Tag Archives: Anthropology

Real Food on Campus

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Are student activists transforming campus dining? And, if they succeed, what are the implications for the way Americans think about food?

We recently posted an article by Bonnie May, David Burley and Kellen Gilbert, of Southeastern Louisiana University, about efforts by students there to convince their university administration and Aramark (their food service contractor) to source more food locally. They have been building ties to local farmers, organizing a farmers market on campus and working to get Aramark to stock the campus salad bar with local produce. However, Aramark actively resisted these ideas and even took actions that undermined the students’ and farmers’ efforts. Even though SLU is located in a very productive agricultural region, with a long growing season and many farmers eager to work with the university, students eating on campus have very little access to local food.

This is true on university campuses all over the country. But there has also been a great deal of student activism around food, resulting in a growing commitment to local food by some colleges and universities. In perhaps the biggest move in this direction, the California State University system announced this week that 20% of the food on its 23 campuses will, by 2020, meet the standards of the Real Food Challenge (visit the site for details on those standards). The Cal State system is very large, with 447,000 students and 45,000 faculty and staff, spending over $100 million annually on food. This could prove to be a big enough move to catch the attention of companies like Aramark. One of Aramark’s competitors, a company called Bon Appetit, already promotes itself as providing a sustainable alternative food service. Their presence on campuses is probably evidence of successful student activism.

The movement for “real food” on campuses is more complicated than simply sourcing food from local producers. Students, faculty, and staff on campuses around the United States have long debated the quality of the food provided by food services. This has included an interest in food perceived to be healthier than had been offered in the past. But activists have also pushed for food that is more environmentally sustainable, which can mean a lot of different things, including local sourcing of ingredients. It might include food that reflects the local culinary culture, for example. Some have suggested cooperating with local restaurateurs, caterers, and food truck operators to increase the variety of dining options on campus and to encourage local business development. Organizing students to grow food on campus has also been a popular idea.

What does this all mean? It might be tempting to suggest that this is merely a kind of consumerist fight. After all, college is expensive and students are the customers. If they don’t like what they are getting, they have a right to demand something else. Yet that is not really how the fight is framed. Rather, students involved in these campaigns draw on ideas about health, about the environment, fairness (to workers, farmers, and fishers) and about local business. The movement is clearly connected with food activism in other segments of American society. It may represent a challenge to the corporate logic that has come to dominate higher education in recent years.

It would be interesting to hear from SAFN members about their experiences of student food activism. Is food a target for student activism where you work?

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Filed under agriculture, economics, farming, food activism, students

Connecting Students and Farmers—Still Trying

SLU students educating students

SLU students promoting real food.

Bonnie May, David Burley and Kellen Gilbert
Southeastern Louisiana University

Part Two

Our last installment, in spring 2013, left us on a high note as we introduced our student group Reconnect, the environmental sociology class project and the very successful farmers market.  There was a real buzz we all felt at the market on Food Day.  We were excited the diversity of produce grown just a few miles from campus.  It should be possible to have locally grown real food available in our campus cafeteria, right?  The farmers were game.  So, that brings us to…

Corporate Bullies.

Our students challenged the University administration and local Aramark dining managers to source more food directly.  They started by bringing the Aramark manager and the leaders of the local farmers’ cooperative together to develop a plan in which the farmers could regularly deliver sustainable, seasonal produce for the campus cafeteria’s salad bar.  The farmers were excited about the possibilities—not only connecting more with students but also opening up a new market for their produce.  This was a small step, but one both the students and the farmers were convinced could be successful, with potential for growth.

Then, inexplicably, Aramark ceased contact with Reconnect. The students continued to send emails to the dining manager and other personnel, but, still, no response. At the same time this was happening, Aramark’s corporate headquarters issued a national directive forbidding communication with university students affiliated with the Real Food Challenge.

After months of letters and emails from Reconnect requesting meetings, the local Aramark representatives finally reached out to the students right before the next campus farmers market.  The campus dining manager acknowledged the students’ efforts and wanted to be involved but still was not ready to discuss “real food.”

SLU spring campus farmers market

Spring campus farmers market.

