I loved my time as a Ph.D. researcher. Over the course of the four years and eight months it took me to bring my dissertation to completion, I was supervised by Peter Scholliers who like no other masters the art of giving people guided freedom. He allowed me to (re)search, fail and succeed, and to make that process my own. The result is a Ph.D. I am very proud of. I investigated how different ideological communities constructed their food heritage, when they did so and why. I solely used women’s magazines and stated that heritage only becomes heritage when it is named as such.
I participated in several international conferences where I presented my research design and results. Generally, the audience agreed with my stance and awed at the number of recipe names I had analyzed (40.245 recipe names from three women’s magazines published in Flanders (Belgium) between 1945 and 2000). However, no matter the thematic scope of the conference I went to, there was always at least one fellow historian who questioned my sources and who asked why I had not conducted interviews with privileged witnesses. Why had I not developed an oral history instead of or in addition to my analysis of women’s magazines? Why had I not talked to our grandmothers and grandfathers about their food memories? My standard answer was: “How do we decide who privileged witnesses are? And how representative are their memories for a community as a whole?”
A colleague at Brussels University once taught me that if you get the same question twice at two different conferences from two different people, you will for sure get that same question during your Ph.D. defense. And so on 26 November 2013, during my public defense, one of the jury members asked why I had not conducted interviews. I thanked him for his question and developed an answer I had been thinking about, talking about and working on for almost five years.
“I did not design an oral history because (food) memories are the manifestation of an ongoing process of remembrance and forgetfulness. We are asked to remember something about the past in a contemporary context and as a consequence, our memories are colored by the period in between and the present-day societal context. Do I think oral history is by definition flawed? No. Interviews are valid sources of information, but only if there is no time gap that will affect the memory. If I would have found interviews conducted fifty years ago about food practices at that time, I would have considered them for my research. Additionally, I state that heritage only becomes heritage when it is named as such. In a research that builds on language use, the role of the interviewer is highly critical. To what extent would my word use (heritage, tradition, authenticity) have molded interviewees’ memories? Previous research on the notion of tradition, using interviews, shows it is sensitive and hazardous.”
The ongoing discussion about the importance of oral history in food heritage research is a heated one. However, neuroscientific research backs up my social-scientific explanation of the process of remembrance and forgetfulness. Yesterday, I attended a workshop on the neuroscience of learning. Keynote speaker Thomas J. Carew, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean and Professor of Neural Science at NYU, explained how our brain processes memories. Although the first part of the talk was a tad too neuroscientific for me to fully understand, the second part developed concrete case studies about multiple memory systems and actual memories. Professor Carew explained that memories are not reliable or permanent. We make them make sense in the present and adjust them to a present-day context. The example he gave: what were you doing on 9/11? The striking result was that more than half of the respondents had their memory wrong. Where does that leave us with something as everyday as food practices and the way we remember them?
Illustration by Pixabay.