Photo/stories from the field: lunch encounters and ethnographic distractions

Food, has had an immense significance in our research, across the three countries and in very many different ways. First of all, the discussions that we had with children about food, about foods they like and foods they hate, about the constrains they faced and their ways of negotiating those. The sweets and snacks we were bringing along when we were visiting the families – which in time became very personalized, as we were learning about our interlocutors’ preferences and their parents constrains (often realizing that our visits were ‘special’ occasions, and as such would loosen some constrains). And, significantly, the meals and snacks we shared with the families and the children interlocutors.

In retrospect, it seems absolutely moving how the families shared their dinners and meals with us (among all other things they shared with us). Such instances where invaluable ethnographic research moments, providing occasions for ‘kitchen table discussions’, sometimes passionate and sometimes mundane discussions, which allowed us glimpses into the families’ everyday lives. And often, they were very delicious ethnographic moments too!

In Greece food and food sharing is a culturally significant practice. There are wonderful ethnographic writings on the significance and cultural meaning of food in Greece. David Sutton has written about connections between food and memory, and Nadia Seremetakis has written on sharing practices of food as shared substance and in relation to the memory of the senses and modernity, Vassiliki Yakoumaki has written on food and cultural diversity in the context of Greece’s Europeanization. As far as my experience in Athens is concerned, food and food sharing has indeed been indeed a very important and central theme in most of the families’ everyday lives. And I feel grateful for having been invited to share such moments. Some of which were really enjoyable – in fact, enjoyable to the extent of being distracting. I share below such an instance, of an anthropology of not paying attention.

Georgia, the mother of Nikos (a seven-year-old boy) and Michalis (a nine-year-old boy) had just prepared lunch, and she was serving for all of us on the kitchen table, as she was calling us to get there. I went there first, asking her if she needed help with anything, and giving a hand with plates, napkins and so on. It was smelling amazing. Not just a tasteful smell, rather a smell that felt very familiar, too familiar to me. I asked, and she told me that there were makaronia me kima(spaghetti with minced meat) for lunch. This is a pretty usual dish and an all-time favorite for many children in Greece (almost all children in the research at least!) The smell however was ringing a bell, yet it wasn’t a usual smell or the smell that makaronia me kimahave when we cook it at home or when I get it elsewhere. It took some time before the boys made it to the kitchen and we sat and started eating. With the first bite I realized: it was cooked just the way my paternal grandmother used to cook it! I haven’t had this dish made in that way for over two decades (my grandmother being long deceased), and yet I remembered exactly – that was exactly it! My favorite version of my favorite childhood dish, and it was there in front of me, a full plate of memory. Around this plate a number of things, most long forgotten, starting materializing in my head: my grandmother’s kitchen, her smell, her flowery patterned dresses, the shape of the glasses, the tangerines in the bowl in the center of her table, the patterns on her tablecloths.

Georgia asked me if I would like a glass of wine, as she was serving herself one. I said not – I guess I would have normally accepted, but the taste experience I was having felt incompatible with wine at that moment – I never have had this dish with wine. I realized that there were exciting things happening around me, things I probably ought to be paying attention to: Michalis was talking about how he hates cheese (all cheese but feta), Nikos wanted a different kind of pasta as he doesn’t like spaghetti, both discussing and negotiating their preferences with Georgia, Nikos trying to sneak /negotiate his way out to watch cartoons in the living room with his food, which he eventually managed; but I couldn’t really pay attention to those fine ethnographic details, I was immersed into my dish.

Naturally, I had a second serving.

Here is the recipe for this minced meat sauce – as best I can reconstruct it.

Half a kilo thickly minced meat from beef rump (with fat).

100ml olive oil.

100ml tomato paste (highly condenced).

One-two garlic cloves

A large onion

A glass of rose wine (an old wine preferably)

Five-six dried clove flowers

One-two bay leaves

A cinnamon stick

Method: In a pot on high heat we put the oil and the garlic for two minutes, until the oil heats. We season the meat with black pepper. We add the minced meat, cloves and cinnamon in the olive oil and mix until the meat becomes pink-brown. We add the onion, mix gently and pour the wine. We let it boil for five minutes and add the bay leave and tomato paste and lower the heat significantly (keep it very low). We let it cook for about two hours.