Shortcake in Dhaka: Raymond Loewy and Culinary Metaphors in Design

This post reports on a 2012 lecture delivered at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh about “Strawberry Shortcake and Raymond Loewy’s Sears Cold Spot Super Six Refrigerator.” The invitation, content and response to the lecture practice a form of global design history that mediates cultural criteria of taste. In order to articulate design possibilities inherent in the public implications of personal preferences, the lecture hoped to generate a conversation about the relevance of design history for design practice in Bangladesh.

Method and Thesis

The lecture arose out of a larger book project that considers the role of metaphorical logic in Raymond Loewy’s 1951 autobiography, Never Leave Well Enough Alone.[1] The project offered a celebratory and cautionary reading of the autobiography and investigates the implications of his MAYA principle of palatable design for 20th Century American democracy. Using culinary references as metaphors of consumption and taste, the interpretation charts the evolution and decline of Raymond Loewy as a personification of industrial design’s superficial and substantive contributions to the American dream. In light of the eventual bankruptcy of Loewy International in 1976, his 1951 autobiography becomes a poignant self-aware and self-fulfilling statement of loss. The aim of the larger project was threefold:

  1. Offer exegetical analysis of Never Leave Well Enough Alone as an object of design mediated by Loewy’s construction of metaphors.
  2. Through a deconstructive reading of the text chart the demise of Loewy International as an inevitable culmination of Loewy’s MAYA principle.
  3. Place Loewy through his writing within a larger discussion about the material manifestation of democracy in 20th Century America.

The metaphorical, deconstructive and democratic reading of Loewy’s autobiography hoped to shed new light on American modern design and expose the public implications of our personal preferences as consumers and producers. Furthermore, the project suggested that in the post-industrial age of DIY, customization, 3D printing and user participation, articulations of emotive personal experiences and rationally deliberated public choice characterizes the democratic agency of design.

The primary goal of the class session in Dhaka was to test the pedagogical application of this metaphorical, deconstructive and democratic design history.  Specifically, I wanted to encourage design students to analyze the public and professional implications of their personal preferences as exemplified by Raymond Loewy’s autobiography. A convergence of the autobiographical, political and professional, characterizes Loewy’s successful period of production between 1930s and 1960s. Correspondingly disconnect evident in incomplete metaphors like “Swiss cheese and rye” accompany the decline of his practice. Learning from Loewy’s lesson, can designers translate their individual consumption habits into shared consumption? If we apply a metaphorical perspective to design inspiration, what directions might emerge?

Anatomy of the Class Session

Between two options on lecture topics, the BRAC University Dean of Architecture chose the option that discussed the design implications of American industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s preference for strawberry shortcake as a model for American identity and consumption habits. The other option was a lecture on William Morris and the critical relevance of the Arts and Crafts movement for Bangladesh that could re-contextualize issues of sustainability, craft, labor, materials, subjective expression and mechanical production. The dean’s choice of topic showed a preference for present relevance of disciplinary practice over historical re-interpretation. As such, the class session was motivated by an imperative to make design history directly relevant to studio practice rather than through a discussion about historical reception. The analysis of metaphors as design inspiration hoped to expose designer motivations instead of user interpretations.

I began the session by asking each student to write down a favorite food or dish (as it was the month of Ramadan, I subsequently apologized profusely for asking them to think about food at a time when many would be fasting). Not knowing the reason for writing down such a personal preference certainly left students trained towards rational responses somewhat confused. Despite their initial reluctance many did scribble down their preference.

Next, I spoke about French immigrant industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s chapter on “American Cooking” in his autobiography 1951 Never Leave Well Enough Alone. I made the argument that Loewy’s celebration of burgers and strawberry shortcake was consistent with his design aesthetic. I explained that:

Loewy invited a French friend of his for dinner in order to defend the reputation of American food. His menu consisted of cream of clams, fried chicken, corn fritters, braised endive, romaine salad and ended with strawberry shortcake.  He wrote, 

“The strawberry short cake was a dream. The old-fashioned biscuit was covered with a generous amount of ripe strawberries at the last minute to avoid sogginess. The fruit had been crushed ever so slightly and allowed to remain for an hour or so in a light syrup to which it transferred its flavor and its adorable pinkness. A restrained amount of fluffy whipped cream was placed on top. An important point: the cake as oven warmed, but the strawberries and whipped cream were cool. The contrast is pleasing.” [2]

The philosophy of simple and few ingredients, timely preparation, restrained cream and contrasting textures, I suggested, extended into his design. His Cold Spot Super Six can be interpreted to follow the same principle of the cake: Few parts, as in the few moving parts, restrained garnish as in the 3 vertical bands, contrast in texture, unity of exterior and compartments of interior etc. This retention of details, the haunting of the hausfrou aesthetic, supports his MAYA principle that his book advocates. The MAYA principle, an acronym, was a call to design with the MOST ADVANCED YET ACCEPTABLE technology. The three vertical stripes were the garnishes that made the technology of the refrigerator acceptable or palatable to American aesthetic taste.

