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Review: Puer Tea

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Jinghong Zhang. University of Washington Press. 2014

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University)

Many scholars believe that the province Yunnan, in southwest China, is one of the most important places in the history of Chinese domestic tea-producing. The ethnic minority groups in Yunnan started cultivating tea about one thousand years ago, but it was in the last two centuries that Han migrants became involved in tea trading and made Puer—a unique type of tea to the region—well known to inland China. The tea is named after a town that was then the center to Puer tea trading in southern Yunnan and is one of six categories of Chinese tea. The writer Zhang, who was born and raised in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, has been familiar with Puer tea since her childhood. Perhaps this underlies her later interest in studying Puer tea: after she realized Puer tea’s growing popularity, and especially the rapid soaring and plummeting of trading prices in the Puer tea market in 2007, she became deeply interested. In tracing the “detailed social biography” of Puer tea, Zhang set out from Yiwu, Yunnan, where tea is produced for several other Chinese cities (e.g. her main research site Kunming). She planned to study its “packaging and unpacking process”—a “jianghu” culture developed around the theme of “handcraft authenticity” (2015:9).

As Zhang explains in her introduction, jianghu, literally means “river (jiang)” and “lake (hu)”[1]; it is often used as an analogical concept in Chinese folklore (related to fantasy novels of martial arts, or more precisely wuxia[2] portraits) and literature, describing a world outside of state governance. This creates a set of implicit yet practical rules and common understandings of righteousness, morality, and authenticity by leading heroes (or xiake[3] in Chinese, similar to vigilantes/knights) and their people. In the following chapters, combining approaches from anthropology and ethnography with unique Chinese concepts such as jianghu, Zhang shows us how the different actors and intrinsic features in the world of Puer tea resembles the world of jianghu in Chinese culture, reflecting current consumer culture and business practices in modern China. The book also presents a complicated picture of contradictions people face in regard to new forms of individuality, social relations, intellectual pursuit, cultural and national characters, and so forth in today’s Chinese society.

Puer Tea consists of an introduction, eight chapters—featuring the theme of four seasons which parallels a yearly cycle of tea producing—and a concluding chapter. While tea as a plant grows as the seasons change, it is also a well-known tenet that human life should follow the seasonal rhythms. The two chapters of “Spring” depict the production of Puer tea as a “sprouting” phase for the book in Yunnan: Zhang introduces the history of Puer tea in southern Yunnan in general by exploring the reconstruction of the “tradition” of raw Puer tea in Yiwu, with specific discussion on the construction of authenticity of Yiwu’s raw Puer tea. Furthermore, by telling captivating ethnographic stories, she sheds light on the aspects valued by consumers and producers who admire Yiwu tea: contrasting the features of Yiwu Puer raw tea with “the other”—the artificially-fermented Puer tea that is produced in much shorter time from Menghai. She shows how both the local and the nonlocal constructed their identities through the making of “imagined originality” which proves its authenticity (53). Further, she addresses the challenges producers in Yiwu are facing while the demand of their Puer tea grows. Indeed, as she points out, the business of Puer tea is like “the world of jianghu,” as it can further reveal aspects of modern Chinese culture as a close-up and condensed version of the transformation the entire society is going through. For example, she addresses the concerns about authenticity of Puer as an aspect of Chinese-style individualism:

Though not a dominant theme in Chinese history, individualism does exist and is quite evident in certain contexts, as in the case of jinaghu actors, whether in reality or in martial arts fiction, Chinese to act bravely in trying situations and to find their own solutions with their own special skills. If the factors affecting the “original aura” of Puer tea production are read as the social distinctions and counterforce among jianghu individuals, such anxiety over authenticity appears to be rooted in conflicting desires activated in the Reform era and by rising commoditization (76).

Thus, as Zhang discusses in this book, although the current official regulations for Puer tea may not be sufficient to eradicate the counterfeits, the competition between multiple jianghu voice for the standard of authenticity has filled the gap and in turn influenced the market in a variety of ways.

The following two chapters of the “Summer” section explain the convoluted relationship of the name “Puer” as a place claimed to be the original/authentic representation of Puer tea, while the controversy of what is authentic Puer remains a topic for discussion. Zhang introduces the debate about the origin of Puer tea between Simao and Xishuangbanna from multiple perspectives. For instance, while contention between these two areas remains central to the local development, it is “unnecessary” on a provincial level. Both areas are in the Yunnan province, and most consumers and even tea experts accept Puer tea from “Yunnan” without making distinctions within that geographical designation. Thanks to the success of Puer tea, the history of Ancient Tea-House Road has also been revisited recently by the Chinese public. The home of Puer tea, as Zhang summarizes, is “transregionally authenticated and multiply imagined” (103). Similarly, while the economic and geopolitical forces transform the definition and packaging of Puer tea, there are also consumer voices evaluating Puer tea and demanding clarifications of the quality standards. These ongoing debates, such as the “heating up” and “cooling off” of Puer tea as a result of “hastened transformation” and the coexisting desire “to package Puer tea” and “unpack it,” resemble the jianghu Zhang proposes, embodying contentions, constructions, and negotiations among different actors in different social contexts (120).

