A Practice in Reflection: My Story

Alright, I’ve got to write something. It’s been too long. After a whirlwind few weeks travelling around, I’m back in Norway. Fieldwork brought me around the Nordic region, and Easter holidays brought me to Germany for a visit with an old friend, but now I’m back and trying to get settled into work and attempting to get all of the new knowledge and ideas floating around my head down onto paper. The next few weeks are going to be packed full of transcribing, which I hope will also mean a flurry of new blog posts, but right now, I don’t really feel like I have anything well thought-out for you. But I feel the need to write and share something with you, especially in lieu of Boston declaring April official Riot-grrrl day this past week.

Lately I’ve really been interested in the notion of creating narratives, of storytelling. I’ve been watching a lot of the recent episodes of Mind of a Chef, which have been focussed on themes of tradition, location, and creation by featuring narratives of local farmers and producers, or telling the stories of local traditional dishes.

I was also conveniently introduced to SSHRC’s Storytellers competition (thanks mom) which highlights the importance of telling stories as a learning tool. And I think this is an important note – a well-told story can be just as valuable as a densely-theoretical academic text.

So, I thought, what about telling my own story? Or at least a story – of how I became interested in food – food as an experience, and food as a system, and specifically – how I found myself writing a whole thesis on Nordic food, which understandably, many people find quite random and very broad. So how did it come about? Maybe it’s a little self-indulgent, to think that people will be interested in this story, but I’m going to say fuck it in honour of riot grrrl day, and tell my story anyway.

So, when did all of this food stuff start? It definitely started before this whole Nordic adventure. I mean, I could go back to the very beginning. That may sound a little cliche, but it really did start then. I grew up surrounded by the flatland fields of South Ontario. My mom was raised on a farm in the area, which was passed down to my uncle when my grandparents retired, and I spent weeks of my summers there with my grandmother and cousins, watching the corn or soybeans grow, and stealing peas whenever I got the chance. The first house I remember living in was beside a pig barn, where I had my very own vegetable garden (as much a 5 year old can take ownership), growing little crops of zuchini, asparagus and raspberries.

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I guess everyone might have a story like that, but the one thing I loved about having things constantly growing around me was being able to watch the process of growth and change. There was something magical about driving down the country roads and playing the game of identifying what was growing in each field, and coming back at different times of the year to see fields filled with tiny baby plants, slowly getting taller and taller, finally soaring over my head, and then completely bare – ready for the process to start all over again.

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Making chapatis in Askole

My favourite memories of food revolve around the process of learning about it. My dad is a professor of geography, and did a lot of research in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan (the home of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world) when I was young. He took me along with him a couple of times during my childhood, and we spent a few months living in a tiny mountain village called Askole. It was just him and me travelling, and while he would be busy doing research during the day, I was left to wander around the village.

As I was basically left to my own devices, I spent a lot of time hanging out with whoever was in the vicinity at the time. One distinct memory I have  from this period was joining a group of older woman from the family we were staying with to make chapatis, a flatbread similar to naan. Even though this was almost 18 years ago, I can remember it distinctly, crouching around the fire pit in the middle of the dim living room, an opening in the roof acting as both a form of ventilation and skylight.  They carefully taught me how to shape the round balls of dough into flat disks to place on a platform above the fire. Even though we couldn’t speak the same language, the act of making this food together connected us, and we began to attempt to teach each other words for things around the room, like the fire in front of us (unfortunately, my memory has failed me and I can’t actually remember what the word for fire was. Being almost 20 years ago, I hope you’ll forgive me.) For some reason, this random memory of making a  flatbread together really stuck with me. This was the first time I realised that even the simple act of making food together  can create powerful connections.

Askole was also the first place I learned about complex field watering systems, the first place I saw grains being ground into fine flower between giant stone slabs in a mill, and the first time I saw animals get butchered and cleaned. Experiencing the various processes of how food is made were powerful learning moments that have always stuck with me.

The fields of Askole

The fields of Askole

This interest in learning about food was always stuck at the back of my mind.

The legendary Alex Farms.

As I got older, one of my favourite activities to do with my dad was visit our local cheese shops. Anyone who knows of my dad will also know that he is famous for his love of cheese. And sure, the cheese IS great, but the best part about these trips was the experience – of starting a conversation with whoever happened to be behind the counter that day, getting the details on all of the new products that have come in, learning about a specific cow or goat or ewes milk cheese from some small farm in Spain, or Italy, or Quebec, and then finally, after all of this anticipation had built up, getting a piece (or ten) to taste. The whole experience of going through this ritual and imbuing the cheeses with a story and characteristics really did make them taste that much better, I thought.

It wasn’t until I got to university that I became really interested in researching food. Really, I sort of ended up in the right place at the right time. I had started dating someone who cooked professionally, which encouraged me to become more interested in the concept of food and locality. Then the Equity Studies program I was in at University of Toronto created a global food equity initiative, and I decided to take every course I possibly could that was associated with it. It introduced me to a whole new world of the politics of food systems, both local and global – and I started learning about issues of food access, food security, food sovereignty, fat politics, food and gender, and the list goes on. Anything that had to do with the social politics of food I immediately found myself interested in, and living in Toronto, one of the first cities to have a food policy council and a food strategy team, there was a wealth of information at my fingertips.

And then, I got into an exchange program and moved to Copenhagen. Even though I had to leave Toronto and the vast amount of food politics surrounding it, I ended up in a city with the best restaurant in the world, and a region that turned out to have a booming culinary scene. And with that, I was introduced to a completely new arena of food studies.

What made this restaurant, and this cuisine, so popular? It seemed to me that they had totally capitalized off of the popularity of using local foods, but why had it become so successful, in a whole other way than it is successful in other regions around the world? And what other politics surrounded this success? One issue I found interesting was the different spheres or realms of those invested in food – the culinary, the agricultural – both big and small scale, the political, the international and local populations, and the “everyday food” aspect. What differences existed between these spheres, and how did they interfere with or impact each other? How did this recent popularity and the “New Nordic” movement tied to it impact these different realms, and different locals as well – how did it spread, essentially, both geographically and socially? Along with that, what were the politics of identity, heritage, and authenticity that surrounds the idea of a “Nordic”, or “New Nordic” cuisine?

And that leads us to the here and now. This is my story, or at least a bit of it, and how I think I’ve found myself here. In a way, this was my practice in reflection. I really found (and still find) it interesting just talking to people about these issues – starting up conversations and hearing the many different perspectives and opinions that came about when people reflected on their experiences. So, in a way, I see this thesis as an homage to those conversations, and the knowledge that gets produced and exchanged through the reflections that come about – instilled in it is a hope that if anything comes out of it, it will be new reflections, new conversations, and new thoughts.

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