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In Search of Meaningful Food

By Francesca Zampollo Ph.D.

This is the story of my journey to collect stories of meaningful food that is really meaningful. This is the story of the people who shared their lives with me, of their memories from the past, and of the food that makes them smile and cry. This is the story of how I went in search of meaningful food, and of what I have discovered so far.


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I’ve always looked at food from a design perspective. My background in Food Design and Food Design Theory led me to concentrate on designing for meaning and on designing solutions that were meaningful to people. That just made sense to me. But then one day I realised that I had no idea of what meaningful food really was. What is meaningful food? Why do some foods become meaningful and other foods do not? I had no idea, and my world was shaken. That day, I decided I had to go In Search of Meaningful Food.

I wanted to know what people thought meaningful food was, and hear the stories of their most meaningful food: simple stories told by the people who lived those moments and captured it on video. The very first story I collected was immediately an eye opener. Jason, a university lecturer living in Auckland, New Zealand, who had grown up in the USA, shared with me the story of his mother’s turkey croquettes. He described how to him the best part of Thanksgiving was the turkey leftovers. He loved how these became turkey sandwiches to take to school, and how finally the very best parts, the bits and pieces, became turkey croquettes. He connected these croquettes with his mum, making them together and growing up with this tradition. At the end of his story, he said the one sentence that shook my core: “I still make them every year, and I think I make them as good as they were, but they will never be as good as I remember…” They will never be as good as I remember. Meaningful food is embedded in our memories, sometimes trapped in those memories. Meaningful food becomes meaningful in one particular moment, for one particular reason, a combination of factors that can never be re-created. The only thing that we can always access is how that meaningful food made us feel.

Not long after, my assumptions of the nature of meaningful food were shattered. Sharon is a fashion design lecturer from Auckland as well, whose most meaningful food is sardines on toast. She described that day when she was nine years old: she came home from school with her seven-year-old sister, and she found out that her grandfather, her mum’s dad, had died. While waiting for their dad to come home, her mum realised that they needed to have lunch: “We could see that she didn’t really fancy cooking anything. But she went to the cupboard, and she took out the nearest thing that was in there. She turned to us and said, ‘Would you like sardines?’ My sister and I hated sardines…” But they saw their mother’s pain in that heavy day and ate sardines on toast, in silence. She concludes saying: “I’ve never had sardines since. To me they taste of my mother’s grief and the loss of my grandfather.” Meaningful food is far from being our favourite food. Meaningful food is the food that has made an indelible mark on our life.

In Australia I met Will, a chef and a natural storyteller who gave me, yet again, a new perspective. His most meaningful food was a kangaroo steak cooked on a stone, in the outskirts of Australia, in that place, he said, “where the sky and the earth meet, and you are… you are what you are.” For Will, that steak became meaningful because of that moment: a road trip with his wife, a daily challenge to cook with the cheap ingredients the other had bought, the dessert, an expensive bottle of wine, and a sunset. “It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s… it’s embossed… on my mind.” Remembering that moment was very emotional for Will, and his emotions flooded in and were very visible. Meaningful food is a unique moment in time, sometimes a moment so pivotal in our life that it changes us profoundly.

I also met Kendra, a German girl who has been travelling for the past six years and whose meaningful food is weeds. She talked about how when she sees a garden with weeds that people spend so much energy to eliminate, she sees a “huge pot of salad”. I met Ron, a Maori lecturer whose most meaningful food is the Muttonbird because of the importance of the weeks spent on an island harvesting these birds: “The harvest, the preparation, the cooking, and the feasting… and the sharing of Titi is very important because it defines who we are […] as indigenous people in New Zealand.” I met Gustavo, a Brazilian living in the USA who talked about how much he misses roasted chicken with farofa. I met Vera, an Italian girl living in Argentina who talked about her grandmother’s Nutella sandwich. I met Gerbrand from the Netherlands, who talked about salted liquorice with the passion of a child. I met Lynsey from Northern Ireland, who talked about crisps sandwich, her dad’s unique way to make her happy. I met Shawn who talked about his Sri Lankan grandmother’s biryani, which is all about the smell of onions fried in ghee. I met Hanaa, an Egyptian living in the UK who talked about Egyptian bread, meaningful because during the revolution people asked for three things: bread, freedom, and social justice. Bread came first. I met Marta from Colombia, who talked about boiled crab eaten on that beach, with her feet in the sand. I met Milva from Italy, who talked about pizza as a social glue. And about 120 more stories that show the real beauty of food. It’s really not about how it looks, how expensive it is, or how well designed it is. The food that we remember, the food that sticks to our soul, is the food that changed us, made us grow, sometimes scarred us.

So, what is meaningful food? What I have learnt is that any food can be meaningful, and for a variety of different reasons. I learnt that maybe the beauty of this project is not really about finding a quantifiable answer, but it’s more about the journey, the stories, and the people behind them. All these stories are profound and emotional; emotional for who tells them and emotional for who watches them. Since food is “just” food, when talking about meaningful food people easily share intimate moments of their lives. To me, all these stories are an open window into these people’s lives, and for this reason, listening to these stories is to me a privilege. Maybe this journey that brought me here, to write this post, wasn’t about finding an answer, but instead it was about asking a question: What is your most meaningful food?

You can participate by sending a video of you telling the story of your most meaningful food :)


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