A Conspiracy in Paris

There’s a conspiracy in Paris, and a lot of the major museums are in on it. I didn’t recognize it at first, but it’s real, and – like The Da Vinci Code (which, full disclosure, I have not actually read) – I found an important clue in the Louvre.

The Louvre was the first museum I visited on this trip to Paris. A friend offered me a free ticket, so how could I resist? But I’ve been before, so the question was – what to see? I followed signs for the Ancient Mediterranean without a clear plan, stopping at a case of prehistoric Cypriot ceramics. Beautiful, but I’ve seen artifacts like these many times. I walked further in, looking for something new, and caught site of a doorway offering to usher me into the world of Islamic art. Now this – to me at least – was new.

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A 16th century illuminated Islamic novel

The Islamic wing was the main section I visited that day, utterly absorbed by the elegance, gorgeousness, and minute craftsmanship of the objects on display. The exhibition covers centuries of artistic development from across the Muslim world, and I found myself drawn especially to the examples of writing as art and writing in art. Favorites were a lavishly illuminated novel that showcased the owner’s wealth, taste, and education even across the time and culture gap, and a vibrant set of tiles depicting a poetry competition. I left the Louvre delighted, but completely unaware that a conspiracy was afoot.

I still didn’t catch on when I visited the Musée du Quai Branly. The Quai Branly houses the ethnographic collections of Jacques Chirac, and – as an anthropologist – it was a must-see. I reveled in the power and clarity of these impressive artistic traditions, and I was especially interested to see that the museum was hosting a special exhibition on the long history of engagement between Africa and Europe*. African materials, techniques, inventions, and artistic influences were traced through exchange contacts and their subsequent effects.

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The uniquely human musculature of the butt

I was still oblivious when I visited the Musée de l’Homme. Another must for the anthropologist, the Musée de l’Homme proposes to tackle the very stuff of human existence: who are we, how did we get here, and where are we going? The museum’s impressive exhibits do just that, encouraging visitors to confront the wealth of human variety while always bringing us back to our human commonalities. I was delighted by the display that explains, in dispassionate detail, why humans are the only species to have a butt. The butt is a complex musculature developed to support specialized bipedal locomotion, and if the fact that everyone has a butt isn’t proof that we’re all the same deep down, I don’t know what is.

But the Musée de l’Homme didn’t stop with butts. There was a dedicated special exhibit deconstructing racism. As if the entire story of shared human evolution wasn’t sufficient, here was a whole space devoted to helping visitors understand why “race” doesn’t really divide us, and why we often believe it does. This is where I finally caught on.

So I wasn’t surprised when, on a visit to the Musée de l’Orangerie, home to Monet’s monumental water lilies, I discovered a special exhibit devoted to the influence of non-Western and especially African art on Dada. The Dada movement, a rejection of the anti-human horrors of WWI, was a major beginning of modernism in Western art, and it drew a huge amount of inspiration from non-Western aesthetics. We can – and should – debate the ways in which these aesthetics were appropriated and reproduced, but the point remains that in a moment of cultural crisis, Western artists looked for inspiration outside the West – as they had been doing for centuries.

My conspiracy theory drew some amusement when I shared it with Dr. Stephanie Nadalo*, a brilliant art historian who is also the friend who gave me my Louvre ticket. She describes this “conspiracy” – much more accurately – as “an organized and well publicized effort to decolonize art history.” After all, the founding mission of the Quai Branly museum, which was conceived in 1996 and opened in 2006, is to “encourage original dialogue between the cultures of four continents.” The Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre was founded in 2003 and the galleries opened in 2012, financed in large part by donations from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait, and Azerbaijan in the wake of 9/11.

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A 19th century skull figure from Cameroon at the Quai Branly

But what struck me about this effort to decolonize art history wasn’t just the shift in perspective of the permanent collections, but also the timeliness of the temporary exhibitions. The idea is out there that there is some such thing as a Europe or a “West” that is independent from what is non-Europe and non-West. This idea has gained particular visibility over the past several months in the backlash against eminent scholars discussing ethnic diversity in Roman and medieval Europe. As an anthropologist, I have concerns with some of the museums I’ve mentioned in this post, concerns with both their pasts and their presents*. But even so, I want to recognize these museums for their efforts to present more of the complete story of the so-called West. The complete story needs to be told, now, in as many venues as possible, and museums are perceived as presenting the “canon” whether they mean to or not. The West is and always has been multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious. Thank you to the museums of Paris for showing it.