This lesson of acceptability Loewy learned from the American housewives he criticized as being responsible for bland aesthetic and food. It was the housewives, who were the primary customers and consumers of his domestic products. He sought aesthetic balance between functionality and decorative that would make his Cold Spot Super Six so very popular (sales rose over 300%). By changing the ratio between the functional and the decorative, Loewy found the sweet spot of mid century modern American taste.

I summarized Loewy’s appreciation of strawberry shortcake in relation to his disdain for mayonnaise, I compared it to Adolf Loos’ celebration of roast beef, and finally, I connected Loewy’s ornament to function ratio evident in his refrigerator to the ratio of whip cream to shortcake.  My reading of Loewy’s culinary descriptions as metaphors for design connected the form of his refrigerator with the form of his dessert. Having charted the narrative, the relevance and the implication of Raymond Loewy’s preference for strawberry shortcake, I then asked the students to look at the food preference they wrote down. How would they translate their preference into a design aesthetic, as Loewy had?

Emergent Metaphors

The discussion that the story prompted is evidence of the critical and creative capacity of design history interpreted through cultural metaphors. In particular, the use of culinary metaphors permitted an analysis of rational relationships without privileging a particular system. For example, instead of conceptually arguing the merits of Loewy’s MAYA principle, we were able to discuss his logic of essential and ornamental dynamics.  I would like to highlight three questions that generated most dialogue related to attempts to translate cultural and culinary taste into visual taste.

1. Pizza and the Problem of Definition

When asked to share their food preferences, one student said that pizza was his favorite food. I should confess that I was expecting local dishes to be local favorites and that the preference for pizza surprised me. The student’s choice made me aware of my own simplistic cultural expectations. We asked, how would a preference for pizza translate into a local aesthetic? In trying to articulate the essential ingredients and structure of a pizza, the discussion quickly became about definitions of pizza. We identified the essential ingredients as dough, sauce and cheese. The ratio of these ingredients would determine a taste for the ornamental or the functional.  Toppings, beyond the three essential ingredients would be considered ornamental, even if meat.  We arrived at an aesthetic principle, whereby the essential and the ornamental were articulated through applied toppings over the basic ingredients of cheese, dough and sauce. This is when the logic of cheese, dough and sauce, was questioned. What if, what is understood as ‘pizza’ in Bangladesh is not consistent with what is understood as ‘pizza’ elsewhere? For example, many street vendors sell small flat dough rounds with a bit of sauce and meat, with little or no cheese, as pizza. Would that become the local articulation of a Western recipe? For people unaware of ‘Pizza Hut’ or American pizza, that would be the standard. What is the standard structure of pizza? Who decides? When does the definition of pizza fail?  Ironically, the minimal cheese version of pizza in Bangladesh, I suggested may be closer to the traditional Italian pizza. This comment raised another layer of complexity related to cultural translations of culinary recipes and by extension aesthetic criteria. We had started by talking about the proportion of essential and inessential, functional and ornamental, as a way to structure taste, yet the discussion quickly turned to the global flexibility of culinary definitions, and consequently aesthetic standards.  The problem of definitive aesthetic standards exposes an imperative towards an individual narrative of design. Depending on how a designer defines pizza, he or she can use it as a culinary recipe worthy of visual translation. The pizza metaphor allowed us to reconsider criteria of aesthetic relationships. How could we reimagine the Cold spot refrigerator through the logic of pizza, instead of strawberry shortcake? Would we allow more customizable ornamentation?

We also talked about how Loewy’s preference for burgers carried a different implication than the student’s preference for pizza. Loewy appreciated the portability, individuality of diner burgers. A pizza, although layered, is meant for collective consumption or individual slices. An aesthetic derived from a metaphor of pizza would permit, an individual and/or a collective experience, a casual but not portable experience, and a standard form with customizable options. The discussion of pizza was a proxy discussion about aesthetic structures through experiences of taste rather than stylistic conceptualizations.

2. Chicken Curry and the problem of a western meat and gravy dynamic

We also considered a cultural problem with Loewy’s identification of meat with the essential. In a Bengali context where spices determine the character of a dish, the significance of the protein content diminishes. In an attempt to apply Loewy’s logic to chicken curry our discussion faltered. Related to the question of definition, we asked, what makes a curry, the choice of protein, the method or the spices? The group agreed that the combination of spices determine the character of a curry. However without the meat, lentils or vegetables the spices would have no substance to adhere. The structure of curry seems to resist analysis into distinct components. The western criteria of layering fails when the ingredients are so inextricably codetermined that ascribing value as essential and inessential becomes impossible. There is no hierarchy of ingredients. How would such taste visually translate? How would we visually design without hierarchy but with coherent complexity? What makes a chicken curry cohesive? We considered not only the significance of multiplicity but also the increased role of process and layering of tastes. What would be a way to construct a layered and complex visual experience? Here Loewy’s promotion of simplicity through the metaphor of the strawberry shortcake failed to resonate.

