Caspar Menkman

An interview with Wietske Maas

Smoking peacocks, urbanibalism and snails

Over the years Wietske Maas has experimented and worked within several different cultural disciplines. Before working with Matteo Pasquinelli on the urbanibalism project, she studied taxidermy, wines and the visual arts. At the moment her focus lies on the natural edible resources that the urban topology has to offer its inhabitants.


Wietske Maas - Wietske Maas is participating in the Noord project. Picture by Lars Wannop. Lars Wannop


Where does your fascination for food come from?

Isn’t food the most elemental thing... (laughs) No, I have always been interested in experimental gastronomy. I grew up in Tasmania, Australia where my father had his own hobby farm with lots of different birds walking around. He also built his own smoke-house which we used to smoke our own foods. This one time, a peacock flew through the kitchen window and died. My father proposed we smoke the peacock and eat it. It tasted rather special, not really my taste when I was a little kid. But it instigated my appetite for looking beyond the usual types of food.

What do you mean by the usual types of food?

Well, the packaged stuff you can buy in the city, the processed things. The type of things that aren’t natural. The Netherlands is really advanced in this. Everything seems so abstracted here. Completely packaged things that aren’t native to this area. You can call this an urban paradox, a term coined by Carolyn Steele. This weird tension between the foods you normally buy and ‘naturally’ eat, and the edible substances from the topology you live in that seem unnatural to eat.

So the way you work is really pragmatic?

You could say that. Together with my partner Matteo Pasquinelli, who is a real culinary whizz, I create dinners out of the most natural and of course delicious ingredients a city topology has to offer. We call that urbanabilism: devouring the city. It's a way to engage more directly with your living space. It really triggered me to understand the environment we are living in. You need to deal with a lot of things. For instance the toxicity of the soil and what is edible and what not. This brought me in contact with people from a lot of other disciplines.

Did Noord offer you specific challenges?

Unlike the city center, Noord is really accessible. It is more wild and less maintained or mediated. It kind of bleeds out into the country side. Of course I am not talking about the gentrified zones that are settled by the big housing corporations where there is next to no spontaneous ecology. But it really appeals to me that Noord has such a wild spread of contamination.

However it is a question of getting a lot of people in. You can do it all yourself, but it is a hell of a lot of work when you are making a dinner for a big group of people. It’s about doing the research and speaking to the right people. You have to talk with the city ecologist and the people who live there to get a proper understanding of a place. And I like to do some experiments. The dinner is going to be in the beginning of October. Before that, I will do some expeditions to find the right ingredients. This is what I like most about these projects: the preparation. The process of finding and gathering the ingredients will be an exploration and orientation through Noord. The people who end up eating the dinner will have been involved in one way or another in this process. I prefer to host dinners where the people are engaged with the food sourcing, rather than those who just come for the dinner alone. I'm not into delivering nicely packaged food experiences where people don't know how the food ended up on the table.

Are there any ingredients that have become standard for your projects?

Well, you'll find a similar biotope, similar weeds and plants in most northern European cities. For instance, you're pretty sure to find elder, thistle varieties, goose foot, mug wort, and rowan berries, to name a few. However, very seasonal and unexpected plants can pop up in unexpected places for a short period of time. I love to see the relation between the different energy flows of a city — the relation between humans, plants and other living organisms.

Can you give us a little inside information as to how many courses your meal will exist of?

Ideally it would consist of just one course, that really reflects the character of Noord. However, in reality this is very hard. There are so many possibilities (snails, geese, pheasants, parsnip and so on), that we might even prepare two or three courses. We still have four weeks left, and taking food from nature is always an unpredictable process. With sudden changes of weather, anything can happen. Is it okay if I don't disclose this yet?