Thesis Review and Discussion: The Metamorphosis of Greek Cuisine

Kapari Deli in Athens city centre, Greece

Photographs by Nafsika Papacharalampous

If you have written a recent thesis in the Anthropology of Food or would like to review one, please contact Katharina Graf: kg38@soas.ac.uk

The Metamorphosis of Greek Cuisine: Sociability, Precarity and Foodways of Crisis in Middle-Class Athens. Nafsika Papacharalampous. PhD Thesis in Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS University of London, London (UK). 2019.

Review and discussion by Richard Wilk (Indiana University, USA)

Let me start out by saying that unlike most dissertations, this one is a pleasure to read. It has ethnographic depth, wonderful quotes and vignettes of life working in a delicatessen and as a restaurant chef. The writing is theoretically sophisticated without being ponderous, and most of the chapters will resonate with any scholar working on contemporary food issues. Like any other, Papacharalampous’ dissertation also reflects a moment in the writer’s world. The concerns, problems and readings of graduate education work their way into dissertations, as do the experiences of everyday life. Reading between the lines we can discern anthropology and food studies as concerned with physical embodiment and the senses, with authentication as a process, with justice and equality, everyday politics and the precarious position of the middle class. Like all anthropologists, she faces the difficult task of making connections across scales from the individual to the global, and everything in between, all in constant motion. I think this dissertation also reflects a revival of economic anthropology and of course material culture given that Papacharalampous did her graduate study within yards of UCL at the SOAS Food Studies Centre in London. She is concerned with the social life of things consumed, the creation of social solidarity and collectivities through commensality, with the patterns of the quotidian business of everyday life. The other themes that emerge in the work clearly are a return to issues of urban and rural connections that have been relatively unpopular in anthropology for some time. 

Rather than presenting a review of the dissertation as a whole, I want to discuss some of the themes that I found most interesting and most relevant to the present moment, the start of our second Covid plague year. Papacharalampous’ dissertation is set in the aftermath of the 2009 Greek debt crisis, also a period of political instability and economic insecurity. High unemployment, falling wages and rapidly rising prices triggered widespread food activism and public interest in what might be called food reform. A period of exception and crisis like this can illuminate what is otherwise normal and therefore taken for granted and hidden. Papacharalampous’ skillful and vivid analysis offers some potential answers to key questions in the present moment – what happens after a crisis? After a period of heightened public awareness of food issues, do we go back to “normal,” or are there substantial and long-lasting structural changes in the food system? The dissertation carefully discusses some of the new networks, institutions and grassroots initiatives that grew during the years of hardship and financial crisis, but also tells us how easily the push for more equitable food systems can be co-opted and sidetracked (see papers in Harper and Siniscalchi 2019 for other European examples).

Papacharalampous also depicts the diverging effects of crisis on those who are financially secure, and those who experience catastrophic loss of livelihood, security and social position. Often the institutions and programs instituted to help feed the poor end up creating unexpected problems, and like the pandemic, the Greek crisis exacerbated and dramatized inequalities, not just between rich and poor, but also between urban and rural, young and old. A major theme in the dissertation is the tension between moral economies addressing the common good and the individual pecuniary interests that drive market capitalism, an issue that has been central to economic anthropology for a long time. In Greece these issues are bound up with ideas about modernity, history and national identity in ways that have been central to the work of Michael Herzfeld, who also shares a deep scholarly (and personal) interest in food. Papacharalampous makes the most of a productive dialogue with Herzfeld throughout.

In finding a theoretical grounding, Papacharalampous concentrates on time and space, and the way they complicate each other, the distance between a contested present and an imagined past, between village and city in a way that reframes Robert Redfield’s idea of the folk-urban continuum. Unlike Redfield, she is aware of how both time and space are rhetorical devices, constantly in motion as they are negotiated and redefined. Like a good deal of food studies today she is also interested in resistance and ways in which people can reconceptualize the economy, with the stress on re-infusing morality and justice back into the food system, in ways that are clearly political and ideological. She is also concerned with the creation of authenticity, and her ethnographic settings are points of contact between consumers and producers; restaurants, delicatessens, and public markets. Though she rarely makes the comparison, the Italian version of the Slow Food movement has provoked similar political and ideological conflicts centered on food throughout Europe and in many other parts of the world.

Early in the dissertation Papacharalampous sets the stage with a description of historical Greek culinary diglossia (my term), which will be familiar to food scholars working in many different parts of the world: 

“… the food writer Zouraris […] makes the distinction between the ‘demotic, folk (δημώδης, λαική)’ and the ‘intellectual (λόγια)’ cuisine, reflecting not only the low/high cuisine, but also the rural/urban binary: Demotic cuisine has an absolute and inextricable attachment to place, land, its produce, the changing of seasons.” (page 29)

In diglossia the long-standing popular and rural foods (like language dialects) are considered backward and even shameful, while a formal, often foreign inspired cuisine occupies the altolect position of established “high culture”.  A successful “new cuisine” displaces these older (and often French-inspired) versions of fine dining, in the same way that national languages once challenged the linguistic hegemony of foreign-inspired elites, or the way Europe threw off the yoke of Latin as the language of the literate elite in earlier times. As in so many other countries, the “New Greek Cuisine” revives, revitalizes and elevates (some would say appropriates) the basolect, the low register of the rural and rustic. While the “new cuisine” gets legitimacy from its local, regional or national roots, it is always in danger of losing that vital connection because of its high status, high price, and its paradoxical appeal to the foreigner and tourist. 

