The Agroecological Prospect, Cheese Curds and Radishes

David Beriss

Last week I attended the joint annual meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society. The conference was in Madison, Wisconsin and the AFHVS folks were in charge, which probably accounts for the very agriculturally-focused theme: “The Agroecological Prospect: The Politics of Integrating Values, Food, and Farming.” This is always a great conference, well worth attending. The University of Wisconsin campus is lovely and historic. We were there at the same time as a conference/reunion focusing on Madison in the 60s, which meant that there was a constant buzz of nostalgic discussions of radical politics and counter-cultural activities in the air.

This is a small conference. I think there were around 500 people participating this year. It is also very open to students. There are a lot of graduate students who present research and even some undergraduates, along with faculty, professional researchers, activists, people from government agencies, and nonprofits. People are generally quite approachable, and it is easy to meet scholars and make new connections. This is probably helped by the wonderful snacks provided between sessions (hey, it is a food conference), which in Madison included some very crunchy radishes.Radishes Madison Farmers Market

We had a nice contingent of SAFN members at the conference. SAFN sponsored several sessions (at least four, I think), including a session on food activism in higher education, another on restaurants and social movements, a roundtable discussion with representatives from funding organizations, and another on the relationship between food studies programs and local communities (many thanks to Amanda Green and the SAFN program committee for organizing all of this). There were many anthropologists on the program outside our sessions as well. Rachel Black and I organized a little gathering of SAFN members (I apologize for the confusion regarding the location), which included a little wine (as an aside, it is amusing to go shopping for wine with a wine scholar, especially in a store that markets primarily to college students) and nice conversation and ended in a beer and bratwurst establishment that featured mediocre brats, but also lovely little triangles of deep fried macaroni and cheese. Highbrow stuff, you betcha.

A lot of conferences have a sort of shadow conference happening on social media and the AFHVS/ASFS conference is especially intense in this regard. Emily Contois, of the University of Tulsa, led this effort and she has provided a sort of round up of the live tweeting from many sessions here. Even though I contribute to this in a modest way, I am still always surprised when people outside the conference (people in the world of food writing, for instance, who might have been mentioned in a presentation) see the tweets and respond in real time. This is both very cool and somewhat vertigo-inducing, as you realize that the conversations you are having are echoing around the planet in real time.

The conference also usually features a day of field trips to food and agriculture-related organizations prior to the beginning of the main conference. This year there were several, including a visit to the Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society, a field trip to two social justice organizations that are linked to food and agriculture (the Badger Rock School and the Farley Center), a trip to Milwaukee to visit a variety of food-related activist organizations, a sustainable meal hackathon, and much more. I took a tour of the campus of Epic Systems, a company located outside of Madison that specializes in health-care software. The company’s campus is built with an eye toward sustainability, especially through the production of food for their employees. The site is indeed quite remarkable.

Rhubarb Madison Farmers MarketMadison is, by the way, a lovely city. If you happen to visit, be sure to stroll around the capital on a Saturday morning to see the Dane County Farmers Market and get some cheese curds (or actual cheese) or any of the great produce. Strawberries, rhubarb, and, of course, radishes were especially abundant while we were there. Such good radishes.

Next year’s conference will be in Anchorage, Alaska, June 26-29, 2019. Start making your plans now.

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Book Note: Best Food Writing 2017

Ellen Messer

best food writing cover

Hughes, Holly (ed) 2017. Best Food Writing 2017. New York: Da Capo Press.

Highly recommended as enjoyable, informative companion reading for your travels, because it can be consumed a few pages at a time.  Food & Identity is the overall theme; most essays address identity politics related to foodways (e.g., ethnic American), often specific food items (e.g., burritos, interpreted in multiple ethnic ways). There are also some very nice human-interest stories (whole sections, with sets of essays dedicated to chefs, restaurateurs, and the folks who wash dishes or serve rather than cook the food).  Most entries are very short; some are what my Boston Globe food-writer/editor colleague Sheryl Julian would call “overwritten” (readers can decide whether or not they like unctuous style).  There are also numerous entries that would serve well as required or recommended readings for various food-studies courses, including “food and culture,” “food and the senses,” “local food,” or “food and the media.”  “History of food” aficionados (or instructors) will also find critical methods usefully woven into some chapters (e.g., who really invented the “Reuben” sandwich).  The volume as a whole obviously could serve as textbook reading for courses on food journalism.

