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David Szanto, An Italian/Canadian Professor Working In A Developing Field, Discusses The Art And Science Of Produce At New York Produce Show

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 1, 2014

Well, now for something completely different!

From the Museum of Transitory Art, ice box studio:

David Szanto is exploring the material-discursive practices of food and gastronomic sciences. His aim is to better understand the systemic, intra-active relationships between humans, food, and the processes that frame the experience of eating, which is at once a mundane act and a magnificently complicated daily performance. As a researcher in a field that does not yet wholly exist, David’s work takes an experimental, research/creation-based approach that includes theory and practices from the realms of design, ecology, complex systems, chemical physics, and cooking.

From the Rodale Institute, a piece called Recipe for Success:

As a recent American graduate of the University of Gastronomic Science, foodie David Szanto brings an interesting view into the discussion. “Given the contemporary reality of food in our world, it's critical that food be thought about in complex and interconnected ways, and that that way of thinking be spread to a large audience,” he said. “The forces of industrialization are too strong, and there need to be equally organized counter-forces for anything to change.”

Szanto believes the major flaw of Slow Food is ironically its great strength: its universally accessible brand with access for producers, processors, consumers, community organizers and activists, alike. Szanto views these many entry points as necessary for Slow Food, which believes in using cross-disciplinary action to bring about change; people want to be aware of food's taste, history, environmental impact, anthropological significance, production techniques, economics and nutritional benefits, he said. “You would also want people in places with wildly different food cultures to connect to a common cause and direction, so it does have to have a pretty wide and loose brand. That means at the local level, Slow Food looks different from place to place as convivia approach food through taste education, producer concerns or fancy food.”

Szanto emphasized that it would be wrong to take the Italian Slow Food model and force-fit it onto the U.S. “One of the problems with food culture in the U.S.—aside from separate and simultaneous overemphasis on nutrition and convenience—is the focus on fancy food and food elitism. Good food becomes an aspect of consumerism, rather than about environmentalism, tradition or social justice. We are, after all, a highly consumerist society, and until that changes, food will remain a subset of that culture.” There are really two Slow Food movements operating in the U.S., Szanto offered in wrapping up our conversation: the national leadership with its overarching culture, and the collectivized organization embodying a mosaic of cultures.

At The New York Produce Show and Conference, we have a commitment to seek out the unusual and to find  people doing things that will make you think differently.

One of the really interesting fonts for original thought has been our partnership with the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Universita Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche). We have asked various university representatives to explain the nature of the school:

Meet The Gastronomes — And Learn About Their Mission To Increase Produce Consumption — At The New York Produce Show And Conference

We also have had a series of really intriguing presentations:

New York Delegates To Receive  An Education In Ethnobotany From Eminent Italian Professor

Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To 

In fact we were so thrilled to be associated with such an intriguing thought process, we also invited the school to participate in the London Produce Show and Conference:

Provoking Questions: How To Get People To Eat More Fruits And Vegetables -- Barny Haughton Speaks Out

When we learned David Szanto was attempting to create a new food-related field of study, we were intrigued and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

David Szanto, Ph.D.
Director of the Masters Program
in Representation, Meaning & Media
University of Gastronomic Sciences
Pollenzo, Italy

Szanto also is an artist and a professor of gastronomy and food studies at Concordia University and l’Universite du Quebec a Montreal, Canada.

Q: Tell us about your presentation and why produce industry executives should be interested in attending. The title of your presentation is quite profound and esoteric: Performative Produce: Food, Art, and Materiality. What is food art exactly? How does your work connect to consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables?

A: My tendency is to be a bit academic, but how does this make sense to people not dealing in an academic context? I’ll start with the second half of the title. More performance-oriented art, rather than visual art, has been used in the past to discuss all kinds of issues, including human health, but also psychological and environmental health, questions about power and politics and certainly how it affects culture.

I’m interested in talking about these questions within art rather than hitting them over head with theories, because art is often more abstract, and people tend to interpret it themselves. It’s more personal and emotional, non-intellectual. How does it make me feel, not just what does it make me think about. It’s also a fun and non-scholarly way to get across ideas and issues we deal with related to food. As for the materiality part, a lot of people, who have done art with food, have used it as a medium to express different ideas. Instead of paint, clay or photography, they use food.

Food has a lot of interesting properties; it decomposes, so it demonstrates the passage of time beautifully. Things like bacteria, oxygen, and water, all come together to cause food to decompose. Most art is made out of materials that don’t decompose, made to last, oil paint, clay, even digital photography now.

Q: Isn’t fresh produce a food artist’s dream, with its volatile script? 

A: Food art shows passage of time differently than other artistic media do and that’s interesting. It ties back to performativity and demonstrating some kind of dynamic. Think in terms of the standard definition of performance – it happens on the stage and follows a script, whether in words, musical notes or choreography.

