RMIT University


Sophie Langley


Making recipes: Essaying with mess and embodied knowledges



How might a writing form that includes both creative and academic work explore what sociologist John Law might call the ‘messiness’ of embodied knowledges (Law 2004)? Meeting the challenges of learning to live differently in a world that appears to be becoming increasingly uninhabitable for humans (and many other species) requires different methods of research that allow us to think anew about ‘the messes of reality’ and embodied knowledges (Law 2004: 2). My research threads together the practice of making things with food scraps that would usually otherwise be wasted and the practice of essaying. Drawing on philosopher Lisa Heldke’s notion of ‘cooking as inquiry’ and recipes as tools this paper uses an autoethnographic approach (Ellis et al 2011; Spry 2001) to explore how the form of the essay might expand recipes for things to make from food scraps to include theoretical and philosophical inquiries that have both informed and been informed by the practice of making things with the scraps. In this way, my research and this paper are both about experimentation in everyday cooking-like practices, and experimenting in writing, theorising and research, where the writing is not merely a metaphor, but also enacts the modes of inquiry discovered, explored and played with in the physical practices.
Keywords: creative writing, essaying, embodied knowledge, food waste



Across the last five years, I’ve undertaken a series of experimental interventions in my own everyday practices with food scraps that might usually become waste. Trying to document and reflect on this process, I’ve pondered about how to use writing as a vehicle, academically and creatively. As a result, what began as a Masters by research project about changing normative practices with excess food also became an ongoing exploration of the written form and its relationship to embodied knowledges. This paper interrogates a question central to that research: How might I use writing – creative and academic – to explore what sociologist John Law might call the messiness of embodied knowledges? (Law 2004)

Law makes an argument for ethnography as an approach to engaging more fully with the messiness of research practices, and I extend this to put forward autoethnography (Ellis et al 2011; Spry 2001) and creative/critical writing as an appropriate approach for this particular research, drawing on ideas proposed by philosopher Lisa Heldke about recipes as thinking tools (Heldke 1988), and methods developed by dietitian and sociologist Jennifer Brady for ‘cooking as inquiry’ (Brady 2011: 323). I am a writer; often an essayist. This paper therefore considers the particular usefulness of essaying as an approach to the academic writing for such a project, with the writing operating as a wager (Retallack 2003), or a weaving together of threads that ‘suggest a completeness that is never fully accounted for’ (Robertson & Hetherington 2017). ‘If the essay is a worthwhile wager,’ poet and scholar Joan Retallack writes, ‘it is about startling the mind into action when much is at stake and intelligibility is poor’ (2003: 32). A lyric essaying approach might be one way to do this for a reader, and so my own essaying begins with this wager and starts to piece together a mosaic, focusing on ‘what is suggestive, evocative and incomplete’ (Robertson & Hetherington 2017: 38) in the experiences and documentation of the practices of making things with food scraps.

In this paper the essay takes recipes I had been recording as I was making things with food scraps and expands them to reflect on the embodied knowledge in what Heldke calls thoughtful practice (1992). The paper therefore begins with a documentation of the physical practices and development of the recipes I began recording as I experimented with food scraps, and of the questions that arose for me around how to document and reflect on the loose ends of these physical practices in a way that both allowed for and embraced their messiness as part of the knowledge that they were producing. The process was generously generative, highlighting the vitality of the materials (Bennett 2010) I was working with, but resisted attempts to neaten it up in writing. The paper therefore becomes both a documentation of an attempt to live differently in response to the urgent environmental considerations of our time, and an attempt to expand the ways in which we think in and through writing about these issues. It experiments with the form of the essay to document and reflect firstly on the recipes as they developed, but also on the theoretical and philosophical inquiries that informed and were informed by the practice of making things with the food scraps. In large part, this involves writing my body and sensory memories into the text, which can, as writer Irene Waters suggests, ‘enmesh the reader in the text’, while acknowledging that not only are these memories located within the body (Waters 2016), but also that, as writer Nigel Krauth argues, the writing process itself is also ‘located partly or wholly somewhere in the body beyond the brain’ (Krauth 2010).

Critical nonfiction writer and theorist David Carlin has argued for ‘entangled nonfiction’ as a way of opening a creative/critical space through which to consider the problems facing humans and other species in the Anthropocene (Carlin 2017). In this paper, I apply this concept to the essay form in particular, exploring the possibilities for ‘entangled essaying’ through and with materials and embodied knowledges, and what this approach might help illuminate about the problem of food waste and an attempt to intervene in everyday practices with food scraps in ways that reduce wastage.


