- Katrina Kollegaeva talks us through the value of food anthropology
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My 20 years in the UK has taught me that as well as a penchant for weather talk, there are two things the Brits love saying more often than I care to remember: “Oh, we don’t speak any other languages” (true enough) and “we don’t really have a food culture in this country”, nodding towards their Continental neighbours with an equal measure of envy and awe.
As a food anthropologist, I find this blindness or rejection of indigenous food traditions quite curious. Food anthropology is a relatively new study that seeks to understand how we humans make sense of the world through how and what and with whom we eat.
Increasingly used by businesses to understand their customer base, the anthropological – ethnographic – methods zoom in on specific cultures (say, a village in Trinidad or a deli in Stroud) to explore the nuances and meanings behind people’s words and actions, especially big, everyone-knows-it kind of statements. How is it that we in Britain feel so disconnected from our roots? What role do food businesses play in making us feel more or less connected?
I have worked in many markets and delis in this country and am always amazed that whenever I talk to people who grew up here, no matter their age or background, they are able to convey the flavours and tastes of their village, town, area with gusto. When prompted, they would ‘remember’ the traditions they grew up with: that a ‘proper’ trifle ‘should’ have a layer of jelly (“how my grandmother always made it”), or how their family in Yorkshire always has grouse each autumn (“nothing fancy about game for us!”). Such recollections are not merely nostalgic. I find that food memories encourage people to rely more on their own taste buds in the present moment.
“Independent stores are crucial in the process of memory re-creation”
Obviously, independent stores with their emphasis on producer led goods are crucial in this process of memory re-creation. For shops to see themselves as curators of flavours and traditions, gentle educators if you like, can help with both bottom line and a genuine, practical sense of social-community responsibility.
Ask your customers about their food memories – whilst chatting over the counter when time permits, or how about a ‘pop-up’ evening to explore memories of a particular era? – as well the more common Meet the Producer turned around to focus on your customer. You would feature products and producers relevant for that topic, but also nudge people to become more inquisitive about others’ products.
“The French are immersed in casual food knowledge acquisition”
The British feel this ‘disconnect’ from their food traditions for a reason. The industrial revolution that kicked off in the 18th century led to unprecedented levels of urbanisation. Huge masses of people moved away from the countryside to work in factories, distancing many from their roots and the results of their labour. Whereas, for example, France industrialised later and at a different pace, keeping the link between the peasant class and artisans and the land stronger.
To this day the French often grow up in an environment where discussing food at a table daily – what they like, don’t like and why – is a normality. They are immersed in this casual food knowledge acquisition. Whilst not wanting to over romanticise the Continental ways with food (France now has more McDonald’s per capita than most other European countries!), I can’t help but think the difference between them and us is about confidence around food.
Where the French learn the vocabulary of what (good) food is and therefore ‘exercise’ their taste buds daily, we in the UK often lack such immersion, historically anyway. A more individualised food storytelling here (‘farmer Ben and his wonky carrots’) are working to help us to re-connect with our roots. Perhaps now more than ever.
“When things get tough we want to go back to our roots”
The Greek anthropologist Nafsika Papacharalampous argues that at times of crisis Greeks return to the memories of their rural past and embrace artisanal foods. ‘Poverty’ foods are now being transformed into items of value (humble stews appear on the menus of high end restaurants).
Similarly, in the UK with the anxieties over Brexit and global instabilities, there’s increased awareness of all things made in Britain. When things get tough we want to go back to our roots (real or imagined), for safety and comfort. Food is a very real, tangible thing that can give us a sense of groundness.
The fact that Spam on white bread can carry as much of a symbolic, social and emotional value as a stew of a Neapolitan Nonna may seem at best a stretch, or plain counterintuitive to many people, but they are the same type of connections – to our own experiences and taste buds.
‘Perfection’ is such an overused word right now. But really, it is in the eye, or the tongue, of a beholder.
HOW TO TRAIN STAFF IN THE ART OF STORYTELLING
Your staff are crucial in such knowledge co-creation. Let them pick, say, two products a week to focus in interactions with customers. Or give out a few unpackaged products and ask to describe using comparisons and nouns (eg tastes like a peach that’s been out on the sun for a few hours). You bet, your staff won’t forget – neither will your customers.