Talking food history in Tours
It doesn’t happen often in science that, while studying their subject, researchers also incorporate it. One can imagine that a pharmacist might take from the medication he is researching (with the risk of turning into half a salamander), but it is healthier not to try to imagine nuclear scientist, dentists or paleontologists do the same. This special privilege is left to those, who study food and drinks. This advantaged cast of academics very often can, and do incorporate the object of their studies: getting away unpunished, and even happily satisfied at that.
This week in the French town of Tours some two hundred food and drinks researchers came together for the third time to theorize and practice their studies, in a focused and also enjoyable way. The Third International Conference on Food History and Food Studies in Tours involved night and day shifts. The nights consisted of exploration of the numerous temptations of Tours’ seemingly countless bistros and restaurants and of its rich range of local specialties. The days were dedicated to intensive conference sessions, which indeed run in a very concentrated manner. What the two shifts had in common, was the mixture of thrill and frustration, which they left in the researchers, who couldn’t possibly attend/try everything they wished.
The program this year was denser than ever, with up to nine sessions running simultaneously. Even if each participant could only attend a ninth of the presentations, two days of browsing through the halls provided a solid illustration how the field of food studies is expanding in Europe (although also colleagues from North America, Australia and Asia were present).
The highlights, which I managed to collect from the conference, range from theory of food studies to cultural, historical, economic investigations: sometimes conventional and sometimes entirely experimental.
Martin Buregel (INRA-CMH, Paris) presented the inspiring story of the Parisian chefs’ efforts to improve the working conditions in the restaurants’ kitchens. Their campaigns, which took place repeatedly throughout the 20th century, became the basis of the general labor protection laws of France.
The curious life of kebap in the UK was researched by Nese Ceren Tosun (University of Warwick), who concluded that kebap is found everywhere, but nobody identifies it as of his own. An anecdotic story opened her quest, when a tipsy British football fan, enraged by a loss of a match of his team against Galata Saray, shouted in a Turkish joint in the UK: “Your fucking kebap is shit!” The Turkish owner of the place ignored the offence, calmly remarking that in a moment he will go home to eat a meal with his family, while the offender, drunk as he is, will end up eating kebap. A focus in Tosun’s study are the British awards for the best kebap, with which, she says, the British domesticate the kebap, the consumers connect with those, who prepare it.
Andreas Richier (Free University Berlin) presented a most curious research on the gender roles during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Escorting their husbands along their march through the battle fields, the women had to cook for them and run portable households. But they were also perceived as princesses, envied by those in the attacked cities for their freedom and power. It happened that soldier spared the life of women in a plundered by his army town. Perceived as an act of chivalry, his deed was paid back by the same women, who joined his household as cooks. In these cases the spared victims would cook in the camp, while husband and wife, together, would proceed to plunder the next village or town on their way.
This curious insight came also with important data how women were using their cooking skills as negotiation power, buying themselves protection or other favors.
Rebecca Ingram (University of San Diego) spoke of the modernization of home cooking in Barcelona in 1909-1934, which took place together with conscious efforts of forming a cuisine with national identity. The cookery courses, which were organized within the Cultural Institue for Women, were targeting a range of women with different level of involvement and time to dedicate to the household: from housewives to working women, striving to both improve home cooking and associate it the idea of Catalonianness.
On a more theoretical level, Anneke Geyzen (NYU and a member of our research group FOST), reviewed the differences between the direction of food studies in Europe and in North America. She pointed that while in Europe the research tends to be more retrospective and self-reflective, in North America it is oriented toward the future and is interventionist. If European researchers prefer to construct the ideal past, North American ones choose to work on the ideal future, i.e. often on policies.
An interesting panel on consumption of insects opened a heated debate, which evoked the pros and contras in regard to nutritionism. While a team of scientists in Italy researched consumers’ attitude towards insects as food and how the frequently observed disgust amongst Europeans can be overcome, academics from the audience asked why such disgust needs to be overcome and why should people buy food, sold as if it medicine – i.e. advertised as proteins. While the defenders of the meal as a cultural and social act were right to point the damages of nutritionist approach on culinary culture in the developed world, in fact the Italian academics were by far not concentrated only on the nutrition value of insects. One of the illuminating presentations was of Pietro D’Alessio (University of Parma), who spoke of ento-gastronomy as “a new frontier for European tastes”. Examining the efforts of several leading chefs to experiment with tastes and structure of insects, he stressed that perhaps a whole universe awaits to be explored by the European foodies.
Samples of pasta with crickets flour, dried beetles in plastic bags and protein-rich bars, based on insects made a round in the audience. To the question “Have you ever tried any insects?” a colleague asked: “You mean, voluntarily?”
We all laughed, but the colleague’s words returned to me on the very next morning, when I decided to jog along the banks of Loire. After the steaming heat of the previous days, I found myself running in an endless cloud of tiny flies hovering over the river and the grassland that surrounds it. Were I to eat insects, I could have simply opened my mouth and could have had my run and my breakfast at the same time. Well, I didn’t. I even cut my run short, and still came back with 10 flies in each of my eyes… telling myself I should try to do better in exploring that new universe of tastes. After all if I have eaten them, they wouldn’t have been in my eyes…