A Cosmopolitan Morality

I posted a piece over on RAW / ROAR, a new website of feminist writing from Australian women from the Left, on the stoush between Melinda Tankard Reist (MTR) and blogger Jennifer Wilson (No Place for Sheep). It’s not about MTR’s threats to sue for defamation, which I abhor. It’s about the ethics of dismissing an argument because of somebody’s religion.

You can read it here.

End the detention of asylum seekers in Australia

This is the letter I sent today to my Federal Labor MP, Catherine King.

Dear Catherine,

I have been and remain horrified at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and so I write to you as a constituent to ask that you press your Government for humane treatment of these desperate people.

What if it was your mother, father, children or friends who had no other option than to flee their country, leaving behind a lifetime of memories and in many cases the opportunity to earn a living for some time. Would you want them denied succour in a new land? Imprisoned for indefinite periods? I am ashamed to be a citizen of a country that locks people up under these conditions.

Not only do we know onshore processing works, it’s the only humane option. Leaving asylum seekers in limbo in places more palatable to our politicians is a national disgrace, and poorly represents a country I know to be full of kind and generous people. The Government is not reflecting community sentiment, even if it claims to be.

The puerile ‘debates’ over so-called ‘boat people’ are even further evidence of how impoverished political discourse is in Australia. It is clear that people fleeing war, famine or persecution will leave by whatever means they can, including the life-threatening voyages some take by boat. You can help re-focus the debate on what’s important – how can Australia help people who seek asylum on our shores to enjoy the same freedoms and privileges we take for granted?

We need leadership, not pandering to the most base sentiments of our society.

It’s time Australia stops destroying people’s lives (and in the worst cases, committing murder when people take their own lives rather than suffer in detention centres any longer) by locking them up with no hope for months and years on end.

Distrust and incarceration are not the answers, compassion and hospitality are.

Sincerely,

Tammi Jonas

Authenticity: not ‘what’ but ‘why’

Authenticity measures the degree to which something is more or less what it ought to be. …is it an immanent norm, emerging somehow from the cuisine itself? Or is it an external norm, reflecting some imposed gastronomic standard? If is is an immanent norm, who is its authoritative voice: The professional cook? The average consumer? The gourmand? The housewife? If it is an imposed norm, who is its privileged voice: the connoisseur of exotic food? The tourist? The ordinary participants in a neighboring cuisine? The cultivated eater from a distant one? (Appadurai 1986, 25).

My first job as a recently-arrived Anglo-American migrant to Australia in 1992 was as a waitress in a bistro in Geelong, a provincial city an hour from Melbourne. On the menu, I was delighted to note, were burritos, a food Americans claim as our own. Whilst having my tour of the kitchen, I asked the chef how she made her burritos, to which she replied, “I use large roti bread, fill it with pieces of chicken I’ve fried with some onion, roll it up, and pour béarnaise sauce over the top. Then I serve it with salad on the side.” Aside from raised eyebrows, I withheld my feedback until I tasted said ‘burritos’ at the end of a long shift, “This tastes quite nice, but it’s definitely not a burrito.”

In a short piece On Culinary Authenticity, Arjun Appadurai suggests that “quality is typically the insider’s concern, authenticity that of the culinary tourist. We often admit that there is food that, though inauthentic, is good” (1986, 25). However Appadurai acknowledges that authenticity becomes the concern of insiders “when they (and the food) are far from home. […] The concern with authenticity indicates some sort of doubt, and this sort of doubt is rarely part of the discourse of an undisturbed culinary tradition.” (ibid).

I find Americans in Melbourne often lament the lack of Mexican restaurants, or the perceived ‘inauthenticity’ of those we do have. I myself have indulged in precisely this lament, and in my early years as a new migrant went to some trouble to seek out Melbourne’s Mexican restaurants, which were unequivocally disappointing when the flavours failed to conjure up a taste of home. (The dilemmas of finding ‘my’ food also extended to: a lack of Ranch dressing; unwelcome slices of beetroot on burgers; large, overly pliant pieces of bacon; and milk that tasted ‘funny’, to name just a few.)

