Why agroecology is essential to food security

A recurring claim in discussions of food security is that small-scale organic agriculture cannot feed the world, a claim used to support the continued centralisation of agriculture into the hands of a few mega-multinational corporations, who will save us all with GM crops. Arguments are posited around higher yield and decreased pesticide use with GM crops, totally eliding the high yields that can be obtained in organic agriculture and the complete lack of pesticides in these systems, just for a start. Such GM propaganda is utterly spurious and refuted in the literature.

The field of agroecology offers a rich body of work that makes the argument for moving to more sustainable, small-scale agriculture, whether organic or with reduced external inputs such as commercial fertilisers and pesticides. In a few recent discussions I’ve had with supporters of GM, I’ve sent them links to reports to back up the clear and demonstrable evidence that we must move to a very different way of producing food that works to preserve natural resources and regenerate landscape while supporting local communities, but I don’t believe any of them ever read the research.

So today I decided to tweet quotes and paraphrases from one piece of work, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food report: ‘Agroecology and the Right to Food‘, released on the 3rd of August 2011. I hoped that by reading the 21-page report myself and offering just the highlights, those who speak loudly on a topic they appear to know little about might be better informed. Of course I also knew it would offer plenty of good evidence for those already advocating for sustainable ag. I offer you the list of the quotes and paraphrases I tweeted here in one place for easy reference. Note that most of these are direct quotes from the report, and a couple of them are paraphrased – I have not added any of my own comments.

Another excellent resource of the latest research in agroecology is The Laboratory of Agroecology and Urban Ecosystems at Washington State University Vancouver – and you might like to follow Assistant Professor Jahi Chappell on twitter – he’s @mjahi – as he often tweets links to relevant research.

Continue reading Why agroecology is essential to food security

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. 🙂

A Taste of Palermo, Sicily

Before arriving in Sicily, I’ll readily admit that all I really knew about the region’s food was to expect an emphasis on quality seafood and influences from north Africa and other cuisines around the Mediterranean. So I expected sardines, anchovies and octopus, cous cous and saffron, and of course arancini, calzone and cannoli, not to mention plenty of olives and legumes, and the ever present eggplant and tomatoes.

What I didn’t expect is the wonderful culture of street food (il cibo di la strada), and the variety of offal, nor the gusto with which all sorts of Siciliani approach it. I could almost be in Vietnam with the tasty diversity of rosticceria – the name comes from arrosti, or roasted, but from what I’ve seen in Palermo most seem to be fried? (in Palermo these foods include arancine, panelle, calzone, croquette, sfincioni…). You can eat these things in the little shops or next to the stalls selling them, or walk with your food, such as while strolling through the plentiful markets.

I was lucky to have Alessio, the brother of a Sicilian friend (Danilo) I made a few months ago in Brisbane to be my guide.

Alessio took me directly to a street stall selling panino con la milza (sandwich of beef spleen cooked in lard) for dinner my first night in Palermo. It was delicious – none of the coarse texture of kidney or badly cooked liver, this was tender and tasty goodness.

L’arancine are among Sicily’s most famous rosticceria – rice filled with meat, cheese and vegetables, breaded and fried or baked. A rosticceria I didn’t know is panelle – chick pea fritters, with a lovely texture almost like roti bread when you pull them apart. Potato croquettes are a simple and delicious snack at any time, and often sold alongside arancine and panelle.

Perhaps lesser known to those of us outside Italy is stigghiola – grilled goat’s intestines served with salt, pepper and lemon. They’re sort of the texture of lamb fat with chewy bits as well, and very more-ish. The stalls and little places selling these will often also sell spiedino – basically kebabs of meats, many with stuffing. We had spiedino with bacon, with panato (not sure what this was?), and one of pork. One had caciocavallo cheese and bay leaves in it as well, which gave a sharpness from the cheese and a lovely, burnt crunchiness from the leaves.

While I say ‘Siciliani‘, really I’m talking about Palermitani food, as Italy has not only distinctive dishes and traditions between its 20 regions, but even within regions. So while panelle are typical of Palermo, they apparently are not common in Siracusa on the east coast of Sicily, a mere 200km away.

Next, the pasta dishes. The ‘most typical’, I’m assured, is pasta con sarde, for which there are a lot of recipes I gather, but the one I had seems to be fairly typical on many menus. I had bucatini con sarde – a lovely thick, long, round noodle with sardines, fennel, saffron, sultanas, pine nuts and bread crumbs. The combination was heavenly, and I enjoyed it at Antica Focacceria di Santo Francesco, a Palermo institution that’s been open since 1834, amongst what appeared to be the glitterati of Palermitano society. One of the well coiffed women at the table next to me happily scoffed down a panino con la milza, such as I had enjoyed on the street the first night of my arrival. I know I shouldn’t have been surprised to see it on the menu and a well-groomed woman in white pants eating it, but I was. Silly, given I’m pretty sure Rockpool has a famous burger on its menu?

I’ve also enjoyed pasta alla norma – I chose penne, but I gather spaghetti and other pastas are also common. Pasta alla norma is rich with eggplant in a sugo that also includes salted ricotta (as distinct from sweet ricotta used in various desserts). It is a spectacular sauce and I look forward to making it at home!

Another pasta I had in Sferracavallo, a little town by the sea just out of Palermo, was spaghetti con ricci – a very spiny sea urchin that’s scooped out and made into a sugo. I found the flavour very intense – it starts with a strongly aromatic sweetness and finishes off with a slightly bitter flavour. I think a small dish of it would have been lovely, but the big plate was simply too much – Alessio and I swapped and I enjoyed the spaghetti con cozze (mussels) instead, which were small and deliciously tender and fresh.

A classic dish in Sicily is surely the insalata di frutti di mare – seafood salad. My favourite so far had mussels (though not enough of them), octopus, and seppia (cuttlefish), with carrot and I think radish, in the ubiquitous olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Zomigodyum.

And before @CarmR complains about a major oversight, I’ll mention the superb cannoli I enjoyed at Antica Focacceria, and the many granita di limone – lemon ice – I’ve slurped down in the heat of the Sicilian summer. I haven’t sampled other sweets because, close readers will have noticed, I have a relentlessly savoury palate and rarely eat sweets, but sweets are abundant everywhere!

I’ve only written about the things I’ve actually tasted, so of course there will be many I’ve missed. If anyone is keen to mention the other typical street foods I’ve neglected, or other typical dishes around Sicilia, please enlighten us! So little time, so much good cuisine! Buono apetito!

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.

Solo dining in a social country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 18th International Ethnological Food Research Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.