Aramark did indeed get involved.   The morning of the farmers market, as the farmers were unloading produce and setting up, Aramark set up their own table.   Right next to the Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative farmers, the dining manager and campus chef handed out brochures highlighting the “local” food they serve and their corporate policy on sustainable practices. They also handed out free fruit and vegetables.  The farmers and students of Reconnect felt this directly undermined their effort and goals.

Instead of cooperating with students, the corporate dining service at our university chose to dismiss a student-led initiative that would not have cost them, and in fact might have enhanced their image of ecological responsibility.  In the meantime, the salad bar in the cafeteria continues to feature tomatoes shipped from Mexico, onions from Washington and iceberg lettuce from California.

Some good has come out of this process.  Students are interested in learning about local farms and continue to support the markets on campus.  More farmers are participating, and local chefs have gotten in on the action, preparing dishes on the spot with the available produce.   We also have a new Farmers Market Manager Internship program.  While there have yet to be negotiations with Aramark, students are looking for other ways to achieve the goals of food justice…

To Be Continued…

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, economics, farming, food activism, food politics, students

Book Review: Greek Whisky!

BampilisGreek

Bampilis, Tryfon. 2013. Greek Whisky. The Globalization of a Global Commodity. Oxford: Berghahn.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

As a culinary historian who has made several culinary history trips to Greek venues, I looked forward to learning more about the consumption of alcohol as a dimension of Greek food habits and cuisine. Greek Whisky is not the book to gain such knowledge, because whisky, in contrast to indigenous Greek alcoholic beverages including wines, beers, and ouzo, is consumed mostly in social situations without food, in modernizing, Western-gazing venues that intentionally compare and contrast with traditional food and beverage settings. The goal of this volume is to describe “the social life of whisky” as a commodity, whose importation, marketing, representation in the Greek media, and inter-individual ritualistic consumption, has made whisky drinking (occasionally throwing) a Greek symbol of modernity, masculinity, and symbolic break with the past. Whiskey signifies expensive, imported European spirits, primarily Scotch, which tie the Greeks who spend heavily to imbibe them to the rest of Western Europe and symbolic “modernity”. To craft his argument, the author adopts a historical and “performances of consumption in relation to style”-based ethnographic analysis, which “follows the whisky” along historical food chains and media representation and into the drinking halls where he did his research.

Two detailed ethnographic components focus in on the primary site for whisky introduction, which is Athens, and compare whisky consumption styles there with drinking venues on the Island of Skyros in the North Aegean, which is his mother’s original home. This secondary site, which has been transformed from a farming, shepherding, laboring, and merchant economy to a tourist venue, offers in depth ethnographic analysis of changing gender, kinship, age-related, and occupational categories. All of which, Bampilis argues, are expressed through drinking styles, by which principally males distinguish and separate themselves from the formerly matriarchal culture, where females controlled property and household purse strings. He draws a convincing dichotomy between traditional domestic (meza) and non-traditional outside (ekso) values, respectively expressed through different styles of social drinking and spirits-sharing situations through which individuals literally perform and construct their modern as opposed to traditional identities. In Athens, discriminating drinkers further differentiate themselves through their very expensive tastes in single-malt scotches, and occasionally, “‘out of control’ mentality materialized in scotch” which the author finds representative of “excessive unproductive mentality” (p.149), with devastating economic consequences for the individuals and those who rely on their financial contributions. The ethnography spans the decades after World War II, up through and including the current economic downturn and nation-wide financial disaster.

Food anthropology or other food-studies courses might adopt individual chapters for different pedagogical ends. The preface and introduction provide a detailed synopsis of all major symbolic, exchange, and reflexive anthropological and sociological literature on globalization. This exhaustive social-science and philosophical theoretical framework connecting social, economic, and cultural globalization and localization, might be overwhelming for undergraduates, but provide a comprehensive “crib” for Ph.D. or possibly masters students. Chapters 2 and 3, which offer a detailed evidence base tying together the importation and marketing history with the distinctive, ritualized, consumption patterns surrounding imported spirits, might be useful in communications courses, especially as the reference points in these comprehensive business, advertising, and cinema media histories of Scotch, come copiously and effectively illustrated. The comparative ethnographies in chapters 4 and especially 5, the Skyrian case study, are valuable in their own right. A productive class discussion point throughout might be whether the author needed to ground so many paragraphs in post-modern jargon to make his overall points about localization of global commodities, and what continual reference to symbolic performance of social styles rather than identities, adds to the interpretation.

