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.

How Joel Salatin Unknowingly Convinced Me to Become a Farmer

I spent the second half of my childhood living on a 2000 acre cattle ranch in Oregon. Before that, we were city slickers in Orange County, California (before anyone called it ‘the OC’). In spite of this idyllic existence where my cowgirl dreams came true, I didn’t learn much of the ways of the land, so to speak. We had a ranch-hand in charge of the cattle, and although my parents were deeply involved, we kids largely just went along for the lark of a good round-up. I was good on a horse and knew a lot about their care, as well as the castrating and vaccination routines of pasture-fed cattle, but I couldn’t have told you a thing about growing fruit or vegetables, and chickens were a total mystery.

Three years after high school, I found myself on the cliffs of Wales, walking with a lover I met in a hostel in London after dropping out of university while protesting the 1991 Gulf War. I’m vegetarian. We’re discussing our life’s dreams in that starry-eyed youthful way, and I pronounce my intention to own a property in Colorado someday, near enough to Boulder that there will be a like-minded community of hippies and dreamers, but far enough out to buy a farm big enough to do some serious growing. My lover says, ‘no way. I totally can’t picture you on a farm.’ (He also shortly thereafter informed me he had recently left the Australian Army Reserves. It is one of the true mysteries of this story that we are still together 19 years later…)

Some six years later, my lover/husband and I visited Daylesford for the first time. As always when we spend time in the country, we were enchanted and immediately commence dplans to move there. We signed the Convent Gallery’s guestbook with, ‘we’ll be back… to live next time.’

Since we met, Stuart and I have spent a total of two years actually living in the country, one in a small town in Oregon, where for most of the year we lived in a gorgeous little log cabin under a magnificent cherry tree, the other on a remote property in far east Gippsland, Victoria, which is an environmental education campus for Year 9 girls. The latter year was a pastoral dream, a poetic success, and professionally challenging. We swore again that we would live in the country on our own property one day…

But in all these pastoral dreams, I never really entertained the notion of actually being a farmer, in the sense of a producer for a market to make a living. Mine has always been a hippie’s halcyon daydream of self-sufficiency. Which, unsurprisingly, is probably why we haven’t yet made it happen. Exactly how do we earn a living on our own little unplugged piece of the planet? Even around Daylesford, there’s not a lot of work for an academic and a business development manager in building automation technologies.

But everything changed when we heard Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms last weekend. In case you haven’t heard of Joel, he describes himself as an environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer. He is one of the most intelligent, charismatic speakers to whom I have had the pleasure to listen, and he did a great job of busting my every stereotype of ‘dumb farmers’. He even has a philosophy about that…

We went to the Lakehouse to hear Joel talk about building a local food system, and how to scale up ‘without losing your soul’. I was interested in the way I always am – how can we feed the world through smaller, more local production where farmers are embedded in communities? You know, the usual, ‘how do we save the world’ sort of questions that are my trademark. I came away convinced that the best way for Stuart and I to help save the world was not simply by ‘living the changes we wish to see in the world’ but by flogging them and making a living from them as well. Yes, I’m convinced that we can and should be primary producers. I give us about five years to get through a start-up period. How did Joel convert me?

Here are the highlights of Joel’s double-feature seminar, in note form with minimal editorialising.

First of all, a local food system has six components:

Producers

  • local farms will be ‘aesthetically and aromatically, sensually romantic’. Large scale commodity ‘farms’ are so opaque they allow unsustainable practices. Local producers are embedded in communities. The industrial economy has created ‘commercial apartheid’ – it is ‘opaque, confused and inefficient… with a semblance of efficiency only enabled by cheap energy’. Stop subsidising the petrochemical industry and cheap, industrial food will have to increase in price.
  • (Sadface fact of the day: in California, organic growers are now required to sign an affadavit to keep under-5-year-olds off their farm because they might wear nappies, which might contaminate the produce. See my rant on agro-industry for my thoughts on this sadness.)
  • Local producers look after the ‘ecological umbilical’ with practices such as pasture-based livestock, stacking and symbiosis.
  • Farms should be solar driven (not petrochemical). Fertiliser is in-sourced.
  • Farmers should be ‘Jeffersonian intellectual agrarians’. 🙂 In order for ‘city folk’ to take farmers seriously, they need to professionalise and outwardly express their intelligence.
  • Traditional family farmers are not good at creating a successionally successful business – they must learn to collaborate and take on more young workers outside the family where necessary.

Processing

  • With our loss of local canneries, butchers, bakeries, etc, we must reclaim spaces for community food processing, such as church halls.
  • Government regulations are not scalable for small operations. At some point, we should be able to take individual responsibility for our food choices (eg raw milk).

Accounting

  • Most farmers are not very good accountants. You need to be able to understand which of your products are being subsidised by others and do something about it if you want to be profitable.

Marketing

  • No matter how good your produce is, people need to know it exists. A great way for small farms to market more easily is to collaborate with other small producers nearby.

Distribution

  • Distribution can be the great bottleneck for small, local producers, who end up selling everything to supermarkets via the big distributors. Again, collaboration with other local growers can solve this problem.

Patrons

  • Every product needs a consumer, & a small, local farmer’s patrons are likely to be people who appreciate seasonality, who are excited about rediscovering their kitchens, and who know that processed food is expensive.

