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Review: Anti-Diet

Anti-Diet

Christy Harrison Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. Little, Brown Spark. 2019. Pp. 326. ISBN: 0316420352 (Hardback).

Janet Chrzan (University of Pennsylvania)

Intuitive Eating?? Really????

For the last few years, I’ve been reviewing popular American diets for an upcoming volume on fad diets. Diets are, as all are aware, extraordinarily popular in the United States, with roughly 50% of adults trying to lose weight at any given time period (according to the CDC) and approximately 30% actively ‘on a diet’, whatever that might mean. It’s clearly a national obsession, right up there with Flamin’ Hot Nacho Cheese Doritos and the Wing Bowl. This means, of course, that there is an endless and near-bottomless appetite for diet books, diet blogs, diet therapies, and diet gurus… and that a sure way to make money is to create a new diet (or something that looks like a new diet), become a diet blogger and lifestyle advocate, write a peppy easy-to-read volume about your diet’s wondrous efficacy, get interviewed by Oprah, Gwyneth, and Dr. Phil and make time to go shopping for your new yacht.

A rational understanding of nutrition, human biology, or even food composition is not necessary for any of those ‘make-me-a-millionaire’ diet gurus.

Occasionally a diet book comes along written by someone who has studied nutrition at a good school, one known for the quality of its programming and faculty. Unlike, for instance, the ever-popular online programs for ‘certified sports nutritionists’ provided by the Institute for Functional Medicine or the ‘Online Holistic Nutritionist Specialist’ degree offered by the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts… and other similar for-profit degree mills. The book in question, Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, was written by Christy Harrison, who has experience in both food (she had been a writer for Gourmet Magazine) and nutrition, having completed the New York University’s RD/MPH dual degree (an excellent program to which this author has sent her own students for further training in public health nutrition). High hopes ensued for a rational, well-written and sensible book about the importance of forming habits promoting a balanced diet, with side notes on portion sizes and food frequencies for optimal dietary health. Alas.

The book is organized into two parts, the first being a description of what Harrison calls “diet culture” or “the Life Thief” and the second part designed to provide a personal and affirmation-based solution to the problem for those who have been victimized by diet culture. She defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of “health”” (Harrison, 2019: 7). At about this page the reader realizes that this isn’t a book about diets or food, it’s a self-help manual designed to make privileged dieters feel good about themselves by embracing and denouncing all the myriad ways they’ve been victimized by American culture.

Alas, there are no recipes or food plans. In fact, Harrison suggests that “no good scientific evidence exists that eating so-called ‘processed” (or “highly palatable”) food causes significant weight gain or poor health outcomes” (ibid: 48). She also maintains that getting rid of ‘disordered eating habits’ rather than modifying diet promotes health, although people with celiac might benefit from “making a few changes in how they eat” (ibid: 78; italics added). However, she also tells readers: “take diabetes, for example: diet culture makes people with this condition live in constant fear of carbohydrates, but these nutrients don’t need to be off limits at all – they just need to be understood. Yes, someone with diabetes might (italics added) have a blood-sugar spike from eating a carbs-only meal or snack – within their rights as an autonomous human being, if that’s what they want or need to do” (ibid: 231; italics added). While she then does explain (correctly) that including other macronutrients with carbs can blunt the rise of blood sugar, she also falsely claims that diabetics are told to avoid all starches due to a stigmatizing ‘diet culture’ that demonizes carbs. Of course this isn’t true; it’s virtually impossible to avoid carbs and any RD or medical doctor who treats diabetic patients will teach them to combine foods to ensure a diet that discourages insulin spikes. What these quotes demonstrate, instead, is Harrison’s primary rhetorical tool: she makes a misleading and dichotomizing statement-of-fact about a topic relating to food use or health and then asserts that the science is wrong and that ‘diet culture’ controls discourse and practice to victimize people (well, mostly women).

This strategy prevails throughout the volume – she describes a situation, makes a statement, provides a negation and takedown bolstered by carefully chosen (favorable and cherry-picked) references and a smattering of seemingly rational scientific evidence, and then presents a testimonial from either her own life, that of a patient, or of another ‘victim’ (usually another afflicted healer from the self-help industry) who reiterates the narrative trope of how diet culture constructed the problem. The problem is solved when the person stops doing what diet culture tells them to do, realizes their utter victimhood, and embraces a free expression of their inner, authentic self to forgo all food rules. Again and again she makes definitive, declarative and often misleading statements designed to support her agenda, such as “It simply is not evidence-based medicine to say that people “need to lose weight” for any health reasons, because we have no safe, sustainable method of producing weight loss” (ibid: 158; italics original to text). Clearly both ends of this sentence are untrue; some health problems do indeed benefit from weight reduction and we most certainly do know how to encourage healthy and safe weight loss.

This points out her problematic use of research materials and scientific studies to support her cause; too often she cites sources that don’t support her statements, occasionally cites a research report without providing a full citation or cites a magazine story as scientific evidence. Or she will cite a source or two about a topic, asserting that one or two published outliers demonstrate that most science is wrong – but ignoring the vast pile of research that better defines the scientific consensus. Her evisceration of how quantiles are used in scientific and epidemiologic studies is a good example (see pages 232-235). Another example is her citation-free negation of nutrition science research in a general statement that “animal studies cannot be extrapolated to humans; at best, they can alert researchers to areas for further scientific study on humans. These human studies, in turn, must be repeated multiple times with large groups of people in well-designed experiments (that is, in randomized, controlled, trials)” (ibid: 235). From this statement of misinformation (misinformed because many aspects of human nutrition can indeed be understood by study of analogous systems in appropriate animal models) she then explains that since most nutrition studies don’t follow that best-case-scenario research model they are not capable of providing accurate information, although her analysis is muddled through with chatty inconsistencies. She also assumes that the worst case scenario is the standard situation; for instance, that suggestions to ‘limit sugar’, are actually ‘eliminate sugar entirely and never eat it again’, which allows her to construct straw-man arguments against the scientific research about that topic. But what can we expect from someone who writes, apparently with absolute certainly and seriousness: “after the fall of Rome, the notion of body fat as a symptom to be cured went mostly underground for a long time” (ibid: 20). These are common rhetorical tactics used by diet gurus; many diet books are positively larded with declamations and citations that seem to incontrovertibly support the diet… yet digging into the cited reports reveals that the author often misstated the outcomes or findings of the studies.

The signs of a fad diet are well known; The Pennington Biomedical Research Group provides a concise description (see file:///C:/Users/Janet%20Chrzan/Dropbox%20(Blue%20Horseradish)/JAC/Documents/Articles%20and%20Books/PNS_Fad_Diets.pdf). From my research and reading, fad diet creators nearly always assert that their diet – and only their diet – works. First they tell you how your extra weight is hurting you, assert that health is only possible if you follow their diet and that it will prevent most known diseases, then they provide ample, often bogus information that proves that other diets and nutritionists in general are wrong, all designed to support their diet, to discredit other diets and most everyday food use as well. Only they have the answer, and it’s to follow what they say for success, perfect health, social acceptance and life-long well-being.

