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Tactile temptations explored: Giulia Soldati’s unconventional feasts for the senses

Embark on a captivating exploration of Giulia Soldati’s culinary designs, delving into a spectrum of topics ranging from the historical nuances of table manners to the shifting societal perspectives on nutrition and its implications for food choices and well-being…

Interview: Ecem Arslanay

Giulia Soldati, Scarpetta, Photo: Carla Del Toro

Giulia, a multifaceted freelancer, baker, and visiting professor at UNISG in Pollenzo, Italy, seamlessly intertwines her diverse skill set to craft commissioned and self-initiated projects that transcend conventional boundaries. Her endeavors span from innovative eating experiences to in-depth food research, alongside a passion for handcrafted ceramics and eating tools. Her philosophy revolves around the transformative power of food to foster conviviality and ritual, serving as a catalyst for meaningful dialogue surrounding food politics, social dynamics, and geographical influences.

Central to Giulia’s methodology is the tactile exploration of food, where hands serve as instruments of knowledge. By immersing herself in the sensory experience of touching ingredients, she unveils their rich histories and cultural significance. Her pioneering venture, Contatto Experience, epitomizes this ethos, transcending traditional notions of taste to embrace the profound dimension of touch in culinary culture.

In our dialogue, we delve into the transition from hand-eating traditions to the use of utensils, exploring how societal norms and cultural contexts shape our dining experiences, with a particular focus on local practices such as "mangiamaccheroni" in Naples. We examine Giulia Soldati's deliberate arrangement of elements like olive oil, aiming to redefine their significance and encourage specific gestures at the table. Additionally, we illuminate the site-specificity and immersive nature of her culinary creations, emphasizing their ability to engage all the senses.

Moreover, we navigate the intricate balance between consuming living beings and ethical food choices, considering food as a platform for discussing broader issues like environmental impact and sustainability. Through our conversation, we uncover Giulia's latest artistic practice, which includes ventures into bread baking as a tool for exploring food production and fostering a deeper connection with food.

Giulia Soldati, mangiamaccheroni, Photo: Yen-An Chen

Eating is a performative act, and every culinary ritual possesses its unique choreography. How did you begin to transcend conventional “table manners”? Surely, we all questioned them in our childhood and “played” with food despite criticism, but as a designer, how did you intentionally embark on crafting these unorthodox eating experiences?

I was looking at the objects that create a distance between ourselves and food. Consequently, table manners emerged as these actions were placed in the context of different cultures. My initial idea was to create something inspired by diverse cultures since, in many cultures, hands are used without cutlery or tools. However, when situated in Western cultural society, various table manners come into play. My intention was to establish specific table manners or etiquettes that are connected to the context you find yourself in. What if you lack the objects or elements that create a separation between food and your body? In such cases, would the etiquettes differ from the table manners we are accustomed to, and under what circumstances? Exploring these aspects was intriguing because it all depends on the context.

In discussing cultural table manners, I would like to delve into your project concerning the historical practice of mangiamaccheroni. In the 1700s, it was common for people in Naples to eat pasta directly with their hands. How might this cultural practice have transitioned to the use of forks?

During that period, a fascinating aspect was the absence of cutlery, such as forks, in daily life. People likely used bowls for their meals, spoons for liquids, and hunting knives, but forks were not yet part of the culinary repertoire. This lack of forks adds intrigue to observing the mangiamaccheroni, especially considering that spaghetti, which is often associated with forks, was originally consumed with hands. Travelers from Europe, particularly those on the Grand Tour, found it captivating to witness how locals twirled spaghetti around their fingers. How forks became widespread is an interesting question on our social evolution through culture, considering factors such as cleanliness. It could be related to the desire to distance ourselves from poverty or to establish distinct boundaries between what is considered cultural and what is not. The introduction of utensils might be connected to the concept of cleanliness, becoming a symbol of culture, intellectuality, or social status.

"The primal approach to food is often viewed as not serious, yet, for me, it represents a genuine engagement with our senses."

Eating with hands can also be considered playful. Do you think that the diminishing presence of the “play” element in modern society has any notable consequences for our collective well-being and creativity? Are you able to incorporate these playful table manners into your daily practice for a more enriched human experience?

