The Development of Food Anthropology: Richard Wilk

IMG_0691Welcome to the inaugural interview in what will be a series of videos with founding folks working in the field of food anthropology, which is meant to document the origins and ongoing developments in the field. How did the anthropology of food emerge as a sub-discipline? Where has it been and where is it going? For information about the series, contact David Sutton (dsutton@siu.edu).

Click here for the Richard Wilk interview.

Click here for the Richard Wilk Proust Questionnaire.

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The Proust Questionnaire: Dr. Richard Wilk

Unknown.jpegThe Proust Questionnaire has its origins in a parlor game popularized (though not originally devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature.

As part of the SAFN Video Archive: The Development of Food Anthropology, we are producing a series of questionnaires with the participants. Here are responses from Dr. Richard Wilk (left).

What is your favorite virtue? Empathy

What are your favorite qualities in a man? Intelligence, Wit & Humility

What are your favorite qualities in a woman? Intelligence, Wit & Humility

What do you think is your chief characteristic?

Omnivorousness & Curiosity– intellectual and gustatory

What quality do you appreciate the most in your friends? Fun, depth, diversity

What do you consider your main fault? Easily distracted, talking instead of listening, weakness for donuts

What is your favorite occupation? Husband/father, writer, public speaker

What is your idea of happiness? The ocean, dinner with friends and family, dachshunds

What is your idea of misery? Fast food and slow lectures, being told stuff I already know, senility

If you could die and come back as another person or living being, what would you choose? an Orca

Where would you like to live? I would rather be peripatetic.

Who are your favorite prose authors? Ursula Le Guin, Iain Banks, Richard Koster

Who are your favorite poets? Garcia Lorca, B.B. King, Monty Python

Who are your favorite heroes/heroines of fiction? Arya Stark, Stephen Maturin, Good Soldier Schweik

Who are your favorite anthropologists? Anne Pyburn, Sidney Mintz, Michael Jackson, Orvar Lofgren, Zora Neale Hurston

Click here for the hour-long Richard Wilk interview. Click here for Richard Wilk’s author page.

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Review: Food in Zones of Conflict

Food in Zones of Conflict: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. Edited by Paul Collinson and Helen Macbeth. Berghahn Books. 2014. 252 pp. ISBN  978-1-78238-403-8

Food in Zones of Conflict: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

Jacquelyn Heuer (University of South Florida)

Food in Zones of Conflict is a multi-disciplinary volume on global studies in food and conflict consisting of sixteen chapters that each present a unique perspective on the issue. Covering a wide range of geographic areas, including sub-Saharan Africa, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Croatia, Mexico, and Ethiopia, Food in Zones of Conflict emphasizes the need to examine inequalities and inequities in access to food, especially in times of conflict. Addressing concerns that seem all the more relevant in today’s political climate, the chapters demonstrate how food insecurity and conflict are often intertwined, with conflict causing food insecurity and food insecurity causing conflict, thereby creating a cyclical epidemic in these zones of conflict. The emphasis of this cycle also serves to illustrate the political significance of food, both as a means of social control and as an impetus for inciting rebellions and riots. Rusca’s chapter exemplifies this, utilizing examples from a post-World War I Weimar Republic, where famine was used both as a means to bring the Germans to heel after their involvement in the war, and as propaganda allowing the National Socialists to rise to power.

Food insecurity and conflict often also contribute to syndemic conditions, including trauma, disease, and poverty, as illustrated by a number of authors in this volume. Of course, as Shepler noted, these syndemic conditions often impact those who are of lower socioeconomic status, as the individuals who are fortunate enough to have fewer inequities are more likely to have the resources to eat better during times of conflict. Meanwhile, as Adeyemi Oyeniyi and Akinyoade demonstrated, these syndemic conditions are most likely going to affect those who produce the food for a country, creating a conundrum where these food producers and farmers cannot access the food they are growing, either because of physical barriers from the conflict or economic barriers due to their social class. It should be noted that removing individuals from these zones of conflict does not necessarily mean that food insecurity comes to an end, as Henry and Macbeth so aptly articulate in their chapter on nutritional concerns facing those who reside in refugee camps.

