Man & Food Diary
This is a blog of a mini research project in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. The idea of the project is to flex your methodological skills at dealing with the human condition. It is not in-depth research but an initial overview with some partly speculative reflections on possible angles that coudl be taken in further research.
I have taken as my subject ‘Sam Parsons’ – man with an interetsing relationship to food. Due to the nature of the project this is not an in depth analysis but more of an introductory overview, not guided by any succinct questions, but an effort at getting a grasp of a subject that is useful in
(i) providing context to possible future research at a more in-depth level, having sublimated some salient points,
(ii) providing a rich overview of one persons relationship to food and eating that undermines both my own and possibly a readers’ assumption around food and eating, and
(iii) providing more material and insights into my PhD research on how people negotiate the material (tangible) and intangible aspects of the landscape they live in with regards to how they make decisons, and what influence the ‘living’ material world (“nature”) has on the decisions and thus pathways they take in life.
- First I contacted my research subject to see whether they would be up for participating in this mini-research project. To which they confirmed that they would be very happy too.
- We met the next evening and planned out five further sessions that we could both manage (in total making up the required 6) – due to both of our time constraints we decided one session was what we could commit to reflecting the necessary 6 weeks.
- We decided that in addition to (i) today`s planning session, I would (ii) go shopping with him one day, (iii) cook dinner one day, (iv) cook lunch one day, (v) eat breakfast one day, and then go out for a meal one day. In addition to this structured participant observation we would complement each session with some complementary research including pile-sorting, free-listing, interviews, video-making, experimenting, biography, quantitative data collection etc…
Initially I had planned to do my research with a large group of people on decision-making and leadership but due to the logistics, time-constraints, and requirements of the course for which this project is being conducted – this was not possible. So I rapidly change course to conduct a project that would both for the necessary criteria, be possible, and that I find personally interesting – and perhaps relevant to my own wider research interests.
Instead of focusing on a `group` of people I decided to study a single person – though within the context of multiple other actors. I decided to contact someone who I had met as an undergraduate anthropology student and got to know a little, but had fallen out of contact with for a few years. However I was aware they were in their final year of studying Anthropology and thus potentially still around. What interested me was both their changing diet and my own interpretations about their social and physical condition.
I have chosen Sam Parsons – the subject of my research – due to the stories about his diet I had heard and to some degree witnessed. The last I had heard of Sam was that he only ate raw meat, milk, and honey. Drinking wise I heard that in addition to drinking water he also drank tea but as part of a complex Japanese tea ritual he had learnt. As one of my friends commented, a man that eats like a Savage and drinks like a Sage.
I was drawn to study `Sam`s relationship to Eating`. On reflection it was for multiple reasons. In addition to needing possible and viable research subject I was also interested for the following reasons (i) my curiosity around the `exoticness` of eating habits waiting to be explored on my very own doorstep, (ii) my personal experiments with what I eat and its relationship to my health – perhaps I would find some answers for myself, and (iii) to take this opportunity to do a mini-research project to look at one context of human-environment relationships, in particular the socio-technicality of eating involved in humans and their food.
Reflexively speaking I can know see that there are a number of personal agendas and institutional parameters that have shaped my choice and angle of approach to this mini-project that I will keep in mind so as to be aware of the influence they exert on the following research.
Related Resources and Literature
- Sociotechnicality: How a human plus a a tool combine to give a technology that makes that both different and the options we have. In Sams case both the food available to him and his decisons about it change when combined. Source: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/54-TECHNIQUES-GB.pdf
Institutional constraints of Research: The relationship between institutional bureaucracy and its participants defines what and how stuff is researched such as the parameters of this research. You do not have free reign. Source: Audit Cultures – http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Audit_Cultures.html?id=kAfKFCEGUpsC
- I shadowed Sam during a shopping trip to the Good Shed, Wholefoods, and then Sainsburys.
- We did some pilesorting with the shopping and some basic freelisting.
Personal Reflections & Data
- ‘Calorific’ – more valuable, tastier, better for energy, better for exercising, better for maintaing weight, quality food, meats, nuts, more expensive foods.
- ‘Food’ – complexity, issue, world, industrialisation, waste, health, well-being, control, commodification.
- ‘Eating’ – health, complexity, importance, conflict, giving, identity, well-being, ill-health, problems, education.
- Knows the butcher quite well due to frequenting them a lot, particularly in the past.
- The butcher is aware of Sam’s diet asking him if he ‘is still on the Paleo’ (paleo referring to teh paleolithic diet that seeks to be as close to teh diet the human ancestors woudl have eaten before the agricultrual revolution approximately 15,000 years ago)
- Sam explains that Paelo is more balanced than eating raw meat and also has helped him “integrate with society”
- Sam explains that the paleolithic diet has an evolutionary basis that seeks to feed treat the human body as it has been for most of its existence – e.g. pre-neolithic hunter-gatherer type diet of meat, raw meats, wild tubers, fruits and nuts – and that the reasoning overall behind it is about achieveing a better health and wellbeing for oneself and what you are eating (i.e. the life of the animals as you would not eat factory farmed animals on a paleolithic diet, plus apparently if beef for example is not grass feed then it tastes horrible when eaten raw)
I realised that as I had not seen Sam in a couple years i had developed a romanticissed story of his eating habits concocted from gossip amongst friends and my own premonitions of what someone who eats raw meat would be like. I imagined a more savage and primitive style to somehow be associated with such a diet, whereas on the contrary it required much more knowledge, time, training and sensitivity to engaging in such an eating lifestyle, in comparison an ignoring or care-free approach to eating.