The remorse of autumn is a common theme in Chinese literature. In the autumn section (chapter 5 & 6), Zhang investigates the local families involved in the private tea business. Through ethnographic materials, Zhang shows how the preferences of consumers in Taiwan affect the changes in Yiwu, and thus profoundly transformed Yiwu’s local culture. In the jianghu of Puer tea, the standards of the valued and the appreciated “are open to the influence of history” (141). Many local families had stopped other activities such as raising livestock, growing rice, or producing soy sauce, dedicating their time and energy in the Puer tea business instead, which brought them better income. At the same time, similar to the fair-trade coffee business in Rincón (Mexico), Daniel Jaffee discusses in “Brewing Justice,” the potential price fluctuation for products such as coffee and Puer tea can be quite unpredictable and therefore dangerous to family businesses. In the time of the coffee crisis, the sudden plummeting of coffee prices had greatly changed the producers and their families’ lives (2014). In the case of Puer, people have encountered a recession of the market in 2007, which leads to another process of transformation in local practices that Zhang proposes best described by the Chinese concept hua.

In traditional Chinese philosophy, the concept of hua refers to “ubiquitous transformation.” In the jianghu context of Puer tea, Zhang argues that hua “intrinsically indicates the strategies and settlements employed by multiple actors to transform an unsatisfying situation into a comparatively more satisfying one (145).” For instance, people use “chenhua” to refer to the “aging” or “fermentation” process in storage, which transforms “the astringent feature of raw Puer tea” into “a mild, smooth quality” (145). Despite the lack of the government’s effective supervision, a practice such as chenhua allows local people to redefine the authenticity of Puer “flexibly and pragmatically,” recontexualizing and transforming local pragmatic strategies.

The last section of the book, Winter, presents tea tasting events in teahouses in Kunming (complemented by the films she recorded). Zhang was most elaborate on the one organized by Sanzui (one of the most influential tea websites in China), which discusses whether the aged Puer tastes better and what condition it should be stored in to produce the best taste, in order to resolve the “battle” taking place on the Internet (their website) about the issue. According to Zhang, the tasting is more about human interaction (human space) than the supposed thematic tea storage space on site. In her analysis, she proposes that this event touched on “multiple layers of space.” For example, the space for the topic of this event—the tea storage space and the site where the tasting actually took place—the teahouse, are two layers of space she mentions. What is interesting to me is the role of cyber space: it was the cyber space where all these people first discussed Puer tea, which then turned into a debate that made it seem necessary and possible to hold this event in the teahouse. Further, the sensorial information of the event was recorded in the form of photos and articles posted on the website, and the discussion of the tasteful experience in the event also flourished on the website later that day, instead of an immediate discussion at the site of tasting. These interesting facts reflected how people constructed their identity in the real-life tasting event quite differently than they would have on cyber spaces. At the same time, we could also see the sensorial representation of the actual event on the internet as another dimension of the actual tasting event—people could post their pictures and comments to the website in the tasting session and also read other posts. In a way, it is quite similar to the function of social media ten years from then, which also makes me wonder what the tasting would be like today with the prevalence of the social media. I imagine most of the people would post pictures and videos on site to their WeChat moments (in Chinese, it literally means the “friend circle” among one’s contacts, and mostly consists of the friends in one’s life. Almost everyone has access to their WeChat and Wechat Moment[4] at any point on their phone, as long as the phone can use cellular data), which can reach almost any Chinese in theory. Many business like Sanzui and organizations have their official account on WeChat in order to take advantage of the access to the immense user market.

Zhang’s Puer Tea provides a rich and multi-perspective ethnographic account of the jianghu of Puer tea in China in the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially in connecting the packaging and unpacking of different actors in the process of “making” and transforming the authenticity of Puer tea. By investigating into a variety of narrations and representations, Zhang presents us a snapshot of contemporary China where debates and contentions are constant and ever-changing.

Jaffee, Daniel, 2014.  Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. Berkeley Univ of California Press.

[1] The Chinese character for jiang is “江” ; hu is “湖.”

[2] Chinese: 武侠

[3] Chinese: 侠客

[4] Wechat (微信) is an instant massaging app in China. Wechat moment is a social media platform in this app. People can post pictures, videos and messages to their friend circles and read others’ posts in it.

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Review: Food Parcels in International Migration

Food Parcels in International Migration: An Intimate View. Diana Mata-Codesal and Maria Abranches (Eds.) Palgrave 2017.

Rhian Atkin (Cardiff University)

The prospect of a book dedicated to research on the ways in which food and food-related items circulate within and across geopolitical borders, and are used to maintain old affective ties and establish new ones, is exciting. The coming together of foodways research and migration studies holds the potential for us to understand more deeply the ways in which material cultures may support settlement of individuals in places that are new to them. From such understanding, more may be done to support those who migrate, as well as the communities into which they migrate. As such, the title of Food Parcels in International Migration holds great promise, suggesting even the development of methodological and analytical frameworks that could be used in the study of food parcels specifically. The subtitle, “intimate connections” points to the ethnographic approaches that underpin each of the eight chapters which, along with the editors’ introduction, are collected in this book.

The eight chapters employ a variety of methods to their studies of how individuals send and receive food in migration contexts, from a reflective autoethnography, to multi-sited fieldwork that makes use of observational and interview methods. Through all of the chapters, it is clear that, for people who migrate, food becomes crucial to the elaboration of their identities as migrants. It is equally important to the maintenance of old social and family relationships as well as to the establishment of new affective ties. As chapters 3 and 4 reveal, however, the sending of food by family members is not without its tensions, even as it is a means of expressing love. The circulation of comestibles by and among migrants may also be a way to elaborate and (re)produce knowledge and traditions from their place of origin, as two articles on migration from West Africa to Europe show (chapters 7 and 8). Specific ingredients might be revealing of the changes in their own food practices that people who migrate experience (chapters 3 and 6), including being a way to show hospitality and share in the life of those who remain in the place of origin (chapters 6 and 7). The affective facets of flavour, and the preciousness of the taste of home for those who can perceive it, are also covered, and in some detail, in chapters 2 and 8.

