Ahead of Telfar’s autumn/winter 2020 show at Florence’s Pitti Uomo (a trade show for men’s fashion), an extravagant feast was held in the Palazzo Corsini for friends of the brand, where diners were treated to an unexpected palate cleanser: “edible ball gags,” Sicilian pomelo-infused spherical ice pops cut through with a black leather ribbon to be placed in the mouth and tied behind one’s head.
Guests, including musicians like Solange and the experimental jazz group Standing on the Corner, as well as artists Juliana Huxtable and Boychild, giggled as they struggled to help each other fasten the ball gags, a task impossible to accomplish by oneself. Throughout the feast, which was part installation and part banquet, guests were encouraged to get messy: Appetizers like miso semifreddo with fermented yuzu rind and wild Madagascar pepper were fed to diners via latex-gloved hands that emerged from a glory hole installation; they kneeled to receive the food. Elsewhere, guests had to pick apart a 52-spice shibari-bound whole lamb with their fingers.
“We can be pretty bratty about our interest in BDSM,” said artist Quori Theodor, one-third of the queer cooking collective Spiral Theory Test Kitchen, which organized the dinner in collaboration with designer Telfar Clemens, creative director Babak Radboy, and stylist Avena Gallagher. “But really, definitions of sex in culture are far too narrow. Instead of the food being sexy, it’s more like, how can we reframe our larger sense of relating and intimacy, of the body, of difference and connection?”
For Telfar, a label that has earned a reputation for prioritizing inclusivity and accessibility in high fashion, Spiral Theory Test Kitchen outfitted the venue with stripper poles as well as beds for guests to lounge on as they grazed. The dinner, which was titled Bloodshed, gathered close friends and family of Telfar around a banquet table reminiscent of the round tables that furnish the U.N., honoring the time and physical effort it takes to create spaces for community. The carcasses produced by the night’s festivities — bones, flower petals, fruit rinds, pools of edible blood — served as the backdrop for the next day’s fashion show, where models and performers strutted across the circular banquet table, which had been transformed into a runway.
Theodor, along with fellow artists Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Precious Okoyomon, founded Spiral Theory Test Kitchen (STTK) a year ago. The collective has built a reputation for staging decadent dinner party tableaus, where guests can expect to be served dizzying concoctions like Nigerian cassava yam poached in mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn-infused butter over tangy coriander labne cream, garnished with burnt ghost pepper crouton, or delicate stringy corn hairs, spilanthes, and papaya orbs suspended in a gelatinous rose-water aspic.
The collective plays with texture and form, experimenting with fermentation and layering flavors to create dishes that are never exactly what meets the eye. In a video from a recent dinner party the collective hosted with fashion brand H&M, the actor Indya Moore proclaims, while spooning dragon fruit into their mouth, “This is the most queer, trans, gender non-conforming food I’ve ever had in my whole life.” They later joked with other guests, “If you eat this food, it will deconstruct your toxic masculinity.”
In a 2018 Eater essay on queer food, Kyle Fitzpatrick writes that what makes food queer is not necessarily flavor or form, but rather an inherent ability to create temporary utopias, culinary experiences that defy typical conventions of what “works” and what does not. Similarly, the elaborate dinners hosted by STTK operate in a playful sort of suspended reality, one where guests are instructed to dissect their meals with their hands and feed one another, and where it is normal to dine alongside a pet eel or a performer playing a 17th-century stringed instrument.
The curated events are not meant to be a means of escapism. According to Quori, they’re a dialogue with the current state of affairs. “I’m big into the idea that utopia is not a reality outside somewhere else,” they said. “So if a queer utopia is brought forth by one of our meals, it’s more of a facilitation to attune to what’s already available.”
Each dinner is based on an overarching concept decided on by the collective. These themes often broach personal and private philosophical topics like food fears and ontological suffering, and then work to create a space for attendees to confront them in the open. Each member takes on a specific role in the interpretation of the concept. Okoyomon, who self-identifies as “meat crazy,” handles the carnivorous dishes; Theodor, who, according to the other collective members, possesses the precision and creativity of a mad scientist, tackles pastry; Menuez is a technical aesthete, masterminding gelatins and fermentations, playing with how color and form can best convey the dinner’s theme.
The result of this collaboration is a repertoire of rigorous otherworldly dishes, “bastardized” Nigerian classics, ambrosial cakes that appear to be melting in on themselves, and edible dirt and bugs. The sensory overload reflects each individual’s background and food ideologies.
