Love Letter to Papaya

On the heels of the New Year, it’s hard not to think about the rituals that we use to mark time, to shake free and declare ourselves ready to start afresh. For many people in Ghana, it’s de rigeur ritual to attend a ‘crossover’ church service, with megachurches and tiny neighborhood churches alike vying for congregants to bear witness to the turning of the year.

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There’s something beautiful in that, but all-night church services are decidedly not my thing. I’m not one for resolutions, either—too often they’re a measure of disappointment—but there is a ritual I rather like: that of eating a new fruit during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (well, one of four Jewish new years, but let’s not nitpick). Like most rituals involving food and symbolism, I’m a fan, but it’s always seemed a little curious to me—surely there is a limit to how many ‘new’ fruits one can experience, no? I mean once you’ve gone through the usual suspects in the fruit department, and worked your way through the passionfruit and starfruit and dragonfruit and cheremoya, what’s left? Surely the ancient rabbis didn’t expect people to go on far-flung expeditions every year to seek out hitherto unknown varieties of fruit. Is it just meant to be a ‘new’ fruit in the sense of being available early in the season? ‘New’ as in you haven’t eaten it yet in that particular year?

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I have another take on this, of late. The insight comes out of this: I’m currently in the midst of a love affair with papaya, a fruit I used to hate.

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A few months ago, this would have been unthinkable. I’ve always found papaya, especially very ripe papaya, to taste a little…well, vomit-y.  The texture, the color, the aftertaste—the resemblance was just more than I could tolerate. For a person who has long considered herself a goat in the edibles department—meaning that I’ll try anything, with gusto—admitting my dislike for any food does not come easy. But for years, it’s been my cilantro: while other wax orgiastic about its aroma and flavor, I avoid papaya like the plague.

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I was staying with my fairy godmother while I convalesced from a wee medical incident a while back, and Fairy Godmother really, really likes papaya. She left a large slice of some cut up for me for breakfast one morning, and when she returned at the end of the day to find it untouched, I had to politely explain my dislike. ‘Oh!’ She exclaimed. ‘That’s because you’ve been eating it wrong!’ I was a bit miffed, but didn’t have a chance to let it show—Fairy Godmother was off and away in story mode.

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She spent a good deal of her childhood living in and traveling through Mexico, and then returned to Mexico City as an adult in her second career in the Foreign Service. And in Mexico, she told me, you eat papaya with a hearty squeeze of lime and a dash of salt. I was intrigued, but I didn’t get to try it that night. Instead, I reveled in the memories of Mexico that all the talk of papayas had lured to the surface for Fairy Godmother—her sister’s flightless parrot that suddenly took wing one day from the window of the former hospital where they lived, and had to be coaxed down from the tree by a dozen men on ladders, like something out of Garcia Marquez; the little girl whose acquaintance she made as a child at a resort in Acapulco, and tracked down in Mexico City decades later; the time she took her daughter and a friend to a reserve to see the butterflies, leaving their car stuck on a boulder on the mountain road and hitching a ride with some campesinos in a pickup instead.

The next morning when I woke late and emerged to the kitchen, there was my slice of papaya, seeds scooped, with a wedge of lime tucked next to it. Cautiously, I went about it: squeeze of lime, dash of salt, scoop of the flesh with a tiny spoon.

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I was astonished. It was delicious. Sweet, tart, the fullness of the papaya aroma tempered, enlivened, by the other flavors mingling on the spoon. In an instant, I was a convert. It was, dare I say, a new fruit.

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Now everything about eating a papaya feels delightful. That shock of pink from its green rind; the pearlescent black seeds clustering inside like caviar; the translucent veining of the fruit with every scooped spoonful; the warm pink hollow, like a womb, that remains after eating.

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Next Rosh Hashanah–or any moment in new of marking as ‘new’? Old fruit, new way of eating it. Fieldwork is supposed to shake up your preconceptions, right? Done. (Ha! Hardly what Malinowski, father of ethnographic fieldwork, had in mind…) For now, I’m trying to hold the lesson in mind as the new calendrical year unfolds: even the distasteful and unpleasant can be transmuted if you stumble upon the right alchemy.