The editors’ introduction underlines the focus of the book as a whole on the materiality of maintaining contact across borders, and the ways in which migrants are connected to distinct places at once. Mata-Codesal and Abranches make a convincing argument for the book and seek to cast a certain level of cohesion on what is perhaps a somewhat disconnected   collection of articles. It is a pity that the editors do not seek to define what is understood by “food parcels”: the concept is used very loosely in some chapters, with “parcels” seemingly referring to anything from jars of ajvar (a paste widely used in South-East Europe) to the supply of ingredients to Mexican restaurants in the USA. The introduction also sets out the rationale for the organisation of the volume into three sections: the first on “Food, Identity and Belonging”; the second on “Transnational Kinswork”; and the final section on “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”.

Some chapters in particular are well worthy of note for researchers in the field, and stand out in terms of the approach taken and the rigour of the research:

Raquel Ajates Gonzalez stresses, as do a number of the contributors to the book, a sense of continuity across borders in chapter 3: “Thank you for the Cured Meat, but is it Grass-fed? Contested Meanings of Food Parcels in a New Nutrition Transition”. Gonzalez draws out some of the tensions that emerge through food gifts, using a reflective, auto-ethnographic account of the author’s reception of parcels that include traditional hams and sausages sent to her from family in Spain. In her new environment, where she is both surrounded by and immersed in food concerns around health, sustainability, care and waste, these gifts take on a greater significance in both harking back to the person she was prior to migration and showing up the gaps in continuity of those family relationships which either don’t respond to, or are unaware of, the person she is now. In this captivating account of receiving three food parcels embedded in a solid and convincingly argued scholarly framework that draws on epidemiological nutrition transition theory, Gonzalez brings to light the various shifts in meaning that food items undergo in transit, and the contradictions, values, anxieties and pleasures that food parcels bring to light at the same time as they maintain the relationship between senders and recipient.

Part III, dealing with “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”, is the most revealing section of the book. Chapter 7: “West African Plants and Prayers in the Netherlands: Nourishment through Visible and Invisible substances” focuses on Islamic esoteric knowledge and practices made possible for Senegalese and other West African migrants in Europe by the transport and circulation of plants from West Africa in informal networks. Like some of the other articles in this volume, the author, Amber Gemmeke, could be more explicit about food parcels; nonetheless, it is clear that Marabouts and other migrants are reliant on the items that are transported by, for and between migrants, and that the material practices of herbal medicine are made possible by them. In this way, both the plants themselves and the people (Marabouts) who travel with them and perform esoteric rituals both in West Africa and in Europe act as a force to bridge geographical distance and facilitate settlement and feelings of continuity.

The affective resonance of foods and items relating to food is also the focus of Tiago Silveiro de Oliveira’s outstanding chapter 8: “Inkuminda di Téra: the Informal Circulation of Cabo Verdean Food Products”. This study focuses on Cabo Verdean migrants in Lisbon and their various interactions with foodstuffs – as transporters of food parcels and as consumers and producers of Cabo Verdean foods. This wide-ranging chapter touches on numerous key issues, from the ways in which architecture can change foodways, to the importance of objects of repeated use in producing stability and comfort in the migratory process, to the connections and relationships sustained and established through the transport of food, to the effects of affective associations on how people taste. Oliveira’s rigorous chapter is rooted in deep scholarship and draws extensively and productively on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Cova da Moura and Zambujal, two districts of Lisbon.

Read as a whole, Food Parcels repeatedly shows up the centrality of food and food-related items to the migratory experience, despite some variation in the quality, depth and rigour of individual chapters. Throughout the volume, food is shown to take on values that go well beyond nourishment, sustaining relationships, producing tensions, producing continuity, revealing separation from the place of origin. It is a pity that the editors chose to give the volume such a specific title, for this creates expectations and produces a sense of disorientation, at least for me, when not all of the articles focus on food parcels, and when this term, so central to the title and introduction, is never really defined. Many of the chapters, which seem somewhat disconnected in this specific context, would make more sense placed together under a different broad title for the volume. It is also a surprise, given the title, that there is no attention at all paid to food parcels in emergency contexts – particularly given the international refugee crisis that continues to leave displaced people reliant on food chosen for them by others. The geographical scope of the volume is, in fact, somewhat limited: of eight chapters, two focus on Filipino migrants (both of these chapters are based on fieldwork   from a decade ago, with one being a summary of material already published elsewhere); two on West Africans in Europe; three on intra-European migrations, and one on Mexicans in the USA. Given the range of possibilities that a volume on Food Parcels in International Migration ought to present, it is a real pity that the editors did not choose to commission a wider-ranging (and, in some cases, more up-to-date) set of contributions. In their introduction, the editors lament the lack of “solid, analytical frames through which to look at the relationship between food and migration”, and the potential for this volume as a whole to contribute to providing such frameworks is disappointingly unrealised. Nonetheless, the Introduction provides a review of relevant literature that is surely useful to scholars and students alike, and there is no doubt that the collection provides useful resources for more experienced scholars working on food and migration, who are able to overlook the rather unrepresentative title, distractingly frequent errors in English usage, and certain articles whose conclusion is unconvincing. These concerns aside, the volume does work together despite itself, in its collective uncovering of some of the ways that food is used in migratory processes and in the refreshing focus on individual stories. The pleasure of reading approaches to autoethnography such as Gonzalez’s or the solid and original work of Oliveira and Gemmeke on West Africans in Europe provide highlights and moments of inspiration for food researchers.



