Food & consumable art

One area of artistic expression is indisputably flourishing today: gourmet cooking. This is due to two basic reasons. On the one hand, in much of the world, foodstuffs have never before been so varied and so readily available. On the other hand, eating is something we have to do every day, or nearly so. For this reason, it is essentially impossible for cooking to be cut off from its own relevance, and that basic observation provides an impetus to consider parallels with music. As artforms go, music is closer to cooking than many. We can easily analogize a score & a recipe. Both are creations, but as opposed to a painting or other concrete art, both require a further performance to create an end product. Likewise, both food & music can also be improvised. A good cook can improvise based on ingredients at hand, whereas a poor cook struggles to follow a recipe. Historically speaking, cooking & music have been rather close regarding non-persistence too; food spoils & sound dissipates. Today, while that much is still true, technology and the advent of recorded media have fundamentally changed the way that music can exist. One no longer needs to be a musician, or to employ a musician, to have music. For the most part, however, even with refrigeration, one still needs to cook or to employ a cook to have food.

Of course, food has changed a great deal too. Restaurants are now common; they are more common than concerts. More in line with the concept of recorded media, there are also many "instant" foods which require minimal skill to cook in a microwave oven — an action perhaps analogous to putting a CD into a CD player. At this point, such instant foods offer relatively few choices, especially as regards quality. However, those choices are constantly increasing, and we can ponder the possibility of an instant food "repertory" rivaling the degree of musical choice available on CD. Already the home cook might be going the way of the home musician, with only the diehard hobbyists continuing to invest serious time & resources. The supermarket is becoming an extension of the fast food restaurant, selling more & more pre-made food, i.e. serving the diner, not catering to the home cook. Both become more akin to record stores, rather than venues for experiencing the art of cooking directly. Might high-end restaurants soon go the way of the classical concert, rarely patronized even by some of the most enthusiastic "fans" of food? Possibly; but at least for now, gourmet cooking is flourishing as a creative art, and the high-end restaurant is the analog of the classical concert.

It may be that the "productization" of food is merely not as far along the same course that music has already traveled. It may instead be that reproducing the finest food "instantly" at home is not a technologically viable project. It may also be that there are important fundamental differences between music & food which will inhibit any trend in that direction. There is the simple fact that we have to eat every day. However, whereas this seems very basic, and certainly suggests a historical distinction, daily music is now a commonplace for every rung of our social ladder. In fact, with the evident popularity of amateur music-making in the discernible past, and the social roles of traveling minstrel & court musician, perhaps music was always a daily event. Given problems with the food supply, it might always have been as common as eating. As suggested, musical expression may be a basic human need. Even with that observation, though, it is evident enough that e.g. rural American society in the 19th century spent more time consuming food than music. If we consider the production time allocated to food, such a disparity becomes that much larger, especially looking back through history. Food was a full-time job for much of the population, music for but a handful.

One difference which will (presumably?) continue to exist between the "artifacts" of food and music is that, even with instant meals, once eaten, food is gone. The CD can be played again & again; even in a hypothetical pay-per-play world, the specific recorded music does not need to be recreated or replenished. One can have one's favorite meals, but they will not continue to come from exactly the same box. There is a continuing dynamism there to which something like record collecting does not lend itself. In fact, this distinction is even more true of collectible food, such as wine. Once drunk, a particular vintage is gone. It is impossible to even consider that the food we have right now might be enough for future years, i.e. that we can let our attention to it lapse. Even with the extent that they can be mechanically produced, such truly consumable products offer something of a different dynamic. In other areas of human activity, perpetual archives mean big changes for intellectual activity. While it has become common to refer to many products as "consumable," they do not actually go away. In some ways, it would be wonderful if CDs had to expire, to disappear somehow, master and all, so that we would be forced to recreate them or at least to reexamine our affection for one specific performance of the past.

This article opened with two basic reasons. Today, at least in this country, one can walk into the local supermarket and easily buy a vast array of foods, in almost any season. This is a huge change, even from fifty years ago. Moreover, it is straightforward to observe that such a bounty could yield a direct surge of creativity. The creativity of today's chefs may be nothing more than a short-term response to a new stimulus, to be increasingly dulled with acculturation, until it falls into disinterest. One cannot really assess such a suggestion today. One can observe, however, that our senses are being dulled in other areas; the scarcer food options of the medieval era fit very much with the greater perception of contrast by the medieval mind. Conceivably, we could find ourselves in a situation where no foods seem new. Indeed, similar notions regarding certain genres of music have been driving forces behind what many consider the outlandishness of contemporary expression. That said, with the huge variety of world traditional styles finding their way into the Western musical consciousness, the bounty of foodstuffs is reflected in a similar variety of musical stimuli. Let me suggest that our relatively easier time synthesizing these culinary elements hinges on one simple fact: We do quite evidently eat them.

Why then should a multiplicity of musical styles be more troubling? For one, we cannot be entirely sure that we understand them. Musical fusion also requires a composer to reach out, to choose his materials for some reason. In the case of food, a chef naturally uses the concrete perishable items in front of him, and if that yields fusion, so be it. Culinary fusion can be much less self-conscious in this way, although it is often not. We also eat at different kinds of restaurants, without feeling a need to mix the foods. A similar musical environment bothers us somehow, presumably because we believe that — at some level — music should yield to logic, i.e. combination. We are more willing to simply taste food in isolation, and to pronounce it good if it tastes good. More to the point, many people regularly find new foods that taste good. Will culinary creativity outstrip people's tastes? Perhaps that is the real question, and moreover, gluttony has real physical consequences. Returning to music, how can these observations regarding food be helpful? For one, we can see how much music has in common with an indisputably vital activity. For another, if nothing else, we can simply be inspired by the creativity of today's gourmets.

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Todd M. McComb