Bowls give us the feels

The tableware we use influences the way we experience the food we eat. When we sit down to a meal, says Professor Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology and Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford, our brain forms a basic set of expectations about how it will taste and how satisfying it will be. Elements like lighting, music, tableware all contribute to this baseline in a much bigger way than we realize. “Our brains try to predict the world around them,” he said in a phone interview. “They try to predict the flavor of food.”

A bowl that we pick up and touch is more likely to set an expectation of a hearty, filling and healthy meal, he said. “That weight in the hand is likely to make your brain think the food is more substantial and you’re likely to rate it as more intensely fragranced and aromatic than for exactly the same food sat passively on a plate,” Spence explained.

There’s an intimacy in eating from a bowl, that just isn’t there when you use a plate. This is part of the appeal of a bowl-centric menu, like the one at Dig Inn. “If you think of the sort of formality of the plate, and cutting with a fork and knife, everything is very rigid,” Weingarten said. “You pick up a bowl and bring it closer to yourself, and you can really enjoy it and immerse yourself and what’s in front of you. In many ways I think it’s one of the oldest ways to eat and at the same time, in this day and age, a lot of folks are looking for comfort and recognition of sustenance.”

They don’t just feel good in the hand, bowls are also beautiful. “This might tie in to the Instagramification of food,” said Lukas Volger, a vegetarian cook and author of the cookbook Bowl. “As bowls have been taking off there’s also a renewed interest in locally made pottery, bringing the beauty of bowl into the visual experience, of food.” Restaurants like Takumen, a ramen bar and design-centric izakaya in New York City, have incorporated custom-made bowls into the aesthetics of their menu and interior.

Eating out of a bowl may even make the world feel friendlier.

“If you hold the bowl then you feel its warmth, if it’s a hot dish,” Spence said. “There is research out there showing that if you feel something warm in your hand the world looks like a better place.”

Lunch in 2018.
Lunch in 2018.
Image: Annaliese Griffin

Bowl food is how we eat now

The American impression that mixtures are a little disgusting didn’t come out of nowhere. It arose in opposition to immigrant cuisine and foods of privation, thrifty dishes like stews and goulash, rice-based meals. “The bowl naturally stretches proteins whether that’s meat or whether that’s beans or eggs or something else and it lends itself to potentially using up little odds and ends that might otherwise be tossed,” Veit said.

By the 1920s, these mixtures—which made use of every scrap of food in the house—were singled out as being unhealthy by the very new, yet already deeply confused, field of nutrition. Too many different items eaten at the same time would confuse the stomach and lead to improper digestion, or so the theory went.

“People were translating, I think, their prejudices into scientific language, and they were saying digestibility is key for how our bodies deal with food,” she said. A culinary eugenics you might have called it.

Being able to customize bowl food, whether that means repurposing leftovers, or setting out a variety of components for compose-your-own-bowls makes it easier to eat more vegetables—both for home cooks and in restaurants. In the same way the bowl gets away from the custom of making a meal out of a protein and two sides, it also allows cooks to prepare components simply, without relying on specific, elaborate (and often restrictive) recipes, like a vegetarian lasagna, or even a composed salad.

Weingarten told me that Dig Inn started out with a different dining model, one that favored discrete (AKA separated) dishes, but that they had moved to a bowl food concept after realizing that it allowed them to serve more vegetables.  For him, bowls are “a very organic, natural way of building a meal.”

At around $10-15 a meal, eating at Dig Inn, or any other restaurant anchored around bowls full of seasonal produce, is very much an expression of conscientious capitalism, rather than a Diggers-style departure from the larger food system. If they were, at one time, a social revolution in meal form, bowls are now a personal affirmation in a vessel. Just like Weingarten’s simply prepared seasonal vegetables, eating out of bowls makes us feel like our best selves.

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