The fragility of the scholarly identity, or ‘what the hell is my PhD about?’

So there I was, with 12,000 words I had poured out over a few weeks, after months of deepening my understanding of the literature on cosmopolitanism. When I commenced this PhD, many moons ago, I wanted to understand how our interactions with many cultures’ foodways disrupt and transform our identities. I wanted to hold ‘authenticity’ under a bare, swinging lightbulb and interrogate it until it confessed its sins, including false ones. I thought I’d start to understand why some people are heavily invested in food as community and nurturing, while others are motivated by a desire to distinguish themselves as sophisticated, knowledgeable and gourmet. I wondered how in the world I could find out what ‘really’ motivates those who are interested in food. This led me to delve into the huge body of (mostly ‘white’) cosmopolitan theory, which fortunately led me further until I discovered the wonderful diversity of writing on cosmopolitanism by those from the ‘centre’ and the ‘periphery’, men and women, across a multitude of disciplines.

And that’s where I went astray. I am undisciplined and easily influenced, so what should have been a foray became a mission which turned into a thesis plan. Cosmopolitan theory is important to my thesis, but it is not my thesis. In reviewing the literature in that one area of import, I got lost, and one of the things I most lost was my own sense of authority. As I filled my empty-pitcher head with expert theory, I totally lost my mojo. As much of the writings are sociological and anthropological, I also started to worry about my ‘sample size’, and suddenly proposed to interview dozens of households multiple times across Melbourne. Grasping for a piece of masculine authority to ‘say something important’ (and general) about Melbourne, I forgot that I began with a much more modest yet complex proposition, to map narratives of situated identity negotiations around food and foodways.

Fortunately, Ken threw me a lifeline back to the boat of me. Admittedly, his toss was forceful and I might have drowned before I could catch hold, but I’m now safely back on board. And what lovely sailing there is ahead. I love my PhD. It’s about people, and food, and stories. It resists generalising. It argues that there isn’t a simple, normative identity that either resists or replicates itself around certain foodways. Rather our interactions, our engagements with food and foodways are always a negotiation, a transformation. Sometimes we are accruing cultural capital and not much else, others we might only be accruing calories and still others we might be feeding ourselves and the world, one meal at a time. I don’t want to ‘test cosmopolitanism’ like it’s a competition (thanks, Jean, for reminding me of that). I want to map its banal instantiations, absences and desires. I certainly don’t want to speak with the cold authority of the good empiricist, but rather with the dreamy confidence of… well, me. Thank goodness I’m back. 🙂

Salami Day with the de Bortolis

Sometimes, the stars are just aligned, and nothing you do will stop the goodness coming your way. At least that’s how it felt when food blogger and Twittermate @tomatom offered me the opportunity to accompany him to the de Bortoli family’s annual Salami Day in the Yarra Valley. This came on the heels, by the way, of the wonderful @Ganga108 offering to ship some cookbooks she was clearing out to any address in Australia; mere days later Kylie Kwong’s Recipes & Stories landed on my doorstep. The Twitterverse is an amazing land of plenty, especially if you hook up with your real community of interest. But back to Salami Day…

The day began before first light, as Ed and I followed our Google maps blue dot on the iPhone (well, technically the blue dot follows us, but on the return trip after hours of grappa and sangiovese, I was pretty sure we were following the dot…) up to the de Bortoli vineyards. Just as we pulled up, the sun having just risen, there was the pig, which had just been sawn in half. Within minutes, the head and other bits were on the table, where family members Maria, Dominique and Angelo set straight to work. (They had actually already butchered two pigs the day before, so were definitely in the groove.) There were only a dozen or so people around at this stage, including Darren de Bortoli (Managing Director) and his sister Leanne and her husband Steve, the winemaker and manager in the Yarra Valley. Just to prove what a small world Melbourne is, Stuart’s dad’s cousin Andrew Chapman was there taking photos for the family, accompanied by his lovely wife Josie.

