Whether crumpled Post-it or hastily tapped iPhone note, you can learn a lot about a person from the items on their shopping list. The poetic lilt of "green tea, almonds, cut flowers, brown rice" is enough to conjure visions of a clean-eating goddess meditatively chewing a biro as she ponders her minimal grocery needs, while the less said about "cat food, cotton buds, WINE," the better. Even Britney's scrawled reminders to buy "baby pizzas" had a certain Hemingway-esque beauty to them.
Photographer Tom Lakeman is a man who knows the appeal of an inventory of often wildly unrelated groceries (how do you get from "drain unblocker" to "jam" in five moves?) For the past few years, he has been collecting discarded shopping lists and creating dishes from the scrawled items they include. Every item on the list is used in the dish—foodstuff or not—meaning that Lakeman's creations take on a semi-edible, Frankensteinian nature. Think burgers stuffed with batteries, mouse poison bolognese, and toiletry noodles.
The results of Lakeman's supermarket-floor recipes have now been collected in a book. We got in touch to find out what kind of culinary innovator sees the words "Silk Cut" and "salad" as an invitation for fusion cuisine.
MUNCHIES: Hi Tom, why did you start collecting shopping lists? Tom Lakeman: I've always collected people's discarded items. It started off with lists, photos, notes, and doodles that I would find on the floor. I would put them in photo albums and wonder who they belonged to. This progressed into buying peoples' lost luggage at London airports that I would then take on holiday. I would then photograph the ownerless clothes and possessions back where they came from.
All my work is about personal identity and the reconstruction of it so when I came across people's shopping lists left in baskets and trolleys, it seemed like Christmas! I would go out and buy the weird, wonderful, and mundane items that people had jotted down. I must have over 400 shopping lists.
Wow. So how did you go from collecting these scraps of paper to turning their contents into real dishes? I was fascinated with them and how they were all so unique. Then one day it hit me, I remember the exact moment. These aren't shopping lists—they're recipes.
I worked for a while on four recipes trying to perfect them. Some came very naturally and photographed effortlessly. Others just didn't look convincing and lacked the edge to them. It was a fine line between brilliant and utter rubbish.
That was when I brought in Caterina Gobbi, a stylist from Italy. Being Italian, days were planned around meal times. Between meals, we would review the last and move onto discussing the next. She was a perfect fit for the series. Her touch with making dishes look natural and un-fussy was brilliant and she came from a serious food-loving background so she knew what she doing, outside just making a plate look good.
What's your process for turning a list of often unrelated (and inedible) items into a dish? It reminds me a little of Ready, Steady, Cook. It's great. Items like toilet roll turn into pastry. Batteries become the meaty centrefold of a burger and cotton buds become Japanese infused noodles. For a creative-minded food lover, it was like being in kindergarten. So much fun. I see everyday items in supermarkets very differently now.
Talk me through some of the dishes featured in the book. What's your favourite? The cat food cupcake was the best to create as the combined ingredients couldn't have worked better together if I'd written it myself. The cotton wool pads worked as icing; a mix of cucumber, sweetcorn, and cat food make the sponge cake and to top it off, there was a single "candle" written on the list. It was like figuring out the missing riddle. It just made a perfect cupcake.
Saying that, the silk cut salad was also great to make. It is a salad placed in what could best be described as an ashtray. The image plays tricks with your mind. It looked quite tasty!
How are Bompas and Parr involved with the book? Sam Bompas was the first person I reached out to talk to about the book when I first started to make it. He's a super talented and very knowledgeable man who gave some great advice, loved the project, and was really supportive. He wrote a very amusing foreword for the book which was amazing. I'm a big fan of all the things they have created and I am chuffed to have him involved in the book.
You describe the dishes you make as "beautifully inedible." Is this a comment on our current obsession with photographing what we eat? Instagram photos are nice to look at but do kind of distract from the fact that food is actually there to be eaten. Definitely. It's a comment on the whole food world at present. Fashion and art have been blended too far into the food.
The celebration of an ingredient is now covered by fancy clothes, strong after shave, and daft looking haircuts. People are no longer interested in what they're eating but what their food is wearing and ultimately looks like. It's daft. Stop snapping at your food and eat it.
Wise words. Have you ever been tempted to try and eat any of the dishes? The maki toilet rolls do look weirdly appetising … I tried the decaffeinated flower shake—it smelt amazing. Fresh flowers blended with yoghurt, fresh fruit, and a bag of decaffeinated tea. It tasted awful. I stopped trying after that.
That was probably a good decision. Thanks for talking with us, Tom!