And perhaps not surprisingly, albeit amusingly, Harrison follows this structure almost perfectly. The chapters each focus on a topic within food culture, define how “diet culture” has corrupted the enjoyment of food, negates modern science about the diet, and then provides a testimonial about how someone overcame the cultural programming about the topic to get healthy and to accept herself. In the first section, chapter one provides a history of “diet culture”; chapter two a discussion of how modern diets cause you to be a victim of the wellness movement; chapter three a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming time sink; chapter four a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming money sink; chapter five is about how diet culture creates victims of all of us and destroys well-being and self-assurance by fat-shaming and stigma; and chapter six chronicles how being a victim of diet culture makes you unhappy. In the second section, chapter seven counsels the reader on how to set boundaries and escape from victimhood, and chapter eight asserts that we are all born intuitive eaters but diet culture causes us to be victims and to lose our capacity to know what we want to eat. Chapter nine tackles the tendency to label foods as good or bad as problematic, arguing that all food rules (even cultural ones) are inherently bad and cause victimization and that we should just eat what we want all the time. Chapter ten introduces the Healthy at Any Size movement, describes how being large is to be victimized, and is largely drawn from its website and educational materials; and chapter eleven tells the reader to find a community of other victims to join in victimhood to denounce people who might say something negative about fatness and being a victim and that dismantling diet culture will create social justice and equal rights for everyone. Do you perceive a pattern? I do.

I’d like to diagram her hypothesis and analysis. She has identified diet culture as the problem for almost all food-related issues, and links diet culture to a patriarchal, racist agenda designed to keep all women disempowered: “diet culture, it’s very much a system of oppression, with its roots in racist, sexist beliefs about food and bodies” (ibid: 49) and “in the twentieth century, being fat was seen as a sign of lower evolutionary status, as was failing or refusing to adhere to binary gender roles and beauty standards” (ibid: 33). The volume is littered with comments that dietary restraint of any sort is linked to victimization, and especially for people who belong to groups that have experienced profound discrimination in the United States such as people of color and members of the LBGQT community. But Harrison seems to equate the discrimination and inequalities experienced by those groups – real, life-altering and profoundly inhibiting – as similar and perhaps even equivalent to the projected discrimination experienced by those who follow diet culture. Not, I need to point out, only those who are indeed large bodied and who have experienced the real and deleterious inequalities resulting from fat phobia and stigma, but all people (women) who have ever gone on a diet or bought into the thin body ideal or been a food activist (chapter two) or simply wanted to fit into last year’s jeans again. In effect, any attempt to regulate what you eat makes you a victim of the most repressive forms of discrimination and socially engineered denigration, and equates the sufferings of women like the author – young, white, well-educated, middle class, entitled and able to follow their own form of ‘diet bliss’ – as equal to and equally deleterious as the discrimination suffered by truly oppressed peoples. To be a victim of diet culture is analogous to being a victim of white supremacist misogyny and racism, apparently (see pages 112 and 264 for examples of how she links and equalizes these forms of oppression). Really? It’s astonishing to think that victimology might allow privileged white women to decide they have it as bad as historically oppressed peoples.

If we take a metaphorical step back to examine the rhetoric and construction of this volume, the how and the why of her idée fixe becomes clear. The first part of this is tied to how and where she started her enquiry, the second to how she conducted her research, and the third to the original structure and purpose of the writing.

Her original interest in writing about diets were her own experiences with dieting, her perceptions and anxieties about body size, and her experience of disordered eating, as she makes clear in the introduction. She provides readers with story after story of her own problems; she even tells us that she entered the RD/MPH program at NYU because of diet culture, because she was so disordered in her eating and thinking that she thought it would solve the problem (see pages 113, 127, 131 etc.). She even includes her student loan debt as part of the ‘steals your money’ hypothesis of chapter four (ibid: 127). In effect, she’s decided she’s a victim because she had the opportunity to go to a very good school to study the topic she had a psychological problem about… But it’s clear from her writing that Harrison’s problem was deeply psychological rather than food-related; she had an eating disorder, or at least could have been diagnosed with disordered eating. She makes this clear in story after story about herself, but especially on pages 9, 10, 57 and 111 (in which she describes her recovery with the help of a good therapist). But she then states “I was finally able to recover from diet culture by giving up all forms of dieting” (ibid: 10) indicating that she considered her problem to be societal (diet culture) rather than psychological. She has projected the psychological onto culture, and determined that culture is ill, not the self. The problems are external, not internal or part of the self. She also implies that anyone who diets at all has an eating disorder… because of diet culture.

She then uses this projection of causality to frame her research. Almost all her testimonials and stories are from people who are either archetypical “afflicted healers” who have recovered from eating disorders or patients with eating disorders. In effect, she has globalized the psychological problem of an eating disorder into a rationale against all food rules and dietary behavior and assumed that anyone who alters their diet or is interested in wellness is a victim of a societal ill. Furthermore, those who are part of the food movement: “(Michael) Pollan, (Marion) Nestle, and their ilk” (ibid: 61; parentheses and first names added) are complicit in the oppression and victimization of others. Indeed, not only are they peddling a dangerous diet culture, they are racist oppressors: “The food movement also implies that if you eat what it deems to be the right foods, you’ll avoid “obesity” and end up thin, just like Pollan, Nestle, and other (overwhelmingly white) food-activist leaders. In this way the food-activist movement upholds white culture’s preference for thinness by equating it with the picture of health, and defines “real food” as the type preferred by white elites” (ibid: 61). Again and again she provides narratives of how someone with an eating disorder overcame it to eat whatever they wanted to get healthy, conflating a psychological problem with a cultural process and identifying the cause of the problem as outside the bodies and selves – and minds – of those with eating disorders. And of course, that’s true to some extent; without a cultural preference for thin bodies many eating disorders might not exist. But that does not allow one to declare that all people who change their food habits or are involved in any kind of healthy eating movement are victims of diet culture or psychologically damaged; nor that they are racist. Indeed, while food justice isn’t baked into every food activism process (yet), many people involved in the food movement are active precisely in order to promote food justice within communities of color… and food justice often means food-secure access to foods she labels white and elite such as fruit, vegetables, and other whole foods that people from disadvantaged communities want just as much as the privileged. Not everyone who works in food is an oppressor, nor is everyone who changes their diet a victim. But that she clearly thinks that everyone should read her book is obvious: “in our society at this moment in history, it’s basically impossible not to fall into diet culture’s clutches at some point. As you’ll see later chapters, however, it is possible to extricate yourself and move beyond it” (ibid: 73). Yep, everyone is a victim and everyone has an eating disorder constructed, created and controlled by “diet culture”. Which only she can fix.

