Food and Multiculture by Alex Rhys-Taylor

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Tubby Isaac’s Seafood Stand, 2013, by Alex Rhys-Taylor

Book Launch : Thursday 9th March

Location : 137a, Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths College, London SE14 6NW

Time : 5-7pm

In conversation with Dan Hancox

 

Food and Multiculture took a while to write. So long that some of the locations featured in the book; Tubby Isaac’s seafood stand and the International Superstore for instance, have long since ceased trading. But that was part of the point of the book; to record the neighbourhood institutions providing the gustatory and olfactory kernels out of which complex identities and communities were furnished, institutions that were undervalued, and at risk of being lost.

 

The inspiration for the book actually came while working in urban regeneration, and in particular, a meeting with some ‘major stakeholders’ regarding the development of Dalston Junction. During that meeting, I was presented with visually stunning new plans for the area around the junction’s two train stations. A significant portion of the space under discussion, was taken up by Ridley Road market, a remarkable cacophony of different voices, music and a melange of strange and familiar smells and flavours. In discussing the “new offer” being made to the users of Dalston, and in itemising the heritage architecture that might be lost, it was striking that there was no consideration of the sounds, smells and flavours of the space, nor what they meant to users of the area. As I saw it, the sensory atmosphere of Dalston junction was as, if not more, important to local culture than Georgian facades. It was the sensoria of the space that drew a diverse group of users in; each smell, sound or flavour having quiet significance in the everyday life of the area’s users, while also creating spaces of overlap and cross-cultural encounter. The market’s mangoes convened a crowd of elderly women from around the tropics who had grown up in the shade of mango trees. Halal jerk chicken bagels indexed the transition of different migrant groups through the space, but also the transformation of each other’s culture in the process.

 

Yet, in their dependence on computer aided design, an inherently visual medium, the planners and architects of New London, were neglecting the multisensory texture of the space. If the area’s atmosphere was ever mentioned it was in terms of the ‘mess’ or illegibility of the area to casual users, something that needed to be transformed. But in transforming the built fabric of the area, the associations and encounters that are facilitated by overlap and osmosis between each other’s lives, was put in jeopardy. In threatening the jerk chicken bagel shop, the social fabric of the area, the everyday multiculture, that emerged out of the tangled histories of the post-colonial city might also unravel. Inspired by the undervaluation the city’s everyday atmospheres, the book anticipates becoming a work of history itself.

 

There are no jerk chicken bagels or mangos in the book. There is, however, an abundance of other sensoria which index both the East London changing culture and demography. Beyond merely cataloguing changes in the city’s culture, the sensoria that feature in the book also, in their own quiet way, play an active part in the processes that are transforming the city. The maligned cuisines of the working class East End, from fried chicken to jellied eels, feature as both catalysts of everyday multiculture, but also as antagonists to the glass curtained granite of New London. Ingredients such as chilli peppers, and dishes like halal chicken katsu wraps feature as windows into the ways in which transcultural sensoria and sensibilities, shaped through previous centuries of global trade, became lynchpins in the city’s everyday multiculture – something currently threatened by the bland cosmopolitan culture of white tiled coffee shops and loaves of sour-dough bread.

 

It is only in returning to the book for promotional purposes, walking with journalists around the field site, talking through the issues that caught my attention, that I have realised how much has changed in the time since I started this project. So many of those changes, have been facilitated by gut feelings that go largely unquestioned. Central, to intervening in some of the changes indexed by the book, I argue, is a deep and sustained questioning of our own gut feelings. Rather than following the tabloid command to ‘go with your gut’ (this was the Sun’s headline on the eve of Brexit), in interrogating our gut feelings, we might be able to start dealing with the hidden ways in which racial and class prejudice lives on in routine habits and dispositions of even the most open minded cosmopolites. In thinking about the sensoria and sensibilities we surround ourselves with, we can also unearth the shared histories we’ve emerged from, and prepare ourselves better for a shared future.

 

Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor is deputy director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research, and convenor of MA Cities and Society.

He will be joined in conversation by writer Dan Hancox to discuss the book on Thursday 9th March at 5pm. Room : 137a RHB, Goldsmiths College, London.

Food and Multiculture: A Sensory Ethnography of East London, is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

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