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‘Tasting Joyce’ – a reflection on taste as a potential space of curation and interpretation


Tasting Joyce took place at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin on Nov 2nd 2017. Utilising ‘tasting’ as a process of enquiry and facilitation the event consisted of an 8 course curated tasting menu devised from food referenced and consumed in the novels of James Joyce. Employing taste as an interpretative tool is in sympathy with much current utilisation of food by, amongst others, artists such as the Crossmodalists, and Jozef Youssef’s Kitchen Theory venture, to create a kind of synesthetic experience which is both total in its play to all the senses but also provides perhaps the most direct bridge possible to period and place. This extends the established idea of creativity and synaesthesia in the arts in which a neurological condition produces dual sensory stimulation resulting in, for example, numbers being understood in terms of colours.1 The naturally embodied experience of eating would appear ripe for this kind of encounter but there has until recently been little discussion of synaesthesia in this context and further, and most directly relevant to this project, limited identification of food and gastronomy itself as a valid art form. This raises further questions about the means by which much current art and food activity seeks to confront that exclusion and the manner in which taste might be used as a mode of interpretation and understanding as part of that confrontation.2  

Figone Min

Food as synthesis

Pursuing the framing of food within the space of both the experiential and artistic ‘Tasting Joyce’ sought to consider the role of food as a synthesis rather than a directly synesthetic experience in which food, memory, literature and place combine to facilitate a literal ‘gut’ response that uniquely enablesoscillation across Joyce’s Dublin of the 1920s to that of the present day using ingredients and taste as its guide. Mark Clintberg has explored the idea of the gut as the locus of interpretation in his 2012 article ‘Gut Feeling’. Here Clintberg employ’s Merleau Ponty’s ideas on sense experience to identify the potential of the gut as an interpretative tool that reaches to make sense of the contingent and fragmentary. Ponty describes this ‘sense experience’ as the key manner in which we perceptually understand the world.3 In this way Clintberg suggests the gut gropes to feel and understand what is ingested as a process of making sense of it. By implication, context and difference (of taste) will create different embodied responses, even rupture or intrude on given understandings, as the gut and the tongue grapple with interpretation and meaning. Here Clintberg invokes Julia Kristeva’s well-known theory of abjection focussing on her use of food and its bodily rejection through nausea or vomiting to underline how the unfamiliar is literally unpalatable because it is outside of experience.4 In this context the body tries to re-establish a sense of selfhood through expulsion indicating food’s power in the rupturing of given ideas and the acquiring of new knowledge.  In this way Clintberg also posits the gut as reflexive. However it is this very subjective response that has excluded gastronomy from access to the universal world of art aesthetics but which paradoxically also makes it central to the utilisation of food as a bridge in accessibly interpreting ideas. As Clintberg says, “food’s stimulation of appetites negates the possibility of disinterestedness”.5

Between the past and the present

It is in this direct link to the body that food in ‘Tasting Joyce’ was employed to get us closest to a reconnection with Joyce’s Dublin and access the experience his writings sought to engender with their emphasis, particularly in Ulysses (1922), on food and digestion. Through taste there is an immediate and acute sense of the present, the moment in which you are ingesting, but equally awareness that this taste is frequently more or less unchanged by time.  The orange as fruit, scent and taste developed, as a thread throughout ‘Tasting Joyce’, tasted the same for Joycean Dubliners as it did for diners on November 2017.