In her chapter on household food consumption in Sri Lanka, Kent provides an alternative measure to the USDA Household Food Security Survey Module. Instead of relying on the USDA measure, Kent sorted households into categories based on household consumption patterns that also took seasonal patterns of food shortage into account, thereby allowing for Kent to adequately assess if households dealt with food insecurity on a daily basis or only seasonally. Kimaro, on the other hand, utilized the three pillars of food insecurity—availability, access, and use—to ascertain the role that religion may play in the search for food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, several chapters explore the complexity of identity and food in conflict, with Cwiertka discussing the implications of globalization as soldiers on the Pacific Front received provision packages during World War II. Meanwhile Campbell provided a more personal story, discussing the identity crisis faced by American soldiers deployed in Iraq who often had to choose between eating MREs, going hungry, or willingly consuming “the enemy’s” food.

Yet while Collinson and Macbeth did an excellent job of compiling a wide range of studies in food and conflict, it is worth noting that a number of the studies take a historical approach, especially those that discuss food issues during WWI and WWII. That said, these case studies, while dated, contribute to the existing literature and provide potential frameworks for other studies to utilize in their examination of food and conflict. Given this, it should be noted that many of the case studies in this volume could benefit from the application of a more applied approach, or at least an examination of how these examples from the past can contribute to contemporary issues of food in zones of conflict today. This lack of an applied approach is felt especially when the chapters are examined in the larger context of conflict today, with refugee crises in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Myanmar. Furthermore, given the conflicts in the United States with regards to immigrants, detention centers, and the increased border patrol presence in the U.S.-Mexico border region, an applied approach that speaks to current instabilities seems all the more relevant today.

Finally, Food in Zones of Conflict could benefit from additional theoretical and methodological grounding. As it is written, the volume serves as a “taste test,” allowing the reader to skim the surface of a number of issues that arise in areas of conflict, from food insecurity to human rights violations to the pervasive use of food as a way to wield power over people. While this approach succeeds in providing the reader with a review of the current literature, it misses an opportunity to contribute to the reader’s theoretical understanding, despite having a multitude of opportunities to interweave contemporary theories. For example, while some chapters touched on the embodied consequences of conflict, the continued shaping of practice and agency surrounding food choices and practices is largely overlooked. Furthermore, given the emphasis on the interconnectedness between food, conflict, and power, it seems strange that theories of power, syndemics, political economy, and structural violence were not further expanded upon in order to strengthen the arguments made by the authors.

In sum, despite the seeming lack of theoretical contribution, Food in Zones of Conflict is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in the issue. The broad range of topics, time periods, and geographic locations make the volume approachable to those who are only seeking to gain a grounding in the topic while the focus on food insecurity also makes this volume ideal for any academic seeking to review the current literature. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary perspectives provided by the authors make these case studies relevant to a number of fields, including anthropology, history, sociology, public health, and food policy and planning. Given the accessibility of the volume to a number of audiences, I expect that Collinson and Macbeth’s edited work will influence future food studies in zones of conflict for years to come.

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Review: Egg (Object Lessons)

Egg (Object Lessons) Nicole Walker. London: Bloomsbury. 2017. 154 pp. ISBN 9781501322877

Egg

Leslie Carlin (University of Toronto)

When my children were small and I kept frequent company with Mother Goose and her oeuvre, I often wondered why Humpty Dumpty was depicted as an egg. Nowhere in the nursery rhyme is he so described, but just try to imagine him as something else, a teapot or a pane of glass or some other thing that might shatter irrevocably. When I opened Nicole Walker’s compact book, *Egg*, I had high hopes that she might enlighten me.
The book is part of a Bloomsbury series called “Object Lessons,” which aims to explore everyday items with an imaginative slant. Other publications in the list include *Dust*, *Bread*, *Shipping Container*, and *Password* (clearly ‘objects’ is loosely interpreted). All the books are petite, about 6″ by 4″, with silky-soft, touchable covers.

