What we hear, through our tongue

Anna Harris, Thomas Fuller, Alexandra Supper, Joeri Bruyninckx and Melissa Van Drie

It is January 2015, and a group of sound studies scholars (comprised of historians, ethnographers, psychologists and artists), their partners and a two-month old baby have gathered in a small loft apartment in Maastricht. Maastricht is a picturesque place that lays claim to the title of “oldest city in the Netherlands”, as well as “culinary capital of the Netherlands”. While both these claims could be contested, it is a place steeped in historical as well as culinary tradition. People relish in eating and drinking and talking about it. Having just spent a weekend exhibiting, discussing and listening to sounds at the “Sonic Science” Festival we are hungry; and so we are munching on popcorn, crisps and crunchy vegetables. Now it is almost time to sit down for dinner. Set for fifteen, the table is lined by white butcher’s paper inscribed with a set of questions that point to the special nature of the feast.

Image 1For its preparation, each participant has been asked to create a dish, which, as the invitation e-mail suggested, “particularly resonates with rich sonic qualities, whether in the making or eating of it”. The dishes used sound as a starting point but led to multisensory experiences and performances during the night; they were translations of sonic memories, stories or observations transformed into the edible-audible. In our desire to take this as an opportunity to share not only sounds and tastes, but also stories and memories of particular times and places, we perhaps took a cue from recent culinary trends of “concoct[ing] new combinations of time and place, mixing modernity with tradition, playing with our senses, creating mythic tastes, and cooking up contemporary myths” (Davis 2012, p140).

Image 2In this post we have translated this evening into a multi-vocal, multisensory and multimedia menu of stories. We select a few of the dishes shared that night, dishes which evoke places that we have inhabited and relate to in different ways: countries we grew up in but no longer live in; cities we have made our homes in recent times; sites we have visited as tourists; or locations where we have spent time as ethnographers. David Sutton (2006) argues that it is through intersensory connections that food becomes more memorable, and here we play on the connections of memory to places, created through food and sounds. In doing so, we align with Michael Taussig: “different histories … hover on the tongue of the eater of these dishes” (Korsmeyer and Sutton 2011, p473).

Image 3In the process of “transducing” these place memories into a dish for the evening, we addressed recipes in different ways: by meticulously following written instructions or intuitively following auditory cues; by learning instructions from family members in a step-by-step process over the years, or, by reconstructing dishes from different written sources. We share the dishes here in the form of sonically recreated recipes that are evoked and can be followed through the links below. The recipes are not traditional lists of ingredients and instructions but rather told in the form of fieldnotes, autobiography, family legends, collages of touristic memories and sound recordings. Experimentation, concocting, blending takes precedence over analysis and interpretation (Mackay and Negarestani 2011, p3). This is what Mackay and Negarestani (2011, p4) might term “a trans-modal experiment in culinary thinking”.

Image 4

The menu

Sahlep and fish burgers

Thomas and Anna’s recipe conjures a holiday memory of a winter spent in Istanbul. They evoke the sounds of sahlep selling in the cold rainy streets with their hot thick and spicy drink, imaged here through a recording of a sahlep seller’s call – recorded by the two tourists following close by on foot – and a photo collage. The sounds of cooking fish on the grill in a poorly lit parking lot by the wharf inspired their fish burger recipe filled with crunchy lettuce, onion and tomato. The images of the burgers appear here also as a sound recording of the BBQ and collages referencing the source of the fish. These images are seen and can be heard alongside sonic recipes of the two dishes, reconstituted from cookbooks on the shelves of their Dutch apartment.

The combination of recipes, photo collage and sound recordings from Anna and Thomas’ holiday in Istanbul combines their own sensory memories and creates new fictional ones for diners, readers and listeners. The recreated dishes are sensory impressions recalling the feel of the first warm Styrofoam cup of the brew the couple drank by the Hagia Sophia, the huddled sociality of the parking lot, bottoms balancing on the milk crates, dancing in a restaurant with a Gypsy band, laughing as bowls of onions and tomatoes are shared around the dinner table the night of the sound dinner and whatever else they conjure up in your own imagination. In doing so the dishes respond to the call for a more “imagistic” anthropology, which uses “image as method” to recall the ephemeral and elusive (Goldstone 2015).

