In food, just as in art, every gesture has a story, a personal connection, a cultural context. But while both mediums are creative, cooking is a universal, shared tradition, built into our families and the joy of everyday life.
So what happens to these traditions when we leave home? What if we never find out exactly how Grandma folds and seals her empanadas, or learn Dad’s trick for keeping the roast from drying out? Even with technology’s infinite opportunities to share knowledge, there’s no replacement for smell, taste and muscle memory… yet.
The experimental performance and installation Thirsting for Salt questions all this and more, in what will undoubtedly be a piece many in Berlin will relate to. We asked Exberliner’s own Lily Kelting, part of the collaborative trio, including Janet Hayatshahi and Kirsten Brandt, about the multi-sensory experience on at Grüntaler9 July 20-21.
So what is Thirsting for Salt exactly?
The piece gets its title from a line in a Robert Hass poem about loss and language, and has two components – there's a durational section during the day and then two dinners each night.
In the durational part, Janet Hayatshahi will make the Middle-Eastern dessert halva, which is traditionally made by Iranian women after someone in the community has died, and takes about five hours, not because it's complicated, but because something special happens when you take that much time. We will recreate that ritual, which includes telling stories and building community, amidst audio and video installations.
The dinner is a more intimate performance for six participants where we'll serve six dishes in rotation. We’ve asked our friends and family to cook a meal that reminds them of a loved one who has died, and documented it on video – so while the guests eat each meal, they will watch the video of a stranger in their home kitchen making a meal and talking about their family through a tablet and headphones.
If the participants are all wearing headphones, won't that reinforce the notion that technology isolates rather than connects?
We wanted to challenge the idea that when it comes to food, technology is all about distance – it can also create new forms of intimacy. How can we experience intimacy in a digital setting? How do performance and food support this intimacy? We're trying to figure out the relationships between food, grief, distance and family. There's a lot we don't know about this performance, and we’re trying to keep some parts open, to leave space for moments of "performance magic." For us, it's definitely a form of research – we’re hoping to learn from this piece and our audience.
What drew you to the overlaps between "food, grief, distance and family"?
I interviewed the chef Ed Lee – like from Top Chef! [Ed. note: the TV programme, not our series] – for my dissertation research, and he said something that really resonated: that as he's grown up, he's not really sure what to talk about with his parents anymore, so they talk about food. That’s true for a lot of people I know – we call our parents to talk about recipes, which is a way to talk about much larger issues, about culture and family, in a way that’s more bite-sized. [Laughs]
And so often in this disconnected world, this happens through technology, because we don't live in the same place as our parents or grandparents anymore – so all this remembering and grieving and passing down of recipes happens over Skype and email.
Given that the number of displaced people around the world is at its highest in human history, is the piece political?
I think everyone's family and food stories are complicated and interwoven and I'm hoping that in being really specific about each of the stories we share, that the piece is, in some way, political. We don't have an explicitly political agenda, but it's impossible to talk about making chile verde in a Mexican-Californian context, or pancit noodles in a Filipino-Jewish household, without talking about migration and diaspora and cultural memory. It's just there already. We don't just want to tell sweet stories about how much someone loved their grandmother, although that's there too.
THIRSTING FOR SALT, Jul 20-21, Dinners 17:00-19:00, 19:00-21:00 (RSVP required, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; Each dinner is limited to six participants and by donation), halva performances open to the public from 21:00 - 00:00 | Grüntaler9, Grüntaler Str. 9, Wedding, U-Bhf Gesundbrunnen