From Where I Sit - Invention of wholesome tradition

September 6, 2012

What do academics eat when they meet to talk about eating? There's no single answer.

At the first academic conference in food studies I attended, held at Lancaster University, the food was awful. For lunch we refuelled on sandwiches (main ingredient: mayonnaise), along with crisps and a small plate of fruit. For dinner we went to a cheap Italian restaurant that served spaghetti with chips. But at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, I have eaten meals prepared for the dining hall in St Catherine's College by famous chefs, with sponsorship from consulates and food distributors. There was a five-course lunch featuring the food of Sicily, for example, served with Sicilian wines ... followed a few hours later by a five-course dinner featuring the food of provincial Mexico, served with Mexican beer. The two meals battled to a draw.

This August marked the 19th gathering, at Lund University, of the SIEF International Ethnological Food Research Conference, this year on the subject "The Return of Traditional Food". What did we eat? For lunch we had soup, bread and water - but what soup! There was a crayfish bisque that hinted, deliciously, at Vietnamese flavours; a potage of fresh peas and cream; a spicy Finnish sausage soup; a silky cream of chanterelles. For our final dinner we had a traditional Swedish smorgasbord with about 15 different items, from two kinds of marinated herring to two kinds of beef, with three kinds of salmon dishes served in between. Schnapps and traditional Swedish drinking songs were also on the menu.

But the most spectacular event was a dinner at Angavallen, a self-sustainable organic farm with a gourmet restaurant. It specialises in breeding its own livestock, growing its own produce and serving meals, at the restaurant, in a style that is being called the New Nordic Cuisine. "From farm to fork", the establishment boasts about its offering (in Swedish, from "jord" to "bord", literally from "earth" to "table"). We had, for the main course, a dish of pork served three ways, all of them delicious (made from a pig whose cousins I had just seen frolicking in open pens, among pastures of grass and hay), served with newly harvested baby leeks, baby potatoes and home-baked breads, made with the farm's own grains.

Most of the ethnologists and historians speaking at the conference would agree that traditions are invented, not handed down, and they almost always put "tradition" in quotes. We call "tradition" something we seem to remember from the past, but in the past people were busy remembering something from still another past, and so forth..."Tradition" is what we make of what we seem to have inherited and have long since superseded.

The New Nordic Cuisine, which was the subject of a large number of papers as well as many meals, revives a past that its practitioners know to have been something of a myth. For in the past there was no such thing as gourmet Nordic food. The same could be said about practitioners of the New British Cuisine, where heritage products are prepared with a self-conscious gastronomic finesse invented in the present. We are all busy inventing our heritage, which means making it into something it never really was - and hopefully something better.

But here is one tradition, well established in some Oxbridge colleges but little known in many other quarters of academia, that seems to me well worth the making and the remaking, a tradition I saw being invented at Lund: food that refreshes the senses and the mind alike; food that is "food", and not simply fuel.

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