Solo dining in a social country

Ask anyone what they think of Italy and they will mention the food, the architecture, and most likely the liveliness of the people. Italians are famous for centring their community around meals, and the many delectable dishes that have come from here are a testament to how seriously they take their food. So what happens when you arrive alone to sample and learn more of their food? Especially if, like me, you don’t like to dine alone? And how much are the Italians themselves still gathering for the family meal, the long, daily lunch or dinner?

Social patterns in Italy are changing, just as they are everywhere. With the increasing pressures of working long hours and more families with two working parents, plus changes in social structures such as people marrying later or not at all, and having less or no children… the ‘old ways’ must inevitably adjust to contemporary modes of living. Of course there will always be resistance to change from some quarters, and enthusiasm from others (one need only think of the Slow Food/McDonald’s divide to see the most extreme examples in Italy), but you can’t freeze any culture in time.

In my short time in Bologna la bella, what I’ve observed and been told is that younger people are eating out more than ever, catching up with friends over a quick caffe during the day or a round of aperitivi in the evening. The daytime cafe culture seems to be fairly expedient – there is usually a variety of panini and pizze options (sandwiches and pizzas) and a selection of sweet pastries. All of these things are small and can be eaten with your hands, and the turnover in cafes during the day appears to be quite quick usually. Then it’s back to work.

In the evenings, without fail, people flock to the bars for a drink and the variable selection of antipasti. It’s typical to pay 7 euro for your first drink, which gives you unlimited access to the food on offer, buffet style, inside. After that, your drinks will typically cost between 4 and 6.50 euro.

I have eaten dinner this way most nights, as it’s an informal way to have a meal and avoid feeling conspicuously alone in the more formal setting of a ristorante or trattoria. For the many of my generation who have remained or once again become single, this offers an option not to go home alone, but not to have to feel awkward. Alternatively, it offers groups a chance to gather for a drink while having enough food to call dinner. It’s also a very civilised way to get food into people who are drinking alcohol, and something Australia could learn from.

The antipasti themselves vary a lot from one place to the next, both in diversity of offerings and in quality. Most places will offer a range of bruschette – some with tomatoes, others with prosciutto or tapenade, for example. A rice and/or pasta dish is quite common – some are lovely, others remind me a bit of an American potluck with the inevitable spiral pasta (fusili) tossed in pesto, served at room temperature. Then there may be frittate, roast vegetables such as zucchini or eggplant, and usually some squares of either pizza or ciabatta, and often there are olives. At the less interesting end of the spectrum, there might be a little bowl of nuts, or in many places, potato chips. Pringles seem pretty popular for this option. O_o It’s an extraordinary contrast.

Restaurants are an altogether different prospect. Especially for dinner, most people just don’t tend to go out to dine alone, and you rarely see anyone eating alone in the restaurants here, just as you don’t in Australia that often. So after making some friends from my Italian class, I finally enjoyed some of the local trattorie.

At one, Ristorante da Alice, the menu was given to us entirely verbally, and in extremely rapid Italian. As we were dining at 10pm, having had an aperitivo in Piazza Santo Francesco first, we opted for just one course, a primo (first). We all chose pasta (typical for the primo) – I had the tortelloni a burro e salvia, the others had tagliatelle, one with porcini and the other with a ragu.

We followed it with formaggi – where we were brought the entire round of pecorino and sides of honey and mostarde (a kind of chutney) to help ourselves. Another table ordered flan, and the entire huge plate of it was brought over for them to take as much as they liked.

The following night we opted for both courses at the charming Drogheria della Rosa, and in fact Anja and Christian had a dolce as well. Our primi were three kinds of stuffed pasta – a ravioli in ragu, another filled with eggplant served in a sugo, and a tortelli with zucchini flowers. All were exquisite, but the huge flavour of the fresh sugo won me over the most. We decided to only have two secondi as we weren’t sure we’d make it through more, so we enjoyed a delectable lemony guinea fowl and a stunning cut of beef (like a tournedo?), cooked to perfection and served in a balsamic reduction (Modena is less than half an hour from here…). With all of this we enjoyed the local sangiovese, and finished with a grappa, where again, like the formaggi the night before, we were given the entire bottle to just continue to pour as we liked? I really have no idea how they accounted for what we drank, but I think it all worked out okay.

