Return of the swede

swedeThe swede has returned. These months have been sweet. Raspberries, strawberries, cherries, watermelons (I may return to the juicy topic of watermelons), melons (still juicy), then plums (not so juicy), apples (not really), blackberries (autumn alert). Only to return to, the swede.

OK, I know, that is not a like for like comparison. Let’s try again, veg to veg: courgettes, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, green beans, runner beans, sweetcorn! And now… swede.

I have faced the swede before. In fact, I was on punitive swede duty for some months last year. My housemate said, co-guardian of the veg box, that I was not to eat any other vegetables until I’d done my bit for the swede. The swede, plural. We just couldn’t keep amassing one swede per week until he got round to making some sort of roast.

I discovered swede mash. Not as exciting as raspberries.

The summer has been so delicious, even the shit rainy bit, which was shit, and was rainy. It’s a sign of the darkness to come that the swede once again comes calling. Swede and the need for a hot water bottle, that’s what I arrived home to last night.

Yet as a mark of the changing season, it’s perhaps the change rather than the season that is most noticeable. The last time I was faced with swede I was a single academic. I am now a not-single, clown. Furthermore, this clown, far from taking me away from my thesis, is helping write it. The humour brings clarity, and the self-reflection helps me get in touch with my needs for this dark period to come. The thesis period.

And the dark period will be dark, but it need not be D.A.R.K. It need not be fall-down-the-stairs dark, it may just be look-out-at-the-rain dark.

Of those I know who have been through this dark, the selves who have coped best seem to be the ones who have also found a new love, a new clown. Something on a non-thesis dimension – like capoeira, like running, like qigong, like salsa, like their children who have taken them out of the ‘thesis state’ at the end of every day.

Finding the light in the dark, the inspiration in the black and white words on the page, seems to me more and more important, the more I understand just how many words there are on the page, and how far into the dark place some people go.

So back to my swede, this first one of the year is an open one, a funny one, one that says, hahahaha, jajajajaja, I’m back, come play with me. It’s not dark at all, just a boring vegetable looking for someone to find the playfulness of it. And so I shall. And so I shall with my thesis too: come play with me, I’m ready for you.

Hungry swede

Let them eat sherbet

Sherbert Fountain

Let’s be honest, some academic events are a real waste of time. I’ve been to so many recently that I may as well put on a name badge as I get dressed. Although, where cutting edge research meets cutting edge research, I have to believe that the alchemy of ‘new knowledge’ creation is possible. More often than not, what clinches success to me is how well events stimulate the latent knowledge in the room. A recent one that stands out for its provocation of the attendees was the aspirationally named, Eating Well.

My University, or more specifically the Brigstow Institute, wanted to bring together all the academics working on food, and push them a bit harder to work together. Quite right. So what did they do? Did they invite us to listen to 15 power-point presentations, organised in order of hierarchy? The keynote professor, then the cutting edge lecturers, a couple of post-docs, and finally the PhD students and perhaps the odd Masters student? No, they did not. They invited us to lunch.

The intention was clearly to provoke. With food, you don’t just bring your professional self to the table, you unavoidably bring your body, mind and palette. You bring your learned and culturally and socially developed preferences for salty and sweet, dry or greasy food. You bring your hang-ups or your calorie counting, your religious or cultural prohibitions, your awareness that you need more iron, less sugar, or perhaps a random allergy.  Many of us also brought our brains, questioning what had come from where and how it had travelled, who had picked it or what animal lived to die for it.

The organisers began as good cops. We found our place at the tables by looking for our favourite childhood sweet. I’d told them, in the confirmation e-mail, that mine was a sherbet fountain. It awaited me. So there we were, directly talking history, taste, health, production, family life and taste-buds. Both I and the sherbet fountain had changed since I had braces and it was 12p in the corner shop. The sherbet fountain had gained a plastic cover and ingredients in different languages. I had gained several allergies and two front teeth. Elsewhere on the tables were flying saucers, cola bottles, lemon drops, curly wurleys, and pretty much everything you can remember in corner shops 20 years ago.

 

Then they got serious. No, there would not be a choice of menu, and no, we would not be able to negotiate the ingredients. We were back at school: the food was served on school dinner trays. As academic guests we then had to look at our place mats and attempt to figure out the nutritional value of the meal. The grams of fat, sugar, protein and all other such components of the meal were listed on the tablecloth-workbook. They’d also gone to the effort of listing the place of origin for all the ingredients and we were challenged to work out food miles using the maps provided.