For Okoyomon, who worked at Chicago’s esteemed Alinea while studying philosophy in college, an important aspect of the collective’s food is in the ingredients: “It’s about having a relationship with where your food comes from.” In order to gather the uncommon ingredients that characterize many of STTK’s dishes, Okoyomon has formed personal relationships with farmers, joining an ant collective from Canada in order to procure honeypot ants and texting on a regular basis with raw-milk enthusiasts in upstate New York. “I want the most insane ingredients because I want you to put our food in your mouth and be like, ‘What the fuck was that?’ And that’s the usual experience people have with my food.”
Okoyomon, who moved to the U.S. from Lagos when they were 11, cites their childhood spent in the kitchen of their mother’s Lagos restaurant and visits to their grandmother’s farm in Ikoyi as inspiration. As the only non-vegetarian of the trio, they apply this to their relationship with meat as well, recalling their parents’ insistence on raising goats in their suburban backyard in Ohio. “Our neighbors hated us,” they laughed, “and my dad would be like, ‘Now we’re going to kill a goat so you know how to kill a goat!’ I’ve never had the privilege of being separate from my food... It’s based on this idea that I want to be a part of the thing I create: Why run from the thing you’re inside of?”
Menuez, a performance artist and curator who has experimented with culinary elements, is interested in illusion, exploring how aesthetic context affects how our brains perceive food. “Food is so referential and social and I like to play with that,” Menuez said. Menuez references edible dirt, an element often incorporated in Spiral Theory Test Kitchen’s dishes, playing with the eater’s familiarity with the medium to challenge preconceptions of form we associate with food: “Does it look like mud? Do we recognize something is a little off about it [the food]?”
Menuez helps create the collective’s distinctive aesthetic, one that toes the line between the grotesque and the opulent, and draws inspiration from Dadaism and projects like The Futurist Cookbook. “Playing with people’s expectations but not in a gimmicky way” is the goal, Menuez said. “It’s interesting to me because food is such a psychologically rich medium to work with.”
Theodor, who attended cooking school while studying critical theory in college, has also worked with food as a medium in their art practice, staging rogue food projects similar to the dinners hosted by STTK and based on the same themes of intimacy. (In a notorious project, they staged a flash-mob restaurant on the J train in New York City.) “A lot of these dinners were about different ways of relating to people, like one where no talking allowed but all the foods included some element of surprise,” they said. “One had live eels who took on their own interpretation of the concept and jumped from their vessels onto the table.”
The members of Spiral Theory Test Kitchen are not the first artists to use the dinner party as a medium, following projects like Carol Goodden, Tina Girouard, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s artist-run Soho restaurant FOOD in the 1970s and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s piece “Untitled (Free),” where the artist converted a gallery into a kitchen and served rice and Thai curry for free to attendees. “It’s become a trope in art,” noted Theodor. “But being in a room together is a fail-safe way to engage the Porcupine’s Dilemma, where porcupines have to huddle together in a cold winter to survive even though they maim each other with their quills — the message being that we have to face the risks of intimacy to survive.”
This meditation on what it means to survive is evidenced by the collective’s namesake. “Spiraling” has become a catchall phrase, a broad and encompassing label for the impending sense of doom and anxiety evoked by the future of our politics, our changing environment, and even our interpersonal relationships. Okoyomon argues that it is in this chaos that the magic happens. “If you are not spiraling, then what do you even do?” they said. “To be spiraling is to be living in that already constant flux of the ungrounding, unknowing madness of everything. Which is like, that is where it is good. Embrace the complete absurdity of everything and find the real beauty in that.”
There is a distinctly dystopian feel to STTK’s unwieldy, sumptuous dinners; that feeling is rooted in the ways the collective thinks about survival. “In a lot of the conversations we are having in preparation [for the dinners], we talk about how global warming and technology interact with food and globalization and how that affects access to food and ingredients in different ways,” said Menuez. “Those factors, beyond any kind of theoretical ideas, are driving where [the future of] food is going.”
This consciousness is present in the dishes and presentation of each dinner; their beautiful dishes utilize unconventional ingredients like insects and pine cones foraged from the compost pile. The dishes ask how we can change our own attitudes and relationships with food and with each other, and how to combat the narrative of scarcity that dictates the current conversation around the future of food. STTK’s pop-up dinners reimagine a future through a shared meal where change isn’t lonely, where possibility still lies in the unfamiliar.
“We all bring different elements that are very necessary to the spiral,” said Okoyomon about the collective. “You can’t spiral by yourself, otherwise you’re just falling. The whole thing about the spiral is that you need to be collectively holding each other so that you can spiral upwards. That’s the beauty of our project: We are all very necessary in order to keep the thing working correctly.”
Isabel Ling is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.