What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 28, 2021

David Beriss

The pandemic grinds on and we read. We read and we listen to podcasts, which proliferate like tribbles, making it impossible to keep up with all of them. But we are trying to keep up, so you will find a few listed below. Meanwhile, we hope to have this reading and listening digest out twice a month. Our brand new associate editor, Wendy Yared, will be back in two weeks with the next installment. Meanwhile, if you have ideas for us, email foodanthro@gmail.com.

First, a quick reminder: SAFN wants your food anthropology related photos! To win glory and fame, submit a photo (or a series) to our Anthropology Day photo contest. The deadline is February 18.

Over at Anthropology News, there are several interesting food-related articles that cross all four fields of anthropology. These include a discussion of what the “foodprints” on early hominin teeth tell us about evolving diets, an analysis of the 2015 Maggi noodle crisis in India, an article about the “linguistic labor” involved in learning to grow coffee in southern Peru, a piece on being a food stylist with an anthropology degree and much more.

The history of all kinds of abuse of workers in the restaurant industry is well known. Efforts to deal with that abuse, however, have not necessarily succeeded in changing anything. In 2020, with the combination of a pandemic that threatened the survival of the industry and a social justice movement bringing awareness to the lack of redress, substantive change might have seemed especially hard to achieve. Soleil Ho, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, wrote a very useful article outlining some of the challenges involved in seeking restorative justice and meaningful change in the industry. There are no magic solutions here, but there are many interesting insights.

The impact of the pandemic on restaurants has been dramatic, with a stunning number going out of business permanently. One consequence is that communities lose important institutions where people gathered, looked after each other, chatted, etc. The role of restaurants as “third places,” outside work and home, is something scholars have explored. What happens when these places vanish? And, especially, what happens when a lot of them vanish all at once? Doug Mack wrote about this disaster in The Counter, providing comparative insights from around the United States.

Efforts by the restaurant industry to get organized in order to save itself and to lobby for a targeted aid package were discussed on this segment from Here and Now, a public radio program from WBUR. Other countries have provided targeted assistance, like this program from the UK government to restaurants. French restaurants and bars have also received subsidies (20% of their revenue from the same period before the pandemic, or 10,000 euros per month, whichever they prefer, while workers receive ongoing unemployment benefits), although many establishments are still expected to fail. It would be interesting to see a broader comparison of public policies supporting restaurants, bars, and related businesses across countries.

There is a stunning amount of food insecurity in the United States and that problem has become much worse since the economy tanked last year. In this context, many children relied on schools to provide breakfast and lunch as their main meals. With schools closed or operating virtually, efforts to get meals to kids without access to food have been complicated, as this article by Lisa Held outlines. School districts are working to get food out, but there are a variety of barrier, in particular in areas with high proportions of minority students. The article focuses on rural areas of Alabama and Louisiana, but also references some interesting studies of meal distribution programs in larger cities.

Many of the issues we have confronted during the pandemic, including those related to access to food, are really deepening problems that existed before this particular disaster. The Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University has recently published the 8th edition of their Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S. Food System. This does include material related to the pandemic, along with a lot of other citations. Very useful!

Last fall, the Southern Foodways Alliance fall symposium went virtual and many of the videos they made for the event are now available for anyone to watch. You can visit the SFA website to find most of them. I particularly liked Chef Oscar Diaz’ video about “Brunsmex” stew, which seems like it would be worth a trip to North Carolina to try. I also recommend José Ralat’s (the taco editor for Texas Monthly) vision of “Sur-Mex” food in the future. I sort of want this now. These videos are also available in written format in the Fall 2020 issue of Gravy.

There are a lot of great food-related podcasts available right now. As I noted, we will write more about them in coming months. For sheer listening pleasure, I like Proof, from America’s Test Kitchen. This is not about the latest recipe they claim to have perfected. It is instead about bits of food history and culture, treated in a mostly fun manner. There have been 6 seasons, so why I am only noticing it now is a mystery. The latest episode is about ice cream truck music and is surprising.

I am always a bit stunned by the erudition of French radio. I have lately been listening to a podcast called “Les Chemins de la Philosophie,” (the Routes of Philosophy), where they interview people about philosophy. I recommend their current series on food (“Je mange donc je suis,” I eat therefore I am, of course), which has 4 charming episodes about Roland Barthes, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, literature and food (focusing on Dumas, Proust, Rabelais, and Plato), and, finally, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Warning: in the Brillat-Savarin episode, they play a disturbing recording of the French restaurateur and television personality Maïté eating an ortolan while narrating the experience. It is sensual and horrifying at the same time and it turns out you can see a video of this here. Just be warned, if you find the eating of small birds disturbing, do not watch this video. All of this is in French.

Is industrial food more or less disturbing than eating ortolans? You judge. I end with this amusing ranking of frozen pizzas from Lucas Kwan Peterson at the Los Angeles Times. There is a lot here, including meeting Paul Newman in a theater restroom, musings on why a pizza would be marketed in the United States with the Red Baron (a German WWI flying ace, flying, of course for our enemy in that war) and the deep observation that “there are no bad pizza toppings, only bad pizzas.” Enjoy.

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