Review: Meat Planet

Meat Planet by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Benjamin Wurgaft Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food. Berkeley: University of California Press. 264 pp. ISBN #9780520379008

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the thickly lush writing, which constructed or used every possible image from literature and film, in addition to cutting-edge conferences, participant observations, and interviews. I generally don’t appreciate reading philosophy, and this, despite the food and technology subject matter being germane to my interests, was no exception.  This in no way precludes my highly recommending the book and particular chapters.

From beginning to end what I appreciated most were the organizing questions, succinctly summarized on p.19: “What makes cultured meat imaginable?” with corollaries: how does cultured meat fit into the future of food as a concept or idea, and how does this food domain enter into futures-thinking in the technological futures realm more generally?  In his philosophical, historical, literary, media, and anthropological excursions, the author carefully traces the evolution and history of meat-containing human diets, and the ways promoters of laboratory foods, in this case meat specifically, frame issues to make cultured meat appear “natural.”  In other words, cultured meat is the next (if not final) step in the orderly development of human nourishment and relationships with animals, which conventionally are killed for human food, and in their most recent iteration, are raised industrially, on large-scale “factory” farms (concentrated animal feeding operations), which immiserate the animals and brutalize the humans allowing such conditions.  It is in these two evolutionary themes that this account of the travels and travails of cultured meat and its interlocutors (sci-tech producers, economic and political sponsors, thinkers, commentators, marketers, writers) that Wurgafts’s distinctive, erudite, thick descriptions of ideas and their contexts, were to me, as a food and nutrition anthropologist, most engaging.

Beginning with his focus on Richard Wrangham as the authority for certifying the significance of meat in the diets and evolution of humanity, this is a book that should engage anthropologists of all stripes.  The evolutionary questions are introduced in Chapter One, which reports an observational analysis on a 2013 videoconference introducing the first laboratory engineered burger. It focuses on the ways the engineers (Dutch mastermind Mark Post is the most often cited) and chief investors (Google cofounder Sergei Brin is a chief financial backer) have positioned their presentation and performers in cyberspace to make meat, but not meat from conventional animals, central to the human condition.  In other words, lab (cultured) meat, or “clean” meat as others term it, will spare animals suffering and death and thereby meet the main opposition to meat-eating, namely, the ethical concern about taking animal life and making creatures suffer.  In this account, environmental concerns, or health—all mentioned—take less priority than eliminating whole animals for food.  It follows that one final futures image justifying the quest for cultured meat is to have a backyard pig frolicking and lovingly interacting with children, rather than awaiting certain death by butchering after a year’s fattening.  Another is the possibility that cultured meat will fit just fine into ritualized meat exchange which has always been a hallmark of social connectedness and carefully defined kinship or friendship relations.

Along the way, there are many additional cultural images of meat, or, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss, using animal flesh to think with.  These include cultural domains of science, technology, science-fiction, Greek mythology, Jewish dietary laws, the facts and fictions surrounding overexploitation of whales, and the science and culture of futures-thinking overall.  There are profound  general questions, such as whether cultured meat is or should be aiming to produce innovative products that signify human ingenuity with products that are entirely new, or instead seek to imitate more rather than less successfully existing meats and meat products. The creators or inventors have mixed views on these issues, as do the marketers and those targeted to consume the products.

It is a bit of a tough slog to make it through Wurgaft’s endless images incorporated into clear, but often convoluted writing.  Not being a sci-fi or media aficionado, I did not immediately “get” many of his references, and after a while, in some chapters, found them over the top. So much tongue-in-cheek or commentary on tongue-filled cheeks in some cases made it hard to swallow and breathe (choking on the images, to paraphrase Wurgaft’s own language).  Particularly the chapter on Maastricht is cloyingly thick with sci-fi and tech-fi references to books, films, and imagery that I have never read, detracting from the narrative flow. That said, from beginning to end, there are mind-nourishing examples that would fit well into multiple food studies and anthropology courses.  The opening chapter, for example, is a fine example of observation and analysis of a video-conference—a welcome addition to any qualitative research methodology course or exercise which provides opportunities to discuss what can potentially be captured in media performances.  The short chapter on ‘Copy’ will be thought-provoking for food studies or other courses, as scientists-technologists and the author explore the realms of imitation and Creation/creativity in the evolution of humankind. The two chapters contrasting “Doubt” and “Hope” will also produce thoughtful reflections on the future of technologies and food, and the very short chapter on “Kosher” is a specialized excursion into the considerations of this Jewish set of dietary laws that are meant to reduce animal suffering, establish ritual authorities and precise rules, and also create meaningful separations between food domains containing animal meat versus dairy products.  The even shorter chapter on “Cannibals” or why scientist-technologists are not using human cells to create cultured meat will also provoke discussion, Also of great interest for anthropologists studying the role of food, social exchange, and cultural identities will be the chapter opening explorations into cultured food and ritual food culture (“Gathering/Parting”). It includes the imagined example of a backyard pig as an iconic animal surviving without predation, as a reminder or sign of how humans used to exploit animals inhumanely for food.

