English

Presentation of the Issue on Cuisine & Performance

Allen S. Weiss

Common parlance would have us speak of the “art” of cooking, a usage made famous in the USA by Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that transformed French cuisine into an American passion. Setting aside the undecidable meaning of the term “art” (a problematic that Western philosophy has been debating since its inception 2500 years ago), in the domain of cuisine “art” has meant anything from what is generally called “skill” or “craft” to full membership in the fine arts, with the concomitant presence of a muse. The history of this shift in usage – with all the resultant nuances and prejudices – would make a fascinating study, but to set things in the present context I will mention only a few of the salient moments. The earliest reference in French (long the “official” language of international gastronomy) to the art of cooking is probably the preface written by two now nearly forgotten Jesuits, Guillaume-Hyacinthe Bougeant and Pierre Brumoy, to François Marin’s classic cookbook Les Dons de Comus (1739), though here the sense of the word is more akin to craft than art proper. It was not until the creation of gastronomic journalism, beginning in 1803 with the Almanach des gourmands of Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière – coinciding with the rise of the modern restaurant – that we first find the passionate defense of cuisine as art in a more sublimated sense, followed by the outright claim by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his classic Physiologie du goȗt that Gasterea is the tenth muse, who specifically resides over taste. On the other hand, artists and writers have never doubted the aesthetic and performative aspects of cuisine, from Petronius’ feast of Trimalchio depicted in the Satyricon to the petits soupers of the Régence, from Grimod de la Reynière’s infamous funerary meal to Italian Futurist banquets, from Salvador Dali’s edible architecture to Daniel Spoerri’s homonymous meals – not to mention the entire history of still life painting. Artists were always far ahead of critics, but an emblematic alignment of the two occurred in 1998 when the French journal Beaux Arts inaugurated a column on art and cuisine, a sign of things to come. The sense of “the art of cooking” has thus shifted from the figurative to the literal, and we may now – in the museum world as well as at even the most popular levels of gastronomic journalism – confidently speak of cuisine as a form of art, as well as of the aesthetics and poetics of gastronomy. Thus while the performative dimensions of cuisine – cooking, plating, serving, dining – have themselves entered the museum, the theater, and sundry performance spaces, the historical, critical, and theoretical work needed to relate cuisine to the other arts has only just begun. In part, this special issue of p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e is intended as a very slight shifting of categories, to better align Performance Studies with Culinary Studies. I hope that it will not be taken as sheer sophistry to insist that – not unlike the ambiguity of the term “art” – “performance” itself is an equivocal term, which should not be all that surprising, given that Performance Studies as a discipline has been in existence for a mere half century, and that its conceptual roots come from an ever changing mix of theater, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, philosophy, cultural studies, dance studies, religious studies, feminist studies, gender studies, queer studies … and now even food studies. Thus the crux of this assemblage of essays, literary texts and artists’ projects is the nexus of two equivocal domains, “art” and “performance,” and the invariant in this affair is cuisine. We hope that the works presented here will inspire reflection on these issues, and at the same time create that joie de vivre which should result from a fine meal. For I am absolutely convinced that knowledge improves taste, a phrase that sounds better in French: Le savoir augmente la saveur.


Biography of Allen S. Weiss