Third, the logical inconsistencies of the interlocking arguments have been amplified by the rhetorical structure of her original writings. Christy Harrison was, and is, a food blogger… and the chapters reveal that genesis. The chapters are organized thematically but do seem to be constructed of re-worked previous posts, with internal subcategories that tackle individualized issues. They have then been grouped into themes and strung together. OK, not a crime – and not the first time a blogger has written a book using previous material. Furthermore, the strongly declarative statements (often false or misleading) are precisely the kind of attention-getting rants that generate eyeballs on a blog page and for a podcast. She employs – and frequently, often two or three times per paragraph – the use of quotations around a word or concept to indicate the she deems it false. She is clearly telling her readers exactly what’s wrong with the world that she’s trying to fix – and its “food activism”, “real food”, “better choices” and “watch what they eat” among many other concepts. It’s a clear tell (my italics!) of intent and a furthering of the strategy to criticize everyone else while arguing for her solutions. Her need to denounce any idea that she deems a part of diet culture causes her to attack scientific protocols and principles as faulty. She refutes how research is done and often misstates or misunderstands research outcomes. For instance, her discussion about how weight stigma causes allostatic stress ignores other stress-causing variables that play a role in an overall stress response. Instead she assumed that the health outcomes associated with allostatic loads are due entirely to weight stigma, rather than to stressors known to cause weight gain, such as lack of sleep and high anxiety (ibid: 137-140). It’s an effective strategy if your only analytical tool is to bash every nail with a hammer, but not always an effective explanation of scientific findings. What passes easily in a blog post might not make it past a peer reviewer, and much of this volume would not stand up to any kind of careful review.

Ah, solutions. And here is the big problem. There aren’t really any beyond self-acceptance and a description of the Health at Every Size platform. In fact, by chapter two I was wondering if the food industry had paid her to write this book, after reading statements such as: “the movement’s anti-food industry sentiment has distracted people from the fact that, by and large, food activists have built their case for changing the food system on a foundation of weight stigma, which directly benefits the weight-loss industry and harms everyday people, particularly those in larger bodies.” She then attacks Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle before declaring “The food movement considers itself socially progressive yet it unintentionally upholds an outmoded, racist, oppressive view of bodies by accepting and repeating “obesity epidemic” rhetoric and blaming particular foods for supposedly making people fat” (Ibid: 59). She repeatedly tells people to eat whatever they want, including cravings such as cupcakes, brownies and other high-sugar foods, even if diabetic (see pages 225-236). Indeed, her discussions about the need for individualized autonomy and choice-making uphold a rigidly neoliberal, consumption-oriented construction of the self (see page 172). Another tactic is to mislead readers about what a word really means or how it is used to dismiss practices she equates with diet culture: “speaking of chemicals, they get a bad rap under the Wellness Diet, but your body is 100 percent chemicals… and you’d die without them” (ibid: 104). Besides, “arguments about how the food industry or the ‘standard American diet’ is purportedly creating an ‘obesity epidemic’ are intertwined with racist and classist beliefs… and that’s to say nothing of the fact that pointing fingers at the food industry conveniently deflects attention from diet culture, which deserves a lot more scrutiny than it gets in the food-activist movement” (ibid: 55). So the solution is to accept yourself and eat twinkies, because anyone arguing for systemic change in the food system is racist and attacking the wrong causes, and the food industry is not the reason anyone has gained weight. I suspect this might make people feel even more disempowered than before.

Harrison is right about many issues, of course. She ably describes why and how diets cause rebound weight gain and is correct that many diet protocols are biased in favor of the thin, white, young body. And far too many of the foods deemed healthy at any given point in time are indeed precisely the foods that the elite and privileged prefer and eat (hello Keto and Paleodiet, I’m talking about you). She’s right to link 20th century racism to notions of the ideal body – and does indeed credit Helen Zoe Veit’s outstanding research for making that clear (Veit, 2013: Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. The University of North Carolina Press. Many of the messages about body acceptance and accepting the self are indeed valuable, and important to the creation of a healthy diet and relationship with food. She’s absolutely right to encourage people to explore the HAES protocols and to learn how to eat a diet framed by internal controls. The problem is that she has fallen into the trap of almost all diet gurus: she relies on attacking others’ work and concepts as a rhetorical strategy to improve the appeal of her own ideas. Rather than explore the content and context of her construct ‘diet culture’, she assumes that everyone in food advocacy is complicit in oppression and denounces their work as part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. And perhaps because, fundamentally, she has no solution – her constructed creation ‘diet culture’ is too large and too structurally messy and embedded to be changed through the efforts of the neoliberal individual. And because she refuses to honor the work of others, she is incapable of participating within a mutually respectful community of change. Or maybe she really was paid by the food industry to write this book.

Why did I bother writing about this book? Well, because I think it’s very typical of the diet/nutrition writing that’s available to the general public and which explains so much of the confusion about dietary advice. Overall, this book misleads the reader about diet and health, and especially about science and behavior. Yet to the average, untrained-in-biology reader this book might sound knowing and wise, because there are lots of nutrition science words, references, and positive testimonials. Of course, that the average reader might not realize that the references aren’t always appropriate is a problem and supports the need for a good reviewer and a good editor. But this is not a peer-reviewed volume and thus those services weren’t provided (ahem, see cited sentence about Rome above…). One of the central questions that I have been asking myself as I write about diet fads is how to effectively convey good information to a public yearning for explanations without being condescending or dismissive of the ‘alternate facts’ that comprise too much of the understanding of nutrition processes. I’m still not sure how to do that but I know that all of us in food do need to speak up when we encounter truly bad advice and information. Almost every conversation I have with people about their diets makes clear how much they seek accurate advice and too often can’t rely on what they read and hear.

For alternative readings that cover these topics in far more accurate and positive (and do-able) ways, I suggest Finally Full, Finally Slim by Lisa R. Young, and How Not to Diet by Michael Greger. Both provide excellent protocols for establishing personal habits that guarantee healthy weight maintenance – at any size. For on-target discussions of oppression, fat stigma, and feminism, I suggest the fiercely intelligent and brilliantly funny Lindy West, particularly The Witches are Coming and Shrill; her columns for the Guardian and the New York Times are also superbly well-written and cogent: http://www.lindywest.net/columns.

 

Veit, Helen Zoe (2013) Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, obesity

Review: Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Media of Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Carole Counihan. Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia: Place, Taste, and Community. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. Pp. i-176. ISBN 9781474262286 (hardback) 9781474262309 (epdf)

Abigail E. Adams (Central Connecticut State University)

This review of the book by SAFN’s own Carole Counihan, based on her decades-long work in Italy’s Sardinia, is overdue but perhaps timely as we keep in mind the Italian people in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Counihan has helped me “ethno-graph” more deeply my own engagement in urban New England food justice and agriculture movements during a period that overlaps with her 2011-2015 research, and with a similarly necessary focus on the 2008 worldwide Great Recession. She writes of Italy’s marginalized south and islands, whose residents value their agro-pastoral economies, histories, traditions and who struggle “against competition from increasingly globalized foodways manifest in expanding distribution networks and high density of supermarkets” (2019: 1).