Walker teaches creative writing at a Northern Arizona University, and I imagine she is very good at it. Her interest in other people and their lives holds the book together. Her specific remit, the egg, provides her with a good deal of scope and she enthusiastically takes her readers along for the ride. “Writing is best,” she tells us, “when I sit down and the words just come out…”. That sentiment very much summarizes the tone of the book: stream of consciousness, loosely focused on eggs in all their forms, slightly scrambled. Much within the lovely covers is delightful; some is dull.

The book is at its best when Walker narrates her own or her friends’ personal egg-related (however tangentially) stories, including her life as a writer, her journey to motherhood, the vagaries of child-rearing. Once we accompany her on an anxious journey to the emergency room to learn whether she is experiencing an ectopic pregnancy (she is not). Another time, we join Walker for a camping trip on the rim of the Grand Canyon where she reunites with an erstwhile best friend, after the two had stopped speaking to one another for five years (they cook eggs). During these episodes, we feel as though we are sneaking a peek in a diary, albeit an authorized look. Walker discusses eggs as they appear in various origin myths (Dogon, Finnish, Vedic), and mixes in her own struggles with fertility, playing on meanings of ‘origins’. She calls upon friends and correspondents, some from different national or ethnic backgrounds to her own, and begs them to provide her with material. In this way, we learn about Korean egg-related proverbs, Ukrainian Easter egg traditions, and Chinese recipes. “Everyone has an egg story,” Walker concludes, though I note that all her informants are women. “Women tell me their egg stories,” might be more appropriate.

These tales are undeniably interesting in that diary-peeking sense. Where the book lost my attention, however, was in its more philosophical meanderings, for instance, about women as giant matryoshka dolls containing eggs that produce more eggs, and so on; numerous metaphors about hardness and softness, and ruminations on the state of the environment (endangered turtles and their eggs; eagles and theirs). Walker makes a foray into the psychology of decision-making by discussing whether having the choice of caged, cage-free, organic, and other types of eggs is paralyzing and counter-productive. We accompany her on various web searches, picking search terms, selecting sites. I find myself suspecting that she is sometimes struggling to bulk up the word count.

That said, I did enjoy the thread of stories personal to Walker herself. And I learned a few things, including why eggs in the UK, where I lived for many years, do not need refrigeration, whereas those in the US, where I was born and grew up, do. (It is because USDA regulations require that eggs be washed prior to sale in supermarkets, thus removing their natural anti-microbial coating.) And at the end, there is a nice recipe for egg-fried rice.
I did not, however, learn why Humpty-Dumpty is an egg. If anyone has ideas in that regard, please let me know.

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Review: Hippie Food

Hippie Food: How Back to the Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. Jonathan Kauffman. New York: William Morrow, 2018. ISBN 978-0062437303