3. Cardamom and the problem of qualified consumption

A third issue addressed during our discussion, concerned spices used for flavoring but not meant for consumption. For example, cardamom, tastes horrible, yet is deemed necessary for an enhanced smell.  Just as cinnamon bark or bay leaves are used extensively with the assumption that the diner will consciously not ingest these spices. How do we understand these intentional production inclusions and exclusions in consumption? This issue related to taste and use depends on local culinary convention. What may be equivalent visual conventions? A basic understanding of the use of spices is needed in order for the consumer to determine which spices are meant for direct consumption. How do we understand and design for process residue? How do we resolve the paradox of spices essential for taste but not consumption? In the Loewy logic of essential and ornamental, what would cardamom be defined as? The problem of cardamom returns us to the limits of the Loewy logic whereby design distinctions between the essential and the ornamental are culturally and locally determined.

Conclusion: Towards A Metaphorical History of Design?

These problems of interpretation, definition and application allow us to rethink design as a constructed dynamic between the practical and the symbolic, the essential and the superficial. It allowed for a shared discussion about design history and philosophy by proxy through a discussion about our personal experiences of food. My primary teaching intent was to expose the creative potential of personal narrative in design disciplines. I invoked Loewy’s autobiographical moment as a way to reinforce the professional implications of personal preferences. In doing so, I hoped students would find design potential inherent in their personal passions and choices, beyond culinary examples.

About teaching design history in Bangladesh, the lecture reminded me that local design identity is complex and not simply a matter of Western engagement or non-engagement. The students as cosmopolitan citizens of the world live multi-cultural lives where local and global influences are indistinguishable.[3] They are less interested in a quest for local identity and more interested in a search for global relevance. I suspected that if I present design principles instead of forms then possible options for applications would increase.  For example by introducing the MAYA principle in association with Loewy’s personal preferences and aesthetic criteria, instead of simply introducing Loewy and his streamline look of the Coldspot Super Six, we open interpretative possibilities beyond identifying a historical moment of stylistic evolution.

The class discussion helped me interpret my own research from an oblique and peripheral perspective. Reading Loewy in Dhaka highlighted his philosophy as premised on cultural assumptions that require critique for inspiration and qualified application. His designs were most successful when his metaphors resonated with his target audience in America. He identified his own style as contemporary American, not modern, not streamlined. He deliberately tried to merge American tradition with mechanical simplicity. As a Frenchman, cultural interpretation was a necessary condition for the development of his profession in the U.S. and the definition of his MAYA principle. Ironically, the success and failure of his design firm rested on his interpretative capacity to determine cultural acceptability.

About the use of metaphorical interpretation as a design method, I agree with John Maeda’s formulation that,

Metaphors are useful platforms for transferring a large body of existing knowledge from one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge. But metaphors are only deeply engaging if they surprise along some unexpected, positive dimension……A metaphor used as a learning shortcut for a complex design is most effective when its execution is both relevant and delightfully unexpected.[4]

Metaphors allow us to reinterpret the familiar through a change in perspective. Serving strawberry shortcake in Dhaka was an unexpected pedagogical way to introduce Raymond Loewy’s design inspiration as a provocation for students to rethink their own design motivations outside the studio. Design history can be a tool for practice only if it can lead designers back to the studio, obliquely, by orientation outside the studio. The metaphorical approach allowed us to have a design conversation about seemingly “undesigned” experiences of taste and sensation.

Similarly, In Metaphors We Live By, authors Lakoff and Johnson, argue that metaphors are a coherence of experienced connections that challenge a conceptual correspondence theory of reality.[5] The advantage of a metaphorical interpretation is at least twofold: first, it permits connections of otherwise unrelated experiences and second, metaphors allow us to focus on lived experience over conceptual abstraction through partial structuring. Lakoff and Johnson, distinguish metaphorical structuring (example: argument is war) from conceptual subcategorization (example: an argument is a conversation) and explain that metaphors allow orientation, variation, direction, emotion, and cultural mediation. Most significantly, for design, metaphorical structuring by designers allows comparisons and translations of experiences rather than concepts. According to Lakoff and Johnson,

From the experientialist perspective, metaphor is a matter of imaginative rationality. It permits an understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another, creating coherence by virtue of imposing gestalts that are structured by natural dimensions of experience. New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and therefore, new realities.[6]

Successful new metaphors are able to resonate with others by structurally re-interpreting shared imagination and experiences. For example, Raymond Loewy’s example of burgers as a portable and layered bite of democracy was a relatable way to describe modern American living without formality.  By appealing to culinary metaphors of consumption, a designer can construct systems of coherence that shares personal experience. From Raymond Loewy we learn that the social resonance of these translated lived experiences determines, design success. We also learn the commercial and cultural limits of shared object focused experience. Particularly, as we shift towards the design of integrated experiences over the design of distinct products, the metaphor of dining experience offers clues toward constructing a narrative of tastes that encompass multi-senses and multi-cultures.  Shortcake in Dhaka facilitated a discussion about cross-cultural cooking metaphors as relevant to design practice. Furthermore, the discussion offered a post-colonial moment of reversal in perspective that challenged conventional interpretations of the MAYA principle.[7] The session practiced a metaphorical translation of experience into design motivation and made design history a tool for practice in the following ways:

