Tasting together: Podcasts and meaningful community engagement
AbstractThroughout 2017, the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC presented The Kitchen Stories podcast series and The Chosen Food Supper Club. These programs invited community members and the general public to share family and community history within the unifying theme of food. The Kitchen Stories and The Chosen Food incorporated thinking from diverse fields including oral history, food studies, the participatory museum, and the sensory turn. However, the experience for participants was nothing so high minded. Instead, these programs were an opportunity for people to come together and share their stories. This paper offers reflections on the development and reception of these programs, demonstrating that podcasts are a viable and promising medium for small community-based museums to tackle complex topics, but are at their best when supported by in-person public programming.
Keywords: podcasting, cooking, food, museums, venue, digital
Between March 2017 and January 2018, the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC (JMABC) presented The Kitchen Stories, a podcast series through which the JMABC invited community members to share community history within the unifying theme of food. Initially conceived as a way to showcase the vast oral history collection of the BC Jewish Community Archives, the idea for The Kitchen Stories quickly expanded to a quartet of public program series on the theme of food offered through 2017. Four programs comprised Feeding Community:
- Nourishing Tradition
- The Chosen Food Supper Club
- The Kitchen Stories
- The Britannia Sukkot Festival
Nourishing Tradition was a series of four events hosted in partnership with the Jewish Seniors Alliance, featuring storytelling and song on the theme of food. The Chosen Food Supper Club was a set of eight dinners hosted at the JMABC, showcasing the diversity of Jewish cuisine present among the BC Jewish community. Community members acted as guest hosts, teaching recipes and recounting history of their family’s migration from locations as far afield as South Africa, the Isle of Rhodes, Montreal, and Syria. The Kitchen Stories podcast series supported The Chosen Food, delving deeper into the topics raised at the supper club dinners over the course of 13 episodes. The Britannia Sukkot Festival, completed in partnership with Britannia Community Centre and the Grandview Woodlands Food Connection, was an intercultural celebration of harvest, comprising a Sukkah design competition and a harvest feast incorporating Jewish and Indigenous traditions and Syrian cuisine.
This paper offers reflections on the development and reception of The Kitchen Stories, with reference made to The Chosen Food. These two series were the primary pillars of Feeding Community. Through this discussion, we demonstrate that podcasts are a viable and promising medium for small community-based museums, but are at their best when supported by in-person public programming. Feeding Community illustrates how recent thinking emerging out of the sensory turn in anthropology and history can inform participatory museum practices. Such thinking can help us create spaces where visitors feel welcome, and encouraged to engage in dialogue with one another and with the museum collection to embark on deep examinations of cultural history and memory.
The oral history collection of the JMABC dates back to the mid 1960s, predating the founding of the Jewish Historical Society by five years. Since that time, the organization has continued to collect oral history testimonies, growing the collection to over 815 recordings. These interviews with pioneers and community builders form the basis of all our public programming and publications. They are how we know about the communal stables that used to stand behind the old synagogue, where new immigrant scrap collectors would hitch their carts and horses overnight, bought with support from the Hebrew Free Loan Association. They are also how we know about the Italian boys who would wait on the corner across from the synagogue to brawl with Harry Hammer when he left his bar mitzvah lessons. These interviews document the establishment of local businesses, community contributions to the war effort, and tzedakah projects undertaken by service organizations, to name just a small selection of the topics covered.
In recent projects, the JMABC has worked to put community oral history at the forefront of our programs, especially our growing collection of online exhibits. Our 2013 exhibit More Than Just Mrs. showcased the vital work of women’s volunteer organizations Hadassah-WIZO, National Council of Jewish Women, and Na’amat. This exhibit integrates excerpts of oral history interviews alongside text and archival documents to tell a rich tale. Our 2015 exhibit Oakridge recounts life in the neighborhood through the voices of those who lived and grew up there.