Hippie Food

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Jonathan Kauffman ends his Hippie Food with the following: “When brown rice reminds us all of our childhoods, then the hippie food revolution will finally be won (p. 287.)” This food revolution-its origins, history, and present state-with its emphasis on healthy, natural, organic foods, mostly vegetarian, grown by and prepared by people committed to social change, is the subject matter of this excellent, witty, readable, and enjoyable book. Not only does Kauffman, a noted chef and food writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, return to the origins of the revolution, he weaves it into the politics, the philosophical revolution, the music, and the zeitgeist of the times. And he occasionally gives recipes! In sum, Kauffman says we are a different food-eating nation because of what the hippies and their forebears have done to our ways of thinking about, preparing, and eating food.
Each of his chapters deals with a different aspect of this revolution. He starts off with an examination as to how fruits, seeds, and nuts started to enter our diets. Its beginnings started in Southern California, with two restaurants featuring these items on their menus. Disparaged by the local press, the restaurants flourished, often with the help of a celebrity clientele. Of the Source, he gushes about: ” [The Source’s special]…they’d spread the lemon-herb vinaigrette onto a slice of whole-wheat bread, then layer on a thick green smear of guacamole, sliced raw mushrooms, tomatoes, and a poof of alfalfa sprouts.” They would add Cheddar cheese as well. Kauffman, citing some of the “family members” involved in the restaurant, said that “the …food was so good because Baker [the owner] brought them into the freshest fruits and vegetables, grown in the best possible way. Others say that the flavor was an expression of their devotion (pp. 53-4.)”
This trope, of health foods prepared lovingly by people who believed in the food, who believed in a revolution that would offer an alternative to bland, processed, “poisoned” food (after Rachel Carson,) food that was not nutritional, food that exploited the people who worked the soil, appears throughout. Chapter Two focuses on how brown rice came to be seen as better, healthier, and spiritual. Chapter Three focuses on “Brown Bread and the Pursuit of Wholesomeness,” leading to the artisan bread revolution of today. Chapter Four focuses on Tofu, which becomes “…the Political Dish” (p.131) because Francis Moore Lappe showed the world the high costs and destructive effects of meat production.
Kauffman argues that the Hippie Food Revolution comes from diverse sources, many of which those of us in the food anthropology world already know, and others less familiar. Food “changers” like the Seventh Day Adventists and John Kellogg developed early granola and other cereals over 150 years ago (pp.235-7.) Adele Davis argued for healthier eating and vitamin supplements in the early 1950’s (pp.111-3.) Samuel Kaymen helped organize a back-to-the land movement to grow healthier food and then distribute it (Chapter Five.) Chapter Six tells the story of the effect of cheap travel in the Sixties on curries, vegetarian, and international inspirations for alternative food. One splendid result is Anna Thomas’ The Vegetarian Epicure and its sequels. Thomas broadened the range of alternative foods, contrasting much of the earlier non-spicy meals found in the macrobiotic world.
This is just a partial list: each chapter reviews the origins of different aspects of this food revolution, eventually seeing it as a social and political response to American culture, traditional American diets, the Vietnam War, and capitalism (Introduction and Conclusion.) Moreover, each chapter has a plethora of information about all the past and recent actors, in this food revolution, with useful citations and references. Many of the names are familiar, such as Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Wolfgang Puck and the Moosewood Cookbook.
The next-to-the last chapter, Chapter 7, is about food co-ops. Kauffman tells the tale of food co-ops, food conspiracies, and food distribution producers and networks. These alternatives were developed as a reaction to the consumerist and capitalist ways of producing, distributing, and marketing what was often seen as unhealthy food, exploiting workers and the land at all levels of the food chain. Often, the co-ops and their auxiliaries, communal in nature and founded in Rochdale principles of one person, one vote, found themselves at political/economic/ideological loggerheads, with factional fighting over whether they should have meat, and whether they should serve whole neighborhoods or only each other and so on (p. 265 et seq.)
These co-ops, very fragile operations, were (and are) marginal economically, and, aside from the ideological and factional fighting, exhausted its members, who were and are often workers in the operation. This is an issue I explored in my own dissertation (1976) and expanded in 1981, which Kauffman does not reference. Nor does he explore the excellent work of John Curl’s study about cooperation and cooperative movements (2009.) One of my criticisms of this chapter, apart from this lack, is the failure to focus on the significant work existing on co-operative supermarkets, such as the then Berkeley, Palo Alto, Greenbelt Co-ops, and Associated Coops (the Warehouse for the Bay Area Co-ops), and what the Midwest Food Project out of Chicago with David Zinner did to promote food co-ops and food conspiracies. Zinner continued his work later on in the Washingon, DC. area, as reported by Lucy Norman (1981). Furthermore, Kauffman does not significantly address the extent to which student groups like Students for a Democratic Society grew out of the student co-op movement at the University of Michigan.
The strength of Kauffman’s book is in the portrayal of the revolution in food hippies brought to America and elsewhere. A cursory examination in one of the centers of alternative food, my home county, Sonoma, California, shows the diversity of foods and of the social changes that are its foundation. Jeff Quackenbush features Ted Robb expanding almond milk production (2018,) Jessica Zimmer tells the story of `another successful woman in the healthy food business, in this case, juice (2018.) The revolution has changed the way we eat and empowered the people who produce what we eat. I would add to Kauffman’s end statement: we will remember not just brown rice, but tofu, granola, organic \produce, and artisan bread, for openers.

