Sitting on a bench as a research method

I went to a talk by Claudia Roden two weeks ago, a food writer I have admired for some time, so much so, that I wrote to her last year. My first fan letter, written on paper with a fountain pen specially bought for the occasion, got lost in the post. It was a breathless appraisal of a recipe that requires chicken, water, parsley, onions, a pinch of ground ginger to be boiled together for a long time, and then served with hard boiled eggs and fried almonds. The letter was also a declaration of my admiration for her research methods. 

The finitude of some food writing that is published now seems to derive from an apparent state of affairs [also, affaires] where both publisher and the audience knows what it is getting before a word has been written. Producing a book is expensive, of course, and the unknown is a risk; social media followings are sometimes read as barometers for sales projections, market research is used by some to produce book briefs. Sure, people (I mean, publishers) have to eat too.

Two German philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, wrote about how the absurd logic of the European Enlightenment led to the idea that the greatest risk to life, is life. They propose the thought that, according to the rationale of Enlightenment, it is no great leap to reach the conclusion that in order to preserve the human subject, it is best to extinguish life and its risky, unruly, liveliness. In their view, closed circuits of logic that only make sense unto themselves, and that are are shut off from the other nuancing perspectives that could show up absurdity and glitches in the logic board, positively facilitate such lethal thought. 

Adorno and Horkheimer, who consider the Odyssey as an allegory for the development of the rational, Enlightenment subject, regard Odysseus’s victories over the Sirens, over Scylla, over Circe, over Calypso and the Cyclops as pyrrhic… he listened to the Sirens, but without his body in the picture, he just took what was useful from Circe, he missed twenty years of conversation with Penelope. 

And what have male philosophers and writers missed in the centuries that they did not go into the kitchen? What did they not hear? The domestic territories of the past are largely unknown, and so are the women’s voices, words and ideas that populated them, especially those of the working classes. I cannot go back, I want to know what they said. 

I heard a podcast the other day that said of America’s Gilded Age (1870s-1900), that while it is one of the most discussed periods of US history, there is a deep gap in knowledge about what poor people ate. The great banquets were recorded, yes, they reveal a little about how some people ate, perhaps as much as what a financier’s dinner at Claridges reveals about bare cupboards and food banks. 

And what have male philosophers and writers missed in the centuries that they did not go into the kitchen? What did they not hear?

When Claudia Roden was writing the book of Jewish food, an encyclopedic volume that took 16 years to research ~ how’s that for a turnaround? ~ she said in her talk, that she sat on benches. She sat on benches and waited for people to sit on them next to her, and then she would start speaking to them. She asked them what they liked to eat. Not knowing what they would say back, she listened. Often, seeing that she needed to listen with her body and not just her ears, they would invite her into their kitchen to show, to make, to taste together, to listen entirely.

The recipes and kitchen wisdom in her first book of Middle Eastern cookery, also a book whose gestation counted into years, were those urgently donated by refugees from conflict in the mid-twentieth century, who did not know when they would see each other again. They were words written down in case of death… There were not recipe books in Egypt during Roden’s childhood and the diverse Jewish and Muslim families she grew up amongst embodied their knowledge. When their bodies were threatened, and lives were cut out from their quotidian context and displaced by war into different locations, the communities she knew as a child helped Roden turn their knowledge into a book, so that their lives might be witnessed, listened to, tasted, remembered, appreciated.

Often, seeing that she needed to listen with her body and not just her ears, they would invite her into their kitchen to show, to make, to taste together, to listen entirely.

So, sit on a bench as a research practice, wait to see who turns up, listen to the person who sits down, whoever they might be. If you are lucky, accept an invitation to go into their kitchen and witness the importance of what they do there, wherever it is.

The EU referendum revealed that, if anything, Britain is unknown to itself. Or rather, most who nominate themselves to write its narratives, to define its priorities and document its lives do not know what the hell they are talking about. They have not spent enough time sitting on benches, waiting to listen, despite the assertions of doorstepping and supermarket polls. Neither have I. The kitchens of celebrity chefs feel more familiar to me than those of northern England. Those counties made abject by government neglect and media hatred that voted to leave are unknown to me. What is on television and in print tells us little about how most people spend time in their kitchens, other than occasionally, to condemn. 

On Sunday night, when I was working in a London pub I heard someone say that Iceland kicked Britain out twice: Iceland the country kicked Britain out of the European football tournament, and those who shop at Iceland kicked Britain out of the EU. Shopping at Iceland was code for the imagined poor, the working classes, a group of British (mostly English and Welsh) citizens whose decision baffled Londoners like me, Londoners whose leisure time is often spent enjoying the city’s specialist gastronomic pleasures. 

Such pleasures include those produced in Britain. Regions appear in London as packaged up products in delicatessens: expensive forced pink rhubarb from Yorkshire, strawberries from Kent, lamb from Wales, chickens from Suffolk, oysters from Essex. What else do we know of these places? What do the people who live there eat? What happens in their kitchens? What do they know? I wanted to go far away from here and write about food – but speaking from what position? I know nothing of Britain, I realised. 

we cannot know what we do not know if we do not listen properly and the direction will never change

London was quick to condemn and distance itself from the rest of the country after the vote. It wants to move on, to sail by like Odysseus, to listen without really hazarding itself in the process. But that has been the problem for so long. We miss so much ~ we cannot know what we do not know if we do not listen properly and the direction will never change ~ and what use is a head without a body or a body without a head, and aren’t they one and the same?

 

 

 

 

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