Thursday, 25 June 2009

Gastronomy, TV and 'Culinary Texts of Indirection' II

The second part of a discussion by Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones which thinks about Heston's Feasts as a televisual form of the 'culinary text of indirection'.

In her work on the establishment of the culinary field in France following the 1789 Revolution,
Parkhust Ferguson argues that in order to redefine the prosaic activity of dining out as a phenomenon of a higher moral and intellectual order it was essential for gastronomic writers to produce ‘culinary texts of indirection’ which aestheticized the dining experience by transforming food into literature. Therefore, at this stage, gastronomy emerged as part of the literary field.

We have been thinking about how
Heston’s Feasts might operate as a televisual form of the ‘culinary text of indirection’ which enables Blumenthal to aestheticize his own work. In this way we can think of Heston’s Feasts as enabling the chef to engage in the practice of ‘self-theorization’ that Svejenova et al associate with his contemporary Ferran Adria. In this process, the chef theorizes their own culinary practice as an aesthetic practice rather than simply being dependent on food critics for recognition. As Bourdieu notes in his discussion of the creative ‘break’ established by Modern Art, the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp altered the rules of the game: while previous artists had to be ‘made by the field’, the modern artist is self-creating and self-theorising, ‘producing art objects in which the production of the producer as artist is the precondition for the production of these objects as works of art’ (1993: 61). While the celebrity diners in Heston’s Feasts act as a chorus who affirm Heston’s achievement, it is his own commentary that legitimates his practice as art.

For Mennell (1996: 266), in origin both the writers and readers of gastronomic literature were members of an elite. This literature laid ‘down canons of “correct” taste for those who were wealthy enough to meet them’. However, over time ‘whether they intended to or not’, these texts ‘also performed a democratizing function’ by disseminating knowledge ‘of elite standards beyond the elite’. To an extent, this judgment would hold true for Heston’s Feasts. The cuisine on offer unashamedly draws on aristocratic traditions in its conception, ingredients and its service. At the same time, it performs some kind of democratizing function by disseminating knowledge of the practices and techniques of high-end cuisine to a wider audience, using some of the conventions of both popular history and arts programming. This is anticipated in the programme through the choice of celebrities, some of whom are drawn from popular entertainment. Indeed, the very appearance of such a show on a popular medium such as television could be read as essentially democratic (and evidence of Blumenthal’s ability to transgress boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural forms).

However, as David Bell argues, television chefs – like gourmands in general – inhabit the paradoxical position of ‘marking distinction while democratizing tastes’ (Bell 2002). Indeed, we would suggest that
HF – in which the audience is witness to a one-off spectacular event rather than encouraged to ‘try this at home’ – makes very little attempt to democratize anything but Heston’s brand image. So while much tv cookery might seen as both a televisual equivalent of the cookery book and also an extended advert for the book of the series, HF transforms the relationship between television and written texts. Indeed, with no book of the series to date, the show can be seen to perform two functions. First, the only product being publicized is Heston and the experience offered at his restaurant, The Fat Duck. Second, by breaking the relationship between the tv cookery programme and the written recipe book, the series gestures towards television as a proper medium for producing ‘culinary texts of indirection’.
(Photo credit: robertpaulyoung. Permissions.)


  1. Signe Rousseau25 June 2009 at 09:46

    The essentially undemocratic aspect of HF for me is summarized in his introduction to the Middle Ages, which he was "desperate to explore because they use food as entertaining escape from the brutality of life.... To escape the horrors of daily life [eg. Black Death killing off 60% of Europe's population], chefs dazzled and delighted privileged guests with incredible feats of dinner magic. Food became the TV of the day, and with death and damnation around every corner, they needed a laugh." (Enough said about the well-timed irony of the norovirus in HB's own daily life). I'm not sure the simple fact of being on TV democratizes anything as much as it showcases, as you point out, a particular brand which will remain (by economic necessity) unavailable to a majority as a first-hand experience. Then again, some credit HB's greatest contribution as being able to engage the imagination:

  2. I love that quote from him (although I'll be glad not to watch anymore Blumenthal for a while - it gets really repetitive). And on the subject of the norovirus, there is a great photo on Flickr of the window of a pizzeria/take-away with a clipping about the Fat Duck 'food poisoning' scare from the Daily Telegraph with 'Eat Pizza! its safer!' scrawled in felt tip underneath.