I eventually accepted the absence of what I understood to be Mexican food, and subsequently resorted to only eating it at home. Due to a lack of quality tortillas here in the early 1990s, I learned to make my own. Were the tortillas I made at home ‘authentic’? Surely not – I had to piece together recipes from a few whole-foods genre cookbooks, and I don’t own a tortilla press, so my tortillas were inevitably too thick and quite chewy. It is now possible to find edible commercial facsimiles of tortillas for sale even at Coles, though they don’t compare with homemade or California’s ubiquitous locally made versions. As well as tortillas, I make my own refried beans as the tinned version readily available here is, well, depressing.

And yet this story of a search for authenticity has a complicated genealogy. My earliest experiences of burritos were in fast food franchises in southern California, namely Del Taco and Taco Bell. Later, our Mexican housekeeper made us quesadillas almost daily, Mexican style, without vegetables. In my last years in America, I was a fan of the local taquería style burritos, which are typically giant and filled with refried beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, sour cream and red or green salsa and wrapped in aluminium foil.

Thus is the varied landscape of my burrito memories. There were (and are) plenty of other versions of burritos in America, including the ‘wet’ burritos, which must be eaten with a knife and fork, but my core notions of authenticity (which, as per Appadurai’s point, only surfaced after migration) involved the basics of meat, beans, cheese, salads, guacamole and sour cream wrapped in flour tortillas and eaten with your hands. The American versions of ‘authentic’ burritos actually differ significantly from their Mexican counterparts.

In northern Mexico there are burritos, which are made from fillings (typically rice, beans and/or a meat) wrapped inside an unleavened flat bread that the Mexicans call a tortilla. The tortillas can be made from wheat or corn, and come in a variety of sizes. They tend to be smaller than burritos found in the US, where the burritos are filled with an astonishing number of ingredients, many of which are not easily found in their northern Mexican states of origin, Sonora and Chihuahua. With the ever increasing popularity of burritos in America, they have made their way onto menus throughout southern Mexico as well wherever ‘gringos’ congregate, and more closely resemble American versions than northern Mexican ones. I do not have the space here to do justice to a discussion of the process of migrant foods ‘returning’ in hybridised form to the ‘homeland’ as an aspect of the broader process of globalisation, but it is a topic worth exploration in its own right.

My personal hunt for an ‘authentic’ burrito is just one version of identity work played out repeatedly around the world. In my narrative, it is the story of the migrant who unreflexively believes there is an ‘authentic’ essence to a dish from one’s original culture (even if it’s a transplant in the first place). Writing about multiculturalism and migrant tendencies to self-essentialise, Tariq Modood observes that “…when non-Chinese speak of Chinese civilization, their starting point is often that it has coherence, sameness over centuries and a reified quality” (2007, 93) and subsequently argues that sometimes we all speak of our own cultures this way (as per my own migration trajectory).

In my initial searches for an ‘authentic’ burrito, I didn’t clearly articulate for myself or others what that item might really be like if I found it, but I knew that I would know it, by sight, smell, texture and taste, when I did. In 20 years here I have never found ‘it’, but still enjoy (nay, devour) ‘homely’ burritos on every return trip to the States. And in Australia, I no longer pine for Ranch dressing, or American-flavoured milk, and have accepted beetroot, prefer Australian-style bacon, and adore Vegemite and lamb in any form.

Migrants and those recently returned from overseas often experience unsatisfactory encounters with the dish (or dishes) of their memories, and will tend to seek out restaurants run by ‘real Mexicans/Vietnamese/Italians/[insert migrant group]’ in hopes that they have been ‘true’ to the cuisine and can offer one cultural succour and fulfilment of nostalgic desires by matching taste to memory. When this fails, if one is resourceful, one attempts to cook the foods at home, even if they were foods that one traditionally only ate ‘out’ back home, or for which key ingredients were always purchased ready made, such as tortillas in California.

But in my view, arguing about whether something is authentic isn’t very interesting. Rather, understanding what it means to those seeking or producing ‘it’ is my motivation for interrogating the concept. In my experience, it is common for Melburnians to express pride for their/our cosmopolitan city, a melding of cultures where people from all over the globe are living “togetherness-in-difference” (Ang 2001, 14), particularly in the food scene.

