Hungry for History: a Decolonial Menu for the Pedagogy of Seeds
Even though I look Dutch, I do not speak Dutch.
That sentence was uttered a few times as I would stand behind the counter serving lunch to fellow residents, staff and occasional customers at the Jan van Eyck Academie cafeteria. Most people approached me speaking English, as that is more or less the official language in this art institution in the south of the Netherlands and its international body of participants. But the restaurant is open to the general public, and once a week there was a lady who used to come with her mother, the latter of whom I suspected had memory issues and would always speak to me in Dutch. Instead of correcting her, I would reply jokingly: “Even though I look Dutch, I do not speak Dutch.” Despite the fact that we did not share the same language, we did share a sense of humor. We would then laugh, turning the absence of memory into a blessing that would allow us to revisit an old joke as if it was fresh and new. The punchline was funny because I do not look Dutch. What do the Dutch look like? And why is it that I do not look Dutch? And why does that matter?
One day, while doing my usual job behind the counter, a couple of gentlemen approached me speaking Dutch. I thought I could pull off my good old joke and told them: “Even though I look Dutch, I do not speak Dutch.” To my surprise, the remark was not funny to them, even though I had already begun to laugh. One man’s reaction was: “You do not speak Dutch, and you do not look Dutch!” in a serious tone of voice, clearly showing discomfort. It escaped me what could have gone wrong to elicit such a reaction. But he continued: “What are you? Portuguese?” (There are many Portuguese in the Netherlands, and many do work behind counters or in kitchens, behind walls.) To which I answered: “I do speak Portuguese, but I am Brazilian. I speak the language of the colonizer.” The discomfort escalated as he finally said, “I thought it was education that the Portuguese had taken to Brazil.” Aware of how aggressive he was being when saying that, he stepped back and curled his body as if to protect himself from what could have been an angry attack from my side. But there was a counter between us and he was not near me, even though I doubt I would have reacted in a way to be physically aggressive. After all, as he very well pointed out, I have been educated, so I just shut up and focused on my next customer.
We come from Brazil, but we do not speak Tupi. We were domestieducated: we speak Portuguese and English.
When we applied to be residents at Jan van Eyck, we were interested in working at the intersections of the Print Lab, the Food Lab and the Lab for Nature Research. Inspired by the texts published on the website of the institution, our project proposed thinking about these three different workshops in terms of surfaces: how can we write on the surface of the land, read the surface of the dining table, cultivate the surface of the page? Our interest was thus to approach the JvE as a system, or ecosystem, connecting its different areas of work and research as we shuffled between the performances usually associated with each of these places, suggesting new syntaxes. Food would be the mediator. During our one-year residency, we worked directly in the kitchen for around two months. Our focus was on lunch, and we served from 30 to 40 people daily.
Colonizing as forced fertilization
In the first letter written to the King of Portugal after a Portuguese fleet en supposed route to India stumbled upon the coast of Brazil, Pêro Vaz de Caminha wrote, describing the indigenous people they met:
They do not plough or breed cattle. There are no oxen here, nor goats, sheep, fowls, nor any other animal accustomed to live with man. They eat only inhame [yams], which are plentiful here, and those seeds and fruits that the earth and the trees give of themselves. Nevertheless, they are of a finer, sturdier, and sleeker condition than we are for all the wheat and legumes that we eat.
What Pêro Vaz saw was a culture that did not antagonize natural processes, but, even though mentioned, it was not of interest. Instead, what Pêro Vaz perceived in the hospitality and naiveté of the original peoples was room to turn them into Christians. That same notion of conversion applied to their eating habits. The Portuguese did not like the indigenous food. Over centuries, they brought in domesticated animals from Europe, as well as plants to cultivate: figs, peaches, cabbage, onions, cucumbers, melons, roses, grapes and wheat among them.
Violently suppressing and ignoring the local culture was done in the name of salvation, where religion played a large role. The first tree that was cut down by the Portuguese axe became a cross to be used in the inaugural Christian mass upon arrival. The indigenous people who resisted assimilation were either killed or enslaved, forced to work on the plantations of sugar cane, for example, which tore down the forests to provide fuel for the sugar mills and open room for the expansion of monocultures. The people and the land were destructively abused, as gold, wood, sugar, furs and feathers, to name a few, fed the hungry Portuguese empire.
What the Portuguese did not know was that indigenous culture played an active role in building forests. Today, there is strong evidence to consider the Amazonian forest as a cultivated territory, where human culture and nature are one thing. The simple act of eating and dispersing seeds, and the very habits of indigenous civilization, have had the power to create Terra Preta de Índio, for example, which is the most fertile land known to humans. What Pêro Vaz de Caminha described in the negative was actually a cultivation method that supported biodiversity, complex multi-species entanglements and environmental health. The indigenous people are earth’s lovers and forests are their offspring.
