Review: Gastronativism

Fabio Parasecoli. Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics. Columbia University Press. New York: 2022. ISBN:9780231202077

Mary Black (Southern Illinois University Carbondale)

Politics is not the sole arena where political ideas and ideologies are expressed and enacted. Language has often been—and often is—harnessed as a political tool, both formally through language policies and informally through the linguistic ideologies of community members. Even soccer has been used politically, both formally through “soccer diplomacy” (Dichter 2020) and informally by bringing people together or dividing them over their support for a given team. (In Spain, support for Real Madrid versus Barça is about much more than soccer!) Lately, there have been many publications on the politics of food and food as politics, particularly about food and nation-building (e.g., Anderson 2013; Heltosky 2003), the use of official names and certifications as a way to promote a region or nation (e.g., Lourenço & Rebelo 2006; Davidson 2007; Brulotte & Di Giovine, 2014), and gastronationalism (e.g., DeSoucey 2010; Ichijo & Ranta 2016; Ichijo, Johannes, & Ranta 2019; Johannes 2020). In this new book, Parasecoli seeks to add a new perspective on food as politics by examining the phenomenon for which he coins the term “gastronativism.”

Parasecoli uses food as a lens through which to examine politics and identity. Unlike some previous approaches, he does not solely connect food with a particular nation or supranational body but instead looks at the daily ways that food is used to express views about who does or does not belong to a given community. He defines gastronativism as “the ideological use of food and politics to advance ideas about who belongs to a community (in any way it may be defined) and who doesn’t” (9). He examines this in terms of both macro-flows of people, politics, and the food system and very localized ways of using and understanding food; food as a political tool that is both top-down and bottom-up; and food as a vehicle of both inclusion and exclusion.

The first lens through which Parasecoli examines food is via the contrast between exclusionary and nonexclusionary gastronativism. He defines exclusionary gastronativism as a zero-sum game: “the defense of one’s community against both internal and external perceived menaces requires a condemnation and at times the legal, physical, or metaphorical exclusion of those who do not belong” (35); that is, you are with me or against me, food-wise. Parasecoli goes on to provide countless examples of this from Israel/Palestine to meat-eating in India, Poland, the United States, and Japan. When discussing food and race, he cites the Ainu in Japan, the Uighurs in western China, and African-Americans and Native Americans in the US, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru to show that the food of an othered group within a given country can be used to accuse them of “coarseness, low quality, unhealthiness, or even impurity” (52). Nonexclusionary gastronativism seeks to do the opposite: embrace inclusiveness and fairness. It often works against not individual groups but larger entities like multinationals, international organizations, and the global elites. That is, nonexclusionary gastronativism often extends beyond the nation and encompasses anti-globalization movements, food movements which seek to reform the food system, and food sovereignty movements (22-23) in a bid to eliminate borders and tribalism. Examples he cites are the anti-whaling and anti-GMO movements.

When discussing the power of food in the second section of the book, he first discusses food and identity by noting that “by cooking things we are familiar with and that are able to comfort us, we reassure ourselves of our own identities while projecting the image we think the world should or expects to see” (76), citing in his case the example of Rome, its markets, and his own mother’s cooking. That is, our identity is defined both by what we eat and by what we refuse to eat. It is also defined by where we purchase our food: shopping at Walmart versus Whole Foods, a supermarket versus a farmers’ market, is not solely an economic choice but also an expression of identity and values, intentional or not. As he does throughout the book, Parasecoli also brings up the contradictions inherent in some of our food choices and politics, such as liking Mexican food but wanting a wall to be built in the United States, or Italians who do not want to not eat couscous and prefer polenta, even though couscous has been in Italy since the Muslims conquered it in the ninth century. He particularly spotlights the notions of tradition and heritage as tools used in gastronativism, specifically the malleability of what is considered tradition and heritage over time and to suit specific purposes (83). He also discusses authenticity in food as “the expected adherence of ingredients, dishes, and customs to an idealized, supposedly original form built on genuineness and the lack of artifice and pretension” (89). And he dives into the issue of designations of origin as a means of institutionally guaranteeing this purported authenticity. He completes the chapter by warning that, “When accepted blindly, tradition, heritage, and authenticity can become political weapons for discrimination and intolerance” (91), referring back to exclusionary gastronativism.

Within the same section, his chapter on “Food and Power” starts with examples that show that gastronativism, in its different forms, spans the political spectrum as a tool wielded by both left and right. It is not so simple as associating specific dishes with specific political views; instead, “abstract ideas… can be effectively translated into tangible, edible elements, easier to grasp and experience because of their immediacy, their ubiquity in every day life, and their emotional weight” (95). Furthermore, he cites examples of both supplying and denying food as political power plays, and discusses how choice of food (and beverage) by US American politicians can convey either elitism or being “one of the regular folks.” In a more institutionalized way, he cites food production as a propaganda tool in Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Mussolini’s Italy (also discussed by Helstosky 2004), Hitler’s Germany, and Salazar’s Portugal, although he claims that “to be fully effective, the political use of food in gastronativism needs to carry across as spontaneous, coming from the ever bubbling spring of the real people, regardless of how they are defined” (107).

In his section on “Borders and Flows,” Parasecoli covers some well-trodden ground in both gastronationalism and gastro-diplomacy. He begins by questioning what defines a nation in order to define what gastronationalism is, and, like Mintz (1996) he questions whether the phenomenon of national cuisines actually exists. Yet countries like Italy (see Helstosky 2004), Catalonia (see Johannes 2022), Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have striven to create national cuisines, which, despite their aim at diversity, often exclude underserved communities and minorities and tend to be top-down creations rather than organic expressions of the way people actually eat, thus not “coming from the ever bubbling spring of the real people” (107), as mentioned above. He discusses tensions between what are considered local foods and widely accepted immigrant foods, both of which can be used in creating this hypothetical national cuisine, as when tikka masala was deemed a British national dish (124), an interesting example of the factors involved in categorizing food, including “the legacy of colonialism, the tensions of decolonization, geopolitical conflicts, and migration flows” (125).

In his chapter on “Food and Diplomacy,” Parasecoli discusses this form of soft power as a way of raising a country’s profile and clout, citing the examples of Spain and Thailand as the type of medium-sized countries that often use food diplomacy as a way of gaining visibility among wealthier audiences to encourage tourism. He then discusses culinary tourism in Taiwan, Peru, and Denmark and connects this phenomenon with UNESCO’S intangible cultural heritage designations, yet another top-down initiative which Ceisel has described as using “foodways as a means of seeking representation in the global marketplace” (Ceisel 2013, 126).

Finally, Parasecoli opens the last chapter in the section on “Borders and Flows,” called “National Products on the Global Market,” with an example from Japan and China of how “foreign” food can be deemed dangerous, a transnational form of exclusionary gastronativism which, he claims, has become particularly visible recently with the broad revival of populism and nationalism, which has used food to mark belonging or otherness. He cites examples of top-down policies to exclude certain foods from other nations as a political way of weaponizing food, a way to “fend off the homogenizing tentacles of globalization and to nurture local specificities, defending communities from the invasion of foreign, dangerous elements that can dilute their essence and spirit” (151-152).

In the last section entitled “Neither Here nor There,” Parasecoli starts by discussing how immigrants inevitably bring their foods with them; when they are accepted in the new community, this can alternatively be framed as appropriation (think kebab and couscous in Europe) or successful immigrant assimilation. Despite extensive examples of immigrant foods’ acceptance in host societies, Parasecoli also notes that the “food cultures of immigrants are among the bogeyman that exclusionary gastronativism most frequently exploits” (158). Because food is so omnipresent, it is a frequent target for “chauvinistic movements” (159). Yet the flip side of the coin, associated with non-exclusionary gastronativism, is that familiarity with immigrant foods can be a sign of cosmopolitanism, highlighting the contrast that “these attitudes embody the very essence of the globalism that exclusionary gastronativism decries, especially when practiced by urban, educated elites” (160). From the migrants’ perspective, food is a way to create a sense of place and identity, and also a way to connect with the new community through the food business.