As some headed off for their first coffee with a shot of grappa, Josie and I grabbed a knife each and helped shave the fat off the underside of the skin, which was then chopped up to be used for the cotechino sausages. The fat itself was a very pleasing smooth texture that felt scrumptious on the hands. These pigs had followed the strict diet for the last few months of regular acorn feasts, and the flesh was a beautiful dark pink/red as a result. In the adjoining area of the shed, another pig (not raised by the family) was on a spit for the sumptious lunch we would enjoy later… but we didn’t have to wait long before platters of salumi and freshly made ciabattas did the rounds, closely followed by trays of grappa.

By this stage, Maria, Dom, Angelo and the local butcher had made great progress on the pig, having sliced all the flesh from the bones (except the hams, which were left intact to cure and I believe some for prosciutto?). The meat was in pieces about the size of my fist, at which point they spread it across the metal tables, added the spices (chili, fennel, salt, pepper, and saltpeter), and mixed it up a bit by hand. Next it was time to pop it through the mincer (and the need for a nice big electric mincer becomes readily apparent when you see how much meat has to be processed!).As more people arrived and the accordion started to play, the atmosphere got both more festive and less intimate. For someone doing a PhD trying to unravel the difference between Hage’s ‘cosmo-multiculturalists’ (some would call them the ‘foodies’: people who are ‘into’ food for reasons of social distinction) and cosmopolitans (food + community = understanding, openness to cultural difference), the shift at this point was interesting. I felt enormously privileged to have been there from the beginning with the family, neighbours and friends, and had really enjoyed the easy comradery of the communal butchering.

After the mincing comes the salami stuffing. The previous day, they had made the salami with collagen casings, which are made from pork intestines, but reconstituted to get a more even and stronger consistency – hence those salami were quite straight and even as they hung in the cool room. Today they were using intestines (long enough to stretch round the shed!), so ended up with lovely curved salami, which Angelo expertly dipped in near boiling water, then tied up with twine to be hung.

I believe the main salami made would be described as sopressata from Calabria (but I could be wrong). There was some venison brought by the butcher that was also made into salami – apparently venison is too lean for a good salami (too dry) and so was mixed with the pork and fat. Finally the cotechino was made, requiring two times through the mincer with different blades to churn through the tough rind. Whereas the salami will be hung for about 6-8 weeks, the cotechino could be eaten immediately – I was told that you can boil it or cook it slowly for quite awhile to soften it up further.

The morning drew on towards lunch, by which time the crowds had really arrived and the wine was flowing freely. About a hundred of us sat down to a beautiful meal of pork sausages made the day before (to chef Tim Keenan’s recipe, which has renewed my belief that there are really good sausages to be had in the world – yum!), served with wine soaked caramelised onions and grilled polenta with a salad of mixed greens and vinaigrette. This was followed by a beautiful array of cheeses and that fresh ciabatta again. I enjoyed the charming and interesting company of Darren de Bortoli over lunch, and we conversed for hours on his family’s history, community, cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism in Australia (with a few forays into American politics and friendly disagreements over Howard).

As the afternoon waned, the conversation moved from kids’ lunches (“We used to be weird for our salami sandwiches, now they’re so common the kids say they’re boring and want sushi! Sushi, for God’s sake!”), to the resurgence in interest in the ‘old ways’, such as the salami days. Darren made the point that even the ‘skippies’ are into it now, and someone laughed that “people are calling them ‘foodies’, when all they are is wogs!” There was much talk of how the southerners (Italians) maintain the salami day tradition, with the requisite grappa, wine and sociality, whereas the northerners have the salami day, but just get in, get the job done, and get home again. This ‘northern/southern’ discussion was from people who were third and fourth generation Australians, yet still maintained their regional distinctions here in Australia. Fascinating!

Alas, it was time to bid the generous de Bortolis grazie e arrivederci, and follow our blue dot back into the city, where the children and Stuart had excitedly prepared us a three-course meal (not realising I would be too full to eat much!). I look forward to a sausage making day with the children one day soon in our own attempts to nurture our community with food and ritual.