Reflections on the Food Politics and Cultures Festival: 10-12 November 2017


The Food Politics and Cultures Festival grew out of a belief that sectoral and narrowly academic work does not begin to uncover the rich debates, controversies and dialogues about what food means in our lives, how its production and preparation have been dominated by corporate capitalism, how our senses and tastes have been defined by hegemonic globalization, what individuals,  collectives and radical scholars have done to contest this, or what group and individual experiences of pleasure, yearning or desire are experienced through certain food cultures and practices.

With this in mind, members of the Project spent several months planning a trans-sectoral and eclectic arts, humanities and cultures event that encompassed performance, the visual arts, fiction, academic discussion and activist discourse to open up new conversations.  We were (and are) fully aware that our commitment to the idea of a “festival” of the arts, humanities and social sciences (rather than a conference or symposium) situated the event at the margins of what the mainstream academy defines as serious and rigorous knowledge production. We were also acutely aware that a “festival” would lend itself to the idea of a-political and unreflective “fun”. But critical thought and reflection – what Gabeba Baderoon evocatively captured as “groundwork” in her opening presentation – requires risk-taking and opening oneself to contradictory, messy and open-ended knowledge-making.  We do not regret this risk-taking and the contradictions it yielded, and offer the following reflections in the hope that these may spark further exchanges and reflections – both about the event and in the necessary ongoing conversations we urgently need about food.

Food Memory and Nostalgia 

A central theme at the start of the festival dealt with memory and culinary traditions fest demonstration_1.jpgrooted in the social and eating practices of marginalized groups. As the curator of the District Six Museum’s food and memory project for over 10 years, Tina Smith spoke passionately about memorialising the recipes and cooking practices of women living in District Six under apartheid. This opened up a debate that ran throughout the festival. Responding critically to Tina’s emphasis on reclaiming pasts, Moenieba Isaacs commented on the trauma and social divisions that wracked the District Six community, suggesting that these were inevitably reflected in what food was produced, who produced it and how it was produced. Moenieba’s main point was that it is counter-productive to perceive the past food practices of communities with histories of dispossession and oppression in terms of the politics of nostalgia and practices of salvage. Angelo Fick picked up on this reflection in a talk focusing on the dangers of ossifying “authenticity” in food cultures. Showing that regionalized “authentic foods” have now become the new focus in global gastroporn, he alluded to the ways in which our tastes and food desires are coerced by commodity capitalism at large, and by seemingly ordinary prejudices or food trends: the requirement on airplane flights that we should all choose “beef-or-cow” (the subject of a satirical comedy on youtube) is not a benign prejudice, but one that speaks volumes about how our eating is defined by what food corporations make money out of – in many cases, meat, meat and more meat.

Some Key Questions:

  • Does nostalgia about food practices and certain cuisines always mean succumbing to capitalist or conservative practices or ideas about food, identity and eating?
  • Can/does nostalgia about food practices carry a political critique of how past dispossessions continues to impact the present and serve to inform political activity? Or does it keep us stuck in a romanticised past?
  • What does the nostalgia seek to point to or claim? How does looking to the past or revisiting the nostalgia of sharing, making something out of nothing etc., reflect a different way of life?

Food and Groundwork

Prof. Gabeba Baderoon reflects on “groundwork”.

In the Festival’s opening session, Gabeba’ Baderoon’s reflections on groundwork offered a tantalizing metaphor for thinking about what knowledges we produce about food, and the importance of searching doggedly for its sources in nature: the constituents and origins of what we feed our bodies, our connections to (or lack thereof) these sources, and the need for radical “groundwork” around what we are taught to understand about food, hunger and solving problems of food and hunger. Anticipating Desiree Lewis’ reminder that the current specialist regime of registers, theories and practices about global food crises is not “fact”, but “construct”, Gabeba urged us to deconstruct our complex relations to what we eat, value about eating, and understand about the worlds in which we acquire knowledge about food.

Some Questions:

  • What kind of “space-clearing’ do we need to undertake in understanding food?
  • How does thinking about what and how we eat connect us to who we would like to become – spiritually, politically and ethically –  and how we inhabit our natural environment?
Moenieba Isaacs reading a poem for Sarah Niemands and other women

Indigenous Knowledges and Who Speaks in the Name of Revolutionary Food Practices

Riaan Isaac’s documentary about women resisting threats to their livelihood in catching crayfish, abalone and selling sea shells raised much more than many academic volumes on “participatory action research” “self-reflexive research” or policy studies. In collaboration with Moenieba Isaacs from PLAAS, who has for years done policy research  in the fishing industry,  Riaan encouraged the audience to understand the agencies of some of South Africa’s most socially marginalized women food producers, and their deep connections to their environment, the ocean and an expansive sense of being “human”. It was this holistic breadth of human social, political and spiritual experience that Jolyn Philips, who hails from the area and is both an author of fiction and singer, raised in her short story readings, her singing and her astute commentary. The panel featuring Moenieba, Riaan and Jolyn clearly identified the vibrancy and depth of voices that are usually silenced or obliterated in the numerous studies of, for example, food security, food sovereignty or land and agrarian struggles.


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