The volume has been produced without careful copy-editing or a glossary of Greek terms. These are serious omissions that the series editors should take care to correct in subsequent publications. 

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Filed under anthropology, culture, foodways, Greece, whiskey, whisky

Book Review: Cooking for Crowds

cooking for crowds cover 2

White, Merry. 2013. Cooking for Crowds: 40th Anniversary Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Merry (Corky) White has produced a 40th anniversary edition of Cooking for Crowds, which she produced in 1974 for Basic Books, a volume re-issued by Princeton University Press. The backstory: the Basic Books editor discovered her recipes as a guest of Harvard’s Center for West European Studies (this was the Cold War era, distinguishing East and West). Corky, earning money for graduate studies, had decided to try catering, in lieu of office work, on a dare, and was wildly successful. Her international menus, based on family recipes she gathered from colleagues and friends, proved a big hit at the Center, where she catered weekly lunches for fifty and occasional dinners for twenty. They were colorful, not “white,” a language that contrasts both the hue and total sensory experience of what she despised as flavorless New England beige dinners: unseasoned white-meat chicken, white starchy vegetable (potatoes or rice), and cauliflower. This was the era immediately following the publication of FML’s Diet for a Small Planet and the kind of international cuisine and still unusual grains and vegetables that she offered were not yet expected or standard restaurant offerings. She figured that she couldn’t compete or measure up on cuisine that her distinguished guests knew well, such as French, but she could entertain their palates with relatively exotic fare from Ukraine (cabbage and pork stew) or Scandinavia (almond cake), and she always left a pile of recipes for those who might want to try cooking these dishes at home. The Basic Books editor, without consulting her, grabbed the packet of recipes, returned to NYC, and there engaged his close friend, New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren, to draw captivating cartoons, which included identifiable and anthropomorphized vegetables having friendly chats, and disgruntled looking miniature chefs pushing enormous rolling pins, or toting enormous oversized tubers or peppers. The drawings capture the essential ideas of fun, spices, and colors, which the recipes exemplify. Almost all contain bright capsicum other peppers, flavorful greens as basic ingredients or herbs, fragrant olive oil, and a host of other spices that color and complexify the results. She points out that the recipes are relatively simple, although one might imagine that in 1974 , many ingredients would have required a specialty food shop, in her case, Savenor’s, which was conveniently located down the street. For Asian ingredients, such as sesame oil, she directs readers to Chinese and Japanese markets. Many of the recipes are derived from her own post-college travel and eating experiences on a tight budget. Especially the Asian recipes appear to be diaries from her own travels, with additional consultations with local ethnic-American sources. Where she garnered the recipe from a friend or colleague, as in the case of “Dirty rice” which was a Louisiana creole specialty, she tells the story.

What may have added to the allure for the editor’s acquisition are Corky’s querky and delectable culinary images, for example, “sweet meatballs for couscous” contain prunes, which “add a mysterious sweetness” (p.63) Or, “Pumpernickel is a bread with a secret” that some say are prunes but in her recipe is chocolate (p.20). A third example concerns “Cocido Valenciana: “This is a Spanish version of a boiled dinner, superior, in my view, to the New England variety. … The bright yellow coloring and rough chunks of vegetables and meats inspire a hearty appetite.” (p.112) Her cuisine also cuts right across class lines, as in “an elegant yet hearty” artichoke and chickpea salad, which will go equally well with an elegant pate-stuffed squab — or charcoal-broiled hamburger! (p.125). In the course of cooking completely new recipe ideas from scratch, plus consulting with grandma’s-recipes experts, she also discovers certain flavor secrets, such as sugar binds and improves tomato-based spaghetti sauce, and kitchen utensil improvisations: “Couscous is traditionally made in a two-part steamer called a couscousiere, which is available but not necessary, as you can improvise a steamer by lining a colander with cheesecloth, fitting it over a kettle, and covering it with a tight-fitting lid.” (p.60).