Making recipes

Imagine the rustle of a paper bag as dried herbaceous material is pulled out;

the sound of jar lids unscrewed

and the tinkling clatter

of dried lemon peel poured onto a wooden surface.

I gather all the ingredients together on a large chopping board, each material in its own little pile. The lemon peel joins a collection of other dried ingredients. I smell each of them briefly as I collect them together, trying to imagine their combined scent. I feel the brittle dryness of the herbs between my fingers.

When I have all the ingredients together, I write their names down in a notebook. It’s a kind of recipe.

The sound of dried herbs being crushed into a jar, the rustle of dried lemon peel landing on top.

A bottle is unscrewed and liquid glugs from the bottle into the jar,

the hint of a hiss and a bubbly trickle

as it covers the dried ingredients.

I am making a hair tonic. I add the dried ingredients to a glass jar, which I then fill with apple cider vinegar and several big spoonfuls of honey.

The lid is screwed onto the jar, with a soft scraping of glass and metal as the two parts meet and slide over one another;

the jar is shaken, the solid ingredients and liquid sloshing about inside.

My breath speeds up with the effort of the shaking.

I sit the jar on a sunny windowsill, where it will stay for several weeks. The sun will warm the liquid and draw the oils out of the plant material and into the vinegar.

Like a slow cooker, but slower still.

When people find out that I make these things from food scraps, they often ask if I have a recipe I can share with them. I do have one, but it is sparse and vague, with notes added as an addendum where, over many makings, I have discovered an additional ingredient, taken one away, or tried a slightly different process. These recipes would likely make little sense as instructions for someone who isn’t me. They are, instead, a kind of highly personalised documentation of process, always open-ended:

Hair tonic update!           15 November 2016
Lemon peel
Orange peel
Rose geranium
Avocado seed

There are no quantities. There is no method described, since I already know how to make it. There are no notes yet.

A previous recipe is more detailed:

Hair tonic – for lighter-coloured hair and sensitive scalp     10 August 2014
ACV – half small jar
2 tbsp honey
4 x chamomile tea bags
10 x calendula flower heads with petals
1 largish sprig of rosemary
Lemon and orange rinds (about equivalent to one of each fruit)

Method: Combine in clear jar with some hot water to melt the honey. Shake. Leave on sunny windowsill for at least two weeks, shaking every now and then to stir ingredients.

After two weeks, strain out plant matter, store liquid in bottle in dark cool place. Use about 1 tbsp in mug of water as conditioner/rinse for hair. Will lighten hair over time.

There is a note, in a different coloured pen, several months later in January 2015:

Note: This batch is particularly strong (it’s taken me months of use to realise) and needs to be more diluted than earlier batches. Using a bit less than a capful (along with extra honey and spices I feel like adding) in a gravy jug of water.

I began documenting my experiences of making as a way of remembering. Rather than trying to make a record that was detailed enough to act as instructions for someone else, the record was supposed to be a prompt for me, for the next time I came to make the tonic. This prompt would serve as an aide-memoire for my embodied knowledge – for the practices and ingredients – to take over.

My eyes recognise the look of the materials. My fingertips know the feel of them; my nose, the smell. My ears know the sounds – the rhythms – of the making. This knowledge is absent from the text of the recipes, but implied in the practices they suggest.

Realising this, my interest in documenting and reflecting on these developing practices expanded to include questions about how to document in writing the experience of these practices in a way that saw the writing become a textual embodiment of the experiences. I became interested in what writer Julia Prendergast has called ‘ideasthetic practices’, where ‘the experiential, the unthought known, and imagined bodily action’ – or in my case remembered –‘play a direct role in the way writers translate ideas into concrete and specific narrative detail’ (Prendergast 2019). I asked myself how I could document and reflect on the multitude of ways in which these food scraps became generative – for my thinking, for my body, and beyond – through changes in my practices with them? How could I document and reflect on the internal and external sources of the experience in ways that evoked something of these experiences, and on the memories and perceptions that informed each new iteration of making? How could I do this in a way that might also constitute research, highlight the creativity of academic writing and explicitly incorporate a creative writing practice?


Expanding the recipe

What I was doing in these practices with food scraps, vinegar and cuttings from the garden was a kind of cooking. It was cooking not for eating, but nonetheless, the practices were much the same, and my documentation of them followed a similar pattern to my documentation of meals that have been cooked and are appealing enough to want to make again, or pass on to someone else to make.