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Review: Eating the Ocean

Eating the Ocean. Elspeth Probyn. Duke University Press, 2016.

L. G. Brown (Indiana University)

In, Eating the Ocean, Elspeth Probyn contributes to an anthropology of food in two ways. First, the book offers a feminist and queer perspective on fisheries anthropology. Second, the book endeavors a unique ethnographic exploration into the food politics of fisheries. She says, “My message is simple: There is no place in which to escape the food politics of human-fish entanglement” (Pg. 5). This message is three-fold. First, it reminds consumers that we are all in some way responsible for the depletion of our world’s oceans, and all of the terrible things that happen in the fishing industry, including human slavery. Second, the crisis we see within our oceans is structural, related to the crisis of social class in our food system, namely differential access to food choice based on wealth and poverty. As she states in the introduction, “The idea that you can solve such intricate and complicated human-fish relations by voting with your fork is deluded narcissism” (Pg. 10). And third, that while considering the ethology[1] of more-than-human relations, humans have to remember that we are in a position of power, which means that, despite our best efforts to effectively communicate, we are often speaking on behalf of non-humans, usually without their permission.

This book is like a breath of fresh sea air, cool, briny, and gently laced with the scent of dead things. Much like the dead things in a marine environment, fisheries research is rejuvenating itself, providing space and nutrients for new life forms. Probyn is a Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She reflects on her positionality as a queer, feminist scholar transitioning into fisheries and seafood research throughout the book. On the one hand, she worries that scientists, her university, and her peers would question her interest in fisheries, finding it trivial, perhaps even punishing her for ‘changing’ her presumed research identity (Pg. 17). On the other hand, she can see that this gendered gaze in the sciences represents a larger dis-engagement from women involved with fisheries in any capacity, whether through research or practice (she dedicates Chapter four to a discussion about gender and fish). In the words of Barbara Neis, “Gender relations permeate fisheries at every level” (Neis, 2005, p. 7). The very identity markers—female, queer, gender studies professor—that make Probyn a ‘fish out of water’ in doing fisheries research are the same attributes that make her voice in the field so valuable.

‘Queering’ human-fish relations is Probyn’s touchstone, one that she very effectively articulates throughout the book. She expands on Stefan Helmreich’s notion of ‘athwart’ theory, which he develops in Alien Oceans as, “an empirical itinerary of associations and relations, a travelogue which, to draw on the nautical meaning of athwart, moves sideways, tracing contingent, drifting and bobbing, real-time, and often unexpected connections of which social action is constituted, which mixes up things and their descriptions” (Helmreich, 2009, p. 23). She adds, “To Helmreich’s use of the nautical sense of ‘athwart’… Eve Sedgwick’s understanding that the word ‘queer’ itself means across—it comes from the Indo-European root –twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), and Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart… a continuing movement, recurrent, eddying, and troublant” (Sedgwick, 1993, p. 12). Probyn’s ‘athwart’ theory describes the epistemological ‘turbulence’ emerging from human-fish encounters.

Probyn incorporates this ‘athwart’ theory into her methodology. From Australia to Scotland, California to Peru, her fieldwork is dispersive. Likewise, she collects data from a wide variety of sources including poetry, film, ethnographic records, and government documents. Some readers may call the book an auto-ethnography about fisheries politics using seafood consumption as an entry point. She calls herself a ‘wet’ ethnographer (Pg. 14). “As a wet ethnographer—wet in the doubled sense of being a soft ethnographer who dredges ocean tales—I tease out connections and relate them” (Pg. 14). I assume that Probyn is referring to ‘soft’ here also in a double sense—to compare her qualitative methodology to a more quantitative, or ‘hard’ science approach, and to draw out a gendered binary between the two types of data analysis. Much of the author’s fieldwork is based on participant observation and interviews, and she sticks to a qualitative data analysis.

Probyn also refers to her ethnographic methodology as a ‘rhizo-ethology,’ “a dialogic and embodied practice” (Pg. 14; Deleuze, 1992). She notes that her reference to the rhizome as a signifier for interconnectedness is likely familiar to many terrestrial scholars (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). However, fewer scholars apply this concept to the ocean and its many progenitive marine spaces. Therefore, Probyn challenges a public and scientific discourse which ‘simplifies the sea’ as a solitary cultural milieu (Pg. 24). Crediting Deleuze, she says, “… I follow multiple entryways into the entanglement of humans and non-humans, into our vexed encounters within different ecosystems” (pg. 25). More explicitly, she focuses on the complex relationships humans build with fish as food (aside from her foray into mermaid lore in Chapter 4). This enables her to, “think about ways to develop a reflexive ethics of taste and place” (back cover).

Chapter One describes oceans as ‘affective habitus,’ problematizing seafood choice as a one size fits all solution to an environmental crisis, and sustainability as a ‘heteronormative end goal’ (Pg. 47).  The chapter gives a good overview of seafood politics, feminist critiques of sustainability. She gives a general overview of fisheries politics and research from the last one hundred years or so. She also proffers a unique analysis about seafood documentaries, including The End of the Line, which focuses on depleting fish stocks around the world, and its rejoinder Drawing the Line, which focuses on fishers’ responses to marine conservation efforts. At the end of the chapter, she makes an interesting argument for temporality and caring, asking how we come to care about the ocean and its many inhabitants, and how we sustain that sense of moral obligation. She uses this question of attachment to the sea as a segue way for her next chapter on taste, and other sensualities.

