Thesis Review: Ethical Constellations of Muslim Food Practice in Mumbai

Photograph: coming soon

I’m delighted to post this exciting PhD thesis review, which nicely complements the recently posted review of the book Food, Faith and Gender in South-east Asia. If you have written a recent thesis in the Anthropology of Food or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Islam as Lived Tradition: Ethical Constellations of Muslim Food Practice in Mumbai. Shaheed Tayob. PhD Thesis in Cultural Anthropology, Utrecht University, Utrecht (Netherlands). 2017.

Rachel Brown (Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)

Shaheed Tayob’s thesis, Islam as Lived Tradition, uses the case study of Muslim food practice in Mumbai to show how examining Islam as a lived tradition, and Muslims as living actors and co-creators of Islam, offers a helpful methodological and theoretical contribution to the Anthropology of Islam. He argues, in line with many studies of lived Islam, that when one looks outside of the traditional locations of Muslim practice, the mosque, madrasa, etcetera, one is presented with a picture of Islam that highlights the importance of debate, difference and change within the tradition. A prevailing theme throughout the thesis is the centrality of niyat (intention) over ideal or perfect forms of piety. Focussing on niyat allows Tayob to bring the Anthropology of Islam into conversation with the Anthropology of ethics and shows how when looking on the ground the picture of what constitutes Muslim practice or identity is not as clean cut or well defined as it may seem in popular conceptions of Islam. What is especially helpful from a Religious Studies perspective, is the contribution that Tayob’s thesis makes to the study of Lived Islam in the subcontinent, and the diversity of practice and identity that it highlights therein. As a contribution to the literature on Muslim food practice, it effectively reveals how the study of Muslim food must go beyond simple explorations of the halal market and definitions of halal, and that many everyday practices can come under the umbrella of Muslim food.

Tayob’s study gives excellent ethnographic grounding to Shabab Ahmed’s (2016) position in his work What is Islam?, that Islam cannot be separated from the discursive tradition, or as Ahmed says, “the Pre-Text, Text of Con-Text of Revelation,” in which it is grounded, but also that any definition or understanding of Islam must leave room for interpretation, debate and consequent diversity of practice (2016, 544). Like Ahmed, Tayob shows how the many conceptualizations of Islam and Muslims, whether in the Anthropology of Islam, or elsewhere, have all “failed to convey the fullness of the reality of what it is that has actually been (and is) going on in historical societies of Muslims living as Muslims” (Ahmed 2016, 542). Tayob’s dissertation gives rich ethnographic detail to the fullness of the reality of “Muslims living as Muslims” in Mumbai, a reality made visible through various food practices. He shows how his informants in Mumbai, and in line with Ahmed’s work, “produce Islam through their everyday practices” (23) while still in conversation with the discursive formation of Islam.

From the smell of freshly processed chicken, to the taste of mutton bhuna (fried mutton), to the sights of Muslim business fronts that dot the cityscape, to the feel of the streetscapes during Ramadan, over the course of five substantive chapters Tayob walks the reader through his study with impressive ethnographic detail. Like any good ethnographer, he transports his reader to the streets of Mumbai by telling good stories. His ability to paint the picture of the sights, smells, and related emotions, is so impressive that one may even find themselves responding viscerally to some of the stories he tells. For example, in chapter five, as Tayob tells the story of the sacrifice of Kurkure, an Eid goat, my stomach turned, I felt tears come to my eyes, and I had to almost look away from the page as I thought about the difficulty for Aziz (one of Tayob’s informants, and the owner and care taker of Kurkure) in that moment. In any ethnography, this kind of descriptive detail is important, in an ethnography on food, it’s essential. As I have argued elsewhere, food has the ability to act as transtemporal and translocative symbol; it can transport people across boundaries of time and place (Brown 2017), and Tayob’s study shows how even reading about these food practices can transport the reader as well. When trying to present the lived nature of Islam, this ability to bring the individual experience into clear, almost tangible sight (and taste and smell), is especially important. The reader can feel the complicated emotions and feelings that arise from and around the moments of working through how one fulfils expectations or “obligations,” while also navigating other aspects of one’s life and practice. Throughout the thesis he argues, following Wittgenstein, “that an anthropology of Islam should not be concerned with the habitation of norms or their failure. Rather we may observe the ways in which different practitioners engage in ethical reflections and judgment through which to make up the rules as they go along” (39-40).

In chapters two, three and four, Tayob shows how individual actors engage in these ethical reflections and navigate the systems and institutions in which Muslim food practices tend to come into stark relief. That is, he explores the topic of halal certification and halal consumption broadly (chapter two) and through a case study of an inner-city butcher (chapter three), as well as issues and questions around Muslim business ethics as they are made evident in two different restaurants in the city (chapter four). In all of these chapters he shows that while the discursive tradition is important to the ethical practice of Islam for many Muslims in Mumbai, there is also a great deal of creativity, flexibility, innovation and reformulation of Muslim practice and identity in these spaces. Through these chapters ethical, religious, practical and market-driven considerations are in constant conversation as Tayob’s informants live out Islam in their everyday lives. Furthermore, in these chapters, and in chapter six where he discusses the vast and varied practices of Ramadan, he shows how a focus on Islam as piety could preclude many of his informants and the spaces within which they operate, from being important sites of consideration within the Anthropology of Islam. Once one reads these chapters it becomes clear that that would be a tragic missed opportunity, and that these sites and the people operative within them offer a rich contribution to the Anthropology of Islam.

