Having been lucky enough to get some funding from the Our Food project run by folks at the University of Edinburgh to run two small projects , I have just been up in Ullapool finding out what it really feels like to hold the reins to my first very own funded project. Or, rather, what it feels like to be responsible for careering off the path, crashing into trees, upturning the cart and scaring the pony whilst getting horribly lost before clawing my way back to something approaching the right direction.
It’s been a steep learning curve – did you pick that up?
I went up to Ullapool with the intention of… doing a nice project about local food, y’know? Talking to some folks about veg and stuff, hanging with all the cool fishermen I’d met before talking about, like, fish or whatever, eat some cake, make a little show, get loads of praise for basically being really, like, creative and intuitive and everything.
I ended up in Ullapool finding out how little I know, being totally terrified, totally lost and ultimately totally humbled by the generosity and knowledge of a the community and the complexity and sheer incredibleness of a local food system as organic and resilient as the landscape.
So it turns out that you can’t totally wing a project, not even a creative anthropology project, and that two weeks isn’t really long enough to do much more than scratch the surface of a lifestyle hundreds of years in the making. And even though I’ve read about it in text books and all that, I learned, for real this time, in the flesh and by the failure of my own actions, that this kind of research is not just a nice chat with some locals – this is people’s lives. It’s their lives, their livelihoods, their hearts and minds, their past and future and for them to let you in is a huge leap of faith, an honour and not to be taken lightly. And I am honoured – touched and very grateful.
Although not all my plans panned out and halfway through I was freaking out that I didn’t think I was learning anything and that I was jus having random chats with people with neither them nor I knowing what I was doing, by the time it got to be time to leave, I realised that I’d learned more than I had imagined and had actually begun to form some interesting thoughts and connections.
Given many fine dinners, lots of lifts to and from the village, accommodation and pints, to name but a few gestures, I felt very touched at all the generosity, but it’s pretty standard up there. As my friend Emma always says, ‘Don’t see yourself stuck’ – no matter if it’s a lift I need or a bed, she’ll always offer.
In wondering out loud about the lack of local produce available to buy in the village despite some of the best soft fruit, meat and fish I’ve eaten being grown, hunted and landed locally, I was allowed a window into the ingenuity of Ullapool folk who know more about sourcing and bartering than I ever will.
And it was in the attempted (mostly failed!) managing of my two Meet and Two Veg compadres who had come up to help out with the project that I was faced both with the paucity of my own knowledge and the gradual dawning insight into what I was really looking at and interested in in Ullapool’s questions of local food.
With the totally invaluable help of Cathy and Mary at the Ullapool Community Trust, I made some great contacts, managed a couple of interviews and even had a very short notice cookery session which Anne, the Home Ec teacher from Ullapool High School let us use the school kitchen for (thank you!). With barely a couple of days notice Cathy helped me pull together a 3 hour open cook-in for free with everyone invited.
People came! And they cooked! And we ate many tasty things! And I was a whirl of unplanned food prep, mixing, greasing and generally trying to direct whilst also trying to navigate the unfamiliar kitchen (why, why only one fork in each drawer? What does it mean?). In a hot and sweaty three hours we produced:
Courgette chutney, courgette fritters, broad bean and chorizo on toast, sorrel sauce (from foraged sorrel) and sweet chilli sauce, all containing some home-grown ingredients.
SO chuffed! And it was afterwards, in discussing future plans that Cathy opened my eyes to some of my own assumptions and awkward prejudices about highland life and residents, its trials and triumphs – man, was I one chastened ex-anthropology student. I saw how many opportunities for learning and sharing learning I’d missed, saw in my effort to ‘give’ I’d forgotten to ‘receive’ – but I’ll just have to remember that for next time.
Still, despite all the tears and tribulations, sitting on the windowsill of a beautiful cottage on the lochside, looking out over the water, wine in hand, as the sun sets pink and gold over the hills, I was totes emosh about how lucky I was to be there, to have the chance to learn by the generosity of others and my own regular ballsing up of many a thing. Even better, I managed to hang on to the conviction that, even though I felt like a total failure in some moments, it was part of the process. Eventually, I started to see some thoughts emerge from the fog – perhaps the barter exchanges that kept local food out of the tourist market played a part, along with the generosity, in a form of social insurance that’s so necessary where livelihoods are so tenuous? Perhaps also a small rebellion, similar to an example of Weapons of the Weak?
Hopefully, this tiny project might lay some foundations for a future project – perhaps more cookery sessions, a food swap? But I’ll need to remember to take one step at a time, check myself and my assumptions, have a little faith and a lot of humility and just keep listening.
Here’s some photos from the awesomness that was the cookery session – Ullapool peeps totally rocked the freestyle cooking!