The format for these exhibits was influenced by innovative digital storytelling techniques employed in recent years by newspapers, museums, and other cultural institutions. In addition to the iconic “Snow Fall” published by the New York Times in 2012 (Birchall, 2016), we were particularly inspired by A Short History of the High Rise, produced through a collaboration between the New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), as well as the NFB’s equally impressive Bear 71 and the 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek article “What is Code?” In 2014 and 2015, the JMABC developed a new website with the aim of facilitating online exhibits in this style. While the high bar set by the NFB and the New York Times exceeded the scope of our technical abilities and project budgets, we knew we could accomplish a simplified version, adopting the same modes of storytelling. We resolved to work within the confines of WordPress and build exhibits anchored in text and enhanced by audio, video, and images. Since launching the new site, we have produced eight new online exhibits documenting diverse facets of our community history.
The idea for The Kitchen Stories grew out of our experience with these exhibits, and a desire to remove the intervening step of transcription. As Alessandro Portelli has noted “the transcript turns aural objects into visual ones, which inevitably implies changes and interpretation… Expecting the transcript to replace the tape for scientific purposes is equivalent to doing art criticism on reproductions, or literary criticism on translations. The most literal translation is hardly ever the best, and a truly faithful translation always implies a certain amount of invention” (Portelli, 1991). We realized that delivering The Kitchen Stories as a podcast would emancipate us from a translation process, instead allowing us to produce a purely auditory experience, wherein community members could speak for themselves.
Several practical considerations informed this decision to proceed with a podcast. First, thanks to our ongoing Oral History program, the JMABC owns professional-grade recording equipment that could be used to record interviews and narration. Second, research determined that editing and compiling each episode would be possible using GarageBand, free software included on every Mac computer. Third, a friend of the JMABC with 20 years of experience as an audio engineer in Vancouver’s video game industry volunteered to master the series free of charge, imparting a sound quality on par with professional radio. And finally, we were able to negotiate with an online audio clearing house for a substantially reduced rate for a theme song for the series.
These cost-saving measures meant that staff time would be the primary expense; there was no need to purchase expensive equipment, rent or build a recording studio, hire someone to master the series, or compose a theme song. As the JMABC has a staff of only three full-time employees, embarking on a new project frequently demands temporarily expanding our staff. Fortunately, the Canadian federal government offers two grant programs enabling cultural institutions to hire students on short-term contracts: Young Canada Works and Canada Summer Jobs. In recent years, we had seen the impressive capabilities of such students, entrusting them to research and prepare many of our online exhibits. When provided sufficient mentorship, they have been able to produce impressive content. We felt confident that the right hires could take a lead role in realizing The Kitchen Stories to the level we envisioned.
Work on The Kitchen Stories began in spring 2016 with the hiring of research assistants April Thompson and Alisa Lazear. Tasked with gathering community stories on the theme of food, April and Alisa began interviewing chefs, kosher inspectors, rabbis, farmers, educators, home cooks and restaurateurs. They drafted an outline of episode themes and set out to find community members who could speak to each of these topics. In this planning phase, Jessica Abel’s graphic novel Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio was an invaluable resource. Through Abel’s interviews, the creators of leading public radio shows and podcasts including This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible, Planet Money, and StoryCorps grant insights into their formulas for successful, compelling stories and their methods of finding and crafting such stories. Strategies outlined in this book guided our approach at all stages of developing The Kitchen Stories.
From the outset, we understood that conversations about food are rarely exclusively about food. Food scholars have demonstrated that essential concerns, including migration, cultural preservation, gender, equity, international trade, and environmentalism, all intersect at the kitchen table. For this reason, food was selected as the guiding theme that would engender broad appeal and provide latitude to tackle deeper issues within the community history. It gave us an opportunity to interrogate community rifts, showcase innovative work done from the past and present, and learn about the ways community members maintain their cultural identity across generations. In conceptualizing these themes and grappling with how to present them, we looked to other cases of exhibits, podcasts, and digital storytelling on the same topic. Specifically, we took inspiration from the New York Times project “The American Thanksgiving,” the Nashville Farmers’ Market exhibit Dirty Pages, and the podcast Gravy, produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance.
We determined seven primary themes, spanning thirteen episodes: Food and Memory; The Networks of Food; Faraway Foods (migration); The Business of Food; Fresh Roots; Food and Gender: A Spaghetti Junction; and Food Security. Most themes were addressed in a single episode, though some extended into a two or three-part series. As an intermission, we included two mini-episodes that featured a compilation of interview excerpts that didn’t necessarily fit the determined themes of the episode arcs, but contained meaningful disclosures. One of these mini-episodes was an audio recording of one evening of The Chosen Food Supper Club. Many sub-themes ran as undercurrents throughout multiple episodes, connecting threads even if they were not the primary organizing theme of a particular episode.
