It's a disservice to so many cultures and communities to say that food cannot ever be political. Countries have conquered others in search of the perfect spice, while produce and trade continue to operate as modern currency. As society progressively takes a closer look at the world and our own history, the realms of what we cook and eat are also put under the lens. There's so much more to food than what ends up on our plates, and for chef and social figure Sophia Roe, awareness and change is at the core.
Counter Space spans 24 episodes - each exploring food both as a meal and as a social construct. From agriculture to sustainability, the show champions the produce and the people behind them. "It's hard subject matter," Roe tells SBS. "These aren't easy things that we talk about on [Counter Space]."
The show originally launched as a series of random news packages, and then the pandemic happened. VICE reached out to Roe on social media, who was known for her passionate and intersectional food insights, to lead this ground-breaking show during a time where it was needed most.
"I was one of those really silly people who thought that the [NYC] shutdown was only going to last two weeks," she admits. "I was battling with a lot of anxiety and depression. It was really hard not being able to see the people I cared about."
The series was nominated for a 2021 Daytime Emmy - pushing its subject matter into spaces and conversations that it rarely existed in before. "The show is so not about me. I make sure I always say that - I'm just a story steward, and there are so many stories to tell. We knew that we would be doing something really weird, and maybe some people would hate it - so it was really great getting recognition on that level for something we thought was really wonderful."
Roe worked both as a host and a producer, in which she had sway over what was and wasn't spoken about on the show. "I wanted to hear about sustainability from the people who invented it out of necessity. We want to hear about the magic-ness of growing tomatoes out of a Coke bottle," Roe shares, crediting Indigenous and First Nations communities for the foundations of modern sustainability.
"You can't talk about culture without talking about food."
Counter Space's ' Edible Insects' episode explores creepy crawlies as a sustainable protein. "I was always [cooking with] 'weird' stuff," says Roe. "I was in the plant-based space, which is less about the word 'vegan' and more about ingenuity. More than three billion people globally already consume insects in some facet." With her cooking ethos in mind, a fresh witchetty grub is the top of the order for when Roe eventually visits Australia and she cannot wait.
Throughout the show, Roe unpacks conventional eating - whether that be with the proteins we use or the way we structure our daily meals. "Globally, most people don't eat that way. What is breakfast, even? Who says eggs and pancakes are breakfast? A Japanese breakfast is completely opposite, with [things like] pickled kohlrabi and miso soup."
For those who are making the effort to be mindful and slow with their eating, Roe recommends understanding that "hundreds of people are responsible for what's on your plate. So many growers, workers, transportationists. Honour the soil, the earth, the time, the sunlight, the water - the ecological labour that goes into the things we consume. Take pause for their history and ancestry."
"It's about being aware - a lot of people are responsible for us having what we have."
Roe's social media ventures advocate for a change in language around wellness and disordered eating. "It isn't something to overcome, it's something to manage. We've given food emotion. We've given food 'good' and 'bad' labels. There are no good and bad foods," explains Roe.