Food-body-entanglements, or tasting as an ethnographic experiment

by Nadine Levin and Tanja Schneider

Well, how to start or rather when to start summarizing a tasting experiment that some of us conducted inspired by a recent article on ‘Mixing methods, tasting fingers: notes on an ethnographic experiment’ by Anna Mann and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam? At that point in time when we all met in a colleague’s kitchen? Or while doing the food shopping? Or when making the shopping list? Or when reading the article and attempting to find out more about the experimental set up of the original study?

The Amsterdam ExperimentPresumably once we sit at the table? As tasting only happens when food enters the mouth, or does it? Our colleagues in Amsterdam tell us that we might want to reconsider this as tasting happens in other bodily parts such as the fingers. We were intrigued by this and the ethnographic experiment they described. Wanting to know by tasting fingers ourselves we came up with the idea to ‘replicate’ their experiment.

So, two of us checked what our colleagues in Amsterdam cooked and decided on a menu inspired by the dishes mentioned in the original article. We didn’t have (and didn’t ask for) a detailed menu or shopping list but that allowed us to introduce some variations (based on our tastes?).

Our list read as follows:

Pakwan: what is called Bhajias
(onion + cauliflower + aubergine+ spinach + chillies+ bicarbonate of soda)

Pappad

Vegetable oil (I litre) + olive oil
Red onions one kg at least + tomatoes one kg
Garlic + ginger (one small)
Spices: coriander + garam masala + turmeric + mustard seeds

Mains

Salad (Kuchumber salad) (lemon+ cucumber + tomatoes + baby mushroom + onion)
Dal (red lentil)
Spinach and tofu (3 packet big spinach + 2 packet)
Baigan Bharta (aubergine) 4 big aubergines
Dahi Raita (yogurt dish) yogurt + cucumber
Rice (Basmati)
Paratha malabar / Chapati (frozen)
Pickles + chutneys

Dessert: (bought ready made)
Gulab Jamun
Rasmalai

+ chick pea flour
+ lots and lots of napkins

While doing the shopping in two places Tahmid and Tesco’s along Oxford’s Cowley Road, we couldn’t help but wonder whether tasting (with fingers and otherwise) does take place in other timescapes? For instance, when doing the food shopping. Touching, gazing at and smelling the food and imagining what it might taste like. Or in the process of cooking the dishes? Fingers were washed or weren’t and everyone seemed happy to get their hands dirty and helping to chop vegetables and taking on related tasks such as setting the table or cleaning frying pans that needed to be used again. Did we taste the food already at those stages? Would it be useful to focus on how these pre-eating experiences contribute to tasting?

Once we all sat down at the dinner table to start eating with our fingers, each of us seemed preoccupied with coordinating food and fingers. Those of us who had eaten rice, daal and similar dished with their fingers before told us how their experience of using cutlery had seemed strange when they first had to use it. Or how not being able to eat with your fingers – as cutlery had been the norm at home – had caused awkward moments, if they had to use their fingers for eating during certain social gatherings in the village.

Tasting without cutlery, but with tableAt the end of the evening, as we paused around the dinner table digesting our food before we finished the evening with dessert, we began a discussion on how we should best engage with Tasting Fingers article. As we opened up about our experiences, the most pressing topic was how we should best engage with this type of open-ended, experimental scholarship. Should we respond critically, or should we use the article as an encouragement to think creatively? Should we focus on those aspects of the article that we did not like and respond in a “scientific revolutions” style refutation, or should we build upon our experiences to suggest future directions for ethnographic cooking “experiments”?

In thinking carefully about our engagement with the material, we decided to focus our discussion on several “amendments” we could make to the cooking/eating experience. For a start, we wondered about the advantages of calling the experience an “experiment”. While the article illuminated the advantages and drawbacks of referring to ethnographic cooking in this way, we wished it had included more details about the process of eating/cooking. We found that the article lacked many of the intricacies or logistics—the recipes, the timings, the spatial configuration, the expertise of the participants—but we found that these had a significant impact on our experiences of the night.

