LAND OF THE GOOD GROOVE
EMMA JOHNSON EXAMINES NEW ZEALAND’S CONTEMPORARY FOOD IDENTITY IN KAI & CULTURE: FOOD STORIES FROM AOTEAROA.
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