Guest Post: Aural Fixation: Swapping Sound for Taste in Retellings of Food History (Special Series: Food and Technology)

As part of the Special Series: Food and Technology, today's guest post by Anna Sigrithur, will continue the discussion on the role of technology in representations of food.

Aural Fixation : Swapping Sound for Taste in Retellings of Food History

If I were to ask you which of your senses are most necessary to enjoy eating, what would you say? Before you answer, please consider this: Would it be as satisfying, if when taking a bite into a big juicy apple, instead of the expected snap crunch slurp there was… silence? Or if while bringing a pot of water to a boil, there was no hiss burble clank to alert you of its completion? For most of us, the answer is no. Cooking and eating are highly sensual activities meaning they engage all of the senses-- taste, smell, sound, touch, sight-- which combine in various ways (according to sensory ability) to create meaning. Yet despite this fact, sound is not the first thing you might think of when you consider food’s sensual impact on us. You might chalk that up to the dominance of taste, but as it turns out, sound is actually really important to eating: Sensory scientists such as Barbara Vad Andersen have shown that hearing ourselves chew food adds to our pleasure of the meal and our ability to sense satiety. And, like the satisfying sizzle of an egg dropping onto a properly heated pan, or the telltale pitch crescendo of a jug filling with liquid, sounds provide us with important sensory cues to help us make sense of what we are doing, and even avoid mishap or danger. As a reporter working in the audio-only world of podcasting- and podcasting about food specifically- I can not give you tastes, aromas, visuals nor textures to enhance your sensual experience of the story. What I can give you is sound.

When audio is all you’ve got, each non-verbal sound is like body language, either adding to what you are saying-- or sending mixed signals. Sound, as in the timbre of someone’s voice; sound as in the hubbub of a noisy kitchen; sound as in a song that evokes a certain emotional response. So how do you capture them? There are two primary ways to obtain sounds: find them in the wild and record them (called in industry jargon, "ambient sounds," or "ambi"), or create them yourself (called "foley"). Whether I’m mixing ambient sounds and foley under an interview, or working on a piece that centres field recordings, I try to be very careful in how the sounds are selected so that I might better heighten the listener’s sensory experience. If I am producing an interview, is there a part where the person starts telling a specific story? If so, how can I create subtle sounds (like some footsteps, or a car-door slamming) that would enhance what the person is saying? If I am out in the field, I am wise to keep my ears out for the things that might make interesting sounds. Am I visiting a farm where the farmer is milking a cow? My mic should be as close to that milk spraying the pail as possible without it getting soaked. When that sound gets mixed into the piece, it not only adds to the complexity and sonic texture, but draws the listener in, and tells them information that I then do not have to narrate in words. Like body language, sounds can often deliver information that words cannot.

The podcast I am currently producing, The Oxford Food Symposium Podcast, is unique in both its limitations and opportunities for creative use of these kinds of sounds. In the series, I report on the food histories shared by the researchers who present at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery (a long-running multidisciplinary food conference held in Oxford, UK) and turn them into half hour scripted episodes. Reporting on history feels to me like a bit like a paradox- I cannot time-travel back to 1930s Los Angeles, nor to ancient Babylonia in order to field record the happenings then and there. So, what we have to work with is the voice of the researcher recounting their research. Because of that, what we are really doing in the series is telling history in its most elemental form: oral tradition. This simplicity of structure lends itself well to sonic embellishment. In each episode, I look for the portals in the story where, with the help of sounds, the listener might time-travel to a different world, not only hearing the story but feeling it; being in it. Humans have been called the ‘storytelling animal’ because of our neural wiring to best gain information through a story and I see podcasting as a contemporary circling back to this enduring truth.

Yet podcasts are only part of the resurgence of storytelling in the media landscape of today. The recent proliferation of start-ups and consumer research informed tech companies have figured out that we’re all a sucker for narrative, as noted by Magdalena Zubiel-Kasprowicz. Clever clickbait writers hack our capacity to latch onto story and use it against us for their own profit. And that doesn’t feel very good. Stories are also themselves now more than ever a commodified product- think of the dizzying quantity of Netflix shows and new podcasts out there that all purport to be bringing us an incredible tale that you just can not miss! But there’s good to all of this of course. I observe that we are finally realizing that in order to make information accessible to the widest array of people, it needs to have some kind of human element to it. It needs a story.

And so if you, like the rest of us story-loving homo sapiens, want to start your own podcast, you can do so. There are one million and one articles on the internet telling you how to do that- how to get listeners, how to get sponsorships, how to ‘storytell for your business’, etc., and this is not one o those articles. What I would like to embolden you to do is to consider how non-verbal sounds can play a role in your communication, whatever it may be. Can you field record and capture the sonic imprint of a place in time? Can you make or use music to emphasize and bolster the narration? Can you try capturing (or even finding online) foley sounds to sculpt your soundscape? See if you can find a way to use sound to say something authentic, something you can’t say with words. Going back to the food analogy, life, like food is a sensual experience- it grabs hold of you by the receptors and shakes meaning into you. Life, like food, is bland when our senses are not awakened by it. And so, if you want to tell a story with flavour, try to season it using the one sense you’ve got to work with.

I believe the same is true for history. History gets a bad rap for being bland, full of names dates and focusing on stories that none of us can relate to. But food-- sensual, quotidien, messy-- every person on earth can relate to food. And so food history has the potential to tell some of the most compelling stories, carrying with them not just ideas about a single food, but a deeper, more human picture of the world. There are plenty of ways to do this and podcasting is just one of them. For me though, swapping taste for sound helps to keep the senses engaged and besides, there’s something about using an aural approach to an oral medium that just feels right.

Anna Sigrithur is an audio producer, artist and food researcher. Her work explores ideas and practices found in food history and culture, sensory perception, food preservation, microbiology, ecology, feminism and body politics. Find her work at The Oxford Food Symposium Podcast is currently taking a few months off to work on releasing a comprehensive Season One in the spring, so follow them @OxfordFoodSymp on Twitter to stay in the loop.