Saint-Étienne edition 🇫🇷
In early April, The Soft Protest, Digest was invited by the research department of the french design institute of Saint-Étienne “The cité du design of Saint-Étienne” (part of the UNESCO creative cities network) to participate in a series of talks around the principles of “negotiation” for the 2019 design Biennale.
Negotiation being a central process involved in the design of both environmentally resilient and culturally dishes and diets, The Soft Protest, Digest answered to the invitation with much interest.
The presentation was split in 4 stages:
- An introduction to the collective’s concept of cultural and environmental resilience. (see speech below)
- The evaluation of a local dish “Le pâté chaud”, through the use of the 2nd temporary version of the collective’s evaluation tool. (see video link below)
- The evaluation of “Le Tissé Chaud”, a resilient version of the local “pâté chaud”, designed by the collective for the talk.
- A collective tasting of le “Le Tissé Chaud”.
“Le Tissé Chaud” was thought as the resilient version of a local dish “Le pâté chaud”. The traditional version indeed called on the use of liver, eggs, dairy, olives and tomato, which may be very dear to the residents of the region but questionable in terms of sustainability in the spring. The collective thus decided to work on a spring version of the dish which would take into account: the season, the local producers and the cultural landscape.
Application of the evaluation tool (temp version v.2)
Transcript of the speech
“Good afternoon everybody. Thank you for coming and gathering around this round table. As you know, this is a negotiating table, so today we will negotiate. More precisely, we will demonstrate the negotiating process involved in the creation of a dish which could play a part in helping to restore the health of the earth. This may sound a bit far reached but we believe that an environmentally conscious community of cooks (we are all house cooks aren’t we? We may not have a chef diploma but we train two to three times a day, everyday), a community of cooks that is well intentioned can, by working together, play more than an active role in restoring the health of the planet.
But first, we should introduce ourselves so you can understand who we are and how we came about to believe in the fact that we can, together, have a concrete impact on the earth, through cooking.
“The Soft Protest, Digest” is a research collective involving Nickie Sigurdsson who comes from Denmark, she is a designer and researcher in agriculture (she has studied and worked in various farms in the Nordics and France). She recently moved to Paris to work alongside Adel Cersaque, a studio which involves Robin Bantigny (who is a designer and a researcher focusing mainly on food production) and Jérémie Rentien Lando, now based in the Netherlands who is also a designer and a researcher focusing mainly on food history. So how did we came about to focus our research on this subject? It actually started a year and a half ago, in a time when we would together actively discuss our worries towards climate change and our difficulty to know what we could do about it and which diet to follow (note: vegetarian, vegan, pesceterian, felxitarian). Robin, who was living in France would rarely eat meat, Jérémie was turning full vegetarian and Nickie who was in a farm context would eat exclusively seasonal products and, occasionally, the meat of wild local animals. We started to research and compare the actual effects of each of our diets and we realized that there was not “one answer” but multiple, which depended on the region we lived in. But was coming to that realization enough? It was a concrete answer which actually triggered even more questions. How can we know what our region calls on for? Is eating meat always a bad thing? Isn’t buying organic products enough? These were questions which involved digging into each and every part of the food chain. So we decided to come together and form a research collective which would dedicate its time tackling altogether: the history of food, the history of agriculture as well as the social and political ties involved today in the production of a food culture in order to formulate answers which could help make sense of this overwhelmingly complex subject. It is thanks to this research that we can today see the outline of a sort of diet, a diet which is not a set solution, a diet which has to evolve, to follow the seasons and the evolution of our food systems, a diet which needs to be constantly negotiated. We call it: an environmentally and culturally resilient diet.
So what does a resilient diet mean?
As the word “resilience” is the cornerstone of our thinking, let’s clarify what we mean by it: Broadly speaking, resilience means the capacity for an organism to overcome a crisis, to go back to its former state, as well as remembering how it came to overcome this very crisis in order to be able to intelligently deal with it in the case it would happen again. A forest, for example can come close to having a resilient system. By gathering a multitude of plants and organisms, a forest forms an ecology which can work together to overcome crises. To give one example: the mycelium mushrooms which are connected to the roots of trees will, in case of drought for instance, tell the tree to develop its roots in a specific direction in order for it to find water.
So how can a diet be environmentally resilient?