Ben Wurgaft is trained as a philosopher and historian, with additional specialization in cultural studies of science and technology.  Given his high-level higher education and family history (his mother is a prominent food anthropologist), I was surprised that he claimed at multiple points considerable ignorance about anthropological ideas prior to his MIT post-doc that corresponded to this project.  Analogously, I was shocked by his claim that he had not been thinking about demographic arguments (e.g., Malthus) for transforming food systems prior to getting involved in food issues (pp.88-89).

Overall, the book is well worth reading, but perhaps selectively for students with shorter attention spans and less comprehensive philosophical and literary references and reasonings. The chapter on “Philosophers,” for example, is complex, although Wurgaft’s shrewd citation of poet Paul Muldoon’s verse (in this poem, Muldoon’s white cat Pangur goes hunting for mice; the poet for “precise words”) succinctly captures the different norms separating animals and humans. The author’s footnote (p.217) expands that the poem was excerpted from the poet’s collection, Hay, and “The poem is an adaptation of an oft-translated, anonymous poem thought to have been written by an Irish monk in the ninth century C.E.” It is not possible for a reader to know whether this citation suggests a Geertzian example of winks within winks. Such elaborations occur in the footnotes, which readers should read if they want to get additional subtle or complex flavors of particular examples reduced in the main text, which the publisher economically reduced to 194 (small type, small margin) pages.

Throughout I wondered whether I agreed with the cultured-meat promoters’ arguments that most people will not give up meat eating, because it is hard wired into biology if not soft-wired into culture. The very ubiquity of cheap meat and its decreasing flavor and questionable nutrition quality, not to mention animal welfare, environmental, and health arguments against current industrial meat practices, suggest that giving up twice daily, daily, or frequent meat eating is already an issue (and practice) in many circles. Whether people will then substitute cultured meat depends on price (Wurgaft and his interlocutors discuss viable price points), palates, sociocultural contexts, and possible substitutes. Over the four-year period of Wurgaft’s research (2013-2017), writing, and publication, at least two major cultured meat burger products (Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger) became widely accessible at price points that made them attractive, and additional entrants into chicken, egg, and dairy made the livestock industry increasingly nervous.  One sign of this concern was the livestock industry’s request(s) for regulatory protection of the terms “meat,” “beef,” and “hamburger.”  Both product creators and chefs are also working hard to improve flavor.

During the week I completed this reading, the Wednesday food section of the New York Times coincidentally featured article and recipes by a leading chef, who described how to prepare these cultured meat products so that they taste good. Burgers, he advised, have to be “thick” patties so they don’t dry out when cooked to medium rare or medium, and all these products are best served with intensely flavorful accompaniments, so the eater does not have to rely on the taste of the cultured meat for flavor satisfaction. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/dining/impossible-beyond-meat.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage  To  such guidance, skeptics like me respond, “why bother?” if one can get a similar intensely flavored chili using cheap and conventional hamburger helper along with good quality beans? (I also learned, through the simple comparative chart, that Impossible Burger is made with soy and potato protein whereas Beyond Meat is fashioned from pea and other protein substances.  The former has animal cells as base material; the latter does not.  Both, alas, contain coconut oils, which means someone like myself, sensitive to coconut, should probably avoid them, which I am doing for culinary reasons right now.)

For additional comparative context, I also read Paul Shapiro’s Clean Meat. How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World (Simon & Schuster, 2018).  This author, a vegan leader in organized animal welfare, answers the questions Wurgaft pointedly does not: “will consumers accept meat produced from cells in a laboratory?” why or why not, and at what price, over what time frame? The relatively sudden and expanding market for these products show that once the technical (hygienic, flavor) barriers had been largely overcome, manufacturers managed to scale up production and supply, while other marketers were scaling up demand.  Demand and supply have moved much more quickly than Wurgaft had envisioned even two years before (2017).