After her introduction, she structures chapters with case studies focused on particular places and communities of “food activists, food advocates and food rebels” (2019: 3). She draws throughout the ethnography on three themes signaled by her book’s subtitle (Place, Taste, and Community): the significance of place, territorio; the appeal of taste as a strategy for action; and the goal of forging community (2019: 1). Another unmentioned but valuable theme throughout the book is the local impact of state policies and practices.

I came into anthropology’s food studies from the social justice angle, rather than our discipline’s nutrition or even embodiment subfields. Counihan’s book put these two approaches together for me, demonstrating how people and communities can re-claim their experience, standards, and senses from the crazy-making gaslit maw of industrial food and agriculture. Her book was a form of “taste activism” for me, a term Counihan coins to express how “the social, sensual bodily engagement with food can be a wellspring of civil society participation” (2019: 65). And even her coining observes territorio, as it is grounded in the insight of Sardinia’s native son Antonio Gramsci about the vital “movement from knowing to understanding to feeling and vice versa …you cannot make history and politics without passion” (cited 2019:66).

Counihan sustains a close focus on cross-class interactions, alliances and solidarities among the region’s middle-class, its farmers, other food producers, processors, and purveyors, teachers and elementary school children, starting with the book’s first case study—of a Slow Food chapter or condotta — to one of the closing studies about the “teaching farms” and its elementary school partner.

In Chapter Two, “Middle-Class Activism and Slow Food,” Counihan takes on the elitism charge leveled against Slow Food and explores how the members of Cagliari’s condotta promote access to “good, clean and fair food.” She describes these as middle-class activists, “those with financial means, interest, and critical thinking to make consumption choices towards more sustainable and equitable food” (2019: 10)—but the members are from all walks of Sardinian life, including farmers and butchers; she encounters no food snobs in their midst. They are an active group, have just established two new “food communities between consumers and producers around regional varieties of capers and watermelons. A butcher member radically changed his meat ordering business to promote small and local meat producers. But they feel the disconnect between their efforts and the sharp decline in their region’s small-scale farming, as well as their own struggles to maintain the founding passion of their movement.

In Chapter Three, “Food and Territorio,” a study of three agricultural “communities of resistance” (citing Pratt 2007), Counihan’s top concern is whether these groups have spurned exclusionary reactionary “defensive localization” while aiming for food sovereignty, celebration of territorio, and self-reliance. The first of the three communities is Domusamigas (English: “house of women friends), a women-led group focused on local self-sufficiency, re-skilling and teaching, local varieties, and women producers). The second group is working through AGRIS (the Sardinian Regional Agency for Research in Agriculture) to recognize Sardinian bean varieties on the official government list of traditional species. The last community is gathered around the Cagliari urban garden whose creators restored an abandoned quarry/dumping ground using permaculture techniques developed in Japan and Spain. The Domusamigas founder defines territorio as follows: “You have a place in the world, you are part of something” (2019: 25) and Counihan finds that all three groups welcome newcomers, new ideas and techniques to “have a place.” For example, the urban gardeners want to qualify for social agriculture, the “catch-all name for farming used to provide work and social integration to ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” (2019: 37).

In Chapter Four, “Resistance Farming and Multifunctionality,” Counihan uses four case studies of “resistant” farmers to explore the contributions of alternative agriculture to food democracy: a wine cooperative, caper farmer, organic olive oil producer and teaching farm. Each of these producers aimed at making a living for themselves and others in agro-ecological (even organic) farming of historically important crops often on re-territorialized farmland. Each of the farms appears to be a success in resilient small-scale farming, successes perhaps best defined by the caper farmer: modest income, hard work, but satisfaction. Three of the case studies featured those Italian new young farmers whose 35% increase in numbers over the previous year lifted hopes for “a sustainable new peasant economy distinctively different from entrepreneurial and capitalist agriculture” (2019: 64).

Chapter Five, “Taste Activism and the Emotional Power of Food,” features another stakeholder in food democracy, the consumer. Three “tasting” events sponsored by the organizations and producers met in earlier chapters include a Slow Food caper tasting, the wine cooperative’s wine tasting, and a tasting of the organic olive oil farmer’s product through a thrice-weekly outdoor market sponsored by the Cagliari GAS (Solidarity Purchase Group). Although a shorter chapter, this is one of the more “ethnographic,” as Counihan explores the interactions among the producers, taste event “hosts,” and tasting participants. The strategy of these events is to recruit new activists by “grabbing them by their senses.” At each event, she documents how tasters develop their own critical conscious pleasure and experience of the flavors they sample .aThey thereby cement their commitment to local producers; no one is pushed to conform their palates to some imposed “universal” standard.

Chapter Six, “Restaurants,” shifts to full-time sites of “taste-making” with interviews in three restaurants: a high-brow white linen establishment, a vegetarian buffet, and a deli or gastronomia. The owner/chefs are militant supporters of local food and small farmers, innovators who introduce or resurrect new or forgotten tastes; two of the owner/chefs are younger returnees to their Cagliari birthplaces.

Chapter Seven, “Critical Food Education: Place, taste, and community” (perhaps my favorite chapter) is a tour of Sardinia’s “teaching farms” (an official designation!). Both the teaching farms and the participating primary school principal she interviews are guided by the mantra, “If I hear I forget; if I see I remember; if I do, I learn.” The principal wants her pupils to develop as critical citizens and consumers.She modeled this critical awareness for me when she discussed both her plan to achieve zero food kilometers for her school lunch program but also raised her concerns about the impact on her pupils, many of whom are immigrants, of an exclusionary assumption of localism that residents of the same locale share the same culinary culture (2019: 108-109).

Counihan’s final topical Chapter Eight, “Commerce and Activism takes us to those Sardinians directly confronting global capitalism. She introduces us to owners of three Cagliari organic food businesses including a producer coop, a store, and a home-delivery business. While she cites Heather Paxson’s economies of sentiment (2013), these owners use the explicitlypolitical solidarity economy concept. These are not “boutique” entrepreneurs claiming organic’s niche market, subsidies, and higher prices. These are alternative democratic merchants who use Sardinia’s Sardex alternative currency, promote territorio through local products that yield slim to no profit margins, and struggle to eke out a meager living in a region with Italy’s highest per capita supermarket saturation (2019: 125). They leave prestigious well-paying jobs in Italy’s metropolises to undertake these ventures; while the coop opened in 1982, the other two businesses were established by young returnees in 2003 and 2006. And the obstacles are considerable; the home-delivery service closed during Counihan’s research.

