On Food.

How does a meal link our table to the bioregional Food Systems?

Gabriela AZ
3 min readJul 10, 2020

Welcome! Please come in, we were just waiting for you.

The table is set and the meal about to start.

Take a seat and, please, enjoy it!

Left: Sarah Wigglesworth, the sequence of drawings for the Stock Orchard House-Everyday rituals. 1998
Right: [QS] Want to grab a bite? Invitation and platform QR code. 2020

Dear guest reader, this is an ‘abreboca’ of my Practice-based Design Research Thesis On food. During six months, I looked into the gap “of nuanced research on consumer behavior”[1] that exists at the intersection between Food cultural studies and Food System research. In order to understand this specific behavior, one can tackle food preparation, market choices, or cultural forms of food exchange. I chose to qualitatively analyze the latter, through the lenses of Speculative Design and the Transition design framework. More specifically, I recounted the unexpected change of venue of our urban eating practices due to the COVID -19 pandemic. For that, the narrative of this thesis articulates theoretical and design portfolios review, journalistic information, analysis of qualitative data, and personal quarantine diaries.

From a spatial design perspective, food is a complex study subject: it’s a nutritional material as well as an ‘affective medium’[2]. On one hand, from a quantitative Food System gaze, this material can be economically analyzed by its ecological impact and its consumption spaces and demand. On the other hand, taking food as a medium, one becomes part of the analyzed material during its transformation (cooking) and its consumption (eating). Consequently, this complex character can be perceived while sharing the table with others: food as nutritional material becomes a cultural one through the act of ‘commensality’[3]. For this thesis case study, I looked into this socio-spatial exchange with food through Latin American ‘gastro-politcs’[5]: an interweaving of the care and economy during the whole food cycle — “de la chacra a la olla”[6] (from farm to casserole).

Therefore, within the pandemic context, I analyzed the speculative design challenge of adapting a Sobremesa — a familiar dining ritual from Latin American culture into a digital platform. In the early weeks of global lockdown, this started as an eating support system between friends overseas. Then, during the course of 3 months, 5 editions, and 46 sessions, Quarantined Sobremesa resulted in a digital commensality format that brought together international strangers. Taking this interface as a “designerly public engagement”[7] process, I was able to investigate and create within the spatial and social structures of different actors and contrasting foodways. In doing so, a meal became a joyful but rather critical medium to reassess our everyday eating habits.

While prototyping digital Sobremesa, as a critical commensality medium, I could explore the food cultural constellations and urban food systems of households around the globe. As we transition to the post-COVID-19 world, how can designers evidence the link between our tables and ‘bioregional Food Systems’[8]? The writer John Thackara urged practitioners to create platforms that give priority to human-nature knowledge exchange, for “the practice of ecology is the forging of relationships.”[9]

Conclusively, design as a critical practice needs to speculate an urban-rural reconnection and transdisciplinary — even decolonized — exchange between diverse actors inside the Food Systems, both human and non-human. Hence this thesis depicts a ‘vision for transition’[10] that requires a re-evaluation of what has been normalized within our urban eating cultures until these uncertain times, thus it proposes new ways of designing mediums to learn by eating with others.

[1] Food Systems Dashboard, Components of Food Systems.

[2] Sadowski, Digital Intimacies.

[3] Kerner et al., Commensality

[4] Ibid.

[5] Appadurai, Gastropolitcis, 2.

[6] Matta et al., Culinary Politics in Peru

[7] Lindström and Ståhl, Inviting to co-articulations,184

[8] Thackara, Bioregioning: Urban-Rural Reconnection

[9] Ibid.

[10] Irwin et al., Transition Design, 2