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.