Lisa Heldke makes an argument for cooking as a kind of inquiry: one of many potential forms of inquiry that is a communal activity, where inquirer enters into a relationship with other inquirers ‘and also with the things into which we inquire – the things labelled “objects” on a traditional account’ (Heldke 1988: 17). Drawing on John Dewey, Heldke eschews a distinct separation between theory and practice, instead arguing that the difference between the two is ‘one of degree, not kind’ (1988: 19). In cooking, she writes, ‘the theoretical and the practical work together in an activity that genuinely does justice to Dewey’s definition of inquiry’ (1988: 19). She uses cooking and recipes not merely as metaphors for philosophical or scientific theory and inquiry – though they could also operate that way – but as a model of inquiry in, of and about itself. However, ‘even as my account is a philosophical investigation of cooking,’ she writes, ‘it is also my intention that it enhance and expand the ways in which we do philosophical theory’ (1988: 19-20).

This is of particular interest to me because, like Heldke’s writing, this project is both about experimentation in everyday cooking-like practices, and experimentation in theorising, research and writing; this is not merely a metaphor, it is my research and this writing enacting the modes of inquiry discovered, explored and played with in the physical practices.

What this writing is attempting to do is bring into question the way academic work might be presented, and to introduce the idea of playing with the ‘recipe’ for this kind of research. It is an attempt to begin thinking about and playing with how to expand the artefact of the recipe book I keep for my cosmetic and household products, and how this form might incorporate scholarly knowledges while at the same time making more explicit the embodied knowledge that exists only as a white space in the recipes for hair tonic that I have written down. It is an attempt to expand the way in which we think in and through essaying, and writing more generally.

Cooks create recipes for a variety of reasons, Heldke says, not all of them with the aim of producing food. This, she says, is helpful for epistemological thinking and theorising. People come up with new theories or modify existing ones for many different reasons. Theories, she writes, ‘like recipes, are most usefully regarded as tools we use to do things’ (1988: 21). As with recipes, where a certain level of skill and knowledge in cooking is required before a person can begin to ‘break the rules’ in the recipe and not follow instructions precisely, familiarity with theorising, and with different theories, is necessary if one is to explore and experiment with theory. This, she argues, is ‘necessary in inquiry in a way that it may not be in cooking, for whereas in cooking a failure to experiment leaves you with a boring diet, in theorising, it makes you into an arrogant and unperceptive inquirer’ (1988: 22). Learning to cook and inquire is a self-reflective exercise, Heldke writes, where the cook/inquirer must continually assess how a recipe/theory should be received, depending on what kind of operator the cook/inquirer is, and on the intentions of the recipe/theory-giver.

But these recipes of mine are very often shared orally, not in written text.

Conversational recipe tellings in everyday life, according to linguistics scholar Neal Norrick, are ‘similar to narratives in several ways, but they are also like sets of instructions’. This means that they ‘tend to switch back and forth between the first-person past tense of the former and the second-person imperative of the latter at sequentially significant junctures’ (Norrick 2011: 2753).

Indeed, the sharing of my recipes for the hair tonic often has followed this loose pattern. And the text has come to move between different tenses, and different styles of narrative. For instance, when I shared the recipe with each of my brothers, the telling was a combination of a story about myself, and instructions for them. Their interest in making this for themselves grew out of hearing me talk about making and using it myself:

I’ve been making and using it exclusively for years, and I prefer it, I said.

How do you make it? he asked.

It’s very easy, I said. You just fill a jar with apple cider vinegar and honey, and … well, I use chamomile and lemon rind and some other herbs, but you might be better off using coffee because it’s better for dark hair.

That makes sense. Coffee would stain your hair, he said.

Yeah. Lemon and chamomile are good for fairer hair because they lighten it, but coffee, apparently, is good for dark hair because it highlights the dark, I said. So you just fill the jar with those things and leave it in the sun with a lid on for a few weeks. Then you strain it, water the liquid down, and use it to rinse your hair.

The next time we talked, the alternate recipe with coffee grounds instead of lemon rinds had developed further, through my brother’s practice, and my brother became the recipe teller.

So I decided to see if I could just rebrew the spent coffee grounds and do it that way, he said. You brew the coffee, then strain, then add the vinegar and honey, and then basically use it the same way you use the chamomile and lemon version.

With my second brother, the recipe was told and developed slightly differently. I followed the first brother’s told recipe to make the second brother a batch, and wrote down some instructions, both for how to make it and how to use it. When he came to make more, having used the batch I made him, he sent a text message, asking me a series of questions, some of which I could answer, and some of which we came up with possible solutions for together.

