Food for Thought | Whose Food?

Our project areas seem simple. We focus on Women, Food and English language. These three areas however, are not so simple in their essence. Behind each one is a myriad of complexities, questions,opinions, polictics, issues that cannot remain hidden when we carry out our work. It is really important for us as occupiers of this space to explore and reveal them, rather than to gloss over and ignore. In this post, our director Clare reflects on the theme of food, othering, cultural appropriation and assumptions over who owns what food.

I found this draft half written in our wordpress from 2 years ago, and I just felt it still had weight with the thoughts that arise from our daily work in cooking dishes from around the world whilst teaching English at the same time. I hope this post resonates with people who have experienced or suffered from culture bound assumptions, or who notice them and wonder why they are there.

Start with the following scrawling taken from a journal reflection of an open workshop we ran in 2018, where learners had to choose a dish to demonstrate their development of English language skills we had been covering in class, and to teach the public how to make their dish. Here’s what I wrote:

2018′ one of the learners from Pakistan wanted to make mince and potatoes at the open food workshop. Why did we feel the need to stop her? It was something she made her children, something she cooked at home and something she found a comfort food. Was it because we thought it was too easy? or was there a more underlying reason behind our rejection? Is it because she was Pakistani and the dish was too… simple? Did we feel she would need a more ‘exotic’ ‘authentic’ dish?

Reopening this just now, my thought instantly went to another critical moment after the feedback session of our first block of online cooking and ESOL classes, where I would cook a different recipe each week from the Heart & Parcel cookbook. A cookbook made by learners complete with their recipes and stories. My notes from my notebook:

2020′ learner feedback came in – many enjoyed cooking different food from around the world and from their classmates. But there was a dominant request which was clear: ‘please can you show us how to make British food?’ when pressed further on this, the answers were ‘as you like’, fish and chips, pies, cakes and puddings.

Both of these vignettes highlight a deeper issue here: the ownership of food. In the first, the label is placed upon the learner to be restricted to only food we felt she should own and cook based on our notions of her identity. In the second, the label was on us. We were the gatekeepers of British food – it seemed only we could impart the knowledge of authentic British cuisine to the learners.

A problematic and tricky perspective arises with the second reflection: Food can be nationalised, categorised, owned, limited and its symbol frequently stolen to be used as ammo for those wanting to keep Britain ‘British’. In this hostile environment this means white and homogenous. Food then tends to be hijacked as these national dishes and to be held up as the ‘right’ food and none of that ‘foriegn’ food. It has however, been well documented by many food historians, writers and cooks that the dishes that are labelled whole heartedely British have a much more complex background, many ingredients and even the idea of the dish were invented and created by immingrants coming to settle in the UK, or communities in which British colonised and took their dishes.

At Heart & Parcel we want to explore the food and dishes that are quietly being rustled up behind closed doors in houses and homes across Manchester – we aim to platform and present deep and complex varied dishes brought to us by women who live alongside many cultures and languages. We stay away from what some of our learners call ‘British food’.

Nevertheless something has stuck with me, and that is that I think this can be quite selfish of us. Heart & Parcel do not focus on stereotypical British food, because there is so much more in this country that is being cooked, discovered, savoured and enjoyed. we want to explore other dishes and foods. and the emphasis there is on ‘we’… Our own delight and curiousity going against what learners are actually telling us they would like to learn about. Whenever we feel good about discovering something, we need to reflect on whether that is actually the right way to go, especially if learners are feeding back to us they want something otherwise.

BUT are those comments made by the learners of wanting to learn British food something a bit more sinister? There is such a fine line between integration and appropriation. We aim to support women to celebrate their foods from their countries, backgrounds, while at the same time encouraging learners to improve their English. However the dominant rhetoric around immigration and becoming British in the UK, is this traditional idea that in order to integrate, you must assimilate. Cultural symbols such as food, clothes, music and art need to be approved and passed through (is it good food? The appropriate art? a good piece of music…. a good immigrant?), especially for those wishing to gain citizenship and settle here. Is this suggestion of wnating to learn more ‘British’ food just a reaction to fierce messages telling people who come to settle in the UK that in order to settle here, they need to prove themselves, ‘love’ Britain and everything that comes with it? Including the food?

