Food is essential, food is emotional and food is political. I think that the dig director who doesn’t ‘get’ this is seriously missing a trick. It’s especially puzzling to me that there are archaeologists who can’t apparently see the connection between food, bodily autonomy and corporeality once they’re directing a dig. Food and cooking, and sharing in that process and caring about the results, are things that can bring people together – and very often a difficult fieldwork day can be made bearable through eating well and being in good company. It can be a therapeutic process. Food preparation can and should be about inclusion and not about ‘difficulty’. If well managed, food and cooking on digs can help to strip away the inaccessibility of the world (and attitudes) for many potential participants. It really isn’t that hard to do.
This post is part of a series about enabling volunteers to participate fully on Digs
But I still hear stories about rubbish food, wildly inappropriate catering, and potential excavation participants being turned away from fieldwork opportunities because they’ve disclosed a medical condition which necessitates a bit of thought about some different eating needs. So here, for what it’s worth, are my experiences, thoughts and advice. It’s aimed at senior staff but it also should be of use to volunteers wanting to frame arguments about being treated fairly. It’s not asking for an obscene luxury to say, ‘please feed me properly’ - especially not if you’re paying hefty tuition or dig registration fees.
So what are the issues?
Scrimping on the food budget on excavations is unfair and demoralising for students, volunteers and junior staff, particularly where they don’t have ready access to shops (and funds) themselves. Yet in my experience it has been surprisingly common, along with an unhelpful resistance to understanding the needs of volunteers who are vegan or vegetarian, have medically-related dietary needs (eg Diabetes, or Crohn’s) or who have food anxieties (eg eating disorders), or sensory processing issues around food (eg associated with ASD).
These problems can become especially acute in the field somewhere fairly remote - pretty common when digging - for a student (or any other dig participant) who already has issues around, say, the loss of autonomy and the timetabling of their day. That’s already a loss of control. Yet a lot of the problems and the feelings of unfairness and the loss of morale are completely avoidable. It really isn’t hard to cater for everyone’s needs, literally. It’s not the individual digger’s problem – it’s a dig problem.
Looking back on my career in archaeology, I think the most frustrated and hacked off I've ever been on a dig with a director was over food (lack of). Back in my post-grad days I’d agreed to be a (paid) dig kitchen manager for a university training dig, and the director was, frankly, a complete nightmare over feeding the students properly. On our first night in the rural village hall we’d rented out, miles from shops and pubs, our students gathered after long, tiring journeys to this fairly remote location. I had planned and cooked food for 28 – the number I’d been given by the director – upon arrival (no mean feat on a 4-ring hob) and then it dawned on me that 43 people had lined up. This was not good.
Food is the area where I've seen directors cut corners with budget again and again, and micromanage food purchases daily. (‘No fish!’ ‘I want faggots!’) The particular director who had casually under-estimated to me the number of students attending the dig and needing to be fed – meaning we had to find an extra 15 meals, 3 times a day, for 3 weeks, out of the budget – was bewilderingly uptight. After a massive row he finally coughed up some extra money from his tight little fists, to buy some random ‘cash & carry’ items. On the last day, he spied some unused custard – oh alert the church elders - and went absolutely ballistic, screaming and shouting and kicking things over in the little kitchen. It was as though he was enacting his own microcosm of ‘dig culture’ – macho, tough, mean, run it on a shoestring. Put up with it or don’t do archaeology, basically. His inadequate planning at the beginning became everyone else’s problem.
Another dig I worked on, everyone was billeted in a Newcastle University Hall of Residence and transported daily to the site on Hadrian’s Wall. Three catering students were employed as dig cooks. I was asked to ‘assist’. It was paid, I needed the money. On Day 1, I watched as the ‘kitchen leader’ instructed the preparation of dozens of evening meals for dozens of hungry diggers, wide-eyed by the point she started cutting tomatoes in neatly v-shaped serrated halves and slicing lettuce and cucumber into appealing shapes. I feared the 1970s were about the call and ask for their food back. ‘It looks very lovely,’ I said, ‘but there’s not enough of it’. The team leader looked at me askance. She added a slice of ham, voila. After the ensuing hunger riot had died down later that evening, with the diggers only partially placated by having loaves of bread heaved at them, I put forward an alternative ‘hungry digger menu’. We spent the next three weeks boiling lots of potatoes and macaroni. And tomatoes came out of very big catering tins. It wasn’t pretty, but we all survived. (Unlike poor Bjorn Borg who got beaten by John McEnroe, a match we listened to on the radio as we cooked vats of pasta.)
So, after that preamble, here are my top tips for dig food, budget-aware dig cooking, and bringing everyone together.
The vast bulk of the food pictured here was made and photographed by me, in half a day, using four gas rings and one electric oven.