Pride in choppingRoasting aubergines the Australian-Indian wayCrossing cucumbers

Firstly, we found it challenging to coordinate the cooking and eating, such that all members of the group could be present when the tasting began. The challenges of cooking Indian dishes are not small: the food was delicious, but it required constant monitoring and checking, in particular by the two of us who were “experts” in Indian cuisine. Although the article discussed the importance of “expertise” in relation to how some people knew how to taste with their fingers while others did not, we found that the greatest impact of expertise was actually on the time demands of cooking (to those who knew how to cook Indian food). In other words, those of us who were experts had the “burden” of orchestrating the event, in terms of cooking the food and also instructing others how to “properly” taste it.

Secondly, when it came to a discussion about whether tasting was more “natural” for the two of us who were “experts” on Indian cuisine, it became clear that (as the article mentioned briefly in its conclusion) tasting with fingers is situated in particular contexts. One of our experts, who had been brought up in India, had been taught as a young girl to eat with a fork rather than fingers as a mark of “distinction” in her family. As such, she felt—despite her familiarity with Indian food—that the experience of tasting with fingers was strange. In contrast, one of us who had no experience with eating with hands finished her food the fastest, and showed (arguably) the greatest skill and ease with eating in this style. In this way, we began to question our assumptions about the nature of tasting with the fingers, and the contexts in which it is familiar or appropriate.

Thirdly, we wondered about the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with Indian food as a medium, and whether this was a necessary aspect of the eating/cooking experiment. In particular, we were unsure whether it was necessary to cook “strange” or “exotic” food in order to reconfigure the experience of tasting. How would the experiment have been different, for example, if we had gone to a pub in Oxford and tried eating British cuisine with our fingers? How would it have been different to eat roast chicken and potatoes using only fingers, by contrast with, say, eating hamburger and chips? Isn’t fish and chips most usually eaten without utensils? Would this have produced an experiment that was more uniquely “British” in some way, and which brought out some of the intricacies or tensions in British sociality and expertise? Perhaps the very enactment of the “Britishishness” of certain foods is tied up with the conventions we draw upon in deciding which utesnils are “appropriate”? To push ourselves further, we wondered if we even needed to eat with our fingers in order to reconfigure the experience of taste. Would it be possible to carry out the experiment with utensils, simply by being mindful of the how engaging with food through the medium of a fork/knife/spoon affects our perception of taste?

The two of us who had the happy benefit of “inheriting” the leftovers from this event experienced a further sense of the temporal dimension of taste. The following evening, some of the considerable uneaten quantities of the food were reheated and set out for consumption, with the two participants this time reverting to the use of conventional utensils: knives and forks. Both post-experimenters reported profound disappointment. The vibrant tangy taste sensations of the previous night seemed to have all but disappeared. Could this be because they had now switched from fingers back to conventional utensils? Could it be that the conviviality and novelty of the previous night was lacking? The same food in different “circumstances”, or might we prefer to say that the food itself had been differently enacted?

In conclusion to the “eating and tasting experiment”, we greatly enjoyed coming together to discuss the mundane, everyday experience of cooking, eating, and tasting food. While most ethnographic material cannot be easily recreated by non-experts in the field, this “experiment”—because it deals with the mundane dimensions of food in everyday life—affords us the opportunity to exchange information and experiences across bodies, geographical locations, and disciplines. As such, in the spirit of challenging ourselves to engage with the original Tasting Fingers article in a critically constructive way, we would invite other members of the STS community to recreate the experiment with the above points in mind. As you go about experiencing taste, we would enjoy hearing your experiences with how you selected your cuisine/location/tasting panel/methods, and how this reconfigured/influenced taste.

PS: Some of us discovered after our experiment that eating with your fingers is discussed quite controversially across a range of online media:

This leaves us wondering whether we would have approached our experiment differently, if we had been aware of these media debates before our tasting experiment. It seems that more than taste is at stake in these debates about eating with your hands versus eating with utensils. Or at least another facet of taste, well beyond sensory aspects, reminding us of the considerable symbolic power of food which has been vividly documented by anthropologists and sociologists of food in the past and present.

Contributors/participants: Michele Acuto, Teresa Davis, Amy Hinterberger, Chandrika Parmar, Natalie Porter, Anna Sparrman, Steve Woolgar and Malte Ziewitz.

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand.