Rituals and Performance in Gastronomy
To Cite this Article
Magrin-Chagnolleau, I. (2016). Rituals and Performance in Gastronomy. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 3.
I would like to explore, in this paper, the performative and ritualistic aspects of gastronomy and sharing meals. Because eating is something we have to do quite often, it is filled with a social function that is very culture dependent. At the same time, in every culture, we find some performative and ritualistic elements associated with eating and sharing a meal.
In this paper, I will interrogate the performative and ritualistic aspects of family meals as well as meals that have a function like a meeting or a reunion. In a second part, I will explore how some chefs articulate that performative dimension either by putting themselves on the stage, or by creating art in the plate. In a third part, I will explore some plays and films which are partly or entirely based on eating and its performative and ritualistic dimensions, including my own work, where the dimension of eating is very often present.
The Function of Meals: Family Meals
Most performed and ritualized meals occupy a very particular function in the social landscape, which is precisely why they are performed and ritualized. Even a simple meal that people take alone are very often performed and ritualized. For instance, people tend to eat the same kind of food, in the same kind of way, and the same kind of set-up. Even when people go eat alone in a diner or a restaurant, they tend to perform themselves having a meal, by the way they sit, the activity they sometimes do while eating (reading, on the computer, on the cell phone), etc. But I am going to look at meals on a larger scale, meals that play a function in the social tissue, mostly because they assemble many people for a very precise purpose, and they have been ritualized year after year, with an important performative dimension: family meals. I am going to look at some examples in my own family to illustrate that point.
I was born and grew up in a French family. And in the French culture, meals occupy an important place and function. They are the moments where people get together, whether they like it or not. This is during the meals that family identities and memories are mostly built. And some meals occupy an important place in this elaboration: Christmas, Easter, weddings, funerals, christenings, Sunday’s lunches, etc.
There are of course a lot of variations in the way these meals occur, even inside one family, but there are also some invariable elements. So I will try to illustrate all that by taking some examples and underlining the performative and ritualistic elements of those meals.
Sunday lunches at my grand-ma’s home are an interesting example. This is the only meal that we actually took on the table of the dining room, using nice plates and cutlery, a beautiful tablecloth, and so on. Everyone was always sitting at the same place. My aunt had her place, my grandma had her place, I had my place, etc. Before the meal, we would have an aperitif in the living room. It was custom to drink some kind of alcohol and eat some appetizer. And during the meal, you had to taste everything, even if you were not hungry anymore.
I had the same experience at my grand-pa’s home in the South-West of France. This time, we would take the Sunday meals on the same table as for the other days of the week. The only difference was the length of the meal. It was not rare for a Sunday lunch at my grandpa’s to last several hours, usually around four, occasionally even longer than that. You can imagine the experience for a kid or a teenager, whose only thought was to be allowed to leave the table to go play!
The composition of certain meals is also ritualized. The same way some people eat turkey for Thanksgiving, some people eat lamb for Easter, and so on. This is changing a bit, and some traditions tend to not be reconducted by younger generations. But it has definitely been part of the cultural identity of people for a long time.
Two Examples of chefs who are deliberate about performance and presentation
Hugo Wolfer, the Kitchen is in the Restaurant
Hugo Wolfer is a friend of mine. He is the owner of an amazing little restaurant in the heart of Paris called La Cordonnerie. We went to primary school together and at the time, the restaurant already existed and was run by his parents. When Hugo grew up, he always told he would never be involved in the restaurant family business. But when his dad grew old, he helped him at the restaurant, and finally discovered he was passionate about it, and finally took over.
Besides providing a food of very high quality, the particularity of La Cordonnerie is the fact that the kitchen is in the restaurant. When you enter it, if you have the chance to sit at one of the three tables that are facing the small kitchen, you’ll be able to see Hugo perform his cooking. I say perform because, even though he is mostly doing whatever he has to do to make his various dishes of the day, the fact that he knows some of his customers are watching him or at least could be watching him slightly changes the way he does things. He not only cooks for his customers but he also “cooks” for some of them, meaning he does it for some of them to enjoy watching him do it. And on top of that, he is able, from time to time, to equally converse with them while doing it.
Needless to say I always book a table on this side of the restaurant whenever I go eat at his restaurant. And part of the enjoyment to go eat there, and often bring some friends who don’t know the place, is to spend some time watching him perform his cooking, perform his dishes. This is a perfect illustration of performing in cooking. And of course, the restaurant of Hugo Wolfer isn’t the only place where you can see a chef cook for you. But it was one of the very first ones.
Bernard Bordaries, art is in the plate
Another Chef has a very interesting approach to cooking. Bernard Bordaries is a starred Chef, meaning he received the famous star by Michelin by being the head Chef in a prestigious restaurant, L’Aigle Noir, in Fontainebleau in France. Even though he is not working in that restaurant anymore, his cooking is still amazing and worth the detour (Le Clos Monteils near Montauban in France).
For him, art is in the plate in every aspect of the experience. The taste experience first: one of the most talented Chefs of his generation (the one that is about to retire), he is one of the most innovative Chefs I have ever known. Each experience is a feast for the palate. But the art is also visual with him. When he compose his new recipes, he think also about the visual feast and he composes his plates as a painter would compose a picture. So art is literally in the plate. Eating in his restaurant is as much a gustative experience as it is a visual experience. Even the music is chosen with care, and you will often be accompanied by some bebop jazz in his restaurant.
Performed Meals in Theatre and Film
There are many examples of meals in theatre and film. In fact, many plays have or evoke meals in their narrative. This is even truer with films. Try to find a film that does not have any meal sequence!