Wiener Schnitzel

Alexandra cooked Wiener Schnitzel. This dish and the sounds of its preparation defined her childhood in Eastern Austria like no other. It is such a long-standing fixture of the soundscape of late Sunday mornings in Austria that its sounds are sometimes recreated even when the dish itself is lacking. This is demonstrated by the following story, once shared by a family friend about how his mother dealt with the shame of not being able to afford meat in the interwar period: she would open the kitchen window, find a spot to stand just out of view from the neighbours, and repeatedly hit the fleshy part of her forearm with her bare hand. At least to an untrained ear, this sounds remarkably like the sound of a ‘Schnitzelpracker’ (as the tool for tenderising meat is affectionately known in Viennese dialect) pounding a cut of meat.

To honour this story, Alexandra brought both real (turkey meat) and fake (porcini mushroom) Schnitzel to the dinner, and made a collage of real and fake Schnitzel-preparation sounds, interspersed with snippets of songs sung in Viennese dialect that mention the dish or tools that are used in cooking it. Although she rarely makes Schnitzel these days, as the smell of frying fat tends to linger in rather unpleasant ways, she did not rely upon a recipe to prepare this dish; after all those Sundays she spent helping to make the dish throughout her childhood (at first tentatively, by covering the meat in breadcrumbs, and when she was older, by handling the frying pan on her own), she had internalised the steps. At the sonic dinner, the sounds, smells and tastes of Schnitzel mingled with childhood memories and stories about authenticity and forgery.

Salade de carottes râpées

Melissa made a simple ‘French’ grated carrot salad. In her recipe, she connects learning to appreciate this dish with her move to France—with her changing palate and her acclimatization to a new culture. More specifically, the preparation of this salad is tied to a personal, sensorial memory. When a good friend borrows her kitchen to make this salad, Melissa becomes aware of the particular rhythms, of the sonic components, involved in preparing food. For the sound dinner, Melissa experiments with her own sonic memory to recreate the salad, and literally records the process.

Bringing tools from her own kitchen in her suitcase—notably a cheap vegetable grater, a metal nutcracker and an old Zoom sound recorder—Melissa travelled to Maastricht for the dinner and setup in the hosts’ kitchen, just as her friend had done in her own Parisian one. The idea was to take her sonic imagination as a guide and find her own rhythm in performance. The bodily exploration of memory and discovery then is rendered in the sound recording, effectuated without particular rehearsal or choreography. The act of recording further accentuated Melissa’s self-awareness of her inhabitual, even clumsy use of tools in an unfamiliar space. The question of time is also present: she needed to finish preparing the dish so she can join the party. Indeed, when guests listened to the unedited recording during the dinner while eating the salad, they tried to identify the different tools in use and laughed at the background: the sounds of a doorbell, of their own arrivals just a few moments earlier.

Layered Arlette

For dessert, Joeri prepared a layered arlette with pressed apple terrine. An arlette is puff pastry dough, thinly rolled out and baked with icing sugar to make a thin wafer. The wafers form the base for a layered structure of apple gel, pressed apples, rosewater cream and candied fruits. The dish excavates a memory of a nearly deserted university campus, where he spent the summer months as an ethnographer in a laboratory for plasma physics and materials science. The group used plasma physics to engineer delicate molecular layers. He remembers the place mostly by its rich sonic texture and the cadence with which researchers mixed and impressed chemical elements on substrate wafers inside the reactors. Although the researchers followed carefully measured recipes, their restlessness around the reactors resembled that of the cook’s anxious anticipation in preparation of an untested recipe: an assuring touch to check temperature, eyeing the oven inside, adjusting timing nervously. Turning to his own kitchen, preparing the arlette became a re-imagination of the experience of these researchers. Assembling the layers, he followed a recipe by British chef Heston Blumenthal, who is an advocate of a style of cooking that is as much science-based as it is intuitive, and did so (for once) to the letter (here). At the sonic dinner, the lab’s recorded soundscape mixed with some mild pyrotechnics and the excitement of forks breaking through a delicate column of ultra-thin wafers.


