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Review: The Agency of Eating

Media of The Agency of Eating

Emma-Jayne Abbots The Agency of Eating: Mediation, Food and the Body. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. ISBN #9781472598530 

Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

The senses have been causing a major stir in both the theory and practice of ethnography… This focus has yielded a number of monographs and anthologies that are both rich in sensory detail-making them a pleasure to read-and thorny in terms of the epistemological and other theoretical issues they evoke. (Howes 1996, reviewing Seremetakis’ The Senses Still)

Eating, chewing, tasting and swallowing, is a social and political act. Eating is also a potentially affect-laden embodied experience. In the Agency of Eating, Abbots assembles a complex theoretical landscape to explore eating as an embodied experience that mediates and is mediated by the relationship between food’s matter and meaning. Abbots seeks to broaden a scholarly discourse that she argues has privileged the meaning of food and its political economy over food’s materiality. Abbots is careful to present this work not as a resolution but as a call for greater attention to the materiality of food.
This book is a theoretical exploration. The research question driving Abbots is to “tease out how the eating human body, the material stuff of food, and cultural knowledges about food all dynamically interplay to shape social understandings of what and how we should – and should not – be eating.” (p1, emphasis added). To examine this question, Abbots simultaneously considers actor-network theory, the agency of the non-human, mediators, embodiment, and Foucauldian perspectives on knowledge and bio-power. Two innovative conceptual tools facilitate analytic movement from the micro-scale (food in the body) to the macro-scale (power relations and social meaning): (1) bounded vitalism, and (2) bio-authority.

The text draws upon Abbot’s own ethnographic data from past fieldwork in Ecuador, a large body of food studies literature, and the author’s own embodied experiences. Published ethnographies are employed to probe topical subjects such as heritage foods, global food networks, and responsible eating.  Some readers may take issue with the post hoc data sources. In my opinion chapters two and three, utilizing Abbots own ethnographic data, are the most compelling applications of her theoretical framework.

Abbots begins with the theoretical foundation and rationale. Readers will appreciate the articulated definitions of common but often slippery terms. Eating is broadly defined to encompass ingestion, digestion, salivation and beyond the confines of the body such as “eating with the eyes.”  Agency is characterized as multi-directional, relational, continually produced, and distributed. Assemblages are dynamic, fluid processes of things, people, and knowledge.

The concept of Bounded vitalism proposes the agentive capacities of food are co-produced, empowered or constrained, through social and embodied interaction. “The recognition that a food’s knowledges and meanings – and, in turn, aspects of vitalism –emerge from interactions across a wide network of human and non-human actors, and that agency is hence distributed, moves us away from the Bourdieusian model of tastemakers that has been prevalent in much discussion of cultural intermediaries, particularly within economic sociology” (p24). Bounded vitalism, as a conceptual lens, has the potential to explain socio-political and economic constraints while also allowing for human and non-human agency. Agency is present in the food and also in the eater’s body.  An eater’s preference for or rejection of a food can be interpreted as a materialization of embodied agency (p36). Foods like corn or “junk food” may participate in assemblages that include embodied experiences as well as social and cultural meanings.

Bio-authority draws on the concept of biopedagogies from Wright and Harwood (2009) but modifies the terminology to emphasize a social accordance of legitimacy. Bio-authorial encounters illuminate how multiple voices, family, government, local food activists, chefs, cookbooks and markets, health advocates and so on, acquire cultural authority to speak about food – even in contexts that were not designed to produce knowledge. Abbots’ concept of bio-authority charts a pathway for scholars to analyze multiple, and sometimes conflicting, power-relations in a way that “recognizes that ‘the body’ is not just social construction but also a sensing, feeling entity” (p33). I suggest that in such a frame teaching and learning can be multi-directional. This is particularly evident with the discussion in chapter three regarding multiculturalism and the migrant context.

In the quote that opens this review Howes (1996) notes “thorny epistemological and other theoretical issues” evoked by ethnographies that describe the senses. Twenty-three years later, Proust’s madeleine still eludes scholarly attempts to fully explain the inter-relationship of food as social meaning and simultaneously embodied experience. Important contributions have advanced the discourse. Sutton (2001) and Holtzman (2009) have grounded their discussions in embodied memory. Memory doesn’t give us a good way to consider power-relations. Bourdieusian theory grounds Ayora-Diaz’s (2012) work on the institutionalization of taste and political economy. Here food is a medium of agency not the agentive actor. Many authors have found Foucault’s theories of bio-power, technologies of self, and surveillance to be a productive lens in a feminist perspective. The socially constructed body, however, doesn’t provide a means to bridge analysis from the macro to the micro (Warin 2015, Yates-Doerr 2015, McCullough and Hardin 2013). In The Agency of Eating Abbots proposes a collection of theoretical tools that might bridge the macro to micro, the mind and body. Together the concepts of bio-authority and bounded vitality map the processes by which “knowledge” becomes inscribed into the body as well as the means through which the body contributes to knowledge production. One interesting potentiality in Abbots framework is consideration not just of assemblages but also of the interplay of constraints on different forms of agency within an assemblage. Examining the experiences of migrants we see shifting assemblages where certain bio-authorities come to the fore in different contexts. The migrant, upon eating cuy, roast guinea pig sent from home, experiences emotion and sense that re-invigorates social bonds and re-roots the migrant to home. In the ethnic grocery store, the migrants’ sensory experience is conditioned by the storekeeper and also by “the affective background and experiences of the eater” (p67). By explicitly situating affect and sense as actants within the assemblage, Abbots has legitimized embodied phenomena.

Chapters two and three can be read as a dialectic elucidating the concepts of bounded vitality and bio-authority. Chapter two examines the ways in which bodies in Jima, Ecuador are made kin through the shared substance of cuy. The vitality of this regionally significant dish is distributed across a wide assemblage that includes both human and non-human mediators. This wider assemblage reveals the relationship between the local grass eaten by the guinea pig and the embodied experience of taste – a sort of terroir. Abbots argues that an embodied, cultural desire for and enjoyment of a specific flavor and texture can be produced in the eating body and can facilitate social inclusion.

The lens shifts in chapter three to the migrant experience and how eating cuy meat sent from home materially and symbolically maintains relationships to distant people and places. Migrants construct their identity, social belonging/otherness through eating foods from home, blurring the boundaries of space and time. New hybridized identities and boundaries can be constructed through acceptance or the politics of refusal. Particularly in the migrant space, bio-authorities mediate experiences of belonging and otherness. This chapter attends to the senses – “how belonging and not-belonging are felt” (p63).

In chapter four, Abbots extends her argument about affect and sensory experience to suggest that food heritage festivals combine matter, meaning, and affect to produce compelling multi-sensory bio-authorial encounters. Abbots contends that food heritage festivals produce a “mechanism through which citizenship becomes inscribed in bodies” (p11).  To support this hypothesis, Abbots stitches together a disparate collection of literature that would have benefited from more cohesive ethnographic detail. For example, Abbots discusses a multi-sensory “buzz” experienced at heritage food festivals that has the power to inscribe on eaters’ bodies a shared symbolic and political meaning (p87). I find this claim plausible but not wholly convincing. Abbots supports the existence of “buzz” with multiple authors’ descriptions of food events but not any emic reports. Then the distance to political meaning is traversed though theory from moral economy to Douglas’ social body (2002), making the connection back to food festivals and their “buzz” more hypothetical than ethnographic.

