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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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

2004 Gustafon, T.B. and D.B. Sarwer. Childhood Sexual Abuse and Obesity. Obesity Reviews.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2004.00145.x/full

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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.

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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 (kg38@soas.ac.uk), 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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Review: Bitter and Sweet

Bitter and Sweet: Food, Meaning and Modernity in Rural China. Ellen Oxfeld. University of California Press, 2017.

David E. Sutton
Southern Illinois University

The residents of Moonshadow Pond, a village in the Guandong province of southeastern China, care deeply about their food. Food procurement, preparation, sharing and eating is a constant topic of everyday conversation, both for its pleasures and its stresses and strains. Indeed, bitter and sweet are not just important flavors balanced in the local cuisine, they represent embodied metaphors of proper and improper ways of engaging with food. In this book, Ellen Oxfeld, who has conducted research in the predominantly Hakka village of Moonshadow Pond since the early 1990s, sets out to describe the food based worldview of this community in order to understand the interlocking ways that rural villagers enact social relations, experience migration, generational change and the changing aspects of life in contemporary China. Bitter and Sweet consists of an introduction, five substantive chapters and a brief conclusion. In each chapter, Oxfeld lays out a key theme in understanding the foodways of Moonshadow Pond: Labor, Memory, Exchange, Morality and Conviviality. Food, here, as in other recent works such as Jon Holtzman’s Uncertain Tastes or Anita von Poser’s Foodways and Empathy, provides a way in to exploring contemporary social life in a small community. Indeed, it is not just because it is so highly valued in Moonshadow Pond, but also because food seems to demand an understanding of questions of labor and economics, gifts and exchange, consumption and morality, history and memory, that it makes an ideal vehicle for giving new life to classic anthropological concerns with continuity and change at the local level.

“Labor” describes villagers’ changing relationship to the production of food and how that production is conceptualized as younger generations potentially leave agricultural labor behind or migrate to cities for jobs. Traditionally labor is thought of as gengtian, or “tilling the soil.” Moonshadow Pond has seen changes over time from periods of polycropping and animal husbandry to periods (especially in the collective era) of almost exclusive focus on rice (prepared plain or as congee, a porridge dish). The collective era (from the Revolution till around 1980) was also unusual in that agricultural labor was shared between men and women. Typically, women are primarily responsible for agriculture, while men’s labor is more oriented toward wages or other market activity. Since the reform era, the younger generation has increasingly moved away from agriculture, as “peasant” identity can be a stigma. While a primarily female older generation does much of the agricultural labor now, older women often make demands for aid during harvest or at other times on the younger generation, and such agricultural work and family provisioning is seen as providing security against the uncertainties of work in cities. While the distribution of agricultural labor in families can be a source of tension, gengtian is also a powerful symbol of “work for the family.” As Oxfeld notes, “’Eating one’s own rice’ is still highly valued, even if the reality of the younger generation’s work lives is making this goal more and more difficult” (53).

Oxfeld’s discussion of food labor does not end, as it so often does, with tilling the soil. The labor of food production equally demands shaohuo, or “tending the kitchen fires.” The labor of cooking in Moonshadow Pond is less divided by gender and generation. Although older women take the primary role, men and the younger generation are also comfortable in the kitchen, both in terms of everyday cooking and the extra labor involved in preparing celebratory banquets or special holiday treats (nianban). This is strikingly illustrated in Oxfeld’s description of being the only adult on a trip to a local mountaintop with a group of 20 6th graders:

After arriving [at the mountaintop], the students unpacked their knapsacks. They had pots and pans, cooking oil, cooking implements, and basic ingredients—cut up pieces of meat and vegetables, a bit of soy sauce, and fish sauce. At the top of the mountain these sixth graders, boys and girls tougher, started a fire and with a rice pot and wok proceeded to work together to cook lunch for the entire group. Imagining a similar situation in the United States, I was quite certain that the children would have taken sandwiches and bags of potato chips out of their backpacks instead (61).

This last comparison is telling because it underlines Oxfeld’s larger argument in this book that despite some inroads, food has not been commodified and subject to the forgetting of its sources that we see elsewhere, or even in more urban environments in China. As she sums up: “…the labor of food production within the village is still mainly incorporated into ongoing relationships based on social obligations, memories, and notions of moral debt” (71). It is to these topics that the subsequent chapters are addressed.