Chapter Two is all about oysters, where Probyn moves to a more direct engagement with taste, embodiment, and briefly, class inequality. For those readers interested in taste and the senses, Probyn offers a useful literature review on the topic here, and applies it well to the context of fisheries politics and seafood consumption. Riffing on Annmarie Mol (Mol, 2008, p. 28), she says, “I eat an oyster… the oyster eats me” (pg. 52). She uses this phrase as an entryway into questions about subjectivity in eating. Then she talks about oysters and sex—the ways that oysters reproduce, “Oysters are very queer” (Pg. 53), and the ways that humans interpret oyster materialities in variously impassioned ways (see Lewis Carroll’s, “The Walrus and the Carpenter” poem and discussion on Pg. 56). She retells M.F.K. Fisher’s autobiographical story, “The First Oyster,” which is about so much more than oysters, as you may have guessed. “The delightful taste of oyster in my mouth, my new-born gourmandise, sent me toward an unknown rather than a known sensuality” (Pg. 54; Fisher, 1990, p. 376). The rest of the chapter is about her fieldwork in Scotland, eating oysters, and visiting an oyster farm, which doubles as a community revitalization project.

Chapter Three is about tuna fishing, ranching, and Individual Transferable Quotas. In it, she tells a fascinating tale about a handful of Croatian-Australian men and one German-Australian man who forever changed the Bluefin tuna industry. Probyn derives much of the narrative content in this section from her own interviews and participant observation with these industry professionals, perhaps more so than in any other chapter in the book. Though the book is technically outside the purview of anthropology, she makes a few friendly references to some well-known anthropologists who study fish and fisheries including Agnar Helgason and Gisli Pálsson, Icelandic fisheries experts (Pálsson & Helgason, 1995); Theodor Bestor, Tsukiji fish market extraordinaire (Bestor, 2004); as well as a lesser-known, though equally important anthropologist, Kate Barclay, who studies transnational tuna fishing, industry, and trade (Barclay, 2008).

Chapter Four is about gender in fisheries. She starts the chapter with an anecdote about her experience researching the subject. A male marine biologist apparently assumed that she was researching mermaids when she got in touch with him about this book. A seemingly innocuous assumption, I can empathize with her sentiment that she felt like, “[her] passion for fish-human ways of being was demeaned, reduced to a little girl’s whimsy” (Pg. 101). She winds up writing extensively on mermaids in this chapter as a result. The rest of the chapter she dedicates to a breakdown about the fisheries industry and social inequality in terms of gender. She starts with a feminist critique of sustainability narratives that assume women are better at sustainability because they are closer to nature. Yet, in countless fisheries examples, women have held special knowledge about shifts in fish stocks, materialities, and ecosystems but no one bothered to ask them what they knew. Their voices simply count for less than male voices.

Chapter Five is about little fish. In this chapter, Probyn talks about her love of sardines, and the fisheries in Peru who produce anchovies for fishmeal to feed animals, and fish oils to sell as dietary supplements to the wealthy. The chapter includes the story of a female activist in Peru, Patricia Maljuf, who set out to make anchovies edible again (Majluf, 2013). Majluf works with fishers, processors, and chefs to market anchovies as a delicate and tasty tinned treat, like sardines, only different. She also discusses multitrophic polyculture, and visits an algae lab. She ends the chapter with a discussion about fish relatedness, and ‘metabolic intimacy,’ a concept she borrows from Annemarie Mol and John Law (Law & Mol, 2008), and builds on through the chapter. She says, “As a concept, it directs us to think about the multiple trophic and structural levels through which we (fish, humans, animals) are related” (Pg. 148). Probyn uses this concept in addition to Jane Bennetat’s conceptualization of ‘vibrant materiality’ (Pg. 136; Bennett, 2009, p. 39), and Ana Tsing’s notion about, “the arts of noticing the entwined relations of humans and other species across non-nesting scales,” which Probyn first develops at the end of chapter four (Pg. 126; Tsing, 2014, p. 237).

Through these chapters, Probyn moves easily between fisheries research references from the social sciences to a more novel discussion about literary narratives and pop culture references, including a brief discussion about the humans who pose naked with tuna, and other seafood. This theme, weaving together science and folklore, imbricating fiction with non-fiction, the myriad forms of visual, written and oral history is something that Probyn plays with throughout the book. To me, this is the book’s greatest strength. It lends her an authorial edge in the genre. ‘Queering’ fisheries research in this way, Probyn invites a whole new generation of trans-disciplinary scholars to the field. I would guess that graduate students will find the book refreshing, and undergraduates, more challenging.  In my experience, students love to learn about seafood. And this book provides a unique, and exciting overview of the topic. Meanwhile, it makes meaningful change to the politics of human-fish relations, and of gender in the social sciences more generally. Readers may also find the book an accessible introduction to fisheries research in the humanities, and to more-than-human ethologies in the social sciences.

However, I felt the author could do more to untangle the relationship between social class and sustainability, including a more thorough discussion of race (she does expound a bit on race and in the context of gender studies in Chapter 4). Given her strong message about structural inequality at the beginning of the book, I hoped she might spend more time deconstructing the interplay of seafood, sustainability, and social class throughout. She does argue that middle-class consumers who identify with ‘localism’ in seafood consumption often perpetuate ideals about racial and moral purity (Pg. 3, 107). She does talk about the struggle for capital among fishers, especially in chapter two, oyster farmers in this case, as well as the many folks who work other jobs in the fisheries industry, namely women, which she covers well in chapter four. In contrast, in chapter three, she focuses on a group of billionaires who hold large quantities of Blue Fin tuna quotas, an important reminder that not all who make their living on fisheries production are poor. She speaks more directly to global inequalities in fish consumption in chapter five when she discusses fish oils as problematic dietary supplements for the wealthy, not to mention the additional double-bind for pregnant women who have to balance methyl-mercury risks with Omega-3 Fatty Acid intake (Mansfield, 2012). Though her fieldwork on the topic of structural inequality between consumers in human-fish relations is lacking.