The experience of three women featured in The Kitchen Stories serve to illustrate the breadth of topics covered through this series, as described below:
Karen Glanzberg (née Horak) grew up in Vancouver, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Hungarian father, both new immigrants to Canada, who met in the 1970s. Their home felt the influence of both cultures, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes cacophonously. Sometimes, when mom—a flight attendant—was away on work, dad would prepare pig hooves for his Hungarian buddies, who would come over to play cards. Mom had no taste for such things. Instead, she would bring home Japanese delicacies for the family to enjoy. As an adult, Karen met and married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism before starting a family. Out with the pork and prawns, in with the bagels.
Raised in Vancouver, 95 year old Sara Ciacci has a rare vantage point of seeing the city through the majority of its history. In the 1960s, she was there when the Jewish Food Bank was established. Jeannie Cohen, Sara told us, was then President of the local B’nai B’rith women’s chapter. “She went to a woman’s house—an elderly person—and she was looking in the cupboard and she found cat food. The woman didn’t have a cat. But she told her it was cheaper to buy cat food with tuna in it than to buy tuna.” In response, the group began collecting food from family and friends, grocery stores and synagogues, and distributing to those in need, as identified by the Jewish Family Service Agency. At “the workbench downstairs [in one of the members’ homes], the members collected food from people they knew, family and friends and whatnot… And we just had paper Safeway bags. Whatever there was, we sorted it out. We had to make sure we didn’t let the basement door open so the cat got out. And it was just a few women.”
Around the same time, Dianne Jacob was in her teens, also in Vancouver. Her parents had grown up in Shanghai, the descendants of Iraqi Jews who had followed the Sassoon Brothers to Shanghai. “They grew up in Shanghai, speaking English among themselves, speaking Arabic to their elders, speaking Shanghainese on the street, and speaking pidgin to their servants,” Dianne explains. Arriving in the dominantly Ashkenazi—or eastern European —Jewish community of Vancouver, the family struggled to find community. “Eventually, I think for them, it was about their cultural identity. They were sort of lost, they didn’t fit in with all the other Jews and they needed to remember who they were. So they started cooking, recreating the foods that they grew up with.” Dianne recalls her mother finding ingredients at Persian-owned shops and taking her to Chinatown, where she could find the pastries she loved and chat with the merchants in their mother tongue. For her, Chinatown felt more like home than the Jewish Community Centre did.
In addition to being one of the primary interviewers of The Kitchen Stories, April served as the series editor. Though she had no prior experience in editing audio, she gained proficiency in the technology almost immediately. Instead, April brought a curator’s eye to envisioning the series, having served as curator at local artist-run centers, and contributed to arts publications locally, nationally, and internationally. She shared the following reflections:
Producing the podcast combined the curatorial process of gathering and editing raw materials. Like curating, it also required mindfulness around my role as mediator between the materials and the audience. Placing objects in relation to one another in an exhibition invites certain readings, and the same applies to selecting certain audio excerpts over others. A partial account of the entire thread can only ever be divulged. The task then, was to select the content that contained something intriguing, unusual or meaningful, while giving this “snippet” enough room to exist on its own. In essence, allowing for a degree of ambiguity in how it might be interpreted.
Having served in many cases as both interviewer and editor, I was privy to the atmosphere of the room in which the discussions took place. Subtleties like body language and facial expressions are important elements and visual cues. While these are absent from the recorded audio, they can be signposted in subtle auditory ways, like a brief pause, a stutter, intonation, or a laugh. On occasion, we included these imperfections in the hopes that they might convey how each excerpt belonged to a much bigger conversation.
The debut of The Kitchen Stories was March 24, 2017, a date that was selected in order to precede the first evening of The Chosen Food by two weeks. We chose a release schedule of a new episode every two weeks, as this was frequent enough to maintain audience engagement while leaving time between episodes to allow for preparation on the next. The production of each episode took three to four weeks, depending on the availability of interviewees. To synchronize these timelines, we ensured that the first three episodes were complete before the inaugural one was released.
