Will you pay for the ‘pigness of the pig’?

Last week it was my honour to do a guest post for Milk Maid Marian (a truly excellent and thoughtful blogger on the realities of dairy farming) on what ethical farming means to consumers. There is some great discussion in the comments on Marian’s blog, and the post generated a lot of interest on the twitterz. Next thing I knew, @andrewfaith had suggested to @wendyharmer that she might like to cross post the piece on The Hoopla, which she did the very next morning. The comments there are also well worth the read.

All of this happened while I was at the inaugural Australasian Regional Food Networks and Cultures Conference in Kingscliff, and then immediately afterwards at the Annual Council Meeting of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), for whom I am no longer an office bearer as of 1 January 2012. Hence you’ll see I haven’t responded to any of the comments on the posts on Marian and Wendy’s sites, which I aim to rectify soon.

Just to finish this little update, I’ve also just been appointed Company Secretary to the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia, where I look forward to using my years of higher ed advocacy and activism to step up my advocacy for sustainable and ethical farming and consumption practices.

Thank you, 2011, for the glorious life-changing opportunities, and here’s looking towards 2012 for even brighter (and bigger) horizons!

National Sustainable Food Summit 2011

The National Sustainable Food Summit was put on in Melbourne 5/6 April by 3 Pillars Network – on their website they say they ‘will be the leading knowledge network for sustainable business in Australia.’

When I saw the event advertised, I knew immediately that I wanted to go. Unfortunately, my $1500 research funding allowance over the duration of candidature from my School at the University of Melbourne was exhausted last year, and I used up my one funding opportunity for an overseas conference and research on last year’s trip to Finland and Italy, so I had to come up with the registration fee myself, which was not insignificant at $655 (the student price) for two days. Given that no papers were printed (for sustainability reasons – not even the program), I honestly cannot imagine why it cost so much except that it must have been a tidy profit-making enterprise for 3 Pillars. The catering was mostly sustainable, ethical food – free range meats, organic milk and the like, but I still think the price was very high, and sadly meant a lot of people who would have had a lot to contribute (such as small, ethical producers?!) weren’t able to attend.

But on to the event! Because it was organised by a private organisation rather than government or higher education, I was unsure what to expect, and even more unsure what the outcomes would be. A Summit implies gathering the best minds to apply to a problem with a view to informing policy, regulation and community leadership. I’m not entirely clear how 3 Pillars intends to pursue the former two, but it’s obvious that they and many attendees are in fact community leaders, and that this event brought a diverse group together to talk about climate change, food security and a sustainable food future.

I’ll leave it to you to ask questions about the sponsors – I was just relieved neither of Australia’s grocery duopoly were on the list, and the diverse representation from across Australia’s food production, distribution, retail and consumption spectrum was important, in my view.

The key messages I took away were simple: we need good policy and regulation to support sustainable food production and recognise the important role farmers play as custodians of our natural resources, the free market has caused private interests to corrupt aspects of the food system for personal gain that is not in the public interest, and we need to dramatically increase the public’s knowledge and respect for food from paddock to plate.

I’ve quite simply typed up my notes as I took them throughout the Summit (I also tweeted a lot of this on the hashtag #SFS). They are not exhaustive, and I do hope I’ve recorded what I heard accurately. Any corrections would be welcome. The full presentations are up on the 3 Pillars Network Event Blog.

Professor Robin Batterham – ‘What does food security mean and why is it important to Australia?’

  • Population is projected to grow from 6 billion currently to 9 billion by 2050
  • A greater proportion of the world, due to increasing affluence, will (want to) consume more meat and dairy.
  • Increases in aquaculture.
  • Markets are fully globalised
  • France is subsidising farmers because they’re part of the environment and need preserving – a precious heritage and future?
  • Points from The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb
    • A price on emissions and rising energy costs will lead to more expensive fertilisers
    • Peak phosphorus is upon us (Cribb argues we passed it in 1989)
    • 70% of ‘blue water’ is already withdrawn from the system
    • More soil degradation and erosion
    • Productivity gains have lessened/plateaued
    • Food prices track fuel/energy prices
    • Food riots track grain prices
  • Australia produces enough food for 60 million people
  • Although Australia produces less than 3% of global wheat supply, we are the 4th largest wheat exporter
  • More droughts and floods (climate change)
  • Increasing price volatility due to global connectivity
  • Increased reliance on imports
  • The UK throws out 3 billion cartons of uneaten yoghurt per annum (use by dates are very bad policy/regulation)
  • Australian expertise in low input agriculture can help us:
    • develop a carbon neutral food sector
    • develop innovative resource management
  • Land planning focus must improve
    • should decrease taxes on peri-urban land still being used for food production

