Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

A time to meet,
a time to compost
your jack o’ lantern

October 14, 2009

A pumpkin gifted by Transition Town Utrecht's Alowieke, at the Utrecht Manifest Ultimate Meeting, a dinner hosted by Debra Solomon, in the Centraal Museum Utrecht.
Time to Meet jack o’ lantern gifted to the UM dinner by Alowieke of Transition Town Utrecht.

When Guus Beumer, artistic director of the Utrecht Manifest: Biennial for Social Design, asked me what I would like to contribute to the 2009 edition, I responded with a programme called Ultimate Meeting. I would invite a strategic group of people together for dinner to start planning resilient local food-systems. Due to its non-commercial nature, this activity was constantly being placed on the back burners of our agendas. It was high time to meet.

Ultimate Meeting guests sign in at a dinner hosted by Debra Solomon for the Utrecht Manifest, in the Centraal Museum Utrecht. Debra Solomon,
Forced authorship of the plan, guests sign in

As part of the UM programme Unforseen Magic, the Ultimate Meeting dinner was held last Thursday in Bas van Tol’s Koers Locale at Centraal Museum’s CM studio. Koers Locale was van Tol’s prescient W139 installation in 1992, a year before the public opening of the internet in the Netherlands. The installation represented the end of 80’s artist-activism before the digital public access of the 90’s temporarily turned the physical side of social engagement on its ear. As a location for the Ultimate Meeting, the Koers Locale was a fitting backdrop for a gathering of vital (Utrecht) food-related voices to come together and hash out some essential food system issues. I invited folks that by coincidence or by social construct until now had not been in communication with each other, folks who’s agendas would mutually benefit through discussion. Illustrious guests included representatives from Transition Town Utrecht Alowieke and Helmut, (who came bearing gifts!), Louis & Roland from Lekker Utregs, Rob from the City of Utrecht Planning and Development, Marijke from New Utrecht and a slew of other very important designers and design writers slash philosophers.

Confusing alliances cum table arrangements at the Ultimate Meeting dinner hosted by Debra Solomon for the Utrecht Manifest, in the Centraal Museum Utrecht. Debra Solomon,
Indelible seating arrangements

The subject of urban food production is an urgent one. We don’t flinch when we hear the term ‘national security’, and we are complicit with our governments’ actions, often to the detriment of our own civil liberties. But somehow we accept it as reasonable that we have a four-day food supply in urban areas. In this country we have a well-worked out 200-year plan for land and water management but only a four-day food supply that is by design dependent on fragile infrastructure.

A presentation of sustainable design principles that can be deduced from the Old Order Amish Ordnung by Cynthia Hathaway and Gwendolyn Floyd, Debra Solomon,
Ordnung muß sein. Cynthia Hathaway and Gwendolyn Floyd floored us with a presentation on the sustainable design principles of the Old Order Amish and Mennonites.

Food sovereignty is our right to define and produce our own food, our own forms of agriculture, how we will raise and treat our livestock and fisheries, and how we will ‘harvest’ ‘our’ oceans, in contrast to having our food supply primarily subject to global market forces largely beyond our control. Someone slightly more activist than I might posit that the folks in charge of our food since 1947, (the authors of the so-called Green Revolution) have done a consistently crap job. By the folks in charge I am referring to the policy level and the highest levels of the industrial food and agriculture business. These folks are responsible for creating and maintaining poorly designed food systems that result in food scarcity in parts of the world (some closer by than you may think), in high rates of farmer suicide, in the destruction of our natural habitat that is a prime contributor to the dangerous and sometimes irreversible forces effecting our climate. Creating effective means to invest in our own ‘resilient local food economies’ is a powerful mechanism for change. It is in this spirit that I held the Ultimate Meeting.

Dinner guests solving the world's problems at the Ultimate Meeting dinner hosted by Debra Solomon for the Utrecht Manifest, in the Centraal Museum Utrecht. Debra Solomon,
Guests simultaneously eat and save the world

Was this dinner successful? Did it meet my goals? Upon leaving, one guest held up his hand, and gesturing with his thumb and forefinger 8cm apart joked, ‘Tonight we made the world this much better.’ Now I don’t know how Ed managed to calculate a 4,5% improvement in the ‘world’ from this one little dinner in Utrecht, but he must have been thinking about the huge effect of all of those ultimate meetings of the past. The ones in which some economists and agronomists from 1947 onward decided that we should be spending less money on food and more money on flat screen TVs and cars. And throw-away fashion. The stuff that makes the ‘Economy’ grow. Now if you subtract all that stuffy-stuff, factor in one heq of a lot of social engagement and carry the two, it seems you do end up getting something close to a 4,5% improvement. Ed, that is huge!

The jack o' lantern gifted by Transition Town Utrecht starts to cave, and is taken on a one way trip to the Slim Pickins kitchen garden, Debra Solomon,
Who actually does know jack?

But seriously, on a practical level? The Ultimate Meeting had 24 guests. Transition Town Utrecht now knows 4 people in or related to the city council and 8 designers and 1 researcher that they can engage in setting up their food systems. Lekker Utregs has met at least 6 people that can be specifically useful in setting up their urban agriculture conference in November. 3 separate food entrepreneurs have met with 8 different people that have experience in setting up local food economies both on the farm and social entrepreneurial side. 8 internationally recognised designers have been introduced to the design principles of the Amish, the social design skills of the Transition Town movement and have opened themselves and their design practice to opportunities dealing with creating resilient (food) systems. One design magazine editor-in-chief was introduced to and became fascinated by the Transition Town movement. Probably more than but at least one conceptual artist and one researcher have learned about the activist tradition of Utrecht. And all 24 of us present at the Ultimate Meeting have committed ourselves to working to create food systems with a primarily social face. And that is huge.

debra at 16:31 | | post to

1 Comment »

  1. Here’s some great urban inspiration I came across from NYC:

    Not sure how useful it actually is at this stage, but it’s a great prototype to seed (haw, haw..! ; ) city dwellers with inspiration for this train of thought. I think it’s great. And it looks like fun!

    Comment by elarael — November 13, 2009 @ 9:13

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