The volume is divided into nine sections, each containing four to eight short entries, which are blogs or featured journal articles. I teach an intensive six-week summer graduate seminar, “Local to Global Food Values: Policy, Practice, and Performance,” in Boston University’s Metropolitan College Gastronomy Program.  The course during the first week explores how food values are defined and measured, and then dedicates individual weeks to considering environmental, economic, sociocultural, and biocultural values.  For the week on cultural values (which already covers Kosher, Hallal, Vegan, and certain other cultural-identity values, standards, and certifications) I was very pleased to find a section entitled “Whose Food Is It Anyway?” which included Laura Shunk’s short reflection, “Who Has the Right to Capitalize on a Culture’s Cuisine?” (from food52.com) in which she explores different types and levels of respectful awareness of particular foods’ cultural origins. I might also find place in the course readings to insert, from the book’s opening section, “The Way We Eat Now”, for J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “Let It Bleed (Humanely)” from SeriousEats.com , which analyzes materials and symbolism of meat-alternative burgers.  From the section on “Foodways,” I highly recommend Elizabeth Weil’s “Who Really Invented the Reuben?” from Saveur, a piece that exhaustively investigates the origins of this elaborated corn-beef on grilled rye sandwich (Nebraska wins) and skewers well-known food writer-editor Andy Smith for his obsessive pursuit of (New York) authenticity.  In the section, “How My City Eats” I particularly enjoyed Danny Chau’s “The Burning Desire for Hot Chicken”, from TheRinger.comIt cleverly mixes cultural politics and several layers of biochemically-informed sensory experience (which left me wondering whether Hot Chicken or some similarly highly piquant dish might be a good remedy for a very grumpy friend who was “on the wagon”).

The four selections in the section, “Updating the Classics” include short entries on interpretations of “Burritos” by non-Mexican cooks, and an exploration of the inexplicable delights of “Chicken Pot Pie.”  The final four sections focus on restaurant and cooking-show professionals. “Someone’s in the Kitchen,” is about chefs, “They Also Serve” includes profiles of non-cooking restaurant personnel: a dishwasher, a piano man, and a food-science writer (profiling Harold McGee, well known author of Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen). “Down the Hatch” deals with beverages and people who serve and judge their quality; the entries here cover a full range of sensory (dimensions of wine pairing), political (local authenticity), economic (how much is too much for a glass of wine?), and cultural dimensions. The final section, “Personal Tastes” contains a grab bag of food stories,  from gluten-free diet to intergenerational ethnic food communications, which concludes with a longitudinal memoir the way restaurants (including the foods they served) connect people to place.

As you can tell from this overview, there are many overlaps connecting the sections.  The volume has the virtue that most of the journal and blog pieces are very short and likely to capture the attention of readers with very short attention spans.

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Before Farm to Table Fellowships

See below for information on semester-long fellowships at the Folger Shakespeare Library on early modern foodways. Follow the links for instructions on how to apply.

Before Farm to Table: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, the inaugural project of the Folger Institute’s Mellon initiative in collaborative research, announces a competition for semester-long fellowships to be held in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in one of two semesters: either Spring 2019 or Fall 2019, for three to four months.  Each Before Farm to Table fellow will be awarded $10,000 for work in the Folger collections on topics relating to early modern food and foodways in the British world, broadly conceived.

The Before Farm to Table project uses the pervasiveness of food in everyday life as a window into early modern culture. Food, then as now, is a basic human need. It also has a history and is a gateway to understanding society and culture. In the course of this project, we will investigate big questions about the way food participates in and actively shapes human knowledge, ethics, and imagination. Such issues as the unevenness of food supply, the development and spread of tastes with their darker supply sides of enslaved labor, and the socially cohesive rituals of eating together will be explored. With fresh understandings of a pre-industrial world, this project also gives us purchase on some post-industrial assumptions, aspirations, and challenges encapsulated in any idea of recovering simpler, local, and sustainable food chains.

Questions about the program, details on how to apply, etc. can be found here.

