Our con­tem­po­rary food iden­tity is ex­am­ined in Kai & cul­ture edited by Emma John­son

PEO­PLE ARE GATH­ERED out the back of a house, sprawled on a green lawn. Lemon juice, egg­plant, mus­sels, mush­rooms and herbs meet wood smoke; beer bot­tles clink as peo­ple greet; con­ver­sa­tions flow across this sim­ple meal. There is a col­lec­tive un­but­ton­ing, a loos­en­ing, as ev­ery­one set­tles into the sum­mer evening, an evening that is part tra­di­tion, part im­pro­vi­sa­tion and part of our food cul­ture.

The con­tours of the Port Hills – strong lines against big blue skies – frame the scene. Place has been a char­ac­ter all of its own, a re­doubtable force, in New Zealand cul­ture – from the sound of taonga pūoro to Mc­c­a­hon’s paint­ings and Keri Hulme’s sto­ries. But its pres­ence is per­haps most strongly felt in food: the essence of our land is lit­er­ally trans­lated into our pro­duce; in a bite we find sud­den ar­tic­u­la­tion of landscapes, peo­ple and mi­cro­cli­mates.

Within a 7 km ra­dius of this back­yard there is a KFC, a packed Mc­don­ald’s drive-through, a farm­ers’ mar­ket on the week­ends, an Aus­tralianowned su­per­mar­ket, a cor­ner dairy, a com­mu­nity gar­den, peo­ple fish­ing off a pier and an es­tu­ary where peo­ple gather shell­fish (ig­nor­ing warn­ings about the pol­luted wa­ter).

When we look more closely at food, ques­tions about the broader con­text of our so­ci­ety be­gin to emerge: Who eats what and why? How do we grow, ob­tain, cook and share our food? Who ben­e­fits from its pro­duc­tion? What is the en­vi­ron­men­tal cost? How does food shape cul­ture and cul­ture shape food? Kai and cul­ture stemmed from con­ver­sa­tions about food I had with peo­ple in the Can­ter­bury re­gion where, post-quake and with the city gone, a de­sire arose in ur­ban dwellers to re­con­nect with the land. Ques­tions about re­silience, and the need to form con­nec­tions, con­trib­uted to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of com­mu­nity gar­dens, farm­ers’ mar­kets and food projects. Par­al­lel to this, new restau­rants were work­ing as an in­ter­face be­tween the pub­lic and ideas of ter­roir. A food web was be­com­ing ap­par­ent. There was an in­creas­ing ten­dency to cel­e­brate lo­cal in­gre­di­ents, to fo­cus on cul­ti­vat­ing what suits be­ing grown here, to seek out knowl­edge of where food came from and who was mak­ing or grow­ing it.

Some may see this as a re­turn to the past, but new knowl­edge and prac­tices were, and are, be­ing in­cor­po­rated to help us re­spond to today’s chal­lenges and to bet­ter ex­press our cul­ture. As I spoke to peo­ple – pro­duc­ers, chefs, gar­den­ers, gath­er­ers, home cooks, food writ­ers, aca­demics – pat­terns be­gan to emerge: the im­por­tance of food’s so­cial role and its pal­pa­ble ex­pres­sion


of iden­tity; the ben­e­fits of keep­ing food lo­cal in all senses; its po­ten­tial to cre­ate com­mu­nity and pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact; the need to re­dress food in­se­cu­rity and our dis­con­nec­tion with food pro­duc­tion. But how might we achieve this in our pre­dom­i­nantly time­poor, ur­banised so­ci­ety, where grow­ing food at scale takes spe­cial ex­per­tise?

In our is­land na­tion, economics, agri­cul­ture, pol­i­tics and cul­ture all in­ter­sect in food. Food pays the bills, but it is also re­source and energy in­ten­sive. And in the land of milk and honey, ac­cess to our fan­tas­tic pro­duce is the pre­serve of those who can af­ford it. The ma­jor­ity of New Zealan­ders buy food at the su­per­mar­ket; the ma­jor­ity of the food we pro­duce is sold over­seas. Al­though th­ese as­pects of our food system bring cer­tain ben­e­fits (de­pend­ing on what you value), they can also lead to seem­ingly per­verse sit­u­a­tions. We im­port food prod­ucts that we make well here (as Jonny Sch­wass states we cur­rently im­port pork prod­ucts from 22 dif­fer­ent coun­tries) and many of our live­stock are fed on over­seas food prod­ucts, in­clud­ing palm ker­nel. A vol­ume-driven model has dom­i­nated the in­dus­try. There are an in­creas­ing num­ber of costs as­so­ci­ated with th­ese approaches – en­vi­ron­men­tal, so­cial and health-wise.

Con­tem­po­rary food is­sues are myr­iad and com­plex. Our con­trib­u­tors sup­port the strength­en­ing of lo­cal food sys­tems and the cul­tures that build around them. They do this in a va­ri­ety of ways. The ma­jor­ity of them are work­ing on the small scale, at a lo­cal level, propos­ing or prac­tis­ing al­ter­na­tives to the dom­i­nant mod­els, or high­light­ing ways to view th­ese is­sues or sug­gest­ing po­ten­tial re­sponses to them. They see the im­por­tance of en­cour­ag­ing cul­tural shifts and food pride, of adding value, pro­duc­ing food in an en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble man­ner, im­prov­ing ac­cess to our re­sources and es­tab­lish­ing food ecolo­gies so there are pos­i­tive knock-on ef­fects along the way. Some have man­aged to scale up and in­crease im­pact; oth­ers re­main fo­cused on the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

This turn­ing point is ex­cit­ing to cap­ture – the pos­si­bil­i­ties that rise to the sur­face be­fore a move­ment set­tles are lib­er­at­ing. Al­though our food iden­tity is ever-evolv­ing and in­her­ently dy­namic, it is now firmly grounded in us and our land. It feels like this is re­flec­tive of an in­creas­ing con­fi­dence in our cul­ture at a wider level. And with con­fi­dence comes open­ness and fur­ther innovation.

This bur­geon­ing con­tem­po­rary New Zealand food iden­tity is one that helps us to un­der­stand our place as a Pa­cific and mul­ti­cul­tural na­tion; cel­e­brates our peo­ple, in­gre­di­ents and prox­im­ity to source; and con­tin­u­ally col­lects ideas from else­where and trans­lates th­ese so that they speak of our time and place. This food cul­ture also ac­knowl­edges the im­por­tance of the prin­ci­ple of kaiti­ak­i­tanga – the Māori con­cept of guardian­ship, which is both a process and a prac­tice, and has deep ties to the land. Many con­trib­u­tors em­brace this idea of stew­ard­ship, in­ter­pret­ing it in their own ways, and speak of the need to look af­ter our en­vi­ron­ment, fi­nite re­sources and peo­ple, and to un­der­stand how all of this is in­ter­twined.

Food is a con­flu­ence of things: a web of weather sys­tems; the lay of the land; sto­ries of ar­rival, trade, economics and pol­i­tics; his­to­ries and empires; do­mes­tic and ur­ban prac­tices. It is all con­nected and cul­mi­nates in each of us. All of th­ese sys­tems, sto­ries and pol­i­tics be­come deeply per­sonal, as food be­comes part of us. EMMA JOHN­SON

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