Fig2 Min

Strangely that knowledge therefore seems to take us to the universals of aesthetic experience while at the same time remaining totally subjective enabling it would seem, to quote Clintberg again, the possibility to “present other opportunities for reflective perception”6 rather than undermining such a position.  Taste then gets the audience directly connected and creates a time travelling oscillation that enables connection, reconnection and redoubling as the past intersects with the present. The journey of ingredients, identified in shifts in presentation and combination, but within which core flavours and ‘taste’ remain consistent heightens, I would suggest, the reflective possibilities of food hinted at by Clintberg.7

Developing such possibilities the evening included works by artists Nuala Clooney and Kaye Winwood that expand the understanding of the relationship of food, body and identity opening up food related meanings and connections. Clooney’s ‘Memory of You’ (2014) comprises a glass cast of the artist’s mouth in-front of which is placed a spoon dripping with honey.8 Referencing literature, psychology and philosophy Clooney’s works explore the inter-space of inside and out that the mouth encompasses: the point of entry and exit and in this way the sentry post of identity definition and dissolution. Clooney’s mouth is honeyed, conveying oral pleasure but also food as memory as the warmed liquid lingers on the tongue and in the mind. The context of ‘Tasting Joyce’ allowed a clear resonance from ‘Memory of You’ to the chewed seed cake passed from Molly’s mouth to Bloom’s in Ulysses, expression of her desire and imbuing seed cake forever with a trace of the memory of sexual and culinary consumption. Contemporarily Clooney’s piece underlines the importance of food in constructions of memory, self and the engendering of pleasure. Clooney developed some of these concerns in partnership with Kaye Winwood in the collaborative project ‘Expanded Intimacy’ (2017).9 Developed as part of Birmingham’s Art and Science Festival the project created bespoke glassware that worked to extend the sensory connections between taste, touch and smell and the direct link to hand, nose and mouth as glassware was made to directly fit the body. ‘Lips’ (2017) by Clooney and Winwood was a drinking glass designed to fit over the lips and fitted on the hand via the insertion of one finger. The vessel exaggerated the action of drinking and holding, bringing both mouth and finger closer together, and making explicit the sensual relationship of object to body and body to eating and drinking. The oral delights of food and their possibilities were literally made visible in these pieces. This reverberated with the pleasures of the mouth employed by Joyce’s writing in a range of contexts: from the nurturing of mother’s milk to the sexual consummation of Molly and Bloom in the passing of seed cake from one mouth to another.10 These art works were projected in the space throughout the meal facilitating an expanded space of meaning for taste.

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Lips 2017 Nuala Clooney and Kaye Winwood, photo Rod Gonzalez.

Realising taste

The menu was divided into four thematic sections: Home and Away, Absence and Presence, Playing on the Tongue and Sweet Sins with each section containing two courses. Devised in consultation with staff at the Joyce Centre, food scholar Flicka Small and facilitated by Irish Food Trail, Feast worked with Chef Dave Power to create food that reflected the journey of ingredients from Joyce’s references to contemporary Irish Cuisine.11 The aim was to connect to Joyce’s Dublin but also to allow food to enable unexpected encounters as certain tastes and foods are brought to the fore. Ulysses in particular is associated with meat,12

he ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls

largely to underline Bloom’s contravening of Jewish dietary laws and succumbing to oral pleasure. In this way immediately in the novel food is identified as not a casual but a central reference to cultural, religious and political identity.  ‘Tasting Joyce’ however was exclusively vegetarian. Vegetarianism was gaining ground from the late 19th century in Dublin and was embraced by cultural reformists and intellectuals.13 It was central to Theosophy and the Temperance movement and was obviously informed by growing knowledge around animal welfare. As such it was embraced by the developing feminist movement in Dublin that compounded its association with women and a notion of sensitivity that translated into an equation of vegetarianism with intellectuals and poets.14 This is clearly still culturally prevalent in the early 20th century when Joyce writes Ulysses enabling Bloom to comment “those policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts; you couldn't squeeze a line of poetry out of him. Don't know what poetry is even.”15 Placing the lens on vegetarianism for ‘Tasting Joyce’ merely shifted the point of focus to allow another food space to be foregrounded and to enable a less familiar route into Joyce and the period.  This made visible associations with creativity, the ‘female’, the maternal body and the ways that these are played out in Joyce through food. Frequently this is a rift on the notion of ‘mother Ireland’ and an assertion of Irish identity and conflated with the nurturing, maternal production of milk; home produced milk being seen as an important resistance to imported goods. The maternal body therefore becomes a metaphor for this and is later sexualised in the ‘thick cream’ of Molly’s breast milk milked into the breakfast tea highlighting the female body but reducing it to a context of male consumption.16 Privileging the female body in ‘Tasting Joyce’ via the associations with vegetarianism allowed an inversion, or at least a critical pause, in these conflations.  This was echoed in the colour palate of the evening of orange and pink; pink for the female body and digestion and orange as the colour scheme that Joyce used for the Calypso section of Ulysses.17 This section has a reversal of gender domestic roles as Molly stays in bed while Bloom makes breakfast for her and the whole underlines the power of the female as Bloom succumbs to his enchantment by Molly and inability to refuse her impending meeting with her lover. Orange also of course has political meanings in relation to the orange men or unionism and has a sense of the exotic and other in its reference to imported goods flooding Dublin’s docks at this time.