I won’t detail every meal I’ve had here, not only because many have been, as I said, of the aperitivo style eating, but also because I think the two meals from Alice and della Rosa offer enough insight into a few of the typical dishes and the style of eating and ordering. (And obviously I’m focusing on eating out here, as I’ve not yet experienced a home-cooked meal in Italy.) And the key here again comes back to the fact that meals are best enjoyed in company. We spent time choosing, we shared everything so we could taste more, we deliberated on what we’d tasted, had far-ranging conversations that were not about the food, and generally had really lovely meals in good company. The ‘meals’ I’ve eaten alone have been ‘fine’, but not as memorable, and not necessarily because the food wasn’t good.

In fact, the reverse is also true. I’ve been at meals where the food was absolutely divine – the freshest, local ingredients, highly skilled chefs who know what to do with such quality – and not enjoyed the meal because the company was less than ideal. Tension, aggression or any sort of negative emotions around food really does make the food taste bad, or at least stifles your capacity to enjoy it. So while I won’t equate eating alone with eating with bad company, both make it more difficult to fully appreciate the food.

What does this mean for the many singles out there? Obviously people who live alone can join friends (as Andrea told me here, there’s the family, and then there’s the ‘chosen family’ – your circle of closest friends – and the ‘chosen family’ is increasingly important as less people marry or marry later or divorce, etc) for meals and drinks as they like. However, clearly most won’t do this every meal.

Learning to enjoy being alone and even enjoying your food while alone is a good step, and one I’ve been working on while here. It’s all about finding a place where you can enjoy a nice meal and not feel conspicuous, for me at least. The aperitivo tradition here solves that for me. My other strategy is my notebook – as soon as I sit down I pull out my moleskine and commence writing. Here it’s been mostly field notes, so quite purposeful, and very generative. So using the notebook as a kind of social shield allows me to feel I have company and a reason to be there, even on my own, and savour the food a little more. I think some people use their mobile phones in a similar way, so they don’t feel alone.

While the informal aperitivo offers the opportunity for me to eat alone in comfort, it also is the gathering place for a generation of Italians who spend more time out of home than historically. The ristoranti continue to function as a place intended to gather people together – a big dinner (or lunch) to be enjoyed by friends or family – rather than the place for the solitary diner. It seems that as Italians adjust to their contemporary patterns, they’re still doing an excellent job of keeping food in the centre, even if it’s not at home.

The 18th International Ethnological Food Research Conference

This week in Finland has been a stimulating blur of presentations and conversations about food, punctuated daily with doses of pickled herring. The 18th International Ethnological Food Research Conference was hailed by all as a great success, bringing together international scholars from a variety of disciplines to consider the historical, cultural, sociological, nutritional, political and ethical issues around the production, preparation and consumption of food. As well as many excellent papers, the conference had a thoughtful social program of dinners and outings, offering us all more opportunities for meeting and developing new friendships and possible collaborations.

Some highlights from the papers, in chronological order as I heard them:

  • Johanna Mäkelä of the National Consumer Research Centre in Finland gave a detailed overview of ‘The Making of Finnish Food Culture’, highlighting competing discourses of Finnish food culture, such as: ‘it’s rich and multidimensional’, ‘there is no food culture in Finland’, ‘healthiness’, and ‘food as a central part of culture’. Such discourses exist in all nations and indeed many regions or even cities, of course. Johanna’s comments that almost 20% of the Finnish people consider pizza to be one of Finland’s national dishes resonated with Australia’s cultural borrowings as I wrote about in New Matilda earlier this year.
  • Nancy Yan of Ohio State University spoke about questions around ‘authenticity’ in the Chinese American context, asserting that authenticity can either disempower or empower, that it is ‘pervasive but limiting’ and that rather than dismantle the concept, perhaps we need to reframe it. She argued a case for ‘multiple authenticities’, and raised the particularly interesting question – ‘why does location determine authenticity?’ That is, why can’t a dish such as chop suey, invented outside of China, stake a claim to being an authentic Chinese dish? I would probably answer that its stake is in Chinese American cuisine, but that arguably the most pressing question is why is it important to the producers and consumers of chop suey that it have any claim to authenticity in the first place?
  • Eldbjørg Fossgard of the University of Bergen in Norway offered a history of the ‘Cultural and Symbolic Aspects of Everyday Meals in 19th & 20th C Norway’, which sketched out the shift from practices of children eating alone in the kitchen to moving to the family table over time. The changing values around raising children and the importance of role modelling as the nuclear family became more important than extended family models led to discourses of teaching children manners, hygiene and healthy eating habits. This talk resonated with me as I had received an email from my 10 year old Oscar that morning responding to an email I’d sent lauding the virtues of pickled herring for breakfast, in which he wrote: ‘The brekky didn’t sound that good but when you said it was delicious I wanted some.’
  • Ken Albala of the University of the Pacific followed up with a discourse analysis of what food scholars are saying about the perceived decline in the family meal and its social impact. He ultimately concluded that very few in his survey seemed overtly concerned that the declining importance of the family meal signals social decay. Those most likely to be concerned about such changes were in countries where traditions are changing rapidly, whereas those in countries where agro-industry is a fait accompli were very unlikely to note concerns.
  • Christian Coff from the University College Sealand in Denmark gave an excellent presentation on ‘Food Ethics in Everyday Food Consumption’. Christian kindly gave me the copy he’d brought of his book ‘The Taste for Ethics: An Ethic of Food Consumption’, which I’ll write about here on the blog after I read it. Some of his most interesting points included:
    • Ethical traceability – the story of the food should be traceable (in the EU traceability is law, but stops at the retailer – there is no compulsion to pass the information on to the consumer).
    • There are many philosophical schools of thought on ethics, but some of the most compelling perhaps include Honnerth’s notion of ‘consciousness of injustice’ – thinking about ethics in terms of relationships. Food is a relationship, originating from nature and undergoing a transformation from the natural to the cultural.
    • ‘The vision of the good life with and for others in fair food production and consumption practices’ – that is, you cannot enjoy the good life ethically if in order for you to do so you must support or cause some injustice to others.
    • He suggested that the main areas in food ethics include: food security, food safety, nutritional values and production history, and posed the question ‘what about taste?’ – what is its role in considering food ethics?
    • As for food ethics in everyday life, we can consider them at common meals, while shopping and cooking, and via catering outlets (everything from restaurants to hospital canteens).
    • Christian offers a model via the semiotic perspective, where there is the food with its values and qualities as related to two different interpreters, in this case producers and consumers (or suppliers and receivers) – and in between them is the food sign, or the trace, in which case nothing may be signified. The point at which the food is signified or merely leaves a trace is of major significance – how can a consumer have an ethical relationship to his or her food if it is untraceable – the mode of production completely invisible? When the mode of production is invisible, we are left ‘eating secrets’. Agro-industry often has a strong investment in maintaining this opacity – it is not in the interest of a massive pig factory farm (as reported here on boing boing) to show the consumer the horror of the conditions these animals suffer, or they are likely to make different choices. Joel Salatin advocates for making farmers transparent and accountable, as I summarised after hearing him a few months ago.