There are other definitions of performance that are fascinating, including non-theatrical performance. If you think about a seed, it performs in certain ways with certain specifications, or a metal high beam in a building or a piece of construction. It uses architectural materials to perform in different ways under certain conditions because of its own nature and materials.  Link theatrical performance with non-theatrical performance and it comes around. The non-performer is an actor, not because of a script, but because of the environmental and variable nature around us.  

For me, it opens very interesting questions about how it connects to plant-based foods and also some more academic and theoretical ones around performance.

Q: The produce industry certainly is filled with dynamic actors and performances, but this is a whole new way to look at it…!

A: There’s an historical perspective to this, looking back to the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. A lot of theater directors started thinking about what else is performing during a play other than the actors; are the spectators performing, are the props performing, is the theater performing as much as the actors on the stage. And the answer is yes, everything in an environment performs in order to produce the performance that is witnessed. 

The actors on the stage and the spectators in the audience are part of the performance, and so are the walls, and the text, which is what I’d call a much more ecological interpretation of performance.

When you come back to things like climate change, the economy, and human health, challenges of obesity, underweight, undernourishment and poverty, if you look at performance, you can start to understand it’s not just people but the entire environment that produces effects.

Q: These issues you highlight all connect to the produce industry and trigger complex thinking and debates about nature versus nurture, and the myriad variables impacting outcomes…

A: People in the food industry are thinking in more ecological terms, but the human, cultural and political aspects all go into producing wellness.

Q: How will your presentation clarify this further?  

A: I’m planning to talk a little about the history of food and performance, including performance art.  For reference points, in ancient Greece, slaughter and sacrifice was food performance. That was something done with a very theatrical clarity. It also served in society for connecting humans to their food and their guards in one moment.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of performance art using food, and that’s shock-oriented or extreme, generally focusing on the symbolic qualities of food, issues to do with human identity and power and sex, big subjects in general, with a lot of strong images.

Q: What kinds of foods are used to project these images?  Do food artists look at produce as powerful and sexy?

A: Meat, chocolate and wine are powerful sounding foods used in these performances in order to talk about complex ideas. What I find interesting, and the hook I’m thinking about for The New York Produce Show, is that the big themes of sex and power often use what I call big food, high value-added products, that have been transformed, exceptional or festival foods.  

What’s intriguing to me is that in more recent years, performances use less transformed foods, and those with perceived values, turning more to plant-based foods, less transformed by humans, to see how fresh fruits and vegetables are allowed to perform on their own, because they haven’t been processed or shelf-stabilized. It’s interesting to demonstrate this ecological phenomenon because over time they do decompose. It’s an exciting thing that a number of food artists including myself have been dealing with.

For example, we look at fermentation actively pervading food transformations through time, and bacteria and microbial agents and what can be done partly to demonstrate the connection between all humans and the environment and their food. It’s more topical with fruits and vegetables than with things like meat, honey and chocolate. That’s exciting and significant.

Q: Why?

A: We’re looking into the smaller details of what makes us into an ecology. It allows us to see how foods that may not be considered “big value” or “important” are in fact very valuable to pay attention to, particularly as we get into the questions of human health. Clearly, fruits and vegetables present opportunities for humans to take care of themselves in better ways, serving our bodies. Plant-based products are often much more healthful than these so-called big value foods.  

It doesn’t get into day-to-day interpretation or analysis of how fruits and vegetables can be considered important in representing our ecology, but I can find abstract examples to bring for the talk.  

Q: Can you elaborate on why the perishable aspect of fruits and vegetables versus the long lasting nature of chocolate or wine is important to consider in this discussion.  You’ll find plenty of people who will attest to the positive health benefits of chocolate, honey and wine!

A: The connection or line I’m trying to draw is this: Over time food artists, as well as the general population, have become more interested in plant-based foods, pointing to increasing interest in how plants behave in our bodies, the different transformations in our body over time. It’s paying attention in a different way. I’m not going to say it’s better because of the health aspect; it’s different.

I talk a lot about living through the exceptional in the mundane. Very often on restaurant menus and in performances, people look for big dramatic things, like fois gras and pork fat, and expensive wines, things that are showy and theatrical. With fruits and vegetables and performativity, it’s paying attention and respect to the exceptional nature of plants rather than the exceptional nature of animals.

It’s coming around in the art world, and it’s also coming around in restaurant menus. Certainly the higher end restaurants are giving much more respect to a beautifully produced cauliflower or tomato, or the high quality of good local produce. These are questions that produce managers have to think about, too, because obviously not everyone is producing on a small scale, and there is a much bigger industry to consider.  But paying new attention to small and exceptional details of plants could help produce managers in their strategies to benefit people’s health around the world, as well as local economies.

