“I’m trying to figure out what being a chef means to me. I don’t want to have a restaurant where I make the same things every day,” says Jenn de la Vega, a 34-year-old artist, cookbook author and multihyphenate food professional based in Brooklyn. “I love making things with my hands; cooking and art give me that same sensation. Why not combine them?”
The result of de la Vega’s combined skills isn’t a single dish, menu or even a pop-up event. It’s a weeklong experience: MASARAP, a comfort food exhibition. The sensory-based interactive series explores different relationships with comfort food and is on display now through September 2 at Babycastles, an independent art gallery and nonprofit gaming collective in the West Village.
Masarap is the Tagalog word for “delicious”and invokes the distinctly Filipino motifs and eating styles featured in the exhibition. While de la Vega’s Filipino-American background informs the series, it’s merely the starting point from which she examines “many cultures of comfort” whose dishes provide fleeting solace from life’s hardships. Nachos, tacos, chili and fried eggs rank high on de la Vega’s list along with the buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken she briefly reminisces about. “Every time I went through a breakup, my roommate would know because there would be a KFC bucket in the trash, alongside tufts of hair I decided to cut off that night,” she laughs.
Curious about more than the dishes themselves, de la Vega is equally intrigued by the culture people build around comfort food and how it’s accessed online and in person. “A lot of my work incorporates the Internet, groups of people creating and eating together,” she tells me over email. “Food porn, easy apps for delivery and #wellness trends have a darker source. My friends cite the news, the election, being a millennial or just having a hard time,” she continues. “I’m using this gallery time to explore why we crave these foods.”
Admission to the exhibition is sliding scale from $5 to $10, and many of the events are free with the donation of an unopened, nonperishable food item. Ranging ticket prices help keep the lights on without turning people away, de la Vega explains, and she hopes that people who can afford to give more will do so.
Donated food items will build an online food pantry called the Dampa project, named after Filipino open air fish markets where shoppers handpick ingredients based on their preferred cuisine. Here, donated cans, grains and spices will randomize the direction of the menu at the exhibition’s closing party, a communal-style Filipino dinner prepared by de la Vega called kamayan, Tagalog for ‘by hand,’ in which diners eat only with their hands. “Feel free to clean out your pantry and bring it!” implores de la Vega. “I’m not afraid of an anchovy can.”
The week’s gallery events range from accessible to exclusive: a comfort food roundtable and potluck on August 31, featuring Sarah Keough of Put A Egg On It, Wen-jay Ying of Local Roots NYC and journalist Isha Aran, asks admission be paid with a prepared dish for the potluck. Tickets to the following night’s Sutukil feast, an intimate sit-down dinner highlighting a particular style of Filipino cuisine, cost $50 and seating is limited to only eight guests.
Beyond food and discussion, MASARAP offers curated food-related games, a special board game night and live DJ sets. De la Vega’s own art installations will be available throughout the week. KUMMERSPECK, German for “grief bacon,” is an interactive exploration of emotional overeating for which de la Vega “handmade a few breakfast items that you are encouraged to touch and play with,” she explains. “You take off your shoes and step onto a blue plate foam mat and pick up a pillow egg, felt bacon with pockets of bubble wrap to pop and a chenille cheese-slice blanket. You can hold these items and feel a little bit better.” The second installation, BLUE PLATE, is a mock table spread where images of food porn are projected onto plates before seated guests.
The end goal of MASARAP is to create inviting communal space that inspires attendees to pause and think about their relationships with food. It begs the questions: What do we eat when we eat our feelings? Why do we turn to the foods we do when we crave comfort?
De la Vega is hopefully that the exhibit will produce a tangible outcome for attendees who might be hesitant to prepare comforting food for themselves at home. “Many young people don’t cook for themselves,” she says. “Perhaps thinking about why we crave fast food might inspire them to get into the kitchen.”
MASARAP, a comfort food exhibition is on display August 23—September 2 at Babycastles Gallery located at 145 W. 14th St.
Photos courtesy of Jenn de la Vega.