In my reading, chapter five is the most impressive of the bunch and it offers the reader an exquisite case study of Tayob’s effort to bring the Anthropology of Islam into conversation with the Anthropology of ethics and to show how viewing Islam as a lived tradition offers essential nuance to the stories of Islam that we have access to, and produce, within the academy. This chapter is where you get a real feel for the ways Muslim practices are constructed through simple everyday interactions and rituals. Tayob focusses on the sacrifice for the Eid ul-Adha (the feast of sacrifice) and shows how this particular practice is much more complex than the rules and expectations outlined for it within the Islamic discursive tradition. Michel Desjardins and Aldea Mulhern (2015) write on religious sacrifice and the Eid ul-Adha and suggest “that ‘sacrifice’ should not be treated independently of the broader ritual context to which it belongs” (12). Tayob’s chapter five does an effective job of situating the sacrifice in its broader ritual and everyday context. He does this by drawing “attention to the way in which market practices of purchasing goats, the practice of raising and caring for goats, and the custom of charging young children with responsibility for the goats are all important for practicing sacrifice as a productive act through which particular ethical values of life are produced” (129). That is, he focusses on moments and spaces before, between and after the actual ritual sacrifice to show how this particular practice is fashioned as, labelled as, and in turn is constructive of, Islamic practice. The only element of the broader ritual context that is missing from this chapter is the related food preparation (usually done by women) after the slaughter. 

In fact, what surprised me most by Tayob’s study of food as a means of presenting Islam as a lived tradition was the fact that there was very little about the lived Islam of women in Mumbai. Food as an element of lived tradition (outside of the institutional contexts) tends to be the realm of women and yet many studies focus on the male experience and in public spaces (restaurants, stores, streets, mosques) more than private home spaces. I would love to see an expansion of Tayob’s study, looking at the lived Islam that is found in the homes, and in the kitchens of Muslim women in Mumbai. As I have reflected on in my own work, I understand that this research would probably have to be undertaken by a woman because of gender norms and expectations within some Muslim cultures and communities. These gender expectations could explain why Tayob’s study centres men’s experiences, and I think Tayob’s excellent work might have been nuanced a bit further by some reflection on the limitations of this positionality and the influence of gender on the dynamics he explores, especially for a topic related to food and lived religion. Religious Studies scholar Michel Desjardins (2012) suggests that by exploring religious food practice we locate the missing voices of women from much of religious studies and I would argue, from much of the study of Lived Islam. Lived Religion scholar Meredith McGuire (2008) similarly posits that “when we allow that food preparation and eating can be highly meaningful spiritual practices, we can have a different appreciation of women’s religious roles” (McGuire, Lived Religion, 106). By continuing to look at lived Islam within more male dominated spaces such as restaurants, businesses, halal certification processes and boards, the Eid sacrifice, etcetera, we miss the opportunity to highlight the missing voices of women in the construction of Lived Islam. What is wonderful about Tayob’s thesis is that it sets the groundwork for this kind of study by showing the importance of looking at everyday Muslim life and practice outside of the normal institutional contexts. This opens the door for other scholars to push his contribution even further into the homes and kitchens of Muslims throughout the world to emphasize, as Tayob does throughout his thesis, the importance of approaching Islam as a lived tradition.

References

Ahmed, Shabab. What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Brown, Rachel. “Bread Beyond Borders: Food as a Lens into Tweed’s Theory of Religion.”Bulletin for the Study of Religion, vol. 46, no. 2 (2017): 9-18.

Desjardins, Michel. “Religious Studies that Really Schmecks: Introducing Food to the Academic Study of Religion.” In Failure and Nerve in the Study of Religion, edited by William Arnal, Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon, 147-156. London: Equinox, 2012.

Desjardins, Michel, and Aldea Mulhern. “Living Sacrifice: Rethinking Abrahamic Religious Sacrifice using Field Narratives of Eid ul-Adha.” In Not Sparing the Child: Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World and Beyond, edited by Vita Daphna Arbel, Paul C. Burns, J. R. C. Cousland, Richard Menkis, and Dietmar Neufeld, 190-212. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015.

