It's hard to say how much you've been enjoying my first few months of this year of diagramming food movement dialogues -- but I knew I was doing something right when the new executive chef of my campus's dining services called on me last week to help design a series of Uncomfortable Dinner Parties. I had mentioned in a panel discussion some weeks ago that it seems critical that scholars and activists interested in food narratives help build capacity for engaging in difficult conversations -- and this idea stuck! It's not only complicating social theorists who enjoy the discomfort of a good challenging conversation, it turns out; the director of dining services realizes that practicing staying with a story through what might be an initially rocky start may be the only way, short of censorship and stability management, to get to a happy ending -- or at least a negotiated ending.
So looking forward to the possibility of having fun with uncomforTABLEs, I am starting to sketch out menus that I realize are all variations on a theme of homage to Mrs. Ramsey's dinner scene in To the Lighthouse (the scene with which, auspiciously, Marjorie DeVault starts her masterful work Feeding the Family). Setting the table, it turns out, provides yet another psychogeographical opportunity to think about how the setting of something like a meal might support or challenge its participants to portray themselves and to explore the characters of others. What if you are seated across from an uninvited guest? How far down the list of uncomfortable scenarios sketched out in my initial menu above do you have to read before you reach for advice on comportment from fictional (or other) dinners you have consumed through reading? Even as a food researcher, I often find myself steering dinner conversation away from a series of well-trod paths relating to angry and oversimplified commonplaces about farmers, seeds, and food choices -- but here is a chance to steer it back, hopefully around the cape of hostility, to the waters of even more fraught topics like toxicity, control over food system governance, and the historical traumas that underpin the modern food regime, like stolen land and forced labor. What kind of dinner tables are not adequately represented in food movement conversation? Whose voices do not usually get portrayed, and what about them either makes people bury their face in their soup or sit up and listen?
My fellow artists and STEM professionals in the Public Art St. Paul City Art Collaboratory, where we will pilot a series of food system suppers later this summer, have been crafting challenging and supportive courses to complement the tenor of different kinds of conversation (as well as roles of characters in different positions in the food system that we will ask participants in the suppers to play as the price of admission): comfort foods follow bitter greens with the promise of intriguing desserts and the temptation of challenging apertifs. All are invited.