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.
(Accessed January 15, 2022.)
(Accessed January 15, 2022)