On Thursday evening, Wanja Saatkamp invited the congress to participate in a collective cooking and eating experience, prepared by two of our guests: the social anthropologist Sebastian Schellhaas from Frankfurt/Main and the writer Yemisi Ogbe from Lagos, Nigeria. Wanja has been working artistically with the format of meals for some time, creating a mixture of debate club, cooking show, restaurant and informal gathering. She presented the format as Vagabundenküche in Summer 2014 during the infamous Vagabundenkongress at Theater Rampe.
This time Wanja was rushing in to prepare a dinner-debate with two food experts from very different cultural backgrounds: Sebastian Schellhaas is a scientist who has specialized in cultures of food and consumption who used to conduct research in Africa for some time and has recently devoted his studies to the first nations in British Columbia, Canada. He is looking at myth and reality of the potlatch, an almost mystical cultural phenomenon, popularized by anthropologists like Marcell Maus and Franz Boas. It’s images of savage tribes offering absurdly big meals and hurling whole wagon loads of food into the deep waters of the bay just to out-spend a rivaling tribe or king that have dominated the debate about the potlatch – for the most part a misleading impression, as Sebastian claims. However I could not help thinking about Sebastian’s accounts while looking at the huge Mövenpick buffet offered to the Hunger-researchers at the conference hotel. A buffet that was presumably downsized to match the occasion…
The other host and cook was Yemisi Ogbe. Yemisi for years has written and blogged about Nigerian food. I had read a piece by her about fish soup and eroticism in Nigeria a while ago. And it was just that dish, fish soup, she offered to us. The interesting twist was this: Yemisi claimed that a woman offering fish soup to a man is as clear a sign for erotic intentions as – say – asking your date to come upstairs for one last coffee after a night out. Maybe more obvious, I don’t know. It astonishes me that a certain dish can carry such clear signs. I imagine a whole language made up of dishes, every ingredient a syllable, every course an argument, every spice an exclamation mark… So offering to make fish soup for this dinner seemed to me a beautiful gesture of admiration and sympathy to us. But we had to participate in the creation, chop the Okra and the tomatoes and so on. So it was not just a gift of sympathy from her to us, but it made us treat ourselves with some love. To extend love to the group, but also ourselves and each person individually. The act of preparing and giving food is an essential cultural and deeply emotional practice. Yemisi has written a piece for the conference about how giving food to your children as a mother is not only an act of love but also a complicated net of familial inheritances, care, guilt and knowledge.
Sebastian for his part suggested a dish, that was illustrating his thesis about what actually accounts as food. He prepared a typical rural and basic German dish: boiled potatoes, fried eggs and spinach. But it was prepared as a casserole and baked in the oven. The same ingredients but a very different effect, look and feel. Was this the familiar childhood dish or something totally different? Sebastian told two stories how during his field trips to central Africa he encountered the phenomenon, that people would not necessarily consider a certain dish – in his case a pizza – “food”, if it didn’t fulfill certain cultural expectations. What is food and what not, what is edible and what to be despised, depends on a whole array of factors, social, cultural as well as nutritional.
Wanja created out of all these ingredients an admirable atmospheric event in a former wine store in the building of Theater Rampe. A celebration of eating and talking food, sociability and care for one another. It’s intimacy was of course due to the small number of people who joined, but in many respects it was also an offer for an alternative approach to the sterile, nervous, fast paced, functional feel of the Conference.