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Come dine with me: the dinner party, art, and revolution

Beyond its middle-class suburban origins, the dinner party has challenged perceptions and catalysed art movements

Perhaps you have recently considered an especially beautifully composed plate of food, all brilliant blobs of gelée or foam and delicate, tweezered garnishes, and compared it to a work of art. And why not? From the titular repast of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper to moody still lifes, to the bright, shelf-stable goods of Pop Art, food and art have a richly entwined history. Consider the earliest of cave paintings, which used plant juices, bone marrow, blood, and animal fats to turn pigments into paint, Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist cookbook, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s cornucopian portrait of a Roman emperor made entirely out of fruit and vegetables. Or works such as Judy Chicago’s monumental feminist installation The Dinner Party, in which a triangular banquet table is staged with place settings for 39 famous historical and mythological women, from Kālī and Ishtar to Virginia Woolf and Sojourner Truth. The oldest of these rather vulvic plates, which correspond to primordial and fertility goddesses, are flat but become increasingly more 3D and reminiscent of gynocentric architecture as we move towards the present. For example, it is difficult to mistake Georgia O’Keeffe’s plate for anything other than female genitalia.

Salvador Dali dinner party Surrealist cookbook Les Dîners de Gala

Salvador Dali dinner party Surrealist cookbook Les Dîners de Gala

Salvador Dalí awaiting guests to his mind-expanding dinner party, as featured in his 1974 Surrealist cookbook Les Dîners de Gala

In recent decades, artists have increasingly engaged with the rituals surrounding the preparation, serving and consumption of food itself. We might trace their precursor to a small tavern in Turin, Italy. As the clock struck midnight on 8 March 1931, a hodgepodge of Futurists, journalists and artists sat down to dinner. The first course, Aerovivanda, set the tone for the evening. Servers sprayed carnation perfume on the napes of attendees’ necks, as giant fans blew air onto the gathered ensemble. A plate of black olives, kumquats and fennel hearts was served alongside a rectangle made of sandpaper, velvet and silk. Diners were instructed to eat with their right hands and simultaneously stroke the rectangle with their left. The loud roar of an aeroplane motor and a JS Bach opera completed the multisensory experience. 

This was FT Marinetti’s Santopalato, or ‘Tavern of the Holy Palate’, whose menu would later inspire the infamous Futurist Cookbook. The Italian Futurists embraced modernity and speed above all, and aimed to break with tradition in every aspect of daily life. In the culinary realm, they set their sights on pasta, one of their compatriots’ most beloved foods: they saw it as starchy, stodgy, and responsible for a generalised societal lassitude. Interiors designed by Bulgarian Futurist architect Nicolay Diulgheroff were spare, and featured sanded aluminium walls, illuminated columns, huge posters in round-cornered frames, and circular windows that resembled portholes. Of course, the Futurists were fascist sympathisers, and as such their gustatory contributions are largely dismissed as stunts geared for maximum shock value – a view that severely minimises their influence on the Modernist dining experience.

‘Revolution is not a dinner party, Mao Zedong wrote in 1927, insisting that it could not be so genteel or polite but instead required a violent insurrection’

Yet there were outrageous dishes aplenty. That inaugural dinner, which Marinetti compared to the storming of the Bastille and Columbus’s ostensible discovery of America, featured 14 courses designed by Futurist artists in collaboration with chefs. It was the first of many Futurist banquets which emphasised eating as an aesthetic experience that activated all five senses. At some, attendees donned pyjamas covered in felt, cork, steel wool, sponge or cardboard and were encouraged to nourish their fingertips as well as their stomachs by stroking their dining companions. Others extended this tactile embrace to the eating experience itself, with a dish called Pranzo Tattile, a vegetable garden eaten hands-free, by plunging your face straight into the dish. 

Further memorable courses began to approach sculpture, like the rather phallic Excited Pig, a skinned salami served upright in a hot black coffee and cologne broth, or Pollo Fiat, a chicken stuffed with ball bearings in tribute to the national steel industry. Drumroll of Colonial Fish: mullet marinated in peppery liqueur-spiked milk, stuffed with a tropical mixture of banana, pineapple and date jam, and consumed to an accompaniment of continuously rolling drums. One imagines that your fellow diners’ stomachs could have provided the percussion: dishes reportedly verged on inedible, and the restaurant lasted only about a year.

Revolution is not a dinner party, Mao Zedong wrote in 1927, insisting that it could not be so genteel or polite but instead required a violent insurrection. And even as the Futurist restaurant harked back to an older tradition of elaborate banquets replete with musicians, jugglers and other costumed performers, extravagant sculptural desserts, and all manner of spectacles, it too looked not to build but to destroy. But what was radical about Marinetti’s intervention was that he understood that revolution had to include the dinner party. That if artists wanted to truly transform society, they needed to pay attention to all facets of daily life, and reimagine the culinary arts as well. 

Tina Girouard Carol Goodden Gordon Matta Clark FOOD SoHo

Tina Girouard Carol Goodden Gordon Matta Clark FOOD SoHo

Source: ARS, NY and Dacs, London 2018

Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark in front of FOOD in SoHo, 1971

Forty years later in 1971, another group of artists would open a restaurant, this time in New York’s Lower Manhattan. The idea was born out of artist and dancer Carol Goodden’s dinner parties – in one rather cannibalistic floral-themed occasion, attendees both dressed as flowers and feasted on food featuring edible buds. She co-founded the establishment with fellow artists Tina Girouard and Gordon Matta-Clark, who was trained as an architect but would later become best known for his ‘building cuts’ in derelict old structures. Simply named FOOD, the restaurant similarly eliminated divides between kitchen and dining, staff and patrons, with an open-concept layout and that became common only decades later. Other pioneering moves included an emphasis on fresh, seasonal, farm-to-table dining and two vegetarian nights a week, making it an outlier at the time, and an embrace of then-unusual foods such as sushi and sashimi. They were also, arguably, among the progenitors of SoHo’s thriving culinary scene, which was then considered a cultural wasteland.

The restaurant provided struggling artists with employment (wages were high for the time), and meals were also cooked by some of the most prominent artists of the time, including Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Donald Judd. Some of these meals were just as fantastical as those concocted by their pasta-hating predecessors. The food included hearty, affordable fare such as soups, salads and gumbos, alongside weekly performative gatherings in which anything went. One of these dinners, orchestrated by Matta-Clark, remains the stuff of legend. In his ‘Matta-bones’ dinner, everything was either served on the bone or featured them heavily, such as frog legs, oxtail soup and bone marrow. Following the meal, the bones were retrieved, scrubbed, and Rauschenberg’s jeweller assistant bored holes into the remains to thread them onto rope as a little souvenir for attendees, a wearable danse macabre.

Última cena   da vinci 5

Última cena da vinci 5

The dinner party to end all dinner parties

FOOD would only last a few years, and Goodden, whose now-depleted family inheritance had been subsidising the whole affair, would write in 1974 that although they consumed food, in the end it was the food that consumed them. After its original founders lost interest, new management overhauled the site to cater to the quickly gentrifying SoHo’s wealthy clientele. But of all the dinners that did occur, most seductive perhaps is one such dinner that never quite materialised. Sculptor Mark di Suvero wanted to use a crane to serve food through one of the restaurant’s windows. As with the Futurist restaurant, diners would eschew conventional cutlery and instead cut using a scalpel, or spear food with a screwdriver. Is there any better metaphor for building community, for dining together?

 This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today