And then there are the cultural issues. Serendipitously I also read two recent French novels that had been recently translated in English.  The first, J-B. del Amo’s (Frank Wynne, Trans.) Animalia (Grove-Atlantic, 2019) was a horrific account of the human-animal realm in traditional (World War I era) French small farming villages.  There, impoverished households relied on pigs and chickens for food and livelihoods, but had no compunction about violent killing or maiming of the animals that nourished them. These cultural actions were “natural” in their traditional agricultural realm.  Industrial production of pigs two generations later was even more violent and horrific; as one reviewer of Animalia pointed out, animals and humans shared characteristics of violence, but arguably humans were distinctive in that only their violence could be “cruel”.

Coincidentally, I accessed Marie Ndiaye’s The Cheffe. A Cook’s Novel (NY: Alfred Knopf, 2019).  (They were both reviewed in the same New York Times column covering translations of recent French novels.On p.68 of Jordan Stump’s excellent translation, I came across what might be a wonderful alternative wording for the mindfulness Wurgaft seeks to represent in his oeuvre. In this scene the youthful (16 year old) cook is launching her first meal for her patrons, which involves her preparing various fish and shellfish, vegetables and spices, and a “magnificent” chicken (raised by a local small farmer in the Bordeaux region of France), golden with fat and flesh: “…she saw as her obligation to show [them] all the talents she was certain she had, which necessarily implied, she recognized, some degree of artifice or display (showing off, she called it), but she was still ashamed that she hadn’t yet realized, that glorious summer, had felt no stirring of doubt, no need to silence her sensitivity, that she hadn’t realized the one and only justification for putting an animal to death lies in the respect, care, and thoughtfulness with which you treat its flesh and then take that flesh into you, bite by bite.”

The narrative (by the Cheffe’s loving sous-chef) continues:

“The Cheffe would later devote all her care to respecting the products she used, she inwardly bows down before them, paying them homage, grateful, honoring them as best she could, vegetables, herbs, plants, animals, she took nothing for granted wasted nothing, damaged nothing, mistreated nothing, defiled no creation of nature, however modest, and the same went for human beings, even if her work didn’t involve chopping them up, the same went for all of  us [i.e., her staff, including the narrator], she never humiliated us.”

This is one idealist future of food, and if lab meat has a place, what is it?  Wurgaft more or less ends on the same point, while contrasting this humble humane vision with dominant high-tech motivations to create non-animal meat substitutes.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, food writing, meat, public health, technology

Review: Food in Cuba

Cover of Food in Cuba by Hanna Garth

Hanna Garth. Food In Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 232 pp. ISBN 9781503604629

Emily Yates-Doerr (Oregon State University/University of Amsterdam)

My plan was to review “Food in Cuba” from Havana. The Society for Medical Anthropology’s meetings were scheduled to be held there this March. I had dreams of sitting on a patio overlooking the Straits of Florida, book and pencil in hand, a spread of elote hallacas to tide me over while I worked. Hanna Garth writes about how Cubans refuse to lower their food standards, ever in “pursuit of a decent meal” as a part of their commitment to living a decent life. I wanted to observe this firsthand in some small way as I reviewed the book.

Then COVID-19 began to circulate globally.

In the United States, I heard news of public health failures. Workers without federally protected sick leave who had tested positive continued to show up at work, not wanting to risk losing their income or jobs. The food magazine Eater notes that “restaurants and delivery services are notoriously hostile to shift workers calling in sick,” creating ideal conditions for the virus to replicate.

Just before my flight departed I decided not to go. Conference organizers had not canceled the conference. Their email in the days leading up to the conference relayed a message of calm, “It is also reassuring to know that Cuba has a very strong epidemiological surveillance system built on a well-articulated primary health care system.” Friends already in Havana relayed the message that life in Cuba, where daily routines already contained a good deal of “existential uncertainty” (p. 18) seemed to be continuing on without heightened fear.

This was not the case where I was in the United States. A radiologist at a local US hospital told me of seeing scans of lungs full of fluid, while a nurse spoke of waiting rooms of patients with fevers and dry coughs. These patients were not being tested because there were not enough tests. Meanwhile, in nearby counties where children had tested positive for coronavirus, administrators had to keep schools open because children who lived deeply in poverty would go hungry without school lunches.

When I decided not to travel to Cuba, there were no reported cases of coronavirus where I live. What was being credibly reported was that years of gutting public infrastructures – health and otherwise – would soon be catching up with us.

In retrospect, it’s perhaps fitting that I acted out an epidemiological logic — practicing social distancing to discourage viral spread by not traveling — while reading and writing about Cuba, a country known for encouraging “self-sacrifice for the good of the collective” (p. 114). Garth’s book explores the daily life struggles and successes to lead a decent life in a place with one of the most effective community health programs in the world, but where there is also widespread “culinary discontent” (p. 160).

Food in Cuba is based on intensive ethnographic research with 22 families in Santiago de Cuba in 2010-2011 and follow-ups in the years since. As a method, Garth participated in what she calls “ingestive practices” (p. 23) of household food acquisition activities, spending roughly a month deeply immersed in each family’s activities. She complemented this deep engagement with interviews and life histories of more than 100 individuals who worked to find food in this small, powerful island country that lies in the heart of the global project of modernity.

One of the book’s most powerful contributions is to explode the myth that people in conditions of scarcity will eat whatever they can simply by virtue of their precarity. Instead, the participants of Garth’s study care deeply about the taste, quality, and provenance of their food. They spend tremendous energy provisioning ingredients that reflect their cultural and national identities and they maintain an “intensely emotional” connection to their meals (p. 46, 53). While the Cuban government celebrates that there is “no hunger in Cuba,” Garth shows how people will feel stressed, anxious, unsatisfied, and even traumatized when they cannot find appropriate food. Rice, for example, is both scarce and a necessary component of a ‘real’ meal. Without it, satisfaction is impossible.

Each chapter explores an aspect of the ‘politics of adequacy,’ a phrase Garth develops in reference to how Cubans prioritize relational aspects of eating alongside any evaluation of whether food quantities are “enough.” As she explains, “the framework of adequacy can account for what is necessary beyond basic nutrition, prompting us to ask not whether a food system sustains life, but whether it sustains a particular kind of living” (p. 5). Throughout the book’s five chapters she connects the politics of adequacy to a broader political lucha (struggle) to maintain a good life through arts of invention.

Driven by a feminist commitment to the analysis of power relations, the book unpacks how race, gender, sexuality, and class politics all effect the production and consumption of daily meals. Garth, with the skill of an expert chef, pays close attention to the quiet and unspoken details of food procurement to show how Cuban nationalism has always been tied to Cuban cuisine, with women shouldering the burdens of Euro-American colonialism and socialist revolution alike (p. 67). She offers a history of Cuba through stories of food access, where flavorful ajiaco stews mark sites of contested patriotism, and small cups of sugared coffee are filled with the paradoxes of sweetness and calamity (“We never have food, but we always have sugar, always” one informant tells her).

The text is full of thick descriptions of how people make meaning in times of political unrest and global extraction. Alongside stories of anxious scarcity and unevenly experienced fears of breakdown are stories of shave ice in the summer, or the whistles of pressure cookers on narrow-cobblestone alleys while the scents of garlic and onion waft through the air. One especially poignant vignette, set amid the slight intoxication of drinking cheap state-subsidized beer while people dance in the streets, describes the sadness and anger of a man sobbing at the reggaetón lyrics “Give me… a little bit of anything so I can feel happy. It could be a soda or a tube of roasted peanuts.” Life’s small mundane details, Garth shows us, are anything but insignificant.

Garth undertakes a careful critique of how ideals of “community” transforms in the shadows of global capitalism and international sanctions, showing how Santiago de Cuba remains stratified through the nexus of skin color, class, and culture, with often discriminatory effects on darker-skinned and LGBTQ+ Cubans. Promises of gender and racial equality may have launched Fidel Castro’s socialist platform into power, but she demonstrates that patriarchy remains a reigning force in the culinary lives of Cubans today (p. 163). Ethics of socialismo (socialism) frequently give way to practices of sociolismo, where people use personal networks to access private, illicit goods for their immediate family or themselves. One informant shares stories of putting locks on the cabinets of her own home as “community borrowing” morphed into outright theft (p. 132).

Food in Cuba is an excellent text for food studies classes at all levels (I plan to assign it in both undergraduate and graduate ‘anthropology of food’ courses). Garth offers a literary masterclass in how the analysis of food can help us understand social relations while the analysis of social relations can help us understand food. Foodies will appreciate the colorful descriptions of how quimbombó, boniato, plátanos, malanga, or chicharrones give rise to the “flows of daily life” (p. 167). In the process of reading about the cuisine they will learn broad political lessons about how people are luchando la vida (struggling to survive) in Cuba’s declining welfare society, where the influence of global capital looms large and state supports are disappearing.

