Gayle Chong Kwan

At the Crossroads (2018)

British Library
2 June 2018

At the Crossroads: Microclimate Sensory Banquet develops out of Microclimate, a work commissioned by Invisible Dust that I developed during Hull’s Year of Culture in 2017 in which I explored the contemporary politics of food in the context of the nineteenth-century walled garden at Normanby Hall.
I have responded to the unique site, context, and history of the British Library, and worked with the team and chefs, including a food scientist, at Global Generation’s Skip Garden and Kitchen King’s Cross to develop a research and produce-led sensory event, that explores ‘at the crossroads’ in three senses: the history of the area of King’s Cross as a place through which produce was transported; Britain in a wider ‘crossroads’ of food with other countries; and the ‘at the crossroads’ we face in relation to choices we make around our engagement with food.
For centuries the area where the British Library stands was a crossroads in the transportation of produce, including ice, which in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was brought by ship from Norway to Limehouse Basin then transferred on barges, drawn by horses, along Regent’s Canal to King’s Cross, and cattle which was
moved to nearby Smithfield Market, Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights…¹
Medieval recipe books attest to Britain’s long
use of ingredients from other countries, albeit for the privileged, however I was fascinated by recipe books that provide perspectives on gender and race in the context of Britain and its colonies, “do not lie about all day under a punkah in a dressing gown, reading trashy novels… when you lie down, take off all your garments… Then after a cup of early tea, get into fresh dainty kit once more and be ready to meet the “goodman” at tea…” And which reveal attitudes about the indigenous population, “If you possibly can, do not allow any servant to have the handling of the milk for the household… The tricks these people are up to to cheat over milk are almost unbelievable.”²
One can get lost in the wealth of recipes and
table plans, so it is a sobering reminder to read
of food inequality in the nineteenth century,
still relevant today, when soup kitchens served thousands of people every week and the feeding of starving children who attended school was debated, “Education, on the other hand, is necessary, not in order to exist, but in order to be a fitting member of a civilised community… Grant that there are a number of starving children to be fed.”³
Today’s banquet reflects on these historical food stories in relation to this unique site and invites you to explore the urgent contemporary ‘crossroads’ we face – as a culture, country, and species – as we consider how our food choices are impacting climate change and the health of future generations, and what we can all do to negate this.