Dr Amanda Lee, Queensland Health

  • Adults eat:
    • 20% too much red meat (yet young women eat too little)
    • 40% too much starch
    • 30% too many refined grains
  • If 35% of the population is overweight or obese, has the free market failed us?

Robert Pekin, Food Connect

  • A reflection – while driving, you see manicured lawns and gardens. On the train, you see backyards, get a perspective of where and how much home food production is happening (not much in many areas?)
  • Fresh produce consumption increases when people sign up with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box drop system
  • In a CSA, 55% of the retail dollar goes back to the farmer compared with normal average of 15%
  • We need to shift our focus from purely production to issues around distribution and consumption

Jock Laurie, National Farmers Federation

  • Don’t blame farmers for lack of access and over-processing of food – that’s bad policy and business
  • Bad policy and supermarket wars in the face of increasing costs of production are pinching farmers

Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine

  • Farmers must double production (by the 2060s) with:
    • half the water
    • less land
    • no fossil fuels (eventually)
    • scarce and costly fertilisers
    • less technology
    • more climate instability
  • Food stress leads to conflict, government failures, ‘refugee tsunamis’ and inflation
  • Solutions:
    • Develop a new eco-agriculture
    • Urgently develop renewable energy sources for agriculture
    • Increase research and development
    • Fair incomes for farmers
    • Recycle urban sewerage for fertilisers
    • Bio-cultures and algae farms
    • New diet: 23,000 edible plants
    • Rehydrate, revegetate, re-carbonise
    • Teach respect for food

Kirsten Larsen, Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL)

‘Future Scenarios for Food? Victorian Food Supply Scenarios’

You really have to have a look at the full report to appreciate what an excellent bit of research this is from VEIL. I can’t do justice to the scenarios they propose here!

  • Adjustment scenario – net food availability decreases
  • Control scenario – food stability
  • DIY scenario – mixed results

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Transactional thinking and effort won’t get us there
  • People have short-term agendas
  • We need transformational thinking
    • Understand why (the shapers)
    • Deconstruct assumptions
    • Focus on where we need to go beyond now (transcendence – transformation is required)
    • Reconstruct meaning and new systems
    • Design integration pathways
    • Drive a change agenda at speed (urgent)
  • Fundamentals of the new curve:
    • resilience – adaptability – sustainability – future focused

Consumption break out session

‘Obesity and climate change are two huge market failures’ (UK)

  • In January 2007 (Australia) 78% of people were concerned about the environment
  • Now it’s 60%
  • Concern rarely translates into action
  • A higher tendency towards green consumption generally leads to decreased consumption
  • There is no consistent market segment that exhibits more sustainable behaviour – higher levels of knowledge correlates to less behaviour change?

Local food economies break out session

  • When the population rapidly increased and food availability decreased in Cuba, people moved to cities – so the government invested in rural areas to draw people back out.
  • Overly strict food safety is a barrier to local food production and distribution, including things like food swaps (pig days, etc)

Dr John Williams, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists

  • Must increase production while decreasing impact on the environment.
  • Must make farming mimic natural ecosystems – they must generally be closed systems
  • Pricing food for sustainability:
    • Reward the provision of ecosystem services (by farmers)
    • Need investment in the economic valuation of ecosystem services
    • Reward farmers for sustaining the land as a matter of public good
    • Cost of food doesn’t include the cost of maintaining natural resource base
    • Need government to create/adjust policy that creates incentives for sustainable practice and costs to the environment being internalised
    • Need market and trade policies that remove perverse subsidies
    • Regulatory framework to ensure food production does not lead to damage to natural resources and environment
    • Need an Australian Standard for sustainable agriculture for local and imported goods

Dr Tim Flannery, Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission

  • To address issues of an increasing population you need to address education and women’s rights in the developing world – alleviate poverty and you address population issues

