low heat [extra issue]: black epistemology – an interview with Lourence Alves
“Orisha cuisine* is an attainable prospect for us to think about the world", advocates Lourence Alves, historian, gastronome and PhD in Nutrition, Food and Health
This issue was translated by Luciane Maesp 📧 firstname.lastname@example.org
*NT: In Brazilian Portuguese, orisha food was historically translated by the enslaved African groups that were brought (by force) to Brazil as "saint's food". This was a way of masking their criminalized African religions into the Christian and monotheist system. For a better understanding of the complexity of orisha cuisine, we suggest the reading of Worshipping at the altar of progress: meet the Brazilian chef marrying gastronomy with spirituality.
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I received lots of enthusiastic replies about article #2 | broken rice, and the mailing list grew well! Thank you all for your interest and for supporting my work. I'm really glad about it!
I considered if the production or supply of rice grits increased, there would be some relevant data PRIOR to the controversy manifested in social networks., and in the same way, the rice grits would have been adopted by the food security public policies. The data I gathered (despite some institutions not cooperating) does not prove that the production or sales of rice grits increased, but that rice (broken or not) is expensive due to the lack of public stocks that regulate the supply and price of staple foods.
Publishing that piece has brought me precious reading recommendations. Rice grits, Land Policy, and Traditional Food Cultures (in Portuguese) by Lourence Alves was one of them, sent by my friend Ana Spengler. With fluid and didactic writing, Lourence ties different themes into lines, which brought me forward a deeper perspective on the understanding of what is food, food prejudice, and the stratification of taste. I recommended this article on my Instagram about three times, and you haven't read it yet, I suggest you read it before reading this issue.
Lourence's article – and her interpretation of the world – is the result of an interdisciplinary reading, built from "black theorists, of black epistemology" and criticism of canons that she soberly watches. Of course, her didacticism is also in the open courses she teaches online, and the points she makes are presented in an objective, simple and eloquent sentences. Like this one: "Orisha cuisine is an attainable prospect for us to think about the world".
Revisiting my conversation records, Lourence's work had been recommended by another friend, Bia Nunes de Souza, the greatest curator of gastronomic content I know. Every week my WhatsApp drips some unmissable link. Thank you, Ana and Bia!
To the interview, then.
— I’d like to ask about your name before starting. Is it spoken Lurrance [French accent] or Lourênce [Brazilian accent]?
— It should be Lurrance. My mother read it in a book, she doesn't remember which one anymore, but she speaks Lóurence [Brazilian accent].
— Particularly, I liked it better.
Lourence is a historian, gastronome, and Ph.D. in Nutrition, Food and Health from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). Her business is to make knowledge circulate, and Onje Cozinha [Onje’s Kitchen] is an outcome of her thesis entitled Onje: knowledge and practices of the orisha cuisine (in the press, no publication date set), defended in 2019. The pandemic accelerated the adaptation of her work to the virtual environment, and she taught two courses – Introduction to the Roots of Brazilian Cuisine and Atlantic Crossroads: bordering Bantu, Akan, and Yoruba flavors, this one with Karina Ramos and Gabriella Moratelli – before launching Onje’s Journey: Immersions in Orisha Cuisine, meetings that are being held this August. Her focus is the Ketu’s nation orisha cuisine, and the choice for the word onje (pronounced with the emphasis in the last syllable: on-je) is because it means "food" in the Yoruba language.
"I'm revisiting the thesis with a new reading background. I defend that the orisha cuisine is an attainable prospect for us to think about the world", she defines. Each meeting Lourence presents an element and relates it to an orisha. "For example, in the dimension of this mythical-philosophical set, Ogum is the blacksmith, so he would be the patron of agriculture, then I am talking about Ogum and tools. At the meeting on Exu the theme is market, but from the ojá-market perspective (which stands the exchange, not the accumulation) and the connections and sociability assembled in the markets", she explains.
I talked by telephone for about an hour and a half with Lourence on the afternoon of August 5th. Here I transcribe the main excerpts, edited them for better understanding.
The construction of Brazilian food understanding is Eurocentric. How could we fix this?
I don't believe in a short-term transformation. Our whole bibliography on sociology and historiography of food is supported by Câmara Cascudo, whose base is the reports of travelers, and confers a lot with [the work of] Gilberto Freyre. When talking about tripods [of food in Colonial Brazil1, we imagine that the three structural bases will have the same weight and importance, but that is not what these reports show. We hold Carlos Alberto Dória as one of the great bibliographical references, although he reiterates that one cannot talk about the contribution of the enslaved because, as slaves, these people had no creative capacity. However, the truth is that our creative capacity is so complex and potent that we manage to create and innovate within scarcity and deprivation.
I always tease. I say that angu2 came before polenta, that the stews are not Portuguese, but from Africa. In the colonial farms, on the cultivating undergrowth plant species, edible shrubs, chayote, pumpkin, okra... those who cultivated vegetables to thicken the meager food they received, were the enslaved people. The incorporation of vegetables in the diet was a custom of enslaved people and not of the Portuguese, as they say about "Portuguese stew"3. Putting this back together is a puzzling process and doing it without structure [and research support] is even more difficult.
Orality is discredited by the Eurocentric structure, but orality is movement, it is what keeps our knowledge alive and dynamic. I watched the defense of Taís de Sant'Anna Machado's thesis ["Um pé na cozinha4: socio-historical analysis of the work of black cooks in Brazil] and I'm looking forward to read it. She recovers the figure of the black cook from the slavery period to the present day and we must put this dimension of oral wisdom on paper because if the whiteness puts them, it erases, it assimilates our knowledge and puts it as its own theory.
