Breaking Damper and Building Connection: Food as a Community Connector

PhD student Omar Elkharouf reflects on last week’s Culture in Conversation: Creating Inclusive Food Communities, a collaborative event held in celebration of NAIDOC Week by YARN Australia, Foodlab Sydney and the University of Sydney Union.

Aunties in the USU kitchen preparing soup for the event, to be served with johnny cakes. Photo by Foodlab Sydney.

I was born to parents from two very different parts of the world. My mother is Circassian, born into a family forcibly displaced to Ottoman lands in the aftermath of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. My father is Palestinian from Nablus, whose family migrated to Jordan following the 1967 Six-day War.

From my childhood years in Amman to my adolescence in suburban Sydney, growing up, my parents always instilled in me and my siblings the importance of our distinct cultural culinary traditions. In the context of my family’s diasporic reality, the process of cooking, eating, sharing and enjoying food was a livelihood strategy to reproduce the ‘familiar’ and to trigger emotions and feelings about home.

This notion of ‘home’ also extended to community building in unfamiliar environments. When we first moved to Australia, my mum used to pick the grape leaves of the vines that extended from our neighbour’s property to make Levantine style ‘dolmades’. In exchange, our family would invite our neighbours over for dinner, breaking ‘damper’ over dolmas and Aunty Karen’s signature Pavlova. In spite of different cultural values and norms, what tied my mum and Aunty Karen’s friendship was more than just good food; it is the spirit of generosity, the importance of community, and the value of bringing people together.  The interactions around the table, the body language, the sounds, were reminiscent of many of the family occasions that took place in Jordan. Somehow, we were home away from home.

It is this ongoing curiosity and interest in the role of food as a community connector that brought me to last Monday evenings event Culture in conversation: Creating Inclusive Food Communities as part of the Sydney Environment Institute’s NAIDOC Week celebrations. Run in partnership with FoodLab Sydney, YARN Australia and the University of Sydney Union, the event invited communities across Sydney to participate in a cross-cultural and meaningful conversation on the role of food as an instrumental toolkit to enhance inclusivity. Through the format of ‘having a yarn’, indigenous and non-indigenous communities came together in a camp-fire like setting for an evening of ceremony, performance and the sharing of food and personal stories to discuss a key theme: What does food mean to them? And, how does it invoke notions of identity, belonging and community building?

Facilitated by the series convenor, Warren Roberts, CEO and founder of YARN Australia, began with a question addressed to the audience: “What is a value or an ideal that you would like to see in this safe space, and how is it practiced in your everyday life?” Here, Warren aimed to establish an open dialogue between Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians by drawing on the audience’s common core ethos of mutual respect, acceptance and care. Several audience members stated acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude as core values held dear to their moral compass. Others emphasised responsibility, love and peace as a set of important ideals that fostered their conceptions of an inclusive space. These processes of self-reflexive thought enabled Warren’s attempt to create a safe space by “making people part of the conversation” in a vulnerable, safe and transparent forum. This set the scene for the speaker series that followed.

Leading the discussion, elder Brendan Kerin began with a personal anecdote on the devastating impact intergenerational trauma has had on his family as a result of the Stolen Generation. Rhetorically asking the audience, “How do you explain to (my) four-year-old (son) these atrocities?”, he brought to the fore the everyday realities of systemic racism, colonisation and white supremacy facing his community. In this context, Brendan explored the complex ecological knowledge about bush food species held by Aboriginal people, stressing the significance of food for indigenous culture. Here, food is not only viewed as a mode of resistance and identity construction against the backdrop of colonial tropes, but more importantly, as a totem to their connection to country.

Following up on these points, Dr Sophie Chao, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry emphasised the role food can play in fostering inclusive spaces across human societies holding differing cultural values and norms. Drawing on stories from her research in rural West Papua, she noted how everyday food practices can be used as a toolkit to bridge cross-cultural divides and foster mutual understandings around love, care and respect.

The third speaker, elder Aunty Agnes Ware, returned to the intrinsic linkages between food and land for indigenous communities. As a Torres Strait Islander, Aunty Agnes explored the gendered roles and responsibilities of her culinary traditions, the practices of gift giving, and the importance of ethically sustainable and localised food systems. She explored the grounded realities global warming has had in her community’s sea and wildlife, and how changing seasonal patterns have devastated their crop yields and livestock.

The intimate relationship between food and identity construction were raised as key principles in promoting inclusivity by the fourth and final key speakers of the evening. Here, Dr Leigh-Anne Hepburn, Senior Lecturer in Design Innovation, and Eva Perroni, PhD candidate at the Sydney Environment Institute, both stressed that the senses and memories of their family kitchens were not solely tied to a distinct culinary food per se, but rather, from the social interactions and communal conversation food ensues. Dr Hepburn stated that such visceral and emotional practices of relationship building around the table can be applied in broader society. Similarly, Ms Perroni, drew on her diasporic experiences as an Italian Australian to emphasise that food is not only at the centre of identity construction, place-making and belonging, but that it also sits at the cross section of a wider set of societal problems.

The evening provided a fitting end to what has been a highly informative and engaging series led by Indigenous leaders and young female researchers. The five speakers highlighted how despite the differences in people’s positionalities, food and food related practices is a powerful tool to facilitate positive social and environmental change. With a closing performance by Indigenous singer songwriter Luana Pitt, I reflected in my capacity as an active food citizen in promoting a more socially just and fairer world; one dolma, and one damper at a time.

Omar Elkharouf is a PhD student with the Department of Government and International Relations and an SEI Research Assistant for Foodlab Sydney. Omar holds a Bachelor degree in Arts/Sciences with Honours in Human Geography from the University of Sydney. Omar gained field-based experience through several merit-based scholarship programs across the Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia, China and Singapore. Omar was awarded First Class Honours for his research that investigated the ways that civil society actors based in Myanmar conceive, describe and address the food problems in their rural agrarian communities. Omar has a passion for social/environmental justice, relational geographies, sustainable food systems and intersectionality. His PhD seeks to build on this passion by assessing the ways that local government actors can promote food security through policy and programs, including food incubators, through the lens of intersectional discourse.