  • Hanne Pico Larsen from Columbia Univeristy & Susanne Österlund-Pötzsch from Åbo Akademi University in Turku, where the conference was held, gave a very interesting presentation on Marcus Samuelsson, the chef until recently at New York’s Aquavit restaurant, who uses the notion of Ubunto, a word from Zulu loosely translatable as ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’ in his cooking. Samuelsson is ‘multi-ethnic’, being African Swedish now cooking and writing in the United States – and Hanne and Susanne refer to the notion of ‘American plus’ – where there are advantages of being American with a sort of ‘bonus’ non-white ethnicity. They extend the idea, suggesting that ethnic identity in Samuelsson’s work is playful, and that he draws on what they call ‘playful nostalgia’ to make old traditions appealing, also developing a creative hybridity, such as a ‘sushi’ made from pickled herring on a rolled bit of mashed potato. Ultimately, they argued, ubunto enables one to keep multiple and flexible ethnicities.
  • My paper followed directly after Hanne and Susanne, which was timely as I was talking about the importance of maintaining distinctive vernacular foodways in order to have cosmopolitan societies. That is, if one never encounters difference – if hybridity is the new homogeneity – then society stops being challenged by difference and seeking greater openness to and engagement with the Other. I talked about how ‘creative substitutions’ are an essential aspect of successful tactics by migrants at settling homely identities in new lands, but that distinctive traditions and dishes should be respected and to an extent preserved in order to maintain real difference. I also pointed out the inherent ‘dangers’ in insisting on ‘authenticity’ – particularly the dangers of essentialism – but also to the opportunities and affordances for the cosmopolitan project.
  • Déirdre D’Auria from University College Dublin offered a fascinating insight into the historical rise of Italian food as everyday food in Ireland. Interestingly, there is only a very small migrant population of Italians in Ireland, but the many Catholic crossings of the Irish to Rome from 1950 may have been a key factor in the rise of popularity of Italian food. It is a topic worth following further given what I’ve learned in Vietnam, which also has Italian as the fastest growing non-Vietnamese food sector in the country, without a concomitant migrant population to explain its popularity.
  • Håkan Jönsson of Lund University in Sweden gave a very interesting presentation on the ethical aspects of commercialising ethnological research. Pointing to the growing interest in food culture from both consumers and producers, and the nature of glocalisation giving places new values, Håkan believes there is a growing imperative and opportunity for trained ethnologists to provide expertise, in particular to the producers. He warns that as a researcher working for commercial aims, you may end up ‘being an alibi for a traditional line extension product’, and proposes that we should be preparing students for these challenges. Lund University now offers a Master of Applied Cultural Analysis that seeks to provide its students with precisely these research and commercial skills. In the discussion that ensued, Christian Coff pointed out that in fact researchers in this case may end up as ‘tools for the exercise of power’, and I expressed concern that such research training must include ethical training – that surely it is central to scholarship to ensure we are working for the global public good, and not ending up as ‘alibis’.
  • Maria Frostling-Henningsson from Stockholm University in Sweden gave a fascinating paper about her recently concluded research project into ‘Consumer Strategies for Coping with Dilemmas Concerning the Meal and Eating Habits’. The project was particularly interested in examining the gap between intentions and practice, and how people cope with significant gaps. They found that those with children and teenagers were most likely to have a significant gap, whereas empty nesters were much less likely. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common strategy was a ‘justification of non-choices’ – a ‘passive’ strategy that lays responsibility more at the feet of society rather than taking individual responsibility. I was reminded strongly of my post on good cooking and finding time, and my own coping strategies when practice doesn’t measure up to intentions. Two of Maria’s methodologies interested me enormously, one called ZMET, where subjects are asked to choose pictorial representations of their attitudes about food, and another where they asked subjects to write poems about their attitudes. Both seemed very creative ways to engage subjects in multi-faceted ways rather than just straight interviews and observation. In the subsequent question period, Christian again brought a useful philosophical lens when he pointed out that in asking subjects about their intentions and practices, it depends on whether you are asking and answering as a citizen (global good) or as a consumer (individual desires and habits).

