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Review: Taste, Politics and Identities in Mexican Food

Media of Taste, Politics, and Identities in Mexican Food

Taste, Politics, and Identities in Mexican Food, Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz, ed., Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 240 pp. ISBN # 9781350066670

Emily Ramsey (University of Georgia)

Is there such a thing as “Mexican cuisine and taste?” As the essays in the volume compiled by Stefan Igor Ayora-Diaz argue, this is an eminently political question because it belies an undergirding assumption that unity exists at a national level. This assumed unity masks any temporal, spatial, social, economic, and ecological differences among cuisines and dishes labeled collectively as “Mexican” while ignoring the hybridity that thrives at local and regional levels. To probe more deeply into what constitutes “Mexican cuisine” in its breadth, Ayora-Diaz and the collection’s authors delve theoretically into the concepts of taste and flavor, emphasizing that, while fundamentally biological in nature, “nonlineal, complex sociocultural and political processes…shape how people simultaneously develop shared and differing experiences of taste in food” (2). These experiences are equally subjective and intersubjective, deriving from memory, emotions, commensality, and perceptions of identity and difference, affirming identities at local, translocal, ethnic, regional, and national levels. Taste in this volume has a distinctly Bourdieuian (1984) flavor: since taste is a social marker it thus becomes a political matter. The politics of taste gain new meaning with UNESCO’s 2010 declaration of Mexican cuisine as intangible cultural heritage, fostering “traditional” recipes and methods of preservation while complicating the landscape of regional cuisines in the Yucatán, Oaxaca, and beyond. Consequently, the volume’s authors attempt to explore how taste is negotiated amidst complex processes of cultural identity in light of history, memory, social class, and global processes.

The volume is divided into three sections, each with four essays. Importantly, it eschews an exclusively contemporary look at Mexican cuisine and taste, with several essays integrating historical texts, archival records, and archaeological evidence to present or reconstruct the evolution of Mexican cuisines. Although several essays are Yucatán- and Oaxaca-focused, the book also adopts a relatively broad geographic approach to “Mexican cuisine,” looking not only within national borders but to places where Mexicans or Mexican cuisine reside outside. It does so by looking to how certain ingredients and culinary styles have become instrumental in local, regional, and national identities, pushing us to consider the limitations and effects of discourses that promote a singular, often homogenizing, national cuisine.

Part I focuses explicitly on cuisines of the past. The first chapter, by Lilia Fernández Souza, attempts to develop a framework for doing “tasteful archaeology.” To do so, she draws on work by Sutton (2010), Stoller and Olkes (1989), and others on the foundational importance of multisensorial, sensual experiences and Hamilakis’ (2011) work on sensory experiences’ material grounding to argue that archaeology can reconstruct past flavors, textures, and aromas through material remains. As such, Souza reviews common ingredients in the Maya pre-Columbian archaeological record, considering the flavors and textures these would have contributed, and, in the absence of recipes, the effects of preparation and cooking techniques. Consequently, attention to such material traces opens the door to “multisensorial experiences of the human past” (32). The second article, by Sarah Bak-Geller Corona examines how calls to formalize and institutionalize culinary knowledge in early 19th century parallel wider processes of political reconfiguration promoting “republican principles of rationality, egalitarianism, and the common good” (37). She reviews these threads in the writings of Tepalcate, a parish priest who—viewing culinary science as demanding high levels of qualification and expertise—called for the creation of dictionary of cuisine for aspiring chefs, methods for grooming these chefs, and a code of cuisine establishing culinary rules and criteria. Cookbooks of the time perform similar republicanizing moves, maintaining that dining tables reinforce critical social ties to promote civility and civilization. Some 19th century authors, however, push back, nostalgic for past customs, simpler foods, and traditional preparation methods in light of new standardizing technologies like the corn mill.

Héctor Hernández Álvarez and Guadalupe Cámara Gutiérrez archaeologically examine the alcohol consumption patterns of the elite and poor at an early 20th century Yucatecan hacienda, focusing on the exclusionary mechanism alcohol played among social classes. They argue that the presence of whole and fragmented glass bottles from imported wines, beers, tonics, and liquors reflects the consumptive habits of the estate’s elite owners and guests; however, the presence of these bottles in the workers’ solares marks their reuse for containing aguardiente, a sugar cane-based alcohol traditionally drunk by indigenous populations. Álvarez and Gutiérrez argue that these bottles were refilled with the aguardiente produced and sold on-site to hacienda workers, a claim corroborated by hacienda workers’ descendants. In the last essay of this section, Mario Fernández-Zarza and Ignacio López-Moreno discuss the critical role of corn as a superfood in Mexican cuisine. Flavor is a sociocultural construction and corn’s countless flavors, they argue, result from a complex confluence of corn’s evolution driven by farmer cultivation and selection, its preparation, consumptive form, and especially its cultural significance. However, as the food industry increasingly reshapes tastes through processed foods and policies that have led to the abandonment of agricultural lands and the adoption of hybrid and transgenic corn varieties, corn’s diversity of flavors is more and more at risk.

Part II shifts from a more historical orientation to a look at the identities and politics—and the politics of identity—in Mexican foods. Ronda Brulotte’s chapter on the politics and practices of mezcal connoisseurship traces how this once low-status liquor became prestigious nationally and internationally. This prestige, Brulotte argues, arises from complex inter-discursive processes. Oaxaca’s depiction as an off-the-beaten-path site of authentic craft industries, mezcal’s portrayal as a liquor requiring education and refinement for true appreciation, and elaborate bottle labels that detail its terroir­ and production details collectively add value and status to the liquor. This, in turn, has opened new markets and helped transform Oaxaca into a trendy destination for craft food and drink consumption. The second essay, by Stefan Igor Ayora-Diaz, argues that the Yucatán’s historically strong regional cuisine and identity are rapidly evolving as the demography of the region transforms. This expanding and fragmenting translocal foodscape is actively shaping Yucatecan consumers’ tastes, making some more open to experimentation in restaurants when novelty was previously only valued in the home. The multiplicity of cuisines to which they are exposed mean Yucatecans are less able to use preferences for traditional foods to assert their identification with ethnic, local, or regional identities; rather, they must now compare these preferences to the breadth of cuisines extant at that moment.

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina explores “the life delicious” in Mérida, Yucatán, portraying how food-centered events and celebrations structure the year and contribute to a life well-lived. Whether during February’s Mardi Gras festivities, spring and summer school vacations, Day of the Dead celebrations, or Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, families structure their lives around socializing with good food among friends and relatives. Drawing on Korsmeyer (1999) and Bourdieu (1984), she argues that food, music, laughter, and the sounds of the countryside and sea are fundamental to building community and establishing the good life for all Yucatecans, even if social classes participate differentially and separately in the good life. In the last essay of this section, Jeffrey Cohen and Paulette Kershenovich Schuster explore the multiple roles that chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers, have come to occupy for rural Oaxacans, urban Oaxacans, and the region’s more adventuresome tourists. For rural Oaxacans, chapulines are a food of last resort and means of survival amidst food insecurity, while for urban Oaxacans, they increasingly reflect the state’s indigenous heritage and have become steeped in nostalgia for a bucolic past. For tourists, chapulines often represent a challenge, portrayed as nutritionally valuable by restauranteurs to entice health-conscious consumers. Because of taste’s biological and cultural dimensions, the authors assert that chapulines reflect how taste preferences change yet simultaneously expose social stratification.

