Would You Eat Cheese Made From Heston Blumenthal's Pubic Hair? V&A Takes A Sustainable Look At Food
You are what you eat, goes the saying. But do we even know what's on our plate half the time? With an increased social focus on ethical eating, and the sustainability of a plant-based diet, the V&A's foodie blockbuster is perfectly timed.
The industrial scale of food manufacture and processing in the 21st century is almost too vast to comprehend. One of Food: Bigger than the Plate's triumphs is its ability to simmer things down to a personal level. We see the journey of one banana from Ecuador to Iceland — it has its own passport and everything. Another type of journey sees every last bit of one cow made use of: meat, a handbag, shoes bearing its distinctive hide.
But we're not spared the stomach-churning truths of a food chain that's been grossly tampered with since the second world war. Chickens are endlessly lined up to slaughter in a machine that can only be described as a cross between the brushes in a car wash and those transportation tubes from Futurama. What we've become since the Chicken of the Future competition in 1948 created a meatier bird, is sometimes enough to make you consider going vegan. At the least, it'll make you feel horribly complicit.
If you're squeamish, better buckle up: the river of cow manure sliding by is like some twisted farmyard version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. It's a good news story though; Merdacotta's ingenious transformation of dung into toilets. They turn it into table tableware, too. I am left wondering whether I'd eat crisps off a plate made from poo. Then again, a wine bottle and label made from grapes and vines, and Julian Lechner's reusable coffee mugs made from used coffee grounds? That's pretty smart.
Positive innovation abounds in a show that eggs us on towards a more sustainable future. Maps of London pinpoint where you can pick up fallen fruit. A flushless toilet could make a massive impact in countries where clean water is scarce. There's a chance to feel leather made from pineapple leaves; this could easily do the job without needing to kill any animals.
The hands-on approach continues with the chance to try a canape based on a questionnaire. I choose 'cutting edge, protein-rich and delicious', and receive a mayo and mycoprotein combo. It's gimmicky, but it serves a point; all the food on the cracker is locally sourced — you can often get what you need on your doorstep. More gimmicky still are the wheels of cheese formed from celebrity bacteria. We doubt the compte made from Heston's nostrils and pubic hair will end up on this year's M&S Christmas ads. But what a delightfully disturbing idea.
A highlight is Koen Vanmechelen's cross-breeding of chickens from different countries. It's a push back on the farming community that selectively breeds chickens to meet a market requirement (we're all still eating the descendants of that Chicken of the Future). Vanmechelen has mapped out family trees and genetic codes; it's impossible not to draw parallels with humanity and the mixing of our cultures and genes.
'What we eat is one of the most important decisions we make every day,' reads an opening gambit of the show. My immediate thought: "Do I remember what I last ate, other than the fact I probably bought it from Pret? And is that really good enough?"
This is a show that will stick with you, encouraging you to interrogate why you eat what you do, rather than scarfing it down and getting back to work. Tough to stomach at times, it's vital that we face these unpalatable truths — in order to start cleaning up some of the mess we've created.
Food: Bigger than the Plate is on at V&A, 18 May-20 October. Tickets are £17 for adults.
Last Updated 16 May 2019