I say challenged because we did not succeed. Perhaps one of the learning points of this was to realise how incredibly complex these kinds of calculations are. While I am constantly making judgements based on lists of ingredients and where they come from, I’m not used to calorie counting or working out how many grams of each ingredient I  need to reach a Recommended Daily Allowance. Hence, eating well, is not as simple as it seems and was in itself a provocation of all those who think they know how to.

To begin with, I was up for the challenge. I worked out where my salad came from, calculated its nutritional content, estimating weight, looking at origin. But there was no second course for me because in the effort to simplify the exercise the directive had been not to provide alternatives. I hadn’t thought I needed an alternative, because there is usually some bread, potatoes, pasta or rice which has been uncontaminated by the dairy products and nuts I’m allergic to. Ironically, this ultra-aware event brought us back to ground. We’re in the South West, they didn’t say it like this, but essentially the message was, we are eating what’s here. So it was butter and cheese galore and there were no veg without cow-products.

This was extremely interesting, because at this point on our table we had an in-depth and personal exchange about the dairy industry. My neighbour had grown up on a dairy farm and revealed a trove of information about the manipulation of calving for milk production. If we’d been given the option of alternatives, many vegan options would have arrived at our table, but we were in school dinner mode. The lactose intolerant reluctantly tolerated a bit of butter and some vegans became vegetarian. The allergic people went to check out the chat on the other tables: class, global inequalities, childhood nutrition.

Returning to no more trays with forks, I was pleased to find the anorexic’s solution, instead of substance I could have sweets for lunch: my sherbet fountain was allergen free.

 

Flowerland

Tulips in window

Shall we have a happy story, or a miserable one? Happy, I hear you cry!!

OK, well my work is about people who work with nature, and how that is organised. The people involved are often those who have moved to work, or migrants. The nature I’m talking about usually becomes some form of food. But not in this case, because I am in Holland: land of flowers.

Although flowers are not food, they fall bang, smack in the middle of the narrower category of supply chain products that I’m getting nosy about: horticulture. That’s fruit, veg, medicinal plants and cut flowers, which like strawberries or tomatoes can be grown outside in the warm, or inside in the hothouse. The earliest seasonal work for horticultural workers in the UK for example, are in the daffodil fields of Cornwall. So although you can’t eat (most) flowers, the process of producing them is quite similar.

And so to our story. Here in Holland there are flowers everywhere. People buy flowers, give flowers, have flowers in their nicely furnished houses and in their quiet public spaces. Although I came to be on holiday, I’ve been doing a bit of work on the side. Like the opposite of going to a conference and taking an extra day to go to the beach, in my extra couple of days I had a few meetings. In one of these meetings I met Rashid.*

Rashid prepares flowers for export. He’s Moroccan, but also speaks English, French and Dutch as well as Arabic (classical and colloquial) and a version of Tamazight (Berber). So we were able to have a coffee and chat slowly, and in a mixture of those vocabularies (I’ll be honest, mostly in English). At some points the sugar sachet also had to be held upright and pretend to be a flower stalk as he explained to me how the flowers are potted, spread out, prepared, picked and plasticked for purchase.

So Rashid is one of the people who several decades ago, responded to a European short term need for ‘seasonal’ workers. He came on a three-month visa to pick grapes in France. That was in 1974. Since then the work has never dried up. Rashid came to Holland, which he said is ‘flowerland’. Thanks to an authorisation programme pretty soon after the move, Rashid was lucky, he said, and didn’t have to go through the sometimes decades-long process of applying for residency whilst existing on minimum, or lower than minimum wage.

This didn’t mean that he was living in luxury. For the first ten years of his time in Europe, Rashid lived in a room that the manager made him inside the ‘firm’. I’m not sure if that means a concrete room next to a greenhouse as I’ve seen elsewhere, or whether it means a room in a factory. What’s clear is that it isn’t something that would give you much space or any autonomy whatsoever from your boss, or your beckoning flower crop.

This is a happy story though, because the ten years ended and Rashid not only was able to return home and get married but also to settle in Holland with his family, and even stay with the company for longer than the boss. He kept his place as flower-packer, picker and organiser when the owners changed their make-up. He was also a member of the union in the company that had been going since he started.

