This week's selection comes from Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.
One way or another, food is at the heart of everyday life for almost everyone on the planet. We plan our days around it, share it with friends, watch TV shows about it, and food – or sometimes, intentional abstinence from food – is central to many religious, cultural and familial celebrations. Our relationship to food – whether it is we eat, where we eat it, or who we eat it with – is a reflection of who we are, shaped as it is by the traditions we inherit from our families, cultural expectations, our social circumstances and other aspects of our day-to-day lives.
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When interviewers ask people to describe what mealtimes look like for them, they are asking about more than just how people sustain themselves. In this clip, Kuli Padan interviewed in 1999 for the Millennium Memory Bank, describes a typical family mealtime in her home, and in doing so reveals much about her family dynamics and cultural heritage.
At the end she reflects on the ‘sad’ fact that the television is the focal point of her family now, and an enduring presence at her family’s mealtimes in particular.
Listening to this clip brought to mind conversations I’ve had with my own family recently on how our mealtimes have changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. Growing up, family mealtimes at the dinner table every evening – without any technology – was one thing my parents insisted on. It was important to them that we spent that time together, catching up and sharing what we’d been up to each day.
When lockdown happened and we suddenly found ourselves spending all our time together – all working in the same space as we were living, our hobbies and social lives brought to an abrupt stop – we suddenly found ourselves short on things to talk about at mealtimes. Gradually, for the first time in my life, family mealtimes moved to in front of the TV where a programme (usually a quiz show of sorts) could take the place of conversation. I don’t lament this development in the same way Kuli Padan does, because it feels less like a loss and more like a reaction to a world that changed in ways that were beyond our control. It does raise some interesting questions about why we eat in the ways that we do and our emotional relationship to those moments in our lives, though.
Of course, these experiences are very personal and individual. The pandemic, for example, may have changed other people’s eating habits in ways vastly different to my own: perhaps working from home presented some families with an opportunity to share mealtimes that they never had before, or enabled someone to find time to learn to cook from scratch. Over time, children grow into adults and the responsibilities for cooking and feeding in the home change and shift, as do food preferences, the schedules for mealtimes, and exposure to new foods and ways of eating. Kuli Padan was interviewed in 1999; I wonder how mealtimes may have changed for her in the years since she gave her interview?
The nature of the life history approach, which informs many of the interviews in the British Library’s oral history archive, combined with the sheer size and thematic scope of the collections means our archive contains a wealth of material on people’s eating habits and their relationship to food. This particular extract is featured in If Homes Had Ears, a website which showcases the sounds of domestic life, by exploring five spaces in the home: the bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and garden. Each space highlights intriguing audio clips from the diverse collections in the British Library Sound Archive, covering the timespan of recorded sound and featuring many of the rich cultures that make up the UK.
Kuli Padan was interviewed by Eka Morgan in 1999 for the Millennium Memory Bank, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.