Ethnographers love to share food stories, especially awkward, confessional tales about the ‘horrors’ of the local cuisine. As we enter the field, through the simple (and yet so very enculturated) day to day act of eating we literally take the ‘other’ into our bodies. My time in Uganda, where I was conducting fieldwork for my PhD research on faith-based youth workers and wellbeing, was saturated with thoughts, worries, guilt, obligation, deception, conversation, and explanation about food.
On our first night in Uganda, fresh off the plane, the vivid, irrepressible Stephen Adundo Egesa (our host and key informant) took me and my husband to a dusty university canteen for dinner. We consulted the concise chalkboard menu and safely requested ‘Irish’ (potatoes) and beans. Slyly, Stephen added goat intestine stew to the list our waitress was making: “You have to eat Ugandan now, Dr Susie, Mr Andrew!” He watched our faces, grinning, while I fought to quell the roiling of my stomach as the sinewy stew was placed before us.
“The body is the locus of learning.” – Paul Stoller
Our eating stories say so much about the deep ways that taste, that culture, materialises in the body. Not only eating practices, but our senses themselves – smell, taste, and the visceral reaction of our stomachs – mark our difference, our otherness. Layered atop the ‘white’ stomach that Stephen and I were so aware of, I personally had a Coeliac stomach to deal with. Unheard of in Uganda, I variously explained my autoimmune disorder as a ‘different’ stomach, a ‘diseased’ stomach, and a ‘difficult’ stomach to the many people wanting to feed us. It meant that sometimes I went hungry. It created awkwardness and confusion in the important social rituals of shared meals. At times of accidental gluten ingestion, it causes me days of suffering that were difficult to explain. Elizabeth Perez writes that “What a scholar takes away from her research is often predicated on what her informants make of her body, and the demands her very presence make on their persons”. My participants most certainly read my white, coeliac stomach in ways that rang of ‘otherness’ and impacted on my data collection.
Sarah Pink writes that “Ethnographers have also been concerned with how their own sensory embodied experiences might assist them in learning about other people’s worlds”. Specifically she notes the ‘emplaced knowing’ that comes from aligning your bodies, rhythms and tastes to your participants in order to gain knowledge that is engaged, experiential, and specific. Accordingly I worked overtime to bring my troublesome stomach into line. We spent almost all of our waking moments with Stephen, bundled into our overworked, underpowered car, bumping along what could barely be described as roads. In most cases we ate when we ate, and drank when he drank… and when he didn’t eat, often neither did we. “We were all hungry together” recalled anthropologist Michael Jackson, of what he calls his own ‘interexperience’ with participants. Jennifer Biddle speaks similarly about the ‘syncretic sociability’ of fieldwork, the way that corporeally implicating ourselves with others creates sympathy – which is in itself a cornerstone of phenomenological approaches to research.
I did indeed gain insights through sharing the living and eating patterns and practices of Kampalan youth work with Stephen. They were far richer than observation alone could offer, just as Levi-Strauss (in Triste Tropiques) was able to better understand the excessive gorging practices of his participants once he had shared their diet on an unsuccessful game hunt and experienced the same pangs of hunger as they did. I certainly cannot think of the passionate testimonies told to me in the dim concrete office in Kampala without also feeling the satisfying acerbic bite of cold Mountain Dew scraping down my throat … and the strange way that my rebellious rumblings of hunger became disciplined and dulled through hours of loud and zealous prayer.
Paul Stoller wrote that “the body is the locus of learning”, and through my stomach I was learning this new way of being-in-the-world. But my ability to access the subject position of the youth workers I was studying was always partial: a few months of fieldwork were insufficient for deep ‘body attuning’ (as proposed by Goffman in Pink, see below). More often than not I failed to quell the frequent cravings and hungers that rarely bothered Stephen (or perhaps that he rarely shared) as we hurried between ministry events. The response of my stomach to our shared meals and shared hungers marked my difference more than my understanding. When I returned the following year I pursued the spiritual practice of fasting as a point of ethnographic inquiry. I realised now the importance of the stomach as a mediator of mind-body-environment… as a marker of how deeply culture is embodied. I listened and watched closely to the way others ate, or didn’t, what it meant to them, and tried to get a sense of how hunger could become ‘holy’. But I stopped expecting the evidence to also emerge through my own differently enculturated body. And this time, I skipped the stew.
Dr Susan Wardell is a social anthropologist, mother, Jesus-follower, tree-hugger, muffin afficionado, and writer. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, and teaches at the University of Otago.
- Biddle, Jennifer L. “The Anthropologist’s Body or What It Means to Break Your Neck in the Field.” Australian Journal of Anthropology 4, no. 3 (October 1993): 184–97.
- Jackson, Michael. Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
- Pink, Sarah. Doing Sensory Ethnography. Los Angeles ; London: SAGE, 2009
- Pérez, Elizabeth. “Cooking for the Gods: Sensuous Ethnography, Sensory Knowledge, and the Kitchen in Lucumí Tradition.” Religion 41, no. 4 (2011): 665–83. doi:10.1080/0048721X.2011.619585.
- Stoller, Paul. The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
- Stoller, Paul. Sensuous Scholarship. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.