THE GASTRONOME IN YOU  (2014, 2015, 2019)

David Szanto

The Gastronome in You (GIY), a cycle of three iterative food performances, centers on an inherited sourdough yeast culture and questions the persistence of humanity after death, through memory, narrative, and the microbiome. At the same time, it is an exploration of the ways in which we can act concurrently as both artist and academic, and of the blurring of boundaries that transdisciplinary practice with food tends to elicit.

The first iteration of GIY took the form of an installation and performance within the Exploration Gallery of the 2014 conference of the Canadian Association for Food Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. It focused on the gastronomic integrity and energy of Gigi Frassanito, a friend and colleague who had died of stomach cancer the previous year. His twenty-year-old sourdough yeast culture (distributed to friends and family at his memorial service), served as the starting point for this work. Over the course of three days, I propagated a small sample of the culture into a large, lively, aromatic mass. During this time, I tended to the flour, yeast, and water a few times a day, checking the humidity, ensuring the microbial community had enough to eat, and documenting my movements in time-lapse imagery. I felt, at times, as if I were tending Gigi’s gravesite, trimming grass and flicking away pebbles, but also caring for new life, a midwife to Gigi’s offspring. By the third day, the gallery space smelled both sour and sweet—that unique aroma of fermenting complex sugars that stimulates salivary glands and reminds bread makers of the life-death cycles inherent to collaborations with yeast. The embryonic lump of starter that I had brought with me was now many dozens of times larger, bubbling and burping like a giddy newborn. I divided the mass into seventy small mason jars and then left them available for collection by the conference participants. In so doing, my intent was to have the ‘audience’ of this work incorporate both the starter (in the eventual form of bread) and the humanism of my late friend (through absorption of my story about him). Gigi’s own bodily yeast cells, having in life been in continual exchange with those in the sourdough culture, thus became agents of his continued existence.

The third iteration of GIY merged with Ecstasies of Influence (E°I), a collaboration with composer-conductor-scholar Sandeep Bhagwati and the Ensemble Ekstasis in Montreal, QC. E°I explored the ‘translation’ of different types of artistic practice into musical composition and performance. Over the course of four months, eight musicians and I ‘rehearsed’ in a series of exploratory sessions, each riffing on the key themes of ecology and improvisation. Food offerings served to prompt the group in various directions. Initially, these were based on Gigi’s starter, including freshly baked bread, sweet-salty cookies, and kvass (a fermented beverage made with old bread). Later, we moved on to ‘skins’ made from agar agar, caramels dusted with a range of spicy, pungent, and acrid powders, and fatty pastes and sharp liquids made from edible stuff that wasn’t quite eatable. The tastes and smells and textures that filled the black-box rehearsal space translated into sounds and movement and affect. But they also brought increasing awareness to the materiality of the musicians’ own instruments—the exotic woods and rare metals of a cello, the cold and sharp elements of found percussion devices, the saliva and sweat of a vocalist’s body. At the final ‘un-concert’, we came back to this sensoriality, as each performer spoke of their instrument and its ecologies, both material and social. We then assembled a giant angklung, an Indonesian percussion instrument made of tuned bamboo pieces. We were silent, we were raucous; we played in light, we sat in dark. From a small, raised platform, I distributed new food offerings to each musician, to be incorporated—or not—into their continuing performance. These offerings took form as my material interpretations of our relationality, sometimes riffing on rehearsal foods, sometimes drawing inspiration from a different moment during the previous four months. A final gesture—tossing a paper-wrapped loaf of Gigi-bread toward Sandeep—closed the piece. Afterward, the loaf was shared with the audience, each person tearing off a piece, inhaling its aromas, and then chewing and swallowing thoughtfully.


The iterative nature of GIY has allowed for a sequential layering of meaning and action to take place, creating opportunities for both artist and audience. As the artist-researcher, I have new ideas about using smell and touch as forms of ethnographic reporting; I also now take up fermenting as both a theoretical framework about collaboration and power relations, as well as an activity for doing public scholarship and social engagement. For the audience, I believe that the melding of ideas and matter enriched their aesthetic experience, enabling more varied perceptions and interpretations of life and death, as well as their own humanness. Through taste and touch, reflection and speculation, these witnesses were able to travel backward and forward in time: back to the moments when Gigi was still alive, critical, loving, and loved; and forward to moments yet to come, when they themselves will have become memories and enactments of celebration by those who mourn them.

As an academic with training in physical and biological sciences, I acknowledge that over the years that I have fed and re-used Gigi’s starter, it is unlikely that any of ‘his’ yeast’s offspring remain in my mason jars. Yet I also know the capacity and limitations of science to assess this (un)likelihood, as well as the tools and theories that might be deployed in doing so. As an artist with practice in speculation and philosophy, I recognize that the truths put forward by scientific frameworks can tend to obfuscate those other truths that we acquire through our senses, through our affective natures, and through our faith in the imaginary. I know how such agencies have brought about many kinds of knowledge since before the dawn of cool reasoning, and that wondering about the world is a meaningful and legitimate form of investigation. And, as a practitioner of research-creation, I have learned how to hold both of these kinds of ‘truth’ as true, even as they might conflict with one another. In their disconnects and interferences, there are knowledges to be unearthed.

The second iteration of GIY was produced at Capital Fringe, an arts festival that spanned numerous locations in Washington DC during July 2015. Over the course of a ten-day run, I gave up to thirty-five nightly one-on-one micro-performances. The score addressed Gigi and his anti-bullshit attitude when it came to food, as well as the dynamic exchanges that constitute human microbiomes and thus our very existence. The material aspects of my staging, however, evoked the co-nurturing relationship of humans, food, space, and environment. A nest-like shelter of canvas, cushions, and cord formed a stage that was both private and public, intimate enough for a quiet story and yet open to the public square around it. Smelling a large glass jar loaded with pieces of bread made with Gigi’s starter began each performance. This was followed by a prompt that the audience-participant eat a small piece. As they chewed and listened, I recounted Gigi’s love of coffee and calcio (football) and enacted some of his distinctive gestures. I rubbed the skin of my forearms and spoke of the microbes living in and on us; I invoked the co-creation of life by human and non-human beings. Then, as I spoke about Gigi’s eventual death, I painted my palm with the sticky yeast paste and held it toward the person in front of me. In all but one case, the audience member allowed me to clasp their hand in mine, creating a haptic, material, and affective bond—and a direct transfer of the starter’s Gigi-ness onto their skin. As a final gesture, I invited each participant to wipe their now slightly crusty hand on the canvas wall around us, layering a mixed microbial print onto the surrounding environment.