Written by Lesley Head, with culinary and photographic contributions by Natascha Klocker, Olivia Dun, Ananth Gopal, Sophie-May Kerr and Lulu.
There are few things more important to successful fieldwork than food. It sustains the bodies and the community of the fieldwork team. It provides points of connection with the broader community. And in our current project on Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments, it is an important dimension of the research itself. We are currently in the Sunraysia region of Victoria (around Robinvale and Mildura), where irrigated agriculture provides an abundance of late summer food choices. In the midst of such abundance there are puzzles and challenges – people who don’t have enough to eat, farmers who don’t eat their own produce, and widespread concerns over pesticide use and the changing political economy of Australian food. Here are some moments in our food journey so far.
1. Breakfast In the unusual intimacy of fieldwork, breakfast is a test. Who needs coffee before they can have a conversation? (Guilty.) Who doesn’t usually eat brekky but knows they should because of the long and unpredictable day ahead? Fortunately we have all been happy to be fruit and cereal people, and have enjoyed some lovely outdoor breakfasts, enhanced by the cheerful presence of eight-month old Lulu.
2. Shopping The first question the person sent shopping has to negotiate is, ‘who doesn’t eat what?’ Fieldwork food is the ultimate test of fussiness and flexibility, as we attempt to balance health, preferences, budget and waste. We are keen to support local growers and businesses, but also welcome the convenience of the big supermarkets.
3. Figs It’s fig season here and anyone with a tree seems to have an abundant harvest. We were given these fresh off the tree by one of our first interview participants; they were the best figs I have ever eaten. As we had to travel the next day we knew we had (!) to eat them all, so these were baked with honey and served with yogurt. Delicious, but we all agreed that they were better straight from the tree.
4. The one-hotplate dinner Cabin accommodation on the road throws up all manner of dodgy hotplates, ancient electric frypans and blunt knives. With many years of student share accommodation under their belt, our team is unfazed. Here is Ananth’s vegie stir-fry with sweet potato mash and tzatziki, and Sophie-May’s vegie-box warm pasta salad.
5. Potato salad Who would have thought potato salad would turn out to be one of our cross-cultural examples? We prepared a big lunch for a group of seasonal agricultural workers, to explain our research and recruit potential participants. Chopping potatoes to cook for salad (to which a yogurt and mayo dressing with chives would be added), Nat insisted that this was Australian potato salad, and the Austrian version would be done quite differently. A few days later, in a bigger kitchen, she prepared us the works Austrian style – potato and cucumber salads with chicken schnitzel. Sophie-May added kale stir-fried in lime juice to keep our iron levels up. The Austrian way is to cook to leave lots of leftovers, so this meal stretched to lunch the next day.
6. Snacks The type of work we are doing means being flexible for participant availability – for interviews, farm or garden tours and office meetings. (Here’s our post-it note scheduling tool.) We don’t always know when we will be able to stop for lunch or dinner, so having well packaged snacks in the backpack is important. It is also very hot, so we need to keep reminding one another to drink lots of water. We have heard a lot of horrible things about the hormones fed to table grapes, but there is no denying they provide a nice juicy package on a hot day. These ones were given to us by one of our local co-researchers.
7. The cake tin Visiting a number of homes and farms, we have had to negotiate the politics of gifting and hospitality practices, as people press abundant produce – fruit, olive oil, wine, olives, bread – into our arms. This is after having already been extremely generous with their time and personal stories in interviews and farm tours. As a small expression of reciprocity, we (Nat and Olivia) have been baking hazelnut and apple cakes to take along, when it feels appropriate. Who knows what the auditors will make of receipts for 2 cake tins.
We would love to hear other stories of #fieldworkfood. What are your favourite moments?