In the second seminar on scaling up, Joel went into more detail about Polyface Farm. Here’s what we learned…

  • Polyface sales are approximately 25% on-farm, 35% restaurant and boutique supermarket, and 45% ‘box drop’ internet sales.
  • They separate the delivery fee from the farmer’s cost so consumers can see how much goes to the farmer – as Joel said, he’s a farmer, not a transporter.
  • His boundary is deliveries within 4 hours of Polyface.
  • The box drop system works much better than farmers’ market attendance – there’s no speculation about what stock to take, they deliver to a central point at agreed time and customers collect their boxes, which they were able to choose from entire inventory. (The internet, once conceived as a tool of globalisation, has emerged as an excellent tool for localisation.)
  • Polyface employs interns and apprentices, provides housing and board and very small stipends.
The Mental Protection from Wall Streetification of Polyface
  1. Never have a sales target.
  2. No trademarks or patents. ‘Hold your innovations lightly.’
  3. Identify your market boundaries. (Then you can just tell those outside them to seek other fabulous local growers, thus supporting the movement & reducing your own stress.)
  4. Incentivised workforce (bonuses and commissions). [apologies to those who hate ‘incentivise’, which isn’t a word, I know. Am quoting.]
  5. No Initial Public Offering (IPO). That way you will never be beholden to shareholders, whose primary aim is merely to make a profit themselves.
  6. No advertising – it’s all word of mouth.
  7. Stay in the ecological carrying capacity (the ecology of the farm should be able to metabolise its own waste).
  8. People answer the phone.
  9. Respect the pigness of the pig.
  10. Quality always has to go up. (If you can’t increase quality when increasing volume, then don’t increase your volume.)

Two other quick, interesting, important points:

And I quote,

“GMO is evil.”

Patenting seeds and suing small growers, including traditional native American communities, when patented DNA is found in their seed stock is EVIL. Indeed.

Organic certification is insufficient as it is a pass/fail system. Those who would get a D- are alongside those who would earn an A+ – it’s a perverse incentive to work to the lowest common denominator. For example, one farm might produce all of its own organic compost – all of its outputs become inputs for the farm – no organic waste leaves the property. Another might bring in organic fish emulsion from the east coast, which has been sourced as a byproduct of Japanese driftnets and has a carbon footprint bigger than importing petrochemical fertilisers from Australia (this is to the US, of course).

According to Joel, if you ask whether something is organic, and the producer or seller says, ‘yes’, the conversation is over and you buy it. There are many things that might be environmentally or ethically suspect about the produce, but they are masked by the organic certification. When he’s asked why he doesn’t certify, there is a conversation, everybody learns more, and the word is spread further. 🙂

As I listened to Joel, it increasingly dawned on me that many arguments against running a small farm were being systematically debunked. He is a passionate advocate for farming in a way that is socially, environmentally and fiscally sustainable. He speaks my language. He writes fascinating books detailing what we only heard a few hours of. And he’s on the lecture circuit proselytising about all of it. Zomigod, I can do that.

A Rant: Raising Chickens is Good (or, on the Stupidity of Industrial Agriculture)

I wrote this poem last year, but given my recent posts on why and how we raise and eat our chooks, as well as other sustainable homely practices, I thought I’d share it here. Warning – this is not intended to be scholarly – it’s an ’emoticons off’ rant.

A rant, or
F*&king stupid people f*&king up our world not an ounce of sense or personal responsibility wanting to own dogs & cats but not allow productive small animals like chickens stupid pointless people need to f*&k off now turning me into a bloody misanthrope when I really want to like people (that is not the poem).
16 July 2009

It started with 3 chickens
3 clucking
egg-laying
bug & weed-eating
fertilising chickens
in one suburban
backyard.

They cost her 7 dollars apiece
and gave her
2169 eggs
in their pleasant quarter-acre lives
worth a conservative 1100 dollars
leaving her 1079 dollars to spend
on organic fruit
she wasn’t already growing in her own
backyard.

The chickens
meant she needed no
pesticides
no herbicides
& needn’t pay for any
fertilisers for the food she was growing
in her own
backyard.

She called the chickens
John, Deere, and Tractor.

Over the fence lived
a couple with a dog
a bright green lawn
a 4 wheel drive
a sedan
roses and no food growing
in their
backyard.

The husband worked
for agri-business
who’d been stung
when their bagged spinach product
killed four
left 35 with
acute kidney failure
due to e coli contamination
in their Salinas Valley
industrial scale
vegetable fields.

So clutching his values
his greed and his fear
he sat in his boardroom
and agreed
that a scorched earth strategy
was the only way
to ensure that he
and all his successors
could live in good conscience
that they would never again
be held liable
for what was contracted
from once-living products
now wrapped in sterile plastic
in somebody’s
fridge.

And so
if a squirrel ran along the edge of a field
everything within 10 metres
had to be
razed
eliminated
scorched
including
the pest-deterring
coriander
planted by the organic grower
in the next
field.

And then he went home
and he heard a strange sound
not really unpleasant
but definitely
indubitably
belonging to
something un-hygienic
in somebody else’s
backyard.

He peered over the fence
and stared in shock/rage
at John, Deer and Tractor.
3 clucking chickens
alive, eating and shitting
in the neighbour’s
backyard.

It didn’t take long
to garner the cries
of the neighbourhood association
who contacted the council
who knocked on the door
of the woman with chickens
in her
backyard.

This will not do
they said
you must be rid of these animals
who have no place in the suburbs
if you want to have livestock
move to a
farm.

Your chickens
they said
are unsanitary
unnecessary
and a temptation to
the dogs
in others’
backyards.

And by the way
you must stop dumping your food waste
in that bin up the back
it attracts rats
and foxes and possums
in droves
and your grey water system
well it just won’t do
it contaminates all of those vegies
you grow
here in this outrageously
farm-like
backyard.

You must buy food that
we know is safe
you can get it at Coles
where it has been sprayed with
47 chemicals to ensure its
sterility
and bagged in clear plastic
so you can see it is safe
though you must wash it at home
just to be sure
it hasn’t been tainted somewhere
along the industrial line
by some unhygienic worker
who probably looks and acts
a lot like you and your
unsanitary
backyard.