The final section of this volume treats Mexican food in a broader global context. Ramona Pérez’s chapter examines the role of flavor in Oaxacan foods cooked in lead-glazed ceramic cookware. Oaxacan cuisine’s unique flavor profile, she argues, is an amalgamation of the region’s many microclimates, edible herbs used, distinctive combination of ingredients. and especially the cookware in which dishes are made. This cookware imparts inimitable flavors that, despite attempts, her team was unable replicate for local Oaxaqueños using nonceramic instruments. For displaced Oaxaqueños living outside the region, this flavor becomes critical. Longing amidst displacement generates nostalgia for local ingredients and flavors, and although many are aware of the lead poisoning threat, they have the lead-glazed ceramics shipped to them for special occasions to maintain tastes of the past. Jeffrey Pilcher examines the evolution of beer taste and preferences in Mexico in light of the larger global market. Pulque, a drink fermented from the sap of the maguey plant, has a long history dating to preclassical Tenochtitlan, but became associated first with indigenous and later working-class backwardness by Spanish and then Mexican elites. In the 19th century, beer in Mexico increasingly became associated with modernity, taking cues from available imported European varieties. Yet by the 20th century, Corona had established a regional, national, and later international presence, especially in the United States. Since UNESCO’s declaration of Mexican cuisine as intangible cultural heritage, pulque production, once almost gone, has resurged amidst a growing craft beer industry in Mexico City, recently also spreading to New York and Chicago.

In the section’s third essay, Paulette Kershenovich Schuster examines the culinary preferences of Jewish Mexicans living in Israel, arguing that food and commensality helps them retain links to Mexico while maintaining a core part of their identity. First comparing the flavors and ingredients characterizing a Mexican diet versus an Israeli diet, she notes that Tex-Mex dishes have only recently begun to make their way into the Israeli mainstream. Traditionally Mexican dishes are often met with some uncertainty and confusion among Israelis, and thus Mexican restaurants adapt dishes to suit the Israeli palate. In their homes and social gatherings, however, Jewish Mexicans in Israel use food to anchor themselves to the past, teach their children about their heritage, and reinforce group membership through commensality. Consequently, food reflects both self-identification and cultural pride. In the last essay, Christine Vassallo-Oby explores culinary tourism in Cozumel, arguing that cruise line arrangements with and promotion of pre-vetted businesses results in sanitized tastes for most visitors. This sanitized model reaches its epitome with Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, which “builds a fantasy of paradise” (194) while it offers tourists a safe place to engage in “controlled debauchery” (196). This contrasts with a walking tour of local food venues offered by one U.S. expat, a tour that tends to attract a qualitatively different kind of tourist. The personal connections of the walking food tour thus counter the landscape of “Fordist mass tourism” generated by Cozumel’s corporatization (201).

Taken separately and as a whole, the volume’s chapters function well to disturb the idea of Mexican cuisine as unitary, or even as a concept altogether. I agree with Richard Wilk in the volume’s postface that national cuisines from a distance look very different, or even unrecognizable, to those from within, but that “the question of authenticity is really beyond the point” (208). As Wilk argues, understanding what motivates the different forms of authentication—including the need to “brand” national cuisines as forms of cultural heritage—is often as critical as is asking where the boundaries lie in defining not just what foods belong but how to characterize attendant social and culinary practices. The book, thus, does an effective job in pushing readers to consider food and tastes across multiple time scales and territorial distributions, recognizing that “these cuisines are actually in perpetual motion, with new dishes, spices, and combinations being absorbed and other things being exported abroad” (211). Each chapter does so in a broadly accessible way, engaging with theory but grounding its arguments in concrete examples. I thus find it appropriate for anywhere from upper-level undergraduates to graduate students and other academic professionals engaged in food studies.

 

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. R. Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hamilakis, Yannis. 2011. “Archaeology of the Senses.” In T. Insoll, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, 208-244. New York: Oxford University Press.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Stoller, Paul and Cheryl Oakes. 1989. “The Taste of Ethnographic Things.” In The Taste of Ethnographic Thing: The Senses in Anthropology, 336-352. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sutton, David. 2010. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology 39(1): 209-223.

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Review: Introducing the Study of Food and Eating AND Food Studies

Media of Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating                 Media of Food Studies

Murcott, Anne. Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. 223 pp. ISBN 978-1-3500-2201-0

Zhen, Willa. Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. 212 pp. ISBN 978-1-4742-9871-1

Sarah Quick, (Cottey College)

As someone who has been regularly teaching a Food and Culture course for the past few years, finding new resources for such a course is always beneficial. Of late, I have not been relying on any one text (or edited volume) but pulling together chapters and articles from various sources to cover the usual topics—race, class, and  gender; what constitutes a meal in different social and cultural contexts, restaurants, globalization, etc. While I have moved away from one text structuring readings and course topics, either of these accessible books could serve in this capacity. Nevertheless, instructors would likely want to supplement them; and since the written narrative for both is under 200 pages and very reasonably priced (around $25), these works could easily be paired with an ethnography, or additional readings. However, pairing together at least in total would likely not be the most ideal option since there’s considerable overlap between the two.

Zhen’s Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide introduces and engages with food studies as an interdisciplinary field while it also emphasizes anthropological topics and sources; it offers six full chapters capped by a short introduction and epilogue followed by a glossary. Murcott’s Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating, not surprisingly, takes a sociological perspective albeit recognizing anthropology and cultural geography as the most overlapping and/or influential in the issues she explores. It contains a longer introduction and eleven full chapters before a short concluding chapter.

Both books delve into the analysis of meals as social constructions (albeit Zhen is much more expansive in her cultural coverage) as well as what the food system means to analysts. They also cover issues of race, class, gender, food waste, and globalization. They diverge in that Zhen provides a much more expansive (evolutionary) history for considering humans as producers, consumers, and innovators when it comes to food technology. Murcott, on the other hand, provides much more coverage on food in relation to public spaces (restaurants and more) and institutions like hospitals and schools.

Both books provide consistent formatting or structure across the chapters. Zhen’s chapters provide an introduction or overview, several sub-sections, occasional figures, and boxes—either “Food for thought” boxes that expand on a particular issue or “Activity” boxes that may be enacted by students individually or in groups—capped off with a summary, discussion questions, further resources, end notes, and further readings. After the introduction, Murcott’s chapters are framed by a commonly understood problem (or headline) when it comes to food and our society. For example, chapter two “Food at Home: ‘the family meal in decline?”’ takes on the ideologies attached to ‘the family meal’ and its so-called decline. Each chapter also has several subsections as well as boxes that cover specific issues, often methodological. At the end there’s a final box that serves as a summary of key points in the chapter. Murcott’s endnotes appear at the back of the book.

I asked an undergraduate student worker to read through a couple chapters in each book over the summer to garner her reactions. She found the narrative flow of Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide to be a little to choppy at times because of all the added boxes, while the boxes in Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating were a little less jarring to her reading flow. Nevertheless, she appreciated the price and reading accessibility of both books, and she seemed to refer back to topics in the Zhen book more so in our subsequent conversations. As an instructor, I actually really value the boxes that Zhen provides since they offer so much fodder for class activities, discussions, or assignments. All in all, for such short introductory books, both of these books pack a lot into their coverage in an engaging fashion.

 

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Review: Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Media of Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism. Beth A. Dixon. Bloomsbury Academic. 2018 ISBN #9781350054561. 192 pp.
Megan B. Hinrichsen (Monmouth College)

In Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism, Beth A. Dixon explores the paradoxes of our contemporary food system through the stories told about hunger and scarcity contradictorily coexisting with stories told about rising rates of morbid obesity. Her book covers the narratives constructing the collective understandings of contemporary food system and societal injustices that interest those studying the anthropology of food: food insecurity, the “voluntary” migration and naturalized oppression of farmworkers, and obesity. Each of these topics not only has a clear connection to food and the food system but is tied together through master narratives related to personal responsibility. Food justice narratives can undermine the power of these master narratives by positioning “us to make more accurate and nuanced appraisals of moral responsibility” about individuals who struggle with problems related to food injustices (113). Throughout the book, Dixon demonstrates how philosophical and ethical reasoning are activities that are deeply connected to everyday lives. Readers learn how we – philosophers and “ethical novices,” anthropologists or those in other fields, students and professors, experts and non-experts alike – can use the tools of ethical awareness to shape our knowledge of food justice and inform our activism.