Coming together: The Chosen Food
The Chosen Food Supper Club reflects the rich cultural history associated with family meals. The series emerged during the development process of The Kitchen Stories, in response to a sense that something vital was missing.
Some of my most visceral memories of childhood transpired at my grandparents’ dining room table. This was the gathering place of our family every few weeks for Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, birthday parties, and other such occasions. A sophisticated Viennese lady saved in her teenage years by the Kindertransport program, food connected my grandmother to her memories of Austria, and served as a medium of communicating this heritage to us, her grandchildren. My grandparents were mismatched both politically and culinarily— the original Odd Couple. Grampa came from the Depression-era streets of New York, a source of culinary tradition he held dear, and demonstrated with salami hung from the back-door hinge. Their home was a place where all opinions were welcome, and it was at the dining room table where this forum was most evident. The merits of Reaganomics, the promise or naïveté of the Oslo Accords, and the shock of the 1995 Québec referendum were all subjects of heated debate, merged in my memory with the aromas of roast chicken, brisket, nockerln, and kohlgemusen.
These memories made me realize that the communal experience of the family meal was somewhat contradictory to the often individualistic ways that podcasts are absorbed. To rectify this tension, we developed The Chosen Food Supper Club, devised as a participatory counterpoint to The Kitchen Stories. It was important that neither of these programs would replace the other. Instead, it was clear that each could accomplish specific goals the other could not; the two would enhance each other, making for a more comprehensive whole.
The Chosen Food Supper Club was a series of eight dinners held at the JMABC throughout 2017. Each dinner celebrated a different style of Jewish cuisine representative of the diversity of the BC Jewish community. For each dinner, we invited a guest host to share their family’s food and history. A community composed by waves of immigration from around the world, the BC Jewish community illustrates the natural mutation that Fabio Parasecoli identifies in migrant culinary canons. These canons, he notes, “often develop following their own dynamics that are not necessarily the same as their cuisine of origin: the context, the external pressures, and the internal pressures are not the same” (Parasecoli, 2014). At The Chosen Food dinners, the many culinary canons of our community were celebrated. We savored Montréal smoked meat, South African sausages, and Aleppian leek fritters. We enjoyed okra as it is served on the Isle of Rhodes, and fresh salads and pastries from Israel; we savored Eastern European dumplings, and Hungarian chicken and green pea soup.
Each dinner was a three-hour event. Guests arrived and were greeted with a glass of wine. After a brief schmooze, they were invited into the kitchen, where our guest host shared an overview of the food we’d be enjoying and the history behind it, both their own family history, and a more general history. This structure made the event a continuation of the storytelling platform established by The Kitchen Stories, but one in which memories could be activated by sight, smell, taste, and touch. Guests then got to try their hand at making some of the food: decorating herring with shredded egg as is done in South Africa, or stuffing olives in dough to make an Israeli treat, zayit babayit (olive in the house). For one event, we teamed up with the HUA Foundation to make Eastern European soup dumplings and Chinese fish dumplings.
We then moved into the foyer to enjoy dinner. As each course arrived, our guest host introduced the food and provided some further information. Hosts joined the guests for dinner, creating opportunities for interesting conversations. While one style of cuisine was the focus of each dinner, the event invariably prompted guests to share memories of the foods important to their own families.
In the end, the series was a tremendous success, with all eight evenings oversold. Substantial press coverage was generated, and audience response was enthusiastic. Josy Nadiger attended three dinners with her husband Bill. She sent a very thoughtful e-mail expressing their appreciation for the series:
While Vancouver has a diverse population as you mentioned, and although there are lots of restaurants that reflect that diversity, your concept of the supper club offered the opportunity to learn more about the human story behind the foods. I think cuisines, like languages, evolve over time, influenced by the comings and goings of various people responding to whatever is or was going on in the world. You don’t get to hear that back story even if you have a meal at an ethnic restaurant.
Because I grew up in the Oakridge area, I perhaps had more contact with Jewish people growing up. However, I never thought about the diversity that existed within the Jewish community itself until I saw the list of dinners from various parts of the world. (Nadiger, 2017)
Needless to say, it was very rewarding to hear such an encouraging response. The sentiment was echoed by numerous attendees, and the inquiries as to whether we plan to continue the series in the coming year have not tapered off. This positive response illustrates the efficacy of an integrated approach to community outreach, communications, and public programs.
