What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, March 7, 2017

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.

Here in New Orleans, we have just finished the Carnival season and have entered into the austere period of Lent. But in the rest of the United States, people are apparently still struggling to sort out the difference between serious stuff and the Carnivalesque. Witness, first, this very serious New York Times column by Frank Bruni, which asserts that people should stop criticizing President Trump’s desire for well-done steak with ketchup. In case you think that Bruni is desperate for something to write about, it seems that concerns over the President’s steak are part of a broader cultural critique, as this article by the editor of Eater.com makes clear. I wonder if we could interest President Trump in some Gulf seafood instead of steak, at least until Easter.

Of course, at FoodAnthropology we are in no position to criticize anyone who takes food seriously. Yet we do have to wonder what we might be missing while thinking about President Trump’s well-done steak and ketchup. For instance, there is this article, by Brian Barth, that looks into the deeper ambiguities of farm labor in the United States. Why is food cheap? One major factor is that food is grown, harvested, and processed by poorly paid and deeply exploited workers. Many of them are the undocumented migrants the new administration wants to deport. Certainly, the plan to deport people seems unjust, but as this article suggests, questions of justice—about wages, working conditions, and more—are far deeper than debates about immigration status would suggest (as we have noted before here on the blog, of course).

The most recent episode of Evan Kleiman’s KCRW radio program “Good Food” is devoted to immigration issues across the food industry, including immigrant restaurants, slaughterhouses, farms, farmers markets, and more. And there are points of view from across the political spectrum as well. Get your students to listen and start a discussion.

In the context of a new administration that wants to emphasize building and buying American, should we reevaluate the food movement’s obsession with the local? Read, for instance, this fascinating article about efforts to make the food provided on University of California campuses sustainable. In this version, “sustainability” is apparently defined by being produced in California. There is quite a lot of food produced in that state, but some things, like coffee, are generally not grown there. Is it more “sustainable” to find a way to grow coffee in California? Or are there arguments for some kinds of globalization worth considering?

Where you get seated in a restaurant matters. Ruth Reichl noted this in her famous review of Le Cirque in 1993, when her experience of dining in disguise and dining as the New York Times food critic led to rather different experiences. But the politics of the dining room can be complicated by any number of factors, including race and gender, and not only in the most famous fine dining establishments. Read, for instance, this brief, but ethnographically detailed piece by Osayi Endolyn on her experiences as a hostess in various restaurants. You will never look at restaurant dining rooms innocently again.

After the recent elections, many pundits suggested that the Democrats paid insufficient attention to suffering in rural America. This dovetails with many of the critiques leveled by food activists in recent years, who argue that failing to pay attention to who produces our food—and in what kind of conditions—is a major problem. This critique is also shared by James Rebanks, an English sheep farmer, who has traveled through rural America and suggests that the industrialized model of farming is problematic at many levels. His critique is similar to the analyses documented by Susan Carol Rogers in her article about the relationship between French agriculture and the French nation.

On a related note, there are also presidential elections in France, coming up in just a few weeks. In an obligatory effort to avoid being accused of neglecting rural France, the candidates make a point of showing up for the enormous agricultural exposition in Paris. This article from NPR examines the thinking of French farmers on the upcoming election…and if you read the Rogers article we cite above, this whole thing makes complete sense.

France is often the example we turn to when we want to point out a country that has not abandoned all the good things—meat, dairy, bread—in favor of one or another fad diet. Indeed, according to one study, only 37% of French people exclude some item (like meat or gluten) from their diet, compared to 64% of people worldwide (44% in Europe, 50% in North America, 84% in Africa and the Middle East). But this is changing, according to this fascinating article from Le Monde (which is where the statistics come from). It seems that the “individualization” of the French diet has led to all manner of interesting changes in what people will eat. Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this article is the fact that it never addresses religion, which is what probably motivates most people around the world to avoid particular foods and an area that has been especially fraught in France in recent years. This could be a great article for discussion with your students, but it is in French.

And while we are on the topic of fad diets, food scholar Emily Contois has recently published an article about food blogs that strive to create new ideas about nutrition, related to gender, class, and ethnicity. And food porn. She has written an extended description of the article on her blog, which you should read.

Here is a nice little piece by Amanda Yee on the African-American shoe box lunch. These were lunches packed for African-Americans traveling across the U.S. prior to the Civil Rights Act, when segregation meant that dining opportunities were rare. Nicely written, with a few good photos too.

It is fitting that we end this week more or less where we started, with some musings on the literary fate of restaurant criticism, by Navneet Alang. Alang riffs off of the work of Elijah Quashie, aka the Chicken Connoisseur, a London-based critic of fast-food fried chicken shops in the UK. Quashie’s reviews, which are available on YouTube, are wonderful in and of themselves, but for Alang, they represent a pivotal moment in the history of restaurant criticism. The tension between snobby elitism and populist fried chicken echoes certain themes in recent UK and US politics. Enjoy.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, ethnicity

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