Chapters five and six consider notions of safety and risk, anxieties about obscured food networks, and “responsibilised eating.” Politically framed markers such as fair trade, slow food, GMO constrain and empower a food’s vitality impacting the ways it is experienced in the body. Acknowledging that food preferences are felt and sensed, as well as being intellectual choices, can enhance our understanding of food politics.

This book is most useful to readers who are interested in developing theory that integrates materiality, meaning, and power relations, especially those working in critical nutrition and fat studies. Readers who are already familiar with post-modern and contemporary theory as well as a body of food studies literature will get the most from this text. The prose is dense. This is not intended to insult the author; on the contrary, I believe that Abbots is aiming for linguistic precision to elucidate innovative theory for which shared terminology has not been fully developed.

Works Cited

Ayora-Diaz, Steffan Igor. Foodscapes, Foodfields, and Identities in the Yucatán. Cedla Latin America Studies Berghan, 2012.

Holtzman, Jon. Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya. Oakland: University of California Press, 2009.
Howes, David. “Book Review.” American Anthropologist 98, no. 1 (1996): 201-02.
McCullough, Megan B., and Jessica A. Hardin, eds. Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Meaning in the Measures, Food, Nutrition and Culture: Berghahn Books, 2013.

Proust, M. (1913‐27). Remembrance of Things Past. Volume 1: Swann’s Way: Within a Budding Grove. The definitive French Pleiade edition translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Vintage. pp. 48‐51.

Seremetakis, Nadia. The Senses Still. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Sutton, David. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. New York: Berg, 2001.

Warin, Megan. “Material Feminism, Obesity Science and the Limits of Discursive Critique.” Body & Society 21, no. 4 (2015): 48-76.

Yates-Doerr, Emily. The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala California Studies in Food and Culture. University of California Press, 2015.

 

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Filed under Agency, anthropology of food, Ecuador

Review: Food, Masculinities and Home

Media of Food, Masculinities, and Home

Michelle Szabo & Shelley Koch eds. Food, Masculinities and Home: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. ISBN: 9781474262323.

Neri de Kramer (University of Delaware)

Food, Masculinities and Home is part of a Bloomsbury series on the home as a site where the social identities that structure political life are forged and negotiated. The home is a universal cultural category with relevance across many disciplines and lends itself well for an interdisciplinary approach to its study. Food, Masculinities, and Home features articles by scholars from a range of disciplines including sociology, history, women’s studies, communication, cultural studies, agricultural studies, environmental studies, public health, and mathematics.

While the domestic sphere has long been and continues to be associated with femininity, recent demographic, economic and cultural changes such as a rise in female labor force participation, gay households, single fathers, single men households and the blurring of the line between home and work, have brought more men into domestic spaces. In their introduction, the editors argue that we should investigate these movements for their transformative potential. Do these male domestic food practices challenge gender or other social hierarchies and inequalities? Do they change what it means to be a man? Is the notion of home being reshaped by an increased male presence and participation in the kitchen? And could greater involvement of men in domestic food production have positive consequences for public health and environmental sustainability? These are some key questions that motivate the volume.

The introduction by editors Szabo and Koch is excellent and comprehensive, yet brief. The editors review current scholarship on the intersections of food, gender and culture and make a clear case for why the traditional conceptual division of spheres into female/private-male/public needs to be re-examined. Their introduction ends with an 8-page long treasure trove of a bibliography filled with up-to-date books and articles on food, culture and gender which can be fruitfully mined by students and faculty alike.

The rest of the book consists of two sections of six chapters each. Most of the chapters are based on empirical research, but each section also includes one theoretical chapter. Section one is a collection of descriptions and interpretations of contemporary male food practices in domestic spheres. Section two is about representations of men’s cooking in media sources such as cookbooks, food TV and Hollywood movies. While the editors regret the fact that they were not able to solicit chapters on male domestic food production from African, Latin-American or developing Asian countries, the first section nonetheless offers a broad range of descriptions of domestic cooking by men of diverse national and ethnic backgrounds and ages. The contributors to this section also use a variety of research methods, ranging from the quantitative cluster analysis of a national time-use survey to the use of questionnaires and interviews to a highly original performative autoethnography by Marcos Moldes. This diversity means none of the chapters are alike and keeps the reader interested. With the exception of an analysis of a French cooking show, the chapters in the second section are predominantly about American media sources and masculinities. Yet this section, too, offers a variety of perspectives both empirical and theoretical and two contributors pay special attention to the role of food in construction of gender norms during childhood. While one of those, Fazakis, does mention blogs and YouTube as factors in the development of children’s culinary selves, this section lacks an explicit discussion of the influence of social media on the construction of new gendered food practices and culinary identities.

As a whole then, the book offers the building blocks scholars need to begin constructing new representations of gender, home and food. Editors and authors offer a review of what went before, a wealth of empirical data from many parts of the world, several original theoretical concepts that allow for the conceptualization of new food-based domestic masculinities and a range of research methods that could be emulated by other scholars in this field.

While any work on food and gender must grapple with gender inequality and build on the work of the many feminist writers who have examined the relations between the two, this work is not “preachy” or overly political. This can be a welcome respite for those of us teaching young adults, many of whom have not yet personally experienced the pressure of domestic obligations, do not problematize it and might be resistant to an outspoken feminist critique of men’s attempts at domestic cooking. At the same time, some might consider this lack of feminist boldness and political critique a weakness of the book, which does not explicitly discuss the ramifications of an unequal division of household labor for women, nor offer insights into what women might think about male contributions to the home kitchen.

The contributors to the first section describe a variety of situations in which various types of men have become more involved in the home kitchen. However, most remain only cautiously optimistic, reminding the reader that truly revolutionary transformations in the household division of labor by gender are still lacking. Multiple authors cite data showing that well into the 21st century, women still perform the majority of the household cooking and continue to be expected to do so, that women’s cooking continues to be care work geared towards others which tends to remain unnoticed, invisible and unappreciated. In contrast, when men cook at home, it is more typically their choice to do so and for many men this thus remains an optional task, often more a matter of personal enjoyment and fulfillment than a social obligation. However, the chapters in this first section do begin to nuance these familiar distinctions between male and female cooking and offer insights into the circumstances under which certain groups of men increase their participation in the domestic food sphere, and how this, in turn shapes and changes masculine identities.

To illustrate, one interesting finding that emerges from this section is that for certain groups of men, domestic cooking can be modified so that rather than threaten their masculinity, it can work to maintain or affirm it. This is the case for a group of Japanese men living in Australia who are the subject of a chapter by Hamada. Hamada shows that for these transnational men, opportunities for remunerated work in the public domain are reduced, which means they become relatively more empowered in the environment of the home. By adopting a casual, meat-filled style of Japanese domestic cooking they refer to as “men’s cooking” these men are able to reassert a part of their masculinity that was threatened by their diminished breadwinner role. At the same time, domestic cooking helps these Japanese men move closer to the ideal of Australian masculinity, which includes husbands who help out around the house. The chapter by Williams and Germov about a program providing food preparation skills for older men reaches a similar conclusion. When successful, programs such as these can improve the food choices and health of older men who never learned to cook but now need to due to divorce or the death or incapacitation of female partners. The authors show that the success of these programs depends at least in part on the extent to which men can come to accept cooking as a masculine thing to do. The authors found that when these men cook alongside clearly masculine men, sharing in a sense of male camaraderie, they are more likely to adopt cooking as part of their masculine identity and therefore more likely to cook meals for themselves at home. This is a significant finding that can have positive impact on the dietary health of single men when incorporated into the curriculum of cooking programs of this kind.

