On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, I found myself standing outside what Curbed once called “Brooklyn’s Wackiest Office Building.” While waiting for someone to open the door to let me into a “participatory gastro-performance” hosted on the 7th floor, I listened to a loudspeaker facing the street emitting birdsongs, a project sponsored by Birds of Brooklyn. After a few minutes, local artist Ayodamola Okunseinde let me in, leading me up to the eerily named Dark Matter Manufacturing artist collective on the 7th floor. There, the UK-based artist behind the performance, Carmen C. Wong, was busy preparing the kitchen.
Wong, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Coventry at the University of Warwick’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, has been putting on what she calls “tactile” food performances for almost 10 years now, hosting unique events centered around the deeper philosophical meanings of food and sharing meals. She’s organized performances in New York, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Belgrade, New Delhi, Singapore, and Washington, DC — where I first met her. For her latest project, “Breakfast Elsewhere,” Wong invites a small group of attendees to cook a traditional recipe together, one she learned from a Middle Eastern immigrant she met in Coventry.
Wong started off with a short introduction to her project, saying that the recipe she had for us was an oral one, so instead of reading it, she’d have us follow spoken instructions. After a brief hand-washing ritual, Wong invited one participant to volunteer as the “medium,” who would don headphones and relate the recipe that she heard to the rest of us. In turn, we would follow her instructions and cook the meal. Once we all understood the directions, Wong stepped aside, turning on a speaker on top of the fridge with carefully selected background noises and watching us perform the task at hand. We began by opening a large suitcase filled with cornflakes in the middle of the counter. Digging through the cereal, we found all the ingredients and tools we needed to make our meal.
The recipe we were tasked with making, a traditional breakfast dish called tese’yeh (a variant of fattet hummus), was one taught to Wong by a woman named Rola Nejmah, a Palestinian who was born in Saudi Arabia and went to college and lived in Damascus before moving to Coventry in the early 2000s. In researching her project, Wong herself made the dish with Nejmah a few times, recording her host’s instructions and stories, which she would play into the headphones and have the “medium” interpret. Through the medium, Nejmah interspersed specific recipe instructions with her own personal stories, like how her kids are obsessed with eating corn flakes for breakfast and her comical first encounter with a traditional English breakfast.
As our medium acted as Nejmah and we mixed tahini with lemon and hummus, the speaker atop the fridge played sound effects to accompany our cooking and Nejmah’s stories — a sizzle as we added the fried pine nuts to the dish, crashing waves as we heard a story about the beaches of Saudi Arabia. The performance lasted less than an hour, and when we were done, we all sat at the table together, drinking mint tea and eating the breakfast we’d just made.
While we ate, Wong encouraged us to talk about “eating our way home,” and we shared stories of favorite foods, reworking recipes in different countries with local ingredients, and even attempts at smuggling favorite foods across borders. Wong told us that each time she puts on “Breakfast Elsewhere” something different happens. The medium always puts in his or her own interpretation, sometimes the recipe gets a little messed up, but it’s always a unique experience.
The day after the performance, Wong sent everyone an email questionnaire, asking us things like cooking actions and gestures that brought up specific memories and whether or not we had a feeling of displacement in participating in her project. Only a few hours after I responded to Wong’s email, I found myself at a grocery store in Bay Ridge, buying a tub of Bulgarian cheese, Turkish delight, and a jar of roasted red peppers. Later that week, I’d eat my own way home.