Performative meals in plays
For plays, I decided to narrow it down to one example that I find particularly evocative and iconic of the ritualistic and performative nature of meals.
The play I chose is La Baie de Naples (The Bay of Naples) by French writer and stage director Joël Dragutin. I was lucky enough to discover the play when it was first done in 1986 in Cergy, France, at the Théâtre 95, while I was a student. Joël Dragutin was then the artistic director of this theatre. The whole play, that is around two hours, stages a whole meal between three men and two women. What I remember from the play is the overwhelming presence of small talk, which weaves a sort of background music for what is really at stake between these characters. I also remember the randomness of the topics, and of the meals as well, which arrive in a different order than is usually the case. All these elements reinforce the ritualistic and performative nature of meals, in that case by disrupting the comfort that usually come from a well-arranged meal.
Performative meals in films
For films, we could pick up almost any film and it would have a meal sequence in it. Even in The Bear by Jean-Jacques Annaud, there is a meal sequence!
Of course, when you think meals, you think weddings. A few examples come to mind: Four Weddings and A Funeral, Rachel Getting Married, Melancholia, Festen, Babette’s Feast, etc. Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme is a very interesting example. The film is not about Rachel, but about her sister, Kym, interpreted by Anne Hathaway, who is in rehab. Kym is allowed, exceptionally, to get out of the rehab center to attend the wedding of her sister. So the whole film is about the wedding. And about this dysfunctional family. And about the things that people say when they are drunk and they say what they really think about each other. The film is also about the journey of Kym who, though she is sort of the scapegoat of the family, does not appear to be the worse person in the family after all. What is particularly brilliant about that story and the mise-en-scène by Jonathan Demme is the fact that every performative and ritualistic element of a wedding celebration is used to tell the story of this dysfunctional family. This is also the case in Festen.
For some reason, meals in films are often used to reveal some truth about relationships, probably because in most cases in real life, meals are so performative and ritualistic that this is rarely the place where people are being themselves.
Some examples in my own work
I would like to conclude this brief exploration of the performative and ritualistic nature of gastronomy by giving a few examples of my own work. The first one is my first narrative short film called Party Time! (C’est la fête ! in French). It is the story of a guy named Gabriel who organizes a party at his place. And because this is a party, and because he is French, he decides to cook for the party. So an important part of the film is about him preparing the party and cooking some cakes and preparing some mixed salads. The reason why the story focuses on the preparation of the meal is to create empathy for the main character so that we can identify with him. After all, most of us have organized parties, prepared some food for it one way or another, arranged it on a table, and then waited anxiously for the first people to show up. Without spoiling the end of the film, it is also about the meal, that is, about eating the food that Gabriel prepared as well as drinking.
The second example is my second narrative short film called King Cake (La Galette des Rois in French). Though I did not write this one, I was immediately seduced by the story and it resonated strongly in me. This is about a very ritual time in the French culture when we celebrate epiphany (even non-Christian people do it in France). We eat a special cake, called King Cake, that is very traditional (and is actually different depending on the region in France). But the common denominator is that there is a bean hidden in the cake, and whoever finds it becomes the king or the queen. And it is customary to send the younger kid under the table to do the distribution of the slices of the cake to avoid any kind of cheating.
The third example is a short play I wrote, Missed Opportunities, which is going to be produced in New York next year. Even though the play does not portray a meal per se, it is happening during a ten years reunion, that is, during a party that obviously have some meal element to it. But the two characters that the play portray are rather trying to avoid the party and escape to the balcony, where they meet each other. Indirectly, we can feel the associations that people usually do with this kind of party and meal, and we immediately feel the reasons that can push some of them to flee the main stage.
One last example is a short film I wrote, that has not been produced yet. It is called Waiting (L’Attente in French). And a part of the film is dedicated to a guy who is preparing a meal in order to ask his girlfriend to marry him, after they have been estranged for a while. Here the meal is special. It is meant to be the way to reconcile them. So it has to be a very special meal. As we say in French, the main character is trying to put the small dishes in the big ones (Mettre les petits plats dans les grands !).
We have seen, through all the examples chosen in this paper, how important meals are in culture, and how ritualistic and performative most of them are. Even the smallest meal has some performative and ritualistic aspects in them, even if no one is watching.
There is a reason why there are more meals than prayers in the Bible. Meals fill many functions, one of them being to connect people. So it makes sense to use meals to show precisely when people are disconnected, or even when they are trying to reconnect. Using a meal and its performative and ritualistic elements is a great strategy used by many people to try to reconnect with someone.
Bibliography and Filmography
Babette’s Feast. Dir. Gabriel Axel. Nordisk, 1987.
Dragutin, Joël. La Baie de Naples. Paris: L’Avant-Scène, 1987.
Festen. Dir. Thomas Vinterberg. 1998.
Four Weddings and A Funeral. Dir. Mike Newell. PolyGram, 1994.
King Cake [La Galette Des Rois]. Dir. Ivan Magrin-Chagnolleau. Aloha Films, 2013.
Melancholia. Dir. Lars von Trier. Nordisk, 2011.
Party Time! [C’est La Fête !]. Dir. Ivan Magrin-Chagnolleau. Aloha Films, 2013.
Rachel Getting Married. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Sony Pictures, 2008.
Schechner, Richard. The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.
The Bear. Dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud. AMLF, 1988.
Vinterberg, Thomas, Mogens Rukov, and Bo Hr Hansen. Festen. Translated by Daniel Benoin. Paris: L’Avant-Scène théâtre, 2017.