Artifacts of the table reveal ideas about food and eating.
The familiar three-compartment styrofoam plate arguably comes from a rich tradition of what the archeologist James Deetz calls the “ideal American meal”(p.170): a tripartite meal composed of meat, potatoes, vegetable. This likely comes from the ties that early American settlers had to English peasants, because it reflects a peasant diet. At the last family gathering I attended, I collected one of those compartmentalized plates and noticed something that I didn’t expect.
No, it wasn’t the obvious fact that the meat compartment is the largest, instead I was surprised by two smaller compartments; I expected equal size compartments for potatoes and vegetable, but the left compartment was slightly larger than the right compartment. Given our popular phrase “meat and potatoes” it is safe to say that potatoes have precedent over vegetables, so the larger compartment is probably for potatoes.
I have a porcelain compartmentalized plate from Italy, it has four compartments – is one for pasta? I don’t know enough about Italian culture to make any assumptions about the designation of the compartments, I just thought it was worth bringing to the conversation and to show that it is not uniquely American.
Which brings me to my final plate specimen, a Japanese plate. I immediately recognize a modified bento box layout to this plate, but I also notice that the plate is round (mimicking traditional Western style plates). It is almost as if this hybrid plate reflects a cultural blending that predates fusion cuisine of the seventies and eighties.
Besides the basic cultural curiosity of the similarity across plates, and the hybridization of two culturally distinct pieces of tableware, it is interesting to think about the ideas of compartmentalization and why we separate our food.
Variety keeps the mouth interested in taking another bite.
It could be that we separate our food because it stimulates appetite or preserves appetite . A common situation at many tables illustrates this point with precision: you are too full to eat another bite of dinner, but you have plenty of room for dessert. This is a phenomenon called sensory specific satiety proposed by Rolls, et al (1981). This initial study lead to a host of studies (beginning in the 1980s and continuing to the present) that have looked at the way distinctions between food items in a cafeteria style presentation play in human and rat satiety (I’ll be exploring this in future posts). One of the factors explored is variation in food items and their correlation to increase caloric intake in rats (Rolls, et al. 1982). From what I understand, this cafeteria effect is so pervasive that the initial finding (that rats eat more when presented with more flavors) has become the standard protocol (or method) used for experimental studies on subjects like nutrition and obesity, even when the results suggest that obesity in rats isn’t tied to overeating (such as Ackroff et al., pp 476-477). In a way, this variety-leads-to-overeating idea translates into the idea that if nothing else, variety keeps the mouth interested in taking another bite.
“There is nothing more basic than categorization to our thought, perception, action, and speech. Every time we see something as a kind of thing, for example, a tree, we are categorizing…Without the ability to categorize, we could not function at all…” [Lakoff: 1987]
So where is this all going? Well, first of all, this idea of compartmentalization is very basic to human beings on a conceptual level. The compartmentalized plates are design artifacts that reinforce the compartmentalization process, and our tendency to reserve room in our stomachs (i.e., appetite) for different flavors is another form of compartmentalization. Rosch (1973), Lakoff (1987), Atran (2008) and others have shown empirical evidence for the centrality of categorization to human cognition. Categorization is utterly basic to humanity, I’d argue that it is as basic as eating – and this isn’t a stretch: even knowing that you want to eat reveals that you can categorize between being satisfied and being hungry. The evidence that categorization isn’t just conceptual, but also trickles down into the design strategies we use in cooking and eating suggests strongly that our cognitive structure also structures our designed experiences of the world. Categorization makes the act of tasting food possible.
We need more anthropology in the kitchen.
Secondly, if categorization makes its way into our kitchens and shapes our processes in cooking, why not try to see how far you can take it. Actively try to highlight categorization as a feature of the dining experience, bring cognition to the table, and to each bite a diner takes. Take a cognitive turn in the kitchen (not just gastrophysics) make it serve a larger framework that is actually basic to humanity, maybe it’s a kind of psycho-gastronomy, or gastro-cognition.
Find new ways for expressing categorization in the taste experience of people who eat. Find ways to compartmentalize little bits of the meal into a kind of choose-your-own-adventure game path, let the diner decide what to eat when and how. It is ideas like this that stand behind the kitchen philosophy of people like Grant Achatz and this video of his Lamb 86 at Alinea proves it. 86 different components of a dish laid out in grid-fashion in 60 squares (like a compartmentalized box!) on a pane of glass – think of it as a refined sushi-boat.
What strikes me about this dish is that no two guests encounter the flavor profiles of the dish in quite the same order because the components are eaten in different orders, reflecting the choice path a diner makes during the table experience. The back of house brigade presents the bits and pieces of a dish to the diner, and the diner decides what story the dish will tell. So fascinating. I would be curious to know how long it takes people to eat this dish relative to other dishes that they encounter during a meal.
This is a guest-centric approach to dining.
Tying this all back together, we have seen that compartmentalization in tableware is a well-established trend that crosses cultures, we know that categorization is basic to human experience, we know that variety in flavors and other orosensory factors of food items increases consumption or at least preserves (and maybe increases) appetite for new flavors, and we know that compartmentalized dishes keep different food items separate, isolating flavors. When all of this comes together in a strategic approach to a dish (like Lamb 86), what you get is an opportunity to experience your own sorting strategy, you determine this taxonomy at the table. It is human-centric and it is guest-centric, this is a chef engaging a basic element of human cognition by making a guest tell the story.
[Read my related post: Cooking is Storytelling and Eating is Reading]
Ackroff, Karen, Kristine Bonacchi, Michael Magee, Yeh-Min Yiin, Jonathan V. Graves, Anthony Sclafani (2007) Obesity by choice revisited: Effects of food availability, flavor, and nutrient composition on energy intake. in Physiology & Behavior vol 92 pp. 468-478.
Atran, Scott. & Douglas Medin (2008) The native mind and the cultural construction of nature. Cambridge: MIT Press
Deetz, James (1996) In small things forgotten: An archaeology of early American life. New York: Anchor Books
Lakoff, George. (1987) Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Rolls, Barbara J., P.M. Van Duijvenvoorde, & Edward A, Rowe (1983) Variety in the diet enhances intake in a meal and contributes to the development of obesity in the rat. in Physiology & Behavior, vol 31, pp. 21-77
Rosch, Eleanor (1973) Natural Categories. in Cognitive Psychology vol 4 pp. 328-50