First, the metaphorical interpretation framed a trans-cultural discussion about design inspiration. It allowed for a conversation about a shared experience of eating to be qualified by subjective experiences of taste. The response to the question, how could your favorite food motivate your design aimed to prompt considerations of identity, everyday practice, intentionality that shows everyday experience outside the studio as the possibility of conceptual projections in the studio.

Second, the discussion moved between gastronomic taste and visual taste and encouraged students to imagine multi-sensory experiences of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. This way design inspiration can be invoked from experiences beyond visual response.

Third, the metaphorical interpretation of Loewy’s autobiography presented living experience as a condition of design inspiration. Indeed, the students live a global condition of eating pizza and curry in Dhaka. Instead of conceptualizing design and globalization, students recognize their everyday lives as a global encounters, at the dinner table, in the streets and in the studio.

The metaphorical reading enhanced both the pedagogical and critical potential of design history. This may be a small but significant step towards articulating a multi-cultural conversation centered on diversity of experience and unity of objective materiality. It relates to current efforts towards global design history that overcomes center-periphery dynamics, a Western meta-narrative and an academic dominance of the English language. The Loewy metaphor of strawberry shortcake exposed continuities of personal and professional activities, experience and concept, consumption and production. In turn, the qualified metaphorical resonance of strawberry shortcake in Dhaka, as a discussion about the dynamics between fundamental and ornamental features, actively demonstrated cultural constructions of design connections.

In short, multi-cultural, multi-sensory and multi-dimensional experiences exposed by metaphorical interpretations of design history empower designers to construct their own “new realities.”

[1] Raymond Loewy, Never Leave Well Enough Alone. 1951. Baltimore: John Hopkins University.

[2] Raymond Loewy, Never Leave Well Enough Alone. 1951. Baltimore: John Hopkins University.

[3] Geeta Kapur, essay in Contemporary Art in Asia, 2011. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[4] John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity. 2006. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p. 41.

[5] Lakoff and Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Ibid, 235. Emphasis to the phrase “Imaginative rationality” is mine.

[7] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture. 1994. Oxford: Routledge.

Image and recipe for Strawberry Shortcake from:

Strawberry Shortcake

Hungry Philosopher and Starving Artists


( you are good at that my artist and creative friends),

you walk into my counseling office.

You seat yourself in a red mid-century modern chair. No arm rests. You fold your hands on your lap and notice that you are sitting upright. You allow yourself to lean into the back support. You look around for clues to what might happen next: the white board, the desk, the pens, the walls, me across from you. Your eyes rest on the rug under your feet. I ask you…..

How do you feel about your art?

You are most welcome to share your thoughts in the comments below or just hold them gently in your heart.

Hungry philosophers and starving artists are always looking to fill themselves with meaning and beauty. How do you endure the uncertain tide of human feelings, starting with your own? How do you allow as Betye Saar says “creative grieving”?

Artist Betye Saar with a background that includes social work and design, my hero, talks about risking ridicule in efforts to raise universal consciousness and in dealing with personal emotions. I wonder how she would answer my soft question. In a way it maybe easier to talk about the role of art for society than the role of art for you or your relationship to your own art.

“I think the chanciest thing is to put spirituality in art,” Ms. Saar says as she gently shifts elements of the assemblage around, trying this combination and that. “Because people don’t understand it. Writers don’t know what to do with it. They’re scared of it, so they ignore it. But if there’s going to be any universal consciousness-raising, you have to deal with it, even though people will ridicule you.”

“And you have to deal with personal emotions, because they’re there,” she added. “I think people are afraid of those too. My younger sister’s husband died this year. I said to her, you’ve got to start making something beautiful. Beauty is a form of spirituality. Once you start making something with your hands, the healing starts. I call this creative grieving.”

– Betye Saar

Being Extra: the sauce of life

I am an extra.

I am a non-speaking character in a coffee shop background sipping coffee and staring at my laptop. There are raindrops on the windows, a blade of grass moving in the wind outside, cars moving past on the road, murmuring conversations, a large orange sculpture, a concrete floor, a sneeze, a ding, words, a child’s cry, salt and pepper shakers, iphones, mugs, music wafting above the hum of mid-morning conversations, a green shirt, smell of eggs and coffee, fingers on the keyboard, people behind the counter waiting, people behind the counter making lunch, yellow road signs, an itch on the neck, words on the wall, wood tables, metal chairs, stripes and me.

