CULTURE | PEOPLE | FOOD | STORYTELLING | TAKING FOOD PUBLIC

I now tentatively call myself a writer, but the truth is I am and always have been a storyteller. As in fact we all are. My work now is performing through text my constructed stories. An internal narrative that is the synthesis of my interpretations of external shifting story lines. Taking food public is about the fundamental role the performance of storytelling plays in culture. Performance is the unity of the text and its enactment—or the message and its meaningful life. Perhaps what taking food public does is shine a spotlight on the context and the performance and then surreptitiously take centre stage.  

What is the intentionality of taking food public?

As a shared experience, an occasion—to express, define and modify our internally held narratives. We turn the consumption of food, a biological necessity, into a carefully cultured phenomenon. Through the performative experience, stories are told, and are then are re-told to consolidate or modify cultural texts. Going deeper into the subject there are linguistic and academic hierarchical understandings of ‘public’ as opposed to ‘applied’, linguistic determinism, the missionization of food, foodways, the anthropology of experience and the anthropology of performance. Thinkers and writers such as Victor Turner, Edward Bruner, Elizabeth Edwards, Carole Counihan, Psyche Williams-Forson, Margaret Visser, Edward Sapir and Lee Whorf helped me shape my ideas, alongside others who potently influenced my foundational thinking, such as Boas, Douglas and Durkheim.

Education, knowledge transfer of sustainable food skills, food heritage and community engagement were my work for 30 years. Community Engagement Manager on a Heritage Lottery Project, ‘Culture of the Countryside’, Education and Community lead for the ‘Woodbridge tide Mill’ and Project Co-ordinator for ‘Eastfeast Local Foods’. I had thought these were humble examples of ‘taking food public’ as a service. Upon reflection I see that I—along with my co-workers—were constructing our worlds and watching ourselves doing the construction, and then entering into our constructed worlds, and inviting or bringing others along too. Self-consciously we curated and managed culturally constructed expressions of food and eating, believing we gave valid opportunities for project participants to share and define their food cultures and identities.

If taking food public is the performative telling and re-telling of stories, how does the construction of the story-telling stage and the props used shape the closing remarks?

Can stories equate to unbiased units of meaning when those who provide a shared setting are both subjective and dominant? Western story-telling, described as linear, has a beginning, middle and an end or, a past, present and future or, challenges, resolution and moral. The ‘Culture of the Countryside’ project strived to be response led and ask good questions to inspire creative and lateral cultural thinking that was not linear. The project was very much an anthropological enterprise of how people experience themselves, their lives and their culture. We were essentially turning the mirror on ourselves, and the project participants, as we told and re-told stories of shared, constructed, public and private experiences. 

What became clear is that taking food public, in the funded domain, is determined by the tensions of prospective memory—of a hypothetical past and a constructed future—and by contemporary politics, equality and economics. In a fast paced and increasingly virtual world, is there a hunger for experience and a search for wholeness only found in social interchanges when people [to] transcend individual experience through participation in cultural expression.

Does this need overlook the dominant constructed narratives of taking food public?

In what ways and by whom are performative experiences being commodified? How is social media changing the social dynamics of performance and experience?

I ‘exist in the work’ of the taking food public as I subjectively invite others to make and re-make their internal narratives—and take part in collective story making. I am aware that each time I take food public my memoires are a modification of previous experiences. Ultimately, your story is made mine, and vice versa ad infinitum, as social actors we respond to and perform narratives to one another. Those who take food public or recast food in the public domain and, those who enable the performance often has a dominating and linear story, with a commodified or governing conclusion already written.   

 

Bibliography

Counihan, C. & P. Willaims-Forson (2012), (eds) Taking Food Public, Redefining Foodways in a Changing World, Routledge

Edwards, Elizabeth (2001), Raw Histories, Berg, Oxford, England

Turner, V.W, & Bruner, E. M (19860, (eds) The Anthropology of Experience, University of Illinois Press, USA

Visser, M. (1991), The Rituals of Dinner, Penquin