The 18th International Ethnological Food Research Conference

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

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

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

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

Our National Dish is a Red Herring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mongolian Feast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salami Day with the de Bortolis


Sometimes, the stars are just aligned, and nothing you do will stop the goodness coming your way. At least that’s how it felt when food blogger and Twittermate @tomatom offered me the opportunity to accompany him to the de Bortoli family’s annual Salami Day in the Yarra Valley. This came on the heels, by the way, of the wonderful @Ganga108 offering to ship some cookbooks she was clearing out to any address in Australia; mere days later Kylie Kwong’s Recipes & Stories landed on my doorstep. The Twitterverse is an amazing land of plenty, especially if you hook up with your real community of interest. But back to Salami Day…

The day began before first light, as Ed and I followed our Google maps blue dot on the iPhone (well, technically the blue dot follows us, but on the return trip after hours of grappa and sangiovese, I was pretty sure we were following the dot…) up to the de Bortoli vineyards. Just as we pulled up, the sun having just risen, there was the pig, which had just been sawn in half. Within minutes, the head and other bits were on the table, where family members Maria, Dominique and Angelo set straight to work. (They had actually already butchered two pigs the day before, so were definitely in the groove.) There were only a dozen or so people around at this stage, including Darren de Bortoli (Managing Director) and his sister Leanne and her husband Steve, the winemaker and manager in the Yarra Valley. Just to prove what a small world Melbourne is, Stuart’s dad’s cousin Andrew Chapman was there taking photos for the family, accompanied by his lovely wife Josie.

As some headed off for their first coffee with a shot of grappa, Josie and I grabbed a knife each and helped shave the fat off the underside of the skin, which was then chopped up to be used for the cotechino sausages. The fat itself was a very pleasing smooth texture that felt scrumptious on the hands. These pigs had followed the strict diet for the last few months of regular acorn feasts, and the flesh was a beautiful dark pink/red as a result. In the adjoining area of the shed, another pig (not raised by the family) was on a spit for the sumptious lunch we would enjoy later… but we didn’t have to wait long before platters of salumi and freshly made ciabattas did the rounds, closely followed by trays of grappa.

By this stage, Maria, Dom, Angelo and the local butcher had made great progress on the pig, having sliced all the flesh from the bones (except the hams, which were left intact to cure and I believe some for prosciutto?). The meat was in pieces about the size of my fist, at which point they spread it across the metal tables, added the spices (chili, fennel, salt, pepper, and saltpeter), and mixed it up a bit by hand. Next it was time to pop it through the mincer (and the need for a nice big electric mincer becomes readily apparent when you see how much meat has to be processed!).As more people arrived and the accordion started to play, the atmosphere got both more festive and less intimate. For someone doing a PhD trying to unravel the difference between Hage’s ‘cosmo-multiculturalists’ (some would call them the ‘foodies’: people who are ‘into’ food for reasons of social distinction) and cosmopolitans (food + community = understanding, openness to cultural difference), the shift at this point was interesting. I felt enormously privileged to have been there from the beginning with the family, neighbours and friends, and had really enjoyed the easy comradery of the communal butchering.

After the mincing comes the salami stuffing. The previous day, they had made the salami with collagen casings, which are made from pork intestines, but reconstituted to get a more even and stronger consistency – hence those salami were quite straight and even as they hung in the cool room. Today they were using intestines (long enough to stretch round the shed!), so ended up with lovely curved salami, which Angelo expertly dipped in near boiling water, then tied up with twine to be hung.

I believe the main salami made would be described as sopressata from Calabria (but I could be wrong). There was some venison brought by the butcher that was also made into salami – apparently venison is too lean for a good salami (too dry) and so was mixed with the pork and fat. Finally the cotechino was made, requiring two times through the mincer with different blades to churn through the tough rind. Whereas the salami will be hung for about 6-8 weeks, the cotechino could be eaten immediately – I was told that you can boil it or cook it slowly for quite awhile to soften it up further.

The morning drew on towards lunch, by which time the crowds had really arrived and the wine was flowing freely. About a hundred of us sat down to a beautiful meal of pork sausages made the day before (to chef Tim Keenan’s recipe, which has renewed my belief that there are really good sausages to be had in the world – yum!), served with wine soaked caramelised onions and grilled polenta with a salad of mixed greens and vinaigrette. This was followed by a beautiful array of cheeses and that fresh ciabatta again. I enjoyed the charming and interesting company of Darren de Bortoli over lunch, and we conversed for hours on his family’s history, community, cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism in Australia (with a few forays into American politics and friendly disagreements over Howard).

As the afternoon waned, the conversation moved from kids’ lunches (“We used to be weird for our salami sandwiches, now they’re so common the kids say they’re boring and want sushi! Sushi, for God’s sake!”), to the resurgence in interest in the ‘old ways’, such as the salami days. Darren made the point that even the ‘skippies’ are into it now, and someone laughed that “people are calling them ‘foodies’, when all they are is wogs!” There was much talk of how the southerners (Italians) maintain the salami day tradition, with the requisite grappa, wine and sociality, whereas the northerners have the salami day, but just get in, get the job done, and get home again. This ‘northern/southern’ discussion was from people who were third and fourth generation Australians, yet still maintained their regional distinctions here in Australia. Fascinating!

Alas, it was time to bid the generous de Bortolis grazie e arrivederci, and follow our blue dot back into the city, where the children and Stuart had excitedly prepared us a three-course meal (not realising I would be too full to eat much!). I look forward to a sausage making day with the children one day soon in our own attempts to nurture our community with food and ritual.