The Conclusion, “Italian food activism and global democracy” briefly summarizes her key points placing Italian food activism in the broader context of global efforts to promote food democracy.

This is a delightfully well-written volume, with generous and almost treasure-hunt-like literature reviews in each chapter as Counihan engages with colleagues for the terms and approaches that best help us understand what Sardinia’s activists accomplish in taste activism, food justice and participatory democracy. She lifts up the voices of the activists and so comes close to achieving one of the definitions of food democracy she cites, which is to represent “all the voices of the food system” (Hassanein 2003: 84, from 2019:3)).

Some of the chapters are driven by interviews rather than interactions and participant observation ethnography. For example, patrons and ethnography of dining are missing in the chapter on the restaurants . The strongest ethnographic chapter is Chapter Four about the tasting events. Other missing voices are those of Sardinia’s most marginalized—those “ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” served by Italy’s social agriculture (2019: 37). Given that so many of her interlocutors are returnees (in other words, Sardinians coming from a core Italian “immigrant” experience), returning to an island that is the first soil that scores of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants set foot on, I (along with Chapter Seven’s wonderfully woke elementary school principal!) would have liked more attention to immigration, territorio, and community.

The Italian immigrants living in the poorest neighborhood of New Britain, Connecticut, where I researched the flourishing and failure of an urban organic farm, transformed their tiny urban yards into vertical and horizontal horticultural miracles–in the midst of general blight. While carrying out research, I co-founded an urban food justice non-profit (New Britain ROOTS http://www.newbritainroots.org) and so I mined nearly every paragraph of Counihan’s book for more ideas for our work and with longing that our public schools were supported by critical pedagogical principles and principals. And teaching farms! Counihan adds new concepts to my activist vocabulary, such as Italy’s social agriculture, the teaching farms and the CSA variant, “your garden at a distance.” COVID-19 and quarantine coincided with Spring here, and a record run on gardening supplies. It’s not clear yet what industries and commerce the pandemic will pruned or clear-cut; perhaps we can transplant some of Sardinia’s alternatives and challenges to the global agro-food industrial complex.

For a recent video interview with Carole Counihan about her career in food anthropology, see:

https://foodanthro.com/2019/11/19/i-remember-the-day-i-said-okay-ive-read-everything-an-interview-with-carole-counihan/

References:

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni dal cacere, vol. 1. Turin: Einauldi.

Hassanein, Neva (2003) Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation. Journal of Rural Studies 19: 77-86.

Paxson, Heather (2013) The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pratt, Jeff (2007) “Food Values: The Local and Authentic,” Critique of Anthropology 27(3): 285-300.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, culture and agriculture, food activism, Italy, taste

Review: Meat Planet

Meat Planet by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Benjamin Wurgaft Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food. Berkeley: University of California Press. 264 pp. ISBN #9780520379008

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the thickly lush writing, which constructed or used every possible image from literature and film, in addition to cutting-edge conferences, participant observations, and interviews. I generally don’t appreciate reading philosophy, and this, despite the food and technology subject matter being germane to my interests, was no exception.  This in no way precludes my highly recommending the book and particular chapters.

From beginning to end what I appreciated most were the organizing questions, succinctly summarized on p.19: “What makes cultured meat imaginable?” with corollaries: how does cultured meat fit into the future of food as a concept or idea, and how does this food domain enter into futures-thinking in the technological futures realm more generally?  In his philosophical, historical, literary, media, and anthropological excursions, the author carefully traces the evolution and history of meat-containing human diets, and the ways promoters of laboratory foods, in this case meat specifically, frame issues to make cultured meat appear “natural.”  In other words, cultured meat is the next (if not final) step in the orderly development of human nourishment and relationships with animals, which conventionally are killed for human food, and in their most recent iteration, are raised industrially, on large-scale “factory” farms (concentrated animal feeding operations), which immiserate the animals and brutalize the humans allowing such conditions.  It is in these two evolutionary themes that this account of the travels and travails of cultured meat and its interlocutors (sci-tech producers, economic and political sponsors, thinkers, commentators, marketers, writers) that Wurgafts’s distinctive, erudite, thick descriptions of ideas and their contexts, were to me, as a food and nutrition anthropologist, most engaging.

Beginning with his focus on Richard Wrangham as the authority for certifying the significance of meat in the diets and evolution of humanity, this is a book that should engage anthropologists of all stripes.  The evolutionary questions are introduced in Chapter One, which reports an observational analysis on a 2013 videoconference introducing the first laboratory engineered burger. It focuses on the ways the engineers (Dutch mastermind Mark Post is the most often cited) and chief investors (Google cofounder Sergei Brin is a chief financial backer) have positioned their presentation and performers in cyberspace to make meat, but not meat from conventional animals, central to the human condition.  In other words, lab (cultured) meat, or “clean” meat as others term it, will spare animals suffering and death and thereby meet the main opposition to meat-eating, namely, the ethical concern about taking animal life and making creatures suffer.  In this account, environmental concerns, or health—all mentioned—take less priority than eliminating whole animals for food.  It follows that one final futures image justifying the quest for cultured meat is to have a backyard pig frolicking and lovingly interacting with children, rather than awaiting certain death by butchering after a year’s fattening.  Another is the possibility that cultured meat will fit just fine into ritualized meat exchange which has always been a hallmark of social connectedness and carefully defined kinship or friendship relations.

Along the way, there are many additional cultural images of meat, or, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss, using animal flesh to think with.  These include cultural domains of science, technology, science-fiction, Greek mythology, Jewish dietary laws, the facts and fictions surrounding overexploitation of whales, and the science and culture of futures-thinking overall.  There are profound  general questions, such as whether cultured meat is or should be aiming to produce innovative products that signify human ingenuity with products that are entirely new, or instead seek to imitate more rather than less successfully existing meats and meat products. The creators or inventors have mixed views on these issues, as do the marketers and those targeted to consume the products.

It is a bit of a tough slog to make it through Wurgaft’s endless images incorporated into clear, but often convoluted writing.  Not being a sci-fi or media aficionado, I did not immediately “get” many of his references, and after a while, in some chapters, found them over the top. So much tongue-in-cheek or commentary on tongue-filled cheeks in some cases made it hard to swallow and breathe (choking on the images, to paraphrase Wurgaft’s own language).  Particularly the chapter on Maastricht is cloyingly thick with sci-fi and tech-fi references to books, films, and imagery that I have never read, detracting from the narrative flow. That said, from beginning to end, there are mind-nourishing examples that would fit well into multiple food studies and anthropology courses.  The opening chapter, for example, is a fine example of observation and analysis of a video-conference—a welcome addition to any qualitative research methodology course or exercise which provides opportunities to discuss what can potentially be captured in media performances.  The short chapter on ‘Copy’ will be thought-provoking for food studies or other courses, as scientists-technologists and the author explore the realms of imitation and Creation/creativity in the evolution of humankind. The two chapters contrasting “Doubt” and “Hope” will also produce thoughtful reflections on the future of technologies and food, and the very short chapter on “Kosher” is a specialized excursion into the considerations of this Jewish set of dietary laws that are meant to reduce animal suffering, establish ritual authorities and precise rules, and also create meaningful separations between food domains containing animal meat versus dairy products.  The even shorter chapter on “Cannibals” or why scientist-technologists are not using human cells to create cultured meat will also provoke discussion, Also of great interest for anthropologists studying the role of food, social exchange, and cultural identities will be the chapter opening explorations into cultured food and ritual food culture (“Gathering/Parting”). It includes the imagined example of a backyard pig as an iconic animal surviving without predation, as a reminder or sign of how humans used to exploit animals inhumanely for food.