In her chapter on memory, Oxfeld explores the way food is made to stand for different periods of time. For example, in the “recall bitterness meal” during the Cultural Revolution, people were enjoined by the government to eat a paste made of bitter vegetables and rice chaff to remember their suffering during the pre-liberation era, and the sweetness of their current lives. Such memory practices could turn anti-hegemonic, as older villagers told Oxfeld that the meal brought to mind the recent experience of the Great Leap Forward rather than pre-revolutionary times (79-80). One of the intriguing things about Oxfeld’s approach to food memory is that she organizes it around different key foods and what they stand for. Thus, congee vs. rice can stand for the difference between times of poverty and relative plenty (when you didn’t need to stretch out rice by adding water), but also can be associated with the food of your childhood. Whereas eggs, which lend themselves to distribution within families, evoke memories of family diplomacy and conflict, as well as being associated for some with bribery in simpler times—times in which a party cadre might pay off his mistress with a simple egg! (89). Food memories also lend themselves to comparisons between tradition and modern times in terms of sociability—even periods of dearth and famine might be recalled nostalgically for their sense of solidarity, as opposed to the more plentiful, but atomized experiences of the present day.

The theme of sociability is explored in subsequent chapters as well. In analyzing food as “exchange,” Oxfeld explores both market and gift exchange. Within market exchange local markets remain preferable to larger, anonymous markets, precisely because they retain a certain transparency about the origins of their products that is lost in more advanced commodification. Local foods taste better and are healthier, as residents of Moonshadow Pond seem to resist the allure of the foreign and the “modern.” “’ You just shop in the market if you have no alternative,’” one woman underlines (102). While food is the subject of much informal, everyday exchange, Oxfeld pays more attention to the formal exchange that happens at banquets, describing in detail some of the key types of banquets held in the village, as well as typical recipients of banquet hospitality, which include not only family and neighbors, but other village presences, including gods, ghosts, ancestors and beggars. Indeed, an extended description shows how the role of beggars in contemporary feasts parallels that of ghosts in some traditional religious feasts: as a force that must be placated or dispatched in some way to insure ongoing health and harmony. Overall, Oxfeld takes a “circulatory perspective” (126) on exchange, echoing the classic insights as to the changing biographies of things as they pass through different social roles and undergo various value transformations.

Oxfeld’s chapter on “morality” gives considerable attention to proper “moral” exchange relationships within families, and how they have been impacted both by changing politics and economics. If sharing food and caring for children and elders defines family morality, these values have been tested during different time periods both by the dearth of famine and by the greater self-sufficiency of the contemporary period. During the Great Leap Forward, for example, attempts to collectivize cooking led to the destruction of family kitchens—key symbols of family unity, while at the same time the state attempted to encourage collectivization by using metaphors of “large families” to which people should transfer loyalties. In the reform era care for elders is still an ideal, but not unquestioned, as younger people juggle multiple considerations in their relationships with parents and parents-in-law. Oxfeld traces the nuanced moral discourses people use to negotiate particular circumstances in which exchange is used to create as much as to reinforce moral expectations, and  “elderly women are trying to engender a new sense of obligation that was not assumed in the past” by cooking for married daughters.a Oxfeld also looks at the ways that food discourses are used as moral discourses, in which “eating” is always a morally-charged expression with the potential to suggest taking more than one’s share or “gobbl[ing] up” public resources (146). I found this similar overlaying of social practices of food sharing and metaphorical uses of eating in Greek people’s conceptualization of their current economic crisis in which the ubiquitous concept of solidarity is often instantiated in food sharing, and in which the question of who “ate” during the good times and who did not make tangible and visceral discussions of blame and responsibility for current predicaments (Sutton 2016).

