Most of the people I know are NOT in Second Life, or in any virtual world. I spend a fair amount of time in virtual worlds, and find that time enormously well spent for professional productivity & engagement, networking, learning, not to mention rich personal interactions and relationships. I also spend a lot of time in Twitter & Facebook & Plurk & Identi.ca & other online social spaces, but I find when I meet my online friends face-to-face I am less shy with the ones I’ve known in virtual worlds, in part because it feels so … real, so normal, just like meeting them anywhere else. So when people, often hesitantly, ask me, “What is it like? Really like, I mean,” I always describe ways in which it is like “real life” or actual life (or “in the carbon” as one friend describes it). No one believes me, they ask more questions, and then I describe ways in which it is different. The reaction then seems to be along the lines of “AHA, I knew they were strange!” So here is a parable, a story, a real event that happened that might help people understand, I hope.
I’ve worked in libraries since I was 17, and I’ve hung out in libraries since I was 4. I remember. I am assuming that many of my readers may have also spent time in libraries, but if you prefer art galleries or museums, that also works for this story. Imagine you are in a scenario like one of those. There is a library / gallery / museum and they have a new show or exhibit. The person responsible for the content (artist / curator / librarian) is at a reception or giving a tour and answering questions from the various people in the audience. Some of them came for the food, some because a friend insisted, some because they were curious and wanted to learn more, and some because they are passionate about the topic. You know how the rest goes – the tour starts, or the question/answer session. You stand on the side and listen to the questions, smiling at some, frowning at others, and nodding as the expert gives their answer. At some point, someone is distracted by the display and falls behind or misses a question, then catches up with the group. Someone else has to leave early and murmurs an apology. Another someone else has questions that just won’t stop and stays late. Typical, yes?
When Wolverine Island (the University of Michigan space in Second Life) open for the public, we were using a theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. I immediately thought of JJ Jacobson, the campus Curator for American Culinary History at the Clements Library, as someone who might do an exhibit connected with the sin of gluttony. It seemed like a natural fit. JJ is a great expert in this area and a good sport, squeezing out a little bit of time for a small but intriguing exhibit, called “Fin de siècle culinary excess.” JJ also agreed to take a portion of personal time to do a sort of a “docent tour”, which was more of a question and answer session. So here is how that went.
We gathered in the “lobby” which was outside the building. After a few minutes, JJ started leading people around, and I stayed behind as an assistant in case of late arrivals or stragglers. By the time I catch up with the group, the questions are flying fast and furious. Here is a very brief excerpt from the discussion.
[11:06] JJ: This exhibit is definitely a “first” for the Clements
[11:06] JJ: The exhibit is drawn from a remarkable fin de siècle work, the 8 volume Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery, edited by Theodore Francis Garrett.
[11:06] JJ: The Encyclopaedia was a work for the highest tier of culinary professionals: its audience was the chefs and cooks of Britain’s great houses and grand hotels.
[11:07] JJ: (It was also published in an American edition)
[11:07] H.B.: Ah
[11:07] JJ: Published in London in the 1890’s, it boasted as contributors prize-winning chefs from high-class London hotels, restaurants, and caterers.
[11:07] I.S.: What wonderful illustrations
[11:07] R.H.: Why “Practical Cookery”? That sounds more like a manual for housewives
[11:08] JJ: Well, it depends on what you think “practical” is
[11:08] JJ: It’s pretty highfalutin’ cooking, in fact…..but I guess it was practical rather than theoretical
[11:09] I.S.: ah
[11:09] JJ: There are many recipes, and a wealth of practical detail about making some of the dishes described
[11:09] JJ: Entries include descriptions of foodstuffs and their origins, recipes, methods of cooking and preparation, cookware and utensils along with their uses, and other practical definitions helpful for the cook, chef, gourmet and gourmand.
The discussion continued with comparisons to related works; questions about the cost and techniques involved in production of the book as well as production of the recipes in the illustrations; the cultural and social contexts of “lavish display”; questions about relationships between Victorian food displays and those in other cultures; what is it like in the Clements Library; how the collection was built and where it comes from; electronic access to digitized books; preservation of these collections; access for the public; garnishes; health concerns related to the diet at the time; how the extravagant dishes shown differed from the food consumed by common folk; one of the audience member’s relatives who worked as a cook in Victorian times; some of the poisons used in cosmetics of the time; ice sculptures as a sign of wealth and how they were made before refrigeration; the context of the economic climate and labor pool during the era; how the word “breakfast” was used to mean something rather different than how it is used now; zombies; patterns of serving banquets (and why the food was never hot); and the relationships of these practices from the Victorian age to modern cooking, most notably Molecular Gastronomy. One of the questions was about whether these historic cookbooks show a lot a food stains from being used. The answer was surprisingly few.
Now I know someone will want to ask about “breakfast”, so let me close with another excerpt from the chat.
[11:50] JJ: Well, has everyone seen the poster of the Wedding Breakfast?
[11:50] JJ: On the far wall.
[11:50] P.P.: Wedding breakfast on the far wall.
[11:51] JJ: It turns out that wedding breakfasts became an institution because weddings, by law, had to be performed in the morning.
[11:52] P.P.: Really!?
[11:52] R.W.: Curious law.
[11:52] H.B.: Yes.
[11:52] JJ: By the late 19th c, however, these “Breakfasts” went on into the afternoon.
[11:52] I.S.: Interesting.
[11:53] JJ: What I don’t know is when custom caught up with the change in the law.
Now, doesn’t that all sound like … a very interesting but typical conversation at an event like this? The difference being that we attended without leaving our homes or desks or wherever we were — no travel required, no parking, no maps, no getting lost. And, yes, we did have snacks, a rather decadent and extravagant multi-tiered cake with ornate frosting. Luckily, as the cake was virtual, it lasts for ever, has no calories, and we could eat our pieces right next to the displayed artwork. 😉
More pictures available here: