The Sounds of Food: Defamiliarization and the Blinding of Taste
The first course was a soup in which pieces of undisguised and unabashed gristle floated in a mud-colored sauce whose texture and temperature were powerfully reminiscent of mucus. Then a steaming vat was placed in the middle of the table, where the jowly, watch-chained headmaster presided. He plunged his serving arm into the vessel and emerged with a ladleful of hot food, steaming like fresh horse dung on a cold morning. For a heady moment I thought I was going to be sick. A plate of […] cottage pie – the mince grey, the potato beige – was set in front of me. (John Lanchester 1996: 11)
John Lanchester’s description is shocking, brutal, and corporeal. Most senses are activated through the associations triggered by gristle, mucus, jowls, and horse dung. However, the sensory experience absent in this evocative presentation of food is the auditory. Lanchester is not alone in muting the volume in food writing. The sonic artefact and exegesis that are presented in this article prioritize the sounds of food, temporarily closing the metaphorical eyes of eating. Intentionally, the non-eating sounds of the digital and analogue interplay around obtaining and preparing food are summoned. This is an artificial process, well suited to creative-led research (Laing and Brabazon 2007). Food consumption is a multisensory experience. Eyes tumble over plates, locating shapes and colors (Plates 2017). Tongues gather information about bitterness, saltiness or sweetness. The feel of cutlery or glass between our fingers signifies class. The smell of bread, coffee – or decaying fish – signifies freshness, danger or unpleasantness (Shepherd 2013). However, the visual dominates. There is an empire of the senses (Howes 2005). Betty Fussell even argued that “food is always image and icon as well as substance” (Marranca 2003: 244). She did not state that food is always sound. Sound is attendant to vision and suppliant to it.
To research the sound of food requires some unusual methods, approaches, and theories. Recognizing this, a significant research note should be made at this point. There are two parts to this creative-led research: the sonic artefact and this exegesis. These two parts are tethered to and dependent on each other. One component does not make sense without the other. The incompleteness of each, individually, is part of the argument. I align food studies and sound studies through theorizations of multimodality. Yet, as Gunther Kress has confirmed, “multimodality can tell us what modes are used: it cannot tell us about this different style; it has no means to tell us what the difference might mean” (Kress 2010: 1). The flattening of power relationships generated through the production of digital artefacts and the communities that may form around their dissemination, which I contend produce “The Google Effect” (Brabazon 2008), influence the relationships between analogue sensory signifiers and digital signifieds. Often creating texts that float in digi-space and time, resulting in disintermediation and deterritorialization, I remain interested in working with what Kress describes as, “the social embeddedness of signs and sign-making practices” (Kress 2010: 69).
When employing visual sources, these elements of embeddedness operate more self-sufficiently, thanks to the shared visuality of images and words, which enables a tighter alignment between signifiers and signifieds. The cliché is inaccurate but pervasive: seeing is believing. Also, meaning is more easily constituted when moving from one visual source (photographs or film) to another (letters and words on a page or screen) due to the common instructional tactics of institutionalized education in schools and universities, with knowledge delivered through print and images. The goal of my project is to problematize – through defamiliarization – any easy, assumed, and experiential response to sonic sources framing food. Therefore, my artefact is not an autonomous sonic documentary and is indeed incomplete without this exegesis. It is not auto-ethnographic, even though Manovski’s research (2014) demonstrates the profound value of this method. More an oral history of the “dead,” ignored, and unrecorded geographies around food, I draw upon the field of accidental sounds – sounds without narrative, consequence, power or longevity – and make a first attempt at interpreting the diffidently, ambivalently accidental. Further, the mode of writing in this exegesis is dependent on the spaces created in the sonic artefact. The writing is configured by the imperatives of creative-led research: to generate new knowledge through the production of meaning through media. This mode of interpretation and scholarship was not presented in a key book of writing about food, Dianne Jacob’s Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir and More (2005). An exegesis is much more reliant on research protocols and is a distinct form of food writing (Brabazon 2011). Even though food writing is burgeoning, it has not substantially intersected with the field of sonic scholarship and is thus undertheorized and under-discussed. This artefact and exegesis offers a pathway into this paradigm.
