Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan

“Fermentation and food waste are global phenomena. So is a sense of home. We want to learn how food factors into the cultural story of what we see as home. How can we connect the dots in an unjust system that still values some foods, and some cultures, over others? How do people employ particular places and understandings of food to create collective understandings of themselves?”

Fermented vegetable jar
Fermenting vegetables, bubbling in Alexis’ home.

On the 28th November, three women and myself hosted an evening of communal eating, interactive storytelling, centred on the preservation of food, stories and culture. The location was Agora, a co-working space, nestled in Neukolln, Berlin.

The main questions we asked were:

Why are some foods, and some cultures, valued more than others? 

How does food link to a sense of home?

While the event did not (and arguably should not) answer these in one evening, what it did do was leave me with a profound sense of the importance of nurturing and being nurtured when it comes to food, value and a sense of home. Let me explain what I mean:

First and foremost, the evening was about fostering and nurturing collaboration. This included bringing unlikely people together at the dining table, but also coordinating and hosting an event ourselves. As a four, we had never worked together before, yet delicious twists of fate – or, if you’re a realist, social networks – brought us together in Berlin. 

rosemary liss anna sigrithur
Rosemary and Anna at our ‘menu brainstorm’

I arrived in Berlin from Copenhagen, having spent the past three months working with the Nordic Food Lab. Here, I met Rosemary – a resident artist from the US experimenting with kombucha – and Anna – a Canadian woman with a talent for oral historiography, particularly of indigenous food cultures. My own internship on edible insects was to replace Rosemary’s. Anna joined the Lab a week later. While Rosemary’s legacy was left in the form of sauerkraut mobiles, the two never met.

Nordic Food Lab internship
Anna at the Lab (Photo credit: Anna Sigrithur)
Nordic Food Lab internship
Sauerkraut Mobile (Photo credit: Rosemary Liss)

Over a ‘family meal’ at the Lab, Anna told me of Alexis. Alexis is a Canadian woman working on fermentation and ‘edible alchemy’ in Berlin, with her own kombucha business. My mind jumped to Rosemary, who was about to embark on a month-long artist’s residency in Berlin.

We conjured an exciting yet relatively humble plan: why don’t we all meet in Berlin for dinner?

How this transformed to a full-blown 40 person event with speakers, drinks and food is still flabbergasting. It is particularly wonderful to know that, before 11am on the morning of the 28th, none of us had ever even been in the same room together, let alone co-ordinated an event.

The event itself happened organically, growing from the excitement and curiosity each of us had for the others’ work. We each had different skills to offer, and we respected these and ensured that the platforms from which everyone could do the best job possible were in place.

Agora event fermentation Berlin
The dream team: Alexis, Rebecca (me), Rosemary and Anna

For example, Rosemary and Alexis were to ferment vegetables and fruits, concocting an array of kimchis, sauerkrauts, kombuchas and kefirs. I was to organise speakers and social media before the event, and co-ordinate the schedule and communal dining throughout the evening. Anna was to be chef supreme, along with record oral storytelling throughout the evening. At 10am on the 28th, the menu had not even been thought about. By 1pm, a feast of vegan hummus, kimchi, homemade sourdough pita, lentil curries, salads, roasted vegetables, kraut cakes and dips were all starting to be prepped. We all supported one another and, along with the help of three wonderful volunteers, the evening ran seamlessly. In fact, it was not simply seamless; it was a pleasure.

 

fermented vegetables cooking
Chopping fermented vegetables
sourdough pita
Sourdough pita

Everyone had a voice throughout the evening.While the event had specific speakers, we also encouraged the diners to tell us their own stories from home. This was through different creative mediums – oral storytelling and audio recording, drawing and ‘doodles’ on the paper table cloths, and general conversations over the foods and flavours we had to offer.

food doodles tablecloths
The paper tablecloths, waiting for people to arrive
food doodles
Food doodles

In light of newcomers arriving in Berlin from war-torn countries, we felt that debates around food and home were particularly pertinent. Everyone deserves a home, somewhere they are valued and can settle. Food, and its ties to the culture and land, is a huge part of this.

We invited Hanja Hakjel, a psychologist and psychotherapist who uses food in creative therapy, to speak on the intimate links between multiculturalism, identity and food. Many dishes across the world stem from similar ingredients and techniques, however our acceptance of particular foods links strongly to ‘fear’ and ‘comfort’ zones in our food culture. Comforting foods are linked to joy, sociality, nourishment. Unknown foods are linked to neophobia, stigma and risk. It is no wonder that this supposed binary between foods can limit our acceptance of new flavours, foods and the cultures they stem from. Breaking, or at least minimising, this binary is particularly important when it comes to the integration and appreciation of multiple cultures in society, along with the foods, traditions and values they have to offer.

Hanja Hajkel
Hanja talking of her own ‘sense of home’ and creative therapies

On the topic of value, or at least appreciating previously ‘undervalued’ foods, we created our banquet from ‘waste’. Nearly all the food was reclaimed from supermarkets and stores in Berlin, with some additions from Turkish markets, and a pot of umami-rich black eyed pea miso (‘peaso’) and grasshopper garum from Nordic Food Lab. Alexis also supplied various fermented drinks, made from ‘ginger bugs’ and kombucha mothers.

fermented drinks
Kombucha, kefir and ginger bugs – all infused with flavours such as lavender, mint and fruits.

Here, I want to come back to the idea of nurturing. Each dish created had a huge amount of love put into it, from the fermentation practice itself (feeding the cultures every day, tending to them as they bubble away) to the kindness of our volunteers who calmly made bread dough, vegan chocolates and helped to clear everyone’s licked-clean plates.

out of the fire into the frying pan event agora
The feasting begins
vegan hummus
Vegan hummus, kimchi and other delights

Nurturing leads to nourishment: Rosemary and Alexis gave a talk about the links between digestive health and fermentation, showing how eating foods that have already had their cell structures broken down helps increase the absorption of micronutrients and vitamins in our guts. The simple act of brining a cabbage brings sensory and bodily vibrancy.

agora co-working space berlin edible alchemy
Rosemary and Alexis giving a fermentation talk & workshop

As people stretched out and relaxed after their meals, Asli, another speaker, intrigued us all with her Masters work on making fabrics out of food waste. TitledThe Cook, the Weaver, the Journalist and the Artist who met at the dinner table’, her inspiration stemmed from a similar question to ours: how do you tell a story through food and textiles? From this, she has created a variety of art pieces such as spaghetti weaves; they are intricate, beautiful and delicate.

Asli food waste fabrics
Asli’s ‘wasted food’ fabrics – note spaghetti in the background!

This talk was a perfect end to an evening which embraced diversity of stories, identities and values around a dinner table. The evening itself was delicate, in the sense that we had no expectation as to how it would go, how we would work as a team, how the food would turn out… It may never be replicated, even if we try, but in a sense this is the fantastic thing about it. Old memories will be combined with new stories, values, tastes and ways of storytelling:

“It is not simply about what food is, but how it becomes a food: how our home environments, people, tastes and comforts all conjure culinary value and a sense of home”.  

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