McGuire, Meredith B. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Review: Food Festivals

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Food Festivals and Local Development in Italy: A Viewpoint from Economic Anthropology. Michele Filippo Fontefrancesco. London: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN #978-3-030-53321-2. Xli + 179 pp

David Sutton (Southern Illinois University)

Food festivals, or sagre (plural, singular sagra), have grown tremendously in number in twenty-first century Italy; a 2017 assessment puts them at over 18,000, ranging from festivals to celebrate particular pasta dishes, to those dedicated to products ranging from local wines to pink asparagus. While the vast majority of Italians consider these festivals to be an appreciated summer attraction and “one of the main drivers to visit rural areas” (xviii), their ubiquity also leads to debates over the authenticity, or the quality, of particular sagre. Fontefrancesco’s book traces the rise of these festivals, and asks questions about their impact on the mostly rural landscape in which they take place. Ideally they are “devices” for rural communities to ”attempt to slow down their ongoing socio-economic marginalization…[while] urban dwellers look at the countryside and find in the festivals easy solutions that satisfy the cultural need for authenticity and tradition” (xi-xii). But how successful are they?

Food Festivals is based on ethnographic research conducted in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, a region known for its grape growing and wine production, among other things.  While there have been a number of studies of particular food festivals, this book stands out in being multi-sited, taking in over thirty different festivals, though only a few of those are highlighted for extensive discussion in the text.  Fontefrancesco’s research also stretched from 2005-2017, beginning with grape harvest festivals and moving to some of the food festivals explored in the book. This extended time period allows, in a number of cases, the author to explore changes over time, and in some cases the loss or revitalization of particular festivals.

Fontefrancesco draws theoretical inspiration from a broad literature in the anthropology of tourism and the Mediterranean, critical theory and classic sociological concepts. He raises questions about “terroir” and the “invention of tradition”  without falling down the rabbit hole that the latter concept often leads to. While he’s wary of the possibility of sagre becoming “ethno-commodities,” the term coined by Jean and John Comaroff, I get the sense that he is essentially sympathetic to the projects entailed by sagre, in particular the attempt to counter processes of rural economic and social decline relevant not only to Italy, but a larger condition of globalization documented by many scholars. Fontefrancesco is also attentive to the food in food festivals, and does not marginalize food scholarship in his study, as explored below. After his extensive literature review in the Introduction, Fontefrancesco settles on the concept of “assemblage” to explore sagre as devices that are made up of human and non-human actors, constantly adding and shedding components:  “…this book considers the festivals as assemblages of dynamics enacted, embodied and experienced by individuals and communities at large” (xxiv).  

Chapter One explores the expectations that local communities bring to thinking about festivals, based in their ambivalent attitudes towards tourists and tourism. Fontefrancesco captures the sense of hope and desperation that motivates local perspectives. As one informant describes it: “’We tried to be factory workers, but we failed. We tried to open factories but what remains today of that promise of progress is just ruins and abandoned shelters…If we have a future, it is in the land, in its fruits and in the people that will like to visit it.’” (5). Here we see the “resignation” in people’s recognition that tourism may be the only way forward, and the “hope” that the beautiful landscape will provide a counter to ongoing marginalization (11). I couldn’t help but think of the dashed hopes within the “rust belt” in the Midwest of the US, which shares with rural areas in Italy a “scarcity of public and private services, great distances…from main urban centres, scares infrastructure regarding ITC, services and mobility…” (27). These issues were much in the news in the U.S. as I was reading this book,  with the latest travesty of Chinese Foxconn reneging on promises to build a massive factory in Wisconsin,[1] and very little hope of wine and cheese trails as the alternative to save such communities.

Chapter Two, titled “The Anti-Marginalization Device,” explores these issues in greater detail, with a focus on the San Rocco Ravioli festival, which Fontefrancesco describes as “a device the community uses to cherish their vision of an alternative, positive future, helping the local people to face the uncertainty of the present and the effects of the transformation they went through in the past several decades” (23). It is here, in the participation of the broader community in the organization of the festival, that Fontefrancesco suggests that sagre can work to promote the integrity of local communities while using food to “create[] a mundane form of sacrality around the event,” a point further developed in subsequent chapters.

Chapters Three and Four, “The Socialization Device” and “The Reterritorialization Device,” dive into the details of particular festivals to show how sagre can work their effects on particular communities. In Chapter Three, Fontefrancesco compares the Trofia Festival (a local pasta) of Castellino with the Grape Harvest Festival of Lu. The former is a rather recent invention that has managed fairly successfully to create a sense of collective community through the participation of many locals and other residents in the preparation and execution of the festival meal (indeed it is helpful that the locals are open to the participation of newer residents in the festival). In this ethnography we see the role of sagre in building community, not simply reproducing it, in Durkheimian fashion, and as one organizer notes, they “’make the community come together, discovering itself as a community…to restart our villages, food is essential’” (41). The Grape Harvest Festival of Lu is described in similar terms, but what is interesting here is that it is a festival that evolved from an older religious holiday (August 15th, the Festival of Our Lady). Over time it became more associated with food. Fontefrancesco traces the festival over the course of nearly 50 years as it grew and then eventually ended in 2014, as some explained, because it failed to continue to adapt over time, and participation became increasingly obligatory and perfunctory (50). Chapter Four focuses on local knowledge in showing how festivals can revitalize interest in the meanings attached to place and geography, what Fontefrancesco labels “reterritorialization.” A particularly interesting case is that of the Fasola of Oltrepasso, a sagra involving a soup made from pasta, beans and garlic. Fasola (a word from local dialect) is both a touristic success and the basis for a revitalized sense of community memory and identity that extends well beyond the festival itself. What is striking here is that Fontefrancesco shows how the dish itself, and the festival around it, were largely created in the 1970s, based no doubt on common culinary practices, but with no particular history of a special dish in this place. Local history and memory are combined with an aura of secrecy surrounding the recipe used, and stereotypical claims about recipes “handed down from mother to daughter,” for the festival in order to create a sense that, as one organizer put it “’It does not matter the actual origins, whether or not it is a medieval dish. Fasola is Oltrepasso, and Oltrepasso is Fasola’” (71). This example clearly shows the process of inventing tradition can still create meaningful knowledge for the community to reorient itself around. To quote, again, from an organizer: “’…fasola created a strong link between the people of Oltrepasso and the history of the village, in a moment when everything seemed lost” (71).