Last year Rashid celebrated his 40th year with the firm, he showed me a photo in which he was presented with an enormous bunch of flowers, by the flower firm.  He has just two years before retirement which he seemed happy with. Will someone replace him when he goes? Possibly someone on a ‘seasonal contract’, which is limited to just two months here. That seems strange when the flowers are grown all year. Or maybe he won’t be replaced at all. The company now has a machine which plants the flowers directly into the trays, replacing 8 people with two.

So will there be more happy stories like Rachid’s? Told with smiles and reminiscence? Flowers are cheap at the moment in the Netherlands. Exports are low, the cash-strapped British with a weak pound are one reason for that, they want less flower heads and more greenery. And they often prefer the flowers from further away (perhaps Kenyan or Peruvian roses) rather than the colourful but well-known tulips.

Perhaps we should turn back to food then to see where the jobs are then, after all we can’t stop eating. But I won’t tell you about the worker I met from a slaughterhouse for chicken, because he works 15 hours a day, and you wanted a happy story.

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*The name was changed

Sugar

sugar granules

Sugar, sweetness, rush. Smile for the beet and the cane, but too much sugar and you get just a black beam, with the sugar-lump-like teeth gone from the grin. Ah, teeth. Just a smile can reveal so much about social status, about struggles and tastes. There is that typical top and bottom post-braces smile of those with the private dental plan and the private education. Then there is the embarrassed closed-lip smile of the four-year-old in my fieldwork site who has already lost all her front teeth to a diet of sugary tea, bread and donuts.

It’s time to write about sugar. Not just because I am bouncing off the walls with the stuff in its caffeinated accompaniments of tea and coffee. Not just because sugar in the UK provides such a clear comparison to one of the key cultural ingredients of life in Morocco. The main reason that I have come to be thinking so much about sugar in recent days is that I have been taught about it: by my students.

I’m not sure that there is sufficient recognition in academia, or in education in general, that teachers learn from students. You might already be an expert in climate change but surely if you get 60 essays considering the same data from different perspectives, and filling in the gaps, you’re going to come away all the more confident that you know what you know.

And so I now know about sugar. Over thirty student reports into the connection between Bristol and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade have left me in no doubt that the wealth of this city (Bristol) is at least in part founded on the trade in sugar, and slavery. Bristol, with its access to the Atlantic via the Bristol Channel, its shipbuilding trade, and its merchant class, not to mention its burgeoning financial sector, was a hub for commerce of all kinds that linked back to the slave trade.

Bristol managed to find its corner in this ‘triangular trade’. We can hold Bristol ships and merchants to account for selling an estimate of 500,000 Africans into slavery on the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. That was 1/5th of all British slaves. This put Bristol in a perfect position to develop a sickly trade and a sweet tooth. The sugar processing, the rum, the glass-blowing for the rum bottles. These and many other industries were helped along by these ventures and the money that sloshed up the Avon with them.

I would point out, that like any good academic, I am not simply relying on the things that I have learned from my students, but on my first hand research. That’s right, I have been eating a lot of sugar and visiting a lot of buildings which were built on the shillings of the sugar merchants. It’s not hard in Bristol. I don’t have to even leave my own institution in order to find an example of that trade on which it was at least partially founded. The University doesn’t explain the providence of its founders’ wealth in its own narrative history though, so we’ll have to be more specific.

The Cabot Institute and the Wills Memorial Building are both named after philanthropists who were slavers first. Wills dealt in tobacco rather than sugar, but it’s not such a big difference. Too much sugar and you are sick. Too much rum, the same. Too much tobacco and your teeth are stained rather than rotten. Bristol is sick of the sugar. There is a petition at the moment to change the name of at least one of those magnets that brings people to Bristol year around: Colston Hall. The national media are even interested in the debate (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC).

Perhaps it could be re-named. Why not? Hally McHallFace could work well. If that doesn’t go down well with Bristolians, I think I know a group of students who could come up with some very good counter proposals. One pointed out that the Hall wasn’t even built and named until well over a hundred years after Colston had died. So, so much for editing history, this seems to be more about revising the bad revisionism that led to the Hall having this name in the first place.