The above is something we have tried to dismantle, the ownership of certain dishes whilst at the same time recognising that many communities and individuals are still bound and restricted by their perceived’ national cooking’ – frustrating for chefs living alongside their ethnic minority backgrounds who are expected to only cook food from their ‘culture’.

At the same time our initial idea was never to become the gate keeper of food, and who it belongs to. The learners want to learn about British food, why not explore this? What was the thorn in my side about this?

British food’…. another reason why it irks me is that I don’t perceive my home cooking to be ‘British’. As I am sure many living in Britain don’t. I cook a range of different cuisines because I really enjoy other flavours. Having grown up in Hong Kong, my default is always stirfires, fried rice, dumplings and stews flavoured with spices. My ultimate comfort food is fresh noodles fried in chilli and sesame oil, spring onion, garlic, soy sauce, boiled egg. However, this very exclamation of denouncing my Britishness wades into the dangerous territory of white invisibility. As a white middle class female, I am VERY lucky not to have an external label of what I should and shouldn’t cook; I am able to pick and choose at will due to the colour of my skin and visible identity being viewed as ‘Britishness’ for some. White people are spoilt for choice when it comes to having the freedom to cook whatever they like and not get ridiculed for it. It is white invisibility at its finest. And it filters into the psyche of everyone it seems. Really some of these students felt that I would be the best person to teach them how to make fish and chips, or trifle. And I don’t make good fish and chips AT ALL. I’m impatient with batter and my chips always come out soggy, no matter which recipe I follow.

Taking in all of the above, how can we meet the needs and desires of our learners, while at the same time not fall into these fixed stereotypes of national dishes which serve to divide?

Just last month we completed a livestream class where we made a learner’s rice pudding. Rice pudding exists in many, many cultures. The way she instructed me to stir it. The quantities of rice and the type of rice to use was so different to how I make rice pudding. She uses rose water, I use cinnamon. She adds pistachios at the end and serves in beautiful dessert glasses to round off an elegant dinner party, I heap mine with bananas and honey and eat it for breakfast. There were many differences but essentially we had made the same dish.

What I think is more interesting and helpful than to look at than culture-bound foods and national dishes, is individual food habits, cooking techniques, and food pairings which is then influenced by culture, background, experience and family. I have noticed this amongst my friends from other countries, the way we butter our bread. What oils and herbs we put in our stews, how we slice onions differently, preparing our meat to fry (boil first or no?), preparing a tomato sauce, the timing of stirfries, the different steps of making chicken soup. By focusing on the the localised, individual food moments shaped by the wider influences, at Heart & Parcel, we begin to understand our learner’s individual differences, and share and seek those commonalities that serve to bring us together, rather than what sets us apart.

On the topic of what to cook in our sessions, what we can do is take an interest in the choices of food of our learners decide to take an interest in, and the recipes that are presented as their recipes. We plan to involve learners in the decision making process of developing their own projects, having a democratic consensus of what they would like to cover. Most crucially, learners should be in the centre and at the forefront of designing these sessions. Heart & Parcel learners wish to use food as a way to develop the skills they feel they need to connect, to improve their English and to make friends, and widen their social network. Sharing one of your favourite recipes and teaching it to others is really exciting too.

So, back in 2018 I did actually try the mince and potatoes our learner made. It was rich and heavy, with fresh green chillis bobbing on top and cooked the day before in ghee, with bisto gravy granules to add a thickness. The heat and salty flavour filled each mouthful with fluffy potatoes. The potatoes were heavily boiled in salted water and were buttery, going beautifully with the gravy and mince. it tasted excellent.

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