Q: Could there be a dichotomy between producing high yields of fruits and vegetables to feed the world, and producing the finest tasting, top quality cauliflower or tomato? And doesn’t it also require a change in mindset for produce to be the center of the plate?

A: I have a favorite restaurant that does an incredibly beautiful dish with cauliflower, squash, and pumpkins, with a little smoked trout, but the vegetables are the focus of the plate. It’s a wonderful turn to recognize the value of produce. So many fruits and vegetables are transported a great distance, and therefore have to be much more shelf-stable, but often don’t have as much flavor. Paying more attention to that is important.

But the change in mindset is happening all across the spectrum with consumers. Any contact the consumer has with food, whether in a supermarket, a restaurant, the theater, in a book store or a class room, a cooking demo, television… all of these places are ways consumers develop a new appreciation and respect for fruits and vegetables. But all these places are also avenues for this not to happen. It’s not necessarily a coordinated effort, but a continuous effort across the whole food realm, aiming at how produce can be as exciting as a really expensive, beautiful piece of meat. There are opportunities everywhere. It’s not just one solution providing value.

It starts with produce managers providing the value to food, and paying attention to texture and taste.  There’s a lot of blame in different parts of the industry for lackluster tomatoes or flavorless lettuce. At times, it may be a misstep in the industry, but mostly it’s the challenges that come with the perishability, and the problem that produce decomposes over time, and the need for durability on the supermarket shelf. But that’s also leading to some of the disrespect that produce has come to acquire sometimes.

Q: You speak of produce being disrespected like it’s a human being with emotions!

A: Watching it decompose or grow or ferment can give you that connection, even if it’s taken from the tree or bush or soil; you see it actively changing and that’s very dynamic.

In a farmer’s market, the produce lasts three days, and in a supermarket two weeks. When I go to the farmer’s market, my senses are taken in by the fresh, crisp vegetables. I can’t help but think, wow, they’re alive. When I go to the supermarket, I think wow, they’re not so alive, and they look just like the ones I got two weeks ago. What’s wrong with that?

Also, we want to be able to shop once a week or once every two weeks, but that’s not the way food behaves.

Q: Could your reaction also be related to how the produce is packaged and merchandised?

A: The whole chain is responsible for how produce arrives. Packaging is used to take care of issues, but for as well as it preserves and protects, it also separates us from the liveliness of food. I hate to sound like a classic food activist, but short production chain is a way to keep the activity and liveliness of food honored and valued. As soon as the product is too stabilized or packaged, it starts to kill what’s lively and interesting about it. That’s the tension and balance the industry faces.  

Q: What are the key points you want attendees at The New York Produce Show to take away from your presentation? And what are the most valuable things you’ve learned in your research and studies?

A: My main objective with all of the work that I do is to help myself and others see what seems normal in a new light. So if it means seeing fruits and vegetables almost alive like actors on a stage, that’s good. If it means seeing packaging as both aromatic and valuable, that’s great. If it means seeing decomposition as a fruit’s value, that’s great.

The goal is to help perceive reality in a more complex and more diverse way, and there are many realities going on at once.  It’s a matter of taking different angles of things, which can lead to opportunities for packaging innovation, or playing with our fruits and vegetables to have them be lively actors in our performances of food.

Q: Do you have examples in your work to highlight these points?  

A: I do have lots of examples from art installations I can talk about, showing how fruits and vegetables are incorporated into art works. They’re not stagnant, permanent pieces in a gallery somewhere. They’re alive and playful, and sometimes shocking people with their simplicity rather than complexity. And I can show images and videos that also could be reinterpreted for day-to-day interaction in the marketplace to help increase consumption of produce. At the same time, my work isn’t paying attention to health and nutrition aspects.

Q: In the industry, there is debate about how to market and promote fruits and vegetables, and whether highlighting the health, nutrition and utilitarian benefits could actually dampen enthusiasm, and turn people off, and rather focus on the colorful tastes and textures. Is this more in line with your thinking?

A: Yes, I tend to agree. What I find intriguing with the work that I do is that it’s delightful. It entertains and stimulates my intellect and my emotions and my body. Getting someone excited about food is a much more viable approach than the various intellectual aspects of, this is better for my health. When you’re deciding between two different foods, you tend to go for the one that is more visual and exciting.  Trying to convince through health and nutrition and seriousness is a much bigger challenge.

Of course, there are several issues that can be incorporated into the message, but I also think that the pleasure, excitement and congeniality and sharing and the fun weirdness of performing fruits and vegetables is much more appealing. 

Q: How do the impacts of food differ from culture to culture, and based on people’s own personal experiences? 

A: There is a whole bunch of ways that people connect to food, and no one is the same.  That’s why it can be difficult to market food. Everyone has an extremely intimate relationship with food. Our interest in eating plant-based and animal-based foods is as diverse as we are as human beings, and as varied as our cultures, backgrounds, and education.  There isn’t one solution.