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Guest Post: The power of a tiny nut called meg

These musings on comfort, food, and place come from my dear friend and anthropological confidante Jess Ham, who can be found here as well.

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Nutmeg is a curiously strong spice in the baked goods proffered by Ghanaian bakers. This has always baffled me a bit. My anthropological instinct is to suspect Euro/colonial influence. Could be. But Ghanaian baked goods are definitely renditions, and not replicates, of European baked goods; and besides, those European ‘originals’ that local bakers might be approximating or improving upon don’t really have such a strong nutmeg essence.

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Nutmeg, I learned from a tour of the spice gardens at the Aburi Botanical Gardens, grows in Ghana. It seems that nutmeg (as we commonly know and use the spice) is indigenous to Indonesia, so I can only guess the number of potential spice routes this tree took to get here, or who encouraged its arrival and propagation.

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When I turned to the internet to see what it had to say about nutmeg usage in Ghana, I learned about a nutmeg varietal that is indigenous. The calabash nutmeg  (monodora myristica) produces brown seeds that are used as a alternative for nutmeg.

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So it seems that nutmeg is integrated into Ghanaian cuisine through a myriad of ways.  I’ll leave tracing that culinary trajectory to another anthropologist.

Origin aside, the point is that I’m very thankful for the presence of nutmeg in Ghana. Lately I’ve been compelled to grate nutmeg all over my breakfast foods. Usually, this is oatmeal. On days when I need to feel special, I make pancakes and grate prolifically into the batter.  It’s not so much for the taste of the nutmeg as much as the smell of it that I’m after.

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When my mom found out that her 5th grade students didn’t know what cloves were, she brought some in for their exploration. Upon smelling the cloves the response was “Oh, I know that. It smells like Christmas.” Nutmeg smells like Christmas for me because Christmas for me is pretty much about baking. When I finish grating and get to breathe in that nutmeg goodness, I instantaneously feel transported to my mom’s kitchen, a setting that allows me to feel cool, calm and collected. These are feelings that are nearly impossible to feel while doing fieldwork in Ghana.

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I recall from an email forward filled with bizarre facts (circa 1997 when email forwards were in their heyday), that nutmeg, when injected intravenously, is lethal. So perhaps it is spice with some chemical influence. Since doing fieldwork in Ghana is like a giant obstacle course with no redeemable prize in sight, I’m game for huffing that pungent little nut called meg to help me along the way.

Belatedly: Thanksgivukkah

Thanksgivukkah picnic

Thanksgivukkah picnic

When I first heard that Thanksgiving and Chanukkah would be converging this–er, last–year, and would not re-converge for another 70,000 years (!) I actually put it out of my mind. For all that food and gratitude are central to Thanksgiving, it is not my favorite holiday. Swallowing the standard narrative of Pilgrim heros seeking tolerance and freedom who celebrated the generosity of the Native Americans they would later attempt to blot from the earth…well, it has a tendency to sour the meal. I have other holidays full of food symbolism and family if I need a gratitude fix.

Nonetheless, tradition has a powerful pull–what kind of anthropologist would I be if I couldn’t acknowledge that?–and when you put two highly food-centric American* holidays on the plate of a food-obsessed American anthropologist and throw down a once-in-70,000-year-gauntlet…well, who am I to refuse the challenge? Especially when fate has seen fit to send me another food-obsessed American anthropologist with whom to cook/celebrate, far though we may be from American shores?

Well, history, we see your once-in-a-lifetime holiday convergence, and we give you…a Ghanaian Jewish American picnic.

Squash & Bok Choy (!) from the hillside farms of Berekuso

Squash & Bok Choy (!) from the hillside farms of Berekuso

Homemade stock for stuffing with veggie scraps & local mystery herb

Homemade stock for stuffing with veggie scraps & local mystery herb

The mind-boggling delicious resultant stuffing--all credit to JH

The mind-boggling delicious resultant stuffing–all credit to JH

Sweet potato latkes

Sweet potato latkes

Dried hibiscus, to make one of my favorite things about West Africa: bissap/sobolo

Dried hibiscus, to make one of my favorite things about West Africa: bissap/sobolo

Straining out lemongrass, ginger, cloves, and scotch bonnets.