A good deal of hope, resilience, and solidarity fills the pages of this slim and accessible book, but the final image offers an ominous warning about this moment of global fragility in which we are living: after hours of scouring for ingredients, Garth’s longtime Cuban friends managed to procure a delicious meal. The table in the photograph shows beefsteak, hand peeled potato-fries, cucumber-avocado salad, and those hallacas I’d been imagining when planning my trip to Cuba. It would be a joyous image except for one thing: the table is set for one. In a time when social solidarity is needed to get through crises, be they pandemic viruses or food scarcity, the image of the solitary place-setting speaks to me of the struggle for a decent meal yet to come.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Caribbean, foodways

Which Language for Local Food in Wallonie?

Joan Gross

I just returned to my dissertation fieldwork site after 38 years.  Back in the 1980s I examined the use of the regional Gallo-Romance dialect, Walloon, in Liège, Belgium and particularly in the puppet theater.  Over the past couple decades I’ve gotten increasingly interested in how people resist the global industrial food system. Upon arriving at the Liège train station last week, my interest was piqued by the poster announcing a show of local alimentary products called CBon, CWallon. It took a minute to understand that they were not using aberrant initial consonant clusters, but the practice of using a letter (or number) to stand in for the name of that letter, like the francophone usage of K7 for “cassette.”

I went to the C’est Bon, C’est Wallon Fair today, wondering whether the Walloon language would appear as well as the products of Wallonie. One of the first booths I saw was a beer cooperative called Badjawe. My husband asked one of the festival workers walking by what “badjawe” meant and he didn’t know, but a woman in the booth quickly said that it was the Walloon word for a talkative person. The publicity announces that the beer will loosen your tongue and facilitate conversations.

They call it a farm beer and advertise that everything comes from the farm on which they built the brewery. It’s organic too. Later I found that they even put together a short video in Walloon, explaining the name.

This highlighting of the Walloon language, however, was far outweighed by the presence of English at the fair. In fact, this same brewery is sponsoring a festival of microbreweries in April and the advertisement reads “Soif the Date” emphasizing the similarity between the English word “save” and the French word for thirst. Below the date is a list of what will be there including the English words “food” and “more.”

I photographed several other signs that used English in their advertising, usually mixed in with French. I asked the croquette sellers why they chose to put “Home Made,” “Authenticity,” and “Diversity” in their logo and they said that their graphic designer proposed it, so that they could maybe eventually export their product to other countries. It’s true that “Belgian Single Malt Whiskey” and “Cookies” tell you what the product is, but the use of English in the advertising of the fair was not necessarily descriptive. “Feel Inspired” or “A Life in a Drink” does not tell you what the product is, facilitating referential understanding across linguistic borders. It fulfills more of an aesthetic or emblematic function, implying modernity and global connections. I’m not sure what to say about “Tits,” but I’m sure that it wouldn’t fly in an American context.

In Belgium, however, there is an additional motivation for the use of English. It avoids the age-old struggle between the two main official languages, Dutch and French. (German is a third official language, but is only spoken by 1% of the population.) Flemings and Walloons will often choose to speak to each other in English, even though one or both of them may be fluent in the other one’s native language. Truth be told, it’s usually the Fleming who is fluent in French. Walloons still seem to be reluctant to devote enough time to learning Dutch when they can learn English instead. Learning English is also far more popular than learning the Walloon that their grandparents spoke.

So, here was a fair meant to bring attention to local products, but many of the makers of these products relied on global English for their advertising. I can’t help but notice that the majority of products using English in their advertising are forms of alcohol. The Thomsin family who have been making the famous Sirop de Liège since 1884 did not use English in their advertising (but they didn’t use Walloon either). Belgium’s reputation for beer is very well known. In fact, Belgian beer culture was recognized as a UNESCO intangible heritage this year. There has been over a 50% rise in exports of Belgian beer in the last ten years, even overtaking Germany in 2017. The whiskey and wine industries in Wallonie are probably trying to ride on the coattails of Belgian beer. Meanwhile, Badjawe is using the local language, Walloon, to promote the conviviality of drinking beer together and talking. I wish them success.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, beer, Belgium, Food Studies, Language

AFHVS/ASFS Conference Deadline Extended!

Note the new deadline for this great conference. Also: SAFN members can register for the conference at member rates!

ABSTRACT DEADLINE EXTENDED TO FEBRUARY 7th

The University of Georgia’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative is pleased to host the 2020 joint annual meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS).