Dixon’s goals for this work are clearly lined out. She presents case studies of food insecurity, farmworkers and farm labor, and obesity as representations of a narrative methodology informed by the concept of ethical perception. Ethical perception is an idea borrowed from Aristotle (and others) that conveys that ethical expertise has to be obtained in a developmental process, incrementally. Therefore, Dixon proposes that realistic narratives about our food system can guide readers to ethical conclusions that orient them towards activism. A compelling and precise food justice narrative “profiles individual people, social groups, or communities that suffer injustice and aims to make visible why we should classify their circumstances as unjust” (2). These are stories that are increasingly familiar. These stories tell us about who is hungry and why they go hungry. These are stories about our roles as consumers in an increasingly complex and hidden food system. There are stories about who is planting, picking, processing, and selling our food. There are also stories about the consumption of food and when it becomes problematic and marked as unhealthy. Dixon argues that the analysis of food justice narratives should position us to identify structural conditions that lead to some of these injustices. Dixon views these food justice narratives as “counterstories that correct the way in which master narrative implicitly disguise the identities and background circumstances of those who seek to nourish themselves” (9). Master narratives about the food system in the United States, according to Dixon, place an excessive burden on the individual person to bear responsibility for their position in society. She recommends that we adjust our “ethical lens” to focus on structural injustice and oppression that constrain people’s choices (10). The consideration of structural inequalities has been central in anthropology for decades, yet it remains an essential concept as we consider how people’s choices are constrained and opportunities are limited for individuals and groups of people in a variety of contexts.

We anthropologists and students of anthropology may be some of the ethical novices (defined as people who are developing ethical expertise on a topic) who can work to develop food justice narratives as counterstories that resist master narratives. Dixon argues that learning to “see food justice is part of a more general strategy for acquiring ethical expertise” (41). Dixon provides almost step-by-step instructions for how to develop narrative skill in the book’s second chapter. In one of the personal vignettes used to open and close the book’s chapters, Dixon describes working at a food pantry called Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard (MHC). In this section, the author herself explains how she began to acquire ethical perception as she volunteered at MHC and had to navigate the uncomfortableness of the situation of knowing a person using the food pantry and wanting to hide to prevent embarrassment for her acquaintance. Dixon described the situation, writing that “food insecurity is taking shape for me in a concrete way – individual people with faces and names, in a variety of circumstances, and with particular stories to tell about what they need to stand in line at the MHC food pantry” (59). Anthropologists accomplish a similar goal though applied research and through our teaching.

This book is especially beneficial for those of us who teach anthropology and food justice and want to develop the ability to see the structural conditions of society that create situations of food injustice without losing sight of the particular stories and circumstances of people who suffer these injustices. Dixon includes examples of constructive and destructive stories that can either disrupt master narratives or work to sustain them in our collective imaginations, respectively. Stories that attempt to show us “the faces of hunger” often represent a “complex tangle of moral concepts about accidental bad luck, personal responsibility, deservingness, and justice” can contribute a damaging master narrative about food insecurity as an individual character deficit or personal misfortune (61). People in the narratives are often cast as archetypes like the “pathetic victim” worthy of our sympathy or the “heroic victim” who is worthy of our praise for overcoming obstacles (66). These narratives create a high standard of “moral innocence and deservingness” that would be difficult for most people to meet (74). Anthropologists, philosophers, students, non-profit leaders, social workers, volunteers, and other professionals need to consider how the stories they tell either contribute to false master narratives or help situate the experience of food injustice in the context of systemic injustices that have generated and perpetuated experiences of poverty and inequality.

But how can we work to make sure our stories address these broader structural issues? Dixon answers this question throughout the second half of the book beginning with Chapter 4, entitled “Rewriting the Call to Charity.” This chapter argues that food justice narratives need to profile people who are food insecure and include descriptions of “social, political, and economic background” conditions (77). Using accessible and academic examples of good food justice narratives like the documentary A Place at the Table (Silverbursh and Jacobson 2013) and the ethnography Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (Holmes 2013), Dixon demonstrates that good food justice narratives resist damaging master narratives and allow those that see them to identify the conditions that disadvantage certain populations of people. In these situations, food injustices are not accidents that befall people nor are they somehow justifiable due to a moral failing. Food injustices become social problems, not an individual misfortune or fault. Finally, an effective food justice narrative inspires “ordinary citizens to undertake individual or collective action on behalf of food justice by shaping our moral imaginations about what is possible” (89).

The food injustice issues that Dixon addresses are all situations in which we can find moral fault and suggest easy answers and simple solutions. The strength of this book is that Dixon not only explains what food justice narratives and narrative ethics are, she also explains why and how they should be developed to be accurate representations of people’s experiences within social structures and to motivate people to act. This is primarily a book about skill development, so it is especially relevant for educators and practitioners who want to educate about these issues and change the status quo. It would be a useful book for advanced students, researchers, practitioners, and academics interested in food justice issues in fields like philosophy and religious studies, anthropology, sociology, communication studies, and media studies. The creation, use, and understanding of food justice narratives should ultimately, according to Dixon, create a drive for more sustainable change rather than a call to charity alone. Though not specifically about anthropology, this book could be a valuable tool for anthropologists and social scientists who want to know more about narratives and ethics and how we can incorporate these ideas to refine our work. We, too, are storytellers. We tell stories in our classrooms, in our presentations, and in our written work about the people with whom we work. Food Justice and Narrative Ethics is a good reminder for us consider how we present these stories and who these stories serve. We should strive to write, tell, and pass on stories that aim towards increasing ethical awareness and food justice activism.

 

Bibliography

Holmes, Seth M. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Silverbrush, Lori and Kristi Jacobson, dirs. 2013. A Place at the Table. New York: Magnolia Pictures. DVD.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food activism, food education, food pantries, food systems, hunger, obesity

Review: The Way We Eat Now

The Way We Eat Now

Bee Wilson The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution has Transformed our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World.  Basic Books. New York. 2019. ISBN 978046509377

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Bee Wilson’s central message in The Way We Eat Now is that since most of the industrialized world now has enough food to eat, it can change its eating and cooking patterns to prevent health risks, particularly diabetes and obesity. She offers a comprehensive solution: eat more tasty vegetables, more complex starches, less meat, snack less food, eat less food overall and on smaller plates and drink alcohol in smaller glasses. And eat with other people as much as possible. A food historian and writer based in England, Wilson discusses these “modest proposals” in a lively and readable fashion for the average reader. She uses research drawn from experts in various fields, supplemented by interviews with other people and recollections from her past. Her analyses are multi-faceted, comprehensive, and provocative enough to encourage more discussion and research among anthropologists and other social scientists interested in all aspects of food.

