One week after my trip to Portugal (and one week back into the frenetic pace of life as a grad student) I sit over coffee and reflect on Generative Indirections at the Convento da Saudação in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal. These moments of generative reflections are crucial for my long term memory of the event to crystallise. In the middle of the night on the first night of the conference I woke up at 4:00am, perhaps due to jet lag or perhaps because my own mind and body knew I needed a reflection of that first night more than I needed that extra couple of hours of sleep.
In that 4:00am delirium I made notes about conversations I had that I didn’t want to forget. But now, one week later, I am wishing I would have made more notes on all the nuances, a little more thick description perhaps, because I find the details already fading from my mind. This text is a humble attempt to retrace the experience in order to help crystallise the memories of the event and perhaps even generate reflections which will help me digest the tidbits of knowledge I was able to taste that night, and that whole week.
First and foremost, I must admit that I was received with such warm hospitality that I felt as if I was an honored guest even though I was “merely” a participant. In addition to the friendly face waiting for me at the airport, the people who welcomed me at the convent seemed genuinely happy to meet me: great big smiles, eyes that seemed truly interested in knowing what I was about. These small gestures helped establish what I felt the entire five days, a sort of anti-hierarchy hierarchy. Invited guests and participants all ate together, gathered together, drank wine together, and shared stories, thoughts, reflections, and possibilities for new ways of thinking.
In preparation for Hôte Cuisine, a “performance-dinner” curated and directed by Chef Rø, participants and guests were all invited to help in the preparations. It is my understanding that a core group of generous helpers spent hours in the kitchen while an equally generous Teresa Fradique drove me into the village to try to find and purchase some essentials to get by until the airport delivered my lost luggage. When I finally arrived in the kitchen area to help, sporting my new flip flops from the supermarket and freshly cut T-shirt out of the airport’s emergency overnight kit, the kitchen and dinner areas were abuzz. The wine was already open and folks were indulging. After more than 24 hours in transit through various airports, I wasted no time asking one of the participants to pour me a glass while he was at it.
I have cooked for large dinner parties before but never on the scale of Chef Rø’s Hôte Cuisine event. He organised this dinner, and lunches for the rest of the week, for more than 50 people. And there were leftovers after every meal, a sign of a successful meal in my book. When I entertain in my home, my goal is never to let anyone go hungry, to always have plenty. Plenty here means abundance, not the plenty that merely means “sufficient.” Chef Rø produced abundance beautifully. This act of hospitality helped continue the feeling of anti-hierarchy hierarchy that I felt when I first entered. So, while I did not specifically make a note of who helped in the kitchen and who did not, I never felt exploited when I offered to help nor did I sense that there was anyone shirking responsibilities. There was almost a feeling of camaraderie among those of us who volunteered for the “dirty work” of cleaning the guts out of the sardines for one of the main dishes. Yes, our hands reeked of fish by the time we were finished, but our cheeks were warm from wine at the same time. Somehow, the wine never ran out. I’m not sure if some hidden messiah was in a back room of the convent transforming water into wine or if the conference organisers simply did a great job of estimating how much this group of scholars and performers would imbibe. In any case, the event was produced as an act of hospitality and abundance.
That theme of hospitality came up several times over the course of the week. Ricardo Seiça Salgado referred to it in his introduction to the next morning’s plenary. He referred to it as “hospitality as practice, as a mode of being; the practice of being, doing, and relating.” The first night it came up in my conversation I had with Maria Paula Menezes while we were waiting for the gazpacho to be served. While the aromas of the kitchen tantalized our senses, we spoke of flavors as a way of knowing. We spoke of cooking and eating as the most effective ways of understanding other cultures. In her plenary the next morning, she spoke of cooking as an act of love. She commented that taste, touch and smell are senses that have been ignored by academia. I remembered back to my first year in grad school where I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, to write about cooking as a metaphor for translation. I thought perhaps I wanted to write an article (or even my dissertation) about trying to make the Brazilian dish, moqueca, for my US American friends, about how some ingredients are simply not available here and are therefore untranslatable to the palate. They must be tasted and felt as they travel through the human organism. Azeite de dendê is, after all, notorious for causing digestive trouble among people not used to its richness. Perhaps the idea is not so brilliant. Or perhaps others have written of it. Or perhaps one day I will find a way to publish flavor. Until then, my dissertation is on a different topic. But the metaphors of cooking, flavors, and hospitality continue to influence my way of thinking.
As I sit here and try to remember the dinner and all of its courses, I am drawing a blank. I certainly remember the gazpacho. It was the first “course” of the sit-down portion of the meal. I remember the delicious olives which had been marinating in garlic and oregano. I remember thinking “oh so THIS is what Portuguese linguiça really tastes like!” when I sampled the sausage appetizer. And I remember how beautiful the plate of fruit and cheese was. The whole spread of appetizers made me feel as if I had, without a shadow of a doubt, arrived in a Mediterranean setting. This, combined with the centuries-old setting of a convent in a castle almost gave me a sort of nostalgia for a time period I have never experienced. A group of artists occupying a convent. If it weren’t for the wifi, I might have felt as if I had traveled back in time. Thank God for the wifi. Nothing like constant access to the Internet to make us relinquish romanticized ideas about the past.
I know that there was a schedule set for the event and there were specific times delineated as when things were supposed to happen. But this event was not meant to run on schedule. How could it? This is Portugal. That night I understood where Brazil’s reputation for lateness came from. But this event was not late. It simply had a more relaxed relationship to time. My dinner parties at home never run on time. Why should I expect this one to do so? I’m not even sure exactly what time it was when the gazpacho was finally served. But I remember thinking that I probably didn’t need to eat any more after the soup. But more courses were on their way. I think I may have overheard a sarcastic comment from someone about how long it took to change to the next course. But I don’t think anyone was actually bothered by it. The event was produced to have a relaxed feel. This is not New York. Maaike Bleeker even commented as much in her plenary at the abandoned train station the next day. Maria Paula Menezes, in her plenary the next morning emphasized the need to understand the possibilities for epistemologies of the global South, particularly in relation to time and productivity. Boaventura Sousa Santos, in his “Epistemologies of the South”, asks us to consider that possibly we need RearGuard theories instead of (or in addition to) VanGuard theories. I know from my own experience that I easily get caught up in that frenetic pace of my workaholic life, always seeking to outdo myself in terms of productivity. I was glad to be reminded that sometimes (or perhaps even most of the time) it is equally important to take these moments to have generative reflections on these experiences in order to be able to taste them fully, digest them, and have something come out the other side that isn’t just shit.
Laurelann Porter, ©2013
© Photos by Laurelann Porter, Sílvia Tengner, Stress FM & Rogério Nuno Costa.