The conference will be help May 27-30 in Athens, GA. Abstracts are now due February 7, 2020. We invite the submission of abstracts for organized paper sessions, individual papers, lightning talks, roundtables, posters and exploration galleries, and working sessions. The Abstract Submission Portal is now open.

We have a great conference planned — with Monica White (U Wisconsin) as our Keynote Speaker, CheFarmer Matthew Raiford as the invited speaker for our Evening Program, and 6 pre-conference workshops and tours. All the info can be found at the conference website.
———–

The 2020 conference theme, “Cultivating Connections: Exploring Entry Points Into Sustainable Food Systems,” is an invitation to envision a more sustainable and equitable future by critically engaging with the histories and legacies that have framed agricultural food landscapes over time. Cultivating connections means that we are active participants, called to dig in for the preparation of building fruitful relationships with one another to foster greater sustainability within the food system. The food system is an intricate web of social connections, with each node of the web shaping how food is regarded, how it’s grown, how it will be distributed, who will buy it, and what its overall significance is within communities. These elements provide entry points for conversation, reconciliation, and action toward building stronger, more sustainable connections within the food system. Participants are invited to engage in conversations about changes to the current agri-food paradigm to better represent and advocate for a more just and equitable food system – from farm to fork – that strengthens community viability, food security, and the sovereignty of all people.

Abstracts can be submitted at https://ugeorgia.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9H7Xy41kEjn0n1H

Abstract submissions are now due on February 7, 2020. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March 15, 2020. All presenters must be registered for the conference by April 21, 2020 to be included in the conference program. (The registration portal will be open in just a few days.)

Questions can be directed to cultivatingconnections2020@gmail.com

Leave a comment

Filed under AFHVS, ASFS, CFP

Review: Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet

Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet

Nico Slate. Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind. University of Washington Press. Seattle: 2019. 237 pp. ISBN 9780295744957 (hardcover: alk. paper.)

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Nico Slate has penned a marvelous and well-written book about Mahatma Gandhi from a unique perspective. He uses the prism of food, of how the Mahatma changed his diet—of what he ate and when-to campaign for political and philosophical ends and to achieve personal perfection. Furthermore, Slate shows how Gandhi was influenced by the evolving experimentation with vegetarianism in England and India–and how that experimentation was itself a political and philosophical movement. In addition, Slate couples his presentation with a discussion of current nutritional research on Gandhi’s diet experiments. He ends by placing Gandhi’s own experimentation with diet and the larger, world-wide one in the context both of political/philosophical/personal growth and reform. Lastly, he provides the reader with several of Gandhi’s recipes.

In each chapter, Slate takes a different aspect of Gandhi’s diet and relates it to his personal struggles and the political issues of that time. To set the stage, Gandhi “… was born into a vegetarian family in Porbandar, India…” in 1869 (2019: xi) Gandhi did experiment with meat because he wanted to be as powerful as the Englishman. According to Slate, a rhyme Gandhi “…learned in his youth”   made precisely that connection (p.46) .

Food was not just a nutritional concern, it was the way to change power and the economy. In terms of nutrition, Gandhi tried to reduce his use of salt throughout his life. He was in part persuaded to do so by watching his wife, Kasturba, get better as salt was reduced in her diet after an illness (p.20.) An important feature, Slate refers to current research on the use of a particular nutritional practice, in this case, salt. Current research on how much salt one can consume, he says, is not clear (p.,20). Gandhi’s most famous use of food to protest British rule was his campaign against the salt tax. This was another key reason that Gandhi tried limit his intake of salt throughout his life. Nevertheless, he saw that others had a need of salt for their diet-and that the British taxed salt and held a monopoly of its production. Slate says that “…[t]he question, Gandhi argued, was not just whether Indians had access to salt, but whether they had a right to self-rule [swaraj]. (p.12).” Gandhi protested the British control by “…picking up a token piece of sea salt from the beach (James 1997:525).”

He had developed  his non-violent, passive resistance approach “satyagrahain dealing with practices he did not like (James 1997: 468). Satyagraha, as James characterizes it, “…was a quality of the soul which enabled an individual to endure suffering for what he knew to be morally right (1997:48).” Gandhi felt that the political and the personal are one; he would test this to its limit.

Slate quotes Gandhi as saying in 1913: “‘…Nature intended man to be a vegetarian.’ (p.47.)” Several questions still remain: should vegetarians pressure others to give up meat? Should vegetarians not eat any meat-related products? In the first consideration, Gandhi said “no” (p.47.) He did not want his practices to seem to take sides and to use force. Rather, they were designed to convince people to change their behaviors. Hindus did not eat meat. But Parsis did, and Gandhi tried to find a middle ground (p.147) .

