What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, December 22, 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.

Hopefully with the holidays looming, you will have time to enjoy these articles. Got any favorites from 2018? Let us know!

One of the top problems confronting the restaurant industry this past year has been what to do about sexual misconduct. Helen Rosner, writing in the New Yorker, provides one small idea for training people who work in restaurants to understand what constitutes unacceptable behavior. Meanwhile, stories about how people are dealing with sexual misconduct and its aftermath in different restaurants continue. Maggie Bullock wrote in The Cut about what happened when chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and Ashley Merriman tried to take over the Spotted Pig restaurant in New York. Quite a minefield. They are not the only ones struggling across that particular minefield, as Julia Moskin and Kim Severson note in this discussion with April Bloomfield, also from the Spotted Pig. Given that men were the perpetrators of the sexual misconduct in all these cases, it seems a bit odd to leave this paragraph with mostly stories of women struggling with the aftermath. Here is a very recent reminder that the industry is still dealing with the problem itself: Brett Anderson’s article about Tariq Hanna’s resignation from Sucré, a dessert empire in New Orleans, demonstrates quite clearly the deep dangers that come when power, sex, and careers are mixed.

Restaurant critics are also learning to deal with writing about these issues, along with all the other social questions that swirl around restaurants. Just two examples for now, but there are many more out there. First, this rather terse review of The Four Seasons from Pete Wells at the New York Times clearly raises the question of whether a restaurateur’s conduct should impact the customer’s dining choices or experiences (and the review may have had some rather interesting consequences). Second, this rather fascinating interview with Soleil Ho, the incoming restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests that critics will be (or ought to be) thinking very carefully about ethical and social issues as they do their work.

As long as we are mentioning the work of Soleil Ho, take a look at this article she wrote about the nostalgia that seems to have long framed the restaurant menus of Vietnamese restaurants in the United States. Of course, the idea that memories of the country of origin and foods of the past haunt a lot of the restaurants run by immigrants of nearly every origin is one of the more fascinating elements in all the unresolvable debates about “authenticity” that will probably be with us forever.

And while we are discussing authenticity and nostalgia, we may want to bring on board appropriation, capitalism, industry, and more. Start with this amusing rant against industry-sponsored food “museums” by Erin DeJesus at Eater. I suppose I can see the point, but I have enjoyed similar museums in both the U.S and Europe (often kitschy, but if there are plenty of samples – chocolate, ice cream, cheese, beer – then I am a happy camper) and I hope we can trust that most visitors are aware that the ultimate goal of these places is commercial rather than educational. The tensions between well-meaning efforts to celebrate food and culture and commercialization are even more evident in this excellent story by Gustavo Arellano about the rise and commercial fate of National Taco Day in the U.S.

We might also want to ask if authenticity and nostalgia have any kind of reliable relationship with quality. Gustavo Arellano also recently wrote this article about the quality of food in small “mom and pop” immigrant restaurants. He points out that the search for the next hidden gem in the world of immigrant restaurants can often turn up restaurants that are not very good. He is correct of course, but this is just as true of any restaurant, not just those run by immigrants. Perhaps the more fundamental issue is that we tend to rely on some very simplistic (verging on racist) stereotypes about the relationship between ethnic identity and the ability to produce good food. Good cooking, like everything else, takes knowledge and practice. You may be born into a group, but you learn about food. And knowledge is not equally shared.

The politics that brought President Trump to power are complicated, but one often hears reference to resentful rural folks, especially in the West, where many feel that the Federal government controls too much of the land. And so when the administration moved to radically scale back the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, it seemed like they were responding to those complaints. This important article by Kathryn Schulz explains the improbable rise of a destination restaurant near the National Monument and the complex cultural politics involved in the reduction of its size. And, by the way, it also demonstrates that the Trump administration’s choice to scale back the monument had little to do with resentful Westerners and everything to do with serving corporate interests. You must read this.

In other stories of complicated food politics, it seems like efforts by cities to manage street food vendors is especially fraught in places known for high tech industry, where free food, a desire to appear modern, and a desire for food diversity all seem to clash. This article, by Christine Ro, compares Silicon Valley, in California, and Bangalore, in India. For some reason, this reminds me of a discussion of the changing landscape of pie shops in London, related to meat, eels, vegans, and gentrification, explained by Ronald Ranta in this article.

We often read claims by amateur anthropologists about the supposed benefits of “traditional diets” for combatting the ills of our modern industrial eating. It turns out that actual anthropologists sometimes do actual research on these issues and, perhaps unsurprisingly, their conclusions are unlikely to support the ideas spread by the fans of fad diets. This excellent article by three anthropologists (H. Pontzer, B.M. Wood, and D. A. Raichlen), provides an overview of recent research on small scale societies and diet, along with some data from original research with the Hadza, in Tanzania, and concludes that we should be careful about how what they learned might apply to people in industrial societies. A very good read.

One of the things that food journalism does best is create authoritative mythologies, lists, and categories of things that we need to know. Here, for instance, is a glossary of southern food terms, provided by the editors at Garden & Gun, a publication whose main purpose is to promote authoritative mythologies, lists, and categories about the South. Know that the accuracy of this list may be disputed and that unless you know how to pronounce the terms properly (“lid,” for example, is a two syllable word in much of the South), it won’t help much anyhow.

Sometimes journalists tell us what we ought to think about and then they check back to see if we really did. Which can be very amusing. Bret Thorn and Nancy Kruse, writing in Restaurant Hospitality, provide us with predictions for food trends in 2019 and look back at their predictions for 2018. For the coming year, Thorn predicts the rise of West African cuisine, lager, oat milk, and kachapuri in the U.S., while Kruse celebrates Juniper Lattes, Rum & Coke Chicken and Ribs at Bahama Breeze, and the Maple Bourbon Shake from Krystal (which is a Southern little burger chain, curiously not mentioned in the glossary cited above). Also, Kruse notes that restaurant names are getting more amusing, noting, for example, “Hello, Sailor,” near Charlotte, NC. This article makes for a fantastic reading of the state of American food culture, although I am sure Walter Benjamin would be horrified.

If those trends are not enough for you, Sara Bonisteel provides an overview of the 17 most read food articles from 2018 in the New York Times here. From the Instant Pot to the untimely deaths of Jonathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain, along with stories of sexual misconduct, this is also probably a useful snapshot of the moment.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food

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