I had originally planned to run some workshops as part of this research project, wherein I would teach participants to make some of the simpler things I was making from food scraps. But increasingly these seemed unnecessary, as I found instead that I had conversations with people informally as I developed the recipes. The sharing of the recipes with others followed a similar pattern to these conversations with my brothers, where the recipe has developed over the telling, and the making as a result of the telling. Friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances became involved in these conversations, and I felt a growing pressure to write the recipes down, since people so often requested that I do so.

But these are recipes in development. In this sense this paper, like the exercise book in which I write down the various versions of the recipes, is a little more like the telling of the development of a collection of recipes, rather than a documentation of the ‘final’ version of these recipes.

A central question for the research that developed alongside the recipes was how to document and reflect on this development of the recipes, and the various threads of sensory experience, casual conversation, shared tacit knowledge and experimentation, and theoretical underpinnings of the practices that the handwritten recipes only hint at. Alternative ways of presenting recipe collections are not unheard of – food writer Michael Pollan presents an appendix of recipes at the end of his collection of essays about the history of cooking (Pollan 2013); writer Charlotte Wood includes recipes at the end of each of the personal essays in her collection (Wood 2012); and writer Mark Crick combines recipes with short stories, each told in the writing style of the real-life author who is fictionalised in the story (Crick 2006). But each of these presents recipes as ‘finished’ (although, of course, any recipe often develops further in the cooking), where I wanted to document more explicitly the iterative nature of these recipes, and reflect on the practice of actually making them.

Writers Donna Lee Brien and Adele Wessell have written about the variety of ways in which collections of recipes ‘provide a range of insights into everyday life and community relationships’ (Brien & Wessell 2013; see also Adams 2013; Santich 2013; Wishart 2013). Feminist sociologist Sian Supski describes collections of recipes she calls manuscript cookbooks – the kind of cookbook wherein recipes from various sources are collected by an individual – which might prove a useful model for my thinking and writing here. These cookbooks operate in a similar way to scrapbooks, and may include things other than recipes in text, such as photographs, clippings, and handwritten notes. Cookbooks, Supski writes, ‘are much more than a set of instructions’. They also ‘evoke life histories, recall friends and family, illustrate that foodmaking is a thoughtful, although at times, anxious practice’, alongside telling us how to make something in particular (Supski 2013: 46).

What happens, then, if I take Heldke’s notion of cooking as inquiry and recipes as tools and the notion of scrapbook-like cookbooks as suggestive of more than just a set of instructions for making meals, and expand my own recipes for making with food scraps so they both document and reflect on the development of individual recipes and a recipe collection for an individual over time? This scrapbook approach might come closer to the ways in which food writing beyond cookbooks have more explicitly used food as a broad umbrella under which a variety of social and cultural issues might be investigated (see for example Brien 2012; Hsu 2016; Tigner & Carruth 2017).

In the case of this paper, this scrapbook approach includes both recipes for things made with food scraps, but also the theoretical and philosophical inquiries that have both informed and been informed by the practice of making things with the food scraps. The paper/manuscript cookbook includes, for instance, the conversations between my brothers and me, and the pre-existing tacit knowledge implied in what is left out of the words we say to each other [1], along with recipes for things to do with food scraps, as well as the idea that food wastage is a problem, which is implied in the need for these recipes in the first place. This means an engagement not only with autobiographical material, or direct relationships with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but also with broader conversations about society, culture, science, natureculture etc. Might it also include more explicitly the embodied experience of and knowledges implied in these written down recipes, and the development of ways in which to include these things in an academic paper?

Physicist and philosopher Grégoire Wallenborn and anthropologist Harold Wilhite argue that the embodied knowledge present in practices might be thought of through Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, where knowledge is ‘acquired from experience, and thereby, having both internal and external sources, is made one’s own, namely embodied’ (Wallenborn & Wilhite 2014: 58). In their work on ‘energy-consuming acts’, they argue that people’s exposure to practices, ‘both in the form of personal and culturally mediated experience, embodies knowledge (and meanings)’ and that this in turn affects the way we perform those practices (56). This manuscript-cookbook paper, then, is an attempt to document habitus, but also to document the disruption, redirection and continued development of that habitus through the messiness of growing embodied knowledge, as the recipes and the cooking-like practices evolve. It is also an attempt to draw the body itself back into the writing, along with the ingredients that make up the recipes in ways that might, as Waters suggests, ‘enmesh the reader in the text’ (2016) in order to convey more fully the embodied knowledges that slip between the lines of words and phrases in the recipes.


