Sunday, March 13, 2011


PRÉCIS NO.3: Food (1992, dir. Jan Svankmajer)

Ein klassiker des berühmten tschechischen animations.

“Had she so far subdued her spirit as to have finally accepted the monotonous existence of this dull little provincial town, where the remaining vestiges of her youth had dried up, like a stagnant pool asleep beneath its water-lilies?” Barbey D’Aurevilly, Les Diaboliques.


In 1840, the first ‘communist banquet’ was held in Belleville, Paris, historically a working class neighbourhood and home of many angry and misguided individuals who, through their and their heirs' diligence and dedication to one simple idea, succeeded in toppling aristocracies, monarchies and governments, destroying ancient families and intricate systems of social norms and etiquette, relegating style to the peripheries of decadence in favour of the drudgery of utilitarianism, and replacing a language that had developed fine nuances with an inelegance not heard since the grunts and moans of our savage ancestors.

A typical communist apartment building. Their dedication to style is second to none.

Like children traumatized by failing to live up to a parent’s expectations or by the rejection of the object of their affections, and who later in life enact their own revenge fantasies, many of the young communist revolutionaries who survived the treachery of their comrades in their own ascension to power ended up vicious, merciless dictators. In the ultimate hypocrisy of the communist society, this new ruling class made up of personalities of the lowest order, but with the resilience of the common weed, pillaged from entire populations those necessities of life that they purported to guarantee and protect.  

The leaders enjoy a lavish feast.

The rest of the population waits in line for their measly quota.

The feast of the proletariat, provided supplies last.

Experience has taught us that communism does not provide a compelling alternative to the exertion of the will of a few over many. From a cultural standpoint, it is the ultimate degeneration. It denies fundamental human characteristics, it mocks artistic expression which its leaders do not comprehend, it denies the value of history and traditions to the extent they don’t fall within poorly conceived parameters and it displaces shame away from those who ought to feel it.

Food was a big sticking point for our communist foes. Collectivization was a failure, corruption thrived. It took the naïve enthusiasm of a rapidly developing American society, borrowing from an idea developed in Germany, to successfully mechanize food delivery. Witness the coin-operated glass-and-chrome wonder, the “Horn & Hardart’s Automat”:

The Automat

How an Automat works

It is important to follow the instructions...

...and to pay the fee.

The Automat revolutionized the way Americans ate when they opened up in Philadelphia and New York in the early twentieth century. It was the forerunner of the modern day vending machine, except the atmosphere was Art Deco and the food was fresh. The affordable price also made it popular during the Great Depression. For very little you could buy baked beans and Salisbury steak, steaming coffee, which some considered the best in town and which flowed from the mouth of a brass dolphin, macaroni and cheese of the highest caliber, lemon meringue pie, all available at your fingertips in little post-office like boxes.

The Berlin Automat at the Quisisana.

We must not forget, however, that the secret to a perfect automat are the people behind the wall, who must ensure that the stock is replenished as it is consumed.


Is Svankmajer obsessed with food? In an interview with, Svankmajer acknowledged a certain fixation, claiming that, as a child, he was a “non-eater” and was urged by adults to “fatten up”, a common concern of families that survived a meager, anonymous existence behind the iron curtain. It is a theme in most of his films, a desire to not merely eat everything, but devour it. He has speculated that, as human beings, we feel the need to devour all things, be it food or otherwise.

The need for food can lead to an obsessive compulsion to devour the same way as a passion for food can. However, there are differences. The need for food, in the sense of being in need of food, is a question of survival, and would be perverted in a society in which the availability of food should not be, but is, at issue. At the time the film was conceived in the 1970s, it would have been unthinkable to challenge the government by depicting a scarcity in food that drives people to frenziedly devouring everything else in sight and, eventually, one another.

The enjoyment of a bite out at lunchtime in Food is thwarted by waiters who, though appearing extremely busy, never actually perform their function of serving.

And when food is scarce, certain substitutes become appetizing:

Shoes, suspenders, various clothing, wherein the nutritional value is dependant on the type of fabric and its proportion of pure materials,

an empty dish,

wood, which, despite some accounts, is not digestible.

Werner Herzog famously ate his shoe in front of an audience at Chez Panisse in Berkley, California, after losing a bet with Errol Morris. The shoe was boiled with duck fat, garlic, rosemary and other herbs, hot sauce and stock for 5 hours prior to serving. He did not eat the sole of the shoe, for the same reason one does not eat the bones of a chicken.

Preparation of the dish involved the assistance of Alice Waters, chef, food activist, co-founder of Chez Panisse and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Of the event she has stated, “I remember distinctly the cooking process and the crazy idea I had – to put it in fat, cook it like confit, because I thought it would soften it up. I cooked it, and I cooked it, and I cooked it, and I cooked it, probably eight hours, and it never happened. That shoe was something formidable. It wasn’t just some Italian loafer. It was a serious shoe. I remember watching him bite into it. He chewed on it for a long time.”

