Eat, think, love

By Todd Neff

To understand what Marije Vogelzang really does — and she does a lot of things — there’s no better example than a project right here in Budapest in 2011.

For her “Eat Love Budapest” exhibit, Vogelzang, the renowned Dutch “eating designer,” erected a few white-cotton cubicles, each almost entirely enclosed. The participant sat down inside amid photos of families and children’s drawings. On one side, the white curtain hung only halfway down. Roma women sat down outside them. As a guitarist walked about playing soft music, the Roma women told stories and fed whomever happened to be inside.

One of them peeled an orange and handed the participant slices as she described a Christmas memory. When she was a girl, she and a friend had been told to clean a wealthy family’s house, then afterward was ushered, hungry, to a cold room. But then later, when the guests had left, the girls and other Roma children were invited in, and they talked and had a good time — and ate oranges. Another Roma woman handed apple slices through the curtain while recounting a childhood memory of sneaking into an apple orchard to pick its fruits before being chased away. Another sang a lullaby to the visibly moved woman inside.

“If you’ve had that experience and someone shared her food with you and her story with you, you cannot hate that person,” Vogelzang said. “You have to like that person. It’s Emmanuel Kant that said if you break bread with each other, you can’t break each other’s neck.”

The broader takeaway, and one that runs through Vogelzang’s work before and since, is this: that food, if we let it, can help us think and feel and be more human. She is a designer, true. But you could just as easily call her a sustenance artist or a caloric poet. Whatever you call her, she’s been busy.

She gives talks like the one she’ll do this summer at Brain Bar Budapest. She consults with companies such as Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Absolut Vodka and Virgin. She is the founding head of the Food Non Food Department at the Design Academy Eindhoven. It’s the world’s first undergraduate food design course in art education. And she does food-art installations, as she has since own Design Academy Eindhoven thesis project in 1999.

‘Edible reflections’

That project involved a mock funeral in which bitter-tasting white foods were served on white tableware. This was, considering that she was working on a degree in industrial product design, pretty off-the-wall. But pioneering efforts often do seem crazy at the time; 15 years later, the New York Times noted it as among the very earliest examples of design with food as the central medium.

Among the many projects since have included a Christmas dinner in which she hung white tablecloths from the ceiling and cut holes for the diners’ heads and hands (“This physically connects each person: if I pull on the cloth here, you can feel it there. Covering everyone’s clothing also created a sense of equality.”); Faked Meat, which involved shaping vegetarian versions of meat — which we’ll need to keep up with population growth, Vogelzang believes — into fantasy animals (Why have vegetarian sausage looks like an actual sausage when there’s no actual intestine to stuff the sausage meat in?); and Edible Reflections, in which immigrants and locals in Sweden feed each other through a mouth-shaped hole cut in mirrors on both sides (“The way to accept another person is by accepting ourselves. We are in need of self-reflection.”) There are many more, each as thought-provoking and profound as the next.

Project ‘Christmas dinner’

Food is a fantastic medium, Vogelzang says, because it connects to people’s psychology, to their health and biology, to agriculture and the shaping of landscapes.

“It influences all of us. It’s what we live off, what we need daily, our food economy is the biggest economy of all,” she said. “It is how we communicate or identify ourselves and connect to each other.”

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