Thursday, 11 October 2012

FCC: Food, Ethnicity and Language

With Molly's presentation last week, the stage was set for Mónica Ayala-Martinez, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese in Denison's Department of Modern Languages, who continued the colloquium's October theme of "Food Identity" vis-à-vis a presentation exemplifying food's intersection with language and ethnicity.

Specifically, Mónica spoke of two intertwining themes: bacalhau and saudade. The former is Portuguese for codfish, and throughout the presentation was defined more specifically by its traditionally salted, dried and therefore preserved state of being. To cook with it, bacalhau is most typically soaked in water for any duration of time, depending on its use in a dish, as well as one's own level of comfort when it comes to salt. In the process, the fish magically rehydrates ("a sleeping beauty") and is ready to be used (more or less) as if it had been caught fresh.

In order to truly appreciate the impact cod has played on Portuguese and diasporan cuisine, it's important to be at least slightly familiar with its run (or I suppose, swim) and sociocultural significance throughout history. And in order to properly progress, it's equally important to bear in mind the second theme of saudade, a difficult word to translate (somewhere along the lines of loneliness, solitude, nostalgia and longing) though perhaps easiest to understand through music. Together, bacalhau and saudade speak to the Atlantic (and certainly trans-Atlantic) identity of the Portuguese and its diaspora, emblematized by the motion of the waves hitting the shoreline and throughout the many voyages for which the Portuguese were particularly well known during the 15th and 16th centuries; this motion reflects something lost one day to the sea that reappears often unexpectedly on undefined terms and along an unknown timeline. The importance of what must be read on some level as a depressing tale is justified given the huge number of Portuguese emigrants throughout Portugual's history (so much so that immigration was outlawed).

As one considers then the journey across unknown or perhaps even familiar waters, the place of fish--the bacalhau--and its preserved state in this story becomes much more relevant. At the time of the Portuguese empire centuries ago, Henry the Navigator decreed that, with access to Africa, India, Asia and South America, seafarers were to bring back anything "exotic" from the travels. A forced migration of cuisines and culinary traditions, this greatly impacked Portuguese cuisine, most notably on terms of cumin, cinnamon and curry. Indeed, the two major types of trade at this time involved both slaves and spices. The constant in all of this was the codfish.

But codfish's current preparation as bacalhau would not be so were it not for the Basques who introduced salt and salt water as a way to preserve food especially for longer journeys (it should be noted that the Vikings had earlier figured out how to properly dry meats in the 9th century, but were certainly overtaken by the use of salt that had belonged to the Basques). And as we eventually mix this culinary advancement with the mélange of flavours from around the world, one yields the so-called 1001 receipes of bacalhau. Perhaps there are many more ways beyond that, but what is particularly important to note are the regional variations between the dishes. What's more, as the demand for bacalhau has increased, so too has its price, as exemplified by blogger handle algarveview: "In Portugal, cod is our very dear friend (now, a quite expensive friend), which we love to eat and cook. [...] There are 10 minutes recipes for cod, others that take two hours to cook, it really doesn’t matter, any way you decide to cook it, it will be delicious."

Following a brief discussion on cod's intersection with religion, at least through Mónica's life, and an introduction to just a handful of ways of preparing bacalhau, Mónica literally introduced us to bacalhau, a wicked salty rendition that surely needed some fresh water. Salt aside, it tasted as fresh as the ocean, and maintained from what I could tell based on my limited knowledge of creatures of the sea some semblance of fresh codfish texture (flaky and somewhat sweet). Barring the salt, I thought it tasted quite good; though I'm not necessarily ready quite yet to dig deep into my Filipino roots, but I can only imagine that eating bacalhau in this preserved state--culture preserved and protected by salt--is quite similar to eating the driest and salted of fish on the other side of the world. I don't think, though, I'm ready to trade my peanut butter (Mónica's equivalent for the popularity and importance of bacalhau to Portuguese culture) for a box of bacalhau any time soon.

Suggested readings for this session:
"The Race to Codlandia" (Matt Kurlansky, 1998)
"How Salt Conquered the World" (Richard Robinson, n.d.)
"Ethnic Food Attitudes and Behaviour among Belgians and Hispanics Living in Belgium" (Wim Verbeke and Gisela López, 2005)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the album of photos from our October colloquium sessions, click here.

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