The current food system we are in is too demanding on the environment, that is a given. By buying exclusively organic products we can therefore have a sustainable approach to the environment, have a minimum impact, even a 0% impact. We believe however that having a sustainable approach is not enough in a time when climate change is in a state of exponential crisis. Indeed, we believe that we have to approach food in a resilient manner, meaning that by the choices we make of the ingredients we buy and use we can not only have a 0% impact on the environment but a lasting positive impact on it. Having an environmentally resilient diet means therefore put our efforts on guaranteeing the health of the earth rather than to focus on our own health. But we strongly believe that whatever might be good for the earth is, by extension, good for humans.
So what are those choices we have to make? We all know that meat production has a tremendous impact on the environment for instance. That is one of the reasons why many people turn to veganism. The western vegan diet which calls on the use of products such as coconut oil to replace cow butter, nuts, avocados, tomatoes, you name it) — this diet does not involve animal products, in any way, sure. All of these ingredients can even be bought in good organic shops. However, if you follow this diet in France in autumn or winter, a big percentage of these products will be coming from overseas. Coconut oil, for example will be coming from south america by plane or boat. Tomatoes and avocados will most likely be grown in southern Europe, in greenhouses, calling on the use of tremendous quantities of water and electricity. All of these products have a heavy CO2 print. And if you research and compare the CO2 print of a dish containing all of these ingredients to having one steak made out from an organic french beef, grazed responsibly on grass a few kilometers away from your Saint-Étienne for example: we see that, in terms of carbon, the meat will win over the vegan dish. And this steak will even do more than save Carbon. The grass that the cow will have eaten will even be transformed in manure that will not only disintegrate but actually add to the life of the soil.
We can see with this example that for a dish to be environmentally resilient many factors come into play: what kind of product is it using? Is it locally grown? Is it seasonal? Does it call on the use of a lot of water, of electricity, of pesticides? Does it have to shipped or flown to you? But also, does this product can restore the life the soil? Can it contribute to healthy ecosystems that can last in time?
We must answer these questions. Therefore we have designed a tool to evaluate and grade the resiliency of products of a given area. This tool, as is our resilient diet, is also not set answer. It is a tool which is still in development and that must evolve. So we will be showing it to you today in the hope to get your feedback. The idea is, in the future, to open source it for the residents of a region in order for them to build an evoluting data base of local products, producers and dishes in order to consume resiliently, as a community, without having to go through hours of research while shopping at the market or cooking in the kitchen. We are not working alone however, farmers are too. We have the power, as consumers, to support and influence what local farmers produce, and will produce as well as the ecosystems they work on. We have seen successful examples of this in the nordic region. Therefore, in order to see this change happen in our regions, we need to do our research collectively, build and share knowledge, so that we can have a strong and lasting impact on the current systems.
Now we have established that an environmentally resilient choice of ingredients may be conceivable, now we need to think of it in terms of a diet. To follow a resilient diet means that we need to be able to eat resiliently, throughout time. Take a burger made only with only resilient ingredients. If this burger was delicious, beautiful and advertised as a environmentally friendly burger, this burger could today become a fashionable street food item. This sounds pretty great but what will happen to this dish if the burger trend ends? Burgers are everywhere nowadays, but say in twenty years, what if burgers are not seen as cool anymore? Our burger may well disappear! And its benefits on the environment too. To that end, we believe that environmentally resilient dishes also have to be culturally resilient. They have to implement themselves in the cultural landscape of the area and make sense for its inhabitants. This may rely on its shape, but we believe that it also relies on its storytelling. That may well be the reason why the burger hype could end, it is a dish which does not share a story with our regions. Many dishes, like the “Tarte Tatin” of the Tatin sisters or the “Chantilly” of Vatel rely on stories which are completely made up (the “Tarte Tatin” was not actually a mistake, we can’t even prove that Vatel ever cooked a dish) but they still add an emotional value to it: it is simply what we call “branding”, and it works: these dishes are still eaten today, and the stories are still told for the occasion.
So how do proceed? Can we just make up stories?
Since September 2018, as part of our “Nederland edition”, we have been testing out various ways of linking a story to a dish, focusing on one region: North Holland. Here are a two examples:
1. By making a dish the illustration of an historical episode:
This is the process we followed with the “Puffed potato haring”. Being quite to vulnerable to diseases, the potato is not such a resilient crop. The fries being very dear to the dutch, the solution could not have been to ask the dutch to altogether stop eating fries for the sake of the environment. We therefore needed to find a way to create fries which would call on the use of less potatoes. That is where the puffed potato comes in. A technic which asks for 4 times less potato as it fill the frite with air. We thus needed a story to make our alternative dish seductive to the public: why would the dutch go for potatoes filled with air? We dug in the history of the frite to find a solution, and we found a Belgian legend which said that “the poorest inhabitants of Namur (which was part of the Netherlands), used to fish in the nearby river, to fry the smallest, inexpensive fishes and to eat them warm and whole. But when the winter ice made it impossible to fish, the poor fish fryers started to cut up potatoes in the shape of small fishes, fry them, and serve them as is.” By shaping the puffed potatoes in the shape of a little fishes and equipping it with a story, the dutch could therefore draw the link between this new frite and their national history.
