Cooking with opinions: Making a mark in an area of noise and bluster

It's been a long time between meals on this blog. Hello again.

Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Much has changed in my life since I last wrote. I am no longer working as a nutritionist and cookery writer. Instead, I am now studying a Masters of Research, in other words, learning how to be a researcher. I am of course still fascinated by food and am studying the sociology of nutrition, cooking and recipes. I am tumbling towards the end of my first year, trying to write a research proposal for my 2018 thesis. It is an unexpected, wonderful, joyful, utterly overwhelming and quite baffling experience, which at the moment involves a lot of sitting with uncertainty - something I am not particularly good at. 

Some things remain un-changed though. I still think about vegetables a lot and the mild beetroot obsession has not disappeared. I still live with my lovely partner, beautiful (but slightly ageing) cat and we now have three chickens. Unfortunately, the vestibular migraine has also stayed with me.

However, the transition to student and researcher means there will be a change in the focus of this blog. I'm hoping to post more frequently, but there will probably be less healthy eating advice, fewer recipes and maybe not as many tips on including more vegetables in your daily eating - there are quite possibly enough of those already. Instead, there might be more exploration of the underlying drivers of the way we eat and an examination of the questions and problems that beset student researchers. I'll probably be talking more about what I'm reading and thinking, especially as I develop my thesis. To be honest, at the moment, I don't have a clear sense of what I'll be posting. However, I feel the need to write more and to write here. To get all the thoughts swirling round in my head onto a page (of sorts) and maybe get some feedback. Hopefully some of you will still find this all interesting.

I'm going to start with the text of a short presentation I gave a couple of months ago, at a researcher conference. The conference theme was making your mark and I was part of a panel on questions in research practice


Cooking with opinions: Making a mark in an area of noise and bluster

NewMac conference presentation: July 2017

I am a Masters of Research student half way through my first year, so I haven't started researching my thesis yet. My world is made up of coursework and assignments and I have not yet fully defined my thesis topic. Instead, I'm in the intriguing, luxurious and slightly anxiety producing position of thinking and dreaming about research possibilities without having to actually do the research. Yet.

My central question today though, is how do you research, let alone make a mark, in an area where everybody has an opinion? And where those opinions can often be loud, indignant and highly partisan?

Food and cooking are a highly contested space. There are government bodies, influential lobby groups and big corporate interests. There is also money to be made from recipe and diet books, weight loss empires and medical interventions. It is an area in which dieticians are accused of constantly changing their minds, Politicians decry nanny-state interventions and cookery book writers can be accused of endangering public health and even have their books withdrawn from sale. It is an area where there are loud and insistent voices, plenty of agendas and public confusion.

It is also an area where researchers' work can be emblazoned across the media, discussed loudly and dismissed with passion and invective.

Photo by Arnaldo Aldana on Unsplash

Everybody eats, therefore everybody has experiences with food. I've been a nutritionist and cookery writer for 15 years and I can tell you that people, in Sydney at least, love talking about food. I am well used to meeting new people and having them tell me intricate and involved details about everything they eat, their sibling's bizarre food intolerances, the friend who went on a juice fast and has never felt better. And then have the person ask for advice on whether they should "go paleo" or become a vegan. In the past, these conversations have often alerted me to the strength of new food fashions. When three people at a party tell you they've been eating quinoa or having a green juice every day, you know a new food trend is happening.

Food is crowded with emotions. While food is fuel, it is rarely just fuel. Food and cooking are also about family, tradition, culture and connections. Food is imbued with emotion from pleasure and excitement, through to anxiety and guilt. With strong opinions, vested groups and the potential for money comes dodgy science and misinformation. All of these combine to make food and cooking a highly contested space, where it's hard to know what people actually do in their own home and what they think about it?

I have had some people advise me to ignore the certainty, opinion and loud voices. Instead, to concentrate on what I'm doing and block out the confusion and hot air. Which may well be good advice. However, I also find myself thinking but . . .

I wonder if there aren't some golden nuggets in amongst the noise, if you listen carefully? Or if the noise itself isn't interesting?

Food is not alone in this. I'm sure some of you have experience in areas which are also heavily contested. So, do you have any advice for a newbie researcher? How do you work and make your mark when you're surrounded by noise and bluster?