Word Of Mouth: The new exhibition sharing our thoughts on food

A new exhibition in Edinburgh brings together dozens of artworks expressing our relationship with food – we chat to Word Of Mouth's curator, Maisie Wills

Feature by Peter Simpson | 20 Mar 2024
  • Word Of Mouth

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This time, we're looking ahead to something very interesting – Word Of Mouth is a new exhibition at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh that showcases and celebrates our complex, complicated relationship with food. Dozens of pieces of visual art and writing will come together to create a snapshot of our food culture – the things we like, the things we loathe, our feelings about food, our favourite recipes, and food's connection to community.

Our deputy editor Peter braved some lousy March weather to catch up with curator Maisie Wills at the Storytelling Centre. We've broken the chat down into four courses, so read on for some Word Of Mouth backstory, a chat about the power of food in storytelling, a preview of some of the pieces in the exhibition, and Maisie's plans for the future... [Conversation edited for length and clarity.]

For Starters: the Word Of Mouth origin story

Maisie Wills, curator: “It’s based on some events that my friends [Eleanor Mumford and Millie Player] ran in their flat, just after COVID. They were private events, between friends, organised on Facebook, called Word Of Mouth.

“They would be really loosely themed. I think one theme was, like, ‘childhood’, so you’d bring food somehow linked to childhood – people brought triangle sandwiches and things like that – and then something to share. It could be something that you wrote (lots of people did little poems about their childhood) or it could also be reading from a book or reading, like a dream that you had or even a [shopping] receipt. So it was just like this idea of sharing and bringing people together. When people are all eating together, it's like... you're just way more relaxed and you share all this stuff that would maybe normally be a bit… like… cringe? Or ‘why would you share that stuff?’ So it's nice to do that.

“Our friend moved away and [the nights] kind of just didn't happen, then I just got this opportunity to use this exhibition space, and thought, ‘this would be cool to do with loads of strangers’. I put out this open call in December, and so many people responded. I was kind of surprised; I think about between 60 and 70 people responded, in a pretty short space of time, two or three weeks. It got a really big response from loads of people in Edinburgh. I'm from down in Cornwall, so some people from Cornwall, and also just random people, people I didn't know. I found it really funny because it does happen like that [sometimes], but it made me realise how many interested people are in it. And I feel like food writing, especially, is having such a moment right now, so it seemed cool to tie in with that.”

A photograph of three yellow and blue tapestries, each depicting fish.
Romance, by Ellie Stone.

Digging In: Food as the universal metaphor

Peter: It seems like food has this ability to cut across a bunch of other stuff because it's not like music and film and literature, where there can be a bit of a barrier because you almost have to be ‘pre-interested’ in it. Food is almost the lens people are able to approach other stuff through.

Maisie: “Yeah, I know. I found it so interesting… I guess it was just that thing that everyone has to eat. But it's been interesting – I feel like I have quite a good relationship with food, but some of the work that has been submitted for this is quite dark, and looking at lots of wider issues but through food…

“Maybe at first, in a naive way, I thought: ‘Oh, it'll just be lots of cute little things’... There's been some really interesting submissions about struggles with eating, and using eating and food as metaphors to deal with quite dark times, and people talking about food and politics and class issues and the conflict happening and everything. I don't know if you've seen that at The Skinny...”

PS: Yeah, definitely. You see these recurring things that come through, whether it’s either specific locations or archetypes that people keep coming back to, but also things within the theme that people have latched onto, but are able to come at from loads of different directions. You realise that food is often the metaphor through which you can communicate other stuff.

MW: “What I've liked from this is that it seemed to engage a lot of people that wouldn't consider themselves to be artists or writers because it's like suddenly they're like, ‘oh, I don't have to write about something really deep and big. I can just write about what I had for dinner.’ And that's important in its own way.

“I think that's what's been really cool is the age range… I don't know, because I feel like a lot of stuff is dominated by a lot of younger audiences. It's been cool to engage with a variety of people. Something I've realised is people are like, ‘Oh, I'm not an artist, but have all this stuff’, and I'm like, ‘that's amazing!’”.

A photograph of a two-page spread of a book. The book depicts people cooking and making food with their hands.
Sugo, by Carla Smith

A look at the menu: Painting, writing, and a soupy rug

[Word Of Mouth will take up the light, breezy exhibition space at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, with the walls devoted to dozens of pieces of visual art and huge windows letting in the light from the Old Town outside. There's also a cosy reading nook, timbered and tucked-away, for delving into the extensive written collection of text works submitted for the exhibition. Maisie tells us the plan is for an abundant wall of visual work, reminiscent of trips to the National Galleries with bumper-to-bumper paintings on the walls.]

Maisie: “There's been stuff submitted by five-year-olds from a kids’ club... well, obviously they didn't write the emails, but these really young kids drew these posters of their favourite foods. There's one I have in my head which is this finger painting of Lipton iced tea, which I just love (I think they went for peach)."

“Then it literally ranges right through until people in their 60s, which has been really cool. And I've got lots of families involved, and lots of people who are parents and writing about food and their experience with children, and just all these different perspectives. So it goes from very young to the older end, which I really like. I wasn't expecting that. I just thought, initially, it'd be lots of other people in their 20s…”

“I think there's about 40 pieces… split between visual art and then writing and pamphlets. It’s quite even, which I'm excited about. In the visual arts, it's like a huge variety between paintings, drawings – someone's made a rug of soup, which I love. When someone replied saying they made a rug that looks like a bowl of soup, I was just like, ‘what would you have done with this?’”

A blurred photograph showing feet walking, with the words 'Cityscape' 'calm' 'chilled' 'refreshed and relaxed' and 'peaceful' overlaid in white boxes.
Material for collage about breakfast, by The Norm Project.

After Dinner: The future of Word Of Mouth

Maisie: “I've got the opportunity through working in the Storytelling Centre, and I think it's a place lots of people just don't really know it exists. And it's right in the centre of Edinburgh, and it's open! It's open every day and it's a really good exhibition space. So I'm excited to have something on here.

“The exhibition is on for a month, basically. I think part of what I'm going to do for it is write a guide on how to host your own Word Of Mouth. If I was thinking about looking forward, it's just encouraging people to do this themselves with their own little friendship groups, and I feel like a lot of people will meet each other through it and also make stuff about food, which is cool.

"I think it really depends on how much time and funding I have, but I’d like to collate everything into a book or some kind of pamphlet. I think a lot of the writing especially is very poignant and should be read widely. So I'd really like to do that, but I think that would be quite a long process. The short-term thing is just inspiring people to do it themselves, because I think that's nice and it just reminds me of the nice little events that I went to a couple of years ago.”

Poster artwork for Word Of Mouth.

Word Of Mouth runs 22 Mar-20 Apr at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High St, Edinburgh. Storyteller and anthropologist Gauri Raje speaks about her project ‘Cooking Tales’ at a Word Of Mouth event on 5 Apr at the Storytelling Centre


We're launching a new food magazine – gnaw is a mix of features and essays on food culture, and guides to some of our favourite venues and producers. Issue one is out in June, look out for gnaw in all the usual places.