What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, April 26, 2021

Burger and fries, The Hamburger Foundation, Geneva. Photo by David Beriss.

David Beriss

Do you teach courses related to the anthropology of food and nutrition? From intro courses on food and culture, to food justice, nutrition, archaeology and food history, biocultural approaches to food, food systems, globalization, hunger, sustainability, food politics…SAFN wants to know about it. Actually, we want your syllabi. One of the benefits of SAFN membership is access to our collection of syllabi (join if you would like access). The “Syllabi for Food and Nutrition Anthropology Courses” was last assembled and updated by Janet Chrzan and Helen Vallianatos in 2012. This is a great resource for teaching and for staying current with the field. We need your syllabi! Please send them to safnsyllabus@gmail.com. (Also, SAFN members, if you don’t know how to access the current collection, contact us through this site and we will tell you how.)

On a related syllabus theme, read this great review of Leah Penniman’s book “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land” (2018, Chelsea Green Publishing), written by SAFN board member Amanda Green. She writes that the book “lays out a blueprint for practicing sustainable agriculture alongside a robust discussion of social, economic, and environmental challenges and solutions framed within the African American and African experience.” Green’s review is framed with her search for readings for a course she teaches on food and sustainability. She includes a lot of very useful suggestions for materials you might want to use in related classes.

SAFN members are everywhere, it seems. Or, at least, Richard Wilk is everywhere. Read this interview he did with Sophie and Orlando Lovell on The Common Table, in which he considers fishing, sustainability, food waste, and much more. And, yes, he does point out that you cannot eat the same food twice. You also might consider adding this to your syllabus if you want to provoke your students.

Wilk is, of course, one of the anthropologists who first called our attention to the ways in which people make sense of globalized foods. One food that has circulated widely in recent decades is the taco, a food that seems to have iterations in many different societies. French tacos apparently are a thing, as Lauren Collins explains in this article from The New Yorker. Are they “tacos”? What do they have to do with immigration and diversity? If you want to instigate a debate around the concept of “authenticity” this would be a good place to start.

More fast food: McDonald’s, the restaurant that the French stereotypically hate (but in reality love), seems to inspire hope and innovation there. I might add that this hope and innovation is particularly French. Listen to this episode of the NPR podcast Rough Translation, by Eleanor Beardsley, Gregory Warner, and Marianne McCune, about a McDonald’s in Marseille that has had a surprising transformation in the last few years. What starts out as a story of bootstrap social mobility turns into a site for neighborhood collective action.

And even more McDonald’s: Over at another NPR podcast, Codeswitch, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, Leah Donnella, and Jess Kung consider the role of the iconic fast food chain in social mobility for Black Americans. Even if you are familiar with the ambiguous history of McDonald’s as a restaurant open to Black franchisees, this episode is worth a listen. They link McDonald’s to the history of calls for Black capitalism. In the context of recent efforts to call attention to Black-owned businesses in the U.S., this history is especially interesting. Also, contrasting this McDonald’s story with the previous one could make for some amazing discussions about globalization and culture.

And McDonald’s again. Writing in the New York Times, Jane Hu describes the role of McDonald’s filet-o-fish sandwich in her experience as an immigrant from China to Canada. She experienced the fish sandwich as having characteristics that appealed both to her taste, as a recent immigrant, and to her sense of self, as a child. The Times helpfully provides a recipe so you can make your own, which seems especially important since Hu states that the current versions do not live up to her memory. I suspect that it is not the sandwich that has changed.

Enough with Mickey D’s. Instead, fish sticks. I have many fond food memories from childhood, but there are also a few things I did not like. Tater tots, for instance, which are neither hash browns nor French fries. And fish sticks. In fact, these often go together, as what I think of as babysitter meals, provided by some teenage guardian while my parents went out, probably to feast on something delicious and not brown or previously frozen. Yeah, sorry to go on about that. But as this article by Ute Eberle and Haka Magazine notes, the world never asked for fish sticks (they are oddly silent on the tater tot question). Instead, this article draws mostly on work by Paul Josephson to explain how this tragic food (“the ocean’s hot dog”) ended up on our plates. Rather than eating frozen fish sticks, we have now graduated to hipster tinned fish, which means canned sardines or tuna, but expensive. There are entire restaurants that have built their reputations around this idea. And there is a substack newsletter reviewing them, called Popping Tins. This has to be better than fish sticks.

Here in North America, the spread of vaccines seems to indicate that we may be heading toward the end of the COVID crisis, although, to be sure, it is hard to know what that will look like yet. On one hand, restaurants and bars are opening more and to more people in many states. But, as Ashley B. Wells, of All Time restaurant in Los Angeles noted back in March, the conditions of reopening are fraught with all kinds of issues. Meanwhile, there are still some weird things you can do to evoke what we are all missing. Check out, for instance, the “I Miss My Bar” app that lets you evoke your neighborhood bar while having a drink at home. Play the music, add a bit of the ambient sounds (rain, street sounds, the bartender mixing a drink) and I swear, you are there.

Let’s end this digest on a libidinous note. Margaret Rhodes has written this somewhat erotic evocation of “horny groceries” for Grub Street, which opens with a rather suggestive picture. She goes on to discuss a history of sensual food shopping, as well as present efforts along those lines. Which will not surprise people here in New Orleans, especially now, in the middle of crawfish season. The basic instructions for eating boiled crawfish are to “pinch the tail and suck the head.” Enjoy.

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