Ben Wurgaft is trained as a philosopher and historian, with additional specialization in cultural studies of science and technology.  Given his high-level higher education and family history (his mother is a prominent food anthropologist), I was surprised that he claimed at multiple points considerable ignorance about anthropological ideas prior to his MIT post-doc that corresponded to this project.  Analogously, I was shocked by his claim that he had not been thinking about demographic arguments (e.g., Malthus) for transforming food systems prior to getting involved in food issues (pp.88-89).

Overall, the book is well worth reading, but perhaps selectively for students with shorter attention spans and less comprehensive philosophical and literary references and reasonings. The chapter on “Philosophers,” for example, is complex, although Wurgaft’s shrewd citation of poet Paul Muldoon’s verse (in this poem, Muldoon’s white cat Pangur goes hunting for mice; the poet for “precise words”) succinctly captures the different norms separating animals and humans. The author’s footnote (p.217) expands that the poem was excerpted from the poet’s collection, Hay, and “The poem is an adaptation of an oft-translated, anonymous poem thought to have been written by an Irish monk in the ninth century C.E.” It is not possible for a reader to know whether this citation suggests a Geertzian example of winks within winks. Such elaborations occur in the footnotes, which readers should read if they want to get additional subtle or complex flavors of particular examples reduced in the main text, which the publisher economically reduced to 194 (small type, small margin) pages.

Throughout I wondered whether I agreed with the cultured-meat promoters’ arguments that most people will not give up meat eating, because it is hard wired into biology if not soft-wired into culture. The very ubiquity of cheap meat and its decreasing flavor and questionable nutrition quality, not to mention animal welfare, environmental, and health arguments against current industrial meat practices, suggest that giving up twice daily, daily, or frequent meat eating is already an issue (and practice) in many circles. Whether people will then substitute cultured meat depends on price (Wurgaft and his interlocutors discuss viable price points), palates, sociocultural contexts, and possible substitutes. Over the four-year period of Wurgaft’s research (2013-2017), writing, and publication, at least two major cultured meat burger products (Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger) became widely accessible at price points that made them attractive, and additional entrants into chicken, egg, and dairy made the livestock industry increasingly nervous.  One sign of this concern was the livestock industry’s request(s) for regulatory protection of the terms “meat,” “beef,” and “hamburger.”  Both product creators and chefs are also working hard to improve flavor.

During the week I completed this reading, the Wednesday food section of the New York Times coincidentally featured article and recipes by a leading chef, who described how to prepare these cultured meat products so that they taste good. Burgers, he advised, have to be “thick” patties so they don’t dry out when cooked to medium rare or medium, and all these products are best served with intensely flavorful accompaniments, so the eater does not have to rely on the taste of the cultured meat for flavor satisfaction. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/dining/impossible-beyond-meat.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage  To  such guidance, skeptics like me respond, “why bother?” if one can get a similar intensely flavored chili using cheap and conventional hamburger helper along with good quality beans? (I also learned, through the simple comparative chart, that Impossible Burger is made with soy and potato protein whereas Beyond Meat is fashioned from pea and other protein substances.  The former has animal cells as base material; the latter does not.  Both, alas, contain coconut oils, which means someone like myself, sensitive to coconut, should probably avoid them, which I am doing for culinary reasons right now.)

For additional comparative context, I also read Paul Shapiro’s Clean Meat. How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World (Simon & Schuster, 2018).  This author, a vegan leader in organized animal welfare, answers the questions Wurgaft pointedly does not: “will consumers accept meat produced from cells in a laboratory?” why or why not, and at what price, over what time frame? The relatively sudden and expanding market for these products show that once the technical (hygienic, flavor) barriers had been largely overcome, manufacturers managed to scale up production and supply, while other marketers were scaling up demand.  Demand and supply have moved much more quickly than Wurgaft had envisioned even two years before (2017).

And then there are the cultural issues. Serendipitously I also read two recent French novels that had been recently translated in English.  The first, J-B. del Amo’s (Frank Wynne, Trans.) Animalia (Grove-Atlantic, 2019) was a horrific account of the human-animal realm in traditional (World War I era) French small farming villages.  There, impoverished households relied on pigs and chickens for food and livelihoods, but had no compunction about violent killing or maiming of the animals that nourished them. These cultural actions were “natural” in their traditional agricultural realm.  Industrial production of pigs two generations later was even more violent and horrific; as one reviewer of Animalia pointed out, animals and humans shared characteristics of violence, but arguably humans were distinctive in that only their violence could be “cruel”.

Coincidentally, I accessed Marie Ndiaye’s The Cheffe. A Cook’s Novel (NY: Alfred Knopf, 2019).  (They were both reviewed in the same New York Times column covering translations of recent French novels.On p.68 of Jordan Stump’s excellent translation, I came across what might be a wonderful alternative wording for the mindfulness Wurgaft seeks to represent in his oeuvre. In this scene the youthful (16 year old) cook is launching her first meal for her patrons, which involves her preparing various fish and shellfish, vegetables and spices, and a “magnificent” chicken (raised by a local small farmer in the Bordeaux region of France), golden with fat and flesh: “…she saw as her obligation to show [them] all the talents she was certain she had, which necessarily implied, she recognized, some degree of artifice or display (showing off, she called it), but she was still ashamed that she hadn’t yet realized, that glorious summer, had felt no stirring of doubt, no need to silence her sensitivity, that she hadn’t realized the one and only justification for putting an animal to death lies in the respect, care, and thoughtfulness with which you treat its flesh and then take that flesh into you, bite by bite.”

The narrative (by the Cheffe’s loving sous-chef) continues:

“The Cheffe would later devote all her care to respecting the products she used, she inwardly bows down before them, paying them homage, grateful, honoring them as best she could, vegetables, herbs, plants, animals, she took nothing for granted wasted nothing, damaged nothing, mistreated nothing, defiled no creation of nature, however modest, and the same went for human beings, even if her work didn’t involve chopping them up, the same went for all of  us [i.e., her staff, including the narrator], she never humiliated us.”