I never explicitly stated my intention to infuse play into the eating moment. The primal approach to food is often viewed as not serious, yet, for me, it represents a genuine engagement with our senses. The inclination for such experiences stems from our perception of what we deem serious or not. It's intriguing to observe how we feel the need for an excuse or an explanation for a playful dining experience. While I typically use utensils, if the mood strikes me to eat with my hands, I'll do so, even in a restaurant. The most captivating aspect lies in observing others' reactions. While I predominantly use a fork, there are times when eating with hands feels more fitting, depending on the type of food.

Giulia Soldati, mangiamaccheroni, Photo: Yen-An Chen

How do you discern between utilizing a fork and embracing the tactile experience of eating with your hands? What factors influence this choice, reflecting the nuanced considerations that guide your dining preferences?

At times, the decision is instinctual—an inclination to embrace the texture of a salad with bare hands, as the need for a fork seems superfluous. Opting to break, rather than cut, certain foods can enhance the overall enjoyment, influenced by the warmth and tactile sensations elicited by specific culinary experiences. This choice is devoid of rigid rules; rather, it is a manifestation of personal preferences. In a conversation with an Indian friend, I discovered a contrasting perspective. For them, eating certain foods with hands was not just a preference but a strict adherence. I, on the other hand, do not assert a stringent stance, finding delight in the diverse ways one can engage with food.

In the realm of gastronomy, the tactile dimension often takes a backseat to the dominance of taste and vision. How crucial do you consider the tactile quality of food, and do you prioritize it alongside taste and visual aesthetics in your design approach? Also, how much weight do you give to the auditory aspect, considering, for instance, the satisfying crunch of chips? How do sound elements contribute to the overall enjoyment of certain foods in your design considerations? 

The tactile quality of food, for me, surpasses taste and visual aesthetics. It adds another layer to the dining experience. Typically, using utensils provides a certain kind of information about food through taste and visual aesthetics. However, the immediate sensory engagement that touch offers is unparalleled. The skin, with its numerous nerve endings, becomes a highly stimulated medium, a powerful and immediate tool for knowledge. Children, for instance, instinctively reach out to touch as their initial exploration, emphasizing touch as a primal and potent sense.

In my perspective, starting with other senses can also yield substantial information—seeing, tasting—yet touch adds a more personal and immediate layer of information and sensation. This physical proximity provokes emotions and feelings, making tactile sensations crucial. Without touch, a distancing effect occurs, not just physically but cognitively, creating a separation between oneself and what is in front.

Considering surprise or emotional reactions, I often contemplate how something can “touch” me as a topic. Our existence being comprised of skin underscores the significance of contact in shaping our perception of the external world. Touch, as the primal mode of understanding, enables a deeper exploration of what we consume. Understanding the origins, growers, and broader realities behind each morsel becomes possible through touch, fostering a sense of care not only for the food but also for oneself.

Turning to sound, while not extensively explored, it holds intriguing potential, offering information about the food's quality or materiality. The crunch sound, in particular, adds a layer of pleasure, creating anticipation and enhancing the overall eating experience. Studies also delve into how different senses interact to evoke sensations, a phenomenon not only applicable to eating but also to various aspects of everyday life.

Could you share your personal favorites based on tactile experiences? 

That is indeed a thought-provoking question. One of my favorites is olive oil.

Giulia Soldati, Tera & Feu with spontaneus lab, 2023, Photo: Abril Macias

I observed the distinctive arrangement of a table in your projects, particularly with the linear placement of olive oil. Is this deliberate arrangement intended to function as a starter or hold a specific significance in the dining experience you curate?

Yes, that's a concept I introduced. It aligns with the cultural tradition of the “scarpetta” gesture in Italian, where a piece of bread is used to scrape whatever is left on the plate. While traditionally performed to taste olive oil or similar, it was considered rude in etiquette some years ago. For instance, scraping the last bit in a restaurant might raise eyebrows, as if one is overly hungry. Placing this element at the beginning of a dinner serves to highlight and redefine its significance. It allows for the gesture of scraping to be performed openly, attaching a shared moment to it, often involving bread, which already carries various meanings and rituals. I enjoy playing with these interconnected elements to create a unique dining experience.

"Physical proximity provokes emotions and feelings, making tactile sensations crucial. Without touch, a distancing effect occurs, not just physically but cognitively, creating a separation between oneself and what is in front."

