April 18, 2017

Eating Amsterdam Part II: Research and "Roti"

A picture of delicious roti, a Surinamese dish (c) Sally Rifkin
Sally Rifkin

It’s hard to believe, but somehow I am within my last month in Amsterdam. And just as I was finally starting to settle into my schedule—finding the best study spots near SIT, actually starting to enjoy Dutch class, and honing the perfect-length podcasts for my bike commute—the ground began to shift between my feet. My classes ended a week and a half ago, and I am faced with the daunting prospect of an independent study project (ISP in SIT lingo), in which I conduct qualitative interviews and write a 40-page research paper (or at least attempt to), all within three and a half weeks. Really it’s two weeks if you factor out the trips I’m taking to Brussels, Barcelona, and Athens at the end of April—trips I’ll have a hard time enjoying if I don’t have at least a sizable chunk of the paper written by then. I remember booking these trips at the end of February when the ISP seemed nebulous and impossibly far away. I remember thinking, “oh, I have a whole month to travel—and I’ll be doing some research or something!” (Little did I know.).

One perk of the situation is that for the most part, I like research. Getting a chance to conduct independent research is a reason why this program appealed to me in the first place. I work well independently—I make lists and set goals and hold myself accountable. There is something simultaneously daunting and thrilling about having a huge task in front of me and knowing that I have the tools to see it through from start to finish. One of my favorite parts of the research process is just starting out, when the world of academia is your oyster—there’s literature out there on every topic imaginable, and it can be exhilarating to get sucked down academic journal database rabbit hole (do I sound like a huge nerd? I’m not sorry).

Gender studies research is particularly versatile. You can take a gender studies perspective on any number of topics within social sciences or humanities, leading to countless intersections. I became interested in the particular intersections between feminism, foodways, race, and ethnicity through my involvement with the Burning Kumquat, Washington University’s student-run organic garden. In Amsterdam, I have been interested in the ways in which migrant groups acculturate to dominant Dutch culture. My ISP will explore how Surinamese women in the Netherlands resist, modify, or adhere to Dutch culture through the food they prepare, serve, and consume.

More delicious Surinamese cuisine (c) Sally Rifkin

Migrants make up a large portion of the Dutch population, but the category of “Dutch” remains elusive even to migrant families who have been in the Netherlands for many generations. As a former colony of the Dutch empire, Suriname today is transnational; about half of the Surinamese population lives in Suriname, a small country in South America, and half live in the Netherlands. Since the waves of Surinamese migration to the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s, scholars and writers have theorized about why Surinamese remain a distinct ethnic group, rather than “ethnic Dutch” in the Netherlands. Looking at food traditions is key to understanding how Surinamese culture is maintained, modified, and passed down. Because food work tends to be women’s work across cultures, migrant women who cook are often the cultural gatekeepers for their families and communities.

Surinamese food is influenced by a variety of cultures because of the Dutch legacy of colonialism in Suriname. It is a cuisine with Indian, Javanese, Chinese, and Dutch influences, to name a few. My favorite dish so far is roti, which consists of pan-fried or slow-cooked meat, potatoes seasoned with Indian spices, and a thin, soft bread. You eat it with your hands if you are talented and with a fork and knife if you are me. Last Friday, when I was preparing to conduct my first interview, I ate roti at a restaurant to mentally prepare. Afterwards, I biked over to my interviewee’s house. We did the interview in her living room and then moved to the kitchen to prepare a meal together—to my surprise, more roti! I was so full by the end of the day that my bike ride home took twelve extra minutes.

So for these next couple of weeks, I have nothing but free time and simultaneously so much to do that I can barely wrap my head around it. I’m fluctuating manically between trying to squeeze in all the tourist activities that I haven’t gotten around to yet (the famous tulips are in full bloom!) and cramming my head with literature, locating interviewees and conducting interviews, and transcribing and coding. It’s a kind of trial by fire that I never would have expected, but I’m glad it’s happening. When I return to St. Louis to conduct research for my honors thesis, I will be able to take a more relaxed and thorough approach. I’ll be more comfortable conducting interviews and faster at transcribing. But for now, I’m churning out three pages a day and committing to trying a new Surinamese restaurant every week until I conquer this beast. Wish me luck!