For other groups of men, domestic cooking remains a feminine domain and something to stay away from, as is the case for Israeli men working in the female world of school teaching described in the chapter by Gvion and Patkin. The authors wondered whether men working in a female-dominated profession might have different attitudes towards home cooking than men employed in more traditionally male professions, but find that this turns out to not be the case and in the remainder of their chapter the authors describe these men’s interpretations and narratives of home cooking that exempts them, as men, from engaging in it. Similarly, 36% of the 728 Flemish men whose weeklong time-use survey data is the subject of a chapter by sociologists Daniels and Glorieux turn out to be “noncooks”. Despite this, in clustering the everyday cooking behaviors of the remaining men in this sample, the authors discover that depending on age, relationship status, family composition and employment status, some of these men do in fact cook for traditionally “feminine” reasons such as nurturance, commitment and obligation. The important role of food and cooking in modern fatherhood they describe resonates particularly well in the American context, where many families have been caught up in the demands of an intensive parenting style that requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to running a family. As my own dissertation research also revealed, American fathers in middle and upper-middle class strata have discovered foodwork simultaneously as a way to assist their overwhelmed wives, to build the intense connection between parent and child that is central to this parenting style, and also as a tool for instructional interactions with children about topics such as health, science and politics.

Sobal’s theoretical contribution to this section, too, helps the reader conceptualize new cultural possibilities for men’s cooking at home. He uses social representation theory (Moscovini 1988, 2001) to expand Connell’s (1995) concept of multiple masculinities. Whereas Connell’s model recognized only hegemonic and subordinate masculinities, social representation theory allows for more radical ways in which men can “do” gender. This is a useful addition to a volume which seeks to elicit the changing relations of men to the domestic kitchen, because scholars will need theoretical models that allow for this conceptually. One could make the case that this chapter might have been better placed at the start of the book in order to serve as a common frame of reference for the more empirical chapters that follow.

Moldes, a queer, second-generation Uruguayan immigrant raised in Canada offers a deeply personal account of male domestic cooking. In his chapter, he describes how he decided to learn to cook traditional Uruguayan dishes in an attempt to foster a sense of belonging in the female-controlled Latin kitchen of his childhood, to which he always felt an outsider, being both male as well as second-generation. He then walks the reader through these culinary experiments. By this “performative cooking” of challenging traditional Uruguayan dishes, Moldes remakes both the kitchen as well as the recipes as his own and in his chapter documents the process of this growing sense of belonging. His contribution is a visceral account of the way gendered identities are constructed in practice and adds a much-needed queer perspective to the existing literature on food and gender.

In section two, the chapters by Fakazis and Christensen each examine media influences on the construction of gender norms in children. These are important contributions because understanding how the gender norms of the next generation come into existence is essential for our conceptualization of possible future gendered reconfigurations of the domestic kitchen as a more equitable domain. Fakazis takes a critical look at the relatively new foodie discourse marketed to children via resources such as children’s cooking toys, food TV shows and child celebrity chefs, among other things. She notes that these representations of cooking seem more gender-neutral today than in the past, presenting both boys and girls with viable role models for both professional, as well as caring, community-minded home cooks. The question does remain to what extent today’s children will be able to continue to follow those gender-neutral scripts as they grow up and face the structural conditions that shape the lived experience of gender. Christensen’s chapter stands in great contrast by offering a historical analysis of the 19th century American coming of age novels by Alcott and Coolidge to reveal how masculinity was shaped by expectations surrounding the eating of domestic food. She traces how in these books male characters were shaped into the types of restrained, disciplined, hardworking men with healthy appetites that their female readers should seek to marry and care for as future wives and mothers.

The chapters by Leer and by Rodney, Johnston and Chong describe the ultimately still limited range of contemporary male gender norms presented by male celebrity chefs targeting male domestic cooks. Leer analyzes an episode of a French cooking show in which working class men are ridiculed for not knowing how to cook and for failing to help their wives at home. On the show, they receive cooking lessons from France’s most famous celebrity chef in order to turn them into better men. Taking an intersectional approach, Leer describes how this culinary instruction simultaneously constitutes a gender project, by which these traditional men are turned into more modern masculine subjects, as well as a class project, because it is typically more highly educated men in higher socio-economic positions who are comfortable with domestic work. In this way, the show thus not only highlights and affirms inequalities between men and women, but also between different groups of men. While the participants in this episode are explicitly taught to become more domestic, expressing an existing French, upper class new gender norm, it is important to realize that these men are being taught by a celebrity chef and not a housewife, which gives the cooking they learn during this episode the legitimacy feminine domestic foodwork still lacks. In this sense, this chapter is akin to that by Rodney, Johnston and Chong, whose discourse analysis of cookbooks by celebrity chefs yields four archetypical male cook personas, all based on culinary professionals and not on domestic cooks. The conclusion from these chapters is that for men interested in cooking at home, the range of role models are rooted in a traditional division of labor in which male chefs bring professional expertise, and that inspiring role models for working class, domestic, nurturing men are largely lacking from these media discourses.

Parasecoli’s chapter about Hollywood comedies such as Daddy Day Care, in which men are unexpectedly required to perform childcare tasks typically carried out by women reaches a similar conclusion. In this entertaining chapter, he provides a careful, detailed analysis of the familiar scenes that poke fun at the protagonists as they stumble through unfamiliar womanly tasks and explains how these mainstream representations of masculinity thus wind up affirming and perpetuating traditional gender norms rather than providing new role models of domestic men.

In the end, this section too, gives rise to only very cautious optimism about the emergence of possible new domestic masculinities and their meaningful contribution to a more equitable household division of labor by gender or greater equality among different groups of men. The final more theoretical chapter by Cox emphasizes this conclusion and warns the reader to not fall into the trap of taking the many media representations of cooking men at face value. Though the abundance of these representations may make it seem as if gender inequality around food and cooking is a thing of the past, it in fact persists stubbornly in many home kitchens where it has significant ramifications for women’s lives, their professional development and with that their social power and independence. Cox also cautions that even though new masculinities might indeed be emerging in the realm of food and cooking, this does not mean that old masculinities and gender relations are necessarily being replaced or made obsolete. There is still a lot of work that remains to be done.

Connell, Raewyn. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Moscovini, Serge. 1988. “Notes Toward a Description of Social Representations.” European Journal of Social Psychology 18: 211-250.

Moscovini, Serge. 2001. Social Representations: Explorations in Social Psychology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

 

 

 

 

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Review: Caviar Dreams

 

Caviar Dreams Movie Poster

Caviar Dreams. Directed by Brian Gersten, Liv Dubendorf, Wei Ying. A Democracy through Documentary Kartemquin Films project in conjunction with KTQ Labs and Wake Forest University’s Documentary Film Program. 2017. 15 minutes. Available from The Video Project (videoproject.com)

David McMurray (Oregon State University)

The film opens with a funny excerpt from a 1996 “Iron Chef” episode that underlines the opulence, delicacy and desirability traditionally conjured up by the mention of caviar. The first talking head belongs to a historian of caviar named Inga Saffron, who is also a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. While she talks the camera pans the Philly skyline and then down to the big, red Robert Indiana “LOVE” sculpture that is so iconic of the city. Her own recounting of personal caviar consumption is accompanied on the screen by newsreel footage of people eating caviar in a French restaurant in what looks to be the Roaring Twenties, then a shot of Saffron nibbling a teaspoon of it, then her book cover, and then a pen and ink drawing of a Mod Era party scene that starts to bleed with the black ink associated with caviar. The film next cuts to a more downbeat Chicago fishmonger named Dirk Fucik. He is a kind of secular missionary for sturgeon roe, urging the walk-in clients to his shop to taste the many different varieties he keeps open and on hand for just such occasions. Cut to a clip of Tom Hanks in the 1988 film “Big” choking on caviar and crackers while Fucik extolls caviar’s virtues but warns that it’s an acquired taste. This is followed by newsreel footage of giant sturgeon being unloaded from Romanian fishing vessels sometime in the not too distant past.

