Edible Anthropology: Foraging With the Art World's Hunter-Gatherers

Among million-dollar jewels and fancy cars, a writer investigates the culinary habits of a most peculiar tribe


A soup tureen on display at the Masterpiece art fair. Image: Courtesy of Stephanie Pierson.

Is there any place left on earth that remains culinary terra incognita, un-reviewed by Time Out, undiscovered by Anthony Bourdain? Un-Yelped? Stunningly, I recently discovered one nomadic, previously unexamined tribe whose members observe certain rituals: sipping hot drinks in the morning, eating small snacks during the day for sustenance, drinking tonics with native herbs and fruits in the afternoon, feasting in the evening on meat cooked over burning embers. In between, they wander around admiring shiny objects, eyeing monolithic stone sculptures, and gazing at color-splashed wall paintings.

These are today's art lovers and collectors, an elite tribe of hunter-gatherers whose culinary habits at shows and exhibitions have never really been documented. This June, thousands of them attended the popular and prestigious Masterpiece Classic fair in London to view art and antiques that ranged from cutting-edge contemporary to rare antiquities to niche fragrances. (Could I make that last one up?)

I got to observe them wining and dining at posh pop-up outposts of London's Le Caprice Restaurant, Harry's Bar, and Mount Street Deli. My attendance at the show went beyond cultural anthropology. My beau, Eric Silver, is a decorative arts specialist and director at Lillian Nassau LLC, a New York gallery that was exhibiting at Masterpiece London for the first time. When I first met Eric a few years ago, I wondered why no one ever talked about the food or drink at the many shows we went to—shows that went on all day, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. Then I realized that even if the crowd was eyeing bronze and tole antheniennes, not vacuum pumps, the food was like any other trade show: a tuna sandwich here, a bag of chips there, Frisbee-sized chocolate chip cookies and over-brewed coffee everywhere—the carbed and the caffeinated brought to you by corporate caterers.

So bravo to the organizers of London's Masterpiece show, who know that a plate of octopus carpaccio and a chilled Bellini go a long way toward soothing the savage collector and easing the pain of writing a check for that £50,000+ Egyptian-style Parure or the £1-million yellow diamond pin circa 1938. And if carpaccio (fittingly, named after a Venetian painter) and steak tartare sound like kind of fancy fare for, well, an art fair, let's discuss the guest list.

HRH Prince Harry visited Masterpiece. So did a group of Saudi Arabian princesses, sporting megawatt jeweled cuffs under their long black sleeves. Dame Vivienne Westwood and Sir Elton John popped in. Princess Alexandra, the designated royal, swanned in one evening at a preview for what is a charity event. A recent Annie Leibovitz portrait of Queen Elizabeth was on exhibition. Oprah Winfrey, our own queen, was there, too. So to say that we all ate royally would not be an overstatement.

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Stephanie Pierson is the author of The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes and the co-author of a book on contemporary behavior called What To Do When No One Has a Clue.

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