Fig4 Min

Each thematic course was introduced by recorded readings of Joyce’s writing that reiterated the colour orange and the theme of each section. Disembodied these became voices within the other conversational voices of the evening rather than performed pieces. Flicka Small and Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire delivered a number of readings introducing ideas of vegetarianism and addressing the political connections of food consumption and withdrawal respectively. Mairtin delivered a range of instructions to diners that facilitated a performative element to proceedings as diners squeezed oranges, made hot chocolate and fed each other seedcake in a concern to highlight visceral connections between food, identity and knowledge and maintain the function of food and its consumption as the bridge and point of access from 2017 to early 20th century Dublin.

The Menu


When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had eaten our dinners.

‘Araby’ Dubliners18

Oranges in tissue paper packed in crates…..Nice to hold, cool waxen fruit, hold in the hand, lift it to the nostrils and smell the perfume.


Black Olive Tapenade with Lemon Wafers

Colonial Commodities in the late 19th early 20th century flood the Dublin market (available to certain classes) and are evident in Joyce’s writing. Their presence indicates the symbiotic and problematic relationship between Ireland and England; dependant, yet oppressed by the Imperial system, Ireland witnesses both a growing enjoyment of the fruits of this trade while maintaining a need to fight the oppression of British occupation. This sets up a dynamic of resistance and complicity reflective of Joyce’s own troubled relationship with his homeland and initiates an oscillation between ‘home and away’ continuing today.

Mushroom Pate with Treacle Soda Bread

Served in ’Plumtree’s Potted Meat’ jars this course was an inversion of the sexual slang of potted meat that reverberates throughout Ulysses. An advertising man Bloom sees the advert ‘no home is complete without potted meat’ throughout his wanderings in Dublin. A sense of home in all its senses is implicit here but feminised through its vegetarian conversion. Food was often an indicator of home for Joyce and he frequently listed ingredients and everyday meals in a process of delineating the space of home.

Fig6 Min


Brewery barge with export stout. England. Sea air sours it I heard.


They say they used to give pauper children soup to change to Protestants in the time of the potato blight.


A selection of Guinness and Porters

Notoriously Joyce favoured drink over food for much of his life and this course acknowledges that as well as the profound role that the absence or presence of food has played in Irish history and identity. The limited use of the mouth for drinking resonates with the closing of the mouth post the potato famine both for food and for the inability to subsequently speak of its horror. As David Lloyd states:22

The labile, wailing mouth of the Irish, the metonymic locus of their unruly desires, closes on the incorporation, the en- tombment, of a loss it dare not name for fear of waking the banished dead.

Thenceforth oral tales are taken to the pub and associated with drinking. This non-food course made this explicit in the contemporary moment as conversation flowed across a series of Porter tasters.