Deadline: September 1, 2018.

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What FoodAnthro is Reading Now, 11 June, 2018

This has been a sad week in food with the death of Anthony Bourdain, who I feel I know and admire after his death. There’s been an outpouring of grief from the food community, and far beyond it. I especially appreciated this interview with Gustavo Arellano, who discussed how Bourdain considered the experiences to Latinos in all parts of the food system:

By far the most exploited class, from the fields to the slaughterhouses to the lines to the people who are waiters to the people who wash dishes every night, he spoke again and again about their dignity.

This interview said something that came up over and over again: of someone humble enough to learn, and brave enough to speak up. Here are few more articles worth reading: The purpose of eating is to relieve pain, Anthony Bourdain’s extreme empathy, and the 1999 New Yorker article that propelled Anthony Bourdain’s career in television.

Check out this article on Popular Science to learn about growing food in Space. The idea of long space voyages with onboard farms is mindblowing, right?:

Space gardening will be essential someday if space travelers are to go beyond low-Earth orbit or make more than a quick trip to the moon. They can’t carry on all the food they need, and the rations they do bring will lose nutrients.  

As the Russian world cup draws near, we can expect to learn about many aspects of food in Russia, and apparently some teams are bringing vast quantities of food along with them to the competition (Sports Illustrated thinks this is a demonstration of how long Argentina is hoping to stay in the competition…).

Instead of farming food, can we farm carbon? It can be hard to measure, so a company is figuring out how to make carbon farming profitable through tech. Carbon farming is a subject of interest in South Africa, where growing spekboom could be extremely profitable if carbon taxes are widespread.

We’ve been psychologically preparing for the Bayer-Monsanto merger for a while now, as it was provisionally approved in competitions tribunal South Africa at the beginning of 2017. The merger was finalised recently by the U.S. Department of Justice. The resulting company will sell 29% of the world’s seeds and 24% of its pesticides. The ruling did mean that the new company must sell certain parts of their portfolio to BASF, though I’m not entirely reassured by that. At The New Food Economy, Joe Fassler reflects on the merger, and in particular the choice to get rid of the notorious Monsanto brand:

Ironically, though, the company that came to symbolize our lack of say also became an excuse to avoid more difficult conversations. It’s that abdication of responsibility—a refusal to take, as a culture, a thorough inventory of the difficult choices we face about how to feed ourselves—that has weakened the American consumer more than any individual company could.

Slow food weighed in on the importance of this merger for global agriculture:

This $66 billion deal is the latest in a global process of consolidation that has already witnessed the merger of DuPont and Dow Chemical, and ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta. Now, three multinational corporations control more than 60% of the seed market and 75% of the pesticide and fertilizer market.

Bayer argues that the merger is in the best interest of feeding an increasing global population. The Guardian tells the story of a farmer trying to preserve seed diversity in the face of these mergers. Many people believe that cheap food is facilitated by large corporations. While this is not necessarily true, in South Africa, there’s a desperate need to better match wages to food prices, as demonstrated by recent protests.

Over at Civil Eats, they have an interview with Marion Nestle on the event of her official retirement…. If you missed it, Marion Nestle was also on the Daily Show talking about Raw Water.  Yes, it’s a thing apparently. In Cape Town the queues for “raw water” (we don’t call it that) have been getting longer and longer over the course of our long drought (we’re happily starting to get winter rain).

Lastly, here are some pictures of hospital food from around the world!

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CFP: Agricultural History Society Meeting, June 2019

Having received this call for papers twice in two days, it seems necessary to share it here. As the CFP below notes, the Agricultural History Society is interdisciplinary, so contributions from anthropologists would be, we assume, welcome.