The final substantive chapter returns to the question of economic impacts of sagre, and the relationship of local embeddednesss of the products promoted at food festivals and market logic, and the “fragile equilibrium” that goes into using festivals as devices for local development (103). Fontefrancesco once again compares the history and current practice of several festivals (one involving hazelnuts, and the other, the pasta dish tajarin) to draw the conclusion that cultural embeddedness is not the key factor in the economic success of festivals. More important is “the localization of [the festive food’s] entire life cycle (from production of the ingredients to sale and consumption” (113). That is, when the production chain of a product is global, rather than local, this can dissipate community resources and diminish the tourist experience (116), even if the sagre do have some beneficial effects on local food enterprises. This chapter also shows the changing economic nature of sagre over the past century, and in particular how they have shifted “from being the key moment of the local market economy of the rural community, otherwise based mostly on a household economy, to just an interesting opportunity for intensifying the exposure of local producers, who are embedded in a wider market economy, to the final consumers” (123).

The Conclusion reiterates the main points of Fontefrancesco’s argument, which has political importance in its stress on the value of a broad and inclusive understanding of community (including migrants), and a recognition of the dynamic and shifting meanings attached to particular foods and shared food consumption. As Fontefrancesco sums up: “the volume suggests that the value of a sagra lies not in its philological search of a truth, but rather in its ability to activate a community, to establish new relationships within the borders of the village and with the vast outside world: this is what makes a saga indispensable in face of rural marginalization and its consequences” (125).

A brief coda written in the Spring of 2020 considers the impact of losing the year’s sagre to Covid-19, and the implications of this for the future of sagre in the face of a pandemic that “leaves empty squares behind” (145). Food Festivals provides an excellent resource for scholars and students who are interested in pursuing the impact of these events on local communities. In a short amount of space, Fontefrancesco lays out the theoretical and ethnographic landscape of understanding sagre with a holistic approach that combines concerns with sociality, meaning and materiality. My only complaint is in relation to the publisher, Palgrave. I read the e-book version of the text, as they would not send a hard copy for review. There were a number of copyediting and proofreading oversights that the publisher should have caught, though I find that these are simply and increasingly par for the course of academic publishing these days. On the positive side, the photos taken by Fontefrancesco are extensive and vivid, bringing to life some of the sights, tastes and smells that no doubt were an important part of the author’s fieldwork. This compelling and clearly-written, multi-sited work, is an excellent contribution to the study of food festivals that should shape the agenda on this topic in anthropology and food studies for the foreseeable future.


[1] https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/21/21526765/foxconn-lcd-factory-not-real-confirmation-wisconsin-report-exclusive

The Sophie Coe Prize in Food History 2021

See below for a call for applications for the Sophie Coe Prize. While technically a history prize, anthropologists have won (or been commended) by the prize juries over the years. Indeed, as noted below, Dr. Coe was an anthropologist. The Sophie Coe Prize website has lists of past winners, links to winning essays, and reports from the prize judges, all of which make for excellent reading.

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 Friday 23rd April 2021.

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 at sophiecoeprize.wordpress.com. Any queries not answered by the information on our website should be addressed to the Chair, Dr 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.

Review: Black Food Geographies

Black Food Geographies

Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance and Food Access in Washington, D.C. By Ashanté M. Reese. 2019. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-1-4696-5150-7. 184 pp.

Jennifer Jo Thompson (University of Georgia)

In 2016, I was on a AAA panel with Ashanté Reese that focused on Critical Food Systems Education (organized by Teresa Lloro-Bidart and David Meek). In that session, Reese discussed food studies education through the lens of critical race theory—drawing on the development of Spelman College’s food studies minor and its emphasis on the longstanding history of Black women’s foodways in the South as an opportunity to “disrupt the ways whiteness circulates as part of the dominant discourse on food studies at colleges and universities” (as she says in her abstract from that talk). Reese’s presentation came at just the right time for me, a white woman who was fairly new to teaching food systems courses at a predominantly white institution. Her critical, intersectional approach drove me to work harder to decolonize my syllabus and reject easy opportunities to simply “bring good food” to marginalized communities of color surrounding my institution.