 

* The temporary exhibition “L’Afrique des Routes” closed on November 12.

* You can follow Dr. Nadalo on Twitter (@postmodernclio) and Instagram (postmodernclio)

* For an example of scholarship discussing such issues, see A. Martin. 2011. Quai Branly Museum and the Aesthetic of Otherness. St Andrews Journal of Art History and Museum Studies 15: 53-63.

The Story of Meat Puck

Let me tell you the story of meat puck. The story begins the summer after I started my PhD program. I traveled to Italy for the first time to join an excavation in central Sicily. We were a large team, and the project hired two Sicilian cooks to keep us fed – a Herculean task given that we were dozens of twenty-somethings doing eight hours of manual labor. The project in Sicily was my introduction to authentic Italian food. I savored classics like pesto and caprese and sampled Sicilian specialties like arancini – balls of risotto that are stuffed with various fillings and then fried. Meals were delightful, eye-opening, and washed down with generous glasses of local wine and more than a few limoncellos.

Delicious as dinner was, the main fare was pasta, and night after night of carbohydrates can leave you wanting if your American vision of dinner includes a slab of meat. So there was one particular dish that was greeted with roaring enthusiasm every time it appeared. That dish was meat puck.

Meat puck is basically a large meatball that has been squashed, dusted with flour, and fried in olive oil, like a nugget of Italian meatloaf. The first time the team got meat puck, a light appeared in the eyes of every student who had worked on the project the year before. Knives and forks were seized with uncommon energy, even for that hungry crew.

“Meat puck!” they cried almost in unison, and dug in.

I spoke no Italian at the time, so I couldn’t ask what region of Italy meat puck came from, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that meat puck was tasty, hearty, and a glorious dose of protein. We got two per serving, and we loved it.

You can imagine my delight when I discovered that meat puck – like pesto and caprese – was pan-Italian. Five years after the project in Sicily, I partnered with an Italian colleague to run a small excavation in Sardinia as my dissertation project. A handful of students volunteered to work with us, and our tiny team bought lunches from a local couple who also catered for the town elementary school. Just a few days into the project, we opened our lunch boxes to find:

“Meat puck!” I cried.

“Meat puck?” my students asked, eyebrows raised. I laughed.

“I don’t know what it’s called in Italian, but we got it on a project I did in Sicily and we called it meat puck. It’s yummy.”

My students agreed. From that day forward, meat puck in our lunches was cause for celebration. It was the cherry on top of a day gone well, the saving grace of a day of disasters. And it made me happy, in a circle-of-life kind of way, to introduce a new crop of American students to this delightful Italian classic, as I had been introduced to it five years before.

But Americans are spoiled for choice. I grew up in a Midwestern town that was far from an exemplar of internationalism, and I still had access to Chinese, Thai, and Mexican in addition to the usual restaurant chains. During grad school, when my friends and I would take a break from our studies to get lunch, we first had to decide what kind of lunch we wanted: sushi? Indian? Latin fusion? Maybe try the new vegan place? Americans prize the opportunity to decide what we want, and choosing foods is no small part of this enjoyment. And why not? Even the best cuisines can become repetitive. I admit, after weeks of eating Italian every day in the field, my students and I were starting to wish for variety.

It was a great day, then, when one of the Sardinian workers told me: “you must be excited, you’re getting American food today!”

We were? How did she know? It turned out that the caterers provided a lunch schedule for the parents of children at the elementary school. My students and I spent the morning in rabid anticipation of this unexpected treat. What kind of American food would it be? I closed my eyes and wished that it might, just might, be barbecue. When lunchtime arrived, we threw the boxes on the table, ripped open the lids, and:

“Meat puck…?”

There was a stunned silence as we looked at the little fried meatloaves.

“But…” someone stuttered plaintively “meat puck isn’t American…”

The silence lengthened. It took us time to put it together. Slowly, unwilling to believe, we realized:

“Meat… pucks… are… hamburgers.”

There it was. The terrible truth stared up at us from a thin pool of olive oil. In a second of disillusionment, meat puck went from a beloved Italian specialty to a sadly inaccurate American one. Where was the cheese? The lettuce? The tomato? What about ketchup and mustard? Where was the bun?