I don’t despair being an extra. Extras in books, movies or television are never credited with names, just actions, like, “shop keeper” or “crying child.” I am a silent actor in your story, a voiced actor in mine. You can only see my actions, my role as an extra. You don’t see my inner monologue, my struggles, my joys, my worries or my guilt. Recognizing that I am an extra in the world, a silent actor is surprisingly empowering. As you walk by my table where I type, I can trip you or smile, I may not change your story but I color it with my actions. I don’t have to be the main protagonist. The main character depends on the extra. That is the secret: we are all extras. Being extra. I came to see myself as an extra and found an extraordinary life. I stopped trying to be named, stopped trying to be the main character, a proper noun.

Philosophy, art, religions all try to address our longing to connect to something larger, more meaningful than us. This is another attempt. An extra attempt.

We all share the small things, like coffee cups, salt, phones, chairs and walls and the big, like cities, roads, landscapes, clouds, and water. How we focus shape how our individual perspectives live and interact. You are an extra in the stories of almost everyone you meet today. You can probably count the people in your life who are essential on your fingers.

You are an extra.

Moving beyond identity politics, religion, gender, into object-hood into being extra. Being both more and less. Being Extra.

Depending on your outlook you could interpret the title “Being Extra” as either as being more, extraordinary or being waste, extraneous. We are always both: extraordinary and extraneous. It depends on your taste.

I arrived at this question when reading Adolf Loos’ modernist manifesto Ornament and Crime. All sauces he said was ornamental. The modern man eats roast beef. From my South Asian perspective, beef was ornamental, mostly used as a flavoring for curries and only the main component twice a year, weddings and celebrations when a sacrifice was offered. Always ritualized and associated with a momentous occasion.

Adolf Loos’ food example to explain modern architecture and design stuck in my thoughts.

What are your favorite sauces? Your favorite extras? Do you add spicy hot sauce to your dishes, maybe sweet-salty honey mustard, or maybe tart-sweet bbq sauce? How do you flavor your life?

Dessert is always extra, more than, beyond functional, ornamental and as a habit, dangerously unhealthy. Maybe that’s why we crave it. A British Toffee Pudding Cake draped in sweet toffee sauce is definitely extra. Here is a recipe.

Wishing you extra,





Mario Batali on Creative Discipline

I love to cook. LOVE to eat. Love to watch and read anything related to cooking and eating. I watched Food Network grow up along with my daughter born in 1995. My love of cooking and my children are so interwoven that I can’t help but think of one without the other.

Conventional wisdom tells us to “do what you are passionate about.” I am certainly passionate about food but I don’t want to do it professionally.

For one simple reason:  I am incapable of consistency.

Skill-wise, I am a culinary child bouncing between passionate experimentation. My cooking doesn’t have the maturity of disciplined and consistent devotion.

I admire those who can run restaurants, catering businesses and the most attractive of all… trucks. But I am content with my “Try the World Boxes,” my “spicebar” experimentations, my Lucky Peach, Southern Living, Saveur, Cooking Light sticky notes.

After all, I have practice being an admirer of the arts as a design historian and as a philosopher focused on aesthetics. I am a trained spectator and cheerleader. An appreciative eater and a curious cook.

I will not be the next Food Network Star. Or, the next celebrity chef. And, that’s absolutely okay.

After reading Mario Batali’s article in Lucky Peach, I feel reassured of my decision NOT to attend culinary school or embark on a culinary career despite my long-standing fascination.

When you go to these three-star Michelin restaurants, repetition is the fundamental driving truth behind it, not that the cooks got whipped. It’s that they had to do it again and again and again. And you go to Michel Guérard or Roger Vergé and you have those zucchini blossoms stuffed with the black truffle and the little porky thing that’s around it. Thirty-five years on that dish is still a revolution; it’s still unbelievable. It’s not just creativity—sometimes it’s productivity and repetition. That’s discipline. It’s hard for people to understand that repetition is the discipline that these guys think they’re missing because no one can anymore.

Wise chef Batali explains the need for repetition and discipline in shaping super chefs – “it’s not just creativity – sometimes it’s productivity and repetition.”

Particularly, in the West where creativity and individuality are highly prized, the crucial role of simple repetition gets lost.  The culinary need for discipline holds true for any arts,  whether visual or performing. Discipline sharpens creativity.

I’m happy to waft in and out of the kitchen, my messy playground. Sometimes I’m lucky to be an appreciative eater of work by disciplined culinary designers.

Wishing you happy weekend eats,



For the full article click the link below:






Justaddwater: Bringing molecular gastronomy home


The January issue of the popular design magazine Metropolis has a short story about the designed nutrition and flavor system branded “justaddwater.” The designers call this a nutrition ecosystem that adjusts to the needs of the user, recommends and prepares appropriate meals (with the inclusion of flavor pills and fresh ingredients). Its like a strange mix of convenient keurig machine and a responsive nest climate controller. It takes the cooking out of cooking and offers a healthy replacement for precooked meals or fast food. For a restricted diet, it certainly would be helpful. Here is a quote from,

‘justaddwater’ is a step toward transferring the food revolution of molecular gastronomy from exotic and high-end restaurants into the home, expanding the trend from elite consumers, to the more mainstream market. its values lie in bringing new appreciation to what we put into our bodies — gratifying one through gastronomic pleasure, while respecting food, its associated rituals and nutritional values. above all, it aims at doing this through a renewed design language, merging the artificial with the natural in a way that is beneficial and does not pose any friction.