I’ve had a similar experience reading Reese’s 2019 book, Black Food Geographies. The book has been on my ‘to read’ list since it came out a year ago, but it gained greater urgency over the course of many conversations reflecting on the murders of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black men and women in recent years. This summer, as I turned my personal attention to deliberately reading books focused on racism, white supremacy, and white fragility, I also turned my academic attention to reading books by Black food activist-scholars: Monica White’s Freedom Farmers; Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black; and Reese’s Black Food Geographies.

In the Introduction, Reese frames her objective as “one that is deeply engaged with food inequities produced by anti-Black racism, but also connected with how and where Black people create food geographies within and in spite of it” (p. 3). Here, Reese taps into one of the key challenges—and contributions—of contemporary anthropology as a field, and ethnography as a practice: bringing a critical lens to social, political, and structural conditions by looking closely at that ways people exert agency in their daily lives. This is both an ethnographic and theoretical strength of Black Food Geographies, in which Reese, by her own description, “toggles between macro-level analyses of food apartheid and micro-level analyses of how residents [of the majority-Black Deanwood neighborhood of Washington D.C.] navigate the unequal food landscape” (p. 8).

Reese’s treatment of “self-reliance as agency” in the context of deep structural inequalities particularly stands out as an exemplar for anthropologists seeking to make sense of the relationship between critical theory and lived experience. Reese emphasizes that her focus on Black “geographies of self-reliance” shifts the analytical frame away from whitened food justice work and toward the agency, creativity, and resilience that Black communities bring to navigating inequitable food landscapes. She draws upon the long history of self-reliance at the core of Black liberation movements to demonstrate that this ethos goes far beyond “earning the respect of whites” (p. 10) to that of “commitment to ‘the self’ as both individual and communal” (p. 11). Yet, fundamentally, Black Food Geographies is grounded in the day-to-day experiences—and memories—of those inhabiting Deanwood’s food landscape. Through archival research, participant observation, surveys and interviews with Deanwood residents, Reese connects the systemic racism and structural violence shaping inequities in food system with residents’ dislike of their local Safeway and the work they take on to shop elsewhere (Ch. 2); their connection to a local Black-owned neighborhood market (Ch. 4); and their ownership of a community garden in a public housing complex slated for destruction (Ch. 5).

In Chapter 1, Reese uses historical and archival research to frame Deanwood’s food landscape and the role of self-reliance in the context of The Great Migration through the 1980s. She characterizes Deanwood as a place of opportunity and agency in the early twentieth century, where Black families could “[resist] racism through self-reliance” (p. 42) by cultivating the land, businesses, and social relations that nurtured individuals and the community as a whole. Reese also tracks the effects of the growth of national supermarket chains, which displaced small, Black and Jewish-owned grocers, and fundamentally transformed Deanwood’s food landscape in ways that reflect and reinscribe racial inequalities. 

Reese turns her attention in Chapter 2 to Deanwood residents’ experiences and critiques of the contemporary food landscape. The chapter is rich in the “contradictions born out of anti-Blackness” (p. 56) that permeate day-to-day life: residents’ frustration with the low-quality and poor choice available at their local Safeway; the fact that many residents shop there occasionally because of its proximity; the complex strategies residents employ to shop elsewhere; and the persistent discourses of personal responsibility surrounding these inequalities despite residents’ recognition of the ways that racism has shaped the food landscape.

Chapter 3 draws on Munoz’s (2017) concept of “productive nostalgia,” and Reese’s own “nostalgic imaginaries,” to examine the ways that Deanwood residents draw on collective memory, as well as “imagination, symbolism, and desire” (p. 90) to construct narratives about their preferred food landscapes rooted in values of community cohesion and self-reliance, and the “best of the past” (p. 90).

In Chapter 4, Reese examines the place Community Market occupies as “an icon, a symbol of the economic viability of Black-owned businesses” (p. 104) in Deanwood, and the role of its owner, Mr. Jones, as “a moral authority in the neighborhood” (p. 98). Drawing on her participant observation in the store, Reese describes the way Community Market and Mr. Jones provide a safe and caring space for both elders and the youth in Deanwood—occupying significant ground in the community’s social and moral economies, despite playing a limited role in residents’ actual food procurement practices.

Chapter 5 focuses on a community garden project as an “literal and symbolic spatial reflection of [residents] commitment to building a healthy community” (p. 129) in the context of gentrification and forced relocation. While the project began as part of a grassroots effort to address food insecurity, Reese makes clear that Deanwood gardeners “aimed to feed the soul a serving of hope with a side of self-reliance” (p. 130) as its own grassroots response to ongoing structural violence coming from policy-makers. 

Reese concludes the volume by reiterating her focus on “micro-level” neighborhood and individual experiences, priorities, and “quiet refusals” (p. 133) as a way to ground her critique of macro-level inequalities in the food system and beyond. So much of the academic literature focused on food elides or ignores the opinions and desires of poor people and people of color—and carries within it unspoken narratives about deservedness when it comes to agency, choice, and preference about where to shop and what to eat, as well as the right to healthy and high-quality food, that can be accessed with dignity and in a pleasant environment. In contrast, Reese honors the experiences, preferences, opinions, and agency of the Deanwood residents, and the heterogeneity of these attitudes, while also interrogating how agency is constrained by poverty, racism, and structural inequality.

