Film and new food rituals in the time of COVID-19

TT JOURNAL, VOL.1, ISSUE 3 preview

As sensory anthropologist David Howes writes in his contribution to the Sensory Orders exhibition catalogue (curated by Chris Salter): “Sensory anthropology fleshes out the concept of the “sensory order” through analyzing how the senses are valued and combined differently in different societies. Some societies value feeling over seeing, or use hallucinogens to fuse the senses, instead of keeping them separate. The challenge of charting the varieties of sensory experience across and within culture has become particularly acute since the arrival of the “sensor society” [1]: sensation has been reduced to “information” and Artificial Intelligence (AI)) has supplanted sentience. The onslaught of the novel coronavirus has upped the ante again, by obliterating our capacity to taste and smell. Digitization in conjunction with the virus has resulted in the virtualization of life itself. Yet, in her video Self Isolation Dinner, filmmaker Tereza Stehlikova shows how the senses of being together might be(re)animated.”


Watch Self-isolation Dinner, 2020 by Tereza Stehlikova


David Sutton (Southern Illinois University, author of Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory, and other works in the emergent field of sensory food studies) comments on the film:

Two people participate in a ritual: they remove their masks; they are wearing similar clothes, they adjust their hats. In another context this might be the scene of one instructing the other on putting on makeup. But the person on our side of the screen reaches out to evoke the senses of his partner: cooling her face with a fan, offering herbs and incense to be smelled. Saffron drops like rain, plinking down, as she watches in delight. The texture of a lemon is revealed by a stroking finger. A ritual preparation—cooking—is offered. And finally…she takes a bite.  

Loss of smell has been both a key diagnostic and perhaps also a key metaphor for the experience of covid-19. Despite nearly 3 centuries of deprecation of the sense of smell in Western science, philosophy and everyday life, to the point that many laugh off smell loss as nothing to be concerned about, those who have gone through this experience describe it in a New York Times article,  as causing them to feeling adrift.[2] The world felt “wrong, uncanny, confusing.” Uncanny of course, is a synonym for unhomelike, and captures the sense of alienation that sensory loss can provoke.  People describe feelings of relentless isolation from the world around them. As some put it, it felt as if they were living their lives in black and white or trapped behind a sheet of glass. “I feel alien from myself,” in the words of one covid sufferer. Another called it a kind of PTSD.

The fact that the loss of smell, and  of course much of taste that goes with that, could lead to such reactions should not surprise us. Despite the limited vocabulary for smells in the West, and persistent myths about underdeveloped olfactory bulbs, we now know, as the author of the article notes, that in comparison to the 4 receptors for sight we have 400 receptors for smell which can potentially detect an estimated trillion different scents.[3] We can be pretty good smellers, comparatively speaking, if we are trained and enculturated in it. We often use these capacities unconsciously, notes Jarvis, such as in smelling our hands for information after shaking the hand of a new person.  No wonder, the loss of smell has led to so much disorientation. But even those not afflicted by this covid malady, know similar feelings in times of social isolation, so that it was reported in the New York Times in the spring of 2021 that languishing is a new shared condition that might be the dominant emotion of 2021.[4] Languishing is described as the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive, a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield, as one sufferer described it.

A food critic describes trying to regain her sense of smell damaged by covid, undergoing a retraining program designed by the Monell Center for Chemical Senses, which involved taking “bunny sniffs” of something that she had strong associations with, in this case cardamon pods.[5]  The critic described it at first as like trying to hear a sound from the next room, and is guided by her trainer to imagine looking into a deep well and listening as a coin falls all the way to the bottom, a synesthetic connection unusual in Western contexts, but one that I have found is commonly made in Greece when people use the expression “listen to that smell,” as part of the synesthetic priming of memory.[6] In this process, she recalls a buried memory of her grandfather chewing cardamon pods, a favorite grandparent that she had lost a few years ago and who was brought back in a flood of images, in Proustian fashion, by the cardamon. This scene was brought to mind for me as the woman in the film sniffs curiously at the star anise, eyes moving upwards as if contemplating an interior picture or seeking a half-forgotten memory.