Whether buyers purchased the volume for the relatively exotic food, the delightful cartoonish illustrations, or the revolutionary cooking ideas for the busy working person (“one of the best places to work is the floor: if it is clean … it (is) much more convenient than juggling pots and pans and mounds of vegetables on small counter spaces” (xxviii) is unknown: whatever the motivation, the book was a hit. It helped also that the text included friendly references to Julia Child, who was a rising culinary star, and conveniently Corky’s neighbor, who occasionally salvaged her cooking disasters. One noteworthy incident involved a burnt cabbage stew, which Julia directed Corky to repot, calm the acrid with sour cream — which coats the tongue to keep nasty sensations out, flavor-modify with extra lemon — which then minimizes the charred flavor, and beautify with lots of green parsley on top. The clever integrating concept, which made the remaining off flavors a virtue, was a name change: to Ukrainian smoked cabbage stew! The heavy cream and substantial butter base also are redolent of Julia, ingredients that enriched otherwise simpler vegetable or low-meat soups into filling and satisfying meals.

The reasons to re-issue the book are tied not only to burgeoning popularity of thematic cook books and culinary memoirs, but also the current healthy eating and nutritional guidelines, which favor hearty vegetables and whole grains (although not butterfat), included in these soups, stews, and salads. Each recipe is a satisfying construction on its own, with suggestions for variations or substitutions in ingredients; with a brief account of its role(s) in a fully satisfying meal; e.g., leguminous soups and stews, especially if complemented with a little wurst, require only bread, salad, and dessert to form a rich and filling lunch or supper. Such appetizers can be easily stretched into main courses, e.g., “Garlic soup can be a light first course or a thick main dish” (p.31), with the resulting soup, bread, salad, dessert theme again suggesting how she concocted so many of her luncheons. Each recipe gives directions for adjusting ingredients to scale, to feed 6, 12, 20 and 50, and suggests how best to preserve, prepare, and serve leftovers.

This book might well serve as supplementary reading for food anthropology courses.

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Filed under anthropology, cooking, Food Studies, recipes

AAA 2014, Call for SAFN papers and panels!

Call for Papers: Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition

Your opportunity to present at the 113th American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Washington, DC., December 3-7, 2014

The theme of this year’s conference is “Producing Anthropology”. The AAA executive committee asks us to examine “the truths we encounter, produce and communicate through anthropological theories and methods.” In particular, we are asked to consider how we create and disseminate knowledge to diverse audiences, and “how will the truths we generate change as we contend with radical shifts in scholarly publishing, employment opportunities, and labor conditions for anthropologists, as well as the politics of circulating the anthropological records we produce?” SAFN members are particularly well situated to contribute to discussion around the theme, as many, if not most of us, work across anthropological sub-disciplines and/or with colleagues in other disciplines, and sharing knowledge for diverse academic and non-academic audiences. For more information about the national meeting, including elaboration of the theme and important dates, see: http://www.aaanet.org/meetings/index.cfm

SAFN is seeking proposals for Executive Sessions, Invited Sessions, Volunteered Papers, Posters and Sessions, and alternative session formats including Roundtables and Installations.

There are two deadlines for submission: Executive sessions (noon EDT, February 15), and all other sessions and papers (5 PM EDT, April 15).  See http://www.aaanet.org/meetings/presenters/ProposalSubmissionTypes.cfm for more information. A summary is provided here:

The deadline for proposing an Executive session is coming up fast. An Executive session is a unique, highly visible forum on a topic of interest to a wide audience that connects directly to the conference theme. There are two possible formats: panels and roundtables. Anyone interested in organizing an Executive panel or roundtable needs to submit a session proposal on the AAA meeting website by noon EST, February 15. Decisions will be announced on March 17th. (Note that if the decision is negative, you can submit the panel for invited/volunteer sessions—see below.) If you are interested in submitting an executive session, please let Helen and Arianna know ASAP. To apply, you will need: a session abstract (of no more than 500 words), keywords, length of session, anticipated attendance, presenter names and roles. The organizer(s) must be a current AAA member unless eligible for a membership exemption (anthropologists living outside of the US/Canada or non-anthropologists) and have registered for the 2014 Annual Meeting. Individual presenters must submit their own abstracts (250 words), paper title and keywords via the AAA meeting website by 5 PM EST, April 15. Any discussants or chairs must also be registered by April 15th.