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Beyond an economic lens
  • Pressures in current systems deliver poor returns
  • Opportunities:
    • producing with constraints
    • food cycles not waste
    • focus on optimising high nutrition
  • Reconnect people with food
  • Accelerate knowledge and dialogue to deliver a new system

Richard Hames, Asian Foresight Institute

  • We became ‘consumers’ in the 1920s – an audience member suggested we should be ‘food citizens’ rather than the more passive ‘consumers’
  • Australia21 is setting up a Sustainable Food Lab
  • Beyond today’s worldview:
    • Production – increase biodiversity, sustainable practices, conserve ecosystems, local and organic investment
    • Environment – resilient design, protecting diversity, valuing ecosystems, stewardship, adaptability
    • Consumption – not more, but healthier, national food reserve, greater equity, education and information

‘60% of the world’s investments at the moment go to weapons’

  • Our opportunities:
    • Move swiftly to a steady state, low carbon economy using existing technologies
    • focus new investment on climate change adaptation
    • Conserve biodiversity and increasing nutritional diversity
    • Build resilience into the supply-demand cycle
    • Increase investment in sustainable rural farmers
    • Less the power and profit motives of Food, Inc (entire supply chain of big agro-industry through to retailers)
    • Embed sustainable practices – biomimicry, permaculture
    • Move from profit motive as a social priority to other forms of value
    • Legislate unintended consequences out of the system

Waste break out session

  • Sustainability Victoria survey
    • 40% of household waste is food
    • Households report they throw out $2000 worth of food per annum
    • That’s 8L/week per household of food waste
    • 700,000 tonnes, or 7% of waste in Victoria
    • Identified four broad groups of people: Zealots, Planners, Triers and Wasters in order of minimal to maximum food waste. Education programs should target Triers.
  • Katy Barfield, Second Bite
    • 7.5 million tonnes of food wasted per annum in Australia
      • ‘leakages’ and surplus food
      • pre-harvest
      • harvested – inefficiency/quality rejection
      • post-harvest
      • retail
      • edible
    • 1.2 million people in Australia are regularly at risk of not having enough food
    • We need to value food waste
      • economic value – food donors save on landfill, possible tax savings; real $$ value to community programs
      • social value
      • environmental value
      • health value

Don’t just ask ‘how do we produce more?’ but also ‘how do we effectively redistribute food throughout the system?’

Michael Velders, ARUB

One person’s urine provides enough NPK to fertilise 400-500 square metres of agricultural land

Ideas

  • there should be a total ban on organic waste to landfill
  • hospitality must separate all waste – compost and re-saleable/useable
  • triple bottom line reporting
  • ‘humanure’ should be accepted – ban on any sewerage into the sea

Michael Raupach, PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Energy-Water-Carbon (EWC)

PMSEIC – 2010 – ‘Challenges at Energy-Water-Carbon Intersections’

  • Connectivity challenge – trade, media, education, information
  • Resilience (from Resilience Alliance)
    • can recover from disturbances and shocks
    • can adapt by learning
    • can undergo transformation when necessary
    • resilience is a product of evolution
  • Finite planet and connectivity challenges require new foci:
    • integrative thinking
    • holistic education (eg food knowledge)
    • holistic innovation
  • Recommendations from the PMSEIC Report
    • Consistent principles for the use of finite resources:
      • ensure markets transmit full, linked, long-term costs to society
      • require resource accounting to be comprehensive and consistent
      • make markets work with non-market strategies
    • Develop and implement smart network methods
    • Build EWC resilience in landscapes
      • joint food, fibre, water production
      • innovative new technology (eg algal systems)
      • viable farms and rural communities
      • increase resource efficiencies and yields
    • Build EWC resilience in cities and towns
      • increase energy and water efficiency
      • recycle water with energy cogeneration
      • improve microclimates
      • change behaviours to reduce demand
      • stop sprawl with good planning, incentives
      • increase urban food production
    • Develop integrative perspectives
      • enhance incentives for integrative research
      • implement a new core research effort
      • ensure stable and ongoing delivery of essential information
      • a new education paradigm (Earthcare?) – preschool to adulthood, food awareness

Brad, CSIRO

  • The public welcomes supply chain transparency, but then tackling environmental issues head on such as by pricing pollution, etc, is a very hard sell
  • Different forms of reporting available – not everything needs to be on the label
  • Perhaps on the label should include – carbon, water and land?