On reflection and looking at the pilesort Sam’s approach to food is organised along a scale of utility as perceived by him, where foods that are deemed to have ‘high energy’ input value as most treasured and eaten, and so on and so forth, where the labels used woudl fit nicely in a western mechanistic approach to nutrition. However on looking at the free-list data, we can see that when the elements of shopping are pulled together under ‘food’ or ‘eating’ the meaning Sam gives them is less unitised and more systems based – linking in for globalised concepts and relationships. In breaking down Sam’s relationship with food and its constituents, he seems to almost place himself as juntion or connecting bottleneck between the food itmes and global systems within a feedback loop, where his choice of what he deems as positive food items construct his identity and magnify his well-being. But at the same time he implies that his selection of what is deemed positive also supports what is is positive in the wider world and thus its constitution (see figure below).
Both anthropological work on personhood and identity seem to be useful to think with here, in particular Henrietta Moore’s ‘Still Life’ and Marilyn Stratherns comments on how we and the world are not dualistically seprataed but as two we reconstitute each other to create plurality and thus also in some sense one.
Marilyn Strathern – excerpt
- Ate dinner together
- Discussed Medical records of blood counts in comparison to dietary changes
- Discussed recent draft of novel Sam has written and how food appeared in it
Personal Reflections & Data
Medical Records: removed for data protection
Excerpts from Book:
“After a little more idle conversation we were able to make our polite leave and found a table close to the hearth. With the prompt arrival of food a silence fell between the three of us, each totally absorbed in the task before them. Venison chops sautéed in garlic, onion and juniper, garnished with a few dragonberries, bright red and sweet as syrup. All served with a root vegetable bake and lots of freshly churned butter. Then finally washed down with warm spiced mead.” page 56
“We sat around the camp fire eating squirrel meat in awkward silence. I wondered if they felt it too, or whether it was only I who sat there tense and uncertain. Both Mikken and Anora looked relaxed enough in themselves, and I had plenty of questions for Anora in particular – for example where she had been disappearing to all day? And why was she eating her squirrel meat raw when there was a perfectly good fire going? Surely it tasted far better roasted? But I said nothing and chewed down the strongly flavoured meat in silence.” page 147
from ‘Parsons, Sam (2013). Ravens Calling. Unpublished, Second Draft.’
- Sam prepared a rabbit casserole which involved quartering the rabbit, adding chunked carrots, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes with some water. It was baked in the oven and no additional seasoning was adding. I am usually a big seasoner of food, so I was happily surprised to enjoy the falours of each element coming through each on their own. The simple yet deeply seated flavours coming through seemed to reflect a spartan aspect to Sams eating.
- Sam has a condition that effects his blood cell counts, making them lower than normal. According to his analysis his diet had effected his cell counts significantly but he was very abrupt in pointing out that that may just be random. We decided that once i had gone through his dietary history with him I coudl draw out a timeline to see how the different stages in his diet correlated with the different blood test results.
- Sam has written a fantasy novel – and is currently writing a second book at the moment – which he is still editing. I asked him how food and eating featured in it. Surprisingly I guess – seeing how much food seemed to play arole in Sam’s life – he said that it did not feature much however on two occasions quoted above where it did, he hints at the type of foods and eating he would be most aligned with. Perhaps it is not so much that food is signficantly more important in Sam’s life in comparison to our peers – as I have been assuming – but that the story of ‘exoticness’ and ‘otherness’ portrayed by myslef and others when talking about Sams diet and thus him has made us emphasis food and eating in him more than it actually is. e.g. it is not so much that food is so much more important for Sam than myself and my peers necesarily, but that it has become part of our way of identifying him and thus comparatively signficant for us in comparison to how we identify our other peers.
- Interview about personal history
Personal Reflections & Data
Notes during interview:
- When food first started to become salient was to do with fitness/muscle
- physical aesthetic
- knowledge as a safety net
- KEY PRIORITY – eating healthy: what healthy means though has changed
- vegan/spiritual aspect was joint to do with diet
- what is at forefront of mind influences decisions
- feedback from food
- trying to control what you cant; non-fatalist
- ‘alive’ food not metaphysical
- following personal trends
- social conditioning made it difficult
- HEALING FOOD (raw, paleo, organic, wild)
- MEAT is positive but SOURCE dependent
- EVOLUTIONARY NARRATIVE EXTENDS TO BEYOND ONE LI NK IN CHAIN
- RELYING ON INNATE EVOLUTIONARY WISDOM
Interview_Transcript – Click to download
- Cooked and ate lunch together, including my girlfriend
- Went through a weekly diary of meals
Personal Reflections & Data
- 3 x bananas + walnut butter
- 5 x baked fresh sardines + ½ steamed butternut squash
- Casserole; 4 x tomatoes, 1 x rabbit, carrots, mushrooms, celeriac
- 1 x banana
- 1 x chicken + ½ butternut squash
- 1 x pomegranate + 2 x bananas + 50g walnut butter
- 3 x banana + 50g walnut butter
- steamed butternut squash, raw salmon, ginger, onion, lemon juice
- Breakfast Raw Pommegranite
- Lunch 500g grilled organic beef mince with garlic and onion Steamed butternut squash (organic)
- Afternoon 125g salted macadamia nuts 10g organic pine nuts 1 Banana 200ml mulled wine
- Dinner 350g grilled organic beef mince Steamed butternut squash, celeriac and carrots (organic) 20g Organic 85% cocoa chocolate
- Breakfast 3 raw bananas 80g raw cold milled flax and pumpkin seeds 30g pine nuts
- Lunch 550g grilled organic beef mince with chopped onion, mushroom and garlic 3 teaspoon raw honey
- Dinner 500g grilled organic beef mince with mushroom 300g steamed carrots
‘Anthropologist asking Silly Questions’
‘Texture of raw fish lunch’
During this session a number of things highlighted the contingencies of the role of the anthropologist in doing research
- Firstly when I started making a video of same sharpening his knife to cut with I immediately whiped out my camera, reacting to a desire to capture something different from the norm, and then in asking a question of why highlighted how absurd an anthropologists question can be to those they are asking, or even to themselves when they realise the implication of their question. i.e. Sam was sharpening his knife simply because it was easier to cut with.
- Secondly my girlfriend who was therekept making suggestions of things i could as reserach with Sam, which initially frustrated me, but then I realised that was because I was spinning some sort of magicaly hidden owenership over my data and subject of study that I was not at first comfortable with sharing.
- Thirdly my girlfriend brought a pizza to eat herself as she was not up for eating a pile of raw fish for brunch, however I do not think this took anything away from teh experience for her as her insighst into the scenario were as good if not better than my own, which drew me to asking the question of what participant observation is, and when is it merely an exoticisation of ‘touristically’ sampling the ‘authentic’?
- Sams food diary again brought home a common thread in the research which highlighted the rigour and in some sense regimented fashion – in comparison to my own – that Sam has in relation to eating. In observing I realised it was not just Sam’s efforts to ‘control’ his life through food, but that to mainatin a lifestyle that goes somewhat against the current requires strict disicpline that does not give in or get carried away by the infrastructural conveniences of the dominant food systems of the UK.
- Went out for dinner in town with Sam and his girlfriend
- As an exercise with two purposes I decided to go out for dinner with Sam to see what things came up in an environment where he was not so in control of the menu and also what might arise in a more ‘social’ setting.
- Secondly I wanted to thank him for his time so I thought dinner would be a good idea.
- Sam ordered a ‘Blue’ rump steak (meaning just browned on either side for a short time), hwoever the waietr came out to say that the chef did not recomedn it because that cut of meat contained a lot fo fat and so might not be so appetising if not a little more cooked. Sam allowed the Chef to do his thing. In discussion Sam revealed that often when he requested his steak Blue, most restaurants would always check multiple times to make sure that is what he wanted suggesting a lack of belief by restaurants in their customers abilities to decide perhaps.
- In talking with Sam’s girlfriend Stephanie about how her relationship with food had changed since going out with Sam, she highlighted that the range of food she had now tried had increased as Sam had introduced her to them, for example oysters. From talking to her and Sam it seemd that both their diets had been changed by them to better share their eating experience, rather than either of tehm being interested in interfering with the others.
- Also at the dinner were two friends of mine who both brought some interesting thoughts to the subject. One of them mentioned that if they had done this study the first thing they would have done is collecting data on Sam’s change in toilet habits during different phases in his diet – perhaps revealing what was salient for them in changing their food type.
- The second friend and Sam had a discussion – verging on argument – about whether ‘rotting’ and fermenting’ were the same thing. Some members of the dinner emphasised the chemical differences, some the human manipulation, some the cultural relativity, some that they were not the same, some that fermenting was simply a sub-category of rotting. The conversation started to reveal how people relate their conceptions, separations, or dismissal of material reality, biology, cultural meaning etc… Essentially it boiled down to a variation on the Nature-Culture discussion and a stakemate where both ends of teh spectrum – though ot entirely disagreeing – were tsanidng their point. Interestingly it was both people whose identity has a stake in knwoing about planta dn food production processes, which says something about negotiation of knowledge in realtion to identity and personhood.
Over the next few weeks I will be consolidating, analysing, and representing the data from the 6 diary entries in a coherent form in what can be thought of as an ethnographic mini-glimpse into one man and his food. I will then upload it here. Thank You Sam for participating.