While the book does so much to further social inquiry into the relationship between humans and fish, I wanted to hear more about structural inequality among humans, especially as consumers. How can we come together to confront seafood politics and sustainability across our class divides? From what I understand, her intent with this book is to move the discourses of sustainability and seafood politics away from the same old moral directives which privilege white, upper-middle-class, heteronormative, cis-males, and the reproductive structures that pattern social inequality in our everyday lives. The same class politics that are inherent to consumerism also play out in human-fish relations, reproducing structural inequality between humans, fish, and the ocean. When researchers frame the oceanic crisis within the ‘Anthropocene,’ they often reproduce this collective politics, or social inequality in discourses on sustainability and seafood consumption (Pgs. 12).

In her conclusion, she says that we all need to pay more attention to seafood politics and try to build closer relationships with fish, fishers, and the ocean as consumers. More specifically, she recommends eating more little fish, such as sardines, anchovies, and oysters. Her argument is that these smaller fish are more readily available, and underappreciated. It remains unclear to me who this message is for. Is the message the same for low and high-income consumers? Are sardines, anchovies, and oysters affordable seafood options for most consumers? Are consumers at Long John Silver’s responsible for shifting cultural tastes in the same way that consumers at Nobu are? Notwithstanding, this book is important for what it does do: bring together a queer and feminist perspective on seafood politics with fisheries research in the social sciences. Perhaps the relationship between social class and seafood sustainability is something that Elspeth Probyn will explore in more depth in another book, one that I will be sure to read.




Barclay, K. (2008). A Japanese joint venture in the Pacific: Foreign bodies in tinned Tuna. Routledge.

Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Bestor, T. (2004). Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. University of California Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Ethology: Spinoza and us. Incorporations, 625–633.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. London: Continuum.

Fisher, M. F. K. (1990). The Art of Eating. New York: Hungry Minds.

Helmreich, S. (2009). Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbial seas. Univ of California Press.

Law, J., & Mol, A. (2008). Globalisation in practice: On the politics of boiling pigswill. Geoforum, 39(1), 133–143.

Majluf, P. (2013). The Very Elusive Win-Win-Win (A Story of Greed, Overfishing, Perceptions, Luck, and Hopefully a Happy Ending). (Paper presented at the Changing Coastlines Symposium). Sydney Australia.

Mansfield, B. (2012). Environmental Health as Biosecurity: “Seafood Choices,” Risk , and the Pregnant Woman as Threshold. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, (October), 37–41.

Mol, A. (2008). The logic of care: Health and the problem of patient choice. Routledge.

Neis, B. (2005). “Introduction.” In M. Binkley, S. Gerrard, M. C. Maneschy, & B. Neis (Eds.), Changing tides: gender, fisheries, and globalization (pp. 1–13). Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) Fernwood Pub.

Pálsson, G., & Helgason, A. (1995). Figuring fish and measuring men: the individual transferable quota system in the Icelandic cod fishery. Ocean & Coastal Management, 28(1–3), 117–146.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1993). Tendencies. Duke University Press.

Tsing, A. L. (2014). Strathern beyond the Human: Testimony of a Spore. Theory, Culture & Society, 31(2–3), 221–241.


[1] The study of animal behavior, including humans, from a biological perspective.



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Review: The Taste Culture Reader (2nd Edition)

The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink. 2nd edition. Carolyn Korsmeyer (ed). Bloomsbury, 2016.

Greg de Saint-Maurice (University of Toronto and EHESS)

Taste is of interest to anthropologists of food and nutrition, of course, but also to researchers and professionals in a large number fields—psychologists, biochemists, artists, philosophers, and many others. I once heard Professor Rick Wilk talk about a conference he attended at the Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue in 2015. Cognitive scientists, physiologists, food scientists were among the participants. It struck Rick that they all located taste somewhere completely different: the cognitive scientists looked to the brain and nervous system, the physiologists the retro nasal cavity and tastebuds, and the food scientists argued that the sensory qualities of food were in the food itself. Clearly, researchers approach the study of taste from many angles and often do not engage in substantial interdisciplinary dialogue.

The Taste Culture Reader, edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer, in a revised second edition, offers an introduction to the vast literature on taste. It is difficult to review the second edition of The Taste Culture Reader independently from its predecessor because the first edition was successful and very well received. Texts and perspectives varied along a number of dimensions. It included excerpts of foundational texts like Brillat-Savarin’s “On Taste” and M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Pale Yellow Glove” alongside newer work by leading scholars like Amy Trubek (“Place Matters”), Lisa Heldke (“But is it Authentic?”), and David Sutton (“Synesthesia, Memory, and the Taste of Home”). The volume’s eight sections covered a wide range of subtopics, namely physiology, history, flavors, spirituality, aesthetics, discernment, emotion and memory, and authenticity. Among other things, this diversity of texts and perspectives ensured that the volume considered taste alternately as: a field for scientific study, a “lower” bodily sense in the Western philosophical tradition, a notion largely synonymous with flavor, a means of establishing cultural distinction, a tool for social cohesion, a very subjective phenomenon, and a realm of moral and religious consequence. Geographically and culturally, the contributions spanned the globe, illustrated by the juxtaposition of Jack Goody’s “The High and the Low: Culinary Culture in Asia and Europe,” D.T. Suzuki’s “Zen and the Art of Tea,” Marjo Buitelaar’s “Living Ramadan,” and Richard Watson’s “On the Zeedijk.”