Call for Papers

Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting

Washington, DC

June 6-8, 2019

Power in Agricultural History

The 100th anniversary meeting of the Agricultural History Society will be held in Washington, DC, an appropriate location to address the theme of “Power in Agricultural History.” Power, in its multiple guises—whether political, social, economic, or physical—is embedded in every aspect of agricultural production, food and fiber marketing and consumption, and rural society and culture. The organizing theme is meant to encourage historians who refuse to accept that the current and future conditions of farms, food systems, and rural society and culture are the result of autonomous logics. It is worth remembering that among the founders of the Agricultural History Society were rural sociologists and agricultural economists who sought to influence public policy by developing their insights through historical research. The 100th anniversary meeting offers an opportunity to celebrate and extend the interdisciplinary sensibility and public mission of the society, no small matter given the challenges that confront rural citizens and agricultural policymakers in our own time. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • the political power of farm organizations, electoral processes, policymaking institutions, for-profit firms, and third-sector and nongovernmental organizations
  • social power in rural societies as enabled and/or constrained by gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion
  • dynamics of power in rural landscapes, rural and urban ecologies, and between humans and non-human organisms in agricultural systems
  • the application of animal, mechanical, or fossil-fuel based power sources to the production and distribution of agricultural goods
  • historical analysis of economic power imbalances in rural society and agricultural markets
  • theories and processes of modernization and rural development as exercises in power across national boundaries
  • modes of cooperation and conflict, trust and mistrust in rural culture, society, and political and economic institutions
  • social movements that have sought to transform the balance of power in rural environments

As befits the society’s inclusive approach we especially encourage contributions from emerging scholars and researchers covering understudied geographical regions or time periods, and as custom dictates we will also support significant contributions that do not directly address the conference theme.

Information on submission:

•         The Society takes a broad view on what constitutes rural and agricultural history. Topics from any location and time period are welcome.

•         The AHS encourages proposals of all types, including traditional sessions with successive papers and commentary, thematic panel discussions or debates, roundtables on recent books or films, workshops, and poster presentations.

•         If you will need video projection technology for presentations, please indicate this in your proposal.

•         The program committee prefers complete session proposals, but individual papers will be considered.

•         The AHS extends a special welcome to graduate students and has a competitive travel grant for students presenting papers.

Instructions:

1. Session proposals should include a two-hundred-word abstract for each paper and a one-page CV for each panel member (in MS Word).

2. Individual paper proposals should consist of a two-hundred-word abstract and a one-page CV (in MS Word).

3. All proposals should be submitted electronically in Word format. Submit all proposals to the Program Committee by email at: <aghist2019@gmail.com>.

Deadline for submissions is September 28, 2018.

Questions may be addressed to Shane Hamilton at <shane.hamilton@york.ac.uk>

Program Committee Members: Shane Hamilton, University of York (Chair); Prakash Kumar, Pennsylvania State University; Sarah Phillips, Boston University; Maggie Weber, Iowa State University; Nicole Welk-Joerger, University of Pennsylvania.

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Col(LAB) on Food, Risk and Privilege

by Annie Sheng, Cornell University

We experience the world and our food with all our senses, so why not get tactile as we discuss risk and privilege in relation to food? Princeton University’s Col(LAB)—a product of the synergetic confluence of collaborations between the Program in American Studies, the CST StudioLab and the Princeton Food and Agriculture Initiative—immerses participants in the intersecting spatial realms of classrooms, farmer’s markets, food pantries and dining hall kitchens to bring together various perspectives on pressing food issues through a venture involving “creativity and the unexpected,” said Anne Cheng, Professor of English and Director of American Studies. While the concepts of risk and privilege were left relatively open for interpretation, through interactive experiences, participants come together to understand how economic (in)stability, food (un)safety and social stratification may affect personal, everyday habits and decisions surrounding food. Participants included faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, staff, dining chefs, nutritionists and experts from within and beyond Princeton University.

The three-day workshop started off with a visit to the farmer’s market. Participant teams were tasked with purchasing food for a family of four within limited budget constraints. After interacting with fresh produce vendors, cheesemongers, various sellers and campus dining representatives at the farmer’s market, participants sported pens and texts and gathered to discuss readings on risk and privilege. We prepared analyses that interrogated issues of food production technologies, interspecies dependencies and slow food, drawing from writing by Allison Carruth, Anna Tsing, Angela N. H. Creager and Jean-Paul Gaudillière.

