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Meet the Author: Venetia Johannes

Dr. Venetia Johannes’s recent ethnographic monograph Nourishing the Nation: Food as National Identity in Catalonia explores the everyday experience of national identity in Catalonia through the lens of food.

As an everyday object of consumption, food provides unique insight into the lived realities of Catalan nationalism, and how Catalans experience and express their national identity in light of recent events such as the rise in support for secessionist politics and changing identity politics in Spain as a whole.

Why Catalonia?

I first visited Catalonia in the summer of 2008 on a part family holiday, part language learning experience to practice Castilian Spanish. I knew of the existence of the Catalan language, but when I arrived I was surprised how visible it was in everyday life and the urban landscape of Barcelona, on an equal footing with Castilian in many cases. I also noticed the strong presence of the senyera, or Catalan national flag, as well as other Catalans symbols and pro-Catalan graffiti. It struck me too that Catalonia was referred to as a nation, and had an identity that was clearly separate from that of Spain.

At the time, I was also fascinated by the paintings of Salvador Dalí, so made sure to visit the obligatory sites of Dalí pilgrimage in Empordà on the northeast coast. Here the emphasis on Catalan became more pronounced. When I spoke in Castilian, the reply would often be in Catalan (an example of language alternation). I later learned that this region of Catalonia was known as a bastion of strong and proud Catalanism, and was the place of origin of many cultural symbols such as the national dance (the sardana) and important elements of national cuisine like mar i muntanya (sea and mountain) cuisine that combines seafood and meats in one dish. These were my early experiences of Catalan food. Not only was the quality consistently exceptional, from high end restaurants to small family locales, but the mixing of flavours and components was something I had seen nowhere else. I often heard jokes on my fieldwork many years later that it must have been romance that drew me to Catalonia, and in a way it was. But it was not with a person, it was with Catalonia itself.

The strong and very visible presence of a separate Catalan language, identity and history intrigued me. This abiding interest in Catalan culture remained with me until my MSc in Social Anthropology at Oxford University. A few weeks in, the topic for the weekly essay was nationalism and ethnicity. Whilst doing the readings I was continually drawn back to my memories of Catalonia. I continued to research Catalan nationalism but found, to my surprise, there were few works on the subject from an anthropological perspective. One exception was the late anthropologist Josep Llobera’s book, Foundations of National Identity (2004), where he described another problem I had noticed in my research on nationalism, that there were few satisfactory monographic studies that provided a deep insight into the lived realities of nationalism. Seeing this gap in the literature, I decided to remedy it by exploring the role of Catalan culture in the nationalist movement for a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Oxford, supervised by Prof. Bob Parkin, from 2011 to 2015.

Why food?

My original plan when I started to research the topic for the doctorate was to consider the whole of Catalan culture and its intersection with Catalan nationalism. It soon became obvious that this was going to be far too ambitious for a single doctoral project! I needed to focus on a particular area of Catalan culture. On reading the somewhat sparse ethnography to be found on Catalonia (particularly the work of Dorothy Noyes and Alexander F. Robertson), something that continually appeared was the role of food and commensality in Catalan social life. Catalonia’s reputation as a centre of gastronomic excellence, especially as the home of celebrated chef Ferran Adrià and El Bulli restaurant (which had newly closed when I began my doctorate) also played a part.

To study food is also an excellent way to enter a social reality. Food is a necessity of life in all human cultures, but societies have also used food to differentiate themselves from others and assert a separate identity. At the heart of nationalism (and the expression of national culture) is a politicised expression of difference. Therefore, to use food as an everyday point of reference provides a useful lens through which to consider nationalism, particularly one such as Catalonia’s which comes from an area with a strongly developed cultural and culinary identity. To study food also provided a useful and practical entry point to otherwise fraught identity politics. Regardless of their views on the Catalan independence movement, most Catalans were more willing to talk about food to a relative stranger on initial acquaintance, than more controversial topics.

What are your intentions with the book?

The thesis I completed in 2015 was imperfect in many ways – I took the dictum that a finished thesis is better than a perfect one very seriously! I took some distance from the topic, including gaining experience outside academia, but always remained involved in Catalonia. The independence movement continued, eventually culminating in the Spanish Constitutional Crisis of autumn 2017. I realised that I needed to get my research out to a general audience, that my knowledge and research would be useful to help understand ongoing current events in the region. I therefore returned in January 2018 to update my fieldwork on the current situation. After further adding to the literature (especially on food and nationalism) and reworking some of my theories in light of the new research, the finished book was very different from my original thesis.

From an academic perspective, I hope this volume contributes to a better understanding of the nature of nationalism. As Llobera points out, if we do not study them, we run the risk of misunderstanding them. Also, I wish to consider the topic from a novel perspective, to consider that subject through food and cuisine. In doing so, this book contributes to the growing literature on food and national identity. This is one of several books on the topic that have appeared in the last decade, including Berghahn’s Food, Foodscapes and Identities in the Yucatán (Ayora-Diaz, 2012) and Greek Whisky (Bampilis, 2013), as well as Bloomsbury’s The Emergence of National Food (Ichijo, Johannes and Ranta, 2019).

And finally, I see my work as a work of cultural history, of Catalonia in a tumultuous moment of its history from 2012 until 2018. I hope that when future scholars come to study this era in history, they will be able to turn to this book and gain insight into the everyday experiences of ordinary Catalans swept up in the current of history; how the foods they ate can tell us how they thought and talked about those events.

Photo caption: Pastissos de la Diada (Diada Cakes) at a Barcelona bakery in September 2014, decorated with the Catalan national flag (senyera) and pro-independence flag (estelada). Venetia Johannes.

Venetia Johannes is a post-doctoral research affiliate at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford. She was co-editor of The Emergence of National Food: The Dynamics of Food and Nationalism (Bloomsbury, 2019), and has published chapters and articles on Catalonia, food, nationalism, and heritage.

Vol. 44, New Directions in Anthropology
Food as National Identity in Catalonia
Read the introduction, “Nourishing Catalan Nationalism”
Recommend to your institution’s library!