Parasecoli closes this section with a chapter on “Contagions,” which has a timely mention of COVID-19 and its origins in the wet market in Wuhan, China. This “provided fertile terrain for gastronativist arguments to develop [because] metaphors of pathogens and infection, vaccination and defense are particularly powerful” (174). This section concludes with musings on metaphors of migrants as infections and parasites by questioning, “What if we actually need parasites to thrive? What if our health depended on contacts and exchanges with what is foreign to us or among distinctive elements coexisting inside us?” (186), thus revealing Parasecoli’s attitudes towards gastronativism, which have become increasingly clear throughout the book.

The conclusion aptly notes that, “the debates and controversies that surround it [food] are rarely just about what and how we eat” (187), reiterating his position that food an interesting crucible for gaining an understanding of political power dynamics on both the local and global scales. In his conclusion, he takes a stance against exclusionary gastronativism because it “favors the restriction of the rights of minorities through the unbridled rule of a majority or of a minority claiming to be the true soul of a community” (190). He then offers a series of solutions to counter exclusionary gastronativism, such as sharing food preparation and eating, using food as a medium for intercultural communication, and food education at schools.

One of the strengths of Parasecoli’s far-ranging book is its ability to tie together seemingly disparate food-related phenomena into a coherent pattern through a wealth of examples. Indeed, for every point he makes, he cites multiple examples. Given the brief length of the book, he is unable to delve into them in great detail, making the text both accessible to a lay readership while also suggesting a wealth of specific cases of gastronativism for future scholars to research. Furthermore, although he takes a clear stance at the end, Parasecoli is nonetheless careful to critique both sides of the exclusionary/nonexclusionary equation. For example, he calls out nonexclusionary gastronativism for its lack of a global vision of the food system and its elitism, specifically for the contradiction of cosmopolitan foodies enjoying fresh farmers’ market produce while enjoying “the pastoral fantasy of the family farm, overlooking the role immigrant workers play in growing their favorite heirloom tomatoes or tending to the goats that produce milk for their cheese” (160). In short, this book is a fascinating and insightful overview into how “debates about food are rarely just about food” (5) which suggests a rich set of cases deserving of further exploration.

References cited:

Anderson, L. (2013). Cooking up the nation: Spanish culinary texts and culinary nationalization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tamesis.

Black, R.E. and Ulin, R.C. (2013). Wine and culture: Vineyard to glass. Bloomsbury Academic.

Brulotte, R.L., & Di Giovine, M.A. (2014). Edible identities: Food as cultural heritage. Ashgate.

Ceisel, C.M. (2013). “El Sabor de Galicia: Wine as Performance in Galicia Spain,” in Black, R.E. and Ulin, R.C. Wine and culture: Vineyard to glass. Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 125-144.

Davidson. R.A. (2007). Terroir and Catalonia. Journal of Catalan Studies 1(1): 39-53.

DeSoucey, M. (2010). Gastronationalism: Food traditions and authenticity politics in the European Union. American Sociological Review 75(3): 432-455.

Dichter, Heather. (2020). Soccer diplomacy: International relations and football since 1914. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Helstosky, C. (2004). Garlic and oil: Politics and food in Italy (English ed.). Berg.

Ichijo, A., & Ranta, R. (2016). Food, national identity and nationalism: From everyday to global politics. Palgrave Macmillan.

Ichijo, A., Johannes, V., & Ranta, R. (2019). The emergence of national food: The dynamics of food and nationalism. Bloomsbury Academic, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Johannes, Venetia. 2020. Nourishing the Nation: Food as national identity in Catalonia. Berghahn Books.

Lourenço, L. and Rebelo, J. (2006). Cultural heritage policy: The Alto Douro Wine region – World Heritage site. Is there an argument for reinforcing the role of the state? PASOS. Revista de Turismo y Patrimonio Cultural 4(3): 421-428.

Mintz, S.W. (1996). Tasting food, tasting freedom. New York: Basic Books.

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