Researching burn-out calls for intimate modes of work, like, listening, tasting (and even napping). I invited the research and development team to break bread and reflect together.
My most recent phase of research into burn-out has called for a tiny excursion into taste as a way to invoke the atmosphere of my family photo album. Luckily,I’m graced with a family with a healthy appetite for both making and eating Portuguese food. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Mediterranean culture will also appreciate the centrality of food in family rituals. To research my grandmother’s life and her one-time burn-out has called for a rekindling of the tastes and smells of her cooking. So, I invited the research and development team of Het Nieuwe Instituut to break bread together for a meal based entirely on my grandmother’s recipes. My hope: to think through food as objects of memory. And to enjoy a sensory experience loosely guided by our research.
My hope: to think through food as objects of memory
Over a few weeks I extracted my grandmother’s treasured hand-written recipes from family members. Then I gingerly traced them onto writing paper, following her flowery cursive writing. This process involved countless intercontinental phone calls, questions about technique, measurements, tweaks and double checking that nothing was lost in translation from Portuguese to English. I worked with the talented Zhenia Sveshchinskaya to select a few dishes that defined my grandmother’s typical menu. Although ‘typical’ is probably a strong adjective. What eventually emerged was a guests-are-coming-for-Sunday-lunch menu.
Over the following two weeks Zhenia sourced fish and vegetables as we taste-tested together, feeling out the ingredients. The soup called for 200g of butter (!), a decadent amount of fat, a firm nod to its purpose: a comfort dish, designed to hug, embrace, calm you, warm you. At one point we sat around Zhenia’s dining table dipping our fingers into Portuguese olive oil to compare it with a more gutsy Italian option. The Portuguese version hit the right notes for a meal that was more gentle and familiar.
The first batch of cod fish cakes took Zhenia around 20 hours to make, a laborious task for any cook that involved soaking the cod in fresh water to extract the salt and intermittently replenishing the water. Cod, although relatively affordable nowadays, was considered a luxury to poor immigrant families in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, especially those like my Portuguese family who lived inland. The fish cakes also called for a tricky technique of crafting the mixture between two spoons into perfect oblong shapes. Our menu required multiple digital networks of communication including a live FaceTime demonstration of cod-fishcake-shaping, an embodied and mediated cooking practice now passed down through generations, courtesy of the iPhone.
Cod, although relatively affordable nowadays, was considered a luxury to poor immigrant families in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s
As we debated making my grandmother’s pineapple soufflé (so tempting) we considered the colonial mythology of this fruit, possibly one of the most romanticized representations of exotic otherness and far-away lands for European migrants. In the end we settled for the much-loved Portuguese rice pudding, an incredibly sweet creamy dessert usually reserved for Christmas or special occasions.
A starter portion of humble (yet buttery) vegetable soup served with a warm baguette. Followed by cod fishcakes (Pasteis de Bacalhau) with tomato rice (Arroz de Tomate), served with a side dish of broad beans, smoked chorizo and coriander, alongside a simple Portuguese salad. To finish: a lemon zesty rice pudding emblazoned with the words BURN-OUT in cinnamon. Drinks included a soft rosemary infused lemon cordial and wine. To truly invoke the spirit of a special family occasion dishes were served on my grandmother’s serving plates and bowls from her wedding 70 years ago.
Twelve of us gathered around Marina’s table nestled close to the kitchen, as Zhenia sailed in and out with dishes. Conversations seemed to ricochet in all directions, ranging from the estrangement of family as a source of burn-out; the prevalence of the pope in Portuguese family life; to the ‘dubious’ texture of rice pudding. After the first course, the fish cakes took some time to prepare and I noticed a few laptops emerging from cases, filling time, sending an email, a kind of urgency still hovering. The smell of cod fishcakes wafted through from the kitchen, a tomato rice quietly boiled in the background and a few of us chopped ingredients for the salad, talking, smelling, taste testing.
The main course slowed the afternoon down and eyes began to droop, bodies gravitated towards couches, yawns stretched across the table. Even the dessert, a sweet rice pudding with a hint of lemon, couldn’t reset the energy. In the spirit of most family Sunday lunches, the rest of the afternoon seemed to insist on a nap. This hazy moment, when the urgency of tasks still lingers but your body demands sleep, reminded me of Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: LateCapitalism and the Ends of Sleep. He writes: “Sleeplessness is the state in which producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause, hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources.” It seems the family meal, as a moment of pause, even resistance, offers a communion with the body as a way to refuse the velocity of everyday experiences.
“Sleeplessness is the state in which producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause, hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources.”– Jonathan Crary