The first obvious requirement for a second edition that comes out 12 years later is that it is updated and includes recent material speaking to new questions and themes. Two of the strongest additions to the volume can be found in Section III, Eloquent Flavors. This section, which already contained classic material from Sidney Mintz and Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes, is particularly of interest to anthropologists. The first addition is a brilliant analysis by M.J. Weismantel of how Zumbagua Quichua-speakers classificatory terms for talking about food and taste are used as a means of adjusting to cultural-economic change. The second is a very short but nonetheless thought-provoking excerpt of Francois Jullian’s about the insight we can gain from classical Chinese perspectives on what might be called “blandness” or “flavorlessness” (an underresearched topic, to be sure).

With the existence of other readers (and blog lists) on the scene, however, the mere incorporation of recent material doesn’t necessarily justify a second edition, even when a dozen years have passed since the first. But because Korsmeyer recruited authors to write new original material, this second edition is more than simply an updated survey of relevant literature about taste, food, drink, and culture. On the whole, her strategy proves to be a very successful one. In Part I, Taste: Physiology and Circumstance, for instance, the foundational excerpt from Brillat-Savarin, a somewhat dated reprint of a useful Bartoshuk and Duffy text on chemical approaches to smell and taste, and a now shortened contribution by Paul and Elizabeth Rozin, are complemented by an original chapter about multisensory approaches from experimental psychologist Charles Spence. As a chapter written specifically for this volume, it is current, eminently readable, and explicitly engages with the volume’s core themes—taste, food, and human experience. In the 2005 edition, Part VIII was titled Artifice and Authenticity. In the second edition, it has expanded to become Artifice, Authenticity, and Artistry with three new pieces all consisting of chapters written specifically for the volume. Here the volume’s diversity is evident in a new way: the invited original material includes pieces that you might not ordinarily find in scholarly journals about the topics of food, taste, culture, and society. Case in point is the chapter by Claire Schneider, an art director who writes about the exhibit “Eat Your Hearts Out: A Sensual Migration through Buffalos’ Past, Present, and Future” which she curated.

As much I recommend this second edition to scholars interested in issues connected to taste, it has its flaws. In her introduction, Korsmeyer notes that the now 43-chapter reader contains gaps—notably related to the topics of health and ethics, but explains that “an anthology must draw boundaries for both unity and for practicality, and this necessity has mandated that several important subjects be left for future consideration.” This comment leaves me hoping for a third edition that will go even further, adding reprints of relevant but under-read texts and new original material, in order to minimize overlap, keep the reader current, and create a textual dialogue about the diversity of human experiences with food, drink, and culture.




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Review: The Sociology of Food

The Sociology of Food: Eating the Place of Food in Society.  Jean-Pierre Poulain.  Translated by Augusta Dorr.  Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Richard Zimmer
Sonoma State University

This is a wonderful and rich book because it situates food in a central position among a variety of social and behavioral sciences and other fields, such as medical and nutritional sciences.  Jean-Pierre Poulain is one of the foremost French food sociologists. In this book, which is separated into two major parts, with new chapters added recently, Poulain argues that the person who is eating should be the focus of all food studies. Past studies, he contends, were too narrow and missed the opportunity to integrate inter-disciplinary perspectives.  He argues that this person-eater focus enables the beginnings of this interdisciplinary discussion to address both theoretical and practical/policy related questions.

Poulain provides both French and cross-cultural examples to illustrate his conclusions and uses French culinary history and gastronomie as a measure of food changes around France and the world.  In brief, he contends that the person- eater can consume what her or his society, technology and economy. The person-eater eats within pre-existing and changing cultural, commercial, and technological determinants not only as to what to eat, but how to eat it in different social settings.  The person-eater may alter what s/he eats in part under the influence of changes in these areas as well. For example, many people who had previously been concerned about how much to eat shifted their concerns to higher quality food in the last thirty years (p.62.)

Initially, and throughout the two related parts of the book, Poulain addresses the history of the ways in which anthropologists have included food in ethnography.  Functionalists like Alfred Radcliffe-Brown saw food as part of social ritual and the economic system.  Aubrey Richards carried it further, placing food as central to both physical and cultural life (p.119.) Marvin Harris argued that food should be seen in the ways that ecological factors affected what foods a society eats (p.150.)  Claude Levi-Strauss focused on the ways people categorized food in terms of its relationship to eating and other social categories (p.114 et seq.)

This is just a sampling of Poulain’s discussion.  He reviews sociological thinking about food amongst all the major English, European, and American researchers, anthropologists and sociologists. He situates it in the differing perspectives of Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, social fact and social space, respectively. This discussion is extremely useful to scholars unfamiliar with the history and scope of this larger discussion.  Poulain extends Mauss’ approach to a larger social space. This discussion then provides the opportunity for Poulain to address the necessity and desirability for social and behavioral science interdisciplinary studies. Eventually, other disciplinary studies, such as nutritional and medical ones can be included as well.

Additionally, he situates his larger food discussion in more culturally-oriented studies, such as those concerning gender and area studies.. In his concluding chapter, New chapter: Food studies versus the socio-anthropology of the “food social fact,” Poulain contends that institutional funding, national politics, and political trends affect the emergence and direction of various cultural studies and sees food as included as well.

In the first part of this work, Poulain addresses in a more specific way how eating patterns have changed through history, particularly focusing on French and American practices. The French, he argues, are now experiencing “gastro-anomie”–eating without the “old” rules of French culinary practices.  The French, for example, are now eating smaller lunches in less time, American style.  Many no longer have all of the dishes of the “classic” French meal, reducing five courses to three (81-184).