In praise of mess

Imagine the sound of hard berries falling into a bucket.

Plunk, plunk.

Plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk.

Clods of dirt fall into the bucket as well, with a thud. A tap is turned on and water half fills the bucket.

When my brother and I were little, we would sit in the dirt under the crab apple tree that grew beside the back door and pile handfuls of dirt and handfuls of fallen crab apples into buckets. Adding water, we’d try to make soup. A shared childhood recipe, and cooking as inquiry.

When we stirred this ‘soup’ the sound was watery, a stick tapping against the edges of the plastic bucket, the hard berries tumbling against one another in the water, making something like a quiet rattle.

Maybe we never intended to eat the soup. But we certainly worked hard to find a way to soften those crab apples.

They were small, the crab apples – more like berries, really – and as hard as pebbles. Trying to grind them between two flat rocks barely bruised them. We tried soaking them in water before pounding them with the rocks.

The rocks cracked and smashed, but to no avail.

We tried dropping the berries from the balcony.

We tried stomping on them.

We tried throwing them at one another.

The crab apples never softened.

The game persisted, though, despite their resistance.

What I remember most vividly from the crab apple sessions is the sensation of the dusty dirt we sat in under the tree – the soft powderiness of it on my hands and feet – and the hard waxy texture of the crab apples between my fingers as I held them. I remember the flat rocks we found under the house to use as smashers – a different kind of hardness to the apples: a slate-like, lifeless, dry hardness that smarted if you got any part of yourself caught between it and something else at the moment of strike. Those rocks were powdery too, like the dirt. Chalky, even. Hard and powdery at the same time; somewhere between the crab apples and the dirt.

The memories of how it felt to handle these materials remains, as if it’s knowledge my skin still possesses.

This story, small and hazy, but significant in my memory, describes one of my earliest recollections of engaging with things as materials for making. The crab apple and mud soup, and the challenges my brother and I faced in our attempts to make it as smooth as we wanted it, became an introduction to what Heldke calls thoughtful practice (1992) – another term she uses to describes activities where there is no hard and fast separation between theory and practice. This notion suggests a knowledge finding (building, growing) that is both mental and manual, cerebral and corporeal – and one that is applicable both to cooking, and to activities beyond that, including writing. It is knowledge that is as much about the way the materials I use to make – crab apple and mud soup, or an essay – feel between my fingers as any steps or processes that might be recorded. This might encompass both the making of the food-like substance and the act of recording that process.

The notions of ‘thoughtful practice’ and ‘embodied knowledge’ are perhaps slightly different ways of conceptualising the same thing; perhaps thoughtful practice is embodied thinking in action. They both aim to muddy the idea that cerebral and corporeal are opposing sides of a dichotomy. Following these practices, trying to tease out something about the nature of them, the question for my research necessarily expanded to threads not only about what they were and where they came from, but also how best to account for and interrogate them in writing – and how to write in a way that allows the material practice of the writing to also remain visible.

I am a writer; often an essayist. How might this form, as an approach to creative practice as research, be drawn into the manuscript-cookbook-paper form I am using to expand the recipes I was recording in order to reflect on the embodied knowledge in this collection of thoughtful practices? What might an essay as scrapbook/manuscript cookbook look and feel like in an academic paper?

There’s a messiness implied in this approach: a stopping and starting; a wandering. What role might writing play in this messiness? Is it adequate on its own for the task of this research?


Writing mess

The jar of apple cider vinegar, filled with citrus peels and avocado seeds and dried herbs, has been sitting in a sunny spot for some weeks. The vinegar has been infused with the oils from the plant matter; the oils that will:

brighten my hair,

make it fuller, and

make it smell nice.

Some of the plants I include in this mix for medicinal reasons; others, for aesthetic ones. The list of ingredients would look different if you were to make a hair rinse for yourself.

Straining the big batch of hair rinse is a delightfully messy process.

There is a big bowl,

a sieve,

and a tea towel I don’t mind staining.

The process is not difficult. It doesn’t take long. I simply line the sieve with the fabric and pour the mixture through.

It’s the squeezing that’s the messy bit.

I wrap the fabric up into a bundle and twist it shut. I twist it

tighter and tighter,

and more of the liquid is squeezed from the plant material inside.

Imagine the dripping, quick at first, but

slower and quieter

as the bundle is twisted tighter.




Slower as the liquid trickles through my fingers and into the bowl.

