In a peculiar case of East meets West, urban reinvention in China inspired a food truck by Debra Solomon, an American-born artist based in Amsterdam. In 2004, while mapping street-food vendors with students at Nanjing Arts Institute, Solomon witnessed acres of skyscrapers peremptorily rising where hutongs had recently stood. A shantytown accreted along the edges of the construction zone, where many displaced residents began reinventing their environment from the debris of contemporary China: polystyrene that once sandwiched a flat-screen television was fashioned into a bed, for example, and clothes rematerialized as upholstery. Solomon decided to translate the flows and waste streams that define the modern city into her practice, which these days primarily uses food as its medium.
Last year, Solomon began combing Rotterdam’s working-class immigrant district Afrikaanderwijk for neighborhood foodstuff that might otherwise be discarded. Calling her method “super-use,” she takes products nearing their shelf date from groceries and green markets and conjures recipes to transform them into sellable snacks. Aging lemon, coriander, and smoked beets were injected into hummus; bread dough became crackers; and all kinds of vegetables were pickled. “It’s up to a different set of eyes to see what you call waste and optimize it as an input in another system,” Solomon says. “The project is also a platform for informal economies,” she points out. “It increases people’s reliance on each other and elongates the optimal use of things that are already here.”
In fact, the truck, called Lucky Mi Fortune Cooking, is part of a larger initiative, led by the local architect Dennis Kaspori and the artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, to inject new life into the neighborhood. Kaspori says their practice questions the role that citizens can play in Dutch revitalization programs. “Can we enable people to engage in this top-down process and give them a say in creating their own environment?” he asks. “Lucky Mi isn’t about one entrepreneur but about a collaboration between several, and the exchange and impact that can have on a neighborhood.”
Since November, taste testers have sampled new recipes from the snack truck (designed by Rotterdam’s 2012 Architecten), which is parked once a month at the Afrikaanderwijk’s outdoor market. When Lucky Mi officially launches its menu in June, Solomon plans to turn over her supply chains, recipes, and revenue-generating vehicle to a local commercial kitchen, making it an official community asset. She hopes it will establish the neighborhood as a foodie destination, in turn creating jobs and spurring further business development. Meanwhile, Solomon says, ethnic groups that had previously kept separate have bonded over her culinary experiments. Opinions on the hummus were mixed, she admits, but there has been at least one universal success. “I’m thinking about the kimchi, which folks from all cultures repeatedly tell me they’re addicted to,” she says. “People start almost jumping when you give them something pickled.”