The final chapter, on “conviviality,” brings these themes together again through examining the pleasures of eating together and the sense of sociability that so often accompanies shared food. Here Oxfeld introduces two key concepts: rarity (nande) and “red hot sociality” (renao). Rarity is the appreciation and celebration of circumstance that allows for the bringing together of people for a far-flung family reunion, or even simply everyday opportunity for socializing that is extended through food (“You came just in time for my eggplant fritters!” (162)). Renao is a concept that combines emotions, social relations and sensory stimulation, a kind of Chinese version of collective effervescence, which allows for a celebration of social connection. Renao can be extended through food, but also through substances such as alcohol and tea—when deployed and managed properly. Banquets and family celebrations are typical settings for the production of renao, which can encompass both hierarchical banquets and more intimate and egalitarian gatherings. Similarly, gatherings need not be sumptuous nor expensive to achieve renao, simply socially convivial, which “’is constitutive of living in a socially meaningful way’” (161). Oxfeld’s stress on memorable meals as at the heart of proper conviviality and sociality put me in mind of my own research in Greece. During the past six years of the Greek economic crisis, the question of living with “dignity” has centered around issues of reproducing a life where meaningful social relations involving food sociability are under threat. Spending time in a coffee shop with friends, or finding alternate ways of enjoying scaled-back food celebrations which still can produce the Greek version of “red hot sociality,” have been ongoing themes in contemporary life under crisis conditions.

Bitter and Sweet is a rich and detailed ethnography that makes a convincing case for following food through its transformations as it is created, exchanged and consumed to reveal myriad themes of contemporary social life, what I would call a “gustemological” approach to culture. Though Oxfeld doesn’t discuss this explicitly, I think that her book is an excellent reminder of the ongoing importance of a holistic approach based in deep knowledge of a particular place that incorporates both historical and ethnographic perspectives. This book would make for an excellent choice in courses on food and culture, as well as for any scholars interested in a window onto contemporary China and its recent historical transformations as seen through the lens of food discourses and practices.

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Review: Metabolic Living

 Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and The Absorption of Illness in India. Harris Solomon. Duke University Press, 2016

Gauri Anilkumar Pitale
Southern Illinois University

          This original ethnographic work studies the meanings and practices surrounding metabolic functions in the everyday life and diet of contemporary urban Indians. Set in the city of Mumbai, the author challenges the reader to question the notion of “globesity”. Such terms loom important in the epidemiological considerations about the sudden increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes in India in the past few decades. Solomon provides the readers with detailed ethnographic vignettes that render his interlocutors as real people with problems and issues connected to city living, the same problems that affect their bodies in turn. Using the concept of ‘absorption of illness’ as the central theme of the book, the author states, “I consider how people make connections between food and urban life to explain that absorption is taking hold as the ground for experiencing and making sense of chronic illness” (Pg. 5).

            The book begins with a discussion of the ‘thin-fat’ Indian phenotype, used by scientists to comprehend the current rates of obesity and diabetes in India. Trying to attack the concept of metabolic syndrome from many perspectives, the author generates an ethnography that takes into consideration the problem of obesity and diabetes from several different directions. He carefully begins this book by discussing the Indian thin-fat phenotype. This phenotype, typical of Indians, results in the Indian people having a high amount of central adiposity (abdominal fat). A phenotype resulting from the environment of the womb (connected to the thrifty phenotype theory), this theory suggests that Indians are more susceptible to metabolic disorders. Diabetes and obesity are therefore developmental in origin. Giving us an account of his visit to Dr. Yajnik’s clinic (Dr. Yajnik is one of the two authors who proposed the theory of the thin-fat Indian phenotype), he reports Yajnik’s opinion that there is a need to address the underlying susceptibility of Indian bodies to being afflicted by metabolic disorders, rather than focusing purely on the treatment and prevention of the diseases themselves.  Talking to householders and the other people that he encountered throughout his fieldwork, Solomon plots the changing perspectives in relation to food and the body. He considers the conception of both the food and the body from the viewpoint of doctors, epidemiologists, scientists, nutritionists, housewives, street food servers, and manufacturers of processed food products.

            Tracing the historical perception of the problem of diabetes in India, Solomon brings forth the idea of “tenshun”. “Tenshun”, that mental stress which his interlocutors claim, afflicts the mind and predisposes people to obesity and diabetes, is at the heart of the epidemic that plagues contemporary Indians. Hinting at the ever-shifting discussions about bodies, he brings to light the many terms that people use to refer to overweight and obese bodies. This is important because people in India are showing signs of obesity. The words used range from mota (Hindi for fat) to the usage of the English word “healthy” to allude to overweight or chubby bodies. Diseases too are referred to with specific names. Diabetes could be referred to simply as sugar and cardiovascular disease as blockage. Solomon’s aim in discussing these terms is to imply that metabolic disorders have become common enough to form a part of the daily conversations of Mumbaikars. The threat of being afflicted with diabetes or obesity is real and looms large in their minds. This brings us back to the idea of “tenshun”. Through the course of this book, Solomon brings to light his interlocutors’ claims that merely living in Mumbai makes one’s body absorb the stresses of living, in turn creating diseased bodies that suffer from metabolic problems. Every discussion about obesity and diabetes gave way to deliberations pertaining to stress. His participants assert that the stresses of city living affected their diets, the development of their illness, and their body’s responses to such health conditions.