Yet there is an obvious tension between the (potential) symbolic violence of insisting on the performance of authentic identity and the associated very real desire to be challenged and stimulated with a multiplicity of ideas, flavours and ways that is at the heart of cosmopolitanism. As I have written elsewhere (Jonas 2008), at the heart of this is a desire for fluency in many vernaculars and to know the world’s many ways of being-in-the-world, which also has the consequence of distinguishing one as possessing a great deal of cultural capital within most fields, whether intentional or not.

So the important question is not whether it’s possible to determine whether something is authentic, but what does the search for it mean to different people, insiders, outsiders and those in-between? And what one finds upon probing is that it is a useful concept by which people assert and maintain ethnic and cosmopolitan identities that allow them to settle homely identities in new lands, or new identities in homely lands. It is a means to achieving social distinction and accruing cultural capital, and it is a way to engage with Otherness as a cosmopolitan principle. It is a way for migrants to strategically mobilise their own ethnic identities in order to accrue economic capital from the outsiders who seek it, and an essentialist assertion that can exclude those perceived to be ‘authentic’ from the project of modernity.

A final rhetorical flourish to highlight the instability of authenticity as a category then – some years ago I asked a focus group in Saigon, ‘what is the essential ingredient that makes phởauthentic?’. One woman responded, ‘MSG’.

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!

History is dead, Italy is alive!

Okay, folks, I’m going to say some controversial things now about history and culture. The historians and others with a keen interest in monuments of the past might take umbrage. A caveat – I’m a great admirer of antiquity and believe there are compelling reasons to study it and immerse oneself in ancient ruins. But I’m a cultural theorist, I focus on everyday life, and this trip is reminding me of some of the reasons why I chose to do this. Are you ready?

I’ve now been in three beautiful Italian cities, and in each I have felt completely enveloped by the past, but deeply engaged with the present. Of course, I’m here to research the present, but also the past, that is, what were the traditional dishes, mealtime habits, preparation methods when the biggest waves of Italian migrants were moving to Australia, and what are they now – how have things changed? To do this research, I have to talk to as many people as I can, sample as many dishes as possible, and wander as many markets as I can find. (NB Yes, I realise I have the best PhD ever and I’m ‘lucky’ and I will remind you all that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and I seized mine when the idea arose. ;-))

While here, I sometimes feel like a tourist, and surely in some sense I am, though I am legitimised by having a scholarly mission. And of course I am sometimes surrounded by tourists, especially in Roma, which was awash with vast crowds of them. While in Bologna, where there are few tourists, I first thought about how the Bolognese conduct their modern, daily lives amongst such stately medieval grandeur with hardly a thought, it seems. While I would stop to gaze up at the frescos in the portici, they would stride purposefully by – their city’s history is just part of the landscape, a comfortable old blanket much beloved but hardly noticed as one sits down to read a book on a cold winter’s night.

After a few days, I realised I had not even considered entering any of the magnificent old churches, and I had a pang of guilt. But then I thought about how I would not learn about the daily rhythms of these people by wandering solo through their ancient religious houses, and I was here to learn those rhythms – entering the churches would in fact turn me into a tourist, and distract me from the task at hand. I carried on with my eating, talking and watching on the streets – the architecture a backdrop for the quotidian movements of the fair denizens of Bologna. I even made a note to myself that, ‘I want to feel the city’s pulse, not explore its cemeteries… I don’t need to enter its tombs, I need to find its living.

And then came the unexpected detour to Roma (it’s a long story that involves two busy parents who failed to lodge Oscar’s passport application before my departure, necessitating an emergency trip to the embassy in Roma so I could sign a form in front of a consulate officer – #adminfail #bureaucracyfail). I had no intention of spending time in Roma – was quite happy that my trip would be in smaller cities that would not be at the height of their tourist seasons. My view of the Italian capital was surely somewhat affected by a) the unforeseen bureaucratic debacle that led me to cancel flights, book a hotel and jump on a train; b) my desire to be in smaller cities; c) the fact that I despise crowds of tourists, even if I am but one more of their number.

