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.

 

Proper Spanish Lunch

menu-del-diaThe proper Spanish lunch is no small or fast affair. It can’t be eaten with one hand, nor at your desk, and it isn’t accompanied by a cappuccino. The Proper Spanish Lunch is composed of two main courses, as much bread as you need, a glass of wine, and dessert. If you also need coffee, you can swap your dessert for one or pay the extra, but don’t assume it’ll come with chocolate sprinkles.

The Proper Spanish Lunch is a meal that symbolises an in-between space in my research, and, naturally, in my life. It is eaten with people who have helped me get from one place to another, and with whom I’ve enjoyed the time (moments and years) in between.

You don’t get anywhere without in-between spaces. If you go from a place you know to a place you absolutely don’t understand, you’re lost. But if you have a stepping stone, you can follow the familiar paths into the unknown space. That’s my route for weaving my way from understanding English and Spanish into French. It’s also the route I’ve used to reach Morocco: using what I understand about Spain to help me cross the Euro-African cultural divide. When you start from Spain, that distance is only 8 miles.

Lunch in Spain is quite literally called ‘la comida’ The Food. This is a very accurate description, because if you play the eating times game well, ‘la comida’ will be The Food of your day. Lunch is at about 2pm. For your first course (equal to the second in size) you have something like an enormous salad/lentils/soup, therefore meeting the RDA* for vitamins (hopefully). For your second course you have something of higher protein and prestige accompanied by even more vegetables, and even more bread. An example of this is the magnificent fish my friend effortlessly whipped up for us even just for a hungover Sunday lunch. Follow with dessert: either choose one of many different variations on the theme of ‘custard’, or alternatively a piece of fruit. Finally, coffee, to help you move again after The Food.

After Proper Spanish Lunch you are absolutely free until about 10pm because if you followed the instructions above, you won’t be hungry until then. Hence, if it’s a working day, far from being lazy, you can work until 6, 7 or 8pm, and then go out for a drink afterwards and then get home for 10pm to have dinner. Amazing. This only happens in the UK one day of the year, Christmas Day, when we indulge so much in the accompanying drinks we are good for nothing by the time it gets dark.

So what’s the relation with Morocco? Well this is where Northern Europe meets Northern Africa. Remove the alcohol and Proper Spanish Lunch looks less like Christmas Day in the UK and more like the salad or beans followed by Tagine in Morocco. More importantly, as in Morocco, time is made for eating in Spain. Someone has also made even more time: this is properly cooked food. I have yet to have a Proper Spanish Lunch with boil-in-the-bag rice, a pot noodle or boxed sandwiches.

Finally, the ‘in-between’ role of Spain, not only in my life, but also in my research, came into real relief this past week. It is extremely difficult for a Moroccan to get a UK visa, however, for some, it is not so difficult to get to Spain. Spain is part of the Schengen Area and so the close ties (linguistic, business, educational, family) mean that many Moroccans can get long term visas of several years to travel to countries like France and Spain with whom there have been very long term ties, and therefore the wider Schengen Area.

So although I had said goodbye to Morocco for the time-being following fieldwork, I was able to meet my Moroccan colleagues at a seminar last week in the very fitting, and in-between, Spanish context. So I’ve done a bad job of coming home from Morocco and staying put (the first week of term might have been easier without such opportunities to keep the doors open to research and maybe my sister should have confiscated my passport after all). Yet I can also see that Proper Spanish Lunches, and particularly this time with my Moroccan colleagues, are going to be absolutely key to keeping my research alive, and to keeping me going, perhaps until 10pm.

*Recommended Daily Allowance

Bread

bread-coooking

Bread. Or ‘hobbz’ to anyone in the Arab world, including Morocco. I was sure I’d heard ‘Hobbs’ in relation to bread before, was it a brand? Here, in any case, it is much more than that.

Women in Morocco make bread. Clearly not all women, but a lot more women than I would have expected. A mother of five children, with a family shop that sells bread, nevertheless makes her own bread. The husband says it’s her job. The bread in their shop is just bought in for selling to customers (like me). My neighbour who often works a 10-hour shift packing peppers to go to Europe, makes her own bread. This isn’t just the occasional loaf, it’s enough to eat with every meal, every day. When I say eat with, I mean instead of a fork, and as an accompaniment to the meat, veg and dried apricot if you are lucky. Even an academic with two children, a full time job and writing her thesis, makes her own bread.

Obviously the double shift for women is nothing new to us. Although just because it isn’t new, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth noticing. That’s what I’ve been doing recently, noticing things. Other people work and make bread. I notice things. People also notice me. So it’s not a one-way process. Sometimes I notice people noticing me. In every country I’ve been a foreigner there is a word, you just have to listen for what it is. I’d recognise myself as ‘la Gringa’ in Latin America, ‘Guirri’ in Spain, or ‘Gainjin’ in Japan. I now recognise myself as “l’Goeriya”. Or, in the Spanish pronunciation even better: “Goerilla”. In hindsight, I think Gringa sounded pretty good!

If you want to understand something I sometimes think it’s worth skirting around the edges first: what is not the thing you want to understand? I want to understand seasonal work. So what do people do when they aren’t at work? Maybe that’s what I’ve been noticing recently: the bread-making, the floor sweeping, the hand-washing of clothes (I get to take part in that one). It means things are coming more into 3D. You don’t just see a worker you see a person in their context.

The same goes for the Goerilla. I’m fast losing novelty value, so if I expect people to continue having patient conversations with me, I’d better get 3D fast. People don’t want to talk about their work all day. The art of staying put is quite different to the art of travelling and arriving. For a start if I’m not making bread I can at least make some salad. However, I have found something that is more interesting to people than my (lack of) bread-making. I have found a job.

I was tempted to go for a job picking veg, but I think that could lead to trouble and I’m told to be careful several times a day. So English teacher it is, only a few hours. It costs me nothing to share my ‘goerilla-ness’ in Thursday and it doesn’t cost them either. Languages are the currency of social mobility in Morocco. In all major cities middle class children go to bilingual or trilingual schools and have private tutoring and classes in the evenings, adults too if they want to. There is no after-school tutoring in my town, people with good language skills tend to socially move themselves elsewhere. So you could argue that I’m helping a process of westernisation and globalisation, which would be true. I might contribute to people understanding the terrible songs that are on the radio. However, this isn’t preaching in an untouched village, it’s sharing words with people who don’t want to pick Europe’s tomatoes forever.

There’s one more thing about bread. It gets recycled. It’s the one thing. Other things might be re-used, if they are put in the bin and perhaps taken out again. Or more likely all the disposable stuff will just begin to blend in with the rubbish and rubble on the streets. So the bright pink yogurt pot will slowly fade as it’s trampled into the sandy ground. That’s not the case with bread. Bread is separated and saved. It has a detectable ecological cycle. The crusts and end are collected up, dried out in the sun, collected on a horse driven cart and taken to be eaten by the ‘bugra’ – the cow – as I was told my landlord, but I think the horse gets a bite too.

Conflict of interests: The writer admits to disliking yogurt, and enjoying her daily bread. Personal preferences may therefore have affected the analysis above.

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