In response to the experience of isolation, tech companies have long promoted apps to abolish distance, and create a world of transactional relations, our desires only button push away. But for those of us who have spent the last year adjusting to holding most of our communications on zoom, we know that these apps are often a pale reflection of the experience of presence. As Drew Austin writes:

“Instead of supporting more robust forms of interpersonal interaction by adding layers of information or creating dynamics  that aren’t possible in physical space…zoom merely stimulates in-person interactions in two-dimensional space while we wait for life to return to normal. Live events replicated via zoom feel less like convenient alternatives than inferior and sometimes tedious simulacra. Instead of full sensory immersion that we experience at a party, concert or even a meeting, we have flat representations in browser tabs or apps, competing with the rest of the ‘content’ delivered by the same screens.”[7]

This has, of course, been a long term critique of our lives with screens, epitomized by Sherry Turkle’s work arguing “that as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down,” as captured in the title of her book Alone Together.[8]

In my research on food, I have been tracking how this discourse that pervades popular media, draws on an opposition between shared food and shared presence on the one hand, and technologically mediated lives on the other.[9] This is epitomized in an ad campaign by the Canadian supermarket brand President’s Choice, which featured a video showing a young woman returning home to her apartment from work, surrounded by people lost in their own smart phone–assisted worlds. She convinces her roommate to pull their dining table into the hallway of the apartment building, where they begin to have their meal and encourage others to join them as they pass by. Soon what starts as a quixotic act is a lively hallway full of companions—sharers of bread– conversing, putting food on one another’s plates, and going back to their apartments to find something else to offer and share, with not a screen in sight.

In “Self-isolation Dinner,” after eating the ritual meal, the woman is invited to explore a veritable lush garden of colors, shapes and textures. A leaf of basil, the tendrils of mushrooms, and the bursting red of a tomato. In a magical sequence, she opens her hand to receive a cherry tomato which she finds transmogrified as she takes it into her mouth. She then offers back a plate of items for the man—a lion’s mane mushroom perhaps—which they both explore with their fingers, bringing to mind not just the synesthesia of taste/smell/sight/sound/texture—all captured in this short video, but specifically of the idea of tasting beginning with the fingers,[10] an idea found explicitly in many cultures, and implicitly in the many items—french fries, pizza—which most of us would never dream of mediating with a utensil. This act of return is, of course, part of the nurturance, flirtation and seduction of the gift captured in the film, since as Marcel Mauss tells us, we have the obligation to receive and the obligation to reciprocate.[11] Commensality, or eating together at the same table, can be part of turning charity into solidarity, as many people making their way through the economic crisis and the refugee crisis that proceeded our current crisis, have learned. Commensality can lead, then, to con-sensus, a sharing of sensory experience, and ultimately to con-viviality, a shared life. As anthropologists have long argued, a key component of ritual’s effectiveness is its intensification of experience, and, I would add, the sensory nature of commensal events, is an essential part of the creation of shared sociability. In this case, however, the meal ends with a crackerjack sur/prize—a crystal with which to mediate the image of the woman once more—and then…the screen goes blank. This meal was indeed, only a sanctuary or refuge from the shared sense of alienation, or languishing. But as we imagine the possibility not just of getting back to normal, but of a new normal, better than the normal from which we began,  Self-isolation Dinner poses the possibility of a  different “normal,” in which we might find ways to break down the dichotomy between presence and mediation, and our screens open the way for more attention to smells, and to the shared synesthetic experiences that commensality and conviviality can offer.


[1] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2423118

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/magazine/covid-smell-science.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/magazine/covid-smell-science.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

[5] “A Food Critic Loses Her Sense of Smell.” The Daily Podcast 3/23/2021.

[6] David Sutton Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory, Oxford: Berg, 2001.

[7] Drew Austin “Home Screens.” Real Life Magazine 4/27/2020. https://reallifemag.com/home-screens/

[8] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

[9] See David Sutton “Revivifying Commensality: Eating, Politics, and the Sensory Production of the Social.” In Moveable Gardens: Itineraries and Sanctuaries of Memory. V. Nazarea & T. Gagnon eds., pp. 133-60. Phoenix: University of Arizona Press, 2021.

[10] See Anna Mann, et. al. “Mixing Methods, Tasting Fingers: Notes on an Ethnographic Experiment.” Hau 1(1):221-243, 2011.

[11] Marcel Mauss The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. W. D. Halls trans. New York: Norton, 1990.

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