The Coursework

Food answers questions we didn’t even know we needed to ask.
It asks questions of us that we cannot answer with words.

How do we save—and savor—our own lives? It sounds like a riddle, but perhaps it’s in the shape of our mouths when we’re hungry, or when we eat and are satisfied. Perhaps it is only when our mouths are full that we are truly able to speak. So, allow me to introduce Leigh-Ann Martin, Rinaldo Walcott, Tiffany-Anne Parkes, and Dawn Cumberbatch. A Chef, a Professor, a Pastry Chef, and a Screenwriter. Earlier this year, I invited them to interact with the No Words essay—by reading, listening, &/or viewing—and to respond with a dish prepared in whatever style they wished.

Leigh-Ann’s Semifreddo
Rinaldo’s Halibut
Tiffany-Anne’s Tart
Dawn’s Croquettes

They would then share their recipes with The No Words Project and invite others to take part, either by making what they made or making something else. They would document their process, reflecting on whatever came to mind. In asking them to do this, I asked “How do we who refuse to be consumed say how and when and what we consume? How do we who are perpetually consumed reimagine the narrative of our consumption? Here is their response to my question—their own essays, full of answers and full of questions—offered to us now, as food. Together, they would further transform the project into a multisensory meditation on Black Life. Together, they would consider—and, perhaps, conjure—a taste of freedoms we have often imagined, as well as the complexities that attend them. I was convinced that their contributions would inspire others—you—to take part and to partake.

After Taste¹

by KB

The Black essay is proof of a freedom its composer has imagined. It is a glimpse of how freedom might feel. I know I’m not free. And because of that, I am bound to the literal imaginings of the essay—both in its essential form that troubles “form” and in its content. It is a troubled response to other deeper troubles, whose names and faces we all know. It is remembrance materialized, presented, and consumed.

Taste is how the tongue remembers. The teeth witness, sometimes they conspire. But they have no memory. Memory is for the tongue. It is for anything that knows loss. Loss is where we are called to find ourselves, lest we lose ourselves in it.

Our culinary references—the food we eat, as well as the innumerable metaphors that use food as their frame—highlight our many ways of knowing, being, and making meaning in the world. They do this in a way nothing else could.  Taste and smell are integral to learning, and to the survival and memory of a people. They also serve as essential areas of artistic exploration, as imaginings that cool and crystallize. They sometimes cut, their heat leaving us gasping. We consume the labor, rather than be consumed, rather than serve as the unwilling conspirators in our own gradual consumption by a world that cannot love us. We savor the art of our mixing wrists, our kneading hands, the shape of waiting mouths. 

And then it is gone—eaten.

And although it is said that “we eat with the eyes,” our culinary preoccupations do not only include visual cues, but also the subtle hints of an argument that how we see is connected to how we taste; how we taste is connected to what we have smelled, invoking a sense of how we feel. These connections go beyond sound and the written word; they also take us within as we consider the material matters of food, of justice, and the myriad ways Black culinary practice intersects to produce art and preserve culture. We are affected—viscerally.

Our collective ability to reflect on these matters transcends the constrictions of suffering and trauma, which have so often been used to define Black creative practice. This is worth remembering especially today, in these perilous times, as we are reminded daily that among the many ravages of the COVID pandemic is the loss of smell and taste, an effect that can last long after the illness itself has subsided. These consequences are frightening, as we face the threat of isolation even from ourselves. 

And yet, we endure as we have endured. The struggle, in these times, is to refuse, to not become the memento, or to have your self be no more than a thing you recall from memory.

Struggle, instead, to make yourself known.
Known to yourself, in advance of being remembered.

And, if taste is a remembering, then perhaps smell is the thing remembered.

When I was a child, I’d hear my mother use the term “smellers”—as in, this one or that one “had no smellers”—as a way of saying they didn’t know what they should know. It was a curious term, more amusing than insulting, meant to ridicule and to warn. It wasn’t a question of if the person had a nose, but of whether they had sense—a sense of smell.

I learned early that to “have smellers” was to know what you could not see, to understand what was no longer apparent—it was to have the ability to recall the scent, or the hint, or the spirit of a thing that has come and passed you by, leaving only a memory of itself. Not the understanding that would come from lessons taught, but from lessons learned. One would have had to go looking for trouble to understand what trouble meant. One would have to learn the hard way, learn that smellers depend on the ability to remember. Smell is memory. To smell is to remember. To not smell is, essentially, to forget. And it is more serious than that: it is to forget the essence of a thing we ought to know. I am wary of forgetting in these times, with whichever of the senses.

These are not the times when, before, I could long for the abstractions that would give me space to forget, only so that I could play at remembering. These are different times, when the idea of smellers—of what we could know about ourselves or anyone else—is grounded in a literal loss of smell. These are such strange times. These Covid Times, when the loss of smell is a physical manifestation of the body beginning to forget itself. That forgetting is a symptom of one’s unfortunate flirtation with memory: one’s body loses memory before becoming a memory, becomes memory before being memorialized, or forgotten.

What becomes of memory that is pushed past its forgetting?
Cut up, mixed up, shaken, sifted, stirred, kneaded.
Braised, baked, broiled does it become a thing we can taste?

¹ On Method:
In case you were wondering, in addition to what it attempts with sight and hearing, I want The No Words Project to be one that could activate the other senses—smell, taste, touch. I want it to be interactive and indulgent, as much a testament to the decadence of Black life as to the bitterness around it. To do that, I need to move beyond myself and the limitations of metaphor. I appreciate metaphor, but I need to think—with my threatened and threatening body, with others as threatened and as threatening as myself—of how imaginations of freedom might feel in the palm of the hand, on the fingertips, how it might taste on the sometimes blunt and sometimes sharpened tongue. To see it made. To experience it, and to see it being experienced.

KB | July 2021

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