This is one idealist future of food, and if lab meat has a place, what is it?  Wurgaft more or less ends on the same point, while contrasting this humble humane vision with dominant high-tech motivations to create non-animal meat substitutes.

 

 

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Review: Food in Cuba

Cover of Food in Cuba by Hanna Garth

Hanna Garth. Food In Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 232 pp. ISBN 9781503604629

Emily Yates-Doerr (Oregon State University/University of Amsterdam)

My plan was to review “Food in Cuba” from Havana. The Society for Medical Anthropology’s meetings were scheduled to be held there this March. I had dreams of sitting on a patio overlooking the Straits of Florida, book and pencil in hand, a spread of elote hallacas to tide me over while I worked. Hanna Garth writes about how Cubans refuse to lower their food standards, ever in “pursuit of a decent meal” as a part of their commitment to living a decent life. I wanted to observe this firsthand in some small way as I reviewed the book.

Then COVID-19 began to circulate globally.

In the United States, I heard news of public health failures. Workers without federally protected sick leave who had tested positive continued to show up at work, not wanting to risk losing their income or jobs. The food magazine Eater notes that “restaurants and delivery services are notoriously hostile to shift workers calling in sick,” creating ideal conditions for the virus to replicate.

Just before my flight departed I decided not to go. Conference organizers had not canceled the conference. Their email in the days leading up to the conference relayed a message of calm, “It is also reassuring to know that Cuba has a very strong epidemiological surveillance system built on a well-articulated primary health care system.” Friends already in Havana relayed the message that life in Cuba, where daily routines already contained a good deal of “existential uncertainty” (p. 18) seemed to be continuing on without heightened fear.

This was not the case where I was in the United States. A radiologist at a local US hospital told me of seeing scans of lungs full of fluid, while a nurse spoke of waiting rooms of patients with fevers and dry coughs. These patients were not being tested because there were not enough tests. Meanwhile, in nearby counties where children had tested positive for coronavirus, administrators had to keep schools open because children who lived deeply in poverty would go hungry without school lunches.

When I decided not to travel to Cuba, there were no reported cases of coronavirus where I live. What was being credibly reported was that years of gutting public infrastructures – health and otherwise – would soon be catching up with us.

In retrospect, it’s perhaps fitting that I acted out an epidemiological logic — practicing social distancing to discourage viral spread by not traveling — while reading and writing about Cuba, a country known for encouraging “self-sacrifice for the good of the collective” (p. 114). Garth’s book explores the daily life struggles and successes to lead a decent life in a place with one of the most effective community health programs in the world, but where there is also widespread “culinary discontent” (p. 160).

Food in Cuba is based on intensive ethnographic research with 22 families in Santiago de Cuba in 2010-2011 and follow-ups in the years since. As a method, Garth participated in what she calls “ingestive practices” (p. 23) of household food acquisition activities, spending roughly a month deeply immersed in each family’s activities. She complemented this deep engagement with interviews and life histories of more than 100 individuals who worked to find food in this small, powerful island country that lies in the heart of the global project of modernity.

One of the book’s most powerful contributions is to explode the myth that people in conditions of scarcity will eat whatever they can simply by virtue of their precarity. Instead, the participants of Garth’s study care deeply about the taste, quality, and provenance of their food. They spend tremendous energy provisioning ingredients that reflect their cultural and national identities and they maintain an “intensely emotional” connection to their meals (p. 46, 53). While the Cuban government celebrates that there is “no hunger in Cuba,” Garth shows how people will feel stressed, anxious, unsatisfied, and even traumatized when they cannot find appropriate food. Rice, for example, is both scarce and a necessary component of a ‘real’ meal. Without it, satisfaction is impossible.

Each chapter explores an aspect of the ‘politics of adequacy,’ a phrase Garth develops in reference to how Cubans prioritize relational aspects of eating alongside any evaluation of whether food quantities are “enough.” As she explains, “the framework of adequacy can account for what is necessary beyond basic nutrition, prompting us to ask not whether a food system sustains life, but whether it sustains a particular kind of living” (p. 5). Throughout the book’s five chapters she connects the politics of adequacy to a broader political lucha (struggle) to maintain a good life through arts of invention.

Driven by a feminist commitment to the analysis of power relations, the book unpacks how race, gender, sexuality, and class politics all effect the production and consumption of daily meals. Garth, with the skill of an expert chef, pays close attention to the quiet and unspoken details of food procurement to show how Cuban nationalism has always been tied to Cuban cuisine, with women shouldering the burdens of Euro-American colonialism and socialist revolution alike (p. 67). She offers a history of Cuba through stories of food access, where flavorful ajiaco stews mark sites of contested patriotism, and small cups of sugared coffee are filled with the paradoxes of sweetness and calamity (“We never have food, but we always have sugar, always” one informant tells her).

The text is full of thick descriptions of how people make meaning in times of political unrest and global extraction. Alongside stories of anxious scarcity and unevenly experienced fears of breakdown are stories of shave ice in the summer, or the whistles of pressure cookers on narrow-cobblestone alleys while the scents of garlic and onion waft through the air. One especially poignant vignette, set amid the slight intoxication of drinking cheap state-subsidized beer while people dance in the streets, describes the sadness and anger of a man sobbing at the reggaetón lyrics “Give me… a little bit of anything so I can feel happy. It could be a soda or a tube of roasted peanuts.” Life’s small mundane details, Garth shows us, are anything but insignificant.

Garth undertakes a careful critique of how ideals of “community” transforms in the shadows of global capitalism and international sanctions, showing how Santiago de Cuba remains stratified through the nexus of skin color, class, and culture, with often discriminatory effects on darker-skinned and LGBTQ+ Cubans. Promises of gender and racial equality may have launched Fidel Castro’s socialist platform into power, but she demonstrates that patriarchy remains a reigning force in the culinary lives of Cubans today (p. 163). Ethics of socialismo (socialism) frequently give way to practices of sociolismo, where people use personal networks to access private, illicit goods for their immediate family or themselves. One informant shares stories of putting locks on the cabinets of her own home as “community borrowing” morphed into outright theft (p. 132).

Food in Cuba is an excellent text for food studies classes at all levels (I plan to assign it in both undergraduate and graduate ‘anthropology of food’ courses). Garth offers a literary masterclass in how the analysis of food can help us understand social relations while the analysis of social relations can help us understand food. Foodies will appreciate the colorful descriptions of how quimbombó, boniato, plátanos, malanga, or chicharrones give rise to the “flows of daily life” (p. 167). In the process of reading about the cuisine they will learn broad political lessons about how people are luchando la vida (struggling to survive) in Cuba’s declining welfare society, where the influence of global capital looms large and state supports are disappearing.

