The Circus of the Senses: A Symposium on Food & the Humanities

Article and images by Ariana Gunderson

The Culinary Institute of America hosted the Circus of the Senses: A Symposium on Food & the Humanities this past Monday, a feast for both mind and tongue.  The day-long symposium demonstrated the best of CIA’s Applied Food Studies program, combining traditional academic papers, collaborative discussion, and a surrealist banquet inspired by Salvador Dalí.  Here I’ll share my experience and thoughts on the symposium.

Upon arrival at CIA’s immaculate campus, symposium attendees were served a light breakfast; I was quickly learning that at the Culinary Institute of America, food is the starting point.  The conference got started with two sessions of roundtables, in which conference attendees signed up for small discussion groups.  The leader or leaders of each roundtable presented some of their work or media to which the group would then respond in discussion.  I attended and very much enjoyed “Tracing and Tasting Aromatic Images in Cinema,” a roundtable led by Dr. Sophia Siddique Harvey, of Vassar’s Film Department.  Dr. Harvey shared a short film clip and her concept of an ‘aromatic image’ – when the audiovisual medium of film evokes the proximal senses.  Our lively group discussion was shaped by the contributions of a food stylist, whose career is centered around the creation of such images, and academics from French, Philosophy, Creative Writing, and Food Studies departments.  By starting the symposium with a discussion to which all attendees contribute, I felt invigorated and directly participatory in the rest of the day. Following a lunch break at any of CIA’s many student-staffed restaurants, the afternoon consisted of two traditional academic panels.  All presentations covered food and the senses (very relevant to the BU community!) but from a wide range of disciplines.  Chef Jonathan Zearfoss presented on Patterns in Tasting Menu Design, Dr. Yael Raviv of NYU spoke about food as a medium in avant-garde art, and Dr. Greg de S. Maurice gave a talk on multisensory taste and national identity in Japan.

My favorite paper was presented by Dr. Andrew Donnelly of Loyola University’s history department, “Re-experiencing Rome: The “Next” Apicius.”  Dr. Donnelly spoke with humor and rich historical background on the ancient Roman diet and its reincarnation at a Chicago tasting menu, describing how in just one dinner his academic understanding of Roman history had been made sensorially experiential.  Ted Russin, the acting Dean of the School of Culinary Science & Nutrition at CIA and flavor scientist, gave punchy closing remarks in which he presented on the interconnectedness of sensorial experience in eating.

Attendees were able to immediately put Dean Russin’s presentation into practice in the final event of the symposium: the Circus of Taste, a banquet inspired by the surrealist work of Salvador Dalí and brought to vivid life by the students and faculty of the CIA.  We kicked off the feast with 59 minutes of cocktails – guests swizzled their own signature cocktail of snow, ginger, shiso, and fresno chili and nibbled on passed hors d’oeuvres as a large clock ticked away the minutes and swirling lights brought plastic lobsters in and out of focus.  As I stood at a table with a centerpiece of apples in a basket (each apple bearing a fake Dalí mustache), I accepted round after round of such surreal delicacies as deviled quail egg, rosé gelée with caviar, savory cheesecake with strawberry pearl boba, and spicy avocado mousse on puff pastry.  Once the 59 minutes (exactly) had passed, we moved into the dining hall, spritzed with a Dalí perfume as we did so.

Once again, the dining hall was sensorially overwhelming.  This feast was a celebration of Dalí’s work and especially the cookbook he wrote to memorialize the lavish dinner parties he hosted with his wife, Gala. Recreations of Dalí’s artwork filled each corner of the room, and Un Chien Andalou played on three walls. Each seat had a placemat of a different material: tin foil, fur, bubble wrap, sandpaper.  Spread down the winding table were musical instruments; guests were instructed to play different instruments when they experienced different tastes.  Crawfish in consommé, the first course, was the most impactful for my sensory experience.  Dalí’s love for crawfish resulted in several recipes boasting the crustacean in his cookbook, Les Diner de Gala, including a memorable Tower of Crawfish 

In our first course bowls, a whole crawfish swam in soup, to be cracked by the diner.  This was my first time eating a crustacean, and the sensorial impact of cracking open the exo-skeleton was quite powerful. Roquefort Pasta and Hanging Beef (accompanied by paired wines) followed, and the atmosphere in the room rose to a festive pitch as guests donned food fascinators and shook the noisemakers.  My tablemate remarked, “it’s like a really weird wedding,” in which the couple we were celebrating was Gala and Salvador.  The final course, a dessert, was called BEETING Heart – a beet mousse, molded into a heart-shaped beet drawn from the earth (represented by crushed cookies and chocolate sorbet).  Walking the halls of the CIA, I had seen the students preparing various parts of these dishes, and I was blown away by the impression they left in the context of the banquet.  The final touch on the evening was the after-dinner coffee – delivered via espresso bubbles.

This symposium brought together what excites me most about the field of Food Studies.  The range of activities throughout the day demonstrate the multiple forms food scholarship can take: collaborative discussion, panel presentations, and creating and consuming food itself. The community of rigorously interdisciplinary food scholars represents the breadth and richness of food studies.  I anxiously await the next symposium hosted by the masterful team at the Culinary Institute of America.

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