We would like to thank our other friends and colleagues who dined, wined, performed and listened with us that evening in January 2015, for sharing the event and their sonic dishes.


Davis, M. (2012) A time and a place for a peach: taste trends in contemporary cooking. Senses & Society 7:2, 135-152.

Goldstone, B. (2015) Image as method. http://somatosphere.net/2015/08/image-as-method-conversations-on-anthropology-through-the-image.html

Korsmeyer, C. and D. Sutton. (2011) The sensory experience of food. Food, Culture & Society 14:4, 461 – 476.

McKay, R. and R. Negarestani (2011) Editorial Introduction to Special Issue on Culinary Materialism. Collapse VII.

Sutton, D. (2006) Cooking skill, the senses, and memory: the fate of practical knowledge. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture edited by E. Edwards, C. Gosden and R. Phillips, 87 – 118. Oxford: Berg


Joeri Bruyninckx is assistant professor at the department for Technology & Society Studies at Maastricht University and a researcher in the ‘Epistemes of Modern Acoustics’ research group at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science in Berlin. Having completed his PhD in 2013, in his work he has been concerned with how modes of sensory experience have been mobilized and standardized in knowledge practices in twentieth-century field biology, contemporary experimental sciences and, more recently, the post-war workspace. His research has been published in the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Social Studies of Science and The Silent City. He is currently finishing a book on the history of listening and sound recording in field ornithology that is forthcoming with MIT Press in 2017.

Thomas Fuller is currently investigating cognitive behavioural treatments for tinnitus related distress as part of a PhD at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. He initially qualified and practiced as a health psychologist in Australia before switching the focus of his career to research and moving to Europe. He has also won prizes for his photography, and enjoys making sound recordings to complement the visual documentation of experiences.

Anna Harris is an anthropologist who studies medical and other craft practices. Drawing also from a science and technology studies perspective, Anna mainly does fieldwork in hospitals and online, where she explores the sensory and material nature of medical work. Originally trained as a doctor, Anna studied medical anthropology at the University of Melbourne and has held postdoctoral positions at Maastricht University and the University of Exeter. She recently conducted a study of how doctors learn to listen to sounds, part of the Sonic Skills project in Maastricht. Anna’s next project concerns the role of technologies in medical education. She blogs regularly here and her website is here.

Alexandra Supper is an assistant professor in the Department of Technology & Society Studies at Maastricht University, where she does research at the intersection between science and technology studies (STS) and sensory studies. After acquiring her PhD from Maastricht University in 2012, she was a visiting professor at the University of Vienna. Her PhD dissertation has investigated the emergence of a scientific/artistic community dedicated to sonification (the auditory representation of data) and that community’s struggles to have listening to scientific data accepted as a scientific approach. Her research has been published, among others, in the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, the journals Social Studies of Science, Science as Culture, Information & Culture, and, together with Karin Bijsterveld, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews.

Melissa Van Drie works on cultural histories of listening and sound technologies. Her current project is called “Aural Kitchens”, which studies the sounds and the other senses in cooking. She played music and studied musicology (NYU) and theater studies (Ph.D., Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3). She did a history of the theatrophone and the phonograph in relation to 19th c. French stages. In the Sonic Skills Project in Maastricht she worked on traditions of learning medical auscultation. She has held additional positions in the LabEx Creation, Arts and Heritage Project (Sorbonne / EHESS / INHA) and on the ECHO Project (BIbliothèque nationale de France / CNRS) in Paris. Her publications appear in the Auditory Culture Reader, vol. 2, Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal (forthcoming), and Senses and Society.