There’s a lot of information here, and many conversations to have about it all. I’ll pick up some of the threads in future posts. Thanks to 3 Pillars Network for putting on a very stimulating and informative Summit!

If you’re interested in Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical (SOLE) food, you should check out Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. 🙂

Food Traditions and Culinary Cultures Symposium

I was honoured and delighted to be invited to present a paper on the 12th of March 2011 at the Food Traditions and Culinary Cultures Symposium, followed by a ‘Conversation Dinner’ :-). The event has been convened by the Australasian Food Studies Network as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Network, and is being hosted by the William Angliss Institute.

There’s a great line up of speakers on a variety of topics around food traditions and culinary cultures, followed up with a dinner to carry on the conversation. I’ll be talking about the increased opportunities a cosmopolitan society offers in the development of a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.

It promises to be a great day, and I really hope to see some of you there!

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.

Ten Things Postgrads Want: An Ironic Manifesto

A panel of four will deliver a version of the following ironic manifesto on Thursday at the Cultural Research Network’s State of the Industry conference in Sydney. We would be delighted to hear your thoughts on these demands in advance.

Research students account for 57% of Australia’s university-based research and development. Around 50% of the teaching in universities is done by sessionals, many of whom are postgrads. Our average age is 35. We are emerging academics in our own right, and we would like that to be recognised and supported in the following ways:

  1. Match scholarships to candidature (4 years) and make part-time scholarships tax exempt.

  1. Increase flexibility in visa conditions for international postgraduates.

  2. Ensure postgrads have access to adequate facilities and resources, such as office space, printers and meeting rooms.

  1. Provide sufficient funding over the course of candidature for each RHD student to cover costs associated with the production & dissemination of our research.

  1. Improve collegiality within our departments, with both emerging and established academics, through regular disciplinary seminars and social gatherings.

  1. Provide discipline-specific and ‘generic skills’ professional training programs.

  1. Provide institutional support and guidance for pursuing non-academic careers.

  1. Offer all RHD students university-funded programs to develop teaching credentials.

  1. Establish national standards for sessional teaching, with fair and transparent remuneration.

  2. Establish short-term ‘Early Career Fellowships’ (available 0-5 years post-PhD) to bridge the gap between PhD submission and first appointment/postdoc.

What do you want?

The 17th Symposium of Australian Gastronomy

When I say I’m doing a PhD on food and identity in Melbourne, I get some fairly extreme responses from people (like the political advisor in Canberra who nearly dropped his files, spluttered and kind of shouted, “FFS! Well, then, so am I! I eat out a lot in Melbourne!”). Many people ask me how I got such a great topic, and so I point out that we choose our own topics, and I just happened to choose exceptionally well.

In fact, if you’re interested, I chose mine because I had been working on spectacular performances of national identity in my previous degree, and wanted to bring my interest in identity home, so to speak. If I was going to embark on a number of years focusing on a research topic, it felt important for it to relate to my home/family life. I didn’t want a topic that took my entire intellectual life outside the familial headspace, nor too frequently away from our suburban bliss. And so it dawned on me… food is central to my identity, as a cook, a migrant, a mother… and it clearly is to many others in Melbourne and beyond. And I’m tired of people insisting, “Aren’t we lucky in Melbourne? We’re so multicultural, just look at all our restaurants!” Sure, I thought, but how cosmopolitan are we? And can I do a PhD and keep cooking with a passion? Et voilà. A beautiful research project was born.

Given people’s responses when I tell them my topic, you can imagine their faces when I said I was off to the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. “Oh, what a terrible PhD you have. Off to eat and drink, are you?” Well, yes. Yes, there was definitely some excellent eating and drinking to do (though the Saturday night dinner at Ming’s was a let-down that I won’t bore you with here, and picnic lunches on 40C days were challenging). There is certainly no shame in eating excellent quality sustainable and ethical food, which we did a fair bit of in Adelaide. And while we enjoyed some lovely food and wine, we talked about everything from food security to frugality to food and wine festivals. As it says on the website, “More than any conference, the Symposia of Australian Gastronomy embrace participatory gastronomy in a way that nourishes the intellectual component of these events.”