Potato Veloutè with optional potato wafers

Please cup the bowl in your hands to drink. Select a wafer from the communal plate or maintain your faith by resisting temptation! (instructions delivered to diners). In continued reference to the famine the potato is symbolically identified as key to Irish history and identity. This is seen in the way Bloom holds the potato as a talisman as he walks Dublin. In the menu it ‘refers to the phenomenon of ‘Souperism’ a process born of the Irish Famine whereby children in orphanages were offered soup on the condition of receiving Protestant religious instruction. It was a case of conversion or starve.

The menu transforms the potato soup into a contemporary veloutè and recreates its nurturing aspect by having diners cup the soup and drink directly from the bowl rather than using cutlery. The wafers and the element of choice insert a loop back to the religious function of this soup.

Fig7 Min


Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake, warm and chewed.


He poured into two teacups two level spoonfuls, four in all, of Epps’s soluble cocoa and proceeded according to the directions for use printed on the label.


Seed Cake

The oral, in a range of contexts, is central in particular to Ulysses. As alreadu stated Bloom as a Jew contravenes the dietary restrictions of Jewish identity in pursuit of his own oral pleasures, his love for Molly is consummated by her passing seed cake from her mouth to his and food and the pleasures of the mouth recur throughout the writing. The seed cake and hot chocolate also continue the symbolism of the mouth initiated in the previous courses while the projected art works of Clooney and Winwood pull this thematic into present concerns.

An interest in the sensory and the exotic notion of orange is cemented in this course as diners are asked to squeeze fresh oranges over the seed cake. A range of spoons of varying sizes were placed around the serving dishes functioning as a visual and physical reminder of the ‘mouth’ and enabling the option of feeding your dining partner.

Hot Chocolate with Orange Truffle.

Epps cocoa and hot chocolate is mentioned frequently by Bloom and by Joyce who lists it in meals he has both ‘home’ and ‘away’. At this stage Epps was identified as a health digestive being dark and not over sweet connecting to today’s promotion of dark chocolate as health giving. Chocolate both solid and liquid is often felt to be the height of ‘oral’ pleasure. Joyce references it in relation to hospitality/hosting, as Bloom makes hot chocolate for Stephen, playing on the religious reference to the idea of ‘host’ /Eucharist standing in for the body of Christ. Ulysses provides a long ritual related to the making of hot chocolate as Bloom returns with Stephen to 7 Eccles Street.  This was recreated in ‘Tasting Joyce’ by providing diners with glasses of hot milk and having them stir orange truffles into them to make a hot chocolate drink. Again sound and smell dominated underlining the immersive bodily experience that food generates and reiterates.


…of adipose, anterior and posterior female hemispheres, redolent of milk and honey and of excretory, sanguine and seminal warmth, reminiscent of secular families of curves of amplitude…


… Clings to everything she takes off…..Know her smell in a thousand. Bathwater too. Reminds me of strawberries and cream.


This section pulls through the ideas of body in the menu playing against cannibalism that in Davy Byrne’s restaurant drives Bloom to eat the famous Gorgonzola sandwich having been disgusted by the meat eaters at the Burton Hotel and addresses further ways of ‘eating’ or consuming the body. Milk and cream are referenced in Joyce as part of sexual innuendo the ‘creamy,dreamy’ of female flesh, and the white milk of the skin-like strawberries and cream –good enough to eat. As mentioned previously this often reduces female characters like Molly to being the object of male consumption but as Bormanis points out there is a complex appropriation of the female in Bloom in a tangle of concerns around nurturing and creativity that Joyce plays out by making Bloom both father and mother to Stephen and Molly.27 Served decanted onto pink plates a sense of Molly’s ‘yes’ is foregrounded in this communal consumption of milk ‘flesh’ in the ‘fleshy’ panna cotta.

Fig8 Min

Orange Salad

After smelling, feeling and tasting the juice of oranges we finally get to the ‘yes’ of a total consummation in the eating of actual oranges which in this course stand on their own as a salad. Scent again dominates but the imbibing of actual orange flesh brings the meal full cycle from the orange flavoured whiskey that initially welcomed guests.

