After a long hiatus, FoodAnthropology returns with 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 email@example.com.
I am writing this from New Orleans, where food is often used to frame discussions of nearly everything. A few especially good examples of this appeared this week. First, this poignant article by restaurant critic and perceptive cultural observer Ian McNulty on thinking about the New Orleans Saints football season of hope and disappointment through red beans and rice. This is a great example of how restaurant writing has evolved in recent years. Second, this interesting recollection of Leah Chase, by Lolis Eric Elie, that tries to disrupt some of the iconic ideas about that famous chef’s life. A good example of how people resist the narratives we use to box them.
Sometimes journalists manage to combine the discussion of a simple dish and a personal narrative in a way that provides a small insight into a society. Bryan Washington, writing for the New Yorker, did this in his article about omurice, a sort of Japanese fried rice omelet. More recently, Vidya Balachander wrote this beautiful example of how knafeh, a stunning Middle Eastern pastry, can be used to tell a lot of different stories about the region. This is exactly the kind of writing that I like to use to inspire my students to think about the links between food and culture.
Theodore Gioia argues in the Los Angeles Review of Books that restaurant criticism needs to transform itself to remain (or become) relevant for readers today. More than consumer advocacy or guides to taste, Gioia argues for both new approaches (focusing on ethics, politics, and culture) and new formats for restaurant reviews. For once, I suggest reading the comments below the article, which are also interesting…and looking for the twitter storm it generated among food writing professionals.
As Gioia remarks, a new generation of restaurant critics is taking up the kinds of tasks he suggests, including a bunch of newish critics on the West Coast. But how new is this kind of self-consciousness about criticism and food writing in general? This discussion, from The Splendid Table, between Soleil Ho and Ruth Reichl provides some useful nuance to this history. The interview, from last fall’s radio show is about how different kinds of food-related businesses deal with change between generations. You can listen to the whole thing here.
Many FoodAnthropology readers are familiar with the Racist Sandwich podcast, started by Soleil Ho (see above) and Zahir Janmohamed, which looks into race, class, and gender in the worlds of food. The podcast has two new hosts, Stephanie Kuo and Juan Diego Ramirez, and is very much worth following. Listen, for instance, to this very curious and somewhat clandestine interview with a French convict (yes, he is in jail) who has a viral Instagram page on cooking. And related to the discussion above about the changing world of food criticism, listen to their interview with Soleil Ho, after a year at the San Francisco Chronicle. There are other interesting episodes too, all on the website.
Does every immigrant or minority in America have a story about dealing with being embarrassed, teased, or ostracized for the foods their family made or that their mother packed into their school lunch? I certainly do and I am endlessly fascinated by all the related stories I read in this genre. In this sweet video from The New Yorker, Priya Krishna discusses growing up in Dallas and being ashamed of her mother’s cooking, preferring instead peanut butter and jelly. In a related article, chef Jenny Dorsey discusses the tensions around being Chinese-American, both growing up and as a cooking professional. I would recommend this article for use in a class on food and race/ethnicity. Has anyone put together a collection of essays of this kind? It seems like these are widely shared experiences in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere) and it would be fascinating to see them put together.
Everyone knows that “real” food happens in independent restaurants, not in fast food or fast casual joints. And yet, it seems that work in fast food or fast casual restaurant chains has shaped the experiences of many of our most interesting chefs today. At least, that is what Priya Krishna (cited above) reports in this fascinating article. She argues that working at Applebee’s, Waffle House, or IHOP can often provide training every bit as valuable as culinary school.
It may surprise people in dryer parts of the United States, but hardly a week goes by in New Orleans without some sort of water crisis. Our flooding problems are well-known, but I am referring in this instance to the annoyingly frequent boil water alerts that occur due to problems with our aging water infrastructure. It turns out that New Orleans is hardly alone in this (Flint, Michigan comes to mind, of course, as a much worse example). In this piece from Counter Punch, Andreea Sterea provides an alarming overview of the state of water across the U.S. Read this and allow yourself a brief moment of panic, then start writing and calling your elected officials.
Discussions of obesity and food tend to center on questions of public health and diet, often framed by deeper ideas about race and class. In the case of countries in the Pacific, you could even add in stereotypes derived from colonialism. Yet there are many other ways to frame these issues and, of course, there are anthropologists who study them. Listen, for instance, to this great episode of the Sausage of Science podcast in which Cara Ocobock and Chris Lynn interview Jessica Hardin about her work and recent book (Faith and the Pursuit of Health: Cardiometabolic Disorders in Samoa, 2018, Rutgers University Press) on religion, health, food, and more in Samoa. The podcast covers Hardin’s findings, but they also discuss the research process in ways that could be very useful for students as well.
We end this week with crabs from the eastern shore of Virginia. Or, rather, this excerpt from Bernard L. Herman’s book A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories from the Eastern Shore of Virginia (2019, UNC Press) that appears on the Southern Foodways Alliance Gravy website. Hard crabs, sooks, busted sooks, lemons…this is about the language of Virginia crabbers and the definition of this particular terroir. The pictures will have you longing for crab.