Papacharalampous shows how “New Greek Cuisine” was both a culinary revitalization movement with lofty and egalitarian goals, and a vehicle for people with high cultural capital appealing to an educated urban audience. The new Greek joins the global arena of competition with other new cuisines, with a similar mix of anti-modern nostalgia, high social and environmental purpose, and a skillful blending of emblematic local ingredients with technical sophistication. She expresses the same kind of ambivalence that many social scientists face as the movements for farm-to-table, freeganism, buying clubs, CSAs and CSFs, nose-to-tail, farmers markets, urban agriculture, and artisanal foodcrafts seek to reform industrial food systems, but face considerable obstacles, opposition and cooptation. These movements are promoted by social and mass media, legitimized by scholarly endorsement and historical precedent, and are acted out by culinary celebrities. All of this can accelerate competition and controversy over authenticity, originality, intellectual property and political legitimacy, while also creating many new economic niches in food production, processing and marketing, and new roles for the food intelligentsia; writers, critics, interpreters, food sherpas, and tour guides, not to mention academic folklorists, historians, and anthropologists seeking new entry points into public debate. Ironically, in providing us with a detailed description of specifically Greek food, she amply demonstrates there is nothing more global than the local.

The anthropologist participating in fine-dining deep cleaning rituals

One of the most useful concepts offered by Papacharalampous is the “exoneration of the rural.” As she says: 

“In these Athenian spaces, the upscale delis and restaurants of New Greek Cuisine, the reinvention of tradition involves not only the physical transportation of foods from rural spaces to urban markets. It is about the ideological and symbolic transformation which accompanies this process. Rural foods and foodways are reimagined and symbolically reshaped for Athenians. They are being exonerated.” (page 14)

Papacharalampous thusly points the way towards questions which many food scholars have been reluctant to ask; does the food movement as a whole create real change in rural areas? Does it provide viable farm economies for more than a small specialist cadre? Can it break out of the high-value market for specialties and build resilient new structures? To a large extent this is the question posed by Sidney Mintz – can we find food of “moderate pace,” in between fast and cheap agro-industrial products and high-priced artisanal slow food? (2006) 

Following this theme, we can ask how much of “the rural” still exists anywhere, and how much it is just an object of imagination, a kind of category like “the poor” or “the food insecure” which allows strategic imprecision. Perhaps I am biased by my experience in the Midwestern US – some rural farmers and entrepreneurs have been successful in revitalizing their farm or kitchen economy by hooking onto the local food niche. But a large part of the rural population is marginally employed, has lost its agrarian roots for a generation or two, and has no interest in returning to what they still remember as a life of drudgery, isolation and social marginalization. While young people may find it honorable and venerable to take up the plow, to milk goats and fill a farm kitchen with the smell of preserves, the majority of older rural people are still trying to find a steady job that will allow them to buy basic groceries. The clash of values has been heated and reconfigured during the pandemic, and if anything, the gulf between urban and rural, though bridged in the imagination, has never been greater. On one hand there are mega farms, seed monopolies, CAFOs and meat processing sweatshops, and on the other, organic free range chickens, artisanal cheese and charcuterie. It is hard to think of any rural farm or kitchen product that has not been revived in one way or another, but rarely by the same population or the descendants of the original practitioners.

Chapter 4 is my nomination for the best and most interesting in the dissertation. The discussion of food as a physical political tool includes the visual appearance of bread and milk in parliamentary debate, throwing yogurt on politicians and political slogans featuring a cucumber. The author uses her own physical experiences of urban foraging as graphic examples. This is a stimulating and original chapter on the political uses of food, and the relationship between food as symbol and food as everyday necessity. The section on the meaning of olive oil is also outstanding and would make a perfect class reading on the deep personal and political meaning of emblematic foods, which could easily be combined with an olive oil tasting. Likewise, her description of working in a restaurant kitchen under a tyrannical head chef is evocative and exceptional, and provides an analytical depth lacking in most other kitchen confessions.

This dissertation is not a finished piece of work – ready to go into print as a monograph. But several chapters will make outstanding journal articles and book chapters, and with a tighter focus on the effects of crisis, it can be a book that sets the stage for and shapes debate about the effects of the pandemic on food systems. It will also be a guide for every culinary anthropologist working everywhere in the world, for we have surely not seen the end of the “New X” cuisines. 

References

Harper, Krista and Valeria Siniscalchi, 2019, Food Values and Resistance in Europe, Bloomsbury Academic.

Mintz, Sidney, 2006, “Food at moderate speeds,” in Wilk, Richard, ed., Fast Food/Slow Food. Pp. 3-11.

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