Fostering meaningful community engagement
Community contributions made The Chosen Food and The Kitchen Stories possible. With both programs, the JMABC set out to establish frameworks within which community members could share their wisdom, knowledge, and history. In this pursuit, we followed the provocation of Nina Simon and her notion of the Participatory Museum:
How can cultural institutions reconnect with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary life? I believe they can do this by inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers.
Rather than delivering the same content to everyone, a participatory institution collects and shares diverse, personalized, and changing content co-produced with visitors. It invites visitors to respond and add to cultural artifacts, scientific evidence, and historical records on display. It showcases the diverse creations and opinions of non-experts. People use the institution as a meeting grounds for dialogue around the content presented. Instead of being “about” something or “for” someone, participatory museums are created and managed “with” visitors. (Simon, 2010)
This call-to-arms has served as a guiding light for the JMABC since the closure of our permanent exhibition space in 2011. With this change, the organization was forced to rethink its approach, and to reinvigorate how we define public programming. Feeding Community is the culmination of this shift, where the community directly contributed the content on display, and where the conversation itself became a material to encounter.
However, not every community collaboration goes smoothly. As Simon cautions, participation can lead to unanticipated results:
Supporting participation means trusting visitors’ abilities as creators, remixers, and redistributors of content. It means being open to the possibility that a project can grow and change post-launch beyond the institution’s original intent. Participatory projects make relationships among staff, members, visitors, community participants, and stakeholders more fluid and equitable. They open up new ways for diverse people to express themselves and engage with institutional practice. (Simon, 2010)
Anticipating this, we worked hard to make our community contributors feel supported. Aware that preparing a meal for up to 40 people is not a walk in the park for everyone, we enlisted volunteer chefs who could contribute their expertise in scaling up recipes, coordinating timing, and delegating tasks in the kitchen. The JMABC also took on all administrative tasks—advertising, registration, recruiting volunteers, and ingredient sourcing—so that guest hosts could focus on sharing their knowledge. For each dinner, we met with the chef and host a month in advance of the evening to review the schedule, menu, and delegation of tasks, ensuring that everyone was on the same page, and had a clear idea of what was expected of them.
Similarly, when editing The Kitchen Stories, we sought to make our contributors sound like their best selves. We trimmed the hesitations, the “ums,” the false starts, and mastered the audio to make the voices clear and eloquent (without losing the natural rhythm of the speaker’s voice). We also strove for a diversity of voices, celebrating non-experts, or what could be termed “under-appreciated expertise.”April reports the following on the interview process:
At least half of the interview subjects expressed feeling that they were not sure they had anything of particular interest to divulge – or that they weren’t entirely sure of where they fit into our idea of the project. This meant that oftentimes, a large part of the interview process involved coaxing stories out of our interviewees in a way that was less directed and more exploratory. A good result of this process was when the interviewee forgot the purpose of our meeting, and became fully present in revisiting their memories. Being given time and space to explore these memories seemed to be a meaningful process to most people by the end of the interviews. What mattered most was that the interviewees felt that they were allowed to go wherever they pleased with their stories—that none of it was “irrelevant” or unimportant.
Members of the community have expressed how important it has been to hear their own stories given space to be heard. Sharing personal experiences and memories in such a public domain was often said to be an affirming experience for our interview subjects, as it gave legitimacy and further importance to their histories. It also made them feel they had a connection to the broader Jewish community by participating in a collective project without knowing how their stories would be presented or who would be listening.
The settings in which we asked participants to share their experiences were in many ways unnatural. Few people are instinctively comfortable divulging family memories in front of a microphone or a crowd of strangers. Overcoming these obstacles was the task we set out for ourselves as we planned The Kitchen Stories and The Chosen Food. Through thoughtful questions, patience, and a careful editing process, we were successful in encouraging our participants to let their guard down and share freely.