So, Roma. At @orientalhotel’s advice, I went searching for the Campo dei Fiori for the market there. I was last in Roma 19 years ago, so I felt obliged to march past some of the monuments on the way – I went by the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain. They remain tributes to a long, rich history, and marvels of architecture and engineering. I took some of the mandatory photos. I shouldered through tour groups following guides with coloured ribbons hoisted on sticks with my teeth clenched.

The market at Campo dei Fiori was very grounding. I wandered through the stalls, gazing at the riotous life of the vegetables, bumping against locals doing their daily shopping. My forehead cleared, my shoulders lowered, and I found a little cafe just out of the way with no tourists and wood-fired pizzas. I spoke with the padrone – who was, of course, Sicilian (many seem to be?), and who graciously gave me some advice on where I must go for a certain wine, a certain dessert… interesting that his tips were immediately about food, even though I didn’t mention my research.

As I passed through the teeming hordes at the Trevi Fountain later, I actually had to fight tears at how much I was detesting the theme park feeling of everything. It felt impossible to have any sense at all of the rhythms of the Romans during this height of tourist season – instead even the diverse nationalities of the throngs were homogenised into a single category of Those Who Seek Monuments and Take Photos of Themselves in Front of Them. When they eat, it seems almost incidental, and I’m sure most aren’t even aware of how poor a representation of Italian food they are eating in the many clones of ristoranti proclaiming to have ‘Real Italian Food’ (Note to tourists: you’re in Italy, if they need a sign to say they have ‘real Italian food’, they probably don’t). The food at those ristoranti, by the way, reminded me a lot of the generic ‘Italian’ food sold at many restaurants on Lygon Street in Melbourne, though there is an increasing supply of quality, contemporary, regional Italian food on offer in our capital cities.

I don’t know what interactions the tourists might have with locals, but I suspect it’s only with service staff – which, admittedly is a problem for most travellers – how to penetrate the self-contained extant social groups of the locals? My thoughts on dining alone and Michael’s on why don’t we break down more social barriers when sharing a table in public explore some of those ideas.

This story ends in Palermo – I could not have chosen a starker contrast to Bologna’s understated elegance and formality than here. Palermo is steeped in its own rich cosmopolitan history and the crumbling, ornate palazzi are as visually rich as Bologna’s medieval austerity and Renaissance charm. The splendid chaos of its architectural mix – Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Renaissance and baroque – is matched by its multicultural population, and here passion is palpable. Beware the woman who catches a Siciliano’s eye – a warm grin, ‘ciao bella’ and intentful gaze are the consequence.

In Bologna the stranger is largely unnoticed and might have very few social encounters, leaving her to move silently from one church to another, and in Roma, the stranger is so common as to be perhaps disdained, and moves in herds between sites of antiquity that have very little feeling of connection to the city’s present culture – again, just a backdrop for a busy modern life. In Palermo, the stranger might attempt to move unmolested between monuments, but the narrow footpaths, frequent markets, and flashing eyes are unlikely to let you miss its pulse. Here, the walls are literally alive with vines and flapping laundry on its many little balconies – history is ingrained in the daily rhythms.

The markets in Palermo are a real joy – extensive stalls of colourful produce, masses of fish, loads of beautiful olives – the stallholders shouting across to each other and laughing in baritone. And in every little cafe or ristorante, chances are strong that a local will say hello to you, ask where you’re from, and then tell you how they’ve a) been to Australia b) would like to go or c) have relatives there.

I walked into the Cathedral, because it was there. I sat down in a pew and tried to reflect on my reticence to visit these beautiful monuments, hoping for divine inspiration. I watched the tourists flowing in and out, some quiet, many chatting, some on the phone, all taking photos. And then it happened, I got my sign… a man dashed in, head jerking about looking manically to see what he ‘needed’ to see. He stopped dead centre, took a quick photo of the altar, turned on his heel and dashed out, still manically trying to catch what little he could at speed. What has he learned? What has he gained or contributed by this spot of sightseeing? Not a lot, I will presume to say. I hope he then went and meandered slowly through the market, enjoying the excellent street food and chatting with the locals about their favourites, but I doubt it.