2018
Jeff Quackenbush. Almond Milk for Your Coffee. North Bay Business Journal. v. 32, Number 05. June 4, 2018. p.4.

2009
John Curl. For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden history of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America. PM Press: Oakland, California.

1981
Lucy Starr Norman. Food Co-ops: A Delicious Way to Save Money. The Washington Post. July 16, 1981. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1981/07/16/food-coops-a-delicious-way-to-save-money/83f10990-5db8-4c69-bd5d-882c1aa8426f/?utm_term=.6b6aec452ea7

2018
Jessica Zimmer. “Gia Balocchi owner of The Nectary advises if you aren’t scared in business ‘try harder’. North Bay Business Journal. v, 32. V. 18. September 13, 2018. pp. 19-20.

1976
Richard Zimmer, Small Scale Retail Food Cooperatives: (PhD. Dissertation, UCLA.)

1981
Richard Zimmer. Observer Participation and Technical Consultation in Urban food coops. In Donald A. Messerschmidt, ed. Anthropologists at Home In North America: Methods and issues in the Study of One’s Own Society. Cambridge University Press: New York. pp. 64-76.

n.d.
Alan Glenn. https://aadl.org/freeingjohnsinclair/essays/hidden_history_of_ann_arbor

 

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, September 10, 2018

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

I have been on a bit of a vacation from the blog, but that does not mean I have not been reading…and the result is an overstuffed collection for you to enjoy. A lot of these items may be of use for class readings, which should come in handy for the new academic year.

Let’s start with an interesting article from Finbarr O’Reilly, in the New York Times, on the production and distribution of vanilla in Madagascar. The article notes that about 80% of the world’s vanilla comes from that country, but the production and sales are subject to both crime and corruption. There are some great photos here too, although at least one recent visitor to the area tells me that the article makes the region look gloomy and scary, which she insists is a misrepresentation. A critique of this representation could be a great class exercise.

Making a non-meat burger that tastes anything like a real burger has been a mostly impossible task. I have long thought that the best vegetarian burgers would sell better if we all just agreed they are more like falafel in puck form and stopped pretending they are hamburgers. And yet, there is the “impossible burger,” a fake burger that “bleeds” like one made of meat and that has a taste and mouthfeel (in my opinion) remarkably like the real thing. Could this be a really sustainable food product destined to help us reduce our meat consumption? Maybe not, according to this article by Clint Rainey, that appeared on Grub Street.

If you want to help your students think about how science works, you might have them read this article, by Joel Achenbach, from the Washington Post, which reports on a study that claims that the “optimal amount of alcohol someone should consume is none.” It is a both an interesting report on a study and an opportunity to discuss the difference between studies of populations and conclusions about what might be best for individuals, along with ideas about health, risk, quality of life, etc. One useful corrective appeared in this article, by Aaron Carroll, in the New York Times.

Blog editor Amy Trubek recently wrote here about the implications of meal kits for American culinary culture. There have, of course, long been efforts to simplify cooking for Americans, including meal kits that you can buy in the grocery store. In this blog entry on the Historical Cooking Project web site, Katherine Magruder presents the fascinating and bittersweet history of Old El Paso taco kits and their associated products. Back in the 1960s and 70s I think a lot of Anglo Americans probably thought that this was the only way to get tacos outside of a Mexican restaurant.