Exiles in our own land
The effort to implant European culture in an extensive stretch of territory under conditions largely foreign, if not adverse, to Europe’s thousand-year tradition is the dominant fact in the origins of Brazilian society and the one that has yielded the most valuable consequences. We have brought our forms of association, our institutions, and our ideas from distant countries, and though we take pride in maintaining all of them in an often unfavorable and hostile environment, we remain exiles in our own land. We can accomplish great things, add new and unexpected features to our human nature and forge the type of civilization that we represent. Nevertheless, all the fruits of both our work and our sloth seem to belong to an evolutionary system from another climate and another landscape.
Who is behind the counter?
This menu started with an anecdote that reveals two perspectives on history. The first perspective is an impaired memory that can only acknowledge the present, which is pregnant with possibilities of encounters that can be permeated by joy and surprise. To create such space, erasing any kind of memory is mandatory. The present then comes as a gift, which has no roots and is pure possibility, but it won’t be remembered.
The second conversation reveals a simplified past in which ideas of colonization and education intersect so that lightness and irresponsibility, as inability to respond, can be found in the present, away from any historical weight that a colonial past might have produced. Violence and extermination are the narratives of progress for the acquisition of culture and education.
All of a sudden, what seem like distinct notions of history become very similar in their quest for an easy present. In both perspectives, there is a flattening of the past, which removes wrinkles to make it smooth, superficial. In need of some fresh air, I go out for a walk, experiencing with ease the lack of hills and bumps of the Dutch landscape. It is flat, smooth and horizontal. I walk by agricultural fields where I see monocrops. Long and harmonious lines of one single culture bring me a feeling of confidence, of control. Things are tidy and in place. Except for one thing: we do not belong. We are the weeds, onkruid, as the Dutch call it.
Time to pay: in debt with history
Have you had enough?
The plants and seeds brought by the Portuguese to be cultivated in Brazil seldom thrived. The first attempts to plant wheat, dating back to the 16th century, were disastrous. These plants did not understand the soil, did not interact with the local ecosystems, missing their continent of origin. Only in the 20th century, with the help of chemicals, pesticides and heavy machinery, was the soil “corrected” to assimilate these foreign cultures successfully. But food is not just a calorie source for the human body, as our scientific notions may lead us to believe.
Intrigued by these matters, Joélson Buggilla and I have been creating projects related to food and the environment. Pedagogy of Seeds is one of them, which started when Joélson was doing research for another project in the forests of Rio de Janeiro. He came back with his pockets full of seeds, fertilized by the amazing experience of spending a week in the food forest in Paraty. These seeds were then catalogued and stored in small bags and are, since then, awaiting a piece of land to be cultivated. They carry that desire and serve as a reminder of our dream to grow our own food forest and lead a more self-sufficient life. Collecting these seeds made us aware of all the seeds that are around us all the time. When we started working in the kitchen at Jan van Eyck, it came to our attention that preparing food was liberating seeds, which were then being discarded as waste. That was when Joélson started interrupting their usual trajectory and bringing them into our studio. As the studio is never below 18°C, we turned it into a greenhouse where seeds began sprouting. A few months later, we had our first harvest of cherry tomatoes.
Many are the lessons we have learned in this project, but the one we decided to approach in this text is the seed’s relationship to history. Seeds, above all, have ingrained stories. They carry historical information to express, which becomes visible as they sprout, relate and are cared for. The food yielded by these plants also tells us a story that we hear and read with our digestive systems and which is absorbed by every cell of our bodies. Food is information and a privileged mediator in the relationship between society and environment. Through food, we relate to the landscapes where it is grown, to the agricultural methods that were used and to the information contained in its molecules. If we are aware of the seeds the system contains, we can contribute to the continuation of the cycle, connecting past, present and future.
Today, the great majority of what we eat as a society has had its history erased. Most farmers are no longer responsible for saving seeds from one harvest to the next. Genetically engineered food has reduced biodiversity and flattened the seeds’ relationship to history, unifying the diversity of a particular species to the most economically successful varieties, turning seeds, and food, into commodities.
And what lessons do those genetically engineered seeds and food teach us? That is a lesson of forgetfulness, of amnesia, of lack of history and relationship to site. As we eat these foods, we are also teaching our bodies to behave like those successful crops, where difference is considered a weed, something to be eradicated.
When we were working behind the counter, we came in contact with people’s hunger. Hunger is multidimensional. We, as a society, have been hungry for those ingredients which food without history cannot provide us with. The menu here is designed to address those who came to us in hunger. May this menu feed you with more complex histories or, at least, plant a seed.