Text: Danielle Wilde

Increasingly, design researchers and their fellow travellers are coalescing around the sticky subject of food. They often come to the table with different tastes, priorities, cultural backgrounds and experiences. What they share is a commitment to commensality – fellowship at the table. Food is a fundamental human-material practice. Eating is necessary for life. Eating together enables people to forge social bonds, learn and consolidate culture – as individuals, families, social units – as a species. Eating at once shapes, and connects us with, who we are.

In this cookbook, we use experimental design research methods to activate food as a research subject, object, context; and as tangible bio-design material. Our objective is to imagine societal transformation collectively, and thereby better understand how to support profound and meaningful change. A cookbook is a traditional format. Personal cookbooks may be incomplete, hand-crafted, messy. They reflect the lives of their owners. Often humble, pragmatic instruments at their origins, they evolve with experience and use. In their fullness, they may contain trace efforts of joys, disappointments, wild interpretations, sadness, silliness, boredom, fun. Food is all of these things and through its nature, makes visible our place in the web of life.

We live in uncertain, urgent times. The recipes in this cookbook posit food as a powerful catalyst for change. They are not alone in doing so. EAT Lancet tells us: food is the single most robust lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on Earth (Willet et al. 2019). The human food system impacts all 17 of the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals and all nine planetary boundaries (Steffen et al., 2015). Currently, it is damaging both people and the planet. In intergovernmental reports on sustainability, climate change, biodiversity collapse and more, sobering statistics and grim projections make clear we must transform how we live. It follows that we must transform how we design. Victor Papanek (1972) stressed long ago that design is at the root of so many of the problems we face today. However, Design can also help us to respond constructively to issues; to re-infrastructure, as we reexamine our relationships within the web of life.

Design’s capacity for world-making can open up new imaginaries; enable people to interrogate their relationships and practices, envision the change they want to see.

The imaginaries in this cookbook are tasty gestures towards this world-making journey. During the workshops, the authors engaged in carefully designed, densely packed processes, and ate their way towards new understandings of human interactions in the world. Unlike recipes, the resulting imaginaries are not instruction sets. Instead, they are provocations—material, social, legislative, socio-technical and ecological invitations that reflect emerging commitments across the research landscape.

Obsessions with food unfold on our screens; world-leading chefs are livingroom gods; amateurs strut alongside them. Locked inside our houses during COVID-19, the privileged mimic the less-so, making sourdough, pickles and ferments. It seems easy for those in the Global North to occlude other understandings of issues. But we cannot allow this to happen. The food system is shaping our todays and our tomorrows. Food is sensual and meaningful; can be cheeky and fun, as well as nutritious (or not). The ideas herein reflect that heterogeneity. They propose the ubiquity of food to create space for other voices. As Levinas tells us “Knowledge requires … an openness to something new, something foreign, something totally other beyond the self.” (Levinas, 1979). Please enjoy our tasting menu.

Cited resources:

Levinas, E. (1979). Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority (Vol. 1). Springer Science & Business Media.

Papanek, V. (1972). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change Thames and Hudson London.

Steffen, W. et al. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), 1259855.

Willett, W. et al. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet (London, England), 393(10170), 447–492.