Straining out lemongrass, ginger, cloves, and scotch bonnets.

Perhaps the most epic of the Ghanian-inspired attempts at a fusion of Thanksgiving and Chanukkah was what we made in place of the apple pie I so desperately wanted to bake, but couldn’t: sufganiyot. These jelly donuts are more associated with Israeli celebrations of Chanukkah, and I did not grow up with them as a holiday tradition at all, but in many ways they’re quite similar to the popular Ghanaian ‘doughnut’ known as bofrot, and it gave me the excuse to make apple jelly–almost like an apple pie! points!–so we went for it.

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Apple sauce on the left, apple jelly on the right.

Apple sauce on the left, apple jelly on the right.

Don't be fooled--these were cut apart and sandwiched back together, not piped full of jelly.

Don’t be fooled–these were cut apart and sandwiched back together, not piped full of jelly.

My comrade-in-cooking had intended to bring down a turkey from the North of Ghana, where she works, but was informed that turkeys are the ‘fowl of the bourgeoisie.’

Virgen (sic) turkeys will cost you extra.

Virgen (sic) turkeys will cost you extra.

As grad students, we don’t quite qualify, but we were fine with just the fixin’s. 

All the Thanksgivukkah trimmings, minus the bird, by lantern light.

All the Thanksgivukkah trimmings, minus the bird, by lantern light.

Waiting for the second star to light the menorah.

Waiting for the second star to light the menorah.

The students we invited to join us certainly thought it an odd meal, but I think even the ants were grateful for a chance to come together and eat and share traditions and history.

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*Surely, you’re thinking, Chanukkah cannot be called an American holiday. You’d be right–up to a point. As I see it, the way Chanukkah is celebrated in the US, and its prominence in the American holiday calendar, has more to do with compensating for Jewish kids in the US–where the greatest proportion of Jewish kids live, after all–feeling left out and/or oppressed by all that Christmas cheer than any particular importance in Judaism per se. The holiday itself is a minor one that is doesn’t even merit a mention in most classical Jewish texts.

The proof is in the…

Ghana is not a land of sweets.

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Certainly, the overprocessed and oversweetened are making inroads; just as surely as they have in India, child obesity and diabetes—those handmaidens of aspiring middle class’s tumble into the Americanized glories of cheap convenience—are waiting in the wings.

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It’s all the more ironic—and infuriating, frankly—given that Ghana produces a huge percentage of the world’s raw cocoa. In theory, Ghana could be Queen Mother of the chocolate world—both aesthetically and economically. But serious profits don’t come from raw goods; the price for such commodities is wildly unstable and largely set by the world market. Ghana’s Cocoa Board (known here as Cocobod) struggles to provide farmers with agricultural extension officer assistance and subsidies to cover the gap between inputs and harvest outputs, then buys individual small farmer harvests to negotiate the prices of larger aggregate bundles with foreign buyers. 

Only refined, ‘valued added’ products—cocoa transmuted into Lindt, Godiva, Ghirardeli—can really bring the the cash. Ghana as a whole, and certainly those individual farmers working small plots, doesn’t see that profit.

So for centuries, Ghana has been trapped in the raw export limbo. Unable to control the profits from a raw commodity that keeps their economy afloat, unable for the most part to convince cocoa refiners and chocolatiers to move or start their operations here, Ghana remains the land of cocoa without a serious contender in the global chocolate scene, held hostage to the commodity that was once thought be its ticket to middle income country status.

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This is not what I want for Ghana, or anywhere. But I would, occasionally, like something sweet that actually tasted of chocolate. Milo may be the drink of champions, but a gooey chocolate muffin it is not.

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There are three promising shifts in this regard. The first is Golden Tree chocolate, owned and operated in Tema (just outside Accra).

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They produce a baker’s chocolate (for whose ovens exactly?), a serviceable but nearly impossible-to-locate dark chocolate, chocolate ‘pebbles’, several interesting fruit flavors, and a widely available milk chocolate bar that is, sadly, inevitably chalky and hard. The promising thing about them is mostly that they’re home grown and seem committed to the notion, if I may coin a phrase, of cocoa sovereignty.

