This show comes with a tasting menu. Four dishes: cherry tomato, onigiri (Japanese rice balls), kale crisps and sticky ginger pudding. One part, the cherry tomato, involves almost zero effort apart from a quick rinse under a tap. The others variously require soaking, boiling, rolling, toasting, oiling, flavouring, mixing, pouring, chopping and baking. Tasting is not compulsory for watching (or indeed, reviewing) the now-online version of Luca Silvestrini’s May Contain Food – recorded at The Place, London in 2016 – but it seems like a shame to opt out of one of the most interesting concepts of the piece. Plus, it’s a yawnful Friday when I decide to start preparing the dishes and I’m happy to have an excuse to fanny around the kitchen rather than sit at a computer.
So I lug a bag of flour and syrup and Cavolo Nero and sushi rice back from the supermarket, roll-up my sleeves and get stuck in on a taster menu production line. The dishes on the list are the same ones the audience ate at the circular tables dotted around the outside of the live event back in 2016. Yet, coincidentally, they’re particularly interesting ones to make because they’re very tactile, get-messy recipes to cook.
My fingers run through the pebbly grains of uncooked sushi rice, raking it back and forth as it washes in the cold water. The stubbly grains rest in the liquid like sleeping tadpoles. Later, they turn into a sticky mulch that glues to everything in the world apart from water-coated fingers, which it happily slides off and into round balls. The reptilian skin of the nearly black kale (healthy!) looks like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, more so when coated with a slick of olive oil and smoked sweet paprika. Picking each up from the baking tray is a little mindfulness activity of gentle-gentle touch to avoid crushing them. And the sticky ginger cake mix is a flood of velvety black treacle, shining golden syrup and dark muscovado sugar melting into a tombstone slab of butter poured into a cloud of warmly spiced flour. When the saucepan lava hits the dry ingredients and combines with a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, it fizzes and bubbles like the contents of the Macbeth witches’ cauldron.
Silvestrini’s show, made from his dance company Protein, combines all these parts of our interactions with food and more: the Nigellaist foreplay of sticky, slathered, succulent foodstuffs – and the constant interplay between the language of food and the language of sex; the maternal memories of feeding and being fed; the barrage of food dos and don’ts (kale is a wonder food! Cake is bad for you!) and the ethics of consuming animal products (should I feel bad about all that real butter and cows milk slopping into the mixing bowl?). The semiaquatic-sounding a capella score, written by Orlando Gough who is also the originator of the ginger cake recipe, continually pokes fun at the absurd baggage attached to what is, at its most simple, the basic need for human bodies to consume nutrients in order to function and stay alive. One of the most effective sung moments centres on a repeat-repeat-repeat patter of “Don’t eat this! Eat that! Don’t eat this! Eat that! Don’t eat this! Eat that!”. Listening, I have the uncanny feeling that a 32-year-long trial of my existence had just been condensed into a two-line song. Choreographically, the clambering half-fight of bodies snaking around each other to grasp morsels of food – most aptly, an apple from a partner’s mouth – echoes our never-ending desire for more, more, more food in all its sexualised glory.
The performers also coax the audience through the tasting of the tasting menu. This starts with the tiny tomato which we are tutored through smelling, squeezing, rolling (across your face), naming and eventually chewing 21 times. I name my tomato Arabella, my husband calls his Len. My tomato is considerably posher than my husband’s, was privately educated and likes ponies. But she ends her life in much the same way as Len – just as we’ll all end up some variant of ashes or decomposing matter, regardless of our educational background or love of equestrian sports.
The kale crisps and rice balls get less attention, they remain unnamed but successfully cooked, and the sticky ginger cake is yours to enjoy at leisure in any way you please – for example, huddled beneath a giant dollop of clotted cream – as the show comes to a close.
May Contains Food really captures the silliness of our relationship with food – the self-imposed angst and the ever-changing fads, the moralism and the (perhaps) over-sexualisation. But it never feels like it quite goes far enough in pinpointing anything most people with a food obsession won’t have already thought about. It’s one of those works that raises all the questions without being bold enough to suggest an answer or be drawn into expressing an opinion. It’s very fun – and probably even more so if you were seated at one of the food-strewn cabaret tables at The Place – but it’s also more comfortable making jokes than making any serious point about the ideas it neatly skewers.
Because our relationship with food – as silly and self-indulgent and messed up as it may be – is important. It’s why cooking a collection of not-quite-coordinating dishes is different to getting them handed to you in a theatre. Growing food, picking food, preparing food and getting covered in floury goo is all part of eating – or at least it should ideally be. Not because getting hands-on with food leads to a smug organic glow, but because cooking often reveals how gross food is.
This is actually why food is like sex, not because the sheen on a raspberry panacotta resembles the sheen on a pink silk negligee, but because the pancake batter ripples like creamy cellulite, the pink meat squelches and wetly slaps the sideboard and the mud-dusted celeriac looks like a tumorous growth dotted with hairs. Food is ugly and sickening and rotten and compelling. It’s dirty and greasy and always tastes best dipped in garlic mayonnaise. It’s a ridiculous thing to be obsessed by, yet I can’t think of anything else – apart from sex – that’s worth spending so much time thinking about.
Photographs by Rosemary Waugh.
May Contain Food is available online until 22nd February: more info and tickets here.