Next we are taken to The Atlantic Caviar & Sturgeon Company plant, nestled in amongst the fields and foothills of Happy Valley, North Carolina. Here among the fish tanks Dr. Jeff Hinshaw, listed as a “caviar farmer,” delivers the bombshell that is the message of the film: all caviar today comes only from farmed fish. Even though an international ban on wild-caught caviar came into effect during the 1990s, poaching continued to decimate the sturgeon in the wild. Today, instead of pulling them into rowboats with gaff hooks during spawning season in the Caspian Sea, they use sonograms in North Carolina tank farms to determine when the fish have enough eggs to harvest.

The film ends with some short clips of caviar overconsumption as portrayed on various television series. In the voiceover Inga Saffron lectures us about the long-term ecological consequences of our desire to have everything available to eat at all times and places. Sturgeon roe went from being the food of the poor through the nineteenth century to that of the rich in the twentieth. Its transformation into a famous delicacy sent its prices skyrocketing and it sources into decline. Can size also declined proportionately, until today caviar is measured in dollars per gram. Sturgeon disappeared in the wild, according to Saffron, because nobody was paying attention to the long-term consequences of mass marketing a finite foodstuff. So rare and expensive has it become that many of us may pass through life never having tasted the original form of this decadent delicacy.

I recount the film almost scene by scene in the hope of giving the reader some sense of the extraordinarily clever editing and visual richness that characterize the whole work. With the possible exception of the slightly blurry “Iron Chef” clip at the start, there is absolutely nothing in it that suggests this is a student film. The dialogue and beautifully matched, humorous visuals never allow interest to wander. They carry the film along with confidence; never stumbling. I personally would have preferred a bit more didactic finger wagging about caviar being a canary in the ecological coalmine, but that would have begun to drag the film down and would have taken away from the equally important other subject of the film, which is the surprising role caviar has played in the popular culture of the twentieth century.

 

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Review: Re-Orienting Cuisine

Re-orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century

Kwang Ok Kim , ed. Re-orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Berghahn. New York, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-78920-067-6

Richard Zimmer
Sonoma State University

Kwang Ok   Kim has assembled a wonderful collection of studies about what had happened and what is happening in East Asian food.  These studies fall into three main categories: how national and local cuisines define what is traditional in a particular country’s food consumption; how food practices from elsewhere transcend national and cultural boundaries; and, lastly, how people see their own and the cuisine of others addressing well-being, health, and danger.  Moreover, Kim’s introduction and each of the studies situate their discussions in larger academic and global studies about modernism, authenticity, traditionalism, nostalgia, globalism, and food safety.  The studies are particularly germane to students of food, culture, tourism, and politics.

Section I, about national food changes, contains four essays.  The first, by Opkyo Moon, demonstrates how Koreans have created/re-created a royal cuisine from the period before the Japanese colonial control.  This cuisine, coupled with other period practices, is a way that Koreans have established a significant connection to a more illustrious past.  The second, by Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao and Khay-Thiong Lim, contrasts Malaysian cuisine(s) and Taiwanese cuisine.  They suggest that Malaysia has decided to try to create a national cuisine, bringing together its different ethnic and culinary traditions.  The British, they argue, did not accept any significant foods as part of their occupation.  Taiwan, on the other hand, has “returned” to its pre-Nationalist Chinese occupation past by focusing on dishes from that earlier era.

Jean de Bernanrdi  outlines how tea culture was introduced in Wudang Province in China.  This introduction created a sense of tradition, authenticity, health consciousness, tourism, and international connections to vendors overseas.  Kwang Ok Kim shows how Koreans focused on and “re-invented” rice as central to their identity and their sense of health and well-being.  These practices have extended to Korean restaurants overseas.  In sum, these essays portray cuisine as a something real–something to be consumed and enjoyed, and as symbols of national identity.   Moreover, they also show societies using their cuisines to create and imagine pasts, futures, to portray “authenticity” and to offer food as commodities  to promote  health and tourism .

Section II, about food practices across nations and cultural boundaries, contains six essays.  The first, by Kyung-Hoo Han, traces the recent history of ramen in its many forms, from China to Japan and Korea.  Japanese ramen is much more of a “…fatty and nutritious” dish than earlier domestic soups (p.92) and is served in restaurants.  Korean ramyeon, on the other hand, tends to be an instant quick, fast food version of noodle soup, previously much saltier, and not eaten in restaurants for the most part. David Y. H. Wu follows the path of Japanese cuisine in Taiwan.  Taiwanese see eating Japanese food as a return to the time when the Japanese occupied Taiwan.  Japanese food is considered both comforting, and given Japan’s emergence as a modernizing power, a connection to the larger world of sophistication.,  Moreover, Japanese food has diversified in terms of incorporating Western elements, such as Japanese French pastry, so Taiwanese people can partake of global food trends.

The third essay, by Melissa L. Caldwell, portrays a Russia which has “domesticated” Korean food as part of the larger domestic cuisine. Russia has few Chinese restaurants, values them as particularly special, and also considers the relatively new Japanese food as special.  Moreover, she notes that Chinese restaurants, to compete, have started to offer selected Japanese foods.  The fourth essay, by Yuson Jung, portrays a Bulgaria which, following the collapse of Communism and its associated deprivations, wants to be modern and part of world culture.  To do so, it has integrated Chinese food, often standard dishes with occasional domestic offers such as bread, into its restaurant offerings.  The fifth essay, by Sangmee Bak, offers a picture of a South Korea which wants to eat “globally”.  That means diverse cuisines.  The one featured most is Indian cuisine, which, for the most part appeals to students and take-out clientele.  Following the themes in this volume, Bak notes that their Korean cuisine is being pre-empted by the Japanese, who offer “…Korean food to Westerners…thereby compromising the food’s Korean identity” (p.182.)

One personal note here: in a “reversal,” two of the Japanese restaurants where I live are owned and managed by Koreans. Furthermore, a local Thai restaurant shows the cross-cultural fertilization outside of Asia:  “traditional Thai noodles, curries, and soups are interspersed with surprises such as the Laotian Pork Sausage appetizer and British-inspired curry puffs (spiced potatoes and carrots wrapped in dough that is then fried” Voight (2018: 14 .)  As many of the essays have noted, overseas Asian communities experiment with many kinds of fusion dishes and mixing cuisines.  Often, overseas Asian influences work their way back into national cuisines, as noted above in the ways “Western Japanese” food is an alternative food in Taiwan.

The sixth essay in this section, by Michael Herzfeld, argues that Thai cuisine mirrors themes inside the culture:  It is complex, ambiguous, and often contradictory.  For example, higher and lower class people like very spicy/hot foods, and the ability to eat these foods is seen as a sign of masculinity (p.192 et seq.)