The websites below have demonstrations and more information about this future direction in food design. What do you think?

koz susani design harvest justaddwater nutrition ecosystem

Food, Color and Happiness


Truck Image from:

A blogger from Tasmania, Australia, Harry wrote an entry entitled The Happiest City in the World that referred to Rajshahi, Bangladesh, voted the happiest city on earth by the World Happiness Survey in 2006. What accounts for the happiness in such a difficult social, political and economic context? He asked. His blog entry was again published in The Bangladesh Reader (Duke, 2013) for its vivid description of his dinner and travel experience in Bangladesh. For me, hungryphil, the association of dinner and colorful trucks with general happiness supports my suspicion regarding the inherent sociality and creativity of consumption, both food and design. Here is an excerpt from Harry’s blog:

Dinner last night, had at Aristocrat roadhouse halfway between Rajshahi and Dhaka, was a perfect illustration of this. After my favourite Bangladeshi meal, dhal makhani, was served I watched as each of my Bangladeshi colleagues served each other before serving themselves and, having noticed the plate of the person next to them emptying, stopped eating mid-mouthful to add yet more naan to their culinary neighbour’s plate. Such displays of caring and gentleness cycled around the table throughout the meal, naturally amongst the customary pleas of ‘No, no, that’s too much.’ But it would be rude to deny the friendship and, after approaching proficiency in eating with my hands (right hand puckered into the shape of a badminton shuttlecock as it gathers up the food and elephant trunks it into your mouth; left hand avoiding direct food contact but used to spoon yet more dhal onto your plate and the plates of those around you) we rolled down the ornate Aristocrat stairs and into the waiting minibus. It was time to see more of Bangladeshi’s colour, and the road was as good a place as any to observe it.

Bangladeshi trucks must be of the most colorful in the world. With a framing coat of canary yellow, each panel is painted with utopian scenes of snow-capped mountains, meandering rivers, enchanted forests and fairytale palaces; verdant greens, royal blues, crimson reds and burnt oranges. No pastel shades for vibrant Bangladesh. Even the central hub of the rear differential is painted, usually mimicking that of half a large soccer ball. Whereas the trucks are simply glaringly colourful, the passenger rickshaws are both colorful and ornate. Gold, silver and bronze are added, as is the standard shocking pink. The flat-tray rickshaws don’t escape colour either: the slatted sides are painted in alternating blocks of yellow, red, blue, green and orange. Even the twin-light Victorian-style Rajshahi lampposts get the colour treatment with one bulb shining pink, the adjacent one green.

I wonder how I might conduct a study that attempts to find correlations between food sharing, use of color and happiness. In a land of poverty, sharing transforms into a self-negating and revolutionary act. The performance of serving and attending to fellow diners is both an obligation and right of the host. One always offers to fill up another’s plate. If only this sentiment translated into all our actions. Similarly, the brightly decorated trucks attempt to ameliorate the confusion of Bangladeshi roads and aggressive driving. As if the well dressed deserves the right of way. Hmmm. Color masks and highlights the threat of the Bangladeshi roads, just as dinner gestures of sharing masks and highlights scarcity. Is this another expression of what Dan Gilbert names synthetic happiness? The willful construction of joy. Synthetic happiness, Glibert argues is as potent as the natural happiness we experience when we get what we want.

Could it be that food and design are both activities of synthetic happiness through which we fabricate shared joy despite our human condition? Is that the lesson of the World Happiness Survey?



Learning (and Eating) from Las Vegas



Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi and Dennis Scott Brown, published 1977, was a postmodern call to celebrate the vernacular and everyday. The images of the strip bustling with billboards and signs challenged the way architects thought about the formal role of commercial and public buildings. The architects, Venturi and Brown, argued against modernist “holier than thou” purist abstraction and suggested that the Vegas strip satisfied a collective emotional longing for the imagined American main street. The post-modern architectural manifesto venerated buildings that spoke volumes through billboards and bright signs of human lust, gluttony and greed. Building that spoke of the messy reality of life instead of an idealized vision projected on a drafting table.

One might argue that today Las Vegas is anything but common and everyday and has lost its 1970s main street appeal. Sure the scale and brightness of the signs have grown to fantastic proportions yet the content is the same: gambling, entertainment and food.

Yes, FOOD.


The extravagance of Las Vegas buffets has long been legendary. My recent visit to The Bacchanal at Ceasar’s Palace certainly supports it’s fame by boasting over 500 international dishes. I felt both dizzy with the seemingly infinite choices and doomed in my incapacity to enjoy all of it. An existential crisis of sorts looking into the cauldron of infinite gastronomical choices. The scripted labels announcing each dish to the diner mimicked the billboards outside. The buffet is an easy architectural translation of gastronomic and aesthetic choice where individual preference has priority over collective good (for example: a school cafeteria lunch). The Bacchanal was NO school cafeteria.