2. By making up a story from the ground up and pass it off as genuine.
This is the process we followed for the design of the “Lunetten kroket”. The idea of this dish was to swap the bad quality meat used in the famous dutch Kroket for a more resilient ingredient. After much research the ingredient we chose was the cauliflower. However, for the dutch to seriously consider going for a cauliflower kroket, rather than the traditional meat one, we needed a good reason. We thus decided to make the dutch believe that our cauliflower kroket was as traditional as the meat one. We therefore invented its story drawing our inspiration from the “cauliflower neighborhood” which was an urban experiment tried out by the dutch in the 70s, before spreading accros many cities. It was built in the shape of the curved florets of the cauliflower. Turning fact into fiction, we narrated the made up story of the cauliflower kroket which would have been served as a promotional gift to public of the opening of the first cauliflower neighborhood, in the town of Lunetten. And again, many of the spectators we offered it to, were pleasantly surprised and wondered why this delicious recipe had disappeared before we came to shine the light on it. Thanks to the story, the cauliflower kroket may now maybe become a new dutch dish.
So these are examples on how to questions the traditional ingredients currently used in regional dishes and how to re-design their stories. What we will demonstrate now is the process and the negotiation involved in the creation of a resilient dish. For this demonstration we have chosen to inspire ourselves from a typical dish from Saint-Étienne: the Pâté chaud. It involves: A liver cake (often placed in a vol-au-vent made out of puff pastry) and quenelles bathing in a tomato sauce made out of concentrated tomatoes and olives. Very few dishes can be eaten all year long. This Lunetten kroket we talked about was a winter dish which called on the use of cauliflower, which doesn’t really grow in the summer. So the cauliflower would have to be swapped with another vegetable. The pâté chaud is in the same way, a seasonal dish, it calls on the use of tomato and olives and is not in tune with the period we are in. We thus decided to work on a spring pâté chaud which we called: “Le Tissé chaud”. And it is the making of it that what we will demonstrate to you now.
Here are 3 possible narratives which could be linked to our dish.
Le tissé chaud
From the 15th to the 20th century, female workers of the silk industry were swallowing the eggs of silk worms in order to help them germinate in their warm stomach. In order to help with the ingesting, they would combine the eggs with a mixture made out of pureed parsnip (which was one of the cheapest vegetable then). For a few days, they would go through a sort of fast, quitting meat and dairy to make their stomach a less acidic environment. The main thing they would eat was a soup, made out of spinach (a heavy source of nutrients).
Le pâté chaud
This other narrative is here based on the ascertainment that the title of the recipe can also be the recipient of a concept which can evolve in time. The “quenelle”, for example, is now also used to describe a shape. You can make a quenelle out of ice-cream, purée, mousse, etc. We can therefore translate the pâté chaud to our own liking by adding a new meaning to each of its components. If the taste is as convincing as our new definition, it might stick. The vol-au-vent, implies lightness and fragility: ergo our transparent brick. It is also surprising to find a red “turtle sauce” in the original pâté chaud. If you think turtle sauce, you do visualize a green sauce: ergo our spinach sauce.
Soupe en bricks
The narrative of this dish could also be told in such a way that it would allow the residents of Saint-Étienne to push the regional food industry to give shape to the near future they collectively desire. The narrative, here, would therefore be the embodiment of different evolutions the stephanois wish to see happen in Saint-Étienne’s food culture. First, the diminution of animal based products (in our case: no use of meat nor eggs). Second, the end of the concept of “cultural clash”, which marginalizes people of middle eastern origins or culture from the french population. This dish would, therefore, be the illustration of a near future, in which french food culture would have digested its diverse influences to the point where bricks would simply be considered as “a bread” in opposition to “an oriental bread”. Third, by using a title which does not reference any specific ingredient (a soup, a brick), the dish could become the vessel of many products — products which could be swapped, following the seasons and the right evolution of the region’s agriculture. If the Soupe en bricks was to become a fashionable dish, it could therefore contribute to this evolution.”
- The “Pâté chaud” traditionally consists of “quenelles” (poached choux pastry often mixed with fish puree) served with a creamy tomato sauce, to which can be added olives and mushrooms, usually accompanying a liver cake (with a flan like texture)