The senses, and a multifaceted approach to community engagement
In prioritizing holders of under-appreciated expertise, Feeding Community follows the path of the sensory turn that has emerged in anthropology, history, and cultural studies over the past two decades. In her 1997 essay “Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses,” Constance Classen outlines the tenets of this approach:
The fundamental premise underlying the concept of an “anthropology of the senses” is that sensory perception is a cultural, as well as a physical, act. That is, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell are not only means of apprehending physical phenomena, but also avenues for the transmission of cultural values. (Classen, 1997)
During the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, Classen argues, sight came to be held in higher esteem than the other senses within Western society. This trend was later reinforced by the arrival of photography and cinema. As Susan Sontag noted, throughout the history of the medium, photography has had a dubious yet inescapable affiliation with truth and objectivity (Sontag, 2002). Though we live in an era of photo manipulation, the traces of this affiliation remain in our language when, for instance, we refer to innovators in business and technology as “visionaries.”
This hierarchy of the senses was applied to racist and sexist hierarchies of society in an effort to disempower and discriminate against women, people of color, colonial subjects, and other marginalized groups. The notion of “higher” and “lower” senses were matched to the binary view of “civilized” and “primitive” societies, and the importance of smell, taste, and touch within non-Western societies fascinated Western scholars, who labeled these tendencies as “animalistic” (Classen, 1997). Reason and sight were entwined and deemed masculine while “the forbidden taste, the mysterious smell, [and] the dangerous touch” were descriptions attributed to women (Classen, 1998).
The sensory turn has had implications for museums, where the visual has long been the primary means of display, and where authoritative truth was—for much of our history—the primary offering. Needless to say, our approach has improved dramatically in recent decades.
Feeding Community advances the philosophy of the sensory turn by offering public programs built upon the unwritten heritage and the non-expert wisdom of members of the BC Jewish community. These programs flattened the hierarchy of the senses by holding the verbal, visual, olfactory, gustatory, auditory, and tactile in equal esteem, and providing audience experiences that satisfied each mode of stimulus. The power relationship between presenter and audience—bestower versus the recipient of knowledge—was blurred, demonstrating that everyone has something to contribute to the conversation.
At each Chosen Food dinner, the community host served as a catalyst, modeling the behavior of sharing family history. Attendees instinctively took up the challenge, and began sharing memories and knowledge with their neighbors, and the group as a whole. Through the course of The Kitchen Stories, we hear from people who have been cooking with passion all their life, and those who are all thumbs in the kitchen. Though The Kitchen Stories is an auditory experience, the memories and knowledge conveyed are highly descriptive and evoke the rest of the senses. The series is non-linear, weaving together over fifty voices from within and beyond the BC Jewish community.
Results and conclusion
The Kitchen Stories and The Chosen Food succeeded in their goals of expanding the reach of the JMABC and deepening both community and audience engagement. To date, over 3,000 people have listened to episodes of The Kitchen Stories. Production of the series entailed interviews with 48 people, resulting in substantial growth of the JMABC Oral History Collection. Registration for The Chosen Food Supper Club filled up quickly, with 372 people attending one or more dinners, and waiting lists reaching 60 people in some cases. The work required to present these programs necessitated a significant volunteer corps to support the JMABC’s modest staff of three. 70 volunteers helped in many ways, from chopping and preparing food, greeting guests, and washing dishes, to interviewing contributors or sharing deep personal memories. Finally, these innovative programs caught the attention of the media both locally and nationally, resulting in ten appearances in the press—more than any previous JMABC program.
Every museum comes to the table with a different set of needs based on their collection, community, and mandate. Because of this, pathways for programming will always take on different forms to greater or lesser success. But what is unequivocal is that museums are a place for stories. As such, redefining the way that we incorporate storytelling into programming is an essential responsibility of the museum in contemporary society. The Kitchen Stories and The Chosen Food grew from a recognition that storytelling can be elevated to the primary work done by a museum. Podcasting is an accessible, inexpensive, D.I.Y. medium that neutralizes the level of mediation, enabling a community to share their own voices, and hear one and other. Hosting dinner events structured around identity and memory provided a way to translate deeply personal histories into shared community experiences. With these programs running in tandem, the JMABC was able to incorporate thinking from the diverse fields of oral history, food studies, the participatory museum, and the sensory turn, in order to strengthen our community, build on our collection, and learn from each other.
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