We are in the fifth stage of food, Wilson argues, one where the average person has not only enough food but an overwhelming array of foods from which to choose. She notes that mega- supermarkets may contain up to fifty thousand items (p.201.) So many overwhelming choices that competing less-choice alternatives such as Trader Joe’s still offer four thousand items (p.210.) Moreover, many of the choices that the shopper confronts in the supermarket, Wilson argues, are filled with sugar and carbohydrates, dangerous nutrients that promote weight related issues in children and adults: “…billions of people across the globe are simultaneously overfed and undernourished: rich in calories but poor in nutrients [sic.](p.5.)” As she notes and as others have noted, there is an increasing risk of Type II diabetes because of these eating patterns (see, for example, https://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/66/6/1432

This all happened in the period since the end of WWII, in part inspired by Norman Borlaug’s “miracle wheat” (Wilson’s term) and “modern farm methods”, which allowed more people world-wide to be fed (p.3.) More food was more available–but at a nutrient and taste price. As with other food writers, Wilson also notes that as people became more “modern,” more attuned to international trendy food consumption patterns, they became more obese and more malnourished (see her comments on South Africa as one example: (pp.13-15.)        Furthermore, major international corporations used this opportunity to promote more sugary, starchy, and salty foods. Children are socialized to begin their consumption of these foods, often starting with cartoon characters on the cereal boxes. Chile, as Wilson notes, banned the use of cartoons in 2016 so as to stop what they saw as a slide to obesity (p.269.)

Wilson contends that many changes in food choices and in how we consume those food choices promote obesity and Type II diabetes. Many people snack more (p. 143, et seq),   and the snacks they eat are often salty high calorie and without much nutrient value. Parade Magazine, a color Sunday supplement available in American newspapers, ran the recipes for three “Slam Dunk Snacks” served in National Basketball Arenas in the country: Cheetos popcorn, Chicharonnes [Fried Pork Belly or Rinds] Nachos. and Crab Fries with Cheese Sauce, (Ashton 2019:14.) The article also featured a website for more “game-day snacks. (ibid.)”

Furthermore, many people have replaced regular meals with snacks (p.143 et seq.) They eat high calorie energy and/or granola bars. And they no longer sit down to a regular meal with family or friends, In Chapter 4, “Out of Time,” Wilson laments the loss of family and group meals and notes how many people squeeze in eating. Within two generations in this new world, people have gone from families eating the same foods to each person eating on her or his own schedule whatever she or he wants. The eating patterns and rituals that served to promote social solidarity have disappeared.

One snack example is instant noodles (ramen.) Wilson notes that despite their variety, they basically have the same ingredients –wheat, salt, and vegetable oil (pp.81-2.) As Han has noted, people in South Korea, especially children, often just eat the dry spices of the noodle packages and eat them alone, and they get them in convenience stores ( 2018:102.)

Of particular interest are some of the points Wilson makes about obesity. India has a diabetic epidemic. People there have experienced a speedup of time to becoming undernourished–within a single generation. Best put it in her words: “…[the thin-fat] babies grew inside their malnourished mothers with phenotypes for hunger but–thanks to the huge changes in India’s food supply between the 1970’s and the 1990s-found themselves eating an unexpectedly plentiful diet (p.57.)”

Similarly, people consume beverages that are filled with calories, often with no other food value. They may be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. They may be milkshakes or huge cafe lattes. Unlike food, these beverages do not satisfy any hunger. Wilson notes that in some countries, such as Mexico, bottled drinks are necessary because of the uncertain water supply. But “[w]ith certain exceptions, our bodies simply do not register the calories from liquids in the same way that we do with solid food (p.64.)”

As noted in the beginning, Wilson does offer both hope and concrete solutions to the problems of obesity and malnourishment. We should eat less meat, more vegetables, less or no sugar, drink more water, and eat more foods from a “traditional” past when possible. We should use smaller plates and glasses. We should eat more communally and snack less. And we should take the time to enjoy our foods. Her final chapter: Epilogue: New Food on Old Plates, sums it up best: “Try to relish a range of tastes that go beyond sweetness…Come to your senses (p.306.)”

This book is useful for undergraduates who would benefit from a comprehensive view of changes in world eating patterns. It is particularly useful for graduate students in anthropology, sociology, economics, nutrition studies, and public health, for the same reasons and for ideas for future research in all aspects of food and nutrition.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

2019

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068646/ Accessed Nov. 5, 2019

2019

https://clindiabetesendo.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40842-016-0039-3 Accessed Nov. 5, 2019

 2019

Alison Ashton. What America Eats: Slam Dunk Snacks. Parade Magazine. Oct. 20.:14.

2018

Kyung-Koo Han. Noodle Odyssey–East Asia and Beyond. in Kwang Ok Kim, ed. Reorienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Berghahn Books. New York. 91-107.

 

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Filed under anthropology, diabetes, food and health, food education

Review: The Other Milk

The Other Milk

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-295-74403-2. 276 pp.

Juliet Tempest (SOAS, University of London)

Ambivalent Modernities

An historian by training, Jia-Chen Fu retells the story of soy in China—an account otherwise taken for granted. We may have been correct that soybeans enjoy a long presence in the region, but their forms and meanings in Chinese diet(s) have evolved over time. Fortified soybean milk became popular only following the efforts of Republican-era scientists, social workers, and producers, whom Fu calls “nutrition activists.” More than a readily digestible history of soybean milk, or doujiang—itself indigestible prior to the advent of modern processing technology—The Other Milk presents a case study on the drink as a modern, science- and nation-building enterprise for these nutrition activists. In so doing, it seeks, and, I would say, succeeds, to problematize narratives of Western science’s inevitable naturalization in China by revealing the context-specific development of Chinese nutrition science amidst dialogue with research abroad.

Propagation of soybean milk during the 1930s and 1940s as “traditional, modern, and scientific” epitomized this process, according to Fu (2018, 5). Nutrition activists employed scientific discourse to mobilize the materiality of such protein-rich “milk” to strengthen the population, as dairy was perceived to have done for the West. The author concludes that Chinese activists constructed the problem of population health in such a way so as to necessitate soybean milk as the solution, particularly in refugee aid projects. Yet the question of whether this discourse actually reached consumer-citizens on the ground, especially outside a Shanghai milieu, remains open. The Other Milk is thus a well-constructed and written resource on the biopolitics of soy and the epistemology of nutrition science for this period in China, even if it does not capture how the target demographic actually interpreted soybean milk messaging.

Bookended by an introduction and epilogue, each of the seven chapters builds towards Fu’s thesis—of an aspirational Chinese modernity as expressed in a homegrown nutrition science supporting consumption of soybean milk—by addressing an assumption underpinning it. Following the introduction, the book begins with anticipating the question of soy’s modern status through depicting the transformation of the Chinese soybean industry (Chapter 1). Such a development occurred in the wake of Western and Japanese economic growth and military defeats around the turn of the twentieth century, which Fu highlights to establish the latter’s national imperative to modernize, a project that manifested in both the development of domestic nutrition research and its application to “improving” individual bodies, thus the nation (Chapter 2). As for why diet became a site for intervention, Fu addresses this assumption just as nutrition activists did before: through portraying Chinese dietaries as the alleged key to unleashing the nation’s economic potential (Chapter 3). In extant diets, it was the lack of protein, especially animal-based, that compromised Chinese nutrition and bodies, which justified supplementation with “milk” (Chapter 4). Although preferable, cow’s milk was cost-prohibitive if not totally inaccessible for most, inspiring an alternative in fortified soybean milk marketed as a hybrid Western-Eastern product: a scientifically modernized version of traditional soy (Chapter 5).

The arguments of every chapter scaffold onto those preceding, with the exception of the fifth. There, Fu breaks away from discussing how nutrition activists conceived their object to analyze soybean milk advertisements. Fu explains this decision in terms of evaluating how producers theorized “the social” as a site of modernity negotiated for the public (111), but the link to nutrition activists discussed elsewhere remains tenuous. While soybean milk advertisers functioned as discourse-makers in addition to—and occasionally in cooperation with—nutrition researchers and aid workers, they did not operate in the same way or in the same field as these activists: in blending Daoist approaches to health with concerns about protein and hygienic manufacturing, the former treated biomedicine and Chinese medicine as “apparently complementary knowledge systems” (114) for the public; whereas the latter sought an epistemological break that would parallel and precipitate a new era of Chinese prowess that deprecated without vitiating earlier knowledge claims within the scientific community. Granted that such ambivalence characterized Chinese nutrition science in general and soybean milk advertisements in particular, this chapter implicitly shifts the scholarly gaze onto the public, about whose receptions to these communications and the products they advertised we can say little given the methodology.

I have interpreted this attitude among nutrition activists as characterizing their concept of “modernity,” this crux of Fu’s argument that is only ever defined indirectly, in relation to a “traditional,” “Chinese” identity. The equation of “traditional” and “Chinese” is in fact one assumption that Fu does not tackle head on, although the language nutrition activists employed substantiates this position. Similarly, Chinese society’s juxtaposition against the “modern” West remains implicit throughout The Other Milk, through references to “a polyphonic, hybrid modernity” that “combin[ed] elements from China and the West,” for example (110). On the other hand, that nutrition activists did not reject China’s capacity to become modern emerges from their choice of a soy product as the nation’s deliverance. Such complexity in their relationship to a modern, Chinese identity features within the tales of nutrition activists Fu tells. The lack of explicit definition of modernity, then, follows from Fu’s awareness of its situation in a unique context—that it is, indeed, a relative term. At risk of failing in the task that Fu smartly avoided, I take modernity in The Other Milk to mean nutrition activists’ aspiration for a stronger China in the future, modeled on the West’s and Japan’s perceived progress and so involving struggles with if and how to incorporate cultural aspects that have served as a source of national identity.

Compelling narratives about the work of individual nutrition activists culminate in a two-chapter discussion of Fu’s primary case: the efforts of the Refugee Children’s Committee to distribute soybean milk during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process promote a healthier, modern citizenry. Addressing why and how this aid organization focused on distributing soybean milk (Chapter 6) allows Fu to assert that technocrats like Nellie Lee and Hou Xiangchuan “situated nutrition as the crucial site for the dissemination of modern knowledge and values” (174; Chapter 7). Fu’s tone alternates between sympathy for and criticism of their sincere but misguided motivations, given the prevalence of hunger. The modern construction of hunger in Republican China paralleled developments abroad, where it also became quantified, hence solvable, in biomedical terms. The state’s historical obligation to feed the populace in times of famine (yangmin) consequently transformed into a responsibility to nourish, which nutrition activists like the medical researcher Wu Xian understood as seeking the “optimum” rather than the “minimum” (66). Consistent with denigration of Chinese diets for their “inadequacy” and backhanded compliments around their “potential to change” (179), that nutritional interventions were seen to offer the greatest return for economic growth continues as a mainstay in international development today (e.g. IFPRI 2016).

Such observations on cultivating modern subjects through self-governance recall the ever-growing literature on biopolitics in China. To wit, the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2010) has documented the intersection between individual fitness and population governance in state policies. Although Greenhalgh’s research principally concerns socialist and post-socialist China, the construction of inferior diets as a “social problem” (Fu 2018, 60) and the promotion of soybean milk as the scientific and obligatory solution prefigures more recent debates—that also sometimes err disturbingly on eugenicist rhetoric—about raising low “quality,” or “suzhi,” at both the individual and population levels.

Although Fu does not reference Greenhalgh, nor for that matter Foucault, the author makes excellent use of anthropological literature on colonial medicine and diets in China (to which Fu thanks Judith Farquhar for having introduced her). In particular, interrogation of the epistemological privilege granted “biomedical” nutrition science in China “owes much to the work of medical anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock” (220). Along with the historian Michael Worboys, these scholars demonstrated conflicting views on the comparability of foreign bodies and diets in medical research during the colonial era and since. Chinese nutrition activists seem to have variously and selectively appropriated these ideas for the purpose of recasting food, like soybean milk, as a mechanical input for nutrition. Fu can therefore argue that this ambivalence permitted the ontological flexibility requisite to domestication and exploitation of the science, to build a modern nation of citizens nourished scientifically with Chinese foods. Although undeniably a historical monograph, The Other Milk thus offers an example of how interdisciplinary research can tell a more complete version of the story.

Much still remains untold, however, particularly for this anthropologist-reviewer. For one, it is unclear to what extent Fu’s findings may be generalized outside of urban, coastal China, given how most Republican-era nutrition activists appear to have operated within Shanghai and its environs. To the extent these places served as a locus for building such scientific worlds, the focus of Fu’s study, the distinction may be moot. For another, Fu’s treatment of materiality alongside discourse, while admirable, nevertheless glosses over the sensory qualities of soy—and milk—and their effects on bodies, the site of these modernist aspirations and interventions. The book argues for soybean milk’s promotion as evidence of a uniquely Chinese nutrition science and identity, so then what of Chinese tastes? Fu alludes only once to taste as a criterion “distinct from economic supply and demand” (143), which must have played a role in soybean milk’s dissemination, particularly in comparison with cow’s milk; if it did not, that is something worth noting.

These critiques revolve around a desire for more information about how the public consumed soybean milk and ideas about it. As such, they are perhaps unfair, because addressing them was not Fu’s intention and would have required different kinds of data. Fu acknowledges this shortcoming: “it is not clear that nutrition science in early twentieth-century China achieved this same kind ideological hegemony over the ways in which Chinese people thought about food and eating [sic]” (9). The Other Milk is therefore an excellent resource for research on soy, vegetarianism, and scientist modernity in China, even if its authoritative scope should potentially be confined to urban areas of Republican China and to answering questions other than (albeit relevant to) the meanings consumers assigned to soybean milk. Notwithstanding these significant contributions, the methodological choices directing attention to elites’ discourse-creation in this process of nation-building—Fu’s subject—imply a specific directionality for the construction of modern Chinese identities, namely as top-down and not bottom-up.

The nutrition activists who constitute The Other Milk’s explicit concern are, indeed, often elites. They operate outside formal state organs, whose involvement in rice distribution makes the grain a more appropriate lens through which to study the state, Fu suggests (16; see also Ohnuki-Tierney [1993] on Japan). It is perhaps due to the state’s more tangential role with respect to soy that Fu does not adopt a Foucauldian framework to analyze—what I understand to be—the biopolitics of soybean milk; because Fu does not invoke the concept of biopolitics, it is therefore implicit to the author’s analysis as well as the activities of nutrition activists to which it refers. In this way, Fu’s treatment of soybean milk offers a novel approach to understanding how the discourse and resources of non-governmental organizations nonetheless intersected with state power: nutrition activists deployed scientific research, especially social surveys and controlled experiments, as the arbiter of truth to summon legitimacy for their interventions, which would improve the nation’s (nutritional) status.

It bears noting that these nutrition activists did engage with the state, however, just as Fu’s argument dialogues with the historian Mark Swislocki’s (2011) work on “nutritional governmentality” in late Imperial and Republican China. In fact, Fu situates the book as a response to a question that Swislocki posed elsewhere: “How did nutrition become ‘an authoritative idiom in China for understanding the relationship between food and health?’” (Swislocki 2001, in Fu 2018, 9). In providing “one answer,” Fu sets out to complement Swislocki’s excellent work on the Chinese state’s interest in improving nutrition. Though it begs the question of whether the choice to downplay the state’s role in The Other Milk is justified when Swislocki argues the opposite, albeit not for a specific food like soy. Besides researchers’ personal ambitions—to produce advanced science as much as belong to a modern nation (Fu 2018, 11)—it would seem important to consider the state’s influence on the development of a nutrition science, given the mutual imbrication of the public and private spheres in China that both Fu and Swislocki acknowledge.