1 Food matters because of personal autonomy
Food really matters and eating really matters, and restricting someone else's diet is one of the most controlling ways of reducing someone else's autonomy that there is. Telling adults what they are going to eat, and when they are going to eat it, is a big responsibility because you are reducing their capacity for self-determination. Don’t be a dick about it.
In particular, do ask about dietary needs in advance of the dig, and have a proper plan to do something with that information.
Don’t mess around with meal times to suit ‘senior staff’ or visiting dignitaries. You, as senior staff, might not be hungry, but you can bet your last mattock that your diggers are. They are entitled to be fed decent food, in a predictable manner.
2 Quantities. Have someone in charge of cooking who understands how hungry diggers can be
One of the commonest complaints about dig catering is that there isn’t enough food, or that it is unfairly distributed (eg gender bias, or meat-eaters get more). Obviously the best way to deal with this is to have sufficient food available, and to budget suitably in the planning stages prior to funding applications actually going in to make this possible. Basic menu planning around numbers and needs, and researching the kitchen logistics, should take place well before the dig starts - questions around food supply, storage and cooking facilities should have been answered before Day 1 of the excavation, so that from the start the quantities can be right.
Think about the daily calorific needs of, say, very physically active 20 year olds. Their calorific needs really aren’t going to met daily by yogurt, soup and a bowl of cous cous. If you have diggers who are physically working hard all day, every day, you will need to find ways of potentially getting between 2,000 and 3,500 calories into them per day. Yes, really. Which is why I think it’s useful to have a dig cook who’s had some field experience themselves.
3 Budget for enough food and then hand over to your cook
Wildly guessing at, say, £3 per head per day – and not giving your cook any knowledge of this in advance – is a recipe for disaster if your volunteers have been told they will be fed breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even with the economies of scale that arise from mass catering, realistic figures need to be determined.
Plus, be clear before the dig starts about who’s getting ‘free food’ (maybe your supervisors?), and who’s being asked to pay for it. How much are they paying? How does this affect the final food budget – is there a contingency at all? Let the dig cook access the accounts whilst planning affordable menus. And do not micro-manage your cook unless they ask for help. Get on with directing your dig.
It does help if your dig cook is regarded as senior staff and allowed to make decisions accordingly. They should not need the director’s permission to buy jam.
4 If you don’t habitually eat with your volunteers, ask yourself why that is
Do not keep taking a dig vehicle ‘into town for petrol / notebooks / pencils’ and then eating there. Do not eat separately with your senior staff or visitors. What kind of a message are you sending to your volunteer workers and other staff? It’s elitist, it’s rude and it’s unnecessary. If the food’s not good enough for you, then it’s not good enough for the people who are working on your excavation. Don’t just turn your back on the problem. Do something about it.
5 Do not expect vegans or vegetarians to ‘just leave the meat’. Do not cook them horrible things
It is not hard to cook vegan meals. Vegan noodles are easy to buy in supermarkets. Pretty much all dry pasta these days is vegan (as it's egg free), for example, so if everyone else is getting spaghetti bolognese or lasagne for dinner, it’s very simple to do a separate pot of the vegetables, tomatoes and herbs with extra vegetables like carrot and lentils. Similarly, a vegetable chilli with rice can be bulked out with mushrooms, extra beans. lentils, chickpeas.
But equally, don’t assume that any old vegetable will do. Nothing good ever came out of making a yellow turnip crumble. Do not serve it as a complete dinner to a hungry vegetarian who’s spent all day mattocking, shovelling and barrowing. It happened to me once, and it was revolting.
Anyway, a moderately creative style of vegan cooking can also contribute a great deal towards the meals for your workers who are vegetarians or who need to be gluten-free or dairy-free, or who have other dietary needs for medical reasons.
6 Do have a ‘kitchen assistant rota’ to help the dig cook do their best work, and to promote inclusive thinking
Cooking – especially dig cooking - can be interesting and fun, and learning to cater for others is a good skill to develop, as well as being a one-day or half-day break from digging that some workers quite enjoy.
It also allows diggers to see, think about and understand the needs of others, up close and personal, whether those needs be because of medical issues or other dietary decisions. If your gluten-free or dairy-free meal is going to make one or more of your co-workers very happy at the day’s end, there’s a certain pride to be had from helping to create that sense of collegiality and pleasure. It’s a good feeling, and a good achievement all round.
And yes, a lot of the ‘helper rota’ involves chopping onions and boiling spuds and washing up, but volunteers should also be involved in making the meals that their fellow diggers are going to eat. I genuinely believe it is good practice to cook for people in order to better understand the challenges one’s colleagues might have and in order to help to remove any perceived limitations and barriers. Cooking should be inclusive. Food should sustain us.
No-one is too important to cook when they are learning about their colleagues’ needs.