Section III, about well-being and safety, contains four essays.  In the first essay, Young-Kyun Yang portrays a South Korea increasingly concerned with well-being and taking care of one’s body.  Consequently, Chinese food, once favored, is seen as unhealthy because it is considered too greasy and contains too much MSG.  In the second essay, Sidney C.H. Cheung traces the evolution and dispersal of American crayfish in Asia, where each country and cuisine treat it differently, as for example, in China, where some producers make it into “lobster.”  In the third essay, Jakob A. Klein draws a picture of a Chinese population increasingly concerned with the cleanliness and purity of its food.  He notes that as elsewhere in the world, foods often seen as cleaner foods are more expensive and out of the reach of poorer people who both value it and cannot afford it (p.246.)    In the fourth essay, Yunxiang Yan traces food safety concerns in contemporary China.  Originally, people were concerned with food being poisoned, in part because chicken, for one example, was dumped into lower class food stalls and restaurants.  At the time of Mao and even in the present government enforcement has not prevented poisonous additives and materials from entering food.

Taken separately and together, these essays show the interconnections and continuing changes between national identity, politics, culture, the search for well-being, and the concern with food safety, in East Asia.  These changes and concerns also mirror developments around the world.  Jonathan Kauffman shows similar concerns, for example in the origins of “Hippie Food” in the US, including many of its past and continuing connections to developments in Asia (2018).  Jean-Pierre Poulain sees the same trends in the Kim volume occurring in the United States and France and places food studies as central to understanding cultural, economic, political, and medical changes in any country (2017.) Kim’s collection serves as an assessment of current developments on most of these themes and as a marker for future changes as each country defines its identity and concerns in terms of food movements around the world.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

2018

Jonathan Kauffman.  Hippie Food: How Back to the Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. New York: William Morrow.

2017

Jean-Pierre Poulain.  Translated by Augusta Dior. The Sociology of Food: Eating the Place of Food in Society.  London: Bloomsbury Academic.

2018

Joan Voight. Made Local Magazine. v.6, number 1. pp.12-19.

 

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Review: Food and Power, A Culinary Ethnography of Israel

Food and Power by Nir Avieli

Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel: Nir Avieli.  Oakland, CA: University of California Press.  2018.  274 pp.  ISBN 9870520290105

Shir Lerman Ginzburg
Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Nir Avieli’s ethnography is a timely and necessary foray into the explorations and intersections of politics and food.  Avieli draws on his extensive semi-auto-ethnographic fieldwork in Israel to highlight the intricate and complex relationships between food and national identity, particularly in light of Israel’s deeply contentious relationships with both the Palestinians and with its Arab neighbors.  Throughout his ethnography, Avieli interweaves his experiences serving in the Israeli army and his personal life in Israel with his ethnography to discuss the power structures in Israel as they pertain to food preparation and consumption (page 14).   Specifically, Avieli claims that power derives from imbalances in a variety of resources, such as legitimacy, prestige, violence, and access to economic resources (pg. 8).  As an example, Avieli discusses the 2006-2009 Hummus Wars between Israel and Lebanon to illustrate the national prides at stake in claiming ownership of hummus (pg. 6), which stands as a unifying cuisine.  Israelis and Lebanese competed over creating the biggest dish of hummus to break the Guinness World Records.

Avieli structures his book around several vignettes showcasing the multilayered relationships between power and food in Israel.  In doing so, Avieli interlaces these vignettes with his personal experiences In Chapter 2 (‘Roasting Meat’), Avieli provides an in-depth analysis of barbecues and other meat-grilling activities on Israeli Independence Day (generally held in May).  Avieli focuses on the celebrations held at Sacher Park (a popular park in Jerusalem), discussing how the barbecues are ambivalent events in which potency and power are inseparately mixed with feebleness and victimization due to the differences between the types of meat used for barbecues (page 78).  Specifically, men get the superior meat (beef) while women receive the inferior meat (chicken [pargiot]) because meat is more muscular and bloodier, while chicken meat is softer and more vulnerable (page 67).

In addition to the type of meat typically consumed, Avieli outlines the organization and negotiation of space in Sacher Park, particularly as it pertains to food preparation.  Competition is fierce for space in Sacher Park, particularly for limited shade, access to the northern part of the park, which is closest to parking, and proximity to water, as water fountains are scarce in the park.  Barbecues in Sacher Park also clearly delineate the Israeli concept of Levad Beyahad (‘alone together’), or the blurring of boundaries between private and public space, which helps individuals deal with the social and structural superiority of the collective in Israel: people are together with other Israelis in superficially large numbers, but families still clearly demarcate personal space.  This principle reflects relationships among Israeli Jews, exposing the tension between the desire to be a part of the collective on the most important national day of the year, and the constant efforts of the participants to demarcate boundaries between themselves and others (pages 73, 78).  On a broader geopolitical scale, the struggle for space between Jews and Palestinians is also reenacted on a day that celebrates Israel’s victory over the Palestinians and reflects the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the shared space they occupy and serves to explain the practice of spot grabbing.  These struggles encompass many of the most pressing issues and dilemmas of contemporary Israel.

In Chapter 3 (‘Why We Like Italian Food’), Avieli emphasizes the role of homesickness and yearning: immigrant homesickness for their home cuisine, and Israeli yearning for American things, which denote modernity, sophistication, and cosmopolitanism (page 86).  This desire for high ideals is based in Israeli pizzeria owners’ experience working in the United States, as well as Israeli modification of traditional Italian dishes, since the majority of Italian dishes are imported by Israelis, not by Italians, who comprise a tiny portion of Israel.  Italian restaurants are successful in Israel for at least two major reasons: unlike, for example, French food, Italian food lends itself easily to kashrut laws, which forbid the mixture of meat and dairy (many Italian meals can stand as either dairy or meat).  Additionally, Italian restaurants tend to be family-friendly, which appeals to the family-central ethic of Israelis and to food preferences of Israelis, adults and children alike.  Israelis like Italian food because the similar weather and ecological conditions in the two countries make for similar ingredients, cooking styles, and taste preferences – similar ecologies between Israel and Italy have resulted in social, culture, and psychological affinities between Israelis and Italians, also known as Yam-Tichoniut (Mediterranean-ness).  The national character and habitus of Italians, especially southern Italians, is similar to those of Israelis, particularly hyperactivity, preference for simple food, and a lack of desire to wait long times for food to cook.  Given the length of time it takes to prepare pizzas, pizzerias have become places for families to hang out and socialize, unlike the ubiquitous falafel stands, which discourage lingering due to the in-and-out nature of these stands (page 95).

Additionally, Italian food allows Israeli Jews to construct an alternative spatial and cultural imagination of Israel, one that is associated with the Southern European-Mediterranean region rather than the Arab Middle East.  Israelis consider themselves along the coast of southern Italy, as an escape from the Middle East.  Italy isn’t connected to the Diaspora or the Holocaust and it doesn’t stand for the iconic West (NW Europe and North America), where the largest Jewish and Israeli Jewish diasporas are now located (page 101).  Avieli situates the Israeli passion for pizzerias in the Ashkenazi Jewish[i] desire to remove the Oriental stigma attached to them by non-Jewish Westerners, by adopting Western-style foods and developing a Western nation-state, especially in the peripheries of Israeli dining outside of major culinary hubs like Tel-Aviv and Herziliya (pages 106-107).  In doing so, Israel affirms its Western nation-state status by relegating social segments of the population, such as North African and Mizrahi Jews, into the periphery and relegating their foods to the exotic Other.

