My people are the people who sit down at church potlucks and say “so, tell me about your Master’s Thesis” and really mean it.
Anna*: I’m studying the meaning of food.
Me: Food has meaning?
Anna: I’ve been going to northern communities, and asking them about the meaning of their food. My framework was that there could be four meanings: Nutrition, culture, spirituality/environmental relationships, and economic/political autonomy.
<Poor Anna. If her mother hadn’t made her eat so healthy all her life, she would already know that the meaning of food is deliciousness>.
Anna: Interestingly, the results didn’t fit into my framework. People would talk to me about how you shouldn’t trap beaver too early in the season because if you do it will taste strongly of poplar. Or how to slice meat in the way that makes it the most tender. They didn’t come at it through the same lens I was using. They were way more... practical.
As I listen to her research while stuffing my face with cake, I empathize with her study participants. I find that you get the best cake if you go to the potluck table early in the potluck, before all those horrible children take the good stuff. And I have learned to slice the cake just-so, and to lay it down icing first on my tongue.
Karen <sitting down to join in on our fascinating conversation>: Did either of you read that book about mushrooms and precarity?
Anna: THAT WAS SUCH A GREAT BOOK.
Precarity, by the way, means uncertainty in getting basic needs met. The precariat, I have learned, are people who have little buffer or job security. And who would probably not be caught dead using words like “precariat”.
I am not sure why we had to invent the word "precarity" when the precariat had already invented the phrase "hand-to-mouth". Which is a perfectly good phrase that you do not need a book about mushrooms to understand.
Even so, for a moment, I am awash with affection for my religion. Because so many UUs come from other faiths, it is sometimes hard to have a common sense of identity. Anna--who was raised UU--was summing it up in that moment. I could vividly imagine her sitting across from someone in some northern community. With them being all “delicious, eh?” and trying to to show her how the meat smoker works. And her, poised with pen over paper, saying “tell me about the deeper cultural and spiritual meaning of this sandwich”.
At the same time, I am a little jealous that she has figured out a way to do a Master’s Thesis that involves so much eating. That is some good strategy right there.
Me: So… none of your four categories was “taste”?
Anna: Yeah, people talked about that a lot. Now I understand what all those researchers were writing about when they talked about the importance of "capturing the embodied experience”.
I am pretty sure that is researcher talk for “Now, I must stuff my face. For the advancement of science.”
Later that day, I messaged Anna to ask if I could write about our conversation. Okay, to ask if I could make a little fun of our conversation. My plan was to talk about how when you are living “with high precarity”, you do not care about much beyond securing your next meal. Taste trumps meaning.
Then, I was going to write about how funny it is that she was all “tell me about the meaning of this beaver”.
Well, that was until I realized that a few months earlier went to Maasai Mara and bypassed all the lions and giraffes, and went straight to sit down with the Maasai and say "tell me about the meaning of this cow". And then I wrote a post about exactly that, which was 2000 words long because I could not stand to leave out a single, riveting detail.
Forget celebrity gossip and cute puppy photos. I am going to get internet famous with articles about the meaning of cows. Notice the plural. It was a three part series about the meaning of cows.
Maybe I do belong in academia.
And here’s what I learned in doing those articles. I learned that you start with taste, sure, but meaning still matters. No matter how hungry you are.
The Maasai women, who live with an indescribably high level of precarity, do not start with the meaning of the milk. Sitting down with me, they start with trying to say whatever I need to hear. They are clearly trying to figure out a way to tell their story that will result in me doing whatever magical “crowd funding” thing that I can do with my white-person powers. In the beginning of the conversation, “food and school fees” is enough meaning to be getting on with.
But “food and school fees” is not the end of it. I do know that I can raise funds with just that, but I would rather not write another “poor starving Africans” story. Those are never... honest enough, I guess. They're only half of the story, architected for sympathy.
I didn’t just want to know about the hardships, I wanted to know how they’d survived them. How they’d fought back. How they’d drawn so close, how they’d managed to nourish those bonds in the middle of such a desperate situation.
I wrote gallons of notes, and when I told the story back to them to make sure they were okay with the way I was going to write it, I watched them grow taller. I watched them grin at each other. I watched them spontaneously pointing little things out to each other, that were along the lines of “You know what? We really DO kick ass”.
Precariat or not, everyone needs to mean something. As surely as everyone needs to eat.
Liked this story? Check out this story about the meaning of cows... it really is interesting.
Want to read more UU stuff? Check out this one, in which my kids imitate what they see me doing as a seminarian.
Or this one, which explains why they do not let UUs on planes. (They do let UUs on planes, of course).
*Name changed, at Anna's request... she is not sure that her research is technically supposed to go up on random blogs before she submits it.
Note: Did you love that picture? If so, you might want to check out the artist’s other work at https://ollivves.com, or, if you’re an instagram type, @ollives!