Echos of slavery and of the Civil War continue to inhabit American life. Perhaps our inability to make sense of the past is rooted in an unwillingness to fully confront the consequences that echo even today. In this article from the Oxford American, John T. Edge explores why a new Southern vodka (Dixie Vodka, originally called Beauregard Dixie Vodka) raised these issues for him. While we are on the subject of the U.S. South, you might also want to read this tribute to John Egerton, also by John T. Edge, from The Bitter Southerner.

If you are thinking about the U.S. South and the Caribbean and the legacy of slavery, then you might as well think about sugar too. In this wide-ranging bit of art and social criticism and history, Ruby Tandoh (on Eater), looks into the material and metaphorical place of sugar across both time and cultures. There is some amazing art in all of this too.

I have lately been obsessed with the possibilities of podcasts and audiobooks. There are a lot of good food podcasts out there, but one of my recent favorites has been the oddly named “Racist Sandwich.” They deal with questions of ethnicity, race, and racism in the world of food. Here are links to three recent episodes that I found interesting and that you can use to start discussions with students. First, in this episode, author Lilian Li talks about growing up in the U.S. and Chinese restaurants. Next, Darnell Ferguson, one of the few black chefs in Louisville, Kentucky, discusses his career and mentoring in the industry. Finally, an exploration of why Asian communities may be making Houston the most interesting food city in America. Each episode is about 30 minutes long.

Part of the allure of Houston these days (which David Chang also promoted in his Ugly Delicious Netflix series) are the innovative ways in which Vietnamese-American chefs are approaching Cajun and Creole dishes. This has resulted in a debate over who makes the best boiled crawfish (which, just FYI, are out of season now, so you can’t have any). In this article from GQ, Brett Martin argues for everything being in its place and peace among crawfish eaters. He may have a point. By the way, over at the New York Times, Pete Wells has recently argued that David Chang “matters” to the food world today, but less for what he says than for how he manages his many restaurants. Wells does not take a stance on crawfish in this article.

Kenny Shopsin, owner of the eccentric restaurant Shopsin’s General Store, died a few weeks ago. A great lamentation was heard across the food world, especially from chefs and others who admired the history and management and food, along with the owner and his interesting writing. Neil Genzlinger wrote a helpful obituary in the New York Times. Perhaps an even better way to understand the significance of Kenny Shopsin would be to read this article by Calvin Trillin, which appeared in The New Yorker in 2002.

It is always interesting to think about the foods people could eat, but mostly do not. Goat, for instance, is relatively popular around the world, but not so much in the United States. According to Jan Greenberg, from the New Food Economy, this may be changing as both immigrants and farmers work to popularize the meat (goat cheese is already popular in the U.S.). In New England, figuring out how to market an underappreciated crab—the Jonah Crab—is a problem confronted by fishers, according to Dan Nosowitz, writing for Modern Farmer. By the way, the goat article makes the claim that goat is the most popular meat in the world. In this article from the Huffington Post, Julie R. Thomson disputes that claim.

Debates about whether certain kinds of foods are in fact drugs or if certain drugs are in fact food are, it turns out, pretty old. In fact, a few of Sidney Mintz’s old “proletarian hunger killers” were included in those debates in Europe in the seventeenth century, as historian Ken Albala explains in this article, from EuropeNow. Go get yourself a cup of tea, coffee, or chocolate (or, if you are in the right state, some marijuana infused versions of these, just to enhance the point) and read the arguments for and against the drug or food nature of these items. The humors may be different, but the core of the argument really seems not to have changed for a few hundred years.

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Review: The Story of Soy

 The Story of Soy. Christine M. Du Bois. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 266 pp. + References and Index. ISBN 978 1 78023 925 5.

