Turning Demographic Data Into Delicious Food

To learn the sorry state of affairs of youth employment in Spain, try the "Unemployed Pan con Tomate."

Ferran Val

A while back this site reported on chefs who were turning demographic data into toothsome dishes – for instance, a lasagna representing decades of Finnish migration called "Spiced Foreigners Between Pasta." This month a related stats-obsessed team hit the kitchen, and what they prepared is even more head-scratching and geek-supreme than before.

The chefs made the numbers-crunching nibbles during a Barcelona workshop run by Data Cuisine, an experimental project from visualizer Moritz Stefaner and urban designers at Prozessagenten. About this curious enterprise, they write:

Have you ever tried to imagine how a fish soup tastes whose recipe is based on publicly available local fishing data? Or what a pizza would be like if it was based on Helsinki’s population mix? Data Cuisine explores food as a means of data expression – or, if you like – edible diagrams.

It might not be the right concept for a successful restaurant, but it does provide a nice feast for the eyes. Let's begin with the raunchy, cotton candy-colored "First Date Noodles," crafted by developers at Domestic Data Streamers:

What you're eating here, basically, is the answer to "Who will put out on the first date?" The tangle of spaghetti represents the 86 percent of Barcelona's young men who would have sex the same day they met someone (the blue noodles) and the 59 percent of women who'd do the same (the pink ones). Note that these percentages came from a highly unscientific poll of the cooks' Facebook friends. Meanwhile, the "abstinent men and women are represented by the straight noodles not touching each other," writes Data Cuisine.

This "Unemployed Pan con Tomate" shows, in chart form, the spike in joblessness among Spain's youth – last year, more than half of people under 25 were without gainful employment. The clever appetizer includes a gustatory signal of how this state of things is making life unpleasant: "With unemployment rising over time, the amount of tomato decreases, making the bread hard to eat, as the garlic overpowers."

Here's another hors d'œuvre that looks tasty but actually is foul. Yaiza Bocos Mirabella composed it as a complaint against noise pollution on her Barcelona street, which she says gets up to 75 decibels. (That's about the same as standing 50 feet away from a freeway, according to Purdue.) The fruit, greens, and other items on top show her average day's meals; underneath lies a line of salt arranged kind of like an acoustic spectrogram. "Like with salt, a little noise is enriching," the data team writes, "but too much of it is hard to ignore and ruins the most beautiful dish."

"The Wasted Dish" shows how the number of homeless people in Barcelona changes by the season. The plump fish-and-vegetable croquette at left represents the larger homeless population during the summer, when many aren't in shelters, and the right-hand bite indicates the much smaller population during the winter. To help the theme resonate, chef Pilar Talavera used cast-off ingredients one might find in a dumpster, including peels from tomatoes and onions.

OK, so these haven't been the most delicious-sounding dishes. "Tortilla Feliz Catalana" seems the most likely to satisfy hunger. The deconstructed omelet displays the "state of well-being" in Spain (as defined by the Better Life Index) broken down into various dimensions: Potatoes represent wages and job security, onions sub for education, asparagus is life satisfaction, and so on. And there's more, the chefs explain:

One half of the "tortilla tower" represents Spain’s scores in these topics, while the other half reveals what people [worldwide] actually find important (based on the Better Life Index responses). The difference between these two statistics – for instance, people find education really important, but Spain does not fare that well in this area – becomes apparent in the different taste of the two tortillas.

Moving onto dessert, this plate of alien ectoplasm takes another steamy dive into the sexual habits of Barcelona's youth. "Each sugar blob stands for a different technique [of] how people reach the climax," says Data Cuisine, "with the amount of sugar representing its percentage of mentions in an informal survey among Facebook friends." For the budding Alfred Kinseys out there, the top method for how the male respondents prefer to get off is oral sex (32 percent), while for women it's penetration (52 percent).

A deceptively simple-looking preparation of honey and fresh Catalan cheese (mel i mató) conceals a complicated recipe involving a "food printer." Chef Wladimir Albuja Burgos wanted to point out the age disparity in Spanish Internet use, so he 3-D printed different "network graphics" on each sweet-cheese discus. The one with less honey stands for the roughly 28 percent of people aged 65 to 74 who go online, whereas the other dripping with honey indicates the 99 percent of 16-24 year olds who use the web.

Finally, there's this question mark of a dessert, "Requiem for Science," which despite the atomic symbol probably contains no real radioactivity. Antonija Kuzmanic wanted to comment on Spain's cutting its science funding by 34 percent in recent years. So he made two almond cakes (tartas de santiago), the first using evolved techniques like foaming and microwaving the dough. For the second, he stuck to traditional baking practices, causing it to become dry and dense. "In addition, the amount of sugar used in the cakes is proportional to the different amounts of funding in science," says Data Cuisine, "resulting in a much less enjoyable experience for the 'non-science' cake."

Photos courtesy of Ferran Val

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