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The second is the limited-but-increasing sway of Kuapa Kokoo, a Ghanaian fair trade cocoa farmer’s collective started in 1993, and the tiny wave of chocolate bars made with their cocoa. Just as the Golden Tree products are largely limited to Ghana, these fair trade bars are not available in Ghana. The politics and economics and marketing around fair trade are complex, and there are valid concerns about actual benefits to farmers. Nonetheless Kuapa Kokoo, by buying small holders’ raw cocoa at a better price than that of Cocobod and then negotiating with them as a bloc—a Reuters report in 2011 put their holding at 8% of Ghana’s total cocoa output, significantly larger than any one small plot operation—does provide more collective bargaining power.

I hold onto hope that even if this doesn’t ultimately amount to significant fairness in Ghanaian livelihoods, at the very least the packaging from the chocolate bars made with fair trade cocoa might raise some global consumer consciousness. These bars include the Japanese brand ‘Ghana’; their packaging talks about providing bicycles for rural health care workers, which is cool, but isn’t quite on par with fair recompense for cocoa producers. More firmly committed to farmer payback is Divine, which partners directly with Kuapa Kokoo and honors Ghana’s venerable adinkra symbol tradition in their wrapping. It’s pretty widely available in the US and UK, and is a damn good chocolate bar.  I’m sure there are more out there using fair trade cocoa from Ghana.

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Photo credit http://www.thinkeatdrink.co.uk/

And last, but not least from my perspective, is locally available cocoa powder. Those who turn up their noses at anything but Dutch Process cocoa powder would probably still scoff, but in my book this stuff is the ish—not least of all because I can feel good about buying the product a little closer to the producers in the supply chain.

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What I really crave is baked goods using local cocoa powder, but again, without an oven, I’m left with: pudding.

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After the jump, a thick chocolate coconut** custard recipe I frankensteined from the internets. When I made this the first time, anthro-in-arms pal J and I ate it out of the bowl like dip with Thai coconut cookies. Yum!

*For the teachers and/or well-meaning pedants among us: www.papapaa.org (which incidentally means ‘really really good’ in Twi) has some useful resources for teaching about fair trade and Ghanaian cocoa. Oxfam has great resources about fair trade more generally, including this rad series of animated shorts on the ‘rigged rules of global trade.’

**Points to J, who asked the obvious and important question when faced with exorbitantly priced canned coconut milk (10 cedis vs. 1 cedi 20 pesewas for an actual coconut): ‘how is coconut milk made, anyway?’

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Economies of comfort

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Turkish brunch, kokomlemle style

Everyone has them: the foods that reliably transport them to a place of cozy wellbeing, of warmth and solace, perhaps of maternal care—comfort foods. For me, there are scales of comfort. My Bubbe’s chicken soup and chopped liver, my mother’s thoroughly satisfying rendition of brisket, are on the level of the rarified and sacred, but not exclusively ‘mine.’

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Fried meat peirogis with extra sour cream and a cherry lime ricky at Veselka’s on 2nd Ave, my nostalgia-tinged college standby, has taken on the cast of a deeply personal holy pilgrimage of the belly now that I no longer live in New York–but is about as rarified as it gets, when I’m thousands of miles away. At another scale entirely, a loaf of crusty bread, a tomato, and some good cheese reliably transports me to carefree summertime picnics.

But when you are so far outside of the context that birthed your habits and tastes that indulging in them becomes difficult, if not impossible, the notion of comfort foods shakes out on a different scale altogether. My roommate in grad school once told me her father hated traveling for business because he never felt full—there was never quite enough rice. It wasn’t that he missed the full spectrum of the South Indian cuisine he grew up with, per se; it was mostly just that one component that was vital to his sense of gastronomic satisfaction.

Sometimes comfort isn’t at the level of a meal, it’s discernible in the form of individual ingredients. Which is why, when a fellow anthropologist friend recently called from the infrastructure-poor Upper West region of Ghana where she works to excitedly relate how she had found a store that sold honest-to-goodness butter, I got it.