About the canons of History and Sociology of Food, which authors would you add to those that are already established?
I’m getting back to History again, not only in contact with historians who revisit the facts – and then food appears quickly –, as in professor Flávio dos Santos Gomes, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, but also an intersection with black theory, such as Grada Kilomba, Lélia Gonzalez, Patricia Hill Collins. I'm going over what is deep-settled. It's not throwing Gilberto Freyre or Câmara Cascudo in the trash, because there's a lot of good stuff to work with. But we need to read critically. We have the practice of consuming bibliography as truth, but we can work along with the [research] line of possibility.
I'm bringing authors who are not from the food field but help on developing an update to the canon. There is a work on orisha cuisine called "The sacred banquet: notes on "to eat" in Candomblé terreiros"5, by Vilson Caetano de Sousa Junior. Other than that, I would quote Lélia Gonzalez, Beatriz Nascimento, Antonio Nego Bispo, who have very didactic writing, very easy to read. And Grada Kilomba, because she brings the tools that make us understand why there is this whitened canon, and why black theoretical literature is not there in the place of the theory's tool and method.
The whole issue [of black authors not being in the canons] is not just about orality. Lélia Gonzalez and Beatriz Nascimento have been getting ahead [academically] since 1970, but the institutionalized structure is whitened and does not give up its privileges. Grada Kilomba shows a symptomatic picture: everything we produce is not associated [by academia] with science, neutrality, and rationality. It is a subjective script, written in the margins, it is a partial script, yes it is. And it is no less science for that. It is not considered a science because we are not looking at the other, we are looking at ourselves and creating a new narrative for us, which opposes everything they said about us.
[By the way: listen to the last episode of the Vidas Negras podcast, which features an interview with historian Flávio dos Santos Gomes – Portuguese only]
In another part of your text ["The knowledge surrounding Brazilian agriculture are a legacy of African and Amerindian technologies"], you show that the social reproduction of the ruling class, since colonial times, was only possible because of the forced labor of people whose knowledge was undervalued but indispensable to the colonizer. Could you talk more about this?
Devaluing the work of black and Amerindian people and contrasting intellectual and manual labor is a project because it keeps marginal the knowledge of those in blue-collar work. For us, there isn’t such distinction. To do physical work, you need to know how it works, whether on land or in food processing, it involves chemistry and physics. These people [Blacks and Amerindians] were developing both the intellectual work and the practical application of it.
When I defend what I call afro-brazilianities – the resistance technologies of the enslaved, as they develop and technologies in the field of food - there are four possible points: 1) the quilombola6 cuisine, which is collective, maintains the proximity to the land, what they call today from farm to table; 2) the backyards and all the technical knowledge of what can be eaten and how to cook this edible undergrowth and shrubs. It's the wisdom of putting different agricultural genres in a small space without them competing with each other.
3) There is a knowledge in confluence [of enslaved African peoples] with the original peoples, as in the approximation of native plants [of Brazil] with African plants, in the art of the market that is the exchange and not accumulation, in the generation of networks of sociability and solidarity, the dynamics of movement, exchange, network, circularity and the dimension of religiosity. 4) Orisha cuisine is also a technology: through the food you have a production of bonding and the updating and renewal of this myth, feeding the spiritual connection.
To rescue this confluence between manual work, craft, service, and intellectual, mental work and place this in the status of power and wisdom is an urgent mission. We have always been seen by canonical literature as someone who does it, but to know how to do it, you need to know how to do it, how to keep doing it, and how to transmit this knowledge.
In gastronomy, [the knowledge, ingredients, and cooking techniques of black and Amerindian populations] we always occupy the allegorical space. But gastronomy as a field of knowledge is still being born. We are starting to organize serious symposia; not much time ago a gastronomy congress was an event with a chef class show. Having a bachelor's degree in gastronomy within public institutions gave a boost to this movement [of building the field of knowledge], and I see that bachelor's degree students push teachers a lot. I believe that in a few years we will have a more solid teaching base and this will put pressure on private colleges [to keep up with the movement]. It will only change when we have a minimum curriculum for gastronomy. Today, what is the basis for learning gastronomy? There is no gastronomy as a field within CAPES7. Each college sets its curriculum and that's it. Then, it is needed to fight for space in how knowledge is distributed.
I don't know about you, but I really want to read and hear more from Lourence. Merci, chérie!
NT: Which are the Brazilian Indians, the enslaved African groups, and the Portuguese colonizers/invasion
NT: cooked corn grits, typically made by the Brazilian Indians, usually with no seasoning and a rougher texture than Italian polenta
NT: a slow cook stew made with a large variety of ingredients in big chunks such as different types of meats, sausages, vegetables, and herbs.
NT: Literally translated as "a foot in the kitchen", is a racist expression to say that someone has a black origin. During the slavery period in Brazil, black women could only be in the colonizer's farm owners’ main house (casa grande) as an enslaved cooker/housemaid. It also refers to the stereotype that women are good cooks.
NT: Terreiros are the traditional temples where Candomblé is practiced.
NT: Quilombolas are the people that live in quilombos, hidden spots in the forests where the enslaved that could run went to live during the colonial period in Brazil. Nowadays, the quilombos house mixed ethnicity, but keep sharing the African ancestry. They form a community that stands up against the urbanization process and for a simple life in contact with nature.
NT: CAPES is a state foundation of the Ministry of Education of Brazil. It operates mainly in the expansion and consolidation of graduate programs at universities, promoting and fomenting scientific research and monitoring the quality of teaching.