For several years, I’ve looked to Reese’s work as a guidepost for how to engage thoughtfully and meaningfully around issues of food, race, and justice in my scholarship and my teaching. Her book, Black Food Geographies, provides an ethnographically-rich and theoretically-robust example of this.

SAFN Award Winner Interviews

SAFN recently announced the 2020 winners of our student awards. The undergraduate Christine Wilson paper award went to Adele Woodmansee, for her paper ‘It is Pure Criollo Maize’: Seeds, Chemicals, and Crop Classifications in San Miguel del Valle.” The graduate Christine Wilson award went to Terese Gagnon, for her essay, “’There are No Seeds Here’: Severing Seed and Political Sovereignty in Mae La Camp.” Gifty Dzorka received the Thomas Marchione Food-as-a-Human-Right Student Award for her research project “Corporate Agricultural Production, Smallholder Farming and the Sustainability of Food Systems in Ghana.” Finally, Ellen Platts won the inaugural SAFN Student Research Award to support her research on sustainability and food heritage activism in Tucson, AZ. Click on their names to read more about their projects and about how each was evaluated. Click here to find out more about how to apply for the awards in 2021!

But wait! There’s more. SAFN Board members and award committee leaders Amanda Green and Ryan Adams recorded interviews with all four of our 2020 award winners. We have posted them below. Each of the winners provides some insight into what motivated them in their research and writing and on the trajectory that brought them to anthropology. We also learn a little about what they hope to do with anthropology, food, and their work in the future. Inspiring thinkers!

Interview with Adele Woodmansee, undergraduate Christine Wilson Award winner.
Interview with Terese Gagnon, graduate Christine Wilson Award winner.
Interview with Gifty Dzorka, winner of the Thomas Marchione Award.
Interview with Ellen Platts, winner of the SAFN Student Research Award.

Review: Food, Faith and Gender in Southeast Asia

Media of Food, Faith and Gender in South Asia

Food, Faith and Gender in South Asia: The Cultural Politics of Women’s Food Practices. Usha Sanyal and Nita Kumar. Bloomsbury. 2020. ISBN: HB: 978-1-3501-3706-6. 222 pp.

Wendy Yared (Evolve.ag)

Food is nourishing, pleasurable, and deeply symbolic. When used in a religious context, it can show devotion, offer charity, and demonstrate self-restraint or piety by abstaining from it. The authors of this volume challenge long-held assumptions that women’s roles in food creation, especially in a religious context, are strictly subordinate when they are actually quite political. The book presents ten detailed accounts of how cooking, serving, and eating food (or choosing not to eat) can translate into favorable spiritual and social capital for women in South Asia.

It peers deeply into the sometimes-hidden spheres of women’s life, from the mundane to the holy. The editors note that “food is our lens, but it is not our end.” They divided the text into three themes: 1) subordination and resistance, 2) food rituals as a tool to set boundaries and establish identity, and 3) food as a way to gain or lose authority (Sanyal & Kumar 2020). At the end of their introduction, the editors also bring attention to the various imaginative, reflexive, and challenging research methods contained in this volume.

More than half of the research takes place within Muslim communities. Accounts of Hinduism and Buddhism are also woven in. Readers looking for rich ethnographic narratives of these religions will find the applicable sections worthwhile.

The first few chapters approach food rituals from the individual’s perspective–rather than going into great detail about a specific group or religious sect. In an unconventional approach, Steele analyzes a long-lost chapter about herbal remedies in an essential publication on Muslim women’s health from the early 1900s. She narrates a fictional story of a woman who utilizes the herbal cures for her family in everyday life that in turn exhibits women’s moral authority, agency, and status (Steele 2020, 31-54).

Moving to  contemporary times, Sarkar applies the concept of a “Motherline” to how recipes and food customs, often within a religious context, are passed down from Hindu mothers to daughters. She posits that this is not just the “obedient transmission of rituals,” but instead a way to foster imagination and collaboration between relatives despite the patrilineal context (Sarkar 2020, 74). She addresses how in today’s world, women still pass down recipes to daughters and daughters-in-law, but the younger generation takes liberties with preparation style, ingredient choice, etc. Anyone interested in the intergenerational transmission of food or the anthropology of cookbooks would find this chapter to be a gem.

The construction of women’s identities and spirituality through religious actions related to food is a pervasive theme throughout. For example, Engelmajer examines how day-to-day activities of women in Buddhist communities, like almsgiving of food, are an opportunity to express a fundamental tenet of their religion–generosity–and gain authority not just for themselves, but for their family as well. She cuts through some of the typical biases that “the religious activities of laywomen are perceived as less worthwhile and meaningful” than men and women who have chosen a monastic path (Engelmajer 2020, 139)

Farah’s and Werbner’s chapters discuss how food can elicit boundaries between one religious group and another. Farah’s research into the niyaz and fateha would help anyone who wants to dive deep into the details of Barelwi culture and religion. Werbner compares and contrasts two similar food rituals, the slametan and khatm-e-qur’an performed by Hindus in Java and Muslims in Pakistan/of Pakistan descent in London, respectively interpreting class and gender differences.