‘If we want to think about the messes of reality at all then we’re going to have to teach ourselves to think, to practise, to relate, and to know in new ways,’ writes John Law (2004: 2), arguing for the development of different ways of producing knowledge (if, as he asks, ‘knowledge’ is still the most appropriate word). To meet the challenges of learning how to live differently in a world that appears to be becoming increasingly uninhabitable for humans (and many other species) – and without falling into the trap of telling stories that perpetuate the nature/culture divide that many argue has contributed significantly to the problem – we need different methods of research. As Law argues, ‘we will need to teach ourselves to know some of the realities of the world using methods unusual to or unknown in the social sciences’ (Law 2004: 2). The task, says Law, ‘is to imagine methods when they no longer seek the definite, the repeatable, the more or less stable’ and that ‘no longer assume that this is what they are after’ (6). He looks, in part, to ethnography as a form of research that ‘lets us see the messiness of practice’ to ‘try to understand the often ragged ways in which knowledge is produced in research’ and which doesn’t necessarily distinguish cleanly between various disciplines (18-19).

Law’s call to embrace messiness, to recognise the need for ‘heterogeneity and variation’ (2004: 6) speaks to the core of my research, which seeks to illuminate the ways in which everyday practices (and an intervention in those) is interwoven with arts practices and research practices. Given this is about my particular practice, might I apply Law’s ideas to the autoethnographic approach we see unfolding on the pages before us?

I am writing about the messiness of the materiality of these making practices – the everyday kind and the essaying kind – and about the particular kinds of messy joy this creates. I am reflecting on the ways in which living differently with what would otherwise become food waste, by mess-making with it, has generated a curiosity about these materials that wasn’t there before, making this something more than autoethnography as well. Without the mess, my curiosity would not be so vibrant, in the sense that political theorist Jane Bennett uses that word (Bennett 2010). That is, I would not be so interested in or aware of the ways in which the food scrap materials themselves ‘act back’, and in so doing, nudge the writing in a slightly different direction,




the page

as the writing attempts to give a sense of the rhythm of different parts of the making with food scraps, and to my own mental and emotional processes around these materials. That is, the materials themselves become part of what Bennett calls an ‘agentic assemblage’: a collection of things, each with their own ‘aliveness’ – human and otherwise, tangible and physical, imperceptible and cerebral – that contribute to a particular event or outcome (2010), in this case both in the concoctions that I am making and the writing.

Law asks how we might imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself ‘with the creativity of writing’ (2004: 12 original emphasis), and what this would do to ‘the referent, the out-thereness’(12). The kinds of messes I am making in my everyday practice present particular problems for my essaying practices. When I make things with food scraps, I make a mess that I don’t necessarily tidy up – or, given than much of what I make becomes a cleaning product of some kind, that goes on to become part of the process of cleaning something else. The problem for the essaying practice, and therefore the research practice, then, is how to document and reflect on these loose ends in a way that both allows and embraces their messiness as part of the knowledge produced here while still having enough structure to be understood. It is, perhaps, a problem of documenting the process – one that stops and starts and shifts between materials (food-like materials, plant-like materials, sound-like materials, text-like materials) – and the resistance of the process to attempts to neaten it up.

So, what does it mean to make a mess about food waste through and with knowledge-making practices?

It depends, perhaps, on what you’re making a mess with.

Straining plant matter out of oil, for instance, is a different kind of mess – though not entirely dissimilar – to straining plant matter from apple cider vinegar.

The mess of the oil on my hands feels different. Where the vinegar is astringent, and tightens the skin on my fingers and palms, the oil makes my skin slippery and plump. The smell is different. Where the vinegar is, well, vinegary, and burns the inside of my nostrils at the same time as it allows a waft of the scent of lemon or spice or herb, the oil smells heavier, nuttier, and more strongly of whatever it’s been infused with.

The sounds are different.

The oil, as it drips out, makes a sound that’s something between a glugging and a plopping sound.

Let’s try this again, with oil instead of vinegar:

I wrap the fabric up into a bundle and twist it shut. I twist it

tighter and tighter,

and more of the oil is squeezed from the plant material inside.

Imagine the quiet glug plop, quick at first, but

slower and quieter

as the bundle is twisted tighter.

Glug plop.

Glug plop.

Glug plop.

Slower as the oil trickles through my fingers and into the bowl.

The vinegar I will use in my hair. The oil I will use on my face. The way these assemblages of materials feel on my skin, the way they smell, the way they sound, begins to give some sense of what their use value might be and the way they may interact with the materiality of my own body when I actually use them for their intended purpose. It is in the messy part of this process that I first get a sense of this.

