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For the past few months I have worked with a social community group my grandmother is an active participant of at Blue Haven Retirement Village in Kiama on the south coast of New South Wales. The Foodie Friends of Blue Haven meet every Thursday night for dinner and participate in regular social activities in and around the village. Some of these men and women have been friends for decades, with most growing up in and around the Kiama area. This group provides participants with conversation and friendship but also with a constant support network through which they are able to navigate the trials and tribulations of the later stages of life with. I wanted to provide this incredible group with a memento which acts simultaneously to thank them for my grandmother’s care over the years, but also as a celebration of their amazing bonds friendship and community spirit.
For this reason, the group thought it would be best to create a cook book of sorts- something that not only celebrates their friendship as a group, but also highlights their personal histories and backgrounds. The final product has culminated in a series of recipes categorised into three sections- snacks, mains, and desserts, and includes an anecdote related to a group member’s memories of either cooking or eating the recipe, followed by an ingredients list and method with how they have made it. As I began to collate the recipes of the individuals who chose to participate (through emails and interviews), a prominent question emerged that worked to guide my design, appropriation of my data, and final product:
“ What is the importance and role of food as a vehicle for remembering family, personal and community histories?”
Through various interviews with group members, it became extremely clear that food is an extremely important element in facilitating memory and senses of nostalgia, particularly with older group members. Incredibly, most members were able to recall very specific details about their childhood, parents, siblings, the neighbourhoods they grew up in, and even the physical surrounds, despite having mental disabilities such as Alzheimer’s and dementia that come with old age. Through eating certain foods, individuals were able to retain their memories of the past, despite the mental challenges that faced them in retaining short term memory in the present. For example, my grandmother June Lyons, was able to recall incredible minute details about her childhood as she told me her recipe for lamb shanks. She was able to recall the feelings of nausea and sadness of eating lamb as a child due to ‘seeing’ the lambs in the fields around her town as she ate it over 75 years ago, despite the onset of dementia as well as living with Parkinson’s disease for the last 30 years. This example alone is a clear testament towards the power of food as a vehicle for memory.
In approaching this project, I believed it was especially important to apply an anthropological (as well as historical) perspective in order to facilitate an investigation of the encultured nature of food and memory so that it could be more wholly understood. I found Holtzman’s Food and Memory to be of particular use in investigating my question. Ultimately, he investigates food as a multifaceted object, that is, in terms of both fuel and sustenance as well as a symbol, “medium of exchange”, and as a “sensuous object experienced by an embodied self” (pg 372). Food provides individuals with ways of “private remembrance, public displays of historically validated identity, an intense experience of an epochal historical shift, or reading the present through the imagining” of the past (ibid). Ultimately, food is able to have a powerful influence over memory due to the physical act of eating allowing transmissions of “powerful mnemonic cues, principally through smells and tastes” to reach both the conscious and subconscious (pg 373). The power of mnemonic cues in facilitating memory was evident through each of my interviews and correspondence with the members of the Foodie Friends.
Furthermore, Holtzman denotes food as being able to maintain and constitute historical identities (ibid). This was particularly evident through my interviews with Patrick O’Connor. Through his cabbage and bacon recipe, he was able to maintain both his sense of cultural identity and belonging as an Irish man, but was also able to elucidate specific and detailed memories of his childhood. In line with Brewer’s reasoning in Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life, the data gathered through my interviews with group members supports the argument for the importance of history at a grass roots level. According to Brewer, the historian has a duty to give significance and agency toward the happenings of everyday life, now and in the past (pg 87-88). Whilst the everyday happenings of life such as eating, may not seem to hold significance from afar, by examining food and its relation to memory as I have done in my project, ultimately shows how these minute occurrences play an instrumental role in our constructions of identity and the facilitation of our personal histories. The Foodie Friends are a prominent example of the power of how something as simple as food and eating, have significant influence upon the maintenance of memory and personal history.
In the production of my major project, I incorporated various medias that culminated in the final product. I employed the use of voice memos in recording oral histories, as well as email and phone to keep in contact with participating group members. After collating the recipes and anecdotes into a single word document, I worked at integrating the file into the website Canva, from which I was able to create a beautifully polished digital cookbook. Utilising Canva’s helpful tools, I was able to create a beautiful memento for the Foodie Friends of Blue Haven which I am sure they will cherish as a symbol of their friendship for years to come. I have sent a link to each member which directs them toward my Canva profile from which they can view the book. Before Christmas (my financial situation does not permit at the moment), I am planning to get a paperback copy of the cookbook printed for each member of the group as a thank you for helping me with this project.
As a final note, I would like to express my gratitude towards not only the group, but Mike as well for making this project possible. I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of work, design, research and reading I have put in to this project and I am proud of the result.
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