Katie Boyts on GhostFood, an Art + Food Project
The white food truck sat, perched and buzzing. You approach, place an order (everything is free), and receive a squarish white tray tray with a device that looks like a headphone bud dangling from a wishbone-shaped piece of facial jewelry. This curious object administers the smell of the dish you have ordered to compensate for the food, which is not the actual food you have ordered, but a substitute. You walk over to a table where a server in a white lab coat guides you through the eating process, answering questions and asking a few of their own.
“How was your taste experience?” they ask in a scientific monotone.
I visited GhostFood, a project by Miriam Simun and organized by The Contemporary, last Thursday evening. It was parked in front of Penn Station, serving a menu of Peanut Butter, Chocolate, and Cod. The peanut represented the grassland, cod the ocean, and chocolate the rainforest. All three items carry an eminent risk of extinction linked to climate change.
GhostFood doesn’t attempt elaborate on those stories, instead, focuses purely on the tactile experience in front of you. Like a weird pair of sunglasses without the lenses, the 3D-printed olfactory stimulation device administers the scent of one of the three threatened foods. While inhaling deeply, you eat a climate-change resilient food made to mimic the texture of the food you smell.
The peanut butter scent is paired with a pb&j sandwich made with a soy substitute, the cod with a fried piece of vegetable protein and algae, and the chocolate with sugared milk. In an attempt to experience the project as the artist intended, truly imagining what it might be like to eat this way after the extinction of these current staple foods (Yes, I consider chocolate a staple), I wondered, “What would a food critic say in this scenario? How did I enjoy my taste experience?”
The peanut butter had a rich aroma, a heavy pungent smell that, when taken in slowly, is almost grassy. The triangular white bread, jam, and soy paired harmoniously with the smell, and the combination ignited fond memories of school lunches where white bread still held a divine seat on our palates. The cocoa disappointed, with a dominating synthetic breath and the milk not nearly as cold as I like it. Neither ingredient spoke to the bold nature of a dark cocoa bean or even a well-made chocolate milk.
The cod, my last course, was no redemption unfortunately. The aroma of synthetic chocolate lingered on the olfactory device, marrying the fish in an unholy union. Although the appearance of the fried cod could have fooled any guest, the texture was not so cunning. It lacked the flaky, oily mouthfeel of a true fried cod, resembling a cooked zucchini and left me begging for a salt shaker, of which there was none.
Like the truck, all of the GhostFood servers, who are Johns Hopkins student volunteers, are dressed in white. The tray that your dish is served on is white. The accessories of each dish are all white as well. Simun’s attention to detail is seamless. The tiny piece of cod is wrapped in foil and sits swimming in a much larger white box, and the peanut butter sandwich is inside a white wrapper with a GhostFood logo sticker. The small translucent cup of milk showcases the GhostFood logo as well. All the designs point to a sterility: a cold, disconnected, laboratory environment, devoid of color or mess that we’re accustomed to with food trucks. Even the tightly-choreographed language and the servers’ monotone inflection contribute to a certain pseudo-scientific tone; it’s performative, even approaching cinematic.
The aim for all chefs is to provide a pleasurable experience around food. This is not always the aim of an artist, even when the subject matter is food. If I’m correct in assuming that Simun’s intention was to elicit a discomfort, she certainly succeeded. If GhostFood is in fact an eery clairvoyant peek at the future of our food culture – an overly-sanitized experience and a device hanging off my face that is wafting a strange combination of fish and chocolate into my nostrils – then yes, I am saddened and more than a little afraid. The project clearly communicates a loss of a significant part of our culture, and an integral way in which we connect with each other.
This dualistic approach to food where one element of the experience, smell in this case, is teased out reminds me that food is more than a sum of its parts. In this place, we lose the holistic, fully sensual discovery of food. The way that temperature, texture, flavor, smell and appearance all come together is part of the reason we are often so passionate about our foodways. But in some ways, what Simun has created is really just a hyperbole of a very successful segment of our food culture where pink goo chicken nuggets exist and synthetically-scented chips are a mainstay on many tables. This brands GhostFood with a certain brilliance–mimicking the way we’re sold fake products with tight designs, but in order to advocate for biodiversity and the importance of real food.
If Simun’s aim was something more neutral – simply to start a conversation about our food choices or to spark a reflection about its evolution thus far and its impending future, then she’s done her job admirably to this end as well. There is some art we walk away from, happy to have seen it, but it leaves our minds as quickly as it entered. GhostFood, however, lingers much longer than the smell of that brief waft of peanut butter, begging questions about the content of the project itself and the subject it sought to explore.
Although the experience was well curated and choreographed, I am left frustrated by GhostFood. I need to know: What next? The project was clearly created with precision and thoughtfulness. Where it lacks a storytelling device about its menu items, it makes up for with a fierce and creative attention to detail and an intelligence about how to elicit questions from a viewer. But I’m still left wondering what Simun wants us to do with this information.
What is our call to action? Simply to care more about climate change? Answer our curiosity and actually look up the story of the peanut? Maybe that’s not the point – to spoon feed us directions on how to behave, but as an art piece centered on an environmental issue, it seemed to stop short, as though someone cut off Simun right before she was about to drop the punchline. I looked at the menu and saw the potential for these stories to be told beyond a cocktail napkin.
I suppose, without any substantial environmental research under my belt, my practical reaction is to pause every time I have to decide between my bike and the car and think of chocolate. If chocolate is not a motivation to take the bike, I don’t know what is.
Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings.
Photos by Cara Ober and courtesy of the artist’s website.