We all were asked to bring a food-related artifact, something that speaks of our own relationship to food to create a jumping off point for engaging in the questions of risk and privilege. Such personal artifacts ranged from coffee to eggs to soy-based cosmetics, as well as non-edibles such as a food scale, a mortar and pestle and a reusable water bottle. We talked of preservation and mechanical reproduction encapsulated in a can of cranberry sauce, the entitlement entailed in a jar of gourmet polenta and the caloric emptiness and capitalistic symbolism of a can of Diet Coke. For example, Tessa L. Desmond noted, “Soda companies have changed their marketing strategies to target low income neighborhoods, and kids in particular. Now it’s kind of like the suburbs. We’re vacating fast food and soda like we’ve vacated the cities for the suburbs…” The central concepts of privilege and risk framed these diverse personal food items and our conversation considered the scales of safe-to-dangerous, pure-to-toxic, sustainable-to-polluting, healthy-to-unhealthy and delicious-to-unpalatable.

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The conversation also turned to issues of culture and identity. What risks might be inherent in transmitting generationally the sense of culture through the vessel of a preserved egg—with some packages labeled lead-free and some, noticeably, not? How can and do ideas about maintaining a sense of cultural identity trump potential health risks?

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Review: Food Parcels in International Migration

Food Parcels in International Migration: An Intimate View. Diana Mata-Codesal and Maria Abranches (Eds.) Palgrave 2017.

Rhian Atkin (Cardiff University)

The prospect of a book dedicated to research on the ways in which food and food-related items circulate within and across geopolitical borders, and are used to maintain old affective ties and establish new ones, is exciting. The coming together of foodways research and migration studies holds the potential for us to understand more deeply the ways in which material cultures may support settlement of individuals in places that are new to them. From such understanding, more may be done to support those who migrate, as well as the communities into which they migrate. As such, the title of Food Parcels in International Migration holds great promise, suggesting even the development of methodological and analytical frameworks that could be used in the study of food parcels specifically. The subtitle, “intimate connections” points to the ethnographic approaches that underpin each of the eight chapters which, along with the editors’ introduction, are collected in this book.

The eight chapters employ a variety of methods to their studies of how individuals send and receive food in migration contexts, from a reflective autoethnography, to multi-sited fieldwork that makes use of observational and interview methods. Through all of the chapters, it is clear that, for people who migrate, food becomes crucial to the elaboration of their identities as migrants. It is equally important to the maintenance of old social and family relationships as well as to the establishment of new affective ties. As chapters 3 and 4 reveal, however, the sending of food by family members is not without its tensions, even as it is a means of expressing love. The circulation of comestibles by and among migrants may also be a way to elaborate and (re)produce knowledge and traditions from their place of origin, as two articles on migration from West Africa to Europe show (chapters 7 and 8). Specific ingredients might be revealing of the changes in their own food practices that people who migrate experience (chapters 3 and 6), including being a way to show hospitality and share in the life of those who remain in the place of origin (chapters 6 and 7). The affective facets of flavour, and the preciousness of the taste of home for those who can perceive it, are also covered, and in some detail, in chapters 2 and 8.

The editors’ introduction underlines the focus of the book as a whole on the materiality of maintaining contact across borders, and the ways in which migrants are connected to distinct places at once. Mata-Codesal and Abranches make a convincing argument for the book and seek to cast a certain level of cohesion on what is perhaps a somewhat disconnected   collection of articles. It is a pity that the editors do not seek to define what is understood by “food parcels”: the concept is used very loosely in some chapters, with “parcels” seemingly referring to anything from jars of ajvar (a paste widely used in South-East Europe) to the supply of ingredients to Mexican restaurants in the USA. The introduction also sets out the rationale for the organisation of the volume into three sections: the first on “Food, Identity and Belonging”; the second on “Transnational Kinswork”; and the final section on “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”.

Some chapters in particular are well worthy of note for researchers in the field, and stand out in terms of the approach taken and the rigour of the research:

Raquel Ajates Gonzalez stresses, as do a number of the contributors to the book, a sense of continuity across borders in chapter 3: “Thank you for the Cured Meat, but is it Grass-fed? Contested Meanings of Food Parcels in a New Nutrition Transition”. Gonzalez draws out some of the tensions that emerge through food gifts, using a reflective, auto-ethnographic account of the author’s reception of parcels that include traditional hams and sausages sent to her from family in Spain. In her new environment, where she is both surrounded by and immersed in food concerns around health, sustainability, care and waste, these gifts take on a greater significance in both harking back to the person she was prior to migration and showing up the gaps in continuity of those family relationships which either don’t respond to, or are unaware of, the person she is now. In this captivating account of receiving three food parcels embedded in a solid and convincingly argued scholarly framework that draws on epidemiological nutrition transition theory, Gonzalez brings to light the various shifts in meaning that food items undergo in transit, and the contradictions, values, anxieties and pleasures that food parcels bring to light at the same time as they maintain the relationship between senders and recipient.