There were many other papers worthy of discussion, but I couldn’t go to all of them (we had three parallel sessions each time) and I have here highlighted those I went to that were of most relevance to my own project and interests. The days were incredibly fruitful, the participants wonderfully diverse in discipline, nationality and in fact, age (ranging from late 20s to 93 years old!), leading to many surprising and fascinating discussions. I really hope to be able to attend the 19th IEFRC in 2012 at Lund University, and then to convince them to let the conference move outside of Scandinavia to attract even more scholars from other regions.

What do Finland, Italy & Malaysia have in common? Me. :-)

It’s been a busy year. A really busy year. Nearly every week this year has seen me interstate to meet with government or postgrads on campuses across Australia in my role as National President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations. And yet in the middle of this crazy year (Epic 2010), I’m off on a Grand Tour – Finland, Italy and Malaysia. Disparate countries, you think? Well, yes… but there is (always) a rationale.

I’ll be giving a paper at the 18th International Ethnological Food Research Conference in Turku, Finland this week. Meeting a mix of scholars from around the world, all as obsessed with the centrality of food in our everyday lives, is something to which I look forward with enormous pleasure and anticipation.

Next stop, two and a half weeks in Italy for fieldwork. My fieldwork is essentially wandering the markets, learning the distinctive ingredients and dishes, and talking to people about what they like to eat, why, where, and with whom. Oh, and of course, eating. It requires a fair bit of eating… sampling, tasting…

So I’ve booked flights in and out of Bologna in the north and Palermo in Sicily, and nothing further, really. I’d like to do some language study (I don’t speak Italian) and perhaps a cooking class or two. I’ve received advice from the lovely Leanne de Bortoli, @carmR and a host of other tidbits from the twitterz and on Facebook. Obviously, I know some things about regional Italian cuisines, but not having been to Italy since 1991 (!) I’m conscious of how very much I don’t know about contemporary Italian food. Fortunately, I’m an eager and quick learner when it comes to food cooking. 😉 Some of what I’ll find will inform my understanding of what Italian-Australians left behind, and some will highlight the changed ‘homeland’ they find upon returning after many years away.

I can hear some of you (have heard some of you) thinking/saying, ‘but how can you leave the children for so long?’ (Others, mostly mothers themselves, have said, ‘I’m so jealous…’) In truth, it’s hard to leave them for such an extended time. A night or two away just makes me feel grown up and less stressed generally. Three and a half weeks means actually missing out on things, like the daily, multiple cuddles, for too many days. And I’m very very conscious that on the one hand, I am a role model for them of someone who is pursuing my passions with vigour, and on the other hand, the too-often absent mother who is currently role modelling parenting by correspondence.

Never one to wallow in uncertainty, nor to allow life to slow me down, I think I’ve solved the dilemma by organising for the children and Stuart to meet me in Malaysia for a final three-week family adventure. 🙂 Our reunion in Kuala Lumpur will be filled with the collective discovery of a new country, and our excitement at reforming the Jonai will not be disrupted by the usual demands of work and school. Genius, no?

And so it begins… watch this space as Tammi tastes terroir across three countries, many cities and villages and two continents… alone, with new friends and colleagues, and within the dear core of the Jonai.

Too slow, says CAPA

Below is a piece run in the Campus Review yesterday, reprinted here with their permission.

02 Aug 10 by John Ross 

There’s more danger than hope in this month’s election, according to the peak postgraduate body.

There are two big dangers on August 21, according to the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA).

One is that Labor could win the election, and continue to implement its reforms at a snail’s pace.

The other is that the Coalition could win and slow the reform process even further – maybe stop it completely.

CAPA’s assessment follows its review of the outcomes of 20 higher education and research-related inquiries conducted since early 2008.

These reviews yielded over 300 findings relevant to postgraduate students, CAPA found, with the government so far responding to less than a third of them.

National president Tammi Jonas stressed that CAPA didn’t back any particular party. But she said the best-case scenario for CAPA was a returned ALP government with the Greens holding balance of power “to help push for faster reform”.

“If they hold the balance we will see the student services and amenities fee finally go through, for example. That would be extremely welcome to students across the country.”

Jonas said a Labor government with Greens influence would also be more likely to commit funding to research workforce strategy recommendations, and to extend the duration of Australian Postgraduate Awards (APAs) to four years.

“It seems that the two major parties are unwilling to fund things,” Jonas said.

“We’re hopeful to see enough change in government to get the funding behind the will.”

Jonas said CAPA’s worst-case scenario would be a Liberal win with the Coalition holding the balance of power.

“Then not only wouldn’t we see the student services and amenities fee go through. We’d see a complete dismissal of the importance of higher education in Australia as we saw under Howard – an anti-intellectual climate that doesn’t value a knowledge economy.”

She said the “middle ground” scenario would be “a government that looks very similar to what we have now”.

Such a government would “continue at a pretty slow pace, but at least with some goodwill to start to improve what has been in decline for 15 years”.

CAPA said postgraduates had won some major reforms to scholarships and income support in 2008 and 2009, with the number of APAs doubling between 2008 and 2012 while they attracted better indexation and a 10 per cent increase in payment rates.

All masters by coursework students will also gain access to income support by 2012.

But CAPA said unfinished business for postgraduates included further reforms to scholarships and income support, implementation of a national research workforce strategy, new quality arrangements, evolution of the “third phase” of international education and research, and better student services and advocacy.

Go to

capa.edu.au/federal-election-2010