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Go Ahead, Play with Your Food

Whether inventing jewelry from fruit or art from gum, 'Maker Culture' is finding new ways to satisfy the hunger for creativity.

By Arti Patel, Vincent McDermott, Sonya Benjamin, Adam Vrankulj and Christian Nathler, 15 Mar 2010, TheTyee.ca

Dried Apple Ring

Burnt Granny Smith apple ring made by Cathy Wu.

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[Editor's note: The Tyee is proud to co-publish with Rabble.ca a multi-part investigation of Maker Culture -- the do-it-yourself movement fast evolving in North America and beyond. This is episode nine of 11, running Fridays (usually).]

It's an unusual Friday night at Grinder, a small coffee shop in Toronto. There's an alien in someone's cup, hearts in another and someone else sees their face in their mug.

The cause of this madness is an event we created called "MEDIUM: Coffee -- Live Latte Art for Non-Latte Artists." We wanted to see what ordinary artists would do if we let them play with their food. "It was different," says Abra Dolman, a participating artist. "I can't say I've ever used coffee, espresso, or milk as a medium before."

The winner in the final round, Stefan Berg, used syrup to draw a portrait of one of the judges, glasses and all. However, the newly-indoctrinated coffee artists aren't the only ones using food in unique ways. Whether for consumption, beauty, art, or hacking purposes, Maker Culture is meeting food everywhere.

The Dried Fruit Project

Cathy Wu loves jewelry and she loves food -- and in true maker fashion she has discovered a way to combine the two. She's blended her love of origami with a new material: dried fruit.

For Wu, it all began when she went to Italy and enjoyed eating cereal with dried kiwi in it. "When I went back home, I remember having lots of trouble finding cereal with real pieces of dried kiwi," she said.

"At a point I gave up looking and decided to buy kiwis, slice them up and dehydrate them." And, for Wu, that led naturally to the "Dried Fruit Project." She has produced jewelry by dehydrating fruit, folding the slices, and layering them on top of one another.

A recent English graduate who lives in Texas, Wu says that after the layering, she ended up with pendant-like pieces, which is why she took it one step further to a whole line of fruit jewelry. Apples, pears, plums and even vegetables such as sweet potatoes have become the "gemstones" of her baubles.

Wu said she's glad to be using a medium like food because of its uniqueness. "You don't see many people wearing food," she said.

She used to worry about her pieces rotting away, but according to Wu, it's not a concern. "I've made my jewelry for more than a few months now, and they're still perfectly fine," she said. "It must be because they're dried, they can last a lot longer."

A wad of art

When Jamie Marraccini was 16 years old, he chewed so much grape-flavoured bubble gum that he couldn't touch it for the next ten years.

Today, the 39-year-old artist from Washington D.C. spends his spare time chewing away on art creations made of his favourite medium -- gum. His work is called "Gum Art" and it features handmade and individually selected gum colours that form pieces of artwork on canvas.

"I focus on letting the gum shine as gum," he said.

As a child, Marraccini was fascinated with preserving gum. He put it in the fridge before basketball games and dinners, and he stuck all his gum on the inside of his locker. This was his art. "When you create opportunities or ideas where you want to turn something into a product for people, you're a maker," he said.

Like Marraccini, some artists have always considered themselves makers because doing-it-yourself is the most expressive art form.

In an art school on Toronto's West End, art instructor Mike Goodge sits in a class of six children. The project of the day is to create cat masks out of beans and to use your hands to make something different than the shown example.

Goodge, 39, watched his class as a blank piece of cardboard transformed into a bean-filled eye catcher. "The beans are transformed into another identity... they stop being food and they become a visual tool for the masks," he said.

The children are makers and Goodge is one too. Letting his class create art on their own always makes him feel proud of the finished product. "It can be therapeutic and can provide a comic relief [or] an escape from everyday mundane routine," he said.

But using food as a medium is quite different. Yael Raviv is the festival chair of the Umami festival in New York City, an event that connects food and art as an experience. For her, using food to replace paint is a positive medium -- one she feels is always left out in society. "Food is a positive creative force... it's not about counting calories and vitamins," she said.

Open-source recipes

After a day of shopping and a night of stirring, seasoning, tasting and waiting, you've created a food symphony -- a perfect meal and a killer recipe. Now, thanks to open-source recipe sharing, you can make your recipe public for chefs everywhere to recreate.

The concept is simple: make a recipe, post it online and other people find it and make it for themselves. This is what democracy tastes like. Michael Smith, long-time television chef and host of Chef at Home, is an avid Twitter user and supporter of the open-source recipe movement.

"I find it really interesting how social networking and new media forms have really revolutionized the whole idea of what recipes are and what food is and can be... ideas can fly around the globe so quickly now [that] influences from one culture can mash up with influences from another culture," says Smith.

John Sinopoli, executive chef of Table 17, an upscale bistro in Toronto, thinks open-source recipe sharing online has a few flaws. "The problem with [the online world] is that none of the sources are vetted, so you don't know who is writing what... I can suss out for myself whether something makes sense or not, but I know that, in a book written by a particular person, it's been tried and tested," he said.

Despite his reluctance to use the internet to share recipes, Sinopoli said he often meets up with old friends that are chefs for "food chat" over beer, and sometimes "piggybacks" what they are doing in their restaurants.

Derek Kennedy, executive chef of Eight Wine Bar and Restaurant in Toronto, is a believer in old-fashioned techniques. He doesn't use the Internet to share recipes, and doesn't see himself doing so anytime soon. Drawing similarities between his and Gordon Ramsay's style of cooking, Kennedy said he uses "proper food, treats it the proper way, and doesn't mess around with it."

