The art of portion control

In an era of supersized portions, in a city with soaring obesity rates, small bites were in, if only for a night.

S'mores made with mini-marshmallows roasted over tea lights. One-bite banana splits. Four-course TV dinners no bigger than a bag of M&M's (a "fun size" bag at that).

Small Foods 2011, as this smorgasbord of miniatures was called, might have seemed precious had it not unfolded in an edgy west-side gallery where artists once lived as squatters and where some continue, having gotten right with zoning laws, to live communally. Tiny foods aside, this was no dollhouse convention. But just what was it?

Commentary on American gluttony? A wry sendup of teensy restaurant tasting-menu portions? Or just another Saturday night for Charm City's artsy-foodie set?

"I live for that stuff," said Sarah Jennings, who claimed top prize (a giant can of miniature corn) with her tiny TV dinners.

Begun as an ordinary hors d'oeuvres party years ago, the Small Foods Party has grown to a large, if not quite public, event — one that Jennings puts in Baltimore's pantheon of oddball artistic extravaganzas, right up there with the city's Kinetic Sculpture Race and the annual water ballet staged by the group Fluid Movement.

"Any time there's something like that, I'm in it," said Jennings, 29, a veteran of the race and water ballet who participated in the Small Foods Party for the first time this year.

The party took place Feb. 12 at the Whole Gallery, in the H & H Building on West Franklin Street. With word spread only on Facebook, more than 100 people showed up, many with miniature foods they'd created at home to share with the crowd.

"It is definitely an excuse to get together around food that's not your traditional dinner party scenario and definitely impress each other with your determination — just to amaze each other with our obsessive-compulsiveness," said Melissa Webb, 36, a Waverly artist and one of the organizers, who created cinnamon buns the size of Froot Loops for a previous party. (This year she was too busy organizing to bake.)

Webb and friend Kelley Bell decided years ago to have a party around the Christmas holidays and serve just hors d'oeuvres instead of a sit-down meal. It became an annual get-together.

"Then somebody, as a joke, I don't remember who it was, may have brought something really, really small," said Bell, 39, who teaches graphic design and animation at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

They started giving out prizes for the best small foods six years ago, and then people got serious, even though the prizes themselves were just tokens. In fact, the grand prize, the giant can of mini corn festooned with miniature cooking implements, is returned each year and given to the new winner, like a beauty pageant crown.

"Now people know it's serious business," said Webb. "They've started really trying to get smaller and smaller."

Among the standouts this year were Smith Island cakes about the size of marshmallows. (They only had four layers, not the eight to 10 you'd get in the real thing, but still!) Boxed wine made in small raisin boxes with plastic bags on the inside and miniature Franzia labels on the outside. Homemade cardamom and cherry ice creams, scooped with melon ballers into tiny custom cones by a team calling itself the "Wee Scream" ice cream parlor. Thumbnail-size tacos. Spinach salads, each made with a single leaf, with chopped hard-boiled egg, mushroom and red onion wrapped inside. And an entire Southern picnic spread, including corn dogs made with cocktail wieners.

"I was really dedicated to getting every single bit of a banana split in every bite," said Lee Sinoski, 28, a former chef and aspiring food-truck operator who created teeny banana splits atop Asian sesame crackers. Sinoski dotted the crackers with homemade strawberry, chocolate and banana butter creams, then added slivers of fresh banana, candied hazelnuts and from-scratch butterscotch sauce.

Jefferson Jackson Steele, a professional photographer, filled dime-size homemade brioches with chocolate and vanilla gelato. In previous years, he's made tiny beef Wellingtons and crab-stuffed mushrooms.

"You get to blend art and food together," said Steele, 46. "It's always challenging to make something really small."

Food and miniatures are two subjects with broad appeal, so combining them works on many artistic levels, Bell said.

"The way that we eat is very much a part of our culture, just like art or design or anything else," said Bell. "There are very few people that can say, 'Oh, I'm not interested in food.' That provides a baseline for anyone to participate. … Taking something and making it very small, whether something as highfalutin as Muslim miniatures to folks who carve the pope in a grain of rice — it addresses such a broad boundary of high and low art."

The Small Foods Party is an especially good fit for Baltimore because the city's relatively small arts scene leads to collaboration across different artistic fields, Bell said.

"People are expressing themselves using foodstuffs in a very unusual way — artists, filmmakers, writers, cooks, performance artists," she said. "I think it's really a reflection of the Baltimore arts scene. It's a great place for collaboration. I don't know if people would take it so seriously in other cities as they do in Baltimore. Folks here really have a sense of humor. I think it's a sense of humor that by turns can be quirky and somewhat disturbing and twisted. Not that small foods is macabre or anything, but it's definitely strange, and I think that definitely appeals to people."

She added: "Those TV dinners — that was absolutely insane."

Jennings, mastermind of the tiny TV dinner, surely will take "insane" as the compliment it was intended to be. A former theater major who once created props and costumes for Center Stage, Jennings designs ads that pop up on cell phones, so she's used to working on a small scale..

"The biggest banner ad we run is 320 pixels by 53 pixels — about the size of your shift key," she said.

But even for Jennings, 100 teeny-tiny TV dinners was a tall order. She devoted the better part of a week to designing and making 100 compartmentalized foil trays, then cooking the components of the meal: miniature fried chicken, garlic-rosemary mashed potatoes, honey-ginger glazed carrots and double-fudge brownies. The scale was so small that she needed only two chicken breasts to make 100 servings, but the project was so time-consuming that she had to rope in two roommates.

Once the trays were formed and filled with food, Jennings topped them with colorful labels that evoked Sara Lee. At the party, dressed in a '50s apron and dress, she used a toaster oven to heat her "Sarah-Lou" dinners in batches before handing them out.

"I take my silliness very seriously," Jennings said. "I think that's what makes Baltimore cool. Nowhere else has this sort of stilly stuff. When you really enjoy the absurd, it's a great place to be. You can always find something silly to do, and you can always find people to help you do it."


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