In my last post, I talked a lot about authentic Tuscan food and delectable culinary experiences that made my trip to Italy especially enjoyable. Today I’d like to share my takeaways from the Global Food Studies conference, which proved a useful academic experience and an excellent networking opportunity. The event has attracted scholars from all parts of the world and the variety of fields, all bonded by one common interest – research on food. The truly interdisciplinary nature of the conference allowed to address the most diverse range of food-related issues – from food production, composition, and safety, to nutrition, diet, and health, from consumption, sustainability, and food scares, to culture, policies, and politics of food. I had a chance to get first-hand information about some absolutely fascinating projects and meet both young and more senior academics with genuine passion for and deep understanding of the subject.
Thus, I learned about a project which I found to be of high relevance and surprising similarity to my own study on ethical consumers. Conducted by Dr. Julie Parsons from the Plymouth University, this research investigated people’s relationships with food through online interviews. Like my own, the study adopted auto/biographical approach asking people to document their life histories with the focus on food habits and dietary patterns. Participants’ food stories revealed strong links between their identities and eating practices. Specifically, Dr. Parsons concluded that feeding the family a healthy diet was essential to women’s self-perception as “good” mothers. This immediately reminded me of my own findings suggesting close relationships between consumers’ self-image as ethical persons and their food choices. Likewise, I found that certain ways of eating and feeding the family were perceived as inconsistent with particular social roles and a set of expectations, responsibilities and moral duties attached to them. Thus, in one case a participant’s vegan identity was overridden by the role of a mother wanting to ensure her baby’s health and well-being; in another case a participant admitted feeling that his male identity was undermined by his avoidance of meat, often considered to be a “proper man’s food”.
Then, I got to know a PhD researcher from Portugal working on a project investigating the prospects and potential benefits of using chestnut flowers in the production of traditional Portuguese cheese. This state-of-the-art manufacturing technique could offer an innovative solution to the problem of chemical additives and preservatives in cheese (chestnut flowers appear to have comparably effective antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities) as well as help make a good use of by-products of chestnut cultivation. On description, this research sounded quite far removed from my academic interests that normally lie in the area of sociology of consumers and consumption (which has recently extended to moral philosophy and applied ethics), but as I was listening to Marcio speaking passionately about his work, I couldn’t help thinking about important cultural implications that such manufacturing breakthrough may potentially have. Traditional production methods, authentic recipes, food customs passed from generation to generation are important elements of every culture, and any changes – however slight – in the appearance, texture or flavour of the food might meet resistance by local consumers, for whom the product may represent an important source of identity and cultural heritage. Having exchanged our views on this issue, me and Marcio agreed that it is precisely in the opportunity to have insights from the most diverse angles that the value of such interdisciplinary events as the Global Food Studies conference lies.
Interestingly, the issue of unique food products, their role in the preservation of local cultures as well as their potential to convey distinctive identities was the major theme of another very inspiring presentation. It told the story of pinole – a traditional Mexican sweet made from blue cornmeal, sugar and cinnamon – and its decisive role in maintaining food security and self-sufficiency in a local community, as well as its importance for Mexican trans-migrants as a source of cultural identity, authenticity, and the sense of attachment to a unique community. In this presentation, I also learned about an amazing initiative developed under the umbrella of the Slow Food Movement. This fascinating endeavour aiming to discover, preserve and enhance unique food traditions and cultures is so important and inspiring that I decided to write a separate post about this specific mission of the Slow Food Movement’s Foundation for Biodiversity.
Check out my next post if food heritage and biodiversity are your themes!