The current surge in culinary trompe l’oeil might also be born of the endless stream of doom we’re constantly scrolling through. After all, outlandish art has often come out of challenging times. The satirical Dada movement and surrealist painting both flourished after World War I as artists grappled with the nonsensical horrors they’d endured. As people sought release and excess, Walton says the post-war era also saw the rise in technicolor movies and over-the-top entertainment in cities like Shanghai, Paris, and Berlin. World War II spurned the likes of avant-garde painter Salvador Dalí to cook up an outrageous, macabre dinner party against a flaming helicopter backdrop—one of many surrealist dinner parties he and wife Gala hosted through the years that would become fodder for his absurdist 1973 cookbook, Les Diners de Gala.
“Just like music and fashion, food follows the pulse of humanity and changing trends,” Walton adds. “Artists always make art for others to consume. Right now we want frivolity, silliness, and to be shocked.” We want light in the dark.
Whatever the format, art that we consume and craft ourselves also offers escapism. Psychologist Drake points out that the pandemic sent droves of us to the arts as a kind of soothing balm—owing in large part to the ability to view, share, and participate in it for free via the glorious and terrible internet. “Art allowed us to shift our attention away from our negative thoughts and feelings,” she says.
Just before we log off Zoom, Pallai asks if I’ve heard of the Lemon Pig Phenomenon that swept 70sdinnerparty back in 2017. That New Year’s Eve, she posted an old magazine clipping of a lemon pig with toothpick legs and a coin in its mouth to warrant good luck in the coming year. Before she knew it, hundreds of others shared their own lemon (or apple or banana) pigs—and now it’s an annual tradition. “In a collective sense, we can do something a little silly and fun for an evening,” she says. “Of course, they’re also completely cursed, these sculptures; everyone’s pretty much had awful years since 2016.”
In this time of globally shared existential crises, we face unprecedented political and cultural polarization. Yet one thing amidst the tumult is for sure: we can still gasp in fascinated horror at a doll skirt fashioned from lunch meat, or delight in ramming some toothpicks into a piece of citrus. And that, to me, is cause for celebration—perhaps over a slice of buttercream-filled tortoise?