Part of what I reflect on in my research more broadly is the difficulty of these practices as I develop them – the reality of this kind of intervention. They require me to spend my time differently, and to collect different things in my house. They require me to have uncomfortable conversations with people I live with about how many glass jars I’ve collected in the cupboard (too many), or the messiness of the herbaceous material drying on the coat rack by the front door, or the proliferation of dried lemon rinds in various parts of the house. They require me to somehow comfort people about the guilt they feel about their own ‘food waste practices’ almost every time I reveal what it is that my research is playing with.

But I also reflect on the self-consciousness with which I reflect on the mess of these everyday practices and social interactions.

What does it meant to make a mess with academic writing?

The process of writing is itself messy.

It mirrors the everyday practices.

It stops,

and I need to try making something,

or doing something with something I’ve made, in order to get my thinking and writing happening again.

Washing my hair becomes a part of the research.

It might look like procrastination, but in fact it’s me thinking through my body, and the writing couldn’t happen without it. It is a method that acknowledges, as Nigel Krauth argues, that important parts of these stories of making are located in my body (Krauth 2010).

To extend Law’s argument for ethnography as being valuable for understanding and presenting the ‘ragged ways’ in which knowledge is produced in research, I want to suggest that autoethnography is of particular value in showing the disorderliness of the practice of this research, the practices it investigates, and how the two are interwoven.

Drawing on Heldke’s work, dietitian and sociologist Jennifer Brady develops an autoethnographic approach with the practice of cooking as a form of inquiry, arguing that ‘cooking sheds light on identity, bodies and knowledge that other activities, such as gardening, dance or sport, do not’ (Brady 2011: 323). In Brady’s cooking as inquiry approach, researcher-participants are invited ‘to actually make the food as the means of exploring the processes by which identity is performed or “done” through the body’ (324). She differentiates this from participatory ethnographic work, arguing that, while participant-observers ‘tend to maintain a clear separation between the research and the researcher’s presence’, cooking as inquiry ‘situates the researcher as the focal point of inquiry’ (326).

Brady’s approach also draws on ‘collective biography’ methods, where researcher-participants work collaboratively, which she argues ‘calls attention to the relationality of identity performance and embodied experience’ (Brady 2011: 325). Where Brady’s ‘collective’ refers to groups of human cook-researcher-participants, however, if I were to use the term ‘collective’ it would be in a much looser sense. My collective consciously includes the various other-than-human materials and actors, along with humans who have contributed in small but significant ways [2]. This notion of the ‘collective’ also invokes something similar to Supski’s scrapbook cookbook.

The culture I am hoping to present and reflect on here is multiple, and the threads between its parts are messy and uncertain: this research is a mesh of practices that finds itself weaving with the thinking and practice of research, art and an approach to everyday life. This collective autoethnographic weaving, perhaps, is a way of elaborating on what Law might call ‘quiet methods, slow methods, or modest methods’ (2004: 15). Perhaps necessarily then, the writing might mirror the development of the infusions I strain messily through cloth and colander: what I might come to know from the mess is only obvious once I try to use it.

The practice of essaying this research is both iterative and itinerant (Ingold 2010a). It both builds on earlier iterations of the writing, and is drawn from questions that arise as part of the experience of using the things I have made from food scraps. The materials themselves can in this way send the writing and the research wandering in a new direction.

I often begin with an attempt to notice my sensory experiences as I work with the food scrap materials and tools. What are the textures? What are the sounds? What am I feeling emotionally, and thinking? This usually means I am taking notes by hand in a notebook, with fingers covered in oil or vinegar or dried plant matter. It means both the writing and the physical making stop and start.

Sometimes the writing has begun as reflection – to write a recipe down in the first place, or to remember the act of writing it down and what was missing from the documentation.

These documentations or recollections are collected together as separate but related. Their meaning, as separate pieces and as a collection, is not clear to me until I find in someone else’s writing something that seems to describe part of my experience. Threading together the theory with my documentation of my own practice will often illuminate a direction I hadn’t yet seen, and I’ll seek out more theory or shift the making and writing practices to test out an idea from the reading.

I gather together the smaller pieces of my work into something larger that, as Law suggests, finds and creates patterns while also attempting to retain a sense of the multiplicity of the experiences. Sometimes the writing is repetitive because it is enacting something of the practices, which themselves are repetitive and iterative. As I see the words on the page as a more fully collected whole, the editing process often involves creating unusual spaces between single words or phrases, both across and down the page, in ways that try to evoke a stronger sense of the rhythm of making, thinking and writing.