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.

Our National Dish is a Red Herring

Given that my thesis is on what part engagements with multicultural foodways play in the development of a cosmopolitan society, I’m pretty excited that New Matilda published my article today, which they titled: Is There Life Beyond the Barbie? The article explores Australia’s fascination with its national identity via a national dish.

Although it’s a short article written for an intelligent but non-academic audience, it’s given me a lot of ideas, maybe even (gasp!) chapter ideas. I’m particularly interested in pursuing something I’ve been working on the past six months, which is about the importance of the maintenance of vernacular food cultures to sustain a lively cosmopolitan society. That is, if Australia’s diverse foodways became a) all culinarily Anglicised, or b) hybridised to the point that hybrid becomes the new homogeneous, then we all lose opportunities for ‘openness to the Other’ that currently exist.

Zoe’s excellent post, ‘On sneaky racism and other culinary horrors’, explores some of these issues, as do the plentiful comments she’s received. Zoe’s the kind of global citizen I believe we should all strive to be (maybe one day, we won’t have to strive, because it will all come so naturally?), one who isn’t afraid to engage with others, irrespective of culture or class, even when she’s outside her comfort zone. She’s not afraid to admit she doesn’t understand something and ask for help, and similarly, she’s willing to try new things and discover firsthand whether she likes them or not. Her post and the follow-up commentors are all symptomatic of a thriving cosmopolitan community out there (and yes, I recognise they are unlikely to be the majority of Australians, but they do give one hope).

And yet, while all of this engagement and diversity is fascinating, and, in my opinion, welcome, it makes it difficult to maintain a ‘national imaginary’ as per Benedict Anderson (1983). Anderson’s argument is that the national imaginary was made possible by a broadly shared vernacular in print capitalism. Until then, nations had been ‘unimaginable’ due to a sort of Tower of Babel problem. And Anderson rightfully points to a number of benefits of national belonging, arguing that it more often creates something to ‘fight for’ rather than against – something to which people feel passionately attached that is much larger than themselves, and which is expressed through music, literature, and perhaps, food.

As someone who has never felt comfortable with nationalism (given my early exposure to its rabid cousin, patriotism), as I tend to read it more as a mechanism of exclusion than inclusion, I struggle with Anderson’s optimism. On the other hand, my entire project is about trying to understand how the diverse population of Australia can find a meaningful sense of belonging to each other and the world, and how we are or aren’t using food in that search. So really, I guess I’m a bit of a closet nationalist?

But to return to the problem of vernaculars (when there are many) and how they relate to both nationalism and cosmopolitanism. How can people imagine themselves into something collective from such wildly disparate food cultures (and, of course, the many other aspects of culture, but my primary concern is, as you know, food)? If that ‘something’ to which they are imagining themselves is cosmopolitanism, it makes perfect sense. If it’s nationalism, not so much. And yet without the broader recognition of ourselves as Australian, is it really possible to imagine ourselves further into the world?

As is appropriate for a PhD candidate halfway through my degree, I will leave these thoughts with those few gestures for now… (that is, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this just yet, and I have formed no conclusions.) heh. pax.

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!

A Mongolian Feast!

Yet another wonderful opportunity to revel in developing community around food arose yesterday. My lovely mate Benj, who is working on a doco on Mongolian hip hop, invited us to join a night of feasting at his place. He invited some of his Mongolian friends, who invited their friends, plus his other mates who’ve spent time there and/or worked on the film with him – and us, the ring-ins because of our shared passion for food and community. 🙂 It was quite an interesting social experiment, really – put a bunch of strangers in a room together with food, get one group to teach the other how to make something from their culture, and add vodka. Trust me, it was a raving success!

The evening began with some of the predictable stilted moments as we all sought to find common ground. Mostly, the Aussies were busy asking the Mongolians questions about the current political situation as they’ve just had a change of government (and I won’t tell you who asked ‘does China appoint your leader?’ – duffer), as well as learning more about what brought them to Melbourne (all are students, and all intend to return to Mongolia when they finish). I realised how little I really know about their country, including how much closer the Mongolian language seems to be to Russian than it is to Chinese. Most had brought a plate to share, so after recovering from an earlier outing to yum cha with Billy, we tucked in to a variety of pickled salads, a beef noodle dish, kim chee and khuushuur (deep fried large beef dumplings). And of course, that gave us plenty more to discuss.