Jacket Image

Ellen Messer, (Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Boston University Gastronomy Program)

Anyone interested in global diet and agriculture should be interested in soy because it is by far the most grown oilseed and fourth most cultivated crop in the world (after the cereals maize, wheat, and rice) (p.223).  As a major source of plant protein, it sustains the diets of humans and livestock, and has contributed the world over to agricultural livelihoods and nutrition.  That said, this voluminously documented volume takes care to situate soy in its diverse historical and contemporary contexts. It shows how soy in each era paradoxically created conditions to sustain life, including fixing nitrogen for agricultural ecosystems, but also to destroy environments and societies through relentless and sometimes violent pursuit of food and wealth based on soybean cultivation, processing and distribution.

The opening chapter, “Hidden Gold,” introduces readers to the long-term history of soy, as a food, feed, and industrial crop, and to major flash points, like the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, which made soy loom large in political-geographic history. Chapter 1, “Asian roots,” speculates about soy’s original domestication and diffusion as a significant food that was processed to facilitate and extend its nutritional reach. Chapter 2 documents the European history of soy, including war-related developments that expanded soy’s nutritional potential to feed hungry populations that could afford little meat.  Chapter 3 turns to United States adoptions and genetic and agronomic improvements for food, feed, and industrial purposes. Chapter 4, “Soy Patriotic” returns to Asian soy as a war and post-war crop.  Here the stories include post-World War II innovations, like citric acid processing that removed off flavors, and utilization of stainless steel processing equipment that prevented contamination. These stories include how soy became implicated the development of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which drew botanists into ethical and political opposition to the Vietnam (American) War after military scientists used their basic research understandings of crop maturation to de-forest Vietnam and expose fighters’ hiding places.

Chapter 5, “Fattening with Feed” covers developments of inexpensive, soy-based animal nourishment, which transformed and enabled concentrated poultry and pig production the world over.  Like all the other chapters, this one opens with a human, personal-interest story, then opens out onto implications for larger scale economies, social units, and national, regional, and world diets.  In this case, the human-interest story tells how “chickens dramatically changed the destiny of a rural woman, thirty-year-old Amal Ismail, as well as the lives of millions of her fellow Egyptians:

“Since the 1950s, both beneficial and injurious aspects of the mass feeding of soy to animals have powerfully shaped our world, thanks to the export of American techniques for livestock production.  Mrs. Ismail and her chickens serve as a humble yet revealing entry into a far larger story.  Our survey of soy and livestock will include a chicken-blood cookbook, giant economic aid programmes, airlifted hogs, corporate treatment of animals, antibiotics, wild-bird diseases, obesity, fecal river pollution, drowned hogs and more.” (p.93)

Positive and negative consequences pile up, as the world population in aggregate gains greater access to healthy protein, either directly by eating processed soybean products or indirectly by consuming more and cheaper soy-fed animal meats.   But this expansion, particularly of the soybean feed industry has not been without environmental destruction, covered in Ch.6, “Soy Swoops South” which scrupulously documents deforestation, erosion of land and biodiversity, and violence against the people who were already living there.  Country by country, soybean livelihoods demonstrably increased soy-related household, provincial, and national incomes, but also pitted subnational private soybean interests against state desires to establish and use soybean taxes and revenues to pay for national infrastructure and human development programs.  All also proved vulnerable to multi-national (biotechnology) seed and chemical companies, which imposed their will as they sought ever greater control over farmers and national agricultural regulations. Ch. 7 continues these discussions of corporate control over seeds, toxic chemicals, and water and land use.  But again, outcomes need not prove pre-determined.  As the author summarizes in the conclusion to this chapter,

‘           ’Growing soybeans and other crops poses many actual and potential challenges to environments, including habitat loss, monoculture, genetic modification, toxic chemicals, climate change, erosion, and depletion of fresh water.  But fatalism is misguided: the destructive effects of farming can (emphasis in the original) be mitigated through careful research and ingenuity.  No-till cultivation, pest control through organic methods or chemicals with reduced toxicity, effective penalties for environmental rule-breakers and a reduction in meat eating that drives so much agriculture can each make a genuine difference. The question is how much effort we will put into protecting our natural world. This is our only world. There is no other planet for us. There is no ‘escape hatch’ from our responsibilities—or from the consequences of our actions.” (p.172).  Readers here get a sense of the author’s ambivalent sensibilities, which are also passionate, and draw on a complete range of pro- and anti- technology advocates.