Chapter 4 (“The McDonaldization of the Kibbutz Dining Room”) highlights the transformation of kibbutzim in Israel from a paragon of Israeli socialism into a concerted effort to adopt Western capitalism.  The kibbutz is the social heart of Israel, so the McDonaldization of kibbutz culinary practices from table service to self-service is seen as a reflection of changes in Israeli food service as a whole (pages 112-113).  In this chapter, Avieli argues that the biggest competitor for kibbutz members’ loyalty is the social institution, such as extended family and ethnic groups, as well as newly reestablished socioeconomic classes and allegiances (page 116).  The kibbutz dining room operated as hubs of commensality and food sharing: breaking bread and eating together were important venues of group consolidation and solidarity, even as such acts also reaffirmed social norms and demarcated the people who weren’t included (page 117).  By breaking up individual family units (adults sat with adults and children sat with children), the dining room stripped self-identity and reassembled identities as parts of a collective new whole: the Israeli identity (page 118).  In turn, kibbutz members felt that other kibbutz members presented as an alternative family whose members were all siblings (page 123).  However, as kibbutzim grew larger, budgets and food sources remained low, and there was little regulation of kibbutz members who took more food with little regard for other members, the transition to self-service and privatization became increasingly necessary.  By the end of 2010, 193 out of 264 kibbutzim in Israel were privatized (page 128).  Kibbutz members also considered the introduction of self-service to fall under McDonaldization ideology, as people could choose whatever food they want and sit wherever they want, a process which also saves long queues and work times and represents an ideological shift from the collective to the individual (page 143).  Kibbutz scholars unanimously argue that the kibbutz crisis and the ensuing shift to privatization is very much a consequence of the shift from collective ideology to individualistic tendencies (page 132).  The family remained a threat for kibbutz members’ allegiance: families couldn’t originally cook in their units because there were no kitchens, so everyone was required to eat in the dining rooms.  However, with the institutionalization of the kibbutz, the family gradually reemerged, along with the urge for family meals (page 133).

Along with the spatial and financial consequences of privatization, Avieli also details the culinary ebbs and flows of the kibbutz dining room.  Food was structurally and materially Ashkenazi: the main lunchtime meal consisted of starts, soup, a main course (meat, cooked vegetables, and carbs) along with desserts and beverages.  The ingredients used in food preparation consisted of schnitzel (fried and breaded chicken), meat stews, baked or mashed potatoes, pasta, and steamed rice with mild seasonings.  This process underscores the tensions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel, including the Otherization of Mizrahi cuisine.  Even though Ashkenazi Jews are not the majority in Israel, Ashkenazi fare is still termed “Jewish food”, while non-Ashkenazi food is usually given national labels, such as Moroccan, Iraqi, Kurdish, or Persian, but not Jewish.  This terminology demonstrates the Ashkenazi claim for exclusivity over Judaism and the dismissive attitude Ashkenazi Israelis exhibit toward non-Ashkenazis (page 221).

In Chapter 5 (“Meat and Masculinity in a Military Prison”), Avieli traces the complex interactions and expressions of masculinity between Israeli soldiers, Israeli military police (MP), and Palestinian prisoners at the Megiddo military prison.  Tensions between the three groups draws on the overall logic of the occupation, particularly the cognitive and the emotional processes that allow Israeli Jews to reinterpret and redefine their relations with Palestinians so as to maintain a sense of weakness and victimization (page 146).  Despite the common-sense expectation that the armed IDF soldiers guarding the prison would feel empowered and in total control, they considered themselves victims of the situation and of the detainees.  The Israeli soldiers assigned to guard the prison frequently complained about the substandard fare they were provided, stating that they were given reheated chicken and limp vegetables while the prisoners and MPs were given better food.  Soldiers compared their meat rations to rations of prisoners and military police (MP), and to what they used to get at home (page 148), in the process hinting that they felt more masculine as civilians than as soldiers.  This comparison draws on the hegemonic interpretation of masculinity (e.g. authority, physical strength), which Avieli hearkens back to the days of hunter-gatherers, when prowess in hunting and the enjoyment of meat that a successful hunt allowed, led to increased chances of survival (page 152).

It is important to note that soldiers at Megiddo prison weren’t suffering from lack of food: they have 3 meals per day, including meat, fruits and veggies, dairy, eggs, bread, and a cooked starch.  The food was plain and not very fresh, but there was enough of it (page 162).  The competitiveness over food quality is rooted partly to frustrations about instructions they received about opening fire on prisoners.  Contrary to standard military procedure, at Megiddo prison, if prisoners attempted to escape, soldiers were to lock themselves in their towers and only use guns if prisoners tried to break in – otherwise, let them run away.  The administration’s reasoning was that if soldiers shot prisoners, it would look bad for the prisoner and for Israel in general, which they couldn’t afford to let happen (page 161).  Soldiers took this unusual policy amiss, understanding that the Israeli military saw their welfare as less important than that of either the prisoners or of the military’s international image, which enhanced the soldiers’ sense of victimization.  Soldiers also complained that prisoners received better food than they did and were allowed a greater sense of autonomy, especially with assigned tasks and day-to-day leadership (shawish/sergeant system, which the Palestinians elected and ran themselves), and with prisoners cooking and cleaning for themselves (page 158).  Comparatively, soldiers often received soggy, semi-frozen schnitzels and scorched stews; the bad food has occasionally led soldiers to mutiny, arguing that they needed more meat in order to have the energy to serve (pages 165-166).

The prisoners and MPs also saw themselves as victims.  Palestinians saw themselves as victims of Jews and the State of Israel, and Zionism a belated form of European colonialism. The MPs felt victimized due to their very postings: in the Israeli military, being part of the military police is considered a shameful appointment because they need to police their own comrades instead of fighting the enemy (page 169).  Despite Israel’s significant social, economic, and scientific achievements and its proven military might, Israeli Jews cultivate a self-image of the eternal victim.  In the masculine setting of the military prison, the transformation of armed soldiers, the epitome of hegemonic masculinity, into self-perceived victims of their own prisoners was neither simple nor straightforward (page 175).  Israeli Jewish soldiers felt that they were the real and only victims of the situation; even though the State of Israel and the IDF had devised and structured the institution that was victimizing them, they felt both victimized and justified in their actions (page 176).  Food bridges the gap between the theory and praxis of nationalism: food and eating were important topics within the reserve soldiers’ narrative of victimization due to the food not being fresh and the dining room staff doing their job poorly by failing to ensure that soldiers had better food (page 177).

Chapter 8 (“Thai Migrant Workers and the Dog-Eating Myth”) draws on Israeli misconceptions of Thai migrant workers’ eating habits to highlight broader social ambivalence towards Thai migrants.  Thai migrants make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce in Israel, and rumors abound about Thai migrants hunting and eating Israelis’ pet dogs.   This is an Israeli myth in order to define Thai workers as subhuman, therein justifying their economic exploitation as cheap labor and solving any ethical quandaries arising from said exploitation (page 187).   However, Thai migrant workers did occasionally kill their employers’ chickens (sometimes with their bare hands) in order to obtain fresh meat.  Meat is relatively expensive, and migrant workers oftentimes had neither the income nor the transportation to go to a market on a regular basis (page 194).  Israelis view hunting negatively, particularly as fresh game is harder to kill according to kashrut laws; instead, Israelis prefer to purchase meat.  Furthermore, Israeli animal farmers tend to distance themselves from the act of killing, which is done elsewhere and by other people, so they considered themselves life givers rather than life takers.  By killing chickens with their hands, often in sight of their employers, the Thai workers were demolishing the symbolic barriers that protected their employers from facing the violent death they were inflicting on the millions of animals they farmed (page 196).

