What EM Is Reading and Watching

Another set of thought-provoking readings and recommendations from frequent FoodAnthropology contributor Ellen Messer. Note that while many of these are inspired by items from the Financial Times, Dr. Messer has found links to related stories from other sources. This is because access to the Financial Times is restricted for non-subscribers. If you do subscribe to the FT, you can probably find the original articles quite easily on their web site.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Weekly readings offer a few appetizers for reflection:

(1) the Swiss based global trading firm Glencore, which recently underwent reorganization because of its high debt obligations, seeks combination of its Glencore Agriculture unit with Bunge. It aims to break into the “big four” global agricultural trading firms (ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus) at a time when agricultural margins are low because of booming harvests, and as farmers the world over seek leverage to sell directly to buyers, squeezing the big four on profitability. Glencore Ag, which has a major presence in wheat, seeks expansion in the US and South America in soybeans and other commodity crops in which Bunge enjoys comparative advantage. Glencore Ag has the money to do this because the company recently offered a 50% stake in its business that was purchased by two Canadian pension funds, who now, in addition to owning 50% of Glencore Ag also own 50% of its debt, so that the company has raised its potential profitability ratings. Bloomberg news weighs in here, with graphs showing the markets’ reaction.

(2) European and North African olive oil production is way down because of drought, and prices for extra virgin olive oil have risen in tandem. This article gives the official reductions in product for Italy, Greece, and Spain (which it says is the largest producer) but does not discuss whether California olive industry is offering more product in response. Nor does it suggest any further dilution in product, which culinary experts say is always a problem in commercial oils. The Olive Oil Times has a series of supporting articles here.

(3) Coca Cola is trying to raise the desirability of its brand by emphasizing its “inclusivity” —with reference to its historic claim that everyone, however defined by ethnicity or economic class—can afford to enjoy Coke (citing Andy Warhol’s iconic image and phrase) and its efforts to improve its nutritional profile. The company officially endorses the WHO guidance that added sugars should provide no more than 10 percent of total caloric energy intake. The company claims to be contributing to reductions in sugar intake by reformulations or smaller portion size, both of which potentially reduce added sugar intakes in its products. But the company also has to find new revenue streams to replace lost sales from coolers, which are losing sales especially in locations like shopping malls, which are experiencing lower foot traffic as more people shop on line. The official company statement on “inclusive” culture can be read here.

(4) And finally, not really a “food” story but a feel-good sheep textile story, which replaces “farm-to-table” with “sheep-to-shop” traceability and authenticity, as people can watch their clothing being created in iconic textile mills with high skilled artisan labor input that they are willing to pay for. The designer realized that low cost Chinese labor would always outcompete British firms, and came up with this new old idea to compete on quality and local employment. The name of the entrepreneur is James Eden; the town was once known as Cottonopolis. The FT article can be accessed here.

In other news:

US PBS (National Public Television) has some food shows that are worth viewing for their stunning visual presentations of food and food culture, story lines, and possible critique. “A Matter of Taste” “Food—Delicious Science” aired in mid-May 2017. The lessons in the chemistry of taste and food preservation feature British science filmmaker Michael Mosley and ethnobotanist James Wong. For starters, they showed that taste is organized into five flavors, which can be reduced to their purified chemical essences—sweet, bitter, salty, sour, umami. These findings were connected to particular foods, which showed how acidity (sour) can be measured (by pH) that turns out to be pretty constant across fruit categories (watermelon is the least acidic), even though one senses that fruits such as strawberries are more sweet than sour. The reason for this is that aromatics enter into perception of sweetness, but the chemistry of this trickery and its connection to complex flavors was not well communicated. The program would have been more insightful (and more fun!) had it featured U.S. taste psycho-physicist Linda Bartoshuk describing her own experimental findings, which show how volatiles (the aromatics) leverage sweet taste perceptions and complexity. (An engaging interview about her career can be accessed at here. But further surfing on the web reveals that BBC already did a Bartoshuk piece, so maybe what we see here is Mosley, a BBC showmaster, distancing himself from the competition (Veronique Greenwood) and Wong, an ethnobotanist, privileging plants over people (psychology).

The other featured foods included traditional Andean freeze-dried potatoes. This segment featured Wong (who spoke Spanish pretty well) visiting a highland Andean community, which grows many varieties of potatoes, and singles out an especially bitter variety for freeze drying into chunyo, a series of steps that take place at an even higher elevation. I did not think that the segment communicated the complexity of the process, which involves multiple days of washing, freezing, stamping out bitter alkaloids. They made the process look simple, and the taste of chunyo look delicious, which is a stretch. Another featured food was Iberian black pig. This segment showed plump pigs nosing out acorns as nourishment, which the narrator informed is what flavors the meat with its extremely delicious umami taste. Although butchering was the theme, the visuals showed limited blood and gore, as an extended family gathering around a festival table to share the annual pig-slaughter and processing ritual, which uses all parts of the animal in some culinary fashion. There were then multiple scenes of multiple people shaving off thin slices of exquisite ham, which they ecstatically sampled. The idea of traditional foods guided by flavor and artisan technologies informed both pig and potato segments; the filmmakers could have made more connections to tomato and strawberries, which are also preserved with value added through artisan technologies.

This is the second of three in their series, “Secrets of Food,” which aim to illuminate the biology, chemistry, and physics of the items people eat, although as reviewers emphasize, few Brits (or Americans) will have tasted many of the examples.

PBS also has new American Masters shows featuring lives of major chefs and cookbook writers, including Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, James Beard, and Alice Waters. So far, viewing them at night, they’ve put me to sleep, but that may be due more to the knock-out pollen load this spring in Boston and their relatively late viewing hours. For anyone teaching relevant course materials, they should provide opportunities to compare the relative advantages of visual media vs. text for communicating the food and restaurant history in the US. The Alice Waters story, “Delicious Revolution,” uses the metaphor of food politics and performance, which will provide a useful backdrop to my summer graduate seminar: “Local to Global Food Values: Policy, Practice, and Performance”.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, applied anthropology

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