One of the crucial strengths of the Symposium is the diversity of its participants, who are academics, chef and other food industry professionals, and many food ‘enthusiasts’. It seems that everyone who attends, whether they are professionally or academically involved with food or not, is deeply engaged with food as cooks, gardeners and crusaders for sustainable, ethical and delicious foodstuffs. Melbourne Uni’s ‘Knowledge Transfer’ team could learn a bit from this organic and dynamic 25-year-old Symposium.

You can see this year’s program here, and the proceedings will be published (though I’ve no idea how long this takes).

I was the first paper up on Saturday morning, and the Symposium is like Meredith – it’s a single stage event (no parallel sessions), so the house was packed. My paper was on practices of frugality between different generations and cultures in Melbourne. In my interviews, what I’ve found so far is that there seem to be as many similarities in these practices as there are differences, and they’re not easily split along cultural or generational lines. I argue that those who are most skilled at ‘doing-cooking’ (Giard 1998), who are expert at ‘good housekeeping’ (in the kitchen, at least), seem to be most likely to be contributing to ‘global good housekeeping’. I also argue that those who are good at being frugal express a sense of competence, of mastery, which gives them a remarkable sense of their own agency, which in turn enables them to further contribute to global good housekeeping. My paper was well received, with a lot of positive and interesting feedback over the ensuing two days, and I’m still basking in the praise I received from the warm and passionate Maggie Beer.

Some highlights from the other papers:

Felicity Newman spoke on ‘God or Greed? The Business of Keeping Kosher’, with some remarkable ethnographic data on the difficulties of truly keeping kosher, including a video of a woman who has two kitchens so that one can be reserved for the stringent requirements of Passover. Felicity ended with concerns about what happens to Jewish communities when they give up their kosher food cultures.

Julie McIntyre gave a great paper on ‘Wine and Political Economy in Colonial Australia’, very amusingly debunking Governor Phillip’s attempts to sober up the local population by turning their efforts to growing wine (inspired by Adam Smith). I think we can all agree more than 200 years later that more wine has not made Australians more sober…

Polly McGee wins the rock star status for the conference. Her paper, ‘Donna Hay’s Newie—the Narrative Economy of Celebrity Chefs’ was a compelling romp through the three primary modes of celebrity chefs: sex, ethnicity and/or salvation. You can imagine which of the celebs she claims are selling through sex (and the innuendo during her analysis of Nigella was priceless, leaving the audience in slightly hysterical laughter), which are selling ‘authentic’ ethnic identities (Kylie Kwong, Luke Nguyen…) and which can give you salvation through sustainable, healthy and ethical food choices (Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtall…).

Bernadette Hince took us on a deeply personal journey of a life of frugality. Belittled by her sisters for ‘meanness’, ‘miserliness’ and allegations of keeping food until it’s not safe, Bernadette chose a sympathetic audience to despair of their ‘profligate waste’. A final question to the audience was about ‘chuckers’ and ‘keepers’ – are those who buy bottled water statistically more likely to be the ‘chuckers’ of our society? An interesting methodology to explore…

The final highlight amongst the papers was Christian Reynolds, who has just completed his Honours at the University of Adelaide. Christian gave a fantastically engaging paper entitled ‘Towards an Understanding of Food’s Economic and Cultural Power in the Political Sphere’, full of entertaining asides and moments of amusing self-deprecation. His paper detailed theories of hard and soft power, applying them to the use of food as a tool for coercion, whether by proffering it or withdrawing access to it. “Who sat next to the President at the G20 Summit?” was a great question to explore the broader cultural context of meals where power is exerted, and left everyone a little unsettled about who we’d be sitting next to at that night’s banquet.

