Eat the Street invited members of the public to join a group of school kids for dinner at one of Birmingham’s restaurants. For the price of a meal the audience was invited to sit with the kids whilst they proffered opinion and critique on various aspects of the restaurant, from the food itself to the décor, staff and facilities.
On a rainy Wednesday evening we met at The Karczma, a traditional Polish restaurant. The interior is quite extraordinary; the ceiling is thatched, the walls are adorned with animal pelts and painted murals, sheepskins are draped over dark wooden benches, and stuffed, straw and taxidermied animals populate the restaurant. The menu is unapologetically meat oriented and features traditional dishes such as “wonderful spicy soup made with beef tripe” and “roasted pork knuckle”. Other Polish classics include Pierogi (stuffed dumplings), Berszcz (beetroot soup), Pickled Herring, Zurek (pickled rye flour soup) served from a hollowed out loaf of bread. Not your typical children’s fare.
Our fellow diners, and critics for the evening, were from Wheelers Lane Technology College, an all boys school located in Kings Heath, Birmingham. I shared the table with two eleven year olds - Reiss and Josh - and two grown ups - Amy and Richard. After precursory introductions and handshakes we engaged in some small talk. Reiss and Josh explained that neither of them had sampled Polish cuisine before so this was an entirely new experience. I asked Reiss what he hoped from the ensuing evening’s dinner, to which he replied “well I hope it’s not raw”. I delighted in his low expectations.
The previous evening the group had been to nearby Manzils Indian restaurant. Josh preferred Manzils décor to the thatched straw ceiling of The Karczma. Reiss concurred and recounted the previous night’s waiter making origami sculptures with the napkins, which he then kindly demonstrated for me.
The boys were each armed with a pencil and notepad, and a camera which they shared. Their approach to restaurant criticism, which involved taking me on a tour of the building including the gents, was all-encompassing. I loved the harshness of their criticism, the generosity at which they shared their thoughts - uninhibited and honest. Reiss was nothing but disappointed at a piece of chewed gum stuck to the underside of the table. He also told us that before we arrived he had taken the opportunity to sniff the sheepskin draped on the back of our bench - “not nice” he frowned.
Reiss bravely nibbled at his first pickled gherkin but after this our young diners decided to order something a bit more familiar - grilled chicken breast with chips and salad. Waiting for the food our young companions started to get a little distracted and on occasion abandoned the table to go and rib their friend ‘Fluffy’ and steal his chips. Neither of them ate the salad but offered it to the adults, along with a half eaten chicken breast that Josh couldn’t finish. Amy could, and did.
Our conversation was varied and included gaming, cinema, football, the word ‘gay’, school uniform, prefects, families, horror films, “bloody Mary”, school policies on bullying, weapons and drugs, and as the evening progressed the purported ghost who lived above the restaurant became a more exaggerated figure. Topics of conversation were initiated by the kids and grown ups alike, there were no awkward pauses, everyone contributed and no-one felt left out.
After the meal, the kids were given a questionnaire to rate the food (was it delicious, or did it make them fart and vomit), the service, the building and the staff. They were also encouraged to write their own findings – Reiss wrote about his discovery of the chewed gum and the ghost that lived upstairs. The collated findings will contribute to an Awards Ceremony where the pre-adolescent adjudicators have the honour of awarding the restaurants with a variety of accolades such as the best toilet graffiti, the sweatiest waiter – surely The Karczma deserves to be awarded the most haunted, carnivorous establishment.
Eat the Street is a project conceived by Toronto-based, research-art atelier Mammalian Diving Reflex. Founded in 1993, they started as a theatre company and some of the theatrical conventions continue though their current work. One could argue that the use of the restaurant in Eat The Street is a stage-like convention, the participants adopt a performative role and the event itself is experienced as an immersive performance.
Mammalian Diving Reflex create participatory projects which are playful and provocative, and aim to disrupt the hierarchies often associated with age, gender and cultural background. They work specifically with non-artist groups, in non-arts venues, and as such their projects yield unexpected situations, conversations and experiences.
In 2003 Artistic Director, Darren O’Donnell, developed the term ‘social acupuncture’ based on an oppositional principle – that of excess and depletion - to interrogate social dynamics through temporary events that explore the “generosity and abundance … [that] can drive new ways of being together”. Eat the Street demonstrated this, for whilst some of the formalities of dining etiquette were loosely adhered to, the evening was not just about food criticism but about new experiences, hanging out with school mates in unfamiliar surroundings, chatting to strangers, and creating new inter-generational social dynamics. Eat the Street’s methodology is empowering and reinforces the ‘stealth pedagogy’ referred to by O’Donnell which is as much an attempt to influence how adults should behave around kids as it is about introducing kids to a more adult environment. It inspires children to engage with adults as equals and enables adults to embrace formal situations with a child like spontaneity.