"There's no point in trying to take something and re-invent it," Kennedy said.

On the other side of the culinary spectrum, molecular gastronomy is a modern culinary practice which combines complex and simple chemistry with conventional cooking techniques.

Joseph Watters, executive chef at Taste Restaurant, practices molecular gastronomy at his restaurant -- though he prefers the term "hyper-modern technique" -- and has studied with masters of the art in France. Watters defines molecular gastronomy as the combination of "chemistry with classical French technique." The roots of molecular gastronomy, according to Watters, can be traced back to Ferran Adria of Spain.

At the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo held in Toronto, a horde of camera-toting foodies huddle around Watters's tent to try to get a glimpse of what he is doing. The 27-year-old chef has drawn a sizeable crowd with a stainless steel bowl overflowing with a heavy white cloud. Watters is making eggnog ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

Unlike many chefs, Watters sits on the fence about sharing his secrets and recipes. "I don't mind [open-source recipe sharing] to a limit. I definitely wouldn't give away all my secrets, but there's nothing wrong with building up your peers."

"Good food tastes good when it's cooked well. If it's cooked well by molecular gastronomy, or by traditional practices -- that's all," Sinopoli said. And that's advice, Sinopoli says, he's happy to share.

U-brew

Highly-taxed spirits are no match for a maker with a homebrew still.

In many countries, alcohol is heavily taxed by the federal government and only a few institutions have the legal ability to sell alcohol. When the government of New Zealand increased the tax on alcohol around six per cent in half a year, "scottsbutcher" -- who prefers to go by his YouTube moniker for privacy reasons -- took a DIY approach.

The Auckland resident created what he calls a "kiwi" still, which is a complex contraption consisting of multiple large barrels, two aquarium pumps, an air conditioner and dozens of plastic tubes. For the past year, scottsbutcher has been brewing wine, beer, lagers and whiskey out of a brew room in his house and has stopped consuming commercially distilled liquor altogether.

"For the price of one bottle of average blended whiskey I can make 10 litres of whiskey o the same strength," he says, adding that his finished product doesn't contain the harmful fusel oils that develop in commercial pot stills. "[My whiskey] comes out at around 85 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), and I get no hangover."

Duncan Strathearn of Waterloo, Ont. distills out of his home too, but it's a little bit risky. In every country except New Zealand -- and a few European countries that turn a blind eye -- distilling alcohol at home is illegal. Strathearn, 20, first started distilling alcohol in his second year of high school to prove to himself that he had the required scientific knowledge. Using a basic homemade still that cost less than $50 to build, he eventually developed a vodka with over 95 per cent ABV for occasional personal consumption.

"I figure if it's only for personal consumption, then there's nothing wrong with it. As soon as you start selling your alcohol for profit, that's when the government will get involved," says Strathearn, admitting that he has never sold his liquor.

Aside from the pure enjoyment of creating their own alcohol, many home distillers create makeshift basement breweries because it's economical -- an alternative to an industry controlled by a monopoly. Some do it to oppose consumerism as a whole -- the true definition of a maker.

20 LINKS THAT HELPED MAKE THIS STORY

Cathy Wu's photos of dried-fruit necklaces and dried fruit rings.

Meredith Alex, fashion designer

Food as make-up

Jess Bennett's blog about using food facials

Umami Food and Art Festival

Gum Art by Jamie Marraccini

Mike Goodge, Art instructor and artist

Gum Blondes Art

Artist Cosimo Cavallaro

A close look at Molecular Gastronomy

Community of Hacker Chefs and Food Hacking Community

Kitchen Hack lab with Marc Powell

Everything you need to know wiki about distilling your own alcohol

Chemical engineer Julia Nolan explains the distilling process

The blog for Maloca

FoodCycles' official website

Growing Power, the organic farming project that inspired FoodCycles

Sunny Lam's official website

Organic Gardening, a how-to website with tips on planting, landscaping and fertilizers

Growing makers

Most of us would be doomed if we were forced to grow our own food. Fighting pests, rotating crops, tracking weather and preparing for winter is hard work. Muscles ache, money is often tight and sleeping in on the weekend is a fond memory. No wonder that for many of us, buying our food from a grocery store is easier than buying a plot of land in the country.

But, to the resourceful maker, the city provides everything anyone could need to start a successful organic farming project. FoodCycles, a Toronto-based organic farm, took advantage of vacant land in the city's north end.

"We have one greenhouse and about an acre of outdoor space," says FoodCycles co-founder Sunny Lam. "While that doesn't sound like a lot, we've been able to grow and sell a tremendous amount of fresh food."

FoodCycles is the first farm that was built into Toronto, as opposed to being swallowed by it. FoodCycles was started by Lam and David Wild. Both were inspired by Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based organic farm. "They were doing a lot of good down stuff there," says Wild. "It seemed important to bring that farming model to Toronto."

The mission for FoodCycles is more than growing organic food. For Lam and Wild, the main priority for FoodCycles is to teach.

"We want to teach people about their food," says Lam. "We want to teach people how to grow their own food and how to create a healthy outlet for their lives, [including] how to get some exercise and to re-connect with the outdoors."

Lam is optimistic about the future of urban farming. "I think there's only so much of the daily rat race people can take in a city," he says. "With all the stress, people are going to start looking for some kind of hobby or outlet," says Lam. "Getting your hands in the dirt and getting back to the land is going to attract a lot of people."  [Tyee]

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