            Solomon weaves the chapters of his book together using interludes. These interludes, tangentially connected to the general theme of illness absorption that is so central to this book, are heavily fleshed out ethnographic vignettes about the city of Mumbai. These detailed descriptions talk about the mango madness that endangers the carefully prescribed diets given by exasperated nutritionists. They tell us of the struggles of Manuli (Manuli is that suburb of Mumbai where Solomon carried out household research) locals in attempting to have the governmental authorities take note of their troubles over accessing their share of food owed to them through the state’s ration card. These vignettes transpose the reader to the site of the study. They render Mumbai as a city of multiple communities and provides the reader with a multi-faceted understanding of Solomon’s field site.

            The strength of this ethnographic work lies in its multi-pronged approach. Not only does he interact with housewives, so well known as the domestic gatekeepers of Indian households, he also studies and interviews food corporation researchers and marketing heads, whose aim is to float “functional foods” that these very housewives will allow into their homes. By considering the struggle between the concerns about adulteration (milawat) which his respondents focus on intensely, the author discusses the newest fad of “functional foods” which are becoming popular in Indian households. Functional foods are foods created by food companies to render everyday staples healthier. Functional foods promise “extra benefits” because they are enriched with vitamins and minerals. They espouse to function categorically by aiding in the prevention of metabolic disorders. Fast gaining popularity in India, functional foods claim to assure buyers that they will alleviate their health problems. In such a manner, everyday staples such as wheat, rice, flour, and milk become functional foods. In the face of fears about adulteration and metabolic problems, the author demonstrates why and how functional foods are gaining traction in India.

            Solomon pushes the envelope on the famous concept of ‘gastropolitics’ put forth by Appadurai and studied by many food scholars since. Using the example of the famous Mumbai vada-paav, he connects street food to the very identity of urban spaces. Focusing on the vada-paav, referred to as the “lifeline of Mumbai” by some of his interlocutors, he pushes forward the concept of gastropolitics to demonstrate to the reader that street food can be reflective of politics, power, and class dynamics within a city. Attempting to trace the origin of the vada-paav, its usage, and its attempted standardization by both political parties and food corporations, the author states, “By moving beyond the confines of street food as a bounded entity, it is possible to map the reaches of gastropolitics into livelihoods, community injuries, dreams of urban renewal, and transnational enterprise” (Pg. 75).

            In the latter half of the book, Solomon focuses on the clinical therapies and gastric bypass surgeries taking place in Indian hospitals as the site to study the discussions pertaining to metabolism. While early on in the book he deliberates on the ever-blurry food-drug boundary, in the latter half of the book he acknowledges the necessity of looking at diets as therapy. Shadowing clinical dietary therapists and nutritionists, he demonstrates the daily struggles of both the clinicians and the afflicted when it comes to nutritional therapy.  In a clinician’s office where metabolism is being treated as a site of problem, multiple medical epistemologies collide. As Harris states, “These counseling visits illustrate the power of diets to coordinate the uncertainties of the metabolism” (Pg. 160). In these clinics, the onus is not only on the patient’s metabolism but also on their compliance. Dieticians insisted that patients’ compliance or non-compliance was what affected the result of dietary therapy. The dietician’s office was also a place where functional foods were prescribed to ailing patients. Such clinical therapies involved first measuring the patients’ bodies, both outwardly and internally. Weighing and measuring bodies went hand in hand with blood sugar, cholesterol, and hormonal level test. Through his ethnographic vignettes, Solomon manifests that the Ayurvedic concept of food as medicine is significantly overlapping with biomedical treatments for metabolic disorders. The result is a medical landscape that is vastly varied but one where food takes the center stage when it comes to health and disease.

