A conversation with Edible Geography’s Nicola Twilley
NY-based writer and curator Nicola Twilley praises “the unsung heroes of cookie embossing”, delves into the history of napkin folding and imagines a city of mobile services. Through her blog, Edible Geography, she offers fascinating reports on seemingly trivial spaces, places and histories and asks important questions about the role of design and technology in our food systems and our communities. Nicola’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Dwell and GOOD Magazine, where she was also Food Editor. She is co-founder of the Foodprint Project and Venue and co-directs Studio X-NYC. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art.
How and when did you start Edible geography?
Three years ago, in 2009. At some point, as a freelance writer, I found that being curious about so many different things and wanting to write about all of them was a bit of a problem. I had to focus my curiosity somehow. I found inspiration in the way my husband, who was writing about disparate things for his blog, BLDGBLOG, was successfully unifying them under the theme of space and architectural speculation. I realized that food could be that lens for me, through which I could look at things that interested me. That growing realization was confirmed when I read this book by Carolyn Steel, called Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. I think it made me see that I could write about food but still write about everything else and never run out of things to write about.
Also, starting a blog was a way to force myself to write more often, which was important, because I’m extremely lazy.
What was your relationship with food before then?
I was reasonably food literate, though I’ve definitely learned more about food since writing for the blog. I certainly didn’t (and don’t) consider myself a foodie, or a food activist of any sort.
I ask about your relationship to food but it would do great disservice to Edible Geography to call it a food blog. I think it deals with so much more.
Yes, it’s always really hard for me to describe to people what it is I write about! When I say I write about food, people expect restaurant reviews or recipes.
It seems to me that you’re almost engaging in an anthropological exploration of spaces and intersections of people. Also, you oftentimes write about things that seem to belong in an alternate universe. I think that your titles accentuate that. I’m thinking, for example, about Spaces of Banana Control, The Atlas of Aspirational Origins, or Underground Cow Tunnels. I mean, cow tunnels? That sounds so unreal!
Well, actually, noone knows if they are real, which of course I find fascinating. There’s a report in which the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission said something like “well, if they’re real, they’re a historical monument.” I love thinking about what it means that the idea is so compelling, not just about whether or not it’s fact. And I love the possibility of a legacy of a previous food system existing underneath the city.
As far as the titles, I do have fun with them. I studied creative writing and literature; using language to make the ideas more resonant is something I love doing.
You seem compelled by archives and maps.
Yes, I’m very interested in design and cartography, understanding how we perceive space and landscape. I actually have a background in art history. My interest in art has always revolved around the idea of it changing the way we perceive things. When I encounter that in places other than art, I get very excited.
One of the things that I find refreshing about your writing, is your open-minded and rather optimistic attitude towards the role of technology, science and design in the realm of food.
I am optimistic. On a personal level, I am wary of certain things. For example, I think genetically modified food should be labeled, and I always avoid rBST in milk.
But I don’t agree with the “it’s only good if we grow it ourselrves and we have to slaughter every animal we eat” mentality. That kind of nostalgia is really regressive. Sure, technology can be misused, but that doesn’t take away from its creative potential.
One area that really fascinates me is flavor science. Though it has mostly been used to allow the food industry to sell us processed corn in various forms, I still think it’s a very creative field, with incredible potential for experimentation and discovery. Talking with flavorists, I was fascinated by the way they try to recreate the flavor profile of a grape or an orange, say, in photorealistic detail . One of them told me that the projects they love to work on the most are energy drinks, since the flavors don’t have to relate to anything that already exists, in the real world. It’s a pure thing, like abstract art.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was flavor education in schools and kids learned what makes up a flavor? Perhaps if we had children with educated palates they would make smarter food choices.
I want to believe in all these things too, and I think there’s a great need for new, creative technologies in areas like farming. But how do you envision science being used as a tool to improve our food system, specifically in the developed world right now, instead of a tool for profit?
I think that giving people the knowledge and the tools to experiment and understand things like genetic modification and think about them is really important. If people are in control of these tools, instead of feeling like they’re imposed upon them by a big scary corporation, then they can begin to think beyond the false dichotomies of natural=good and technologically modified=bad. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy is a group you might be familiar with that does interesting work to help people explore the nuances and shades of grey in how we understand all the sorts of modifications we make and have made to our food.
In Brooklyn, we also have this community gene lab called Genspace. Of course, there are dangers and things have to be under a certain amount of control. But there have to be opportunities for understanding and playing with technology before condemning it outright. It’s important to understand the differences and similarities between current technologies, like gene-splicing, and agricultural practices of the past, like selective breeding.
I strongly think that it’s a big mistake to leave the future of our food, which is such an important part of our lives, exclusively up to corporations. We should all be thinking about the future of food.
Do you teach? I know you were involved with something called Studio X-NYC.
Studio X-NYC is an event space I co-direct with Geoff Manaugh — it’s part of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation’s global network of urban futures labs.The idea behind it is that lots of people have a stake in the built environment, beyond architects and urban planners, and that Studio-X sites could function as platforms to engage those people in new kinds of conversation about the future of the city. We organize events and put together projects and a publication. In addition, I also teach at GSAPP. Last year, I taught a seminar on spaces of artificial refrigeration, which is something I’ve been really interested in for a while. Refrigeration has truly reshaped our society and the way we live. I think of it as this global network that we absolutely rely on, almost like the Internet. I’m currently curating on an exhibition on the North American coldscape at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which opens in December, as well as working on turning my research into a book.
I also co-taught a studio called City of Mobile Services. We wanted to ask the question, what kinds of urban services and infrastructures can you make mobile and what happens when you do that? One thing that made me think about these questions was the advent of mobile slaughterhouses, which was an incredibly clever way to re-allocate the geography of meat production.
What were some projects that came out of that?
There was a mobile garden, specifically designed with shift workers in Manhattan hospitals in mind, which I thought was interesting in the way it took into consideration the workers’ lifestyle patterns and offered them an alternative to the fluorescent-lit hospital cafeteria. There was also a mobile pig roast, which played with air flow and scent in an urban context.
What do you make out of this moment in terms of food, when everyone seems to be thinking about it? What would you like to see in terms of the way we think about it?
Everyone is so interested in it! Just this morning I saw a press release from the State Department talking about Clinton and food diplomacy. I mean, everybody is jumping on the food wagon! I think it’s really exciting, actually.
What I hope, and I think it will largely be the responsibility of the media, is that the conversation doesn’t become even more polarized but that we come to understand food in a more nuanced way. And that we approach it creatively, instead of just sticking a beehive on an architecture model, for example, because it’s trendy. I also want people to be aware that when we talk about food, it’s not just about food we’re talking about but also economics, geography, history, technology, politics, health issues…
Tell me about your new project, Venue.
It’s a project I’m doing with my husband, Geoff Manaugh, and in partnership with Studio-X NYC and the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art. It’s a 16-month long journey of site visits and conversations, which we’re using to build what we’ve described as “a cumulative, participatory, and media-rich narrative archive of the built, natural, fictional, internal, and virtual environments that we build and inhabit.” We set up a mobile interview studio and have conversations with a wide range of people from various professions-a guy in Boulder who is responsible for maintaining the official United States time standard, a water rights lawyer, people who are culturing synthetic biological crust…All these different people have interesting ways of measuring, analyzing, or redesigning the environment, constructing the framework through which we understand the landscape and reading it for what it can tell us. We also bring with us some really interesting survey tripods and measuring devices of our own, designed by Chris Woebken.
We are gathering all of our documentation online and we’re also turning the project into an exhibition and accompanying book for 2014. I’m very excited about it.
Interviewed by Maria Pithara