How does your experience as a designer inform your insights on cooking, which is also a performative act that significantly shapes our eating habits and styles? For instance, during your art residency at Masseria Cultura, you baked bread using stones from the area as molds. Can you elaborate more on the testing grounds you explore in cooking and how they influence the eating experience?

Certainly, your question delves into a crucial aspect of my approach to research and exploration, which typically unfolds from two interconnected perspectives. On one hand, there is the design question that initiates the investigation. However, as the process evolves, it encounters the practicalities of cooking and the contextual nuances at play, often intertwined with cultural influences. I find the dynamic interplay between these two elements fascinating, where the context and cooking actions continually shape and inform the design perspective.

Take, for instance, the project at Masseria Cultura. Initially, I intended to explore communal ovens, their role in fostering community and conviviality, and the symbolic significance of bread within this communal space. However, upon arriving, the existing context imposed its limitations. Attempting to transplant an idea conceived elsewhere into this specific locale seemed incongruent. Practicalities surfaced as I grappled with the unfamiliarity of wood-fired ovens and the intense Puglian heat. The evolving process turned into a trial and error endeavor, leading to unexpected outcomes, such as the communal shaping of bread by the unique conditions of the place.

In this project, the specificity of the site, with its heat, local ingredients, and community, shaped the entire experience. The dinner organized in front of the oven, featuring produce from nearby farmers, exemplified the communion of elements that emerged due to the distinct time and place. This sensitivity to the specifics of a location and moment allows for the organic development of ideas, ensuring that each project is deeply entwined with its context.

Giulia Soldati, Contatto Experience, Photo: Carla Del Toro

Is site-specificity always central to your work? 

It is a crucial aspect of my work. The exploration of getting closer to what we eat involves physical proximity but also delves into understanding the broader context—what lies behind the food we consume. Time and space play pivotal roles in these projects, considering the impact of seasons, geographic location, cultural nuances, and accessibility. Each place, each time, has its own unique elements that can influence and define the research. Over the years, I've witnessed a shift in the perception of food, with heightened attention to how and what we eat. Navigating this evolution and understanding the temporal and spatial dimensions becomes integral to crafting meaningful and context-aware projects.

How does time factor into the design of your food experiences? Are your tools geared towards a specific temporal agenda? Do you deliberately eschew the contemporary trend of expediting food preparation and consumption?

It's a good question. It never really occurred to me to think in this way, but I never had a moment where I said, “This has to function like that.” It just comes from the context. You have to adapt the original idea a little bit, adapt it to what is available then. This is the parameter I always keep a little bit open—considering seasonality and what is local. I was in Venice in September, giving a workshop to some students. I arrived with initial ideas on how to develop a project. However, the reality unfolded with certain unknown factors inherent to the location and time. We discovered a core element on-site, the invasive species known as the blue crab. While I was aware of its presence in the Mediterranean Sea, I was surprised to find it as a problem in Venice. The absence of predators poses a threat to the area. This unforeseen aspect became central to our project, drawing a parallel to our presence in a city where we are essentially temporary invaders, akin to the blue crab in Venice. The project evolved into a site-specific and time-specific exploration, as we took over a piazza in the middle of Venice, discussing and cooking about the blue crab. The process highlighted the beauty of discovery during research, remaining open to unforeseen outcomes. Initially aimed at creating an eating experience to discuss Venice, the project's shape was ultimately influenced by the space itself…

Giulia Soldati, Bread Geographies, Photo: Riccardo De Vecchi

Now that you have broached the topic of invasive species, my attention gravitates towards the anthropological dimension of our hands, an attribute whose mastery has long been regarded as a pivotal advantage for our survival. Scholars posit that the adept use of hands, particularly in wielding tools to extract marrow from the remains of larger predators like lions and hyenas, could have conferred a decisive nutritional edge to early human beings. In light of this, we can focus more on how you developed your project, Contatto Experience

The evolution of our ability to use tools is fascinating. We continuously build knowledge upon knowledge. While I'm not an expert in evolution, one aspect that has intrigued me is the skill of making fire. Physically, we can use our hands to explore various actions, pushing the boundaries of what our hands are capable of. It's captivating to think about how we discovered these capabilities, such as scooping something from a bone, lighting a fire, or crafting tools like an axe. This exploration likely began from the necessity of obtaining food from the surroundings. It evolved into the artisanal actions of making tools that, in turn, expanded the possibilities for our hands. The journey started with fulfilling basic needs, such as acquiring food, and then extended into the realm of crafting tools to enhance our capabilities. The exploration of the body in this sense is truly intriguing.