Indeed, Law also asks how researchers might concern ourselves with the creativity of academic writing and what that might mean for the social science disciplines (2004: 12). What the form of the writing does for the research and to the things that are researched has been a key consideration for this paper.



Anthropologist Tim Ingold suggests that making is a form of wayfaring or wandering (Ingold 2010a: 92), and that writing is a form of ‘mind-walking’, with words inscribed on a page having ‘just as much of a material presence as do footprints and tracks impressed on the ground’ (Ingold 2010b: 16). Essays in particular, argues Joan Retallack (2003), act as a wager: a form that quite openly asks a reader to do some work (or, one might argue, play) of their own in order to make something for themselves from the writing. The essay as a wandering, a searching, an attempt – for writer and reader alike – mirrors the tentative and iterative nature of the physical making practices. It pushes the reader into the same kind of uncertain space as the writer and maker, which is precisely where I hope for a reader to be, so that they might begin to think differently about matter that might usually be called waste.

It is also useful to think of this essaying approach as something like lyric essaying – a sort of paving together of a mosaic, or weaving together of threads, that, as creative writing scholars Rachel Robertson and Paul Hetherington write, ‘do not try to provide a comprehensive narrative of a life’ (2017: 38), but, rather bring together various strands to ‘suggest a completeness that is never fully accounted for’ (Robertson & Hetherington 2017: 38). The lyric essay’s fragmentary nature, they write, ‘provide(s) us with access, however imperfectly, to what the lyric essay itself is unable to make fully explicit’ (2017: 38).

Essaying, then, could embrace the disorder and engage with it in meaningful ways that might help illuminate and begin to address the challenges of learning to live differently in a world that appears to be becoming increasingly uninhabitable for humans (and many other species). In particular, this paper uses essaying to extend to the problem of food waste the ways in which recipes and food writing more broadly have investigated social and cultural issues, and to consider the embodied knowledges that may need to be developed to live differently with food that might usually be discarded.

Part of this messiness is what David Carlin calls ‘the situation of the Anthropocene’ (Carlin 2017). Encouraging an intermingling of ‘the creative resources of the essayist together with the ethical orientation of the posthumanist’, Carlin argues that this ‘entangled nonfiction’ opens up a space of critical/creative practice. The notion of entangled nonfiction is useful for thinking about how other-than-human things might have some kind of greater agency in what I’m writing. It is not, perhaps, possible for me to find ways in which the food scrap materials with which I am making things really ‘have their own voice’ in this writing, but maybe it is possible for me to more clearly reflect how my voice is made through interactions with these materials and actors, rather than something I impose on them. As Carlin suggests, ‘the essay listens to what the matter demands’, and this makes it ‘a particularly apt and handy tool for articulating the entanglement of humans and nonhumans, and for encouraging mutations within the viruses of language, desire and sensory perception that flow through and among us’ (8). Similarly, writer Julienne van Loon suggests that the essay – in particular the literary essay – is a useful and productive way of responding to posthuman times, and the ways in which these times are pushing us to revise how we understand our experiences of embodied subjectivity (van Loon 2017). The literary essay, van Loon writes, ‘enables a critical practice in which poetics, politics and affect come together to help both writer and reader approach a set of events or questions that might remain otherwise incomprehensible’.

These terms that pre-empt the notion of the essay – lyric, entangled, literary – all hint at a form that both considers aesthetics, but also gestures to something beyond itself and beyond the written word. This is writing on the edges, or what poet-essayist Leslie Scalapin calls ‘writing on the rim’ (qtd in Retallack 2003: 47). Of the three terms, ‘entangled’ is the most intriguing for this paper, since it suggests more directly both the intention to engage with messiness (tangles) and the possibility for the form of the essay to allow more space for the agency of the materials themselves, and to see how much of my thoughtful practice/embodied thinking is merely a response to them, rather than something that is directive of them. This paper has been an ‘entangled essaying’ of these various materials that functions both as a documentation of the process of making and writing, and a reflection on the writing as it unfolds.

The entangled essay, then, could function as both an ode to messiness – a condition that is considerably more difficult to stay with in adult life than in childhood – and a critical reflection on that same tangle.




Works cited




Sophie Langley is a writer, researcher and PhD candidate at RMIT University. Her recently completed Masters by research project explored questions around everyday practices with food scraps, and the essay form. Her PhD project takes a similar exploratory approach to essaying, entangling it with other creative forms such as sound, to investigate the shifting boundaries of the body in medical encounters through chronic illness.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins