Review: Nomadic Food

Isabelle Bianquis and Jean-Pierre Williot, eds. Nomadic Food:  Anthropological and Historical Studies Around the World.  Rowman and Littlefield.  London. 2019. pp.272. ISBN 978-1-5381-5. 

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Isabelle Bianquis and  Jean-Pierre Williot have  addressed  the reality and concept of nomadic food by assembling a series of excellent articles from anthropological and historical perspectives.  Briefly, from a “traditional”  point of view,  these articles review pre-industrial , industrial, and post-industrial nomads. Pre-industrial  nomads  followed their food sources, whether wild or domesticated.  Industrial  and post-industrial “nomads”, especially from the post WWW I period,  follow real journeys or journeys of their mind or their work situations while walking, riding,  or working  ( 2019:25.) Still, Bianquis and Williot contend that they share similarities with “true” nomadic peoples. Regardless of their  nomad qualities,  these “nomadic” individuals and groups of people, like “true nomads,” put a  footprint on what and how they eat, no matter where.  And, as circumstances change, they mix cuisines from diverse sources, creating new traditions and new starting points as to “traditional” food. 

The first chapter, by  Sandrine Ruhlman, lays out the lifeways of the “traditional” nomad—the Mongols  who follow their  herds and live and eat in their yurts. Until  recently, families followed  “customary” patterns of what foods to eat, where in the yurt to eat them, and  what kinds of rules to follow when  eating. Commensality which reinforces social structure  is deeply embedded with spiritual practice (2021: 28.) Eating is a whole experience, designed to bring happiness (2021:30.)

True to its metaphorical premise, the articles “wander” through history and contemporary societies.  Nir Avieli explores the  phenomenon of  the Bedouins in contemporary Israel eating at a McDonalds. It is striking because many, though not all, customers are women.  True, he notes, that they can find “traditional” and cheaper food in the  mall in the desert.  They prefer McDonald’s because it is modern, fast, allows free association with people, including men, allows women to socialize together and is a distance away from the mall.  Moreover, the franchise owner is receptive to  hiring Bedouin and other non-Jewish customers in  all positions.  So, people “wander” to new food locations for many reasons.  They enjoy freedom, making a statement, and commensality in the process.

Isabella Borisova and Antonio Vinokurova depict tradition and change  in nomadic ways among  the Yakuts and other indigenous peoples of Yakutia.  The Yakuts were able to continue many of their practices of cooking meat, fish, and adding  certain vegetables until the Soviet period.  They were then forced to follow rules dictated by Moscow.  That included more agricultural,  less hunted products.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, for the Yakuts non-traditional foods and practices have entered the diets of the region.  The result has been less reliance on meat-based foods and  the inclusion of other foods that have led to significant medical problems, such  as cardiovascular disease and diabetes (2021: 62). This is not an uncommon pattern, as has been seen in Samoa, for example (see Rosen  2013). Still, traditional foods and related practices are followed for ritual and spiritual needs. 

Another direction of nomadic  food is explored by Chantal Crenn.  Long-time Senegalese  immigrants to  Bordeaux, primarily men, “circulate “ (her word)  between their adopted city and Dakar and other places  in Senegal. They try to eat  traditional foods in France  as well as French foods.  On their trips “home,” often to retire, they bring French food practices with them. And the airport is, for one person, a transition zone where he could have his last hamburger (2021:74.)  On their way back to France, they bring “home foods.” In other words, what one eats where is a statement of taste and identity. 

Nomadic food practices extend to outer space as well. Alwin Chubash reviews NASA’s space program through the prism of food.  Initially,  an engineering focus pervaded the kinds of food astronauts were given.  People, and in the early years, men, were seen as defective pieces of machinery and given what the nutritionists saw as crucial to maintain functioning (2021:79 et seq.).  The men were supposed to be disciplined enough to eat tasteless dry foodstuffs in return for being able to participate in the space program.  Yet, even  early on, they rebelled and brought unauthorized  food with them. The nutritionists changed foodstuffs over the years.  “Sedentary”, home based considerations came into the astronauts’ diets.  A table was set up so that they could eat together, which they did.  They finally got ice cream—but they preferred to eat it away from the table  while watching the stars and the Earth and Moon (2021: 83  et seq.).

There are individual nomads  and groups of nomads who seek enlightenment, nature, and testing of the self.  Phillippe Pesteil paints a complex picture of  hikers on the trails of Corsica.  People bring their food, generally specialized for different levels of walking and climbing.  They may also  purchase food from local vendors along the route—cheeses, for example.  People  use the opportunity of their  excursions to socialize both live and on the Internet.  Pesteil  notes it this way:  “Hence, the social realm bolsters the individual project while, at the same time, reinforcing reasons for coming together (2021:105.)”

What if the cuisine itself is a nomad?  Giovanni Ceccarelli and Stefano Magagnoli paint Italy and Italian-sounding cuisine as a world traveler.  Meatballs and Spaghetti are not a regular Italian dish, but they, like certain kinds of pizza, have become world-wide representations of Italy.  These representations become almost branded with pictures of the Italian countryside and the Italian flag and/or  the colors of red, white, and green.  “Tradition” and “family” are thus sold worldwide. The chapter title says it all: “Italian sounding.” To add to their point of an evolving journey of the cuisine, the  localized version of “Italian” food  becomes itself “traditional”  and the endpoint of a nomadic journey for food (see Eminem’s “Italian” restaurant in Detroit, Michigan, Reference 1.)

So, what does a nomadic priest  in the  19th century  with sufficient funds eat in Italy?  Luciana Maffi explores the detailed diaries of Don Marchelli. Marchelli records  various  dishes, most particularly soups, throughout his  wanderings.  He also frequented cafes  as a way to enjoy himself.  His travels happened at a time when  what was considered  lunch, dinner, and supper changed throughout the European (and American) world.  His depiction of expenses gives the reader and researcher a sense of who could afford to eat what at that time (2021: 166). Rich and moderately well-off people could  be nomads:  a class-based phenomenon.

Jean-Pierre  Williot sums up the journey of nomadic food: “.…there  is  a history of economic and behavioral shifts from mobile ways of cooking to mobile ways of eating …From street food to nomadic attitudes, it is the mobility that is apparent in a given and multiplying space” (2021:175). Even pizza has made a return to Italy (Reference 2.)  The future of nomadic food and its interconnections and influences is unlimited.

This book is excellently  written and  useful  for anthropologists, sociologists, historians, economists, business people, and nutritionists.  It can be  used for courses for upper division students.   By the focus on nomadism, it grounds itself in the past and future.  Any focus on nomadic food patterns in  the future could include other aspects of nomadism, such as Airstream caravanning, pop-up dinners, journeys through a pre-Covid Costco tasting experience, convoys of food trucks, and so on.  We may then see some  patterns  emerging  that would suggest even further study and generate  theories of food and mobility.     


    Rochelle K. Rosen. 2013. Perspectives on Diet and Obesity  from an  Anthropologist in Behavioral Medicine: Lessons Learned from the “Diabetes Care in American Samoa” Project. In Megan B. Mccullough and Jessica J. Hardin. Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures  and the Measure of Meanings.  Berghahn Books. pp.131-146.


Reference 1


(Accessed January 15, 2022.)

Reference 2


(Accessed  January 15, 2022)

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