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What joy, what a find! Even with my own relatively greater access to butter further south, it’s a pretty rare commodity that inspires a kind of enthusiasm and relief that is hard to relate. When this same friend and I independently purchased a brick of low-grade margarine insidiously packaged in gold foil, and which informed us in French that it was ideal pour les tartines, we both felt the same huffy disappointment of having been had.

In a developing context where locating ‘familiar’ foods often requires shopping at upscale foreign grocers or otherwise paying hefty import duties, it’s easy for the globally ‘Northern’ visitor to get tangled in questions of privilege and guilt and responsibility. In seeking out gastronomic comforts, one is forced to confront the privilege to seek certain kinds of comfort in the first place, and discomfort in the knowledge that what provides comfort and pleasure for me is an item priced beyond the reach of the average Ghanaian. How dare I blather about my own material and gastronomic comforts, how dare I shore up demand for expensive imports in the first place, when so many people are incredibly food insecure and the systems of trade and distribution that could solve the problem so hopelessly tangled?

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There are a few responses to this, above and beyond acknowledging the complexities of the situation. The first is the somewhat obvious–but troublingly overlooked–fact in discussions of food and ‘Africa-the-country’: just because what gives me pleasure is too expensive for many Ghanaians, this in no way suggests that most Ghanaians are too poor to afford pleasures and comforts, gastronomic or otherwise. The abundance of (important) global discourse around Africa and food insecurity typically overshadows local understandings and discussions of food and choice and pleasure. (e.g., Ghanaian cuisine is varied and delicious and has gotten along fine without using butter for centuries, thanks very much.) These are just as abundant and important—get a group of Ghanaians of any class talking about fufu with light soup and you’ll see what I mean—they’re just rarely heard on platforms beyond the local.

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The same false dichotomies exist in many post-Industrial countries; of late in the US, discussions of food and pleasure—or the experience of food and eating, period—are seen as the exclusive domain of the hipster bourgeoisie (hi there), while conversations about food and those labeled ‘poor’ (oh hey, poor grad student, hi again) are invariably limited to policy discussions of welfare and food stamps. What right have the poor to complain about how shitty ‘government cheese’ tastes, after all? The problem lies in denying segments of the population the right to food and to finding pleasure in food, not the act of enjoying it in the first place.

A second response to this situation, tied to the first, is that guilt is of very little use here.

For all my tendency to tie myself up in knots about this, denying myself the ingredients and foods that bring me comfort in the midst of fieldwork doesn’t do much to change the inequalities that makes me uncomfortable in the first place. This is not to say that there aren’t myriad troubling aspects to the systems of trade and distribution that regulate the movement of goods in Ghana and beyond. But occasionally indulging in the (relatively expensive, but ethically pretty neutral) foods that make me feel good not only usefully reminds me of the reciprocal relationship between privilege and obligation, it makes me feel more full and whole to go out and do my research. (Granted, that research might not do a jot to dismantle inequalities either, but that’s a tale for another day.)

So on the day that my friend called full of enthusiasm to tell me she’d hit the comfort ingredient jackpot, I decided to make myself brown butter pasta with zucchini and mushrooms. It was pretty darn good, but you know what? It could have used more butter.

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Coda: Incidentally that friend and anthropological comrade-in-arms-and-brains has her own amazing blog where she writes about fieldwork in Ghana with serious verve–far better than I do, especially on the question of food insecurity globally. I recommend you check her words out here. I owe a lot to ever-evolving discussions with her about all this, as well as to an excellent conversation in the midst of the bustle of Makola market with Sarah, whose lovely and nuanced blog I’ve loved for ages now. Three cheers for smart ladies thinking and eating in solidarity.

In the interest of cluttering the interwebs with simple recipes: comforting brown butter zucchini pasta after the jump.

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When in doubt: dumplings

I have a long history of turning to elaborate baking projects in times of stress. In college, my roommate and I fell into the practice of Midnight Baking: when we found ourselves heading down the spiral slope to an all-nighter, we’d pull some dough out of the freezer and get started on a pie.

