“If you can’t market in your own language, what you are communicating implicitly then is that Euskara is only worth something when used to market traditional, historic, old products… this is inadmissible, it tramples on the rights of any language that you want to revitalize” (Estitxu Garai, May 12, 2017).

On May 1 2019, CBS graduate student Kerri Lesh defended her PhD dissertation titled “Through the Language of Food: Creating Linguistic and Cultural Value through Basque (Euskara) Semiotics to Market Local Gastronomic Products.” Kerri’s work met with unanimous appraisal from her committee and the audience. Zorionak, Dr. Lesh!

Kerri’s dissertation committee consisted of Sandra Ott (Center for Basque Studies, UNR) and Jenanne Ferguson (Department of Anthropology, UNR) as co-chairs, as well as Ian Clayton (English Department, UNR), Agurtzane Elordui (University of the Basque Country), and Begoña Echevarria (University of California, Riverside).

Kerri spent a year conducting anthropological fieldwork in various locations of the Basque Country, including intensive language immersion at barnetegis (Basque-only language schools) in order to understand the interfaces of culture, language and gastronomy. Her basic research question was:

Amid ever increasing interest in Basque gastronomy, how can value (cultural, economic, social) be created when using the minoritized language, Euskara, to market gastronomic products in working toward language normalization?

In order to answer this basic question, Kerri conducted dozens of formal and informal interviews with actors in the sectors of gastronomy and language maintenance: Michelin-star chefs, gastronomic societies, milk, cider, Txakolina, Rioja Alavesa and beer producers, Basque professors and sociolinguists, NGOs and interest groups.

In her dissertation talk, Kerri discussed the commensality of Basque gastronomic societies or txokos, and their role for Basque culture and language maintenance against the backdrop of changing gender relations. She talked about the “battle of milk” between the producers Kaiku and Euskal Herria Esnea, and the role of products for social reproduction through language. The Basque sagardotegi or cider house is another gastro-space where Basque “authenticity” is produced and consumed. The audience learned the ways “txakoliscape,” as part of the Basque “semiofoodscape,” is a landscape of value, identity, experience, and political and social contestation.

Kerri concluded that further research should be done in order to learn more about what is valued and why, through food and wine products and commensality, in the Basque Country and beyond. She argued that further effort must be made for language maintenance, and tools related to product marketing may continue to be useful in the effort. Finally, she highlighted the antagonisms between authenticity and integrity versus the commodification of language and goods.

 

  

Below are some of the revealing quotes Dr. Lesh presented from actors involved with food, wine and language in the Basque Country. Once again, congratulations, Kerri, and thank you for sharing the results of what seems to have been an intoxicating fieldwork experience!

 

Kerri’s dissertation committee: Sandy Ott, Jenanne Ferguson, Joseba Zulaika and Ian Clayton. Others attended via video conference.

 “We want to demonstrate that we are committed to a civil activity, to the defense of the products. A defense of territory also exists…many times businessmen cannot compete with products that come from outside, often with poor salaries. When defending a local product, we are defending the local producer.” (Luis Mokoroa, Presidente de la Cofradía Vasca de Gastronomía de San Sebastián (President for the Basque Fraternity of Gastronomy of San Sebastian), Terrigastro, February 13, 2018).

“Internationally I am proud and don’t fear retaliation [for using Basque] …but within Spain, you have to be brave to use Basque on the label” (Itxaso Compañon, text message, Oct. 24, 2017).

 “The label is not important, what’s important is the essence and experience you give…it would be an error to lose the essence and think that you have to translate everything”“focusing on key words would be helpful if one wanted to use a language to market” (Agirre, November 24, 2017).

“The women, in the world of Txakolina back then, as well as in other activities, were limited to doing the manual work often, cleaning bottles, labeling them, selling the Txakolina, and dividing up the money…And now, there are a lot of women in the world of Txakolina, things continue evolving.” (Iratxe Zabala, email to author, August 30, 2018).