Gandhi also drank goat milk at times. He used it for strength (see recipe, p.183). At times Gandhi broke many of his restrictive practices, as he was still striving for perfection. He loved mangoes, though later he forswore them. He also had a non-sexual infatuation with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, while he was himself married–and celibate. Despite his refusal to eat some mangoes he had received, he wanted to share them with her (p. 163).Slate notes here, as he does elsewhere, that Gandhi was often contradictory in his search of perfection through food and other practices. Gandhi’s son was so alarmed by his Gandhi’s infatuation with Chaudhurani, that he urged his father to end the relationship (p.163).

Gandhi experimented with his diet permanently as part of his personal evolution and in response to the experimentations going on in European vegetarianism, especially English vegetarianism, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He occasionally appeared before English groups and involved himself in their nutritional disputes. Slate’s Chapter 4, exemplifies Gandhi’s experimentation with raw foods. Gandhi thought raw was best and strived to only eat uncooked meals. He admired Tolstoy, with whom he was in correspondence, and saw him as the ideal to follow (p.132 et seq). Gandhi conversed with many of the important reformers of his time, such as Margaret Sanger; Slate discusses their disagreements at length (p. 24-5).

Gandhi also saw that what one ate could not just lead to perfection but also heal one’s body. As Slate describes at length in Chapter 5, entitled “Natural Medicine,” Gandhi preferred the medicinal qualities of certain foods to much of Western medicine. But he did not reject the latter out-of-hand (p.107 et seq.) and respected its belief in scientific methodology.

Gandhi fasted many times, both for personal perfection and for political change. Slate notes that he had learned to do so in England (p..149 et seq). He admired the suffragettes’ use of the tactic. He had employed it in South Africa and then later in India. He used it to help a strike of Indian laborers and also to atone for one of his son’s unfaithfulness with another woman (p.150). His experimentation was both an end in itself and a tactic. He even admitted that he would fast on any pretext (p.151). His major fast, to try to bring civil peace in Calcutta after WWII, was emblematic of his approach: he “…told a group of Hindu demonstrators to ‘go immediately among the Muslims and assure them full protection.’ (p.160).” Unfortunately, as Slate notes, the civil war between Hindus and Moslems, which includes the fight over cows, has escalated (p.175) to a point where the present Hindu -led government in India had decided on an active program against Moslems (Filkins 2019).

Throughout the book, Slate shows the imperfections and attempts at perfection in Gandhi’s practices. For example, Gandhi did not always address race as a primary concern while in south Africa and had mixed feelings about eating mealie pap, which the black south Africans ate (p.132.) He also did not completely take on the issue of caste till later in life (p.158) . Yet he addressed the issues of the food chain and its exploitation of certain groups when he refused to eat chocolate in part because of the servitude of its growers (Chapter 2).

What Gandhi wanted was a peaceful world where people grew their own food–“a radical vision of food democracy (p.173) . That was the purpose of his various agricultural experiments, like his farm in South Africa and his ashram in India.

Slate ends his discussion of Gandhi by relating Gandhi’s struggles with contemporary dietary experimentation, for Slate, himself and others. These struggles range from the personal to the political. He contends that it would be ‘…impossible to render Gandhi’s diet a “model” anyone would want to follow–or could, even if they tried (p.171).” Gandhi, he argues, “…strove to resolve the greatest paradox confronting the modern world: many people starve, while others eat too much (p.173).” This has been noted by other observers as well (cf. Wilson 2019: Chapter 1-The Food Transition.) The Norwegian Army, in one gesture, now requires one meatless day a week (Slate 2019:176).

Because Slate focuses so strongly on Gandhi, his diet, his connections with the nutritional movements of his day and with politics, this book is particularly useful for anthropologists, particularly food anthropologists and students of Indian history and society and food history. He presents the reader with an excellent and useful bibliography.   One small correction should be noted: On p. 21, He classifies Sidney Mintz as an historian, not as an anthropologist.

 

1997

Lawrence James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York.

 

2019

Bee Wilson. The Way We Eat Now. Basic Books. New York.

 

2019

Dexter Filkins. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/09/blood-and-soil-in-narendra-modis-india?verso=true. Accessed January 18, 2020.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, India, protest

The Sophie Coe Prize in Food History 2020

The Sophie Coe Prize is awarded each year to an engaging, original piece of writing that delivers new research and/or new insights into any aspect of food history. We welcome entries of up to 10,000 words on any relevant topic. The Prize is £1,500 for the winning essay, article or book chapter. Authors may submit one entry only each, and they must be delivered to us by this year’s closing date of 25th April 2020.

