Over the past three months Eat The Streets, sponsored by Dublin City Council and Creative Ireland, has been challenging young people to grow their favourite fruit and veg while learning more about Dublin’s rich food heritage. This month sees a ten-day festival in which chefs, food experts and growers provide food for thought on the city’s food future, while also digging up the skinny on Dublin’s past food rearing efforts. Culinary spark Michelle Darmody talks to us about what’s on the menu at this fascinating new festival.
Where did Eat the Streets emerge from?
Eat the Streets is a new 10-day festival from June 11th-20th. It is a Dublin City Council project supported by Creative Ireland. Eat the Streets celebrates Dublin’s food history as the vegetable heartland, engaging children, their grandparents and families in growing, cooking, creating and discovering the food around them. I have been working very closely with Sabrina Dekker who is one of Dublin City Council’s Climate Action Coordinators. As Sabrina says, “When you live in a city, it is relatively easy to go to the shops to buy food. We are removed from the production of food; we may not see and experience the challenges of farming. Yet, we have a responsibility to take action, but how do we take action to eat a planetary diet while supporting farmers?” Sabrina has done lots of work in this area looking at what a just transition would mean, also examining how we use land and how the changes we make to land are having impacts on food security and food supply. Dublin City Council approached me to bring a food and food education perspective to the conversation, and to make connections with the local Dublin food community in which I have been embedded for a number of years.
With Eat the Streets we want to look at food before it gets to your kitchen, looking at farming practices and city growing projects. We also want to explore what to do with that food when it arrives in your kitchen, creating meals that include locally grown vegetables and how to use the leftovers once you have finished cooking. Basically, we want to instill some fun and joy into growing and cooking with the hope of disseminating a sustainable ethos as we go.
Food is generally about gathering around a table, breaking bread together, cooking and sharing food in the kitchen. The word companion even means “with bread”. But this year we will not be able to gather and share food together, so Eat the Streets had to be created online. We will be hosting cook-alongs and many of our workshops will also be online, but there will be some activities to do on your local streets and neighbourhoods; walking tours, cycle tours, garden projects as well as a street mapping workshop.
What is the aim of the festival? What would you like to see people taking away from it?
The aim of Eat the Streets is to focus on maximizing the use of our food and learning and sharing new skills – growing, cooking, creating and discovering. We want to look at the food on our plates in a sustainable way but not have a didactic conversation. We hope to give people a sense that you can make small changes and these can be tasty changes, they do not need to be punitive. We really want to embrace food in a way that leads to enjoyment and pleasure and as Sabrina says, “Bring to life a conversation around food and climate change.”
For the festival, chef Katie Quinn has created recipes from leftovers, one of the videos on the website shows her making delicious potato rissoles. There are also instructions for using a glut of food to make jams or chutneys or to pickle or ferment your excess vegetables.
I know many people do not have space to make a huge dent in the food they buy by growing their own, but having even a small connection to how food is produced can go a long way, simply growing some of your own herbs and vegetables can be rewarding. Many people found growing a solace during lockdown. We will always import food in Ireland, coffee for example will never grow here and most of us do not want to forgo it, but we can focus on what we can grow and begin to use land within our city in a clever way. City growing can produce a buffer in times of food shortages as we saw from allotments in the United Kingdom during the World Wars. Share City, a project lead by Professor Anna Davis also highlights this, and Anna will be hosting one of our After Dinner Chats.
Eat the Streets also aims to connect people with the vegetable history of Dublin. The city has very rich hinterland, much of it now built upon, but traces of the history are still visible in street names. School children have been collecting recipes from their Grandparents or elderly relatives and sending them in to us. This, too, is helping to build a picture of Dublin’s food history.
Urban and regenerative farming are prominent on your programme – do you see our behavioural change towards food and food processes being borne out of choice or necessity?
I think both. It is becoming more obvious that we need to make a change and I would hope those changes are done by choice. Education is key with future generations but so too is making the alternative palatable. When the story is all doom and gloom it can feel extremely overwhelming and people can switch off. By supporting businesses who are doing things differently, in a more sustainable way, by creating awareness and making changes we can start to climb that mountain together. Eat the Streets wants to celebrate businesses and food initiatives all over the city that are creating change, like The Grow Dome Project, for example, or Mud Island Community Garden. You can find instructions on our website www.eatthestreets.ie for how to create your own mini grow dome or watch potting instruction videos from the community volunteers in Mud Island. Airfield Trust are also on board and will be able to talk you through their transition to regenerative farming at their estate in Dundrum, which is a biodiversity oasis in the middle of an expanding suburb. Genevieve from Airfield will teach you make own herb butter from a glass of milk.