Q: In the U.S., there can be dramatic diversity in produce preferences from state to state, and demographic makeup, among other things, and those preferences are constantly evolving and changing…

A: That’s for sure. There’s an evolving history of food in the U.S. and in different regions of the U.S.  When I’m in Italy, I hear people talk about the American food culture. They tend to forget there are 150 American food cultures, and that Americans are not one common mass of people. There are as many different tastes as all of Europe.

Traditions are different as well.  For instance, In America, putting out a crudité of raw carrot sticks and celery sticks is common, but in Italy, you don’t see people snacking on raw vegetables like that. In some countries, vegetable preparation is related to safety issues, which brings in another element to consider.  The food cultures are so different and so diverse, and agricultural habits are so different as well.  There is no consistency, and you have to adapt approaches; no one approach fits all.  

The most wide spread and most common activity on our planet is food, and it’s also the most complicated.  

Q: Can you elaborate on your point that food is so personal?

A: If you think about it, there are only a couple things that penetrate our bodies as human beings; food is one of them, other people’s body parts, and medication is a third. So if you’re not trying to medically treat something, food and sex are the only times personal boundaries are crossed by other things. That’s a very intimate pact.

We know how intimate sex is, but don’t give as much credit to the intimacy of eating. But food actually makes us, and it has the potential to damage us. Food can be toxic. It alters us. It can change our identity and is deeply intimate, and therefore both very exciting and also very scary; if you just make the parallel to sex alone.  What makes food so interesting is that we eat it every day, so it is both mundane and exceptional in its intimacy. There is a conflicted tension in the relationships we have with food.  

Q: What about the expression, there are people who live to eat and others who eat to live?  For some, food isn’t that important… they’re focused on work, running around doing errands, taking care of their kids and they’re just going to grab what’s most convenient, whereas others are real foodies, adventurous about cooking and tracking down the best restaurants…

A: It is true some people pay less attention to food, and other people are all about the latest trends and restaurants and pay a lot of intellectual attention to food. People who are just grabbing a bite on the go may not be paying that much intellectual attention to food, but their bodies, their emotions, hearts and souls are. 

We don’t just grab whatever; we actually make a lot of choices when we’re grabbing something convenient. A lot of people won’t grab a handful of carrot sticks; they’ll grab a burger.  There’s a lot of choice-making based on various intimacies, they’re just not viewing them that way, but food is always deeply important to everyone. It’s just expressed in different ways, sometimes through emotions and body reactions.  Education, culture, identify, family, all of that contributes, as well as changing food habits growing up through adulthood, either intentionally or from advice from doctors.

Q:  Tell us the story of how you came to your position at the UNISG in Italy, and what inspired you to delve into this intriguing field of intimate tensions. 

A: I did the master program at UNISG myself in 2005 and 2006, and from that time on, I’ve been working with the university in different capacities. I’m also a professor of gastronomy and food studies at Concordia University and l’Universite du Quebec a Montreal, which is my home city.

I’m very interested in performance and food art. I did an art project of the food scape on my own street, and have also done research on this university as a whole on how all sorts of performances are taking place. Performance as a notion can include ecology, economy, architecture and design, and all the things beyond theatrical performance. Thinking about what is performing right now, it could be news reports on weather and politics, and ways to interpret ideas about the world.

Q: Will attendees get a chance to see your art project of the food scape on your street? It sounds intriguing…

A: Yes. I can include that. I live on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, a major north-south street in Montreal. It’s an important identifier in the culture of Montreal. It’s where all immigrant groups start out and build a food culture. Sometimes, future generations move to more urban, more gentrified areas.  But in the history of Montreal, the street has become incredibly dynamic, and a multi-cultural site of food. So within a couple of miles, you have Italian food, Greek food, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese; a Chinatown section is now more Korean. It’s a place where you have Latin American food.

It’s part of Montreal’s hip and trendy crowd now, so there’s a contemporary direction in food. You have meat and vegan restaurants, a bagel place. It’s in constant change. It’s nicknamed the Main or La Main, but it transcends language, and there isn’t any one food culture. It’s constantly evolving, every week and every month with new business and new food, and new identity, providing nourishment and intellectual curiosity. That led me to create this ecology performance. 

Q:  When you come to New York, will you have time to explore the streets of Manhattan for new projects?

A:  I’m really looking forward to it, although my visit will be brief this time.   I lived in New York for seven years, and it brings back memories.

Q: What do you remember most?

A:  What sticks with me are the little things; the green grocers on the corner, and the best pizza in the world; not the fancy restaurants, but the daily street living.

Q: Of course, your New York City memories tie back to intimate experiences with food. What a nice way to conclude our pre-show interview.

******

And what a nice way to think about the impact coming to New York can have on opening a mind to new ideas. Please join us in learning to think in new ways and to challenge accepted perception.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

 

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