The Prize was founded in 1995 in memory of Sophie Coe, the eminent anthropologist and food historian. The winner is selected by our anonymous panel of distinguished judges and announced in early July.

Published and unpublished work may be submitted. If the former, it must have been published within 12 months of the submission deadline. If the latter, it must be in immediately publishable form.

Before submitting an entry please read in full the How to Enter” page at our website . Entries that do not comply fully with our conditions of entry will not be put forward to our judges. We also advise entrants to read some of the former winning entries to get a good understanding of the kind of original research work we are seeking.

For full details, and to sign up for reminders and updates on the Prize, please consult our website. Any queries not answered by the information on our website should be addressed to the Chair, Jane Levi, at email address sophiecoeprize@gmail.com.

The Prize is administered by the Sophie Coe Memorial Fund, a registered Charity in England and Wales (no. 1048753). Trustees: Sarah Coe, Phil Iddison, Jane Levi, Candida Macdonough, Kaori O’Connor.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, awards, history

Rick Bayless, Plucky Jollibee, and Globalization

David Beriss

I receive a lot of restaurant industry email. Despite the deluge, sometimes the emails provide glimpses into the industry that I would not otherwise get. For instance, I recently received an “Eat Beat” newsletter from Restaurant Hospitality with the headline “Rick Bayless opens fast-casual Tortazo in Chicago.” Because Rick Bayless is trained as an anthropologist, but also because he has been at the center of many discussions about food, culture, authenticity, and appropriation in recent years, I decided to read the article. In turn, this pushed me toward some thoughts about how to think about globalization.

According to the article, Tortazo  focuses on tortas. Although Bayless first became famous for his high end restaurants in Chicago, he has since branched out into retail (his hot sauces are available in grocery stores) and other kinds of Mexican food-focused restaurants, both fancy and casual. Tortazo is a logical extension of this career, which you can read about here and here.

What caught my eye, however, was his partner in this new restaurant. Bayless is working with Jollibee Foods to develop these new restaurants. This is not their first endeavor together – Jollibee apparently bought 47% of another of his restaurant concepts, Tortas Frontera, back in 2018. And this is not Bayless’ first collaboration with a multinational corporation either. His company Frontera Foods, which makes, among other items, Frontera salsas, is now owned by ConAgra Brands, a multinational headquartered in Chicago.

However, it was neither Bayless nor ConAgra that really attracted me to this story. Rather, it was Jollibee. I first read about Jollibee in articles by anthropologist Ty Matejowsky. In that context, I thought of Jollibee as a plucky Philippines-based chain of fast food restaurants that resisted the onslaught of McDonald’s in its homeland. In fact, that same company has opened stores around the world, often in countries that have substantial Filipino populations (including the United States).

McDonald’s is probably the American brand most often invoked when people discuss the intersection of globalization and Americanization. George Ritzer famously developed a theory of social organization around “McDonaldization” and that concept has been extended to ideas about the spread of fast food around the world. Anthropologists have (also famously) studied the ways in which local populations around the world have made McDonald’s and other American brands their own, by reinterpreting the American model in their own cultural terms. This interaction between local cultures and global brands has been explored in other areas, including packaged ramen.

By opening their own restaurants around the world, companies like Jollibee might at first seem like the empire striking back. More than making sense of American institutions in their midst, Jollibee, McDonald’s Filipino competitor, is now showing up in McDonald’s homeland. Impressive.

Or maybe this is not exactly what it seems. Perhaps the tendency to associate these global corporations with nation-states sometimes misses other important characteristics. The same article that recounted Bayless’ new concept also pointed out that Jollibee owns the Smashburger and Coffee Bean & Tea chains. So much for plucky little Filipino upstart. Jollibee Foods Corporation is a multinational owner of many brands much like ConAgra. Is this a world of nation-states, cultures, and associated foods, or a world of multi-national corporations?

None of this is meant to criticize Rick Bayless, Jollibee, or ConAgra. But I do want to call attention to the complex realities that are often hidden behind the narratives we read. The entrepreneurial chef, the imperial American multinational, the resilient little company in the post-colonial world are all elements in the story lines we love to read about. But how real are they? In this instance, the chef is definitely real. After that, apparently, it is multinational corporations all the way down.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, globalization