On Sunday 15th February I held the Brown Food Afternoon, an event to celebrate the closing of my Showflat exhibition The Sky is Always Blue, The Grass is Always Green. With the help of assistants I served a wide selection of Brown Food, of the kind featured on my Pie Napkin drawings (see below for images). I’ve been interested in this kind of food for some time – the appeal of the way it looks, both ugly and enticing at the same time, and the myths, judgements and emotions associated with it – particularly the demonic aspect it has been given. There has been some debate during the exhibition exactly what Brown Food is, and it has been interpreted in a number of ways. What I mean by Brown Food is all those deep fried, crispy, crusty, pastry type foods – pies, puffs, slices, pasties….foods that I see itemised on posters in the windows of chicken shacks/cottages, in thumb-nail images on pizza menus pushed through my door (the non-pizza extras – wedges, twizzlers, bites), kept hot in window displays, slowly drying out. Researching and preparing for the Brown Food Afternoon involved seeking out these foods that I have passed by on the street, glanced at in windows, strolled past in the supermarket isle, sniffed on the air near the bakers.
My research opened up a whole new world of Brown Food to me. The task of selecting and purchasing it became never-ending and enormous. Extra categories of brown food came to mind and presented themselves – searching for the Curry Puff in China town I remembered, and diverted to, a whole category of my favourite kind of Brown Food – the Bun – plain, stuffed, sweet and savoury available in the Chinese Bakers…which led me to the Plan Donut and Deep Fried Dough. I encountered Hybrid forms – the Chicken Balti Pie; and miniature and gargantuan versions - the Giant Cornish Pasty and Mini Cornish Pasties. I didn’t even get to samosas or bhajis, for which a case could be argued as Brown Food, before I was over laden. Nor did I begin home-baking my own Brown Food. Shopping in Tesco's I filled my trolley with high-fat high-calorie pastry meaty greasy foods without guilt or fear of judgement from fellow shoppers – I enjoyed my mental evocation of their thoughts (‘does she really eat so much junk? Why isn’t she enormous? She must be a pig! She eats a lot of pies, doesn’t she?). I enquired in Gregg’s at 4pm if they would have hot pasties in the morning – at this time in the afternoon the shelves were bare, save a lone cheese pasty. When I returned I witnessed a heated, drunken/insane outburst from the customer ahead of me who wanted his sausage roll PIPING hot, not just hot, but hot how he liked it. My house was full of dozens of different Brown Foods, which I itemised with cocktail stick label flags.
On the afternoon we served the food to guests in a gradual stream. It became difficult for the cook to continue after a point, as the quantity of this ‘demonic’ food became overwhelming. I also laid out a selection of takeaway menus, which I have collected over a number of years after they were posted through my letterbox. There were several items and types of food that I have been intrigued by - twizzlers, cheesy bites, and especially cheesy stuffed crust. We ordered a selection from several of the menus. I found the guests enjoyed sampling the wide variety of foods, from a seemingly narrow category. Some food was truly delicious – I particularly enjoyed the Steak and Stilton Pasty. Often though it was a matter of personal preference. A Custard Bun was a hit with one guest. An addition of some homemade Brown Food, which was more experimental - using beetroot and almond to fill pies and pastry puffs – was popular, especially as it was seen as a healthy counterpoint. There were two big party pieces, which really drew a crowd to the table, both ordered in: the Tex Mex Platter – a box into which had been dumped wedges, nuggets, breaded mozzarella etc; and the cheesy stuffed crust margherita pizza – a huge flat glistening disk with a sculptural, intricate frilled edge of cheesy crust.
The Brown Food Afternoon was an opportunity to eat foods which I had previously only looked at in windows or on menus and never really considered eating, almost like they were an alien substance, and the ordering–in an alien procedure, a strange abstract game. Eating was a different way to relate to these items, than the looking which is the general way we experience them on menus, posters and in window displays; it questioned the negative image that some of these foods currently have as high fat or junk food, and enabled the guests to judge for themselves whether they liked the food, based on its taste and look. It was a chance to try foods with a different rationale for choosing them – being Brown – not for being healthy, or from habit, or convenience, or compulsion. It was also a chance to share favourite foods with a new audience – my predilection for Buns - and to celebrate foods that have a long and continuing tradition in the daily menu. Some of it was delicious, and some disgusting, I found.
After the Brown Food event normal shopping for food was changed for me – food didn’t look the same anymore, somehow it all looked more alike, like so much ‘stuff’, it had lost its sheen, mystique or enticement…maybe I had banished the Pie Demons, or the mass purchasing of one category of foodstuff had washed out my impressions…In the days after the Afternoon I discovered more pies and pasties in the fridge and freezer that hadn’t made it to the table. It underlined to me that there is a myriad of varieties of this food type, the inventiveness and permutations possible on this food theme. A huge amount of effort and time goes into the selling and consuming of small brown food items, testament to the lure this food has for us, despite the demonising imperatives against it.