In Swann’s Way, one of the volumes in Marcel Proust’s epic novel Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator’s chance experience of eating a madeleine dipped in lime-flower tea dredges up an unexpected onslaught of recollection, comprising the entirety of the book’s plot.
That passage has inspired and informed countless moments throughout culture where food and memory overlap. A madeleine is strictly defined as both a scalloped, cake-like French pastry, but the word has come to describe it as any food that’s intimately tied with a strong memory.
But what if your youthful nostalgia was tied to the smell and taste of a food that no longer existed? A new conceptual art installation, GhostFood, from artists Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster, provides the next best thing.
Seeing a food truck parked at the curb in front of an art opening is a common sight. But this fall in Philadelphia, Newark and New York City, gallery hoppers will engage with Simun’s and Songster’s “participatory olfactory performance” in the same setting where they might buy a burger or taco on another night. The duo will be serving three foods—cod, chocolate and peanuts—each of which is facing an uncertain future due in part to climate change.
The leap diners are encouraged to take is to imagine what it might be like to eat these foods in a future where they no longer exist. So rather than slinging paper trays of fried cod, GhostFood will serve its audience various edible textural elements that are eaten while wearing a 3D-printed headpiece that delivers a scent designed to approximate the olfactory experience of eating, for example, battered fish.
“The way the experience works is you come up to the food trailer, to the window, and you’re handed a tray with the device that’s populated with the appropriate scent and you’re given a packet that has the textural elements,” Simun explains. “The combination of the olfactory response and the food is meant to create an experience that recreates the taste experience.”
How do you create the smell of a food if the food doesn’t exist? The scents were produced by the flavor and fragrance company Takasago, but the firm, like most in the perfume business, is highly guarded. Even the artists don’t know how they re-create the smell of chocolate without using any chocolate.
“What goes on behind the scenes at Takasago? That I can’t tell you. These companies are pretty secretive. Essentially, we’re a client of theirs,” says Songster.
The pair point to Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod as one of the reasons for picking that particular fish. They have their own nostalgic memories of eating fried cod growing up in New England, but Kurlansky’s history shows how the fish propelled European fishermen to move further west, resulting in early exploration of North America. The fisheries on the East Coast also contributed significantly to the early American economy. And now the threats overfishing and climate change present to cod represent more than a loss of a source of food—if the fish were to go extinct, it would be the end of thousands of years of human interaction with this particular breed of fish.
Chocolate and peanuts have similarly far-reaching narratives. Cacao was long consumed as a spiced, frothy liquid before Hernán Cortés and the Conquistadors marched on Tenochtitlan. Chocolate only became the smooth, sweet confection we know today after cacao and another New World crop, sugar cane, were regularly being transported over the Atlantic and processed in Europe. Peanuts, native to South America, where also spread around the globe as result of Spanish Colonialism.
But on the GhostFood truck, these familiar foods become a sort of speculative simulacra: Copies of something that soon might not exist.
“How do people experience the gap between the real thing and that simulation? We’re trying to get at what people have lost on a very personal level,” says Songster.
“What we’re doing is bringing the focus to the simulation,” Simun adds. “There’s a reason you have to put on this device and have this space between how you eat and this experience.”
Simun has previously worked with food as a medium, rather famously and infamously making cheese out of her own breast milk, while Songster’s works have presented olfactory challenges to viewers, incorporating smell as a primary means of expression in her pieces. “You’re incorporating this thing into you’re body and you can’t help but incorporate the idea with it,” Simun says of the ephemeral, physiological nature of food as a medium.
What that idea is, exactly, in the case of GhostFood is by no means one-dimensional. The intent is not to sate, not even to simply say, “Climate change! Watch out!” Simun and Songster are appealing to Proustian pathos just as much as ecological ethos. What GhostFood isn’t about, the pair agrees, is making a definitive case for anything—not even for climate change being a bad thing.
“We’ve been trying very careful not come down on one side of that argument or the other,” says Songster. “We’re trying to create a space were people are thinking about it and not being too explicit.”
Simun offers that this is about far more than food as well. There’s biodiversity that’s already been lost in the world, but we mourn it less—or make little effort to stop it from slipping away—simply because we don’t depend on it as a source of food or have an emotion connection to it.
While the story of cod could potentially end with the hard punctuation of extinction, peanuts could fade out of realm of agriculture due to climate change. The plant thrives with a very specific amount of sun and rainfall, but when exposed to drought and high temperatures, peanuts become increasingly prone to developing highly carcinogenic aflatoxin. Within the context of GhostFood, Simun says the possibility of such a soft extinction, an end to the peanut’s edibility, might expand the conversation past the edge of the field and include all of the non-agricultural plants that are coping with a changing climate too.
“We’re serving a little bit of knowledge about species lost,” she says. “Food is very human centered—my food, my taste, my experience. But we’re hoping that it could lead to other considerations to what roles these species play in the world.”