All the happy penguins

The penguins, in this case, are those made from two olives, cream cheese and a carrot slice held together with a cocktail stick. They look amazing. They don’t taste particularly nice, but that’s not really the point.

And that’s an interesting question? Why is it not the point? It’s party food, made out of edible ingredients, so should the taste not be at least as important as the look of the thing? Well, should it?

What is the function of food? I’m going to wamble a bit here, because I think it out as I go along, and I see no reason why I should refine my woolly thinking for the purposes of a blog post. If you want coherent incisive remarks, you’ll have to buy the book, or the report ,or a dinner, followed by a subtitled film and tequila cocktails on every bridge in Bristol.

The obvious function of food is nourishment. You can’t survive without it, but equally obviously that’s not why we eat. Imagine the simplicity of life if one only ate for nourishment, the same food every day, containing the same necessary ingredients and as easy to prepare as possible so we can spend our lives doing more interesting stuff (I appear to have just described Iceland mini pizzas).

Obviously food is surrounded by a whole set of anthropological rituals and pleasures. Food is a point where human beings interface with the world and each other. It is loaded with sensory stimulation, touch and taste and smell, the way it looks, in some cases the way it sounds (think of the sizzle as something hits a hot frying-pan or the satisfying squelch as your spoon digs deep into the heart of a really rich chocolate mousse). Food manufacturers are attempting to trigger all these responses before you buy the stuff, loading their packaging with pictures and even odours to get you to desire that food, to stimulate memories or associate it with happy experiences.

And there are all the myths about food, whether it is the revivifying effects of chicken soup or the dogs eaten by other tribes. Food defines our bodies, because it is used to build them, but it also defines our identities. It even defines our countries. For example, we have cities that are built close to rivers because people needed water for drinking and transport, and in fertile areas because people needed to farm. In different periods of history, countries have tried to develop food self-reliance (by encouraging people to farm or garden) or use food as a way of balancing payments. There is food as status symbol and class divider. Food is a deep part of our personal narratives. where possible we choose what we eat and we think that this choice is integral to our identity.

So what is the function of decorative penguins? Well, they give pleasure, they make people smile, they are a talking point. There are equivalent to the butterfly garnish (also constructed from a carrot) that I saw in Amsterdam. They delight the eye. And they are satisfying in their transience. You can’t keep an olive penguin for very long. They make few demands on your life. They make few demands on your cooking skills. They show respect for your guests (some human being has spent the time constructing these items).

I agree, it would probably be better if they tasted superb, but you’re not going to be disappointed in the taste, because you would not have had many expectations. They’re so obviously an amusement, that you know that you have been satisfied by the sight of them.

Of course, if they were all you had to eat, you might want a little more – perhaps some seasoning. And a better quality of olive. But until then, we can enjoy food that is not food, it is a ritual object symbolising party values. So long as there is something that tastes nice as well. Pass along those Iceland mini-pizzas please.

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