More broadly, Avieli draws on Aziza Khazzoom (2003) to emphasize Zionism as a modernizing, Westernizing experience during which early incarnations of the Jewish Diaspora were stigmatized by their successors for being Othered and Orientalized (page 210).  Yitzhak Rabin’s government’s decision to import migrant workers breached some of the fundamental values of Socialist Zionism that practitioners professed to champion, particularly social justice and an egalitarian ethos.  Instead, Israelis employed aggressive Orientalizing and stereotyping techniques to deal with the moral dilemmas instigated by the hard employment of migrant workers (page 211).  In the same vein, Israelis portray Romanian immigrants as poor drunkards, Filipina immigrants as gentle and submissive, and West African immigrants as dangerous, masculine, and intellectually limited (page 212).  However, Thai immigrants didn’t fit these easy molds because Thailand remains a popular Israeli vacation destination and because Thai immigrants work in the agricultural sector, which Israeli Zionism highly values as the epitome of strength and self-reliance (pages 212-213).  As such, the association of Thai migrants with the hunting and consumption of dogs allows Israelis to both exploit the fruit of Thai migrants’ labor and to enjoy Thailand as an exotic vacation without any sense of guilt.

Several questions yet remain after Avieli’s extensive ethnography.  For example, are barbecues interpreted differently on normal days than they are on Israeli Independent Day, a holiday ostensibly dedicated to an Israeli show of victory over not only British colonizers from the 1948 War of Independence, but also current-day Palestinians for whom Israeli Independence Day is a reminder of colonial rule (pages 54-55).  Furthermore, Avieli never made it quite clear why he chose Sacher Park as a field site if, as he claims on pages 55-56, the park doesn’t fully represent independence-day celebrations.  Additionally, while Avieli discusses several very salient points regarding food preparation and consumption as representations of elite power, he does not provide any ways in which those without power can use food to gain power on their own terms, or at least to claim culinary legitimacy.  These expressions of identity through food are important cultural actions, as Avieli himself showed during his commentary on the Hummus War between Israel and Lebanon.

Ultimately, Nir Avieli analyzes several comprehensive vignettes showcasing that food is a means of exercising power in Israel.  Avieli uses these vignettes to juxtapose idealized Israeli qualities with current practices.  For example, by discussing Israeli soldiers’ consistent complaints regarding their fare in comparison to the Palestinian prisoners, Avieli draws out the contradictions between Israel as a superpower in the Middle East with the eternal Jewish self-image as “absolute victims” (page 227).  Additionally, the Israeli association of red meat with bloody masculinity despite the distaste with which Israelis view hunting and blood consumption, indicates a disparity between desired qualities of idealized masculinity and actual cultural practices.  The cultural elite’s foodways are de facto the assumed culinary pathways for the entire population, regardless of alternative cuisines and practices (page 225).  Mizrahi cuisine is an Israeli creation, a way of Otherizing Mizrahi Jews who otherwise enjoy a wide variety of foods not limited to the Israeli perception of Mizrahi cuisine as merely spicy and overdone (page 221).  In this way do minority cuisines become limited to stereotypes in the face of the elite’s culinary preferences and perceptions of other groups.

 

[i] Ashkenazi Jews are Jews of German and/or Austrian descent.

Mizrahi Jews are Jews of Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish, and/or Syrian descent.

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Review: Burger

Media of Burger

Burger (Object Lessons): Carol J. Adams. London: Bloomsbury. 2018. 174 pp. ISBN 9781501329463

 
James P. Verinis
Anthropology and Sociology
Roger Williams University

Along with personal stereo and veil and egg (part of a Bloomsbury series recently reviewed in the SAFN blog by Leslie Carlin), burger is a lesson in human material culture; the second to last page suggests a subtitle- “the everyday object of burgerness”. As such, it is also a lesson in the symbolic practice of burger-making and burger-eating, burger-buying and burger-selling… the living of our burger-lives. Part commodity chain analysis and part poetry, there is something for most everyone in the object[ive] of this series, which also fits in an average back pocket (the books are as portable as many of the items they are concerned with, which is certainly no coincidence).

Most everyone familiar with the anthropology of food or with critical food studies of some other form is familiar with Carol Adams. I’ve long enjoyed re-deploying her provocative statements about the “sexual politics of meat” in my classrooms. While the conspiracy against women vis-à-vis beef is hard for some to swallow whole, few can deny either the power of her prose or the truth she speaks to powerful foods. burger is, like The Sexual Politics of Meat, a powerful work, if less overtly provocative or confined to the gender of things. At a few slightly awkward points Adams seems to be unsuccessfully reining her rant in, as she drops sharp lines like “cheap animal flesh on a bun” or “flesh-eating democracy” at the end of otherwise objective or bland sections on nutrition or U.S. history. Mostly the book is a superb invitation to contemplate both the pathetic lack of human imagination which drives contemporary burger innovators to simulate eating experiences that consumers assume are simply the results of primal human desires as well as the marvelous potential these same innovators see to further manipulate these cultural predispositions to accomplish such feats as reversing climate change.

Adams begins with the fetishization of cow flesh (as opposed to pig or deer) in the Old Testament and amongst the Romans, for example, before reviewing what is argued to be its most creative and monstrous form and the Americans who have conceived it. Our hands get greasy from eating burgers at county fairs and lunch wagons and car hops. And whether we like it or not we’re stunned, as the animals themselves are stunned and killed, by the systemization of the animal market in flesh. The numbers of cows killed annually today, miles of fencing, acres of annihilated space, and tons of growth hormones and antibiotics that have been required to produce cattle at hyper-industrial scales are altogether mindboggling, as is the spectrum and percentage of environmental damage that can be attributed to it all. The reader weaves through popular literature such as that by Eric Schlosser and more scholarly foundations erected by the likes of William Cronon, mainstream movies and surreal art. It’s kind of a perfect pocket book, and yet Adams also asks questions I’ve never heard anyone ask, such as why no grand narrative of violence associated with killing bovines has ever been deployed to further celebrate the myth of masculinity vis-à-vis hamburger meat.

The answers to this and other questions lie mostly in the histories of Western “technologies of violence”. Second to barbed wire fencing as perhaps the next most embodied form of structural violence in this story is the meat grinder, which “macerates and camouflages”. The resulting “whoppers” and “chubby boys”, as euphemisms for male erections, extend sexual dominance so far that perhaps there really is no need to also hone in on the specific violence perpetrated by mankind upon bovines. Mission accomplished.

We move through semiotics and “interspecies history” in this way to biochemistry and politics and law to other disciplinary techniques used to reveal or conceal the scope and power of meat. One hamburger contains the DNA of more than a thousand cows. Ag-Gag laws and the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” protect animal cruelty from acts of civil disobedience by conflating transparency on factory farms with terrorism.

In this book Adams also seems to create perhaps the definitive history of the non-meat/veggie/in-vitro meat burger. While some of these sections may have less oomph than those previous (certainly reflective of the disinterest most of America has long seemed to have in non-meat patties), together they foreground the incredible point the country seems to be at in terms of the “cognitive dissonance” surrounding burgers. The founder of one promising non-meat burger company, Beyond Meat, suggests we think about meat in terms of composition and not whether it comes from an animal. As he says of his plant-based protein burger, “At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is getting meat to people.” Is this really the precipice of a new frontier in burgers? Yes and no I guess. We’re only human after all.

That’s what we’re working with here in the end- our vast yet limited human potential, in terms of our relationship with animals, what we’re willing to put in our mouths, our capacity to understand the ways we follow capitalism’s lead and distract ourselves into not thinking about it, and what this all has to do with the Anthropocene. Adams lays out the bare bones as well as the myths we tell ourselves about burgers with unsettling and inspirational style. In so doing, she provides the uninitiated student and the casual consumer as well as the expert in critical food studies a handbook for the new burger age.