Since people have in many ways become tethered to their kitchen over the last year, what impact, if any, will that have on our relationship with restaurants besides the explosion of the DIY kits?
It is difficult to know as restaurants have so many different stories to tell. Some are the tethered to leases that might cripple them, others have had more freedom. The restaurant scene may look very different this time next year. I think we will gravitate back, we miss each other, and so much of eating is about who you share a meal with, the conviviality around a table. I think one legacy of the lockdown may be more picnics, which is always a good thing. Another change within the restaurant industry might be that chefs may not want to go back to the grind, the early starts, the late nights, now that they have seen another pace of life. I do not think our love affair with restaurants will end, it just may be shaped a little differently.
Sustainability is a feature that the restaurants or chefs we are working with for Eat the Streets all have in common. Conor Spacey, for example, leads Chef Manifesto in Ireland. The initiative is aimed at helping chefs adhere to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Conor brings this ethos into his own kitchen and you can watch him cook in videos on the website. He will also be doing a live cook-along on Saturday the 12th of June at 12.30.
You entered the world of academia in recent years. Can you tell us about that?
I am passionate about food education and looking at it creatively. I have had the great opportunity to return to University and do a PhD. I find it frustrating that we teach language with which to communicate, maths with which to problem solve, yet we do not teach the very crucial skills associated with making food. Children growing up today need, not just the skills to cook, but the skills to navigate a very complicated food system. We are not providing them with this in Irish schools at the moment. I feel strongly that this needs to change but we need to make these changes with care and in a way that teachers are happy with. They already have a very overloaded workday.
We need to look at ways to embed food education into the curriculum that are manageable and realistic, but this doesn’t mean we cannot be ambitious. Food education is not a panacea, but it can be part of a long-term strategy that, if done correctly, will be a valuable component in helping to address some of the current diet-related health issues as well as the environmental issues facing the next generation. Research has shown that equipping children to have an interest and enjoyment in food at an early age can provide them with the vital skills and motivation needed to stay healthy and I am hoping to continue this research.
Tell us about someone of the programme who fascinates you and who might not be on our regular radar?
Carolyn Steel participating in an After Dinner Chat with Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire at 6pm on June 17th will be really interesting. I really enjoyed Carolyn’s TED talk and her insightful way she mapped out the formation of a city like London. Maírtín will bring the Dublin perspective to her knowledge. The youth panel on June 14th will also be interesting. We need to learn from the next generation. Also, the opening night we have the Lord Mayor Hazel Chu cooking alongside Ellie Kisyombe – they will be cooking and chatting about what it is like to have a different perspective on food in Dublin. I am really looking forward to learning Chu’s family recipe for dumplings.
For the children, we have linked in with a number of schools across the city and have been receiving beautiful and inspiring drawings from them as well as the recipes. I am looking forward to the chefs picking some of these recipes and cooking them up live. The children whose recipes are chosen will be sent boxes of all the necessary ingredients. The cook-alongs will be hosted each weekend 12.30 to 1.30pm.
I am also looking forward to seeing the results of the Map Your Street workshop where young people are asked to go out into their street and look at what changes they would like to see, where they can suggest more planting, how we can open up to more biodiversity, spaces for composting. Dublin City Council will be able to look at all the suggestions and hopefully take some on board.
There is talk from time to time about tackling school food and encouraging healthy eating among our children. Where is that at these days?
As ever, it is complicated. The simple fact that there are so many government departments involved in school food and education around food alone makes it difficult terrain to navigate. For example, the Department of Employment and Social Protection fund the school meals programme, the Department of Children advocate for the children within the schools, the Department of Agriculture fund food tasting initiatives, the Department of Health work with healthy eating policies and the Department of Education and Skills work with utility of school buildings and curriculum development. Presently when it comes to food education on the curriculum (not including Home Economics in secondary school) the narrative is from a health discourse, quite biomedical in nature, calories, food pyramid, how food is made up of nutrients. I feel we need a much more rounded approach food affects many aspects of our lives and culture and we need to embrace this.
Children can log into Eat the Streets website and watch instructional videos that will help them improve their cooking skills. Our chefs have made short clips teaching how to chop safely, how to season your food properly or sauté. The building blocks to making a generation of proficient cooks.
Within our complicated food system, education is one cog that can be used to create change. It is by no means the only one, wider issues need to be addressed such as access to wholefoods and the prevalence of advertising, but, if we move our thinking about how we educate, it may be the start of building a different, more exciting, more creative food future for our children. At Eat the Streets we hope to begin a conversation and plant a seed in young people to look at food in a sustainable, wholistic way.
So, join Eat the Streets and let’s put down roots for a tastier tomorrow.