Part III, dealing with “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”, is the most revealing section of the book. Chapter 7: “West African Plants and Prayers in the Netherlands: Nourishment through Visible and Invisible substances” focuses on Islamic esoteric knowledge and practices made possible for Senegalese and other West African migrants in Europe by the transport and circulation of plants from West Africa in informal networks. Like some of the other articles in this volume, the author, Amber Gemmeke, could be more explicit about food parcels; nonetheless, it is clear that Marabouts and other migrants are reliant on the items that are transported by, for and between migrants, and that the material practices of herbal medicine are made possible by them. In this way, both the plants themselves and the people (Marabouts) who travel with them and perform esoteric rituals both in West Africa and in Europe act as a force to bridge geographical distance and facilitate settlement and feelings of continuity.

The affective resonance of foods and items relating to food is also the focus of Tiago Silveiro de Oliveira’s outstanding chapter 8: “Inkuminda di Téra: the Informal Circulation of Cabo Verdean Food Products”. This study focuses on Cabo Verdean migrants in Lisbon and their various interactions with foodstuffs – as transporters of food parcels and as consumers and producers of Cabo Verdean foods. This wide-ranging chapter touches on numerous key issues, from the ways in which architecture can change foodways, to the importance of objects of repeated use in producing stability and comfort in the migratory process, to the connections and relationships sustained and established through the transport of food, to the effects of affective associations on how people taste. Oliveira’s rigorous chapter is rooted in deep scholarship and draws extensively and productively on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Cova da Moura and Zambujal, two districts of Lisbon.

Read as a whole, Food Parcels repeatedly shows up the centrality of food and food-related items to the migratory experience, despite some variation in the quality, depth and rigour of individual chapters. Throughout the volume, food is shown to take on values that go well beyond nourishment, sustaining relationships, producing tensions, producing continuity, revealing separation from the place of origin. It is a pity that the editors chose to give the volume such a specific title, for this creates expectations and produces a sense of disorientation, at least for me, when not all of the articles focus on food parcels, and when this term, so central to the title and introduction, is never really defined. Many of the chapters, which seem somewhat disconnected in this specific context, would make more sense placed together under a different broad title for the volume. It is also a surprise, given the title, that there is no attention at all paid to food parcels in emergency contexts – particularly given the international refugee crisis that continues to leave displaced people reliant on food chosen for them by others. The geographical scope of the volume is, in fact, somewhat limited: of eight chapters, two focus on Filipino migrants (both of these chapters are based on fieldwork   from a decade ago, with one being a summary of material already published elsewhere); two on West Africans in Europe; three on intra-European migrations, and one on Mexicans in the USA. Given the range of possibilities that a volume on Food Parcels in International Migration ought to present, it is a real pity that the editors did not choose to commission a wider-ranging (and, in some cases, more up-to-date) set of contributions. In their introduction, the editors lament the lack of “solid, analytical frames through which to look at the relationship between food and migration”, and the potential for this volume as a whole to contribute to providing such frameworks is disappointingly unrealised. Nonetheless, the Introduction provides a review of relevant literature that is surely useful to scholars and students alike, and there is no doubt that the collection provides useful resources for more experienced scholars working on food and migration, who are able to overlook the rather unrepresentative title, distractingly frequent errors in English usage, and certain articles whose conclusion is unconvincing. These concerns aside, the volume does work together despite itself, in its collective uncovering of some of the ways that food is used in migratory processes and in the refreshing focus on individual stories. The pleasure of reading approaches to autoethnography such as Gonzalez’s or the solid and original work of Oliveira and Gemmeke on West Africans in Europe provide highlights and moments of inspiration for food researchers.

 

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