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Roomie mixing up pumpkin pie innards on the radiator, circa 2006.

If you’re going to be up all night anyway, a pumpkin pie that doesn’t come out of the oven until 2am isn’t a problem; it’s just short of lifesaving.

In the grad school slog, term paper and presentation deadlines have nearly always translated into treats for friends and office-mates. Once, near the end of the term, as deadlines loomed and all my colleagues were looking increasingly wild-eyed in the hallways, I showed up to a friend’s birthday party having made several dozen of these mini apple pie cookies.

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Clearly, when my adviser was expecting a final draft of a major paper and summer research grants were coming due, cutting 6 dozen circles out of handmade dough and crimping them closed around 3 dozen wafer thin perfectly concentric apple slices dredged in cinnamon sugar was an excellent use of my time. (Cue the eye roll.)

So when I was in the grips of a particularly bad bout of fieldwork-induced self-doubt several weeks ago, I knew what I needed: serious baking time. Just me, flour, and butter, meditatively convincing myself that if I can smooth the wrinkles out of my ideas even half as well as I can roll out a beautifully smooth, round ball of dough, it’ll all be okay.

The problem?

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I have no oven.

I’ve been considering building myself a solar oven, but as is often the case with crippling incidents of self-doubt, this was nighttime; a solar oven wouldn’t have done me any good. Going back in time to develop really satisfying stress-reduction habits that don’t rely quite so heavily on impractical bulky appliances was also, sadly, out of the picture.

So instead…I made myself some stovetop fried apple hand pies. Natch.

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As confectionary tales go, this one was a bit of a disaster: the combination of margarine in place of butter (curse you, ambiguous gold foil wrapper!), inexact ingredient ratios in the absence of cup measures, olive oil for frying, tropical humidity, and a decidedly non non-stick pan meant most of my gorgeous little dough pockets turned into gnarled torn mush the instant they hit the pan. They weren’t the most aesthetically appealing sweets I’ve ever cooked up, but that wasn’t really the point: the process itself was mostly what I needed. I might not have solved all my dilemmas, but I certainly felt calmer and more in control when folding down those lovely creases of dough.

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And as is always the case when individual ingredients are delicious, the sugary buttery apple dough mush was still pretty tasty.

Here’s the tweaked recipe I’ll be using the next time I get walloped in the doubt department:

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Eating & Ambiguity

This is, quite simply, a blog about eating in the field. 

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Except, of course, that fieldwork is rarely simple, and food is even less so. As an anthropologist my impulse is to say: food is at the core of human sociality. But as a person compelled and undone by the foods that excite and soothe me, whose favorite days are spent in pursuit of adventuresome foods or in cooking and eating with friends, I’m inclined to say instead: Food is a little bit magical. 

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It beckons memories, houses desires, confers morality. Food implicates us in concentric circles of sentiment and reciprocity, sometimes invisibly—from family to community to society, rippling outwards in networks of subsidization and processing and distribution that alternately trickle and bludgeon their way across national boundaries. With fire, with symbolism, with ritual, with NAFTA treaties and salt and red dye #3, the world out there is transformed and crosses the fragile threshold into the body, altering the self. Food is the craziest alchemy there is.

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And just as surely as food is alchemy, fieldwork is hard. It’s meant to be hard, of course, to unsettle one’s comfortable relationship with the world enough that the insights shake out. But part of what’s difficult about consciously plunking yourself down outside your context and comfort zone is that it necessarily alters your relationship with food in ways both simple and profound. 

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Even when pursuing research questions that aren’t directly related to food and eating, this can provide it’s own kind of data and insights into local contexts, and these are certainly valuable (and often delicious). But the dislocation anthropologists purposefully undertake also means that finding creative ways of cooking and eating that are comforting and nurturing—even when local foodways are plenty tasty—takes on a certain emotional urgency.  

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So that’s what this blog is meant to be about: what is and isn’t on my plate in the coming months, how I feel about it, and what that might mean for the fieldwork experience. I welcome submissions and other forms of chiming-in from fellow fieldworkers past and present!