The banquet was the sumptuous affair you might have expected, prepared by Sharon Romeo and David Swain of Fino, who just won Restaurant of the Year in Adelaide’s Food Awards. Unfortunately, we didn’t get copies of the menu (unless you were quick enough to grab one of the few on each table, which I wasn’t) and I was too caught up in a stimulating conversation with Ross Kelly, who has convened two of the previous Symposia with his wife Maria, to make good notes. Hence I won’t detail the meal here for fear of misrepresenting it…

The Symposium did have its inevitable moments of tension between the so-called ‘town’ and ‘gown’ – I was asked by one food industry professional, “but do you cook?” as she claimed that academics are often too far removed from reality (and unfortunately she didn’t give me the opportunity to reassure her that I am a devoted and passionate cook, etc…). In fact, a couple of people mentioned the tired theme of academics who are too narrow and out of touch, though the academics I met over the weekend were all deeply involved in food – in their kitchens, their gardens, their children’s schools, and their offices. I hope this Symposium (and the 16 before it) has contributed to breaking down some of the assumptions people carry about those inside or outside the academy, which I believe has been one of its intentions for a long time. Those who started the Symposium in 1984 must be commended for their vision, and for their continued commitment to ethical, sustainable and delicious food, which is so essential to us all.

In the end, we were really just a room full of intelligent and passionate people who care about what we and the rest of the world grow, cook and eat. To echo this year’s organiser Roger Haden, long live the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy!

Unbalanced approach to the solstice

Balance is not something one should seek too earnestly; equilibrium is statis. Yet in a brief period of equilibrium, one has a moment to feel calm, just before it all shifts again into intense growth, dormancy or some other organic, dynamic response to the world.

Today I am conscious that I am at work, at Melbourne Uni, in front of a screen in a mouse-maze cubicled windowless environment where the air is rife with paint fumes and the horizon is obscured. Only two days ago I felt uncertain whether I was in India, Singapore, Sydney, Canberra, camping in the bush or driving/flying/waiting somewhere between them all. Limbo lurking. The last six weeks have been outrageously unbalanced, even for me. I therefore find myself somewhat unbalanced as well, as in passionately mad. Racing thoughts and viscous verbosity are not helping. Nor is my highly caffeinated state. Thank the goddess the most unbalanced day is only a week away…

So last week I spent some time in UnAustralia. What a maddening, exciting, depressing, horrifying and fun place it is. The dramatically dubbed Melbourne Massive formed a delegation of nine (okay, 11 when Tom & Susanna were around) at the CSAA conference in Canberra, the site of UnAustralia. As per some others’ comments (see Michael, Glen, Mel G, Mel C, and Graham) the papers were a mixed bag of reflexive & un, challenging & not, interesting & dull. John Frow’s final keynote was a definite highlight, which should have been the keynote in Parliament the night before, no offense Professor Ranciere, but John was political and incisive in the most ‘resolutely rational’ ways. Another key moment for me was the panel put on by the Asian Australian Research Network (AARN), who worked on hybridity, identity, politicians, food and art in truly interesting and engaging ways. Hats off to Simon Choo’s work on food and identity in relation to the transnational flow story of the man who just wanted durian ice cream before he died.

I don’t really want to dwell on the conference, but then, nor do I wish to delve into the intense social critique in which the Melbourne Massive engaged for five days running. I think good work was done by all and all our worlds have been usefully complicated just that little bit more. I certainly enjoyed the many pub conversations of the week. May I suggest some optimal follow up reading: Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi come instantly to mind. 😉

A quick recap then: car politics, rogue emails, grassy knolls & feral possums got my shoe, group membership and mob mentality, OD’d on dismal food, J. Frow’s wine, shiteful Irish pub and sterile Civic, Motel Girls at the Garden of Australian Dreams, abstraction and Australian Parliament, bedbugs, academic engagement and a broken fan. Hit it.

Today is the third of nine end of year/xmas do’s in 13 days. Let madness reign.

Making meaning in Kolkata


I think it’s a good thing that the internet access in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta for those who missed the name change in 2001) was rather poor, because I wouldn’t have said anything sensible on the first day or two. It seems rather difficult to speak sense when you’re having trouble making sense of your environment. What is so very fitting about this dilemma is that I went to Kolkata to give a paper on cosmopolitanism, in which I argue for the Raymond Williams theory that one must make meaning of things to feel a sense of belonging to them. How true this is when contextualised so graphically…

I landed at about 1am and was fortunate to have a grad student from Jadavpur University pick me up (the lovely Deep). Of course, I wasn’t aware this was arranged, and so organised a pre-paid taxi before stalking determinedly, sans eye contact, out the door towards the cabs (I’d been to India before, you see). A tap on my shoulder and “Are you Tammi?” changed my entire arrival into a stress-free event. (Except for the two pedestrians we saw lying by the side of the road on the way to the uni, who had just been run down by a large truck in the smoggy haze of early morning, which set me on edge in cabs, but more especially, when crossing roads, for the rest of the visit.) Thank goodness Deep picked me up, because the uni gate was locked, the grounds looked haunted at night, and the directions were not as straightforward as they might have seemed on a sterile screen in Melbourne. To bed.

