Designing the Hot Potato: Food, Design and Culture

Book Review Food: Design and culture Edited by Claire Catteral London; Lawrence King Publishing in association with Glasgow 1999 Festival Company

It has become something of a fashion to begin a paper or review with a little bit of autobiographical nonsense to set the scene or, in this case, to add flavour to what is to follow. My autobiographical offering has to do with food, and that food is irrevocably tied to a book, to reading. As a child I had periods of illness – or maybe simply recalcitrance – spending long days plumped up in bed with never enough to read. On one occasion my mother retrieved from the storeroom some books of her childhood, the Australian classics of Mary Grant Bruce, including a juvenile epic entitled Dick Lester of Kurrajong. Dick, it has to be said, did not have the appeal of Norah of the Billabong series but it was a rip-roaring yarn (with not a PC attitude in sight) which I devoured, along with a large potato baked in its 'jacket' in the AGA stove and smothered in butter, melting through the fissures cut deep into its sides. For some months after this indulgence I would revisit Dick's exploits and encounter the sensation of that potato – it was in the words, a sensory trigger, involving actions and responses. Even now, that sensation rests as potential in memory – a memory that can no longer be completely grasped as every potato in its jacket since has been something of a disappointment without the adjunct of Dick Lester boarding the train at Flinders Street Station for his adventures in Western Australia. The book exudes the particular combinatory sensation that is food.

Claire Catteral's collection, Food: Design and Culture is unlikely to have the same effect on readers as much of the contents is set in so much aspic that it might rather spoil the taste of any morsel that accompanies its reading. Certainly a feast for the eyes, this book was produced to accompany the exhibition of the same name which ran this year as part of the celebration of Glasgow as the UK City of Architecture and Design for 1999. Catteral has brought together Stephen Bayley, Paola Antonelli, Martin Parr, Joanna Blythman, Jonathon Glancey, Will Alsop and – in reprint – Ettore Sottsas, to parade and comment on the design aspects of food.

What a strange group, to be writing about food – but no, they are writing about design. Of course, some of their number do have a lot to do with design that might be associated with food, particularly of the Conran restaurant variety, but is that really the food that permeates a culture, any culture? Agency is clearly here the realm of the designer, not the consumer, nor the producer, let alone any potential item of foodstuff. Permit me, momentarily, to rename the book, 'Design Food and Culture' – no punctuation, just a statement, for that is what this group of designers does – design food and culture. Or at least that is how it reads.

A range of the mechanistic, the technological, the scientific interventions in the design of food are laid on the metaphorical table as a general globalised movement. These are serious topics, not the least Blythman's look at genetically engineered foods, and the technological and scientific gadgetry that now gets food from laboratory to table. But in the end, there is very little here that tells us what food is and how the food we eat relates – except in a rather laboured way – to design and even less so to culture. An institutionalised understanding of design retains primacy. The transformative moment that turns weeds into salad, that sees a blend of flour and water creating not paste but damper, that answers that pesky question about the chicken and the egg – that is not here. The sensory, the genuine physical interruption of a cultural moment (the rites of eating) is the experience of food.

In her essay, Catteral quotes Brillat-Savarin, :The pleasures of the table are of all times and all ages, of every country and of every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and in the end console us for their loss." One can almost hear Brillat-Savarin breathing "Vive la difference" – the recognition that there is difference both within a culture and across the world in the way we relate to those items which become food. Whilst attempting the (Western) globalised view – one inevitably involved in the creating uses for excess – the authors of this book have become particular. And that particularity is to a very British world of fashion, politics, environment. Martin Parr attempts to break ranks from the line-up of universal designers when he comes out by identifying the misplaced globalism that is presented as 'our' food culture – he does write about 'British food'. But, of course, this is also what this book is about – England at home and on holiday, the sort of holiday you get by reading Elizabeth David and saving up for a tins of Vesuviana tomatoes in the cold of a British winter.

That is not to say that Parr's project is of interest to only British designers – food being a universal necessity – but its inclusion here is an indication that food is continually being localised either by description or necessity. There is no world food – even Macdonald's realised the folly of universalised design, when that design will not be accepted by a range of cultural groups in a variety of regions. All food has a home, a source, to which it must always refer – a vernacular sensory identifier perhaps informed by the serendipitous convergence of Dick Lester of Kurrajong and a hot potato.