In Contatto Experience, I started by contemplating how to forge a closer connection with what we consume daily. Initially, my exploration focused on the idea of making our hands dirtier during the cooking process. I designed kitchen tools that compelled users to engage with their hands more actively. From there, I delved into the act of eating itself, aiming to utilize our hands in the process. The initial stance in my research was to eliminate any elements creating a distance between ourselves and our bodies, like cutlery or plates. The hands would be the primary tool, supplemented by additional tools where necessary. As I progressed, I realized the profound potential of exploring the physicality of the hand and how it can provoke different sensations based on placement and movement. This led me to design a series of gestures, a sort of choreography inspired by the hand's sensitivity to various textures and temperatures. I drew inspiration not only from the physicality of the hand but also from the characteristics of the ingredients. For example, the viscosity of an egg yolk rolling on the palm or the delicate mixing actions possible with certain textures on the fingertips.

Over the years, the project has evolved minimally because I believe I've distilled it to its essence, serving as the foundational rules for subsequent explorations. Witnessing people's reactions to this exploration of the body, senses, and food has been fascinating. Initially, there might have been some reluctance or intimidation, but as time progressed, there was a growing openness to such unique eating experiences. Nevertheless, it's heartening to observe that there is still a need for these explorations, as there are individuals continually surprised by the unconventional approach.

I firmly believe that getting closer to food serves as a platform for discussing various issues related to food production and consumption. It becomes a vehicle to touch upon broader topics. In a recent project in Luxembourg, centered on vegetable production in Almeria, Spain, we intertwined the narratives of people working in the area with the act of eating. By wrapping and presenting the food in a manner reminiscent of the plastic tunnels used in vegetable production, we aimed to bring the stories closer to the consumers. This project, distinct from the Contatto Experience, shares the essence of connecting through stories and food. It demonstrates how eating can become a tangible experience, allowing people to both touch and be touched by narratives. This layered approach not only enhances the eating experience but also provides a deeper understanding of the stories behind the produce.

Giulia Soldati, Ospite Ospitatante Venezia

I would like to inquire about the diverse reactions elicited from individuals during your culinary experiences, which take place in various settings such as restaurants, artistic venues, design events, and special occasions. How do you perceive the differences in responses within these distinct contexts, considering the unique expectations associated with each setting?

I find your question quite insightful, as the context indeed wields considerable influence over people's reactions. In artistic settings, there's often a greater degree of tolerance for experimental elements, creating an environment where unconventional approaches are more readily embraced. Conversely, in traditional or household contexts, and even within restaurants, where certain expectations are ingrained, pushing the boundaries can elicit more reserved responses. 

I've encountered a range of reactions, especially when participants are unsure of what to anticipate from the dining experience. In such instances, the responses have been notably varied, with some expressing enthusiasm and others less so. What's intriguing is that, regardless of initial skepticism, once participants engage with the experience firsthand, there's a perceptible shift in their reactions. It's gratifying to witness this transformation, where the initial uncertainty evolves into a positive acknowledgment of the unique encounter. Even for those familiar with the project or having some knowledge of what to expect, there remains an element of surprise. The introduction of new sensations, whether it be the temperature on their skin or the texture of the ingredients, consistently sparks a sense of novelty and intrigue. In essence, each reaction is deeply personal and contributes to the overall beauty of the experience, fostering a sense of individuality and uniqueness.

Giulia Soldati, Contatto drawings

Do you believe there is a psychoanalytic dimension to the reactions you observe in participants who may initially resist the unconventional aspects of the culinary experience? Could their resistance be indicative of deeper issues or discomfort related to their perceptions of their own bodies and skin?

