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.