Craft and Contemporary Social Ritual: Eating and Drinking

Book Review Craft and contemporary Social Ritual: Eating and Drinking Craft Victoria Melbourne 1999 $35 "Discussion about craft has moved apace and this publication proves it."

This new publication from Craft Victoria attempts to draw together a variety of responses to food and craft. It is a collection of essays and photographs, held together in a smart lime-green folder. Very cute, but a bit of a clutter in my view. It smacks of over-design and a kind of self-conscious high seriousness, which is off-putting. That aside, Eating and Drinking raises serious issues – but the value of the publication resides in questions rather than answers.

If eating and drinking are fundamental, what then of the complex social rituals that accompany them? And what about the craft objects that are utilised? How are they significant? Are they worth investigating, so that we have access to a deeper, richer understanding of our lives? Or is all of that theorising unnecessary – indeed of little interest to those of us who enjoy eating and drinking anyway (and perhaps cooking as well) but who don't want to get too erudite about it? And theory aside, what about the social guilt to do with spending too much on indulging ourselves in food (or theory for that matter) when millions starve?

In her introduction to a collection of responses to ideas about eating and drinking, Suzie Attiwill raises issues that contextualise critical words such as 'ritual', (which she neatly separates from 'habit'), 'craft', 'contemporary' and 'eating and drinking'. This is to provide a few starting points from which to look at responses to food consumption and the crafts, which prove to be various and startlingly idiosyncratic.

Several writers and artists have contributed: Naomi Cass, Pearl Gillies, Joanne Finkelstein, Kate Gollings, Anne Zahalka, Diana Wood Conroy and Miyuke Nakahara. Chris Wallace-Crabbe has contributed a wry and sharp little poem about how we "nibble and quaff" our "softly-fibred fennel & our peaches and brioches". His poem introduces the notion that we are all 'chosen by history' to eat and drink in particular ways, that indeed we are the subjects of a design not of our making but of our constant re-doing. We eat and drink in the context of time and place.

The photographer Anne Zahalka reminds us of the banality of daily lives. In one of her posed domestic shots, she shows us the very ordinary breakfast table, at which a suited pair, presumably ready for work, read or stare at nothing, over Special K and orange juice. Here, the art on the walls speaks as much about self-conscious aspiration as it does about 'taste'. The clutter and ugliness of the flat is testament to the ordinariness of the social setting and the habitual repetitiveness of eating, drinking and fucking.

Joanne Finkelstein says that food is "over-invested, over-worked, over-done, without being well understood. Thus it is a highly successful consumer item. Perhaps the ultimate consumable &". While I appreciate this insight I think that Finkelstein has glossed over the context in which it is possible to say that food is 'over-invested' etcetera. That is of course the distance between the food haves and have nots in our world. This is the salient reality about food – that many people simply don't have enough of it. So while we in the West play with fads and fashion – "Darling, pasta or sushi for lunch?" – millions starve. Finkelstein is absolutely right to point to the "ethics surrounding the abundance, excess, display and waste" in talking about food, but more here please? This is where any debate about eating and drinking should be focused; the rest seems to me to be pretty trivial in comparison.

In his Foreword to Eating and Drinking, Alan Selenitsch asserts that the publication presents different "modes of discussion from intense prose to graphic images." This is the strength of the publication – although I found it a little confusing in parts and the graphic overlay truly irritating. However, this is a worthy publication that attempts something different and should be commended. Discussion about craft has moved apace and this publication proves it.