In some cases, it is what women choose not to consume that gives them agency or spiritual gains. For example, Dandekar discusses the interplay of ritual fasting by women of different castes in exchange for childbearing luck to ultimately produce a male heir. This chapter is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in fertility rituals, caste inequality, and goddess worship.

Kumar and Sanyal’s chapters echo Dandekar’s with a narrative look at fasting in the context of work and school. Kumar discusses how choosing to fast and celebrate food-related holy days can bridge the dichotomy between work and home while at the same time giving working women just the slightest amount of control over their lives. Sanyal’s research highlights the spiritual importance of fasting for young women living at a madrasa (Muslim university). After the lively descriptions of social life in the madrasa, the author also provides cautionary words from Mahmood not to project traditional feminist ideals on the suffering felt when women fast, “We in the scholarly academy tend to assume that women universally desire ‘to be free from relations of subordination…from structures of male domination’” (Mahmood 2001, 206). Instead, Sanyal reminds us that women in the madrasa use fasts to discipline themselves for their own internal piety and the respect of the women surrounding them. While pious acts can then be applied later in life when they are married, their immediate goal is to gain their peers’ respect.       

Several authors discuss how the women of the family take on the brunt of food preparation for holy days. In some cases, this takes away from religious practices, and in other cases, this contributes positively to their spirituality. Sengupta analyzes Rokeya’s efforts to reform Islam by addressing “the problem of ‘excess’ in religious ritual with the reproduction and reinforcement of gender hierarchy” (Sengupta 2020, 58). Rokeya argues that women unfairly have less time for their spiritual practices because of the expectation that they prepare extensive meals for iftar, or the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. She suggests, instead, that iftar meals become a more pious eating occasion. “The accomplishment of cooking…is not unlike the ornaments that married women wear, ornaments that are in fact shackles to imprison them” (Sengupta 2020, 62). Khan’s chapter also details this traditional inequity and how female leaders from the Jama’at sect attempted to democratize women’s worship opportunities by minimizing the amount of time spent in the kitchen.

Overall, the text has good flow and continuity. Many of the same manuscripts (Bihishti Zewar – The Jewelry of Paradise), people (Thanvi, Rokeya Hossain), rituals (recitation of the Qur’an khwani), and philosophies are referenced, connecting the dots between from start to finish.

Given the depth of research and specificity of the geographical region, the volume as a whole is more suited towards a graduate student audience than an undergraduate. However, anyone with a keen interest in the ties between world religions, food, and feminist politics would likely voraciously consume this publication. Readers with a baseline knowledge of the tenets of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism will more easily digest the symbolic and political discussions because some authors assume a baseline knowledge of certain concepts. Despite the authors’ efforts to define key terms and place complicated religious concepts into context, it can be challenging to keep track of the names, concepts, and definitions. For example, Farah thoroughly translates Islamic words, provides historical context, and summarizes the religious sects’ beliefs. However, it can be hard to follow along if you do not recall the meaning of a word from a few pages prior. Similarly, Sanyal’s chapter on women in a madrasa never simply states what a “madrasa” is.

On the other hand, Werbner helps the reader keep track of two similar religious concepts by defining them in the first section and then going into rich detail one by one–continually teasing out their similarities and comparing their differences throughout. Sengupta makes it easy by defining key concepts in parenthesis.

In line with the geopolitical topic of South Asia, most of the publication covers deeply rooted religious and food-related practices from smaller villages or religious sects, often in rural areas. To round out the discussion, it would be interesting to contrast the politics and food practices listed herein with the dominant religious beliefs in some of the larger cities in South Asia like Islam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia or Catholicism in Manila, Philippines. However, even without that addition, this book is a resource for readers concerned with the plight of women serving themselves and their gods via the kitchen.

I enjoyed how some chapters, like Steele’s, presented non-formulaic research and reporting. Her envisioned fictional account of everyday life based on a popular text reminded me of the poetry and other creative aspects woven into presentations during the American Anthropology Association’s “Raise your voices” conference earlier this year.

I found it refreshing how many authors, like Sarkar and Farah, were keen to remind the reader that we should not always make assumptions that women’s participation in cooking, religious food-related rituals, and suffering serve only to benefit a patriarchal structure. In fact, much of the time, food provides a space for creativity, pride, individuality, and spiritual growth. Farah notes, “women are also believing subjects in their own right who articulate their piety through the idiom of food…While women’s labour in the kitchen does, indeed, take on an aspect of devotional practice, it does not necessarily crowd out…more ‘appropriate’ forms and objects of devotion” (Farah 2020, 107). This acknowledgment demonstrates the depth to which the authors studied women and their actions in non-judgmental subjective fieldwork.