I was surprised how deliberately and unrelentingly celebrity chefs and their restaurants were promoted. Indeed, food tourism has taken a very strong cross media hold in Las Vegas. As an avid Food Network, Cooking Channel viewer I was both soothed by the familiar and overwhelmed by the dominance of personality over food. Are we witnessing the rise of popular haute cuisine as inaccessibly expensive exercises of vanity and commerce or is it a sign of innovative gastronomic experiments? I imagine a bit of both, but how do I decipher the difference? First of all, I can’t afford the $$$$ Yelp range, so that takes care of that dilemma. Even so, there still remains much to choose from.

The privilege of individual preference particularly in Las Vegas makes my experience limited and almost too particular to be worth rational judgment. So, the following is not a review but merely an account of three meals touched by television celebrity. Were my expectations different? Did my food taste different? Did the “chef-signature” affect the quality of the experience? In the buffet of signs, architectural and gastronomic, how do we make a choice?

Yelp did not help me in this overwhelming situation where the quality is generally equivalent. Reviews only matter if you know what you personally like. Maybe I like standard overpriced well cooked steak and potatoes, maybe my feet are tired and despite mixed reviews and warnings of bad service, I’ll eat anything. Maybe I’m lost and I can’t find the four star rated restaurant and instead I have to settle for something else that turns out to be fantastic……………sometimes the uncertainty is too great for the collective might of Yelp. As it should be.


Pastry Chef Jean-Philippe Patisserie at the Bellagio

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Boasts the world largest chocolate fountain. The choice to visit was easy. Did not know much about the chef and consequently did not have specific expectations. Had breakfast of an Almond Brioche. The bread was a beautifully toasted platform for the slightly sweet almond cream with roasted and crunchy almond flakes. It was delicate and substantive, creamy and crunchy, sweet and slightly salty from the almonds. It was early enough, without a crowd, to eat and enjoy the view of the chocolate fountain. The small and intimate scale of the space heightened the glistening and precious sweets beckoning beyond the glass cases. Next time, I’ll have to have something chocolate. In context, the chocolate fountain made sense and was not a mere publicity stunt. The chocolate fountain summoned us like a religious relic and we as pilgrims rejoiced at the sight and taste. The pastries were quite literally and visually the centerpiece of the establishment (not the personality of the pastry chef). I appreciate the obvious love of crafted sweets that converts indulgence into an art form.

Table 10 Chef Emeril Lagasse at the Palazzo

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We were tired from walking in the sun and looking for a break around three in the afternoon. Table Ten was a lucky surprise. My sister and I shared the little lobster rolls. Our meal was too small and tame to justify the big personality of BAM! Emeril Lagasse. I can’t fault him for my sense of being underwhelmed. The décor that included multiple chef coats, Emeril spice mixes, cooking tools, alongside the open kitchen highlighted the celebrity chef appeal of the restaurant. The familiar taste of the lobster roll was amplified by a touch of celebrity vanity. Maybe the Lagasse signature convinced me that it was better than it was. Served the same thing anywhere else, my response would be “ Wow! this is very good” instead of “this very good and of course it should be.” Did my high expectations weaken my experience? Does more information enhance or diminish the taste? Like knowing how something is made or who made it?

China Poblano at the Cosmopolitan by Chef Jose Andres

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Intrigued by the hybrid concept, I hoped and planned for visiting China Poblano. Visually the restaurant maintains the duality by splitting the space into the China side with a dumpling-making area and the Mexico side with a taco-making area. Visitors seated at the “bar” that winds across both work stations can watch the busy construction of dumplings and tacos as they eat. The walls are decorated with masks and large prints depicting both cultures. The restaurant boasts a 40-40-20 split, whereby, each culture is represented 40% and 20% of the dishes represent a “marriage,” not a fusion, of flavors (this according to the hotel publicity channel). Owing to the dual theme (and being already very full from our visit to Table 10) we ordered the guacamole that was being made in front of us at the “bar,” salsa and chips and the beef watermelon radish suimai. Our order reflected the combination of cultures and as well as a combination of familiar and unfamiliar tastes. The beef suimai was new and unfamiliar, tasted like an exotic lemongrass flavored barbacoa wrapped in a dumpling noodle. Experimentation, playfulness, excitement infused the food and the environment. It is an appropriate restaurant for The Cosmopolitan. The theatricality of the space and food production was a happy surprise. It was a learning experience: of how the familiar can feel strange like fantastically fresh guacamole in warm corn tortillas and conversely, how the strange can feel familiar like beef suimai. The tastes were beyond judgments of good or bad: I don’t know if I “liked” the suimai. BUT…it certainly was interesting and thought provoking. To me, a philosopher, that’s worth it. I had also been to Jaleo, same chef but with a very different vibe (Spanish tapas), in D.C with my daughter for her birthday. The menu, atmosphere, food, wait staff, open kitchens everything about China Poblano conveyed its legend of a kidnapped Asian girl taken on a long voyage to Mexico. It makes me wonder about other possible legends, a Bengali in Bolivia? My visit to China Poblano was certainly a trip!

Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace was on my wish list. I appreciate the bright open welcoming design of the restaurant. The menu is visible from the street as are diners enjoying the fare. Again, much like the many restaurants in Las Vegas with open kitchens and dining rooms, eating is a spectacle at the Burger Palace. Alas, I had no room to take in the show.

The spectacle of food raised to level of theatrical entertainment competes for our attention and money. Images of the Cake Boss, Giada, Bobby Flay are displayed alongside the Beatles, The Blue Man Group, Cirque de Soleil, magic shows and adult entertainment. The visual and the gastronomic are now combined as the theatrical experience of Las Vegas hyperreality. This is not the era of static billboards but giant dynamic video screens. Celebrity chefs perform online, on T.V and through the fantasy of their restaurants. What I learned through visiting these three establishments is their vision as displayed and interpreted by designers and their taste as performed and imitated by local culinary talent. It’s a production like any other.

So, does the “signature-chef” experience affect the quality of the experience? Like all good philosophical questions the answer is both: yes and no.

For me (quality level being generally equal) the answer depended mostly on my expectation and my physical state (hungry, tired). How do you decide where to go, what to eat and how much you enjoyed the experience? In the buffet of restaurants what is your criteria? What LOOKS good to you?

It seems, there is still a lot to learn from Las Vegas both visually and gastronomically.

Confessions of an Egghead

” The most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.” …..from How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher


“So beautiful in conception! The symbol of progress! If the egg were any other shape, the life of the hen would be intolerable.” ….. Raymond Loewy,  French American Industrial Designer


In the kitchen, the egg is ultimately neither ingredient nor finished dish but rather a singularity with a thousand ends.” ……Egg by Michael Ruhlman


Previously, I had mentioned my adoration of the egg. For my birthday, my Jim, gave me Ruhlman’s recent ode to the humble egg. It is the most romantic gift that I have ever received. I’m not being sarcastic. Really. The man obviously knows and loves me well.

The images are as sensual, as instructive, a gastronomic kama-sutra.  The chapters are divided into the multiple methods an egg can be employed:  in shell, out of shell, whole, separated, separated and reunited. Each recipe begins with a narrative that relates the history of recipe, the variations and sometimes even the limitations. The recipes are in both grams and cups! yay…thank you Mr. Ruhlman for indulging our American hubris. There is even a pull out flowchart (which I must frame)! Anyway, didn’t mean to write a review. (Sorry, force of academic habit.) Ahhhh. look at this. As I’m writing this blog with the cooking channel on,  I see Giada’s episode entitled, what else….”eggilcious.” I better go.

The point is…………..eggs are magnificent, comforting, binding, fluffy, frothy, sweet, salty, spicy, hard, soft, liquid, fragile, hard and so much more. What did I have for my birthday breakfast, you might ask? A sunny side up egg with a dash of Tobasco sauce on white buttered toast with guava jelly. Yum. I love eggs.

“Food is often …

“Food is often the way to “knock” and engage a community. We all bring wine or a dish to thank friends or family for hosting. We eat with new friends to ritualize and legitimize our engagement, even if we don’t really like the particular dishes.”

This quote comes from Bruce Nussbaum’s book “Creative Intelligence” in reference to culturally responsive design strategies. After describing his first necessary taste of Monkey Brains…..yes, monkey brains in the Philippines, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he talks about how Lenovo reached a rural audience and marketed their computers better than HP and Dell. Here’s how Nussbaum explains the strategy of “knocking,”

“According to Fast Company, in rural China, people frequently buy PCs as wedding gifts. A computer purchase is not merely a market transaction, based on price; it’s a gift that provides the foundation for a lifetime of social interactions between two families. So the box, the packaging, the entire presentation, is crucial. By making the box representative of the gift it contained, Lenovo was able to capture more of the rural market than HP — a knock worth hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.”

Food as social and commercial strategy emphasizes and validates culturally shared experiences, even if different from our own cultures. The theatrical performance of the Lenovo box as a component of a wedding ritual conveys cultural respect, just as eating monkey brains. It may or may not influence our own tastes or meaning. I don’t think Nussbauam eats monkey brains habitually now. The gesture is enough. One does not need to like monkey brains in order to connect with those who do. But…….one has to at least try it, once. In the case of Lenovo….it wasn’t even the meal but the platter that made all the difference. So much of what designers do involves the aesthetic (articulate and material) presentation of constructed meaning. Food helps us practice the skill of human generosity. Makes me want to host a party! Would paper plates imply disrespect? Maybe not the well designed ones…….41MVIMU75IL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_