Often when I visit cultural heritage locations, be they Royal Palaces in the UK, Imperial complexes in China or the ruins of Roman cities in Italy I am drawn, as a food person, to the kitchens. Searching out the warm and safe sensation from my favourite room of the house, and yet often I am left cold. Freshly cleaned floors, so different to mine with skins of onions mixed in with little piles of spilt sugar and pebbles of cat food. A few remnants of material culture - pots and pans, maybe some of which have been put on the hob or hung over the empty fire place. If I'm lucky there might be a wax cast of something that might be a kipper. Or is it supposed to be cake?
The one thing food writers and interpreters should have in common is passion. So why? Why is there so little passion displayed when interpreting our culinary cultural heritage?
For most of us who live in the parts of the world where we're lucky enough to eat every day, food is an integral and essential part of our lives. A cooked breakfast signifies a slow start to the weekend. A decedent meal on a special occasion. A quick bowl of noodles with a good friend on a weeknight evening. These are markers that help us to ascribe meaning to different parts of our lives. So many social events, in all cultures, revolve around food. This can only be reflected in the number of magazines, books, newspaper columns, television and radio programs, and even blogs that are dedicatedly pursuing the art and the essence of food and eating. When we travel food becomes a part of the whole experience. How often have you come back from some exotic location and one of the first things you're asked is "what was the food like?"?
The essence of interpretation theory and practice tells us that for interpretation to effectively tell a story, and allow visitors to engage with a message it needs four things. Without going into the psychology of this, one of these four things is relevance.
If it can be agreed that food and eating is something that we all use to define certain moments in our lives, finding relevance in food interpretation should be straight forward. If I go to Hampton Court Palace*, I want to have a Tudor food experience. Not this:
Don't (just) tell me that the cauldron holds nine-thousand gallons or they cooks started at 4am. Or even that they ate partridge. Why? When? What does it taste like? What does it smell like? There is evidence to show that introducing smell allows visitors to relate tourism sites to their own experiences. So pipe in the smells of meat roasting or bread baking from the cafe or restaurant. Instantly you're taking a cold, hard room and turning it into something warm and familiar.
Similarly, there is this regularly visited shop front in Pompeii, the local take-away:
Admittedly Pompeii - at least when I was there last almost eight years ago - suffers from not just bad interpretation, but no interpretation, and lack lustre maintenance, but what an opportunity to make classical history and the classical world instantly recognisable to the modern visitor! Did the ancient Romans go out for the first century equivalent of fish and chips, or pizza? How was it different to what they ate at home? What does it actually taste like? What can we relate it to in our own food experience?
There are so many excellent opportunities to bring history sites alive for people, particularly the younger members of the family. Make the most of it - make it edible. Appeal to not just the brain and the heart, but the stomach too. Why not put a second century Roman dish on the menu at the Pompeii restaurant (hold the garum for me please), or a Tudor dish rather than devonshire teas at Hampton Court? Let us smell, taste, feel the full experience. Done carefully, without too many unfamiliar or intimidating ingredients, what better way to get visitors excited about their visit (our host for this good.is project has expressed an interest in museum and gallery cafes too).
Why can't we tell someone we've been to the museum and have them ask "what was the food like?"?
* I have used Hampton Court Palace and Pompeii as examples in this post because I've been to both. In no way am I implying that these are bad places to visit, that the experiences are unfulfilling or their interpretation bad. Hampton Court Palace in particular has some excellent and exciting interpretation programmes. If you get the chance I highly recommend a visit. Ask them if they have partridge on the menu!
Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food-writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than thirty food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today? You can check out the conversation in full at GOOD.is/food, join in the comments, and follow the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up-to-date as archaeologists, human rights activists, design critics, and even food writers share their perspective on what makes food so interesting.