I won’t detail everything here from breakfast to bed, but I will share some highlights. The first day was a ‘free’ day, as the conference began the next morning. So Murray (the only other Australian presenter) and I headed off after breakfast without a map, guidebook or a clue except I remembered from eight years ago that Park Street was in the centre, New Market was meant to be a good one, and College Street was lined with piles of books. Near College Street, which was indeed lined with the same books of my memory, but with the amusing signs to let you know what each stall was selling (eg. English Lit – and then piles of Engineering texts), I stopped to buy some peyanji, a sort of onion and garlic fritter with lots of spice, from an old woman frying them on the street. By the time she actually served me, we had attracted a crowd of about 30 people circled around us. Murray and I were picturing headlines “Giant red-headed foreigner eats peyanji near College Street!” – because apparently it’s news. We later wandered through the New Market, where I insisted we pop into the meat market, being the food-obsessed, self-conscious adventurer that I am. What I recall is a blur of chicken feet, blood, feathers, semi-naked men crouched on concrete platforms amongst animal parts and rivers of blood, and a stench of bile, shit and fear. It makes me nauseous again sitting here in a comfortably middle class home in Singapore just to think of it. We exited stage left. I felt like a failure, but suspect I would have felt worse if I’d vomited in there.

I didn’t mention the cab ride to the centre, which was the really difficult bit. I cannot describe Kolkata traffic except to say the drivers know the dimensions of their cars, the location of their horns and the strength of their brakes better than any cabbies in the world. And pedestrians manage to flow between cars that are no more than a body’s width apart at any time, and if anybody were to thwart the system and hesitate, it would be fatal. I’ll add a short video of this later. The mad driving, coupled with the chaos of people, rubble and rubbish outside, was my initial taste of how little meaning I could make of any of this. And I found it extremely off-putting and alienating that day. But then comes the night…

Four of the uni’s grad students, Deep, Momo, Priyanka and Simon, took me out to feast on the streets that night. It started with phuchka, which is a deep fried orb-shaped cup made from atta flour and semolina into which is placed a ball of potato and veg filling, then the cup is half filled with a spiced tamarind water. Omigoditwassogoodwehadtohavethree. Next, into a cab to a Muslim area for beef kebab rolls that taught me not all chapati are created equal – these were the fluffiest, chewy chapatis I’ve ever had. Onto mishti doi, a delicious sweet curd, and roshogolla, spongy little balls in syrup. Not finished yet, we ventured across Park Circus for haleem, a chunky beef stew that is a Ramadan specialty for breaking the fast, and finished off across the road with kulfi, a sort of iced cream with sultanas and nuts in it. Sated, we went back to Momo’s for a chat and then to bed back at uni by 9:30, an amazing feat given it felt like we’d been all over Kolkata.

The next three days were the conference, Food: Representation, Ideology and Politics. My paper was in the first parallel session on the first day after the plenaries. It went very well and sparked a great conversation about cosmopolitanism, as well as the crucial question, why does food carry this burden of meaning? Also, why do ‘elites’ feel a need to insist upon their cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism – what’s at stake here, how does it contribute to the construction of a hopeful national imaginary, and what symbolic violence might it also do? I’ll be working on those questions, thinking about the ‘essential’ nature of food and the senses, memory and imagination, as well as considering the role of affect in relation to the sensory experiences with food. I also need to work on ideas about ‘authenticity’, which may be so problematic I can’t even use it; ‘ethnic’, which is a word applied to ‘the other’; and of course, cosmopolitan as a philosophical construct and multiculturalism as quotidian.