            Solomon concludes the book by considering the idea that “as metabolic illness increasingly occupies global health interest and investment, what is needed is a perspective on metabolisms and their disorders different from one grounded in concerns about overconsumption” (Pg. 228). By tracing the historical food flows, the current shifting foodscape of Mumbai, the food standardization attempted by corporations, the author demonstrates to the readers that metabolic diseases are firmly entangled in social, political, gendered, and historical processes. Harris claims that through his work he approaches the concept of metabolism ethnographically. He states, “My principal concern in this book has been to develop an ethos of absorption at the interfaces between food and living” (Pg. 227).

            A wonderfully evocative ethnography, Solomon’s book makes one reflect on the very nature of metabolic syndrome. How does one address the solutions to a health problem that is so closely connected to food? The very food and eating which are sacred, political, social, and emotional.  Metabolic syndrome renders food as a focal point. Food can be addictive, rendering one’s body diseased, or it can be therapeutic, cleansing one’s body from the inside. Through this book, Solomon relays and reflects on this problematic relation, challenging medical experts to consider a multi-layered approach to solving the issues of obesity and diabetes that plague contemporary India.

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Review: Real Pigs

Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork Brad Weiss. Duke University Press, 2016.

Neri de Kramer
University of Delaware

 

         This book is an ethnography of the various actors behind the local market for pasture-raised pork in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. It is based on fieldwork on farms, farmer’s markets, in butcher shops and restaurants. This impressive number of fields allows the author to describe the whole system of local pig production from the historic ancestry of the pigs in question to the eventual headcheese spread on crackers at the end. It offers a detailed account of the values, practices and networks that go into the creation of slow, local, food systems readers like us tend to appreciate.  

            The central objective of the book is to show how social actions and networks produce “real” pigs. To this end, the author explores all dimensions of the local pork production process (including the cultivation of the cross-breed, husbandry practices, butchery, marketing and cooking) and shows how they are connected in a network of producers and consumers and embodied by the pigs themselves in both a material and symbolic sense. This embodiment of practices and social relations is what makes these pigs real: more real than pigs raised in industrial confinement systems which are characterized by a fragmentation of history, place, animals, workers and consumers.

            The author’s ambitious theoretical approach is to combine political economic questions of production and consumption relations with phenomenological interpretations of the symbolic and embodied qualities of pastured pigs. While he does consistently show how the two are inextricably intertwined, relying heavily on Bourdieu’s theory of practice which roots the meaning of distinctive, class-affirming consumptive practices and preferences in social class position stemming from production relations, the book reads more as a phenomenological ethnography. It is important to realize this before reading this book, as it is written in dense discourse that may stump an unassuming reader. The emphasis on phenomenological interpretations might negatively affect the book’s accessibility to students and lay readers interested in the workings of local food systems.

            While the author is clearly personally invested in and enthusiastic about pastured pork in his home state, he thankfully does not romanticize or naturalize the system, the people, or the pigs in a Pollanesque way. At the same time, much as he wants to, the author is also not able to use his deep understanding of this local system to formulate a vision for a viable, revolutionary alternative to industrial hog farming confinement operations. He does show that the niche market for pastured pork emerged out of the conditions created by this system, which he describes in an historic overview in chapter 1, but this representation solidifies the distinction between the two systems rather than offering a hopeful view of the kinds of transformation that this niche market and their inspired actors might bring about in the broader system. Part of the problem is that what really motivated food activists to try to create an alternative to this system was not the working conditions and lives of the human growers and processers exploited by this system, but the environmental consequences and sustainability concerns of this way of producing food.  Weiss recognizes and honestly exposes this (unintended) racism and classism of the alternative food movement but ultimately offers no critique and no prospective solutions.

            Chapter two is about the construction of the local and describes how the networks of actors and their practices helped re-establish a connection between taste and place that was severed by the industrialization of pig farming and its reliance on enclosed confinement systems that got pigs “off the ground”. He shows in this chapter how raising pigs “on the ground” changes the meaning (and I would have added price) of the final product into local pork. In so doing, he denaturalizes the notion of terroir and shows how this is not some innate quality of a physical place, but actively constituted by the people at work in the local food system. He also describes how particular husbandry techniques help develop a distinctive taste in the pork, so that the pork from this system comes to taste of the way it was raised (“funky”, “like barnyard”): This is a lucid example of the way in which these heritage pigs embody social practices. The process of teaching consumers to discern this flavor, through branding, is also part of this and critically important, for if people could not taste the difference between industrial pork and local pork (and actually, not everybody in the book can) there would be less reason to buy it.