With sugar on the brain it’s quite difficult to write a thesis. Teaching though, is every bit as much a part of the PhD process as is thesising. Too much and you get very tired. A little and not a lot of teaching, like sugar, is a welcome luxury that takes the bitterness and the loneliness out of the 80,000 words: to be written.

Lettuce con courgette spaghetti

courgette-spagetti-tescoAs it is valentine’s day, I will start with something very un-politically correct in the post-grad-researcher world. We are naturally expected to complain, over-heat like any over-used computer and more than anything, suffer for our doctorate. Well I defy you culture of suffering, this is fun. On a day of love and emotion, I admit it: I love my PhD.

Yes, OK, I am in the post-fieldwork honey-moon period, pre-thesis and post research proposal; no, I haven’t yet entered the hell of synchronising data charts with pages of contents, and no, there are no chapters ready to go in the book. Let’s be honest, there are pretty much no chapters at all. That, however, my PhD and more normal friends, is not the point. The point is, that even though hard days in this relationship are still to come, I am still interested.

This last month or so, everyone else is interested too. There has been a #lettucecrisis and a #courgettecrisis and questions are being asked. “Why are Tesco rationing lettuce?” people are asking. “What can I do without courgettes for my veggie no-calorie lasagne?” And (big jump here), “Why are we even eating all this salad in the middle of winter?” And so the nation makes the mental jump from Tesco over to the greenhouses of Southern Europe, perhaps even beyond.

Now, since I don’t yet feel ready to move on to serious data analysis, I thought I’d go and do just a last little spot of fieldwork: a research trip down Park Street, in Bristol’s city centre. Sites visited were: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. Clearly the limitation of the study is that Park Street is not representative of an average UK shopping street because it is big and really quite posh. Nevertheless, let’s see what we find.

A man in Tesco confirmed the national news, and what I have personally verified about summer vegetables really and truly depending on the situation in Southern Spain and not just on what we expect to see all day, every day, without exceptions. “Haven’t had lettuce for about six weeks” he said. Now lettuce is interesting to me, because it is counter-seasonal. That means that it is grown for us abroad at exactly the time when we can’t grow it here. So we can forget about seasons altogether and pretend that lettuce just is. Full stop. Thought stops there.

But no, during these last six weeks, the thoughts haven’t stopped there and in the UK people have been thinking about where their lettuce comes from and even briefly considering how the farmers of our food produced at the wrong time of year might be struggling to do that. But even more than that, there is discussion and help on how we might deal without lettuce in February. Personally I’d prefer porridge on the beach in August, but I’ve already admitted I like my PhD so we shouldn’t let my proven-radical opinions deter anyone from the crunch of an iceberg whilst shivering next to the radiator.

More interesting than lettuce however, to me and my counter-seasonal blinkered brain, are courgettes. Courgettes are vegetables that are not just counter-seasonal, but that are grown as part of the same supply chain as tomatoes. So in Spain from around the end of September until late June, and in Morocco from the beginning of November until the end of April, we get not just tomatoes but also courgettes, peppers, aubergines and more.

 

Tesco didn’t have any courgettes when I visited. Or did it? That depends on if we count the ‘courgette spaghetti’ that sat pre-prepared in a plastic box next to the loose veg. Sainsbury’s did have courgettes, for the quite considerably higher than normal price of £1.90 kilo, and also had the [ridiculous] spaghetti version too. Finally, Waitrose, rose above the spaghetti trend but also only offered the re-valued crop in semi-packaged form, this time in a nicely designed bag of three for the notable price of £2.59, or £5 a kilo.

The courgette spaghetti, or ‘courgetti’ is interesting – I can understand Tesco’s choice to prioritise its few courgettes for courgetti production because you get to sell it for a far higher price (£4 kilo) and perhaps just as importantly you can get away with absolutely no information about where the trapped and grated courgette comes from. So profit is accumulated in our humble convenience supermarkets on Park Street, and we don’t get any further forward in this radical process of thinking about where the courgette in the box is from, let alone who grew it.

Tomatoes will at some point get a blog of their own, but for the moment suffice to say that those I found on my little jaunt down Park Street were without a shadow of a doubt produced by firms and people that I encountered during my (proper) fieldwork in Morocco. The location confirms it, as do the codes on the packaging. We don’t know where the spaghetti courgette originates but I suspect it is from not so far away. On valentine’s day, I’m more than happy to think about this, and I’ll sacrifice the courgetti dinner for two.

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