One interesting observation by Zula, who is studying finance at Melbourne Uni, was that the beef tastes quite different here in Australia. Upon further reflection, we agreed that it might be due to the large scale farming methods used here and the relatively unvaried diet of the animals, as opposed to the free ranging of herds in Mongolia and the diversity of grasses in their diet. Zula reckons the beef in Mongolia is gamier and, essentially, tastier. I know it made me want to taste some!

Most of us were drinking vodka, though a number of people did enjoy Stuart’s homebrew and I noted that a couple of the Australians who had lived in Mongolia stuck to wine. I should really have taken better note of that, as I suspect they had learned a lesson up there. What I understand today is that our drinking habits, usually restricted to wine and beer, are totally unsuitable when drinking vodka. One should really sip small glasses of the stuff if you’re going to have it at all, but I know I for one was impressed at how smooth it was (especially the delightful Mongolian Chinggis) and drank it rather like I do water. Ahem.

After a couple of drinks and a bit to eat, it was time to make the buuz, which are steamed dumplings. We made three fillings: beef with red onion & garlic, lamb with red onion, garlic & coriander, and another lamb with the same fillings, but with kim chee added as well. To salt the mince, Zula dissolved salt in hot water and we mixed that through, which also made the mixture more moist. At one stage, we forgot which bowl had the beef and which the lamb, and I think because it was quite cold from the fridge, it was difficult to smell the difference. I suddenly remembered that a cook should taste everything as you go along, even crazy raw stuff (thanks to Masterchef!), and that actually there is nothing crazy about raw beef anyway (and so presumably lamb, too?), so tasted for the difference. I love those visceral moments when you feel like you’re inhabiting your ‘real cook’ disposition.

The dough for the wrappers was equally straightforward, made simply of flour and water. It was then rolled into long cylinders, chopped into smallish pieces, slightly flattened and tossed into a bowl with more flour to dust it well. Next each piece is rolled quickly from the edges to make a circle, leaving the centre slightly thicker than the edges. A scoop of filling, and then to quickly fold each dumpling closed in a pretty (sometimes) little flower-like shape. Some were folded more like gyoza, which was meant to identify them as the ones with kim chee, until people got confused and just rolled them however they wanted. Fortunately, I don’t think any kids ended up with a kim chee buuz! The girls told me that one’s grandmother would usually teach you to make buuz, and the shape would be according to her habit, so would vary from family to family. This is exactly what Masa taught me years ago about Japanese dumplings, and what I learned in Vietnam about spring rolls. Standing there in the warmth of Benj’s kitchen, chatting, cooking, learning and tasting, really epitomised what I love about food – it’s such a conduit for engaging with people and their histories, and even in an unfamiliar place, it’s ultimately such a homely experience.

Once the buuz were made, they were steamed for about 15 minutes and then served. They were all very delicious, and I discovered the pleasure of adding a little pinch of kim chee or pickled cabbage and carrot to each bite rather than dipping them in a sauce. We made dozens of them, but they still disappeared very quickly.

After the buuz, the Mongolians sang some traditional songs, with a haunting sound reminiscent of throat singing, though it wasn’t actually. In response, the Aussies sang Waltzing Matilda and Botany Bay, though our mastery of the lyrics was somewhat wanting. Throughout the feasting and cooking, our three children and the three Mongolian children present ran madly around the house, stopping to grab a fistful of lollies each time they passed through the lounge room. And perhaps inspired by Benj’s filmmaking talents, they spent quite awhile ‘making a film’, but needed a camera with night vision, so moved on to finding ghosts.

I’ve often compared food with music in terms of its cultural significance, issues of authenticity, and capacity to bring people together. Last night was a brilliant example of exactly that, just as the weekends we spend with Benj and the Binks in Violet Town harvesting olives are particularly joyful as they’re centred around food and music. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a really lovely time, learned a great deal, made new friends and tasted new horizons last night.

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.