It sheds light on participants' perceptions of their bodies within a social context. Whether it's the reluctance to spill food or the hesitation to lick one's fingers, these responses reflect societal norms and individual discomfort, revealing a complex interplay of personal boundaries and social constructs. Someone asked me why I was “doing something so sexual”? But it's not sexual. It's just yourself and your skin. It's truly intriguing to explore participants' varied perspectives…

Food, blending the zest and the tragedy of existence in a perplexingly mundane way, serves as a stark reminder of our perpetual necessity to consume other living beings. As Donna Haraway suggests, the best meal may be one that comes with philosophical indigestion… How do you, as a designer specializing in food and eating experiences, navigate this intricate balance?

I'm not a vegetarian, although, in my culinary work, I tend to lean heavily towards vegetarian and even vegan choices. The rationale behind this preference lies in my limited knowledge of the animal world. Even if I source meat from a local farmer, there's a disconnect as I haven't been involved in the entire process from raising the animal to consumption. Hence, I find greater alignment and understanding when working with ingredients I am familiar with.

I appreciate the simplicity and positivity associated with plant-based cooking, often choosing to spotlight seasonal ingredients grown in a particular way. By avoiding the complexity of meat production, I can emphasize the various facets and benefits of plant-based cuisine. Each ingredient, when treated with care, can communicate a multitude of aspects, making the culinary experience more profound. In my work, I tend to explore specific topics, aiming to create meaningful conversations. For instance, when incorporating the blue crab into a meal during the Venice Biennale, the choice sparked debates about its preparation on-site. Some questioned the perceived cruelty of cooking a live crab in front of them, while others drew comparisons to the same ingredient served in a restaurant, where the processing is hidden from view. This experience highlighted the intriguing interplay between perception, visibility, and food preparation, adding another layer to the culinary dialogue. I find it captivating to delve into these discussions, prompting individuals to question their perceptions of food and how the visibility of food processing shapes their attitudes. The dynamic conversations that arise from these explorations contribute to the richness of my culinary work.

Giulia Soldati, Contatto Experience, Photo: Carla Del Toro

How do you interpret the term “immersive,” a buzzword often associated with AR and VR technologies, in the context of your edible experiences? Furthermore, what specific elements do you believe contribute to the immersive character of your culinary creations?

From my perspective, an experience becomes immersive when you can fully engage your body and senses without encountering barriers. In this sense, I often label the experiences I create as immersive because they allow participants to immerse themselves completely and perceive the encounter with all their senses. While technologies like augmented reality (AR) push the boundaries further by providing additional sensory inputs, I emphasize the importance of recognizing what can already be achieved through our inherent senses and physicality. Though I lack extensive personal experience with AR and VR technologies, I acknowledge their potential as remarkable tools for sensory exploration. However, it is crucial to underscore the significance of what can be accomplished with our existing senses and bodies.

Has the noticeable increase in societal focus on nutrition over the last decade, driven by the growing awareness of the link between diet and health, a rise in lifestyle-related diseases, and a burgeoning interest in preventive healthcare, led to a paradigm shift signifying a broader cultural change towards more conscious and informed choices regarding food and its impact on well-being?

Undoubtedly, there's a heightened awareness surrounding our food choices, with increased conversations about what we consume and the decisions we make. However, this consciousness varies across different contexts. In some settings, individuals actively make informed choices about their food, considering the impact of their consumption. Yet, in other contexts, there's still a perceptible distance, with some perceiving their choices as inconsequential to making a meaningful difference.

There remains significant work to be done in fostering a collective sense of responsibility and understanding the political and environmental implications of our dietary choices. While food has undeniably become a prominent topic over the past decade, with an upsurge in culinary engagement even during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a journey ahead to instill a shared consciousness about the significance of our choices and their potential impact.

Giulia Soldati, Contatto drawings

In recent years, how has your artistic practice evolved, and could you highlight aspects not prominently featured on your website?

For now, our conversation has covered various elements and topics, including insights into some of my past projects that may not be readily apparent on the website. Over the past two years, I've delved into the realm of baking, specifically in a bakery. This journey with bread has evolved into a unique exploration, offering a lens into the intricate layers concealed within a simple loaf. From considerations of grains and accessibility to the hands shaping the bread, it has become a tool for examining food production. This venture builds upon the ethos of getting closer to food, stemming from the Contatto Experience. In the bakery, I've immersed myself in the process of crafting bread, unraveling the myriad elements often overlooked when purchasing a simple loaf. It's a continuation of the broader theme—how can we forge a more intimate connection with the food we consume, recognizing the multifaceted aspects intertwined with our choices.


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