The book could have ended here.  But wait, there’s more.  The two-sided approach continues, in subsequent chapters on nutrition and international business and trade. Ch.8, “Poison Or Panacea” discusses the positives (accessible protein) and negatives (anti-nutritional and allergenic factors) associated with soy nutrition, and also certain health issues, like relationship between soybean consumption, female estrogen levels and male sperm counts, and a range of possible risks and benefits associated with more extensive genetic engineering of soybeans for food and medicine.  There are also added discussions of soy in disaster relief and food aid. Chapter 9 examines “Big Business”, which is largely under the control of a few very large agricultural production, processing, and trading firms, like ADM.  In this chapter, readers can follow the journey from mid-western farm to global feedlot or food processor.  The author adroitly unpacks the abstractions and workings of commodities futures contracts, including the thought processes of hedgers and speculators, winners and losers. (There’s even a reference to the 1983 hit movie, “Trading Places” and FBI investigation of fraud on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (pp.226-232)).  There follow the dynamic mergers and acquisitions among leading seed (biotechnology) companies competing for markets, the politics of managed markets and subsidies in industrialized, developing, and transition countries; and finally, the land grabs that have characterized soy-growing areas especially since the world food price crisis of 2007-2008.

These business and environmental concerns spill over into Chapter 10, on “Soy Diesel”, which continues country-by-country discussions of soy strategies such as  efforts to recycle soy oil in order to cut down on pollution and waste in Brazil and Indonesia.  In all these developing country stories, however, the reader sees the downsides, as small operators inevitably lose access to food and energy resources when world prices rise beyond their control.  The book ends with an “Afterword” about Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which harbors some 27,000 varieties of soy. This short chapter ends with a rehash of the individually grounded, cultural stories that show promise and peril inherent in soybeans, which are used as a “lens for new perspectives on our very selves.” (p.266).  Readers can decide whether they appreciate and want to use these reflections to structure discussions of additional, non-soy domains.

As I was preparing this review of Christine Du Bois’s comprehensive, The Story of Soy  (London: Reaktion Books, 2018) I happened to read an “early view” of Andrew Ofstehage’s (2018) “Farming Out of Place,” which describes “flexible farming” modes of production by a younger generation of mid-Western US farmers, who buy up and farm South American lands after they have been priced out of the land market in their home places of origin.  I also read and reviewed Gerardo Otero’s Neoliberal Diet, which covers some of the same territory from a quantitative, larger-scale agricultural and nutritional perspective, focusing in part on the huge growth of plant fats in global diets.  To cover community cultural and the “big” political economic picture, I’d recommend that readers and instructors in food-studies and anthropology of food, nutrition, and diet courses use all three sources together.

Finally, as someone who has followed Du Bois’ work on soy (Messer 2009, 2016), and also as someone trained in ethnobotany, I particularly appreciated Du Bois’ exhaustive dedication to exploring the entire range of relations between this economic and nutritional species and the human populations that have used and will continue to use it.  I look forward to reading comparative studies on other oilseeds based on the excellent research presented here.

References cited:

Messer, Ellen (2009) Review of: The World of Soy, by C. DuBois, T-C. Chan and  S. Mintz, Gastronomy 9,4:101-103. Access at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.issue-4

 

Messer, Ellen (2016) Remembering Sid Mintz. Food Anthropology, 4 January 2016. Access at: https://foodanthro.com/2016/01/04/remembering-sidney-mintz/

Ofstehage, Andrew (2018) Farming Out of Place: Transnational family farmers, flexible farming, and rupture of rural life in Bahia, Brazil.  American Ethnologist 45,3: 317-329

Otero, G. (2018) The Neoliberal Diet. Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People. University of Texas Press.

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