Crisps

balsamic-vinegar

My food landscape has drastically changed. I have been back in the UK for 3 weeks and there are still things of the reverse food-culture-shock that grab my attention. OK, ‘shock’ is an over-dramatic word, but re-encountering food in the UK offers plenty to chew on. So the blog will continue into my brave post-fieldwork research world.

Both my mind and body are adjusting to the return from North Africa. I had become used to the feeling of being full from bread, and now even things like a stir-fry and rice seem to be lacking a broken round loaf spread about the table. Drinking water from the tap is still a luxury. I have a slight sense of doing something borderline wrong when drinking alcohol, like getting into a pub when you are still under-age, you’re fine, but secretly hope that a friend of your parents doesn’t walk in and catch you.

The biggest change though is that I’m not researching alone anymore. I am still alone on my PhD project because let’s face it that’s the nature of the beast, but I’m surrounded by others and their counterpart theses. Back in the office theories are being considered, data is being crunched, chapters compiled. It might not have the scents of mint tea and the spices of tagine, but this new research environment is by no means food-free.

We have snacks. At 10.55am there is a rustle of foil. There is the crunch of a crisp. We have lunch. At 1pm there is the twinkling of packets, catching the light in the common room as these little features of lunchtime in the UK formulate the third element of the corporate balance of a ‘meal deal’. We have drinks. At 5pm one is torn open, splayed across the table and shared in the pub. At the weekend I had friends over for dinner. Three of the big special packets arrive with the guests. The ones that you buy for other people, as a treat, to share, to mark your contribution to the feast and which bear the hallmarks of taste.

So I noticed crisps. Are they a reflection of our country on the run, no time for the kitchen, in love with corporate promises? Or are they bought as part of our desire to share ideas? We buy a packet in the pub, tear it open and invite everyone to keep their thoughts going with a few calories and some salt, the salt encouraging the flowing of more drinks and more thoughts. I’m really not sure, so I thought I’d call on the advantages of being back in the office and working in company. Who better to contribute to a post-fieldwork exploration of crisps than someone else just back from fieldwork?

My fellow PhD friend Ed who was nice enough to let me interview him on the abnormal topic of ‘crisps and fieldwork’ admitted to being a crisp fan. His favourite brand: Monster Munch. He’d been back for just four weeks, and so the details of his experience were still fresh. He went to Brazil, he enjoyed it. There was “samba on every street corner and the beer was cold”. What did he eat? I was curious. “Meat, rice and beans. Buffet food sold by weight” he hasn’t found anywhere here yet where food is sold by weight. “Crisps?” I asked? “Did you eat any crisps while you were on fieldwork?” “Yes”, he said. He told me they were in big bags with flavours like “Churrasco”, “Pacanha”, the usual suspect brands, but with adaptions to their flavours to suit the particularities of the Brazilian market. The same was true in Morocco, big bags with local flavours, sold on trains and at service stations. They didn’t make it much into Thursday though. So did Ed find crisps in the same places in Brazil as he does in the UK? “No”. The big bag wasn’t gutted in the pub by many hands all at once. Instead the beer was shared directly, one big bottle and lots of glasses. Crisps reduced to their rightful status, junk food; “comfort food”.

I’d point out here that I quite like crisps, there is something slightly exciting about buying a bag of cut up potato slices. A bag containing a whole potato wouldn’t quite be the same. You could try sprinkling it with some culturally appropriate flavours, but there is something about the work being done for you, the cutting, cooking and packaging, that seems to fit in well in the UK. I wonder how long the excitement will last. I asked Ed if he’d be going back to Brazil. He told me, “Yes, I’m sure I will, but I’m not sure when”. I agree.

Sweet things

dsc04472

In the game of charades that is my life, I am grateful for things with simple names. Such is the case with Helwa, literally, sweet-stuff. Helwa could be boiled sweets, biscuits, cakes or tarts. It’s the biscuits that seem to have a particularly important social role. They arrive with the tea, and I don’t think I need to emphasise how important the tea is. Very. They might come with the tea at a wedding, and be covered in plastic wrapping like flowers in the UK, or they might come with tea and coffee at a formal meeting. If they are expensive they’ll be full of almonds, dates and real butter, if they’re more modest, perhaps a drop of chocolate on the top and the odd peanut.

If you know me well you’ll be sensing the problem by now. Butter, almonds, peanuts, it doesn’t sound good, does it? It sounds like an anti-histamine binge would be needed to follow the tea.  So I’ve quite often ended up hungry at formal meetings and events in Morocco. The sweet stuff is designed to keep us stimulated through another few power points. But woe is not me. Using my well-honed research skills I have detected a bakery where the butter is not butter but the cheaper alternative – vegetable oil. Yes, my friends, vegan biscuits just a 15-minute bus ride away!

This time the well-honed research skills followed the following trusty formula: chance encounter + a question or two in response to the questions coming at me + visual confirmation of what I think I’ve understood. In this case the figures in the equation took the form of “must not arrive empty handed so go to bakery + “you don’t perchance have anything without milk?” + the margarine is brought out so I can read the ingredients = biscuits for me too! So it is that I’m learning to do research in Morocco. And here I make my point: visual information counts just as much as what we say and hear.

You might be also getting the sense that now I’m being a bit more proactive in my research, I’m buying more biscuits. Not just for me, but so that I can contribute to the tea and conversation with more than just questions. I don’t want to be asking and asking without a little contribution. Some contributions would change the dynamic drastically, but biscuits don’t seem to. Bringing ones that I’m not allergic to, helps keep conversations on track rather than going via a large history of allergies and potential cures.

Each form of Helwa also seems to me to tell a different story. We have ‘la crème’ for example, not translated, but kept in French. They are the cream cakes. At least some of that explanation must come from the era of the French Protectorate (1912-1956). Then there are the little ones with icing sugar on top made of ‘smeeda’ – explained to me as “made from couscous”. Essentially the same ingredients, just a little more sugar and yeast, I’m led to believe. Clearly leaving out the meat and veg. Finally, there is the one which is without the yeast but with the apricot Jam inside (apricot has a great name – “mish-mesh”). I don’t know where it’s from, or what it’s about but I’m going to call it the mish-mesh Jammy Dodger, excellent with a cup of tea.

At that, I will leave this post as it is. It’s time for me to really get on with the research, I have only about six weeks left to see what I can see.