Adams, Carol. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum International, Oxford: Polity Press, 1990.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

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Review: Eating Nafta

 

Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico. Alyshia Gálvez. University of California Press. 2018. 260pp. ISBN:9780520291812.

Joan Gross

Oregon State University

Alyshia Gálvez has written a very important and timely book about the connectedness of international trade agreements, migration, diet-related diseases and the loss of biodiversity. She focuses on the two decades plus since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 and its impact on the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border. Gálvez interweaves large scale statistics from reliable sources with her own ethnographic encounters with people from various walks of life, rural and urban, labor migrants and politicians. She complements her decades-long ethnographic fieldwork with discourse analysis and policy analysis, linking the micro with the macro. She pays particular attention to the changing lifestyles of rural Mexicans who no longer can support themselves with milpa agriculture since the USA began dumping subsidized corn in Mexico. Not only have their diets changed, but they can no longer maintain multigenerational households as they have been sucked into a cash economy and family members have migrated to cities and abroad in pursuit of cash. She tells us that today Mexico imports 42% of its food and has a 55.1% poverty rate. She tells us that the top three causes of death and disability are now diet-related chronic diseases. She tells us that in 2007, 12.8 million Mexicans were residing in the USA. She proposes in the Introduction that we consider this as a kind of structural violence. “’Gringos’ clamor for handmade tortillas, while Mexicans have become the world’s top consumers of instant noodles” (p. 10).

Chapter Two provides an ethnographic look at the elevation of traditional Mexican food into the world of haute cuisine, blessed by René Redzepi, the celebrated Danish chef. Gálvez examines “the role of narrative capital in telling certain kinds of stories that simultaneously romanticize specific elements of cuisine (like hand-ground landrace corn), while cleaving them from the historical conditions of their production and the people responsible for their development and custodianship over millennia” (p.30). Mexican cuisine was inducted into UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. Gálvez addresses the timelessness of the UNESCO description, while providing examples of changes in Mexican cuisine since the Spanish conquest, and notably since NAFTA. Some farmers of landrace corn fed it to their animals because the price and demand was so low, but today, top chefs are paying premium prices for ancestral corn that they serve along with huitlacoche, insect larvae, mezcal, and other traditional Mexican foods that have been newly discovered by elite chefs and diners. Gálvez stresses the importance of stories and who gets to tell them. She recounts stories that Mexican farmers tell about hybrid vs. criollo corn. Hybrid corn “requires more water and pesticides, costs more, and behaves like a spoiled baby” (p. 60) according to Nahuatl-speaking farmers of  Asunción Miahuatlán. Other farmers justify the higher cost of raising hybrid corn with market demand for the larger ears eaten as corn on the cob.

Chapter Three shifts from corn to goats, but repeats the messy pattern of some people deciding to continue raising criollo goats which taste better while others follow the advice of government agronomists to invest in fancy goats. Gálvez rehearses for us the history of Mexico’s development policy and the constant desire to make agricultural production more “efficient.” She argues that small-scale agriculture is compatible with other subsistence and economic activities and it ensures biodiversity and environmental sustainability. Central to her argument is the contrast between a market-driven food security model promoted by free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and a food sovereignty model that calls for democratic control of the food system. As marginalized rural residents are blamed for Mexico’s “inefficiency,” their displacement has led to increased consumption of US products and labor migration to the US, both actions subsidizing the US economy.

Chapter Four begins with a description of Doña Yolanda’s small store, filled with candy and other processed foods. Stores like this are typical in many poor countries, so I was glad that Gálvez spent some time explaining the attraction of getting into this type of business and the competition they face from larger chains, such as Oxxo and Walmart. She describes how processed food at first marked cosmopolitan modernity, but now is associated with lower status. Mexicans have embodied free trade and the nutrition transition in the form of widespread obesity, though Gálvez questions whether the cause is skyrocketing consumption of sugar or the myriad chemicals used in farming and food processing. She states that chemical exports from the US to Mexico increased 97% in the first decade after NAFTA was passed.

Chapter Five addresses strategies to combat obesity and diabetes in Mexico. Here, Gálvez points out that the solutions to this problem always seem to rest on the individual and don’t address changes in the larger food system. She, then describes three parts of the Mexican government’s response to diabetes and obesity: the soda tax and regulations on food marketing; the anti-poverty program, Prospera; and the Crusade against Hunger. She shows how the latter two strategies propel people towards a cash-based economy and away from traditional knowledge concerning healthy food. She ends the chapter with a discussion of women’s labor and how, even when working outside the home, women are expected to be responsible for the diets of their families. As their access to money increases and their time decreases, they are more likely to rely on prepared foods. The author points out that it is not fair that they and not the state should be held responsible for obesity.

Chapter Six looks at diabetes and asks about the role of migration in the rise of this disease. The focus is on the relationship between stress and diabetes on one hand and stress and migration on the other. She cites Mendenhall’s work on syndemic suffering which calls attention to the intersection of both diseases and epidemic social problems. Research is only beginning to explore the connections between diabetes and stressors such as separation from family members, discrimination, labor exploitation, poverty and lack of health insurance. The diets of migrants change, but also the migradollars they repatriate increase the consumption of larger quantities of processed foods back home.

Chapter Seven begins with watercress, a food that many Latin Americans have a nostalgic response to, but that never figures into stereotypes of Latin American cuisine. Gálvez asks “how many humble but clearly significant foods are forgotten in the transition to more urban lifestyles or with migration?” (p. 174). She also asks how much of our nostalgia for certain foods is nostalgia for the contexts in which they were produced and eaten and notes that migration intensifies nostalgia for specific places and tastes, especially when free circulation is prevented. Decontextualization enabled traditional foods to be appropriated and commodified like the expensive tamales offered by Williams -Sonoma or McDonald’s McBurrito. In response, food activists are promoting traditional foods and their health benefits as part of food sovereignty. At the same time that traditional Mexican cuisine is going global, global products like Coca-Cola have invaded indigenous culture and ritual and this, in turn, has become a useful marketing tool.

In the Conclusion, Gálvez tells the story of one Mexican migrant to New York who found his way back to the land with help from a non-profit called GrowNYC. The migrant in this story stands in contrast to the multitude of Mexican migrants who have become “’surplus bodies,’ and bodies as repositories of surpluses, storing the products of overproduction and uneven trade negotiations” (p. 192). Gálvez proposes that the rise of diet-related illness in Mexico is “a logical result of the prioritization of foreign direct investment, industrial agriculture, theories of comparative advantage, and a specific role of development that sees no role for small-scale agriculture” (pp. 192-193). At the end of the book, she takes us back to alternative movements such as GrowNYC that promote social justice, resistance and resilience  while promoting ways of eating that “build our connections to each other and to land and culture” (p. 199). Nevertheless, she warns that solutions require more than consumer activism at the local level.

Throughout the book, Gálvez often shifts her discourse from explaining to giving the reader insight into the conversations and observations that led her to make particular points. Sometimes these are descriptions of encounters; at other times, direct transcriptions from interviews in Spanish. These are not translated in the text, but merely summarized and commented on. (Interested readers can find the exact translations in the endnotes.) It’s a refreshing style that maintains reader interest in the topics at hand while also opening the research curtain. Gálvez successfully presents the complexity of a food system gone awry and the important role played by NAFTA. I highly recommend it as a text in courses dealing with food systems, social justice, migration and public policy, as well as courses on Latin America.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cuisine, diabetes, economics, globalization, Mexico, neo-liberal public policy