The Art World Celebrates “Good Taste”, But I Don’t Always Fit In

The food that we eat has much to reveal about our heritage and class background, and is more relevant than ever during lockdown.

© Motoyuki Daifu, Still Life. Courtesy of MISAKO & ROSEN, Tokyo
© Motoyuki Daifu, Still Life. Courtesy of MISAKO & ROSEN, Tokyo

During this enforced time at home, it is only natural that our spending patterns have changed dramatically. Where I used to pay for my commute to and from work, meals out and drinks with friends, I now find that one of the few luxuries that I have left is the food that I put on the table. Like many, I have been rifling through my kitchen cupboards and getting out the recipe books. My general spend might have gone down, but my grocery bill keeps getting bigger. 

Growing up, it was me who did all of the cooking in our house once I was over the age of twelve. My single mother would often work late and hated to cook, and so I took my pick between a rotation of ready meals or my own culinary creations. Short of much guidance, my early meals can be best described as bizarre shadows of dishes, like an image that never quite comes into focus. I worked from free recipes that my mother printed out for me from an assortment of generic cooking websites; kedgeree, couscous salad, parmigiana. Neither of us had ever heard of these dishes, let alone tasted them, and it was as if I was working blind. 

The food that we eat is deeply rooted in our heritage and class background. From the cookery writers who we elevate to the ingredients that we choose, there is much to be learned from rifling through someone else’s kitchen cupboards. In the art world, a realm where the notion of “good taste” is never far out of sight, food is used as a literal signifier of this impulse. At times, it is used as a method to police it. While taste might seem deeply subjective—“to each their own”—there is often a surprising consensus on acceptability. 

“From the cookery writers who we elevate to the ingredients that we choose, there is much to be learned from someone else’s kitchen cupboards”

Take the elevation of simplicity in recent years, whereby a plate of fresh radishes can signal the ultimate in art-world chic. At the Rochelle Canteen, a Shoreditch restaurant with a second branch onsite at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, less is definitively more, and high quality ingredients are left to shine. It is an alternative form of fine dining, where the swirls and square plates of the early 2000s are whisked away in place of simple fish, meat and vegetables. This is where the art world like to eat, alongside the storied Clerkenwell restaurant St. John, where offal-based dishes and retro British puddings sit comfortably on the menu; unsurprisingly, the two establishments are run by husband and wife.  

When I have been offered a single radish, or a plate of fresh peas still in their pods, at restaurants where a meal would cost more than my weekly shop, I sometimes let my mind linger on what my mother would have made of it all. Her imagined outrage brings a smile to my face, but it belies a deeper class divide. It takes a certain privilege to recognise that restraint does not always equal paucity. It is a privilege that I have learned to adopt over the years, but one that increasingly separates me from my family. When I spend an outsized amount on a loaf of bread, or buy expensive pickles or chocolate, I can almost feel my mother’s disapproval. 

The question of how much we are willing to spend on basic ingredients is a contentious one at the best of times, but never has it been more divisive than during lockdown. The Guardian have been busy publishing a variety of “Store cupboard recipes” for this period, with revealing results. One recipe, published last week, proposes a dish of “Soba noodles, quick pickles and furikake fried egg”. Among the staple “store cupboard” ingredients are a small capsicum, tempeh and the titular furikake—“pick your favourite brand or ask your grocer for their favourite one”, the author advises. 

Reading the list of ingredients, I couldn’t help but reflect on the recipes of my childhood. My mother was Chinese, but you would never have guessed so from the bland British items stored in our kitchen. The fond cliché of the Asian mother is of one who is often at the stove, tending to aromatic stews or perfecting their own particular variation of tofu or kimchee. My mother couldn’t have been less interested in cooking, and I sometimes wonder how that impacted upon my understanding of my own heritage. It feels strange to now observe the introduction of foreign, and particularly Asian, ingredients to signify a middle and upper class identity.

“It takes a certain privilege to recognise that restraint does not always equal paucity—a privilege that I have learned to adopt over the years”

Until recently, we lived in an era of rampant travel, with low-cost flights and a greater disposable income amongst the middle classes than ever before. To experiment with foreign foods is to demonstrate a certain level of cultural knowledge, in keeping with the globetrotting lifestyle that many were able to achieve even on a relatively low income. Nowhere is this truer than in the art world, where canapés and drinks are served as a means of indicating a certain level of privilege. It can all end up feeling like just as much of a performance as the artworks on display, where to not recognise a certain ingredient can be as much of a misstep as to fail to recall the name of the exhibiting artist. 

My knowledge of Chinese food remains, for the most part, limited to a certain favourite instant noodle brand, and a comprehensive set of ordering skills at the dim sum table. At times of crisis, familiar foods can offer comfort amidst the uncertainty, but I am more aware than ever of how the ingredients in my store cupboard have changed. As I grapple with my place in the creative industry, my tastes and habits shift with me. Even when there are no more parties to attend, I still find myself performing for nobody but myself.

Are We There Yet is a fortnightly column by Louise Benson. Top image © Motoyuki Daifu, courtesy of MISAKO & ROSEN, Tokyo