Rather than nutrition science per se, The Other Milk is a book about ambivalent modernity. Not only were China’s nutrition activists navigating between two poles of scientific authority in the East and West, their strategies betray resistance to abandoning everything traditional for something modern. Fu suggests that “expediency” motivated the unique blend of considerations in the research, production, marketing, and distribution of soybean milk (181). To the extent we subscribe to Fu’s argument, which I do, it is important to reiterate that activists advocated soybean milk for nutrition not as a humanitarian end, but as a means of building up the nation, to vie with the West and Japan for “wealth and power” (121). Unfortunately, this discourse around China competing with the rest of the world possesses great salience today—at least from where I write in the US.

Lest we fall blindly into this ideological trap, let us end by paying attention to other constructive lessons from The Other Milk. The power of soybean milk—in terms of its nutritional discourse and materiality—testify to a long history of globalized trade in goods and ideas. Many of Republican China’s nutrition activists had trained in the US (Chapter 2). An increasing interest in consuming milk occurred almost simultaneously in the US and China; the Chinese did not always drink soybean milk, nor did Americans regularly consume cow’s milk before the twentieth century (Chapter 4). Just as “milk” had to become a part of modern diets, so too did soy emerge as a global commodity when China started exporting it to fill a 1908-1909 shortage of vegetable oils in Europe and North America (Chapter 1). Now China’s relationship to soy, once a famine food, has changed again, as production has shifted overseas and the population has grown wealthier, consuming more meat, at times imported from the US (Epilogue). We may thus all benefit from reflecting again on how ideas and practices we take for granted are historicized products of local and global trajectories. And given that industrialized foods are now pitted against “traditional” foodways in the opposite direction to what Republican-era Chinese nutrition activists imagined, perhaps we, too, ought to approach modernity with a bit more ambivalence.

Works Cited

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2010. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016. Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. Washington: IFPRI.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Swislocki, Mark. 2011. “Nutritional Governmenality: Food and he Politics of Health in Late Imperial and Republican China.” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 9-35. DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2010-024

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, public health

Review: Reconstructing Obesity

Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings

Megan B. McCullough and Jessica A. Hardin, eds. Reconstructing obesity: the meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings. Berghahn. New York, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-78533-028-5. 245 pp.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Megan McCullough and Jessica Hardin have compiled an excellent series of essays as to how different societies and professional groups define and evaluate obesity. Briefly, the writers of these essays, including the two editors themselves, make several points. First, measures of obesity are not standardized, nor are they reliably accurate. Second, people from different societies, for historical and contemporary reasons, do not define obesity as do many Western health professionals. Third, the implications of the aforementioned mis-measurement and varying definitions of obesity affect how people do or do not receive services and how they may come to think and feel about themselves regarding weight. Consequently, “erroneous measurement” and “stigmatization” may affect the health of individuals and groups of individuals. Lastly, an important strength of the book is that the literature on this subject is well-reviewed and ample.

McCullough and Hardin set the stage in their introduction, showing how cultural assumptions about health and obesity distort weight understanding and services provided. As with the other contributors, they deconstruct the cultural assumptions behind the characterization of obesity: “The underlying message from popular media and health studies argues that there are direct, easily identifiable links between obesity and ill health. (p.7.)” They conclude that “…[a]pproaches to obesity should expand the scope of health intervention, promotion, and intervention beyond the individual to engage deeply with culture to account for gendered dynamics, models of embodiment, histories, globalization, and a host of other factors. (p.17.)”

Part I concerns itself with the measurement of obesity.

Anne E. Becker details different “fatness” and “obesity” measures. These measures, she contends, are culture-bound to Western ideas of agency.. Weight loss programs, however, focus on what the person “should be.” Most important, and this is a recurrent theme throughout the book, health care professionals expect the “overweight” person to accept an overweight characterization and to address by herself prescribed “necessary” remedies to lose weight—often, despite cultural pressures to the contrary. (pp.31-2.) I specifically use “herself” here because more pressure is put on women than on men. As Becker and the other authors suggest, this way of proceeding generally causes failure to lose weight, with serious other consequences, both medical and psychological.

Emily Yates-Doerr reviews and critiques in detail the measures used by health professionals to characterize obesity. One example she offers is the use of the BMI. Yates-Doerr relates how public health professionals in Guatemala would subtract the weight of the outer garments the women wore from their measured weight. But they would vary in terms of how much they estimated those garments weighed (p. 52.) Consequently, the BMI measures can be seriously misleading. She concludes: “How are risk of morbidity and mortality determined; what remains unspoken and what concerns are not attended to by using weight as a key determinant of health? (p. 67.)”

Darlene McNaughton focuses on the relationship in terms of health programs between diabetes and obesity. She terms this focus “diabesity.” Drawing on feminist theory and other perspectives, she says: “Overweight and obese people are imagined either as diabetic or becoming diabetic. (p. 77)” McNaughton couples these perceptions with a generalized fat prejudice, particularly in countries like Australia—because “fat” is visible (pp.78-82.) “Fat” people thus are stigmatized and experience the consequences of that judgmental stigmatization.

Part 2 focuses on Histories of “Fat”

Hannah Garth looks at the history of food scarcity in Cuba after the Revolution . She cites a previous study by J. Alvarez from 2004: the Cuban government instituted a system of food rationing “…because of an increase in the need for food due to increased purchasing power and decreases in domestic food production resulting from the shift towards state ownership of farmland and food production enterprises (p. 90.)”   The collapse of the Soviet Union brought in the “Special Period,” where there was even less food than before. Many people remember when there was very little or no food. In the present, they feel insecure about the availability of food. Thus, any program that addresses dieting and obesity runs into difficulties because people resist changes to their food consumption and eating habits. As Garth notes about several of her informants, people eat when they find food available (p.98.)

Jessica Hardin explores obesity and disease in Western Samoa, analyzing how culture and cultural/religious contradictions affect obesity determination and health programs in the area. Western Samoa is often thought of as one of the most obese areas in the world.   In the past and in the present, many Samoans feasted at important family occasions, consuming large amounts of food. Moreover, higher status Samoans tended to eat more, and their size was a measure of their importance (p.110, et seq.) In addition, they tend to eat processed and fast food and other nutritionally deficient food. Trying to introduce dieting runs counter to this value and practice. Since many Samoans are Christians, many fast as part of their religious practice. They do so, however, in church, which contradicts family social practices and weakens family ties. Furthermore, fasting by itself is not necessarily healthy. Hardin concludes by saying that programs that focus only on a metric basis for health must be replaced by a more sophisticated understanding of the “…intersections of health and religious belief [are] critical domains for use in health interventions, but they may provide new ways for thinking about the multiple meanings o f health and alternative modes of measuring health. (p.125.)”

Part 3 Focuses on How Different Cultures Address “Fat”

Rochelle Rosen draws important lessons about caring for diabetes and obesity in American Samoa. To best address the two conditions, she contends that health practitioners must incorporate each society’s often multiple cultural understandings of both conditions. Otherwise, the focus is on the person or client’s individual agency and individual responsibility to change. In particular, she notes: “Where health is communal, interventions predicated on individual self-care may fail to help. (p.142.)” Anthropologists and behavioral scientists, she contends, should continue to elicit these behaviors from the “…emic perspective of the people who engage in them …(p.142.)” to be effective.

Sarah Trainer examines the ways in which modern women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) think about the categories of “fat” and “thin”, nutrition, their concerns about them, and how to address these concerns. Emirati women, she says, are concerned about being ” thin, but not skinny” , using a variety of weight loss aids and exercise (pp.152-156.)   But the focus is not always maintained and consistent. In one of her studies, she notes “…sedentary patterns…coupled with nutritionally poor diets among the participants (p.156.)” Continuing with the critique of using standardized measurements, such as BMI and body fat percentage data, she says that “…none of these possible threats to health, nor the verbally expressed stress of many young women, would be obvious…[from the aforementioned data.] (p.156.)” As a result, public health, she contends, is not getting better (p.162,), despite increased governmental surveillance–because women want to be thin, regardless of many of the consequences of doing so (p.162.)

Tracey Galloway and Tina Moffat explore the efficacy of school-based childhood obesity preventions in Canada. Many of these programs originated in the United States. They are largely behaviorist based, and often very strict. Children’s self-reports included the following: not being allowed to get up when eating, having to eat at one’s desk, and having food inspected and “unacceptable” items removed, to be returned at the end of the day (p.174.) Furthermore, girls and boys differed both in their perceptions of foods and the restrictions placed upon themselves.   Girls saw more restrictions on what they should and should not eat, while boys saw more restrictions on where they could move within the classroom (pp.174-5.) Galloway and Moffat go further: “…very few of the rules, restrictions, and rewards around food and beverage consumption in schools are related to nutrition or health…But it is surprising that these [positive] messages about food [issued by the Ontario Ministry of Education] are largely absent from the children’s perceptions of the rules and regulations governing their lunch and snack times (p. 178.”) They also note that children are rarely consulted in the design of programs. In addition, children’s privacy itself is invaded in the program process. Following the above genderization of food programs, they cite a previous study which shows that “…teachers socialize girls early into the idea that boys should be fed to satiety while girls should exercise restraint (p.183.)” Nevertheless, according to relatively recent research on school diets in Canadian schools, children are eating more healthy foods (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/examining-differences-in-school-hour-and-school-day-dietary-quality-among-canadian-children-between-2004-and-2015/EE852354AB74B07F23B88313348084AE/core-reader

Lisa Rubin and Jessica Joseph examine what it means to be “fat” or “thin” in the United States, among girls and women, and especially among African American women. Starting with the statistics on being overweight and obese, they note the result—a “war” on obesity (p.200.) The programs that have developed to address these issues focus on individual action and on “…biomedical intervention or surgery” (p.201.) This focus persists despite the evidence they cite from earlier researchers that suggests “…poverty, stress, and discrimination contribute significantly to the onset and maintenance of conditions often associated with obesity (p.201.)” Reviewing the literature on African American women, they note that these women saw that attempts to redress their weight and obesity issues were “…’part of an effort to diminish black [sic] womanhood.’ (p.209.)” They conclude that “…[m]ore research is needed to examine concerns about eating disorders, overweight, and obesity among Black women from their own perspective. Rather than one imposed by a dominant medical, or eating disorder establishment P. 211.)”

Megan McCullough starts off her essay this way: “I am a fat anthropologist and not an anthropologist who is fat. (p. 215.)” She then stated that if someone had seen her, that person would have decided that she was fat or obese (p.215.)   McCullough put out this preface because she will then take us through her experience with her pregnancy as she encountered the medical establishment’s treatment of her. She felt stigmatized, judged, misjudged, and shamed by medical personnel throughout. She quotes a nurse who said to her: “’I don’t have any extra large robes in here so you will have to make do with this and a sheet…’ (p.213.)” As a result of these experiences, and acknowledging that there are dangers in terms of obesity, McCullough raises larger questions: “ What kinds of care are obese African-American or Hispanic women receiving?   What about obese lesbian mothers? P.230.)”

Stephen McGarvey, in his Afterword, restates the central concern of these essays—mismeasurement, stigmatization, medicalization, focus on individual agency, and a failure to address historical and cultural circumstances. What he proposes is that attention must be paid to the effects all of these have on research, program, and treatment (pp.235-237.) The Afterword’s and the whole book’s focus on individual agency is itself of particular importance because ” A survey of more than three hundred international policy makers found that 90 percent of them still believe that personal motivation-a.k.a.–willpower–was a very strong cause of obesity. (Wilson 2019:21.)” McGarvey intends to have the issues he delineates addressed in a more sensitive and successful fashion.

As I have noted, the book is an important contribution to addressing what is a significant concern in the understanding of weight issues. I would like to address the issues raised from a somewhat different angle, hoping to add to future research, program, and treatment. In terms of my background, I am an anthropologist. I am also a psychologist. One of my specialties is that I assess clients who are going to get gastric bypass, laparoscopy, gastric band and gastric sleeve surgeries. The stated purpose of these surgeries is to enable a person who has had significant difficulties in losing weight to lose weight. These clients have tried diets, often to no avail. They are at risk for Type II diabetes and other medical problems, including heart conditions, etc. The purpose of the assessment is to make sure that the client has no underlying psychopathology or substance abuse that would prevent her or him from understanding the nature of the surgery and following the doctor’s post-operative orders.

My role is to assess, not say whether the surgery itself is indicated. Generally, the population I see for gastric bypass surgery is severely [ the preferred term] obese, even considering the issues of mismeasurement raised by many of the essay writers. The laparoscopy and other surgeries population is severely overweight, but not necessarily severely obese. Laparoscopy and the other mentioned surgeries is a less invasive surgical procedure, which is why it is used for this condition. All the patients I have seen have had difficulties with different diets. Approximately 70% have Type II diabetes. About 60% have either been molested or raped, equally across categories of their gender, sexual identity, or sexual preference.

The surgeries for severe obesity are often successful for reducing the presence and risk of Type II diabetes (see, for example, https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/Supplement_2/S361. The site offers a useful description of the measures used to determine severe obesity and the different types of surgeries considered.) The surgeries do entail risks, including rupture of the surgery area. The person must be careful in following all the post-operative instructions, including changing long-term eating patterns. Those receiving gastric bypass surgery can no longer drink carbonated beverages and must eat very small portions of food.

The physicians for whom I do the surgery assessments run support groups for their patients. Many of their patients have talked to family and friends who have had the surgery and they get ample visual and written material as well. As noted above, my “sample of clients” shows a high level of being sexually abused. Rarely have they gotten therapy for that abuse. I do recommend that they see a therapist. Depending on the circumstances, I may set this as a precondition of the surgery. My statistics may be slightly higher than other studies, as, for example:” Obesity rates were not different across groups in childhood or adolescence. By young adulthood (ages 20–27), abused female subjects were significantly more likely to be obese (42.25%) than were comparison female subjects (28.40%). Hierarchical linear modeling growth-trajectory analyses indicated that abused female subjects, on average, acquired body mass at a significantly steeper rate from childhood through young adulthood than did comparison female subjects after controlling for minority status and parity. (https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/1/e61?download=true.)” Other researchers have also seen the link between being sexually abused as a child and obesity, as, for example: https://www.obesityaction.org/community/article-library/sexual-abuse-and-obesity-whats-the-link/

There may be other co-occurring [the preferred term] conditions that may require stronger interventions than dieting and/or exercise. I also treat clients from Workers Compensation or with disabilities from non-work-related accidents. Many of them can no longer move easily and are often depressed as well. They often gain large amounts of weight, some moving into the category of severely obese. One client was hurt on the job so that he could not walk or move easily. Before the accident, ironically, he had the gastric bypass surgery, because he weighed 350 pounds. After the accident, he could barely move. Furthermore, his weight climbed to 450 pounds. He did not want to take medications and he did not want to come to therapy, either—even after the risks were explained to him. I offer details about these cases because I think the book should help further address how to best address populations with these kinds of issues.