The interplay of agency between women, food, and faith is a timeless subject that will continue to morph and change, as does our contemporary world. This volume demonstrates how a thorough understanding of women’s activities and their religious worldviews can lessen preconceived notions about oppression within a patriarchal society and instead expose women’s power. While women might still be in the kitchen more than men, it does not mean that the rituals, food, or actions they take are necessarily all done for the good of someone else.

References

Hossain, Rokeya. 1973a. ‘Rashana Puja’. In Abdul Qadir (ed.) Rokeya Rachanbali. Dhaka: Bangla Academy.

Mahmood, Saba. 2001. ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptic Islamic Revival’. Cultural Anthropology 16(2):202-36.

The Thomas Marchione Food-as-a-Human-Right 2020 Award Winner!

SAFN is pleased to announce that the 2020 Thomas Marchione Food-as-a-Human-Right Student Award winner is Gifty Dzorka from the University of Manitoba for her research project “Corporate Agricultural Production, Smallholder Farming and the Sustainability of Food Systems in Ghana”. The judges highlighted that her argumentation is clear and coherent, the value of the research is high, and that she is already in the field with some fieldwork completed making the practical realities of fieldwork more viable during this difficult time for international travel. For more information on the Marchione Award, please click here. The deadline for 2021 is June 15, 2021.

Gifty’s career objective is to become an applied anthropologist and pursue a position in a research institution focused on evidence-based research and policy analysis on sustainable food systems in Africa. As an applied anthropologist, she intends to conduct research that is relevant for enhancing cross-cultural understanding in addressing issues of hunger, malnourishment, and poverty reduction. Her research focus is to identify, characterize and compare economic, political, and sociocultural distinctions of social groups and how locally and culturally specific beliefs and practices interact with development projects geared towards eliminating hunger and reducing poverty.

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Iowa’s Grapes of Wrath: Preserving Land for Food Production in the U.S.

Paul Durrenberger

In Grapes of Wrath American writer John Steinbeck told the disheartening story of defeated farmers in 1939 Oklahoma. A bulldozer demolishes a shanty as the family that lived in it looks on. The driver says he’s only doing his job. The tenant farmer contemplates shooting someone, maybe the driver, maybe the bank. But Steinbeck explains, there’s a whole system at fault, no single individual, no-one the farmer can shoot that would make a difference.

Most farm houses of today’s Iowa have been bulldozed away to be planted to corn or soya beans. Nothing has changed since 1939, except to have grown exponentially in the direction Steinbeck so aptly decried. To show a profit today’s surviving farmers grow corn and beans on ten thousand acres. Most have left. The banks, and the people they answer to still burden all farmers with massive debt for farmland, machinery and operating costs for machines, fuel, fertilizer, and chemical pesticides. So Steinbeck’s vision has come to Iowa with a vengeance. The tractor driver was right, there’s nobody to shoot. It’s not the people, it’s the system they’re in.

What holds this all together, so obvious but as invisible as air, is the cost, and value, of the land itself. The cost is a capitalist construct; the value is a social one. Nonprofits and government agencies across the U.S. are spending billions of dollars to retrain the next generation of young people who grew up in sterile suburbs who now want to get their hands dirty, work long hours and grow healthful food. There is a growing local foods movement across the country.

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Review: Digital Food

Media of Digital Food

Review of Tania Lewis. Digital Food: From Paddock to Platform. Bloomsbury Academic. London. 2020. ISBN: 978-1-3500-5509-4. 205 pp.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Tania Lewis has written an excellent and comprehensive book about the ways in which all aspects of the digital world portray food directly, represent people engaged in all aspects of food, and affect the politics and economics of the food world. She is concerned about the overreliance on digitalization of food, also suggesting invasions of privacy by industry and government. Lewis also sees hope for an increase in consumer action and its potential for participation, and cooperation using digital media. Her book is a great source of research in these many areas, especially for readers unfamiliar with this field. This book was written before the Covid-19 epidemic. It foreshadows some of the directions the larger world of food is taking; that will be addressed throughout this review.

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Reflections on Taste Socialization

Joan Gross

While reading a story to my two grandkids over Skype, I was struck by how tastes become culturally normalized.  It was a Sesame Street book and they became most animated around the character of Oscar the Grouch and what he was eating. Oscar is a prototype of a dumpster diver, only he actually lives in a garbage can, as well as eating from it. His pseudo ID card in volume 3 of the Sesame Street Treasury lists his favorite food as a sardine and spinach sundae and his favorite drink as pickle juice. “Yuck!” they both exclaimed with their tongues hanging out in pure disgust. (Only they actually said “Beurck!” because French is their mother tongue and sounds of disgust are not universal.) The five year old repeated “sardines and spinach on ice cream! That doesn’t go together,” showing that she already knew what kinds of foods could be acceptably combined. These kids have nothing against sardines or spinach, but at the ages of 3 ½ and 5, they know that in their world these ingredients don’t go with ice cream.

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