It’s funny how expectation changes everything. I didn’t stop enjoying meat pucks once I realized they were hamburgers, but my enthusiasm lost its edge. The concept of Italian-American food was familiar to me, but I had never considered the possibility of American-Italian food. I had never imagined how it would taste to eat one of my national dishes after it had been translated for a different palate. I thought of the Chinese, Thai, and Mexican restaurants I had grown up with, and wondered how deeply those dishes were doctored so they would sell to a bunch of Ohioans.

I can’t deny that the story of meat puck has a kernel of disappointment. But I like to think it’s really a story of hope. A story of cultural exchanges waiting to happen, of important culinary bridges remaining to be built. The story of meat puck is a call to introduce Italians to the fresh, smoky, succulent flavors of the genuine American classic. And with this sacred duty in mind, I squared my shoulders and walked through a crisp fall evening to my friends’ house to cook them hamburgers. On a grill. With cheese. Without olive oil.

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Vendemmia

Yesterday was my first day back in the deposito, and I was delighted to find it in great shape: everything where I left it, the electronic equipment still working, no mold anywhere. There was barely a spider that had set up a web among the bags of pottery. While I’ve been away, the Comune even came and attached the plumbing, so whereas last year we constantly carried equipment to an outdoor tap to wash it, this year I have a functioning sink right in the lab. (Tante grazie al Comune di Siddi!)

There was one negative surprise, however. It turns out that the bones I was convinced were stored in the deposito are currently housed in a museum in another town about 5 km away. These bones are, of course, precisely the materials I came here to study.

It isn’t a major problem, and if it’s the worst thing that happens during the study, I’ll be in great shape. Still, archaeology is surrounded by bureaucracy in almost any country, and Italy is not an exception. Taking those four crates of bones, putting them in a vehicle, and driving them 5 km to the deposito will take days. There will be permit applications, calls to the Soprintendenza, organizing a day when we can use the Comune’s truck…

So when a friend asked me if I wanted to spend this morning helping him harvest his vineyard, I said sure!

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In the vineyard before the sun, the heat… and the wasps

I got up at 6am and dressed for fieldwork – my Northface pants, a long-sleeved shirt with a high spf rating, hiking boots, work gloves, sunscreen, a hat. Then we drove to the vineyard – a short distance outside the town – where we met five friends who were also lending a hand.

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Bunches of bovale wrapped around the wire trellises

It’s a small vineyard divided between two Sardinian grapes – bovale and monica – with a row of table grapes as well. We started with the bovale, which was difficult to harvest. The grapes are small and the clusters grow in tangles with themselves, the branches of the vine, the wire trellises the vines are tied to, really anything they can wrap a tendril around. It was hard work just figuring out where to cut, and even then we had to untangle the grapes before they would fall into our large plastic baskets.

The monica was simpler. The grapes are slightly larger and the clusters tend to hang down one by one. It was easier to see the stems, to insert our shears among the leaves and branches, to gather the clusters once they were cut. All in all, the seven of us made short work of the harvest. We finished before 9am, when the air was still too cool for the wasps to come out, but late enough that we could tell today was going to break 37°C (100°F) again. Another hot day in a series of hot days in a series of dry weeks stretching back for months. The effect of the drought was clearly visible in the grapes, some of which appeared to be drying on the vine before they had even fully ripened.

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The crusher made short work of separating the grapes from the stems

The wine production takes places in my friend’s garage, and the first step was to turn our fresh grapes into must. We slowly poured each basket into an electric crusher, which spat out the stems – or most of them – and dropped the juice and crushed grapes into large plastic vats below. At the end, the vat of bovale was knee-high, and the vat of monica was only slightly lower. They told me it wasn’t much this year because of the drought, but it still looked impressive to me.

The must has to stand for a week to let the fermentation begin. We’ll go stir it a few times, then press it and bottle it. It seems almost too simple to result in the excellent wine I’m used to drinking at my friend’s table.

“È tutto?” I ask in some disbelief.

“È tutto,” they assure me.

We can’t resist tasting our work before we go. There’s a fine screen we press down on the must to let just the juice through, then we scoop up the juice in a plastic cup. Both are delicious. The bovale is intensely sweet and rich tasting, the monica slightly less sweet with a flavor closer to table grapes. Some complain that it’s too sweet, but it seems the intense sugar is expected in a drought year. Drought years produce little wine, they tell me, but the wine you get is very good. I’ll have to return next summer and see.

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Sweet, delicious, fresh-squeezed juice