7 So think about the timings of food. Be very mindful that you are feeding volunteers and staff who may have medical conditions
For example, I have good friends with Diabetes Type 2 and IBS. They control their conditions largely through diet, in conjunction with medication. It’s very important that they eat what they say they need to eat, when they need to eat it.
I talked to my friend with IBS whilst writing this blog post, and he made the point that he’d be happy to submit a list of ‘standby foods’ in advance of an excavation, that he can always eat – simple things like packet soups and noodle pots, that only require a kettle to prepare. He also noted that he cannot eat in the morning or it causes him severe pain, but if lunch was at 13.00 and he felt he needed to eat something at 12.00, he’d expect, as an adult and a hard worker, to be able to leave the dig for ten minutes to go and do this – without being pulled up for ‘skiving’ by a supervisor.
Timings of food should be based on the diggers’ needs and not ‘tradition’ or ‘how the director was brought up to do it’. There was quite the uprising at Shiqmim in Israel the year I was there when the volunteers were told that they were to work from 4.30am till 7am before they got anything to eat or drink other than water. Given that the last meal the volunteers had eaten was at around 6pm the previous day, and that this was a hot, physical, remote dig, it seemed an unnecessarily stringent decision. Finally it was agreed that between 4am and 4.25am, we were to be allowed a cup of tea or coffee and a small, rectangular rich tea biscuit. As most of the digging crew were in the Negev Desert without leaving the site for five weeks, this stuff really mattered.
8 Be flexible around people’s dietary needs – encourage disclosure by clearly and positively responding to it
Don’t ask for information about dietary needs on your dig registration forms (or equivalent) and then ignore it – or worse, exclude the potential participant. A volunteer with a medical need will be an expert on their condition. All the dig has to do is provide food that is suitable to meet their needs.
And use the kitchen as a tool of learning and inclusion. One of my private tutees in my ‘civilian life’ is a young man with ASD and severe social anxiety. He has had major issues around food, one of the main ones being that he finds it a challenge to eat food prepared by someone other than his parent or himself. So, over the past couple years, we’ve sometimes cooked together.
In the beginning, I watched him watching me cooking. I listened to his questions. He needed to know the exact ingredients of the meal and how it was being cooked. This wasn’t ‘fussy’. It was information that he needed. With the information, came reassurance. With the reassurance, he felt less anxious – and able to join in and eat the food we made. He is actually very competent now in the kitchen, interested in ingredients and flavours and getting the timings right.
I know that there are health and safety issues in dig kitchens, especially with people wandering in and out next to hot pans, but I’d strongly suggest that people who disclose food concerns or dietary needs are given an early turn on the ‘kitchen assistant rota’ so that they can see exactly what is going on, and learn to trust the kitchen and contribute to the collective effort of feeding everyone, whilst contributing their own knowledge and experiences.
9 Accept that people are allowed to be hungry, or not hungry. Without judgemental comments
We live in a strange world where diets pervade and obesity scare stories abound. Many young children internalise that food is ‘naughty’ and ‘sinful’ and an awful lot of them, sadly, grow up with all sorts of issues around food.
So my advice to directors and dig staff is to trust your diggers to regulate their own appetites. Keep your thoughts on people’s preferred portion sizes in your head. Especially, beware of gender bias around discussions of food – it’s surprisingly common, and totally inappropriate.
No-one needs to hear a senior staff member’s views on ‘fussy eaters’ or witness fat-shaming or thin-shaming. Shaming behaviours have no place on an excavation.
10 Think about where and how your volunteers will eat. Communal eating is not a ‘safe space’ for some people
Some people like eating alone. Some people don’t particularly like being looked at whilst eating, or just prefer to eat in a peaceful silence in their own space. So it’s good to have spaces where people can sit, eat and chill out a bit on their own.
Others prefer to eat in groups. Some people would love to eat in group, but are very anxious about approaching a table and sitting down and ‘fitting in’. Social anxieties can be heightened around food, including on digs, where hierarchies can play out and be reinforced.
Managing this often subtle dynamic does take a bit of forethought. If you have a ‘Director’s Table’ then invite volunteers to take turns joining you. Ask them how their dig is going. Encourage your supervisors to mingle around the tables and groups, and to not always sit together. Ask people how they like the food, and pass on positive feedback to the dig cook and helpers.
And so … food matters
Food matters. It matters a whole lot more on excavations, when your volunteers are a little bit ‘captive’, and very often they are students, and students are skint, and they are depending on you to sustain them for weeks on end. It’s not a responsibility to be shrugged off whilst driving the land rover to a restaurant in the nearest town.
Your volunteers and junior staff are your people. Treat them right and they’ll work hard for you, return to your projects, and be more likely to stay in archaeology - and to pass on the positive message that, actually, fieldwork, food and difference are a completely solvable challenge.
And if we want to understand each other, we can do worse than trying to understand each other’s food. It’s elementary.
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