You’re in a café in Amsterdam, waiting for your second course. Suddenly, the lights are dimmed. Tiny wooden boats filled with tea lights are brought out by waiters. Someone announces that what you’re about to eat is a commemorative course, in honour of a tiger, zebra, and a hyena. Your meal has been transformed into what is, essentially, a funeral for animals.
And not even real animals at that – fictional ones, from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. This is just one of the evocative scenes put together by chef and writer Chantal Hintze, founder of The Bookish Banquet. Every couple of months, Chantal hosts a pop-up dinner at Paviljoen van Beuningnen, inspired by a book of her choice. Guests turn up in costume to eat five mystery courses based on the novel. Themes have included Sherlock Holmes (dishes included ‘A journey through London’: pigeon pie, and ‘Sherlock’s Vice’: a line of popping candy) and Momo by German author Michael Ende. At the latter, one couple begged for their two year old daughter Momo to be allowed in. Chantal made her Guest of Honour; she promptly fell asleep. Recently, they hosted a private birthday party based on Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus: Chantal served a choux pastry swan and colourful faux-Fabergé eggs as an ode to its part-swan protagonist.
So who goes along? It’s “not just bookworms,” Chantal says.
The Bookish Banquet follows the trend of what’s come to be known as the ‘food experience.’ Supper clubs have been cropping up all over, and their popularity might have something to do with the fact that so many of our entertainment media engender virtual experiences. We can live Frank Underwood’s quest for political domination via Netflix from the comfort of our beds. Sony have unveiled their future super toy: a PS4 virtual reality headset.
In the seventies, academic Raymond Williams called this ‘mobile privatisation’. New media are brilliant in reaching the otherwise unreachable – of making us ‘mobile’ from the privacy of our homes – but they also breed isolationism (and Williams had only just started seeing computers, never mind virtual reality headsets). With the world, or a world of sorts, at your fingertips, why go outside?
So despite this – or, perhaps, because of this – there’s a fierce longing for tangible experiences. And food is a surefire way of getting people off the web. “What I love about food is that it brings people together”, Chantal says.
Making the books pop-up
But what about reading? Isn’t it private – and, essentially, vicarious? You escape to make-believe lands while your physical self stays crammed on the tube. Can you translate it into a communal experience?
Chantal believes so. In fact, she thinks books are inherently social. Traditional book clubs are doing it wrong: “The idea is to not have this official discussion – sort of, ok, now we’re going to talk about these questions. What I love is for people to start thinking about how the food relates to the book, and for that to spark a conversation.”
So which books make a good banquet? “If I can visualize it, I can turn it into a dinner”, Chantal says. From there, it’s a quest for the right props – scouring markets for Alice in Wonderland bottles and Sherlock Holmes-style chemistry sets. All of which are not purely decorative. “What I love about Life of Pi is that it has a lot of layers – the religious references, for example,” Chantal says. If somebody reads it, they might not think about them – but seeing it might spark people’s ideas more.
Who would Chantal’s fantasy dinner guests be? “The whole Moomin family. At a picnic. And Pippi Longstocking!”