Endings and Returns

As people left to return home a trace of orange was left in coat pockets via orange chocolates, like the trace of food itself in the mouth a sense of the on-going journey of food and the space it delineates around memory and place was retained.  Taste therefore was evoked as an on going point of reference and contact utilising a range of bodily responses from memory to gut to literally ‘taste’ Joyce and provide a particular mode of processing and understanding Joyce’s writing and Dublin past and present.

All images ‘Tasting Joyce’ –The James Joyce Centre, Dublin, Nov 2nd 2017, photography by Gregpurcell unless otherwise credited.

Audio texts read by Catherine Russell and Ben Heather recorded by Marty Gilroy the James Joyce Centre, Dublin 2017.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

See Ophelia Deroy, Sensory Blending-On Synesthesia and other related phenomenon. Oxford: Oxford University 201.  

Go to footnote reference 2.

See Charles Spence, Jozef Youssef and Ophelia Deroy, ‘Where are all the Synesthetic Chefs’, Flavour 2015 (open access journal)

Go to footnote reference 3.

Mark Clintberg ‘Gut Feeling’ The Senses and Society 2012. Routledge, Taylor and Francis (online Journal), 211. 

Go to footnote reference 4.

ibid, 216.

Go to footnote reference 5.

ibid, 222.

Go to footnote reference 6.


Go to footnote reference 7.


Go to footnote reference 8.

For more information on Clooney’s work see the artists website and her wordpress blog

Go to footnote reference 9.

For more on Expanded Intimacy see Winwood’s website Kaye Winwood Projects

Go to footnote reference 10.

See James Joyce Ulysses 1922, 108 (all page references for Ulysses taken from the Kindle edition Ulysses Waxkeep Publishing Dec 2012)

Go to footnote reference 11.

Flicka Small is a research student at University College Cork, Dave Power is head chef at Gallaghar’s Boxty House Restaurant, Temple Bar Dublin and Paul Kavanagh is co founder of Irish Food Trail

Go to footnote reference 12.

Op cit. Ulysses, 167.

Go to footnote reference 13.

I am indebted to Flicka Small, research student at University College Cork for this information.

Go to footnote reference 14.

For further information on Joyce and vegetarianism see Peter Adkins, ‘The Eyes of That Cow: Eating Animals and Theorizing Vegetarianism in James Joyce’s Ulysses’ pub 4th July 2017, an open access article published by MDPI Creative Commons Attribution

Go to footnote reference 15.

Op Cit. Ulysses, 105.

Go to footnote reference 16.

For a discussion on women, in particular the appropriation of the maternal in Joyce’s writing see John Bormanis, ‘”In the First Bloom of Her New Motherhood”: The Appropriation of the Maternal and the Representation of Mothering in Ulysses’ James Joyce Quarterly, Vol 29 No.3, Spring 1992, 593-60 

Go to footnote reference 17.

Joyce developed a colour schema for Ulysses in 1921 so that his friend Stuart Gilbert could understand the structure of the novel, it became known as the Gilbert Schema when Gilbert published it in 1930 in his book James Joyce “Ulysses” a Study.

Go to footnote reference 18.

James Joyce ‘Araby’ The Dubliners. Kindle edition Amazon Classics 3rd Feb 2000, 21.

Go to footnote reference 19.

Op cit. 38.

Go to footnote reference 20.

ibid, 93

Go to footnote reference 21.

ibid, 111.

Go to footnote reference 22.

David Lloyd-‘The Indigent Sublime-Spectres of Irish Hunger’, Representations, Vol. 92, No1. Fall 2005.(University of California Press), 152-185.

Go to footnote reference 23.

Op Cit. Ulysses, 108.

Go to footnote reference 24.

ibid, 111.

Go to footnote reference 25.

ibid, 408.

Go to footnote reference 26.

Ibid, 231.

Go to footnote reference 27.

Op cit Bormanis, 604.

Elisa Oliver

Elisa Oliver is co-editor of FEAST.