It is rare that we are given the opportunity to engage with a topic both as passive and active learners. This project has allowed us not only to be transported through time by reading historical narratives, but also gave us the opportunity to learn through experience, and connect history with the present. Don’t get us wrong; we love writing research papers! There is something almost mystical, though, about getting the chance to engage with the past through a tangible object – in our case, food.
The new perspective we gained through cooking and eating with called for a new form of expression, to supplement our written blog posts. So, we went back to the drawing board, both literally and figuratively. We created drawings of the meals described in the travel narratives, and a mind map of our reflections on the entire project. These visual representations of our experiences are outlined below, as are the new connections we made through creating them.
With our fresh perspective in mind, Logan re-created two scenes described in the travel narratives. The first is from Frances Macnab’s “A Ride in Morocco: Among Believers and Traders”, pictured in the featured image. The second is from Stanley Lane-Poole’s “Social Life in Egypt: A Description of the Country and its People”, and is seen above. In reflecting on her thought process, Logan noted:
Returning to these elaborate descriptions of food after experiencing people’s relationship to food did not necessarily change what I drew, but it drastically influenced my intention behind recreating these scenes visually. The feasts described were no longer a combination of foreign ingredients, but parts of people’s past present and futures. That is what we have hoped to share with you. Food is not static, food is passion. Food is political. Food is community. Food is you and me.
We started off by writing out our reflections, but it somehow didn’t seem possible to convey all of our thought processes in writing – maybe a sign of the reflections we’ve had on the differences between sharing knowledge through writing, and through experience.
Instead, we drew a mind map to illustrate some of the thoughts we’ve had.
On the left, we explore how we’ve come to view the historical narratives of 19th century travelers over the course of the project. While the European and North American authors were writing about North Africa, we wondered whether they may have taught us more about themselves, and therefore some of our own (European) history. Given that writing only provides us with the information the author chooses, we had to ask ourselves: how did these writers know what they claimed as truth? Who were their sources? Did they ask questions? Or simply rely on the power of observation? Some of the pitfalls of relying on travel narratives as hard fact is that the author usually has preconceived ideas about the place they are visiting, and will often use their home country/culture as a baseline for comparison – hence narrowing in more on perceived difference than similarities.
We also considered the power these texts have as an authoritative source of knowledge on the region and peoples of North Africa during this time period. The authors suggest through their writing that they are “objective” and use “logic” or “reasoning” to inform the reader, as opposed to “emotion” or “feeling” to convey their experiences. Is it possible to be objective when writing about another society?
On the right, we’ve reflected on our own experiences cooking and eating Middle Eastern food here, in Vancouver. The process of using hands-on experiences to learn allowed us to explore the experiences of others as listeners. We questioned, shared, and observed – but we allowed our community contacts (Sobhi, Tamam, and the Syrians) to be the experts. Yet we could not ignore our own perspectives, and were conscious that what we took away from our adventures with food was not objective. We are three young, educated women, who have all grown up in a culturally diverse country – our positionality greatly contrasts that of the 19th century travelers we saw North Africa through. This was particularly evident when we made sweetmeats on our own. Although our senses were heightened from having cooked and eaten delicious Middle Eastern food already, we were aware our product might be unrecognizable to the authors of the recipe.
Tim Ingold’s work on using the process of making to engage with knowledge was evident in our culinary experiences. We were able to make connections between our own personal lives and our learning environment. Ingold’s interest in making as a process of growth allows us to consider how different the experiential learning we engaged in is from the travel writers’ perspectives. The 19th century travelers saw learning as a means of knowledge accumulation. They considered themselves objective to the data they collected. We, on the other hand, were active participants in our growth as learners. In our engagement with our environment, we recognized our own values and perspectives in the knowledge we generated.