A key question is how scholars research the sound of food. There are many such pathways to scholarship via popular culture, many captured on Sound Cloud, including podcasts such as Thought for Food (2017), found sounds and food storytelling (Vaz Moço 2013). Entering sonic semiotics, interpreting the spaces between signifier and signifieds, is more dispersed and ambiguous than in visual semiotics. Additionally, so much of formal and compulsory education is founded on visual learning from paper and screens. Letters become words. Shapes become meaningful. Sound is flighty. Sound is darkly ambiguous. When presented on a platform of meaning saturated with other senses – such as taste and vision – food sounds were and are a source of humor. The sounds of food were the basis of an April Fool’s Day prank by the microphone company, RØDE. Promoting via YouTube their Cuisine Condenser Microphone, the sound geek featured in the video proceeded to place microphones around plates, earnestly recording the results (RØDE 2017). The resulting comments – with many recognizing the joke and others enthusiastically asking for the release date of the microphone – reveals some of the challenges in researching and disseminating this awkward, ambiguous, unpopular, quirky field of food sounds.
Sound studies is within and attendant to media studies and cultural studies. Too often merged with or dominated by popular music studies, the fields of sonic architecture and sound art offer a key corrective. Yet, with food tourism and gastronomic tourism emerging as interdisciplinary areas of expertise, understanding the semiotic suite of food is important. Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman recognized “the profound effect that each one of our senses has on our perception and enjoyment of food” (Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman 2014: xvii). Here, I test their statement by probing the least theorized sensory engagement with food, cooking, and cuisine: sound and hearing. As flavor is determined through all the senses and a diversity of media platforms, I explore the value of cutting away four of the five senses and probing the relationship between food media and sonic media (Spiegel 2014). Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman advanced through 190 pages of their (outstanding) book exploring the “multisensory science of food and dining” before mentioning “the sound of food.” Describing “this ‘forgotten’ flavor sense’” (2014: 194), they questioned the role of the crunch of chips – or an apple – and “how their dishes sound” (2014: 196). Particularly of interest is what they described as “sensory incongruity” (2014: 218), which described unexpected conflict or misalignment between the senses, the mismatch between expectation and reality.
This article takes “sensory incongruity” as its goal. Working with Viktor Shklovsky’s theorization of defamiliarization or ostranenie (остранение), presented in his 1917 essay “Art as Device,” I am interested in reducing “automatization” and value “disruptions” (Shklovsky 1990: 14). Applied to food sounds, I record the unrecorded sonic events of daily life. Through the recording, the re-playing, and the analysis in this exegesis, I gently tether signifieds to signifiers. With the visual senses and meaning systems blindfolded, I destabilize the visual, tactile, and taste domination of food. I have produced a sonic artifact that textualized three slices of food sound: shopping for groceries, the delivery of food to a domicile, and cooking. These sonic artefacts were not slotted into a convenient narrative of a sonic documentary. They were not staged; they were not sound effects. They were extracted from daily life and experiences. This is a way to demonstrate the value of sound in enabling différance, revealing Jacques Derrida’s two stage system of meaning. Meaning is determined via difference: signs gain their meaning by being different from other signs. But also, and particularly of relevance to sonic media, meaning is also deferred. There is a gap – of experience, expertise, perception, and meaning – between signifier and signified. The deferral creates hesitation, confusion, instability, and unsettles meaning systems (Derrida 1982). This research is positioned in this gap.
The artefact features a voice-over, introducing the sonic texts, but offers few anchoring frames to assist meaning-generation. Framing is a key concept here. An intriguing aspect of sound is that frames and framing do not function as effectively with auditory as with visual communication. Sound bleeds beyond the frame. Each semiotic mode – which is much more intricately constituted than a sensory mode – has a distinct grammar. For sound and sonic media, the frame is a complex concept to apply (Kress and Van Leeuwen 2001). There was a reason to utilize this framing introduction. These sounds were not pleasant or polished for performance. As with the extracts from an anthropologist’s fieldwork journal, they defamiliarize a researcher’s sensory experiences of food. I offer little anchorage and choose not to compile an accompanying digital photo story, which – as always – would have enabled the visual to dominate. Researching food and food media, while subtracting four of our five senses in order to focus on auditory culture, sonic media, hearing, and listening, necessitates a multi-disciplinary study, involving auditory art, aural architecture, sonic media studies, cultural studies, media studies, food studies, sensory anthropology, sociology, history, and education (Jensen 2006: 8). Productive ambiguity emerges. I do not specify to you, the reader, when to listen to the artefact. I do present the sonic link at this point. The reader can pause and transform into a listener. The reader can ignore the link and progress with the exegesis, allowing this visual palette to frame the sounds. The reader can play the artefact while reading, noting that the sounds will soak into or soak up the visual comments being made.