Invited sessions are generally cutting-edge, directly related to the meeting theme, or cross sub-disciplines, i.e. they have broader appeal. Session proposals must be submitted via the AAA meeting website by 5 PM EST, April 15. Session proposals should include a session abstract of no more than 500 words, key words, number of participants in the session, anticipated attendance, as well as the names and roles of each presenter. Individual presenters must submit their own abstracts (250 words), paper title and keywords via the AAA meeting website also by 5 PM EST, April 15. Any discussants or chairs must also be registered by April 15th. Please note there are no double-sessions this year! One way to increase your and our presence at the meetings is to have a co-sponsored invited session between SAFN and another society. Invited time is shared with the other sub-discipline and the session is double-indexed. Please include any other societies we should be in contact with about possible co-sponsorships.

Volunteered sessions are comprised of submitted papers or posters that are put together based on a common theme as well as sessions proposed as invited that were not selected as such. Volunteered session abstracts should be 500 words or less, individual paper abstracts 250 words or less. Both session and individual abstracts must be submitted via the AAA website by 5 PM EST, April 15.

NEW this year! Retrospective sessions are intended to highlight career contributions of established leading scholars (for example, on the occasion of their retirement or significant anniversary). A session abstract of up to 500 words is required. Participants are bound by the rules of the meeting and must submit final abstracts, meeting registration forms and fees via the AAA web site by April 15.

Installations are a creative way to present ideas that capture the senses, and may include performances, recitals, conversations, author-meets-critic roundtables, salon reading workshops, oral history recording sessions and other alternative, creative forms of intellectual expression. Selected Installations will be curated for an off-site exhibition and tied to the official AAA conference program. Organizers are responsible for submitting the session abstract (of no more than 500 words), keywords, length of session, anticipated attendance, presenter names and roles by 5 PM EST, April 15.  Presenters must also be registered by the April 15 deadline. If you have an idea that might require some organizational creativity please contact the Executive Program Committee as soon as possible at aaameetings@aaanet.org.

Public Policy Forums are a place to discuss critical social and public policy issues. No papers are presented. Instead, the ideal format is a moderator and up to seven panelists. The moderator, after introductions, poses questions that are discussed by the panelists. It is recommended that at least one panelist be a policymaker. Proposals should include a 500-word abstract describing the issue to be discussed, and the moderator and panelists’ names. Submissions are reviewed by the AAA Committee on Public Policy; the deadline for forum submissions is 5 PM EST, April 15.

Roundtables are a format to discuss critical social issues affecting anthropology. No papers are presented in this format. The organizer will submit an abstract for the roundtable but participants will not present papers or submit abstracts. A roundtable presenter is a major role, having the same weight as a paper presentation. All organizers and roundtable presenters must register by 5 PM EST, April 15.

For further information or to log in to submit proposals, go to http://www.aaanet.org/meetings/Call-for-Papers.cfm. Remember that to upload abstracts and participate in the meeting you must be an active AAA member who has paid the 2014 meeting registration fee. (Membership exemption is in place for anthropologists living outside of the US/Canada or non-anthropologists.)

If you’d like to discuss your ideas for sessions, papers, posters, roundtable discussions, forums or installations feel free to contact the 2014 Program Chairs, Helen Vallianatos (vallianatos@ualberta.ca) and Arianna Huhn (arihuhn@gmail.com).

We look forward to another exciting annual meeting with a strong SAFN participation!

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Filed under AAA 2014 Washington DC, anthropology, Call for Papers, Food Studies

A Binational Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

eduador field image

Photo courtesy of the Food in Culture and Social Justice blog, osufcsj.wordpress.com.