Alice Waters at Chez Panisse

Ms. Waters is also known for her passionate support of the Slow Food Movement, founded by Carlo Petrini, whose manifesto was signed in Paris in 1989. Objectives of the movement include sustaining seed banks to preserve heirloom varieties, celebrating local culinary traditions and foods in various ecoregions, preserving and promoting local and traditional food products, along with their lore, promoting "taste education", engaging in activism against fast food and education of its harmful aspects, promoting diversity of genomes and varieties and encouraging ethical buying.

She has also designed intriguing menus, for example the following on the theme of allium sativum in celebration of the vernal equinox:

  • Galantine of pigeon, duck and quail, filled with layers of meats, livers and garlic mosaics
  • Whole baked Tunisian sea bass, served with a garlic puff pastry and lobster butter sauce
  • Spring lamb with three garlic-infused vegetable purées
  • Roquette salad with goose fat and garlic-rubbed crouton
  • Poached figs in red wine with garlic-shaped meringues
  • Chocolate-covered garlic cloves flavored with rose water

The experience of 'lunch' gives us reason to contemplate our necessity for food bereft of the pleasure of the act of eating. It should be acknowledged that the love of eating is rather pointless, being as it is an act of pure consumption. What remains after we have devoured everything, after we have eliminated everything, beyond emptiness? Under the communist society in which these two men have lunch, the notion of food is simply a necessity, in a way that is quantifiable. It is also ‘useful’ in the sense that it can be manipulated for effect. Here it is used to lure another using subterfuge into a complicity of survival and then, with that same logic, to destroy that same person. Can we call this type of society anything other than barbaric?


What the success of chefs like Alice Waters shows us is that the symbolic element of food cannot be denied, that food carries with it the pleasure of art, and that the necessity of food only provides that much more opportunity to heap one's imagination on it.

The common phrase "we are what we eat" originated from the highly influential Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante written by the famous gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826.

Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.

Brillat-Savarin was more of a materialist than a true poet, a kind of early pragmatist. He initially supported the French Revolution and would have therefore likely been sympathetic with the communist movement. He placed emphasis on the idea that human actions have two purposes: self-preservation and the propagation of the species. To these ends, man has been given the direct sensation of satisfying his need to eat, and therefore has an instinctive "impassioned, considered, and habitual preference for whatever pleases the taste." He would have admired La Mettrie's "L'Homme Machine" when he concluded that gastronomy "rules over our whole life" in the sense that it fills an essential need of humanity and is therefore of a cultural significance, both in the study of cultures and in the ability to effect cultural change.

Dinnertime in Food again reveals the communist hypocrisy. The population has been convinced that they are well fed and not wanting in all the preferences of their palates. Unlike at lunch, the diners now have a variety of attractive garnishes and sauces, but the main object of such flavourings and embellishments is now their own body parts.

As the diners matter-of-factly consume themselves, without struggle, without questioning, we can admire the self-destructive consequences of the absolute control over their society. Devoid of symbolic significance, "you are what you eat" is taken to its literal conclusion.

Consider, in contrast, the grotesque portraits by the renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who flourished in the enlightened court of Rudolf II of Prague. Through his unique satirical approach, the vanity of the portrait as an art form is displaced in favour of a depiction of how we are ruled by nature.

Though to some extent whimsical, the implication of Arcimboldo's vision is that we are objects to be consumed, namely by the invisible hand that guides us through our existence and back into the earth from which what nourishes us grows. However, why not delight in the aesthetic and sensual pleasures of our fate?

In Food, it is the government that asserts the power of this invisible hand, and by removing the natural objects of our consumptive lust allows the dominion of nature to take over in all its violence.

While we can be understood by what we eat, there is also an expressive element of food. Like all other art, expression is a means to retaliate against the inevitable appropriation, both explicitly and metaphysically, of our freedoms. A challenge against the ideology behind Svankmajer's film could be to wear what you eat.

Take the famous example of Jean Paul Gaultier's "Pain Couture" exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris in 2004, where bread was used in the place of taffeta and muslin as his fabric for creating crinolines.

Gaultier said he loves "the sensuality of bread, its roundness — there is something sexual and womanly about it." The transformation of food into something voluptuous is our weapon against tyranny!

The exhibition involved the work of several French master bread makers, including Christian Vabret who founded the 'Ecole Française de Boulangerie' in Aurillac in the Auvergne and whose earliest childhood memories are of the smell of flour or of the hot brioche straight from the oven, the singing of the bread as it was taken from the oven and the pleasure of loading the rye-flour pies into his family's shop's grill. Also participating was Patrick Ferrand from Lyon, who noted the following rejections from the exhibitions: sombrero hats, thong sandals and corsets that either did not meet the bakers' high standards, or were dismissed by the designer, toast-brown sneakers that looked too real and a croissant and brioche wig which was deemed "too fancy."

That same year saw "Salad Dressing: Food in Fashion" at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, California, an institution that went bankrupt a few years later. Some of the pieces approximated the divine sense of humour of surrealists, who understood revolution for all its ridiculousness, morbidity and vanity.

Willa Kim and Barbera Matera "Pasta Salad Ensemble" (1988)
Tokio Kumagai "Kobe Beef Pumps" (1984)

Niklaus D’Oloferne.
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