Poulain also examines the evolving French eating experience to changes in religion, particularly Catholicism.  Food, for the French, becomes a celebration of this life and is not simply seen as a necessity or as some way of punishing one’s self, as  he contends English Protestantism  does (pp.188-195.)  As another example, except for pagan “holdovers” in some parts of France, the slaughter of animals has been secularized, in large part because, in Catholicism, the sacrifice of Jesus itself required sacralization, and the prayers for the sacrifice of animals therefore did not need any ritual accompaniment (192 et seq.)

As suggested, above, he also reviews changes in French cuisine, the Americanization of food, and the changes in eating among different ethnic cuisines of the world.  For example, meals, commonly shared in Vietnam, when eaten in France, are eaten by an individual person (21).  There are more of these intriguing observations, too many to mention here, and worthy of interest and commentary.

In Chapter 5, Obesity and the medicalization of everyday food consumption, Poulain addresses the ways in which societies define obesity and its relation to the notions of beauty and to changing ideas about nutrition.  I find this presentation worthwhile. There is a related issue worth raising, however, one about which I am concerned.  I am a psychologist as well as an anthropologist. As a psychologist, I assess clients for gastric bypass and laparoscopic surgeries because many have found it impossible to lose weight.  Poulain does not address this issue.   These people run the risk of Type II diabetes and significant collapse of cartilage between their joints, as well as the possibility of heart attacks. Furthermore, no attention is paid to the fact that so many people who are severely obese have been sexually abused and/or have been raped.  (See, for example, Gustafon and Sawrwer 2004). Their obesity is, in part, a response to that trauma and must be respectfully addressed by trained clinicians working with similarly trained physicians and nutritionists.

Overall, this is an excellent book that will stimulate and provoke research and discussion both within disciplines and cross disciplinarily.  As noted earlier, it is an excellent resource for understanding the history of the “food social space” in past and present social science.  In addition, the translation is excellent. Lastly, it is appropriate for professionals in the field and graduate students.  Selected chapters may be useful for upper division students as well.


2004 Gustafon, T.B. and D.B. Sarwer. Childhood Sexual Abuse and Obesity. Obesity Reviews.

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Review: Selling Local

Selling Local: Why Local Food Movements Matter.  Jennifer Meta Robinson and James Robert Farmer.  Indiana University Press, 2017.


Ryan Adams
Lycoming College

Jennifer Robinson and James Farmer bring personal experience and long-term interest in farmers’ markets and local food to their overview of the current state of the local food movement in “Selling Local”. The book is organized around distinct facets of the movement with a chapter devoted to farmers’ markets, another to Community Supported Agriculture, and two additional chapters conglomerating topics like food hubs, urban agriculture, plain Amish/Mennonite communities, gendered challenges, and land acquisition, among others. A chapter prior to the conclusion presents a really wonderful analysis of local food using Nobel Prize winning scholar Elinor Ostrom’s systems approach to common-pool resources. That excellent chapter was a little out of synch with the rest of the book, but once again demonstrated how much insightful and counter-intuitive understanding can be generated with Ostrom’s approach. The conclusion is an impassioned argument in favor of the promise of local food. “Selling Local” is not anchored within a particular discipline nor does it seem well positioned to shift or reframe the current scholarship on local food, but it is a solid, wide-ranging, descriptive book written by experts with a sympathetic and in-depth understanding of farmers selling their products locally.

The local food movement could be studied from many viewpoints, such as a cross-cultural point of comparison to theorize political and economic agency (Counihan and Siniscalchi 2014), as a lens to understand how consumers construct their cosmopolitan identities (Johnston and Baumann 2015), or contextualized as one part of larger social activist projects (Cobb 2011). Robinson and Farmer have directed their efforts toward identifying the challenges and opportunities faced by farmers as they start and sustain farms selling food locally. It is not exactly ethnographic, but their long experience and strong rapport with farmers have led them to include meaningful anecdotes to illustrate their claims. I found these brief farmer profiles fascinating and illuminating. The authors are also well versed enough in local food to expertly identify the key trends and key issues, and to summarize how those trends and issues might impact farmers.

The book may not reliably capture aspects of local food in places that are significantly different than the American Midwest and Appalachia. The material is only partially relevant to my ongoing research in Brooklyn, NY and San Juan, Puerto Rico, for example, but is a very accurate reflection of the market vendors and CSA farmers in Williamsport, PA. I imagine people working in wealthy Pacific Coast cities or the arid and ethnically diverse Southwest might experience similar limits in application, not to mention non-American settings.

Because the authors have focused more on solid, well-researched descriptive claims, the book is likely to prove relevant for a long time. “Selling Local” will not reshape the scholarship of food movements, and it does not debate and analyze the historical causes of the contemporary local food movement, but given the wide scope and descriptive tone, it would be an excellent choice as one of the core readings in an undergraduate class on the topic of food.

Cobb, Tanya Denckla (ed). 2011. Rclaiming Our Food: How the Grossroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat. North Adams, MA: Storey

Counihan, Carole and Valeria Siniscalchi (eds). 2014. Food Activism: Agency, Democracy, and Economy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic Press.

Johnston, Josée and Shyon Baumann. 2015. Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge

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New Associate Editor

Dr. Katharina Graf (, who recently received her DPhil in the Anthropology of Food from SOAS-University of London, will be joining SAFN as Associate Book Review Editor for the Blog. Katharina’s immediate project is to begin soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact her directly.

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