Michael Pollan's gospel of sustainable food
Naif Al-Mutawa brings multicultural superheroes to life

Marije Vogelzang brings a designer's eye to thinking about food

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"To complete this trio of investigations into food, we're going to shift perspective," says Zolli. Marije Vogelzang "looks with an artist's eye at what it means to bring mindfulness and artfulness to the act of putting this wonderful stuff into our bodies."

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Marije Vogelzang (Pop!Tech bio, homepage) is part of the Edible Futures module. She studied design at Eindhoven Design Academy in Holland, where she went to workshops in ceramics and plastic molding. "In the end, I find myself back in the kitchen -- I open my cupboards and say, wow, I have lots of materials here! I see my kitchen tools, these are my workshop tools. Food is a material to work with."

People think this means she's a food designer. She wondered: if she would be a food designer, would that imply that she designs food? Food is perfectly designed by nature. Imagine a red cabbage sliced in two: it's perfect. "I'm more interested in the verb of eating, what food does to your body, what food does to your mind, what food does to people in general." She wants to apply design ideas and creative thinking to these questions.

She started a company called Proef. They do edible art projects, performance, and installation. Restaurant and food business concepts. Event catering. Consulting for food industry and hospitals. And so on. "I base my work on whether something is an interesting project," she says.

The first project she did, as a student at the design academy, came when her teacher told her to do something with the color white. In many cultures, white is the color of death. She thought about funeral rituals. "If you're Dutch and you die, people go to your funeral, they dress in black, they say they're sorry and drink a cup of coffee and eat a slice of sponge cake and that's it!" In many cultures there are really rich rituals around funerals and food. "Food is comforting to you. Food is the first thing your mother gives to you, along with her love."

She wanted to create alternatives for the poor Dutch people who have no rituals! So she collected white foods -- not thinking about taste or flavor, just color. She prepared them simply, "respectful to the food itself." This yields a serene palate. The flavors do well together. (The photograph is beautiful, and also quite serene -- a range of white foods arrayed artistically on a white tablecloth. You can see a photo of this same project by scrolling a bit on this page.) She's replicated this several times, though not for an actual funeral because there's never been time to prepare it when someone actually dies. "If you know when you're going to die -- some people know that! -- call me because I want to do this."

She's been asked repeatedly to do a Christmas dinner. "I never wanted to do it," she says. Christmas is full of clichés; "what can I design?" But she was asked again, and finally acceded. "What is Christmas really about? If you look beside the Christian idea of Christmas, Christmas is about sharing foods together and being connected to each other." (It's an intriguing post-religious or post-Christian way of thinking about the holiday, which I suspect a surprising number of Americans share.) She created an installation where everyone is sitting together, and only their faces and hands protrude through the hanging tablecloths which adorn the walls. It served as an equalizer, like wearing a uniform, she says, and by the end of the night people felt connected to each other. And the plates were divided in two; one woman might have melon and someone beside her might have ham, and since those are a classical combination, people would naturally trade halves of their plates and share with one another. The setting fostered play and interaction.

"The food we eat becomes a part of us... It goes home with us."

Vogelzang did a project on the invitation of the first organic farmer's market creator in Lebanon. "Recreating food every day is recreating their culture, and since Lebanon has been destroyed by war, this is a valuable thing to do." He asked her to join the market and do a workshop there. She realized that she knew nothing about Lebanon, aside from war, so she did a project called "Taste of Beirut" in which she began by handing out a questionnaire asking questions like, "What is your first memory having to do with food?" and "what are your memories relating to war and food?" People had varied responses to the first question, but the second question was answered mainly with "bread." Bread is an important element in Lebanese cuisine.

Vogelzang did a workshop bringing people together from across regions and religions and social backgrounds. She wanted to make bowls with them, bowls made out of bread; "we colored these bowls green with parsley juice," since parsley is a primary ingredient, "and I asked people to write their positive memories from when they were little into the bowls." They presented the bowls at the Green Line, which had separated East and West Beirut from one another like the Berlin Wall used to do in Berlin. They made a "green line" of bowls full of positive memories, filled them with Lebanese cheese and yogurt and honey, and invited people to come and eat them. "By eating bowls, we were eating away these negative connotations of the green line, and we were physically sharing each others' positive food memories of when we were little." All of the bowls are different; they're unique, like their makers, like all of us. (Here's a lovely reflection on the Taste of Beirut project.)

People have to eat something seven times before they come to appreciate a flavor. When Vogelzang's daughter was a little girl, she didn't like vegetables -- so Vogelzang invited her daughter's preschool class to come over and shape art out of vegetables using only their teeth. By the end of the adventure, they all ate vegetables!

Food is more than calories; it can make you feel happy or sleepy, it can give you all sorts of experiences. And yet a lot of kids eat unhealthy foods; what do do about that? "I made a series of snacks in all the colors of the rainbow." Da Vinci said that red is an energetic color and blue relates to relaxation; green makes you rich, yellow makes you have friends, orange makes you happy. She color-coded a series of snacks using Da Vinci's paradigm. Of course, all were healthy, but she didn't say that on the labels. Children presented with these foods pick the foods based on their perceptions of these things -- which changes the whole conversation: it's no longer about whether something is healthy or unhealthy, or has positive or negative associations.

Another project she shows us relates to Dutch National tap water. Tap water tastes different in different cities there. "Wouldn't it be interesting to get tap water from all the 12 capitals in this country together, instead of you traveling to all the cities?" She held a kind of tasting for the tap water from the various cities, setting up twelve stations like the numbers on a clock. "When it comes to wine, we talk about the terroir of the wine -- it's important where the wine comes from. I thought, wouldn't it be nice if we did this with water? 'I'm going to eat chicken, I should have some Amsterdam tap water!'" It really does taste different, she says.

Her other projects have included spoons made of sugar for stirring one's tea, a lollipop shaped like a gun, and a box of candies designed for people who don't have teeth. She made snacks for the opening of an event for those who had survived WWII, and made small bite-sized hors d'oeuvres of recipes from war survivors, and when people came in they could get a coupon which would get them substitute coffee, and with the coffee they could receive a "ration." Many people who were there hadn't tasted these things in 60 years, and it brought up bad memories for them, which was both painful and beautiful. "If you're a designer and you make things... When you use food as a material for your design, you can come very close to someone, because someone will put your design in their body."