Some of the essays specifically concern how weight issues affect African American women.      The American Psychological Association issued a report on ideas and changes that should be made concerning this population: https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/obesity.pdf

As the book recommends, more research should be done and greater sensitivity should be shown to this population and to similar ones as well (2014: 14.) Often, however, external factors, such as no place to exercise, family dysfunction for some, lack of money—cannot easily be addressed in programs.

In sum, this is an excellent, well-written book that is useful for anthropologists, public health and policy makers, and practitioners working in the field of obesity. It would also be useful for graduate students in these same areas.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

2019. Bee Wilson. The Way We Eat Now. Basic Books: New York.

https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/obesity.pdf 2014 (Accessed August 26, 2019.)

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/examining-differences-in-school-hour-and-school-day-dietary-quality-among-canadian-children-between-2004-and-2015/EE852354AB74B07F23B88313348084AE/core-reader 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019)

https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/Supplement_2/S361 2011(Accessed August 26, 2019

https://www.obesityaction.org/community/article-library/sexual-abuse-and-obesity-whats-the-link/ 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019)

https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/1/e61?download=true 2007(Accessed August 26, 2019)

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, diabetes, food and health, obesity

Thesis Review: Food in the Making

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A cook has shaped  a daily bread dough and is sprinkling semolina grains on top so it doesn’t stick when she places it under a cloth to rise before she brings it to the nearby public oven for baking. (Photo: Katharina Graf)

 

Food in the Making: Food Preparation, Material and Social Change in Urban Morocco. Katharina Graf. PhD/MPhil Thesis, SOAS University of London, London, UK. 2016.

Maria Carabello (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA)

In this thesis, Katharina Graf engages with and explores the daily acts and rhythms of food preparation in lower income households in Marrakech, Morocco. Taking a phenomenological approach to ethnography, Graf assumes the role of an active apprentice in the homes of three Marrakchi women (Fatimzahra, Rachida, and Aicha). She uses her position and the multi-sensory experiences it affords to pursue two central aims—first, to understand the embodied knowledge and processes of reproduction that underlie daily acts of Marrakchi cooking; and second, to probe and expose the changing material and social context of an urbanizing Morocco. Thoughtful in approach, rich in description, and insightful in its analysis, her work contributes meaningfully to the increasingly intersectional fields of food and gender studies, and to the anthropology of knowledge, learning, and the senses, within and beyond Moroccan borders.

In pursuit of these stated aims, Graf leans upon the ethnographic experiences of provisioning, processing, cooking, baking, and sharing meals with her research participants, as well as several key strands of social theory that lend both depth and context to her research. For example, using Ingold’s (2001) concept of an education of attention to frame the process of learning to cook as multi-sensorial and continuous; bringing in Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of habitus to recognize how repetitive practice gives rise to internalized structures that guide acts of Marrakchi cooking as they unfold as a dialogical exchange between cook, food, and environment; and engaging with Sutton’s (2006) view of cooking as a skillful practice, which helps to bridge the materiality of food production with the social nature of its consumption. By weaving together these and many related anthropological, sociological, and philosophical concepts Graf provides a sound theoretical foundation from which to present her empirical work, and effectively recalls key ideas throughout the thesis to note areas of resonance and distinction with her own findings.

The thesis itself is structured around five central chapters, which loosely track the natural sequence of food preparation—from provisioning and processing, to cooking and baking, to sharing and eating food. At the same time, they also follow Graf’s own experiential trajectory from a novice cook primarily tasked with provisioning at the market to an expert entrusted with the preparation of full dishes. The body chapters are bookended by an introduction which lays out the aims of the thesis and introduces its theoretical foundations, and a conclusion framed around the case study of Ramadan—“a month when boundaries are made and unmade and both continuity and change asserted” (p. 228)—that is used to tease out the main findings from her fieldwork. Although innovative and largely effective, an extended conclusion would have afforded an opportunity to remind readers of the key findings from earlier chapters and to also reflect more deeply on the ways in which this thesis confirms and challenges prior research. Graf also artfully intersperses each section of the thesis with a series of six reflective interludes derived from her fieldnotes, providing a nice contrast to the analytical passages of the thesis while also effectively underscoring its phenomenological methodology.

In the first chapter, Graf introduces the historical and geographic context of her fieldsite in Marrakech, using the preparation of bread to illustrate how the city’s foodscape is made (and re-made) through the movement and interactions of cooks and ingredients. In Chapter 2, she shifts her focus to the economic dimensions of cooking, and explores how cooks make decisions about how to source and process ingredients that are good for themselves and their families in a largely unregulated and unstandardized food environment. She articulates two vernacular indices of quality that cooks and consumers in Marrakech use to categorize food items; beldi (‘from the country’) and rumi (‘foreign’). However, origin alone is not the sole criterion evoked by Marrakchi consumers when they make use of such terms. What makes food good (or, beldi) in Morocco involves “a cook’s multi-sensory and ethical assessment . . . relate[d] to taste, provenance, context of production, health and well-being, safety and food security (p. 117).” While this may call to mind similar concepts such as “taste of place” (see: Trubek 2009), Graf argues that a beldi designation is more contingent on personal context and evaluation. For example, a woman would be likely to judge meat from her hometown as beldi even if other products with similar, or even preferable, sensory characteristics were available closer to her current location. In this way, it can be seen that Moroccans have come to rely on a deeply personal and sensory-based evaluation schema for what constitutes good food and good cooking in the absence of externally imposed standards and regulations, thus posing a challenge to the possibility of a shared social context for quality designations.

Chapters 3 and 4 constitute the core of Graf’s thesis and interrogate, in turn, what constitutes cooking knowledge and how girls and women in Marrakech come to acquire and hone it. These explorations give way to Graf’s central argument, which is that cooking and taste knowledge are inherently multi-sensory and synesthetic, and thus learning to cook entails a tactical education of all the senses. These findings largely resonate with Sutton’s (2014) ethnography of home cooking on the Greek island of Kalymnos, yet Graf notes an intriguing difference in the circumstances by which Marrakchi and Kalymnian women learn to become cooks. While older female relatives often coached along young cooks in Kalymnos, the Marrakchi women underwent a “lifelong multi-sensory immersion” yet only truly metamorphosed into active cooks when called to replace the lead food preparer in the household. While the two contexts clearly afford women different opportunities to enact—and thus, embody—their cooking knowledge, the basis of that knowledge in both cases is rooted in continuous exposure to the sensory, material, and social culture of preparing and sharing food.

In this thesis, Graf provides a detailed and multi-dimensional study of Marrakchi home cooking knowledge and its reproduction, while also recognizing the window this topic provides into a changing, urbanizing Morocco. As Marrakchi women increasingly have the opportunity to study and work outside the home to gain financial independence, shifts in the constitution of an ideal family have begun to veer away from larger multi-generational households towards more intimate conjugal dwellings. While Graf suggests that young Marrakchi women still derive a deep sense of identity from preparing food for their families, it stands to question whether this will continue if they struggle to balance the independence achieved from working outside the home with the dependence now placed upon them as the primary food preparers for their immediate households. This study alone cannot provide any certain resolutions to such questions. What this work provides instead is a clear indication that so long as Moroccans continue to value the preparation of foods in the home, there will continue to be people in those households that rise to the occasion of making the meals that are so central to their social and material lives.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977.

Ingold, Tim. “From the Transmission of Representation to the Education of Attention.” In The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology Versus Ethnography. Edited by H. Whitehouse. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2001: 113–153

Sutton, David E. Cooking Skill, the Senses and Memory: the Fate of Practical Knowledge. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture. Edited by E. Edwards, C. Gosden, & R. Philipps. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2006: 87–118.

 Sutton, David E. Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island. Oakland, UK: University of California Press. 2014

Trubek, Amy B. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley, CA: University of California. 2009.

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