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I recently completed a pilot run of a binational learning community focused on food, culture and social justice in Ecuador and Oregon. I live in Oregon and have been working with food activists there. I took a sabbatical in Ecuador in 2006 and later watched the development and aftermath of the inclusion of “food sovereignty” in their 2008 constitution. I returned on a Fulbright in 2012 and interviewed food activists, along with beginning the work on this exchange program. In September 2013, we received the Ecuador group in Oregon and spent two weeks touring alternative food sites. This was followed by 10 weeks of linked classes and then a two week food system tour of Ecuador in December. I’ve been in Ecuador since the program ended. Last night I attended a talk by Vandana Shiva at the Central University in Quito and in the question period afterwards (which was more like a mini lecture series) one young man asked her how she has used her education. Without missing a beat Dr. Shiva said that her dissertation was on quantum physics and there were two things that underlay both her work in physics and her work in food systems. The first is that everything is connected and the second is that everything is in flux.  I thought that this might be a good way to think about this program on food, culture and social justice.

Because everything is connected, I formed a learning community of people with a variety of interests: nutrition, farming, public policy, gastronomy and, of course, anthropology. Our site visits ranged from farm to table with presenters constantly emphasizing connections between soil health, plant health and human health. The economic aspects were ever present as we discussed the thorny problem of how to get healthy, fresh food to people without much income when they can more easily fill their stomachs with cheaper, less nutritious food. As much as possible, we tried to pair sites in both countries. We visited urban agriculture projects in Portland and Quito; agroecological farms with culturally specific CSA programs; farmers’ markets; seed savers. In the Willamette Valley we heard from organic seed producer, Frank Morton, about why the Willamette Valley is a prime area of the world to produce seeds and the threat of GMOs to the thriving organic seed industry there. He summed up how GMOs have been surreptitiously introduced in Oregon as a policy of “contaminate, then negotiate.” In Ecuador, we heard from Xavier Leon of Acción Ecológica about the constant threat of GMOs from agroindustries, even though the constitution declares Ecuador a GMO-free country. We also saw how the two countries are connected. Our natural foods co-ops sell high end chocolate and organic bananas from Ecuador and American brands and fast food outlets are very prevalent in Ecuadorian cities.

Vandana Shiva also spent time talking about oppression and liberation within the food system how food should be a human right. This was another theme of the binational learning community. We talked with Latino farmworkers in Oregon and ex-hacienda workers in Ecuador about the injustices of the industrial food system. It was enlightening and depressing to see similar struggles within very different cultural/historical/political contexts. We heard about the innovative community organizing programs at the Oregon Food Bank and later helped the gleaners do a food re-pack and shared their pot luck lunch. There is no food banking system in Ecuador, but we visited the successful Canastas Comunitarias program in Riobamba where low-income urban dwellers have connected with agroecological farmers. Every two weeks they buy in bulk, directly from the farmers and divide up the produce among the urban buyers. This system has spread around the country.

ecuador fruit

Photo courtesy of Food in Culture and Social Justice blog, http://osufcsj.wordpress.com/

Everything is in flux, and through lectures about changing diets through time, we laid the groundwork for change in the future, a predilection of the people inside the learning community and those who presented to us. Often the change they proposed was a return to earlier patterns of consumption. We focused on the particular situations of Native Americans who had their land stolen and their foodways altered and are now suffering from diet-related diseases at a much higher rate than the rest of the population in both countries. A focus on Native Americans also allowed us to understand the importance of ecosystems in the creation of cultural foodways. We spent a day with the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz on the Oregon coast and another couple days with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla on the high plateau. In Ecuador we visited two Kichwa groups who have started community tourism ventures: one at 12,500 feet in Cotopaxi and another group in Misahuallí in the Amazon basin. In each place, we discovered new plants and animals that nourish people there. The Ecuadorians were shocked to eat elk and the American shocked to eat Chontacuro grubs. Most Ecuadorians are a generation closer to farming and to shopping at open air markets, but we heard about how quickly things are changing. Overweight and obese children are more and more common, as well as non-communicable diet-related diseases such as diabetes.

Learning is not simply an intellectual exercise. It involves our emotions and all our senses and is linked to our daily practices. Learning communities work against the fragmentation of information and the decreasing sense of community by setting up a non-hierarchical atmosphere of collaborative learning that is rich in experience. With a focus on food, practically every meal became a classroom as chefs explained where they obtained their food and how they prepared it. We prepared ceviche with Oregon mussels with Slow Food Corvallis and we roasted and ground chocolate in the jungle. We weathered short bouts of intestinal problems (in both places) and altitude sickness in Ecuador. We had numerous conversations on buses and we sang and danced and joked together. We learned new vocabulary in two languages. Sometimes we struggled to understand and other times we struggled to express ourselves in a new language, but we got better at both tasks. We shared our knowledge and learned many new things together. If any of you are interested in putting together a similar program, I’d be happy to talk with you. You might even want to check out the group’s blog at osufcsj.wordpress.com.

