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Recipes and Reciprocity

Notice of Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Recipes and Reciprocity, from University of Manitoba Press. This was received without expectation of a positive review. All opinions in the post below are mine only.

Cover photo for Recipes and reciprocity
The cover photo for Recipes and Reciprocity.
English Conversation Practice - Din...
English Conversation Practice - Dinner Invitation

Recipes and Reciprocity: Building Relationships in Research, Edited by Hannah Tait Neufeld and Elizabeth Finnisis best described in the editor’s opening statement:

This book brings together authors from various disciplines, working in diverse geographical and cultural contexts, to discuss the ways that food and recipe sharing intersect in researchers’ and participant’ everyday lives. (xi)

Further down that page they state:

A central goal of our volume is to bring to the forefront reflections on how food as a process – from choosing ingredients to preparing them to eating – can bridge field or community-based research and lived experience,  transcending the potentially unobservable boundaries of difference and diversity.

Recipes and Reciprocity Review

As a result of the first statement, personal relationships in research stand at the heart of this volume. While all the chapters in the book look at these relationships, I found that chapter 9, Malawian Small Fry, really brought this home.

The chapter deals with the differences between old and young in Malawi, as reflected in their reactions to traditional food. The elders tend to focus on traditional home made foods, and eating together as a sign of a better world in the past. Where the younger people see Western food, even if they have never eaten it, as a gateway towards a better world. One with a great deal more freedom and independence.

As well, the older members of the communities have little time for the opinions of the younger, thinking that they are too young to be able to think for themselves.

At one point in the chapter, Lauren Classen relates how cooking with a group of grandmothers, and listening to their conversations surrounding young people, actually changed her own approach to interacting with the young people(167-8). By going from simple interviews to allowing the participants to use photography to express their future hope, she was able to get more comprehensive and meaningful answers from the young people she was dealing with.

Moving on to the second quote above, I found reflection another key component of Recipes and Reciprocity. Right in the first chapter, author Karine Gagné reflects on 15 years of research, and the roll that Momo Parties(dumpling making and eating), played a role in that research.

These parties took place in different communities in North India, and involved different approaches to making Momo. How for some groups Momo preparation and ingredients are fairly fixed, and for others, more flexible.

Further she discusses her relationship with her employee Stanzin. Remarking on how that relationship straddles a line between employee/employer, and friendship. Concluding that in the field of anthropology, there is no yet no formal way of describing that relationship(18-19).

Another chapter of Recipes and Reciprocity that really stood out to me was the final chapter authored by Monica Cyr. In this chapter titled, “I Serve You and We Serve Each Other: Honouring the Reciprocity of Métis Relationships in Research,” the author begins by placing herself in the context of being a member of the Métis community.

Cyr first and foremost, seeks to ground her research in writing from a Métis perspective. This is something she does by placing her ideas before the elders and gatekeepers of the Métis community, allowing them to offer their blessing on her research.

Secondly, she shares not analytical data, but stories of her encounters with many Métis relatives, friends, and acquaintances. In this way the chapter resembles more the recounting of dinner table conversations as opposed to clinical commentary.

I’ve recently been working my way through Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World HistoryThe book talks about how food culture has develop throughout human history. Along the way she writes about the concept of High and Humble cuisine, and how various food become reflections of station and status in all societies.

The freighting of food with cultural meaning is a theme that runs throughout Recipes and Reciprocity. This shows itself in multiple ways. For example in the chapters on Poppycock in Thailand, and rice in Japan, there are the internal layers of meaning that the food have for Thai and Japanese people.

These meanings involve questions of religious practice, class status, and general wealth. These are all areas that anyone studying these foods need to navigate.

Further, in many of the cases described in this book the writers come from a background of colonial power and privilege. The chapter on Bannock by Phillips and Skinner details some of the pitfalls a researcher can encounter when dealing a foodstuff whose origins and role in the life of communities(Indigenous in particular), that are not there own should be undertaken quite carefully and conclusions held quite lightly.

Recipes and Reciprocity does not deal much with the subject of cultural appropriation, as somewhat hot button topic. However, as we read and reflect on the concept of reciprocity, what we learn from and of other cultures, this book should make us more careful in the way we use food and ideas from other cultures.

Recipes and reciprocity offers a buffet of various cultural practices and academic approaches. I’ve only commented on a few. Each reader will find surely find essays, and recipes that will resonate with them.

The biggest challenge a more casual reader may find with Recipes and reciprocity, is the technical detail. I do a lot of reading around food, but my understanding of the academic parameters of the various disciplines and their rules of engagement. This means the book requires quite careful reading and at points re-reading to get it’s full benefit.

While this challenge exists, it also points the way towards getting the most out of Recipes and Reciprocity. While not engaged in research, we may frequently find ourselves in situations that our outside our cultural context. The lessons we can learn from this book can aid us in finding creative ways to navigate these different contexts.

Recipes and Reciprocity is a real useful reference book. If your are interested in the way food trends develop, or how food trends take from other cultures this book is for you. Even more Recipes and Reciprocity may help you rethink the relationships you have with both your food and the people you eat it with.

By Donald McKenzie

Anglican priest, and food blogger. This blog is focused on Food. It will feature reviews of places to eat books, and the odd recipe. I also write about what it means to gather together around food.