot of products, most of which were conveniently for sale in the shop, which gave it rather a corporate feel (and because most of the products were pretty cool, I ended up buying more than I usually would at a museum shop. I’m a sucker for Tarot cards, and they had a food-themed pack you can use when you can’t decide what to have for dinner), which didn’t seem to match with the ethos of the rest of the exhibition. However, this is a fairly minor quibble, and I think it is very much worth seeing if you can get in for half-price (£17 is a bit steep), since it’s always good to know more about where your food comes from. 3.5/5, and I’ll leave you with a collage Marcus put together of the gorgeous wallpaper (if I ignore the butterflies) commissioned specially for the exhibition, and found throughout the gallery walls.

 

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17 comments

  1. Yeah I’m not sure ‘rancid cheese doritos’ is a good flavour in a cheese. The courgette crisp thing was ok, a little anchovy powder did add a little salty flair to the umami mushroomy tomato paste. I liked the products in the sustainability section made from weird things including the coffee ground espresso cups and urine soaked bowls.

  2. This sounds like a fascinating exhibit. I thought the chanterelles in the bag was pretty cool. Would NOT eat those cheeses – though cheese is my favorite food. I agree I should watch my meat being slaughtered. I had no idea that porcelain used chicken bones. I just thought it was a special clay. But on reflection, the name sort of suggests a pig connection.

    1. I guess it’s not technically porcelain, which is just various types of clay and minerals, but bone china, which was the English version. I should have been more specific! But the name porcelain apparently derives from the Italian word for cowrie shell.

      1. Very true. I was one of them for a while. I try to treat people right anyway but being a FOH person gives you a certain solidarity with your counterparts when you’re at the other side of the counter.

  3. Looks like a fascinating exhibition although most things on at the V&A are really interesting. Especially good if you get in cheaper too. Great photos.

  4. I find fungus growing out of old trees fascinating, so I’m afraid my favourite thing here was the mushrooms growing out of the coffee grounds! I see V&A Dundee is getting the Mary Quant exhibition next year – I’ll definitely go to that.

  5. It sounds as though the exhibition was quite a conversation starter on many levels and perhaps a little more confronting than Dior. I think that museums should be safe places to start conversations.

  6. I’m not sure why fashion exhibits are so popular, but they are super popular here, too. I guess they are great income generators. It’s always interesting to see the creativity of museum staff in coming up with a cohesive story-line for a bunch of clothes. This exhibit definitely sounds interesting. Like you, I’m drawn to the history stuff, but I do think a lot about the power of my food dollars and how our spending habits effect the future of the food (any) industry. It sounds like they really touched on a lot of interesting topics. But, that cheese stuff is just icky!

    1. I do really like historical clothing, I’m just not big on designer-led stuff. No high fashion I guess – I’d much rather look at things people actually wore. I don’t know if anyone is actually going to eat the cheeses, though I kind of hope the people who contributed the bacteria at least try them!

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