            Chapter 3 takes a similar denaturalizing approach to the notion of heritage. Weiss explains that it is not the actual genetic lineage of the Ossabaw Island Hog that establish its meat as local heritage pork, but the various practices, activities and discourse that give it this meaning. The meaning of this pork still stems from biology however, because certain husbandry techniques actually alter the genetic makeup of these pigs, which is another excellent example of the biocultural nature of the embodiment of practices and meaning in local pigs.

            Chapter 4 offers an ethnographic account of artisanal butchery programs that allow consumers to butcher parts of their own pig and thus gets a hands-on connection to the animal and the craft. These classes facilitate a bodily experience, not only of what it means to be an artisanal butcher, but also of the physical animal itself that is obviously missing from the experience of buying a piece of pork in a supermarket.

            Probably the most successful chapter in terms of combining political economy and phenomenology is chapter 5, which considers pork fat and how the experience of its taste motivates and gives shape to alternative modes of pig production and consumption. Though this sounds like a classic Mintzian story, Weiss delves deeper into how best to understand the sensory experience and perception of taste anthropologically, before showing how the taste of fatty pork inspired the production process that brings it into being and became an important foundation for the local market in pastured pork. He explains that taste is more than a personal and ephemeral experience, but also inherently social in nature, requiring memories, experiences, social networks and cultural capital to be recognized, appreciated, and communicated. Because of this social nature, taste can inspire social action and thus have political economic effects. He also describes how the taste of fatty pork came to stand in contrast to the industrial pork production system itself. We are reminded of the fact that many Americans do not seem to think of pork as a strongly flavorful meat, because of the way industrial pork production methods have changed pigs to yield lean bacon and long, lean tenderloins. This means that in this central North Carolina community, supermarket pork’s lack of fat has been turned into a visceral, sensory example of the inferiority of industrial production methods. By contrast, the abundant fat in pastured pigs is understood as a materialization of the superior local production process. The shared experience and appreciation of the taste of fatty pork creates and maintains these essential production and consumption networks that are vital to the success of the market, demonstrating neatly how phenomenological, as well as political economic qualities are expressed in pigs simultaneously.

            Chapter 6 describes how authenticity is derived from the way this local pork system re-establishes connections between producers and consumers with farm to fork production and between the various animal parts with snout to tail cookery. He describes how the culinary approach based on reconfiguring pork as a whole pig came about and how people and pigs are joined in production practices that incorporate the whole animal. The author also tries to describe the political economic implications of farm to fork and snout to tail activities and how these relationships are expressed in concrete qualities of local pastured pork that are appreciated by discerning consumers who thus become part of the authentic system.

            Each chapter ends with one or two profiles of people who participated in the project. They are essentially transcriptions of the interviews Weiss conducted with these people, which give the reader a sense of the author’s interpretation process. They offer an honest behind-the-scenes look into the ethnographic kitchen that typically remains hidden from view, adding transparency and giving the reader an opportunity to form her own opinions. The profiles repeat some of the information the author provides in the body of the chapter, but rather than feeling redundant they are helpful as there are a lot of details, facts, and developments to keep track of in this multi-sited ethnography.  

            Just as the history of industrial hog farming in North Carolina is illuminative of the wider changes in the American food production system, the story of local pig production in the Piedmont could be iconic of other contemporary efforts to reinvent food systems into slow, local versions. The problem is, as Weiss points out repeatedly, that this form of food provisioning is no solution to the vastness of the problems created and perpetuated by the industrial food system brought about by modern global capitalism itself. I do think that understanding local food as product of human actions and networks rather than as innate qualities of organisms or physical places offers hope, for this means local food systems could be introduced and constructed anywhere and by any group of people. I also think the methodical analytical deconstruction of human production and consumption relations, as Weiss has done here for this local food system, might be a promising avenue for exposing and challenging the nature of labor and consumption in industrial capitalist production systems today. Can what we have learned about the people in this wonderful local system help those trapped in the old industrial one?

 

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