The final night in Kolkata, I found out (thank you Anindya!!) about a restaurant called “Kewpies”, who call themselves “purveyors of authentic Bengali cuisine”. So I dragged Ira (who did her PhD at LaTrobe and teaches at Delhi University) and Vidya (a divine classical singer, academic and bossy Indian woman) down a dark, smelly alley to where the place is secreted. And there we had the most divine thalis (sort of set meals, with dal, roti, chutney, fritters, papadum, rice and the dishes we added, including chingri malai, prawns in coconut sauce, bhekti paturi, fish in a mustard paste steamed in a banana leaf, mangsho kosha, mutton curry, and doi begun, eggplant in a sauce/curry). It was all finished with mushti doi and a cream-based soft biscuit, as well as paan, which I tried for the first time. It’s a bit hard to chew such a large folded leaf in your mouth, but tasty and apparently a good digestif. On the way to this beautiful Bengali feast, our cab was actually rear-ended by a small car, which promptly drove on. I don’t think the cab was even dinted (they’re tough), and everyone just sort of carried on as though these things happen all the time, which I suspect they do. I sort of felt like maybe it was a bit of luck to have the minor bingle, like it needed to happen before I left (statistically speaking), it happened at slow speed, and the gods were appeased.

Let me return briefly to meaning. In the space of four short days, I went from a sort of brain cloud reaction to the chaos of Kolkata, to someone able to begin to make partial meaning. Some of that meaning is troubling for obvious reasons – how can a place have such a privileged middle class in the face of stark poverty and crumbling infrastructure? But many of those same people, the intelligentsia of Bengal, are passionate, revolutionary, feminist, often Marxist and always leftist, and are doing their ‘everyday’ bit to find meaning and work within the contraints of a very challenging environment. Their students adore them, and they, in turn, shower attention and respect on their students, who are arguably even more self-assured than Americans. The intellectual passion and comradery I encountered in my four days was breathtaking and refreshing. I’m going to keep arguing for knowledge as a way to engender belonging.

Superdelicious Singapore

Having an awesome time eating with Hannah! Bought some Birkenstocks a moment ago, very comfy choice! But now for a little overview…

Flight uneventful, sat next to two nice Welsh film producers returning after a month in Argentina and Australia shooting a film about a Welsh guy who moved to those places then died in the war in France. Food terrible. Flight slightly late, so made it onto train at about 11pm, watched ‘be alert’ video at all the stations. Checked over shoulder for John Howard.

Met Hannah at Paya Lebar, caught a cab to Serangoon Gardens, just around the corner from her house. Went directly to Hawker Centre (Chomp Chomp), totally buzzing with people still at 12am, where Hannah went off foraging – brought back sugar cane juice (supersized!), Chinese satay (you know it’s Chinese b/c both chicken and pork – Malays don’t do pork due to Islam) and sambal stingray – yum! Finally to Hannah’s to bed at about 1am (4am by my body clock).

Lovely humid sleep with fan blowing hair lightly all night. Slept in, restlessly, ’til 8:30am, showered and downstairs for a glass of water kindly provided by Minh, Hannah’s housekeeper, and five minutes’ wait ’til Dawn, Hannah’s friend, arrived to collect me. Lovely girl, Dawn, very friendly, fun and interesting (English and drama teacher). Walked directly to different hawker centre for best brekky ever – chee kueh (pickled veg & fried garlic on rice cakes) omigodthatwasdelicious, chee cheong fun (fat rice noodles layered with salt/sweet sauce & chili sambal on side), and ‘carrot cake’ (no carrot in sight, something to do with tapioca and dark sweet/salty sauce – super yum!), the ubiquitous sugar cane juice (so refreshing!) and finished with soya bean tau hway (sweetish silken tofu goodness). And then it was 10:30am. 😀

Off for a wander – bus to outer suburb to check out the non-touristic Singapore – got 3 t-shirts for $30! 😀 Back in to mall central in the centre, wandering forever underground, escaping the humidity and heat… got Stuart a book, me a book of Singaporean poetry, and the kids a ‘Cooking Asian food for kids). Grabbed a pork floss bun with chili for a snack – omigod that’s good too! Then time for lunch. Sakae Sushi – where the sushi cruises around you on conveyor belts! You just grab what you want and they count plates at the end. Excellent!

Now must stop blogging and get back to eating – kaya toast awaits!