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Filed under agriculture, Andes, anthropology, Eduador, food policy, Food Studies, foodways, Latin America, Oregon

Anarchist Table Manners

The East Poster

David Sutton
Department of Anthropology
Southern Illinois University

So you’re seated at a table with a dozen strangers. Hungry, you’ve got a bowl of some sort of stew in front of you, and a large-handled, wooden spoon. The only problem—like everyone else at the table, you’re wearing a straightjacket. What do you do?

This was the problem posed to the main character of the 2013 movie The East. And spoiler alert, this is a good scene that I don’t want to ruin for the reader, so I urge you to see the movie before you read on. The East, by the way, might have flown under your radar screen. Released in the spring of 2013, it is a tense thriller focused on an eco-anarchist group and a private security firm’s attempt to infiltrate it, from the pen of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (Marling also stars in the film, along with Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard). While the film got mixed reviews (some complaining about the idealistic ending), I found it to be a compelling story and a meditation on different kinds of political action in the present.  

The scene comes fairly early in the movie when the main character Sarah (Brit Marling) has been taken to the hideout of The East by faking a serious injury as part of her plan to infiltrate the group. She is treated for her injury and while recovering she is invited to dinner, but not before she has donned the straightjacket. The putative leader of the group, Benji (Skarsgard), suggests that as their guest, Sarah should begin. This is the part of the scene where the viewer is put into Sarah’s perspective, trying to figure out how to proceed. After lifting the spoon with her teeth and seeing the seeming futility of this, Sarah drops the spoon. Then she puzzles for a bit longer before finally grabbing the side of the bowl in her teeth and lifting it up so that she is able to slurp a little bit of the stew into her mouth. Sarah looks up at the others, chewing in a seemingly self-satisfied manner. They all nod at her politely, then they pick up their spoons in their teeth, and, turning their heads to the side, proceed to feed each other. Sarah storms off feeling humiliated by this “lesson” in her own selfishness.

Some readers may recognize the basis for this scene in the allegory of the long spoons, a parable that can be found in a number of different cultures and religious traditions. Kirin Narayan discusses her discovery of this story in multiple religious/cultural traditions, and analyses a Hindu version of the story in detail, in her book Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching (1989, University of Pennsylvania Press). In this allegory, retold here by Bishop Desmond Tutu, it is Heaven and Hell that are being distinguished, i.e., Heaven is where people feed each other, Hell is where people are surrounded by sumptuous meals but unable to eat because they have failed to realize their interdependence. This allegory clearly encapsulates the moral significance of reciprocity and interdependence, and suggests that the radical individualism associated with untrammeled capitalism is, in fact, a hell on earth.

Similar techniques are also used in some anarchist groups (David Graeber, personal communication, December 12, 2013). However I think the scene is strikingly effective in the context of a U.S. culture where eating has become a key practice of individual choice and identity. My hypothesis is that the “solution” to this conundrum simply doesn’t occur to most Americans, steeped in a culture in which the recognition that eating involves the labor of other people has been deeply attenuated. Thus all 10 students who watched the movie in my class expressed surprise at this scene. By contrast when I described this scene to a table of Greek anthropologists they immediately guessed the direction of the scene. This perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me as I have been working on a project looking at the food-based responses to neoliberal policies in Greece, all of which center around the symbolic value of food in expressing ideas about social solidarity (see the previous FoodAnthropology posts on food used in Greek politics herehere and here).

Western Middle-Class common sense has often been skewered through challenging table manners, most famously in Bunuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty in which using the toilet is done publicly and is a site of sociability, while eating is seen as a disgusting act only to be done in private. While Bunuel’s point is the cultural arbitrariness of table manners and the scene from The East suggests a potentially universal message of interconnectedness, both scenes are reminders of how central food is to our human sociability, and perhaps together could form a good starting point for courses on food and culture.

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Filed under anthropology, film, food politics, Food Studies