A good deal of hope, resilience, and solidarity fills the pages of this slim and accessible book, but the final image offers an ominous warning about this moment of global fragility in which we are living: after hours of scouring for ingredients, Garth’s longtime Cuban friends managed to procure a delicious meal. The table in the photograph shows beefsteak, hand peeled potato-fries, cucumber-avocado salad, and those hallacas I’d been imagining when planning my trip to Cuba. It would be a joyous image except for one thing: the table is set for one. In a time when social solidarity is needed to get through crises, be they pandemic viruses or food scarcity, the image of the solitary place-setting speaks to me of the struggle for a decent meal yet to come.

 

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Review: Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet

Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet

Nico Slate. Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind. University of Washington Press. Seattle: 2019. 237 pp. ISBN 9780295744957 (hardcover: alk. paper.)

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Nico Slate has penned a marvelous and well-written book about Mahatma Gandhi from a unique perspective. He uses the prism of food, of how the Mahatma changed his diet—of what he ate and when-to campaign for political and philosophical ends and to achieve personal perfection. Furthermore, Slate shows how Gandhi was influenced by the evolving experimentation with vegetarianism in England and India–and how that experimentation was itself a political and philosophical movement. In addition, Slate couples his presentation with a discussion of current nutritional research on Gandhi’s diet experiments. He ends by placing Gandhi’s own experimentation with diet and the larger, world-wide one in the context both of political/philosophical/personal growth and reform. Lastly, he provides the reader with several of Gandhi’s recipes.

In each chapter, Slate takes a different aspect of Gandhi’s diet and relates it to his personal struggles and the political issues of that time. To set the stage, Gandhi “… was born into a vegetarian family in Porbandar, India…” in 1869 (2019: xi) Gandhi did experiment with meat because he wanted to be as powerful as the Englishman. According to Slate, a rhyme Gandhi “…learned in his youth”   made precisely that connection (p.46) .

Food was not just a nutritional concern, it was the way to change power and the economy. In terms of nutrition, Gandhi tried to reduce his use of salt throughout his life. He was in part persuaded to do so by watching his wife, Kasturba, get better as salt was reduced in her diet after an illness (p.20.) An important feature, Slate refers to current research on the use of a particular nutritional practice, in this case, salt. Current research on how much salt one can consume, he says, is not clear (p.,20). Gandhi’s most famous use of food to protest British rule was his campaign against the salt tax. This was another key reason that Gandhi tried limit his intake of salt throughout his life. Nevertheless, he saw that others had a need of salt for their diet-and that the British taxed salt and held a monopoly of its production. Slate says that “…[t]he question, Gandhi argued, was not just whether Indians had access to salt, but whether they had a right to self-rule [swaraj]. (p.12).” Gandhi protested the British control by “…picking up a token piece of sea salt from the beach (James 1997:525).”

He had developed  his non-violent, passive resistance approach “satyagrahain dealing with practices he did not like (James 1997: 468). Satyagraha, as James characterizes it, “…was a quality of the soul which enabled an individual to endure suffering for what he knew to be morally right (1997:48).” Gandhi felt that the political and the personal are one; he would test this to its limit.

Slate quotes Gandhi as saying in 1913: “‘…Nature intended man to be a vegetarian.’ (p.47.)” Several questions still remain: should vegetarians pressure others to give up meat? Should vegetarians not eat any meat-related products? In the first consideration, Gandhi said “no” (p.47.) He did not want his practices to seem to take sides and to use force. Rather, they were designed to convince people to change their behaviors. Hindus did not eat meat. But Parsis did, and Gandhi tried to find a middle ground (p.147) .

Gandhi also drank goat milk at times. He used it for strength (see recipe, p.183). At times Gandhi broke many of his restrictive practices, as he was still striving for perfection. He loved mangoes, though later he forswore them. He also had a non-sexual infatuation with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, while he was himself married–and celibate. Despite his refusal to eat some mangoes he had received, he wanted to share them with her (p. 163).Slate notes here, as he does elsewhere, that Gandhi was often contradictory in his search of perfection through food and other practices. Gandhi’s son was so alarmed by his Gandhi’s infatuation with Chaudhurani, that he urged his father to end the relationship (p.163).

Gandhi experimented with his diet permanently as part of his personal evolution and in response to the experimentations going on in European vegetarianism, especially English vegetarianism, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He occasionally appeared before English groups and involved himself in their nutritional disputes. Slate’s Chapter 4, exemplifies Gandhi’s experimentation with raw foods. Gandhi thought raw was best and strived to only eat uncooked meals. He admired Tolstoy, with whom he was in correspondence, and saw him as the ideal to follow (p.132 et seq). Gandhi conversed with many of the important reformers of his time, such as Margaret Sanger; Slate discusses their disagreements at length (p. 24-5).

Gandhi also saw that what one ate could not just lead to perfection but also heal one’s body. As Slate describes at length in Chapter 5, entitled “Natural Medicine,” Gandhi preferred the medicinal qualities of certain foods to much of Western medicine. But he did not reject the latter out-of-hand (p.107 et seq.) and respected its belief in scientific methodology.

Gandhi fasted many times, both for personal perfection and for political change. Slate notes that he had learned to do so in England (p..149 et seq). He admired the suffragettes’ use of the tactic. He had employed it in South Africa and then later in India. He used it to help a strike of Indian laborers and also to atone for one of his son’s unfaithfulness with another woman (p.150). His experimentation was both an end in itself and a tactic. He even admitted that he would fast on any pretext (p.151). His major fast, to try to bring civil peace in Calcutta after WWII, was emblematic of his approach: he “…told a group of Hindu demonstrators to ‘go immediately among the Muslims and assure them full protection.’ (p.160).” Unfortunately, as Slate notes, the civil war between Hindus and Moslems, which includes the fight over cows, has escalated (p.175) to a point where the present Hindu -led government in India had decided on an active program against Moslems (Filkins 2019).

Throughout the book, Slate shows the imperfections and attempts at perfection in Gandhi’s practices. For example, Gandhi did not always address race as a primary concern while in south Africa and had mixed feelings about eating mealie pap, which the black south Africans ate (p.132.) He also did not completely take on the issue of caste till later in life (p.158) . Yet he addressed the issues of the food chain and its exploitation of certain groups when he refused to eat chocolate in part because of the servitude of its growers (Chapter 2).

What Gandhi wanted was a peaceful world where people grew their own food–“a radical vision of food democracy (p.173) . That was the purpose of his various agricultural experiments, like his farm in South Africa and his ashram in India.

Slate ends his discussion of Gandhi by relating Gandhi’s struggles with contemporary dietary experimentation, for Slate, himself and others. These struggles range from the personal to the political. He contends that it would be ‘…impossible to render Gandhi’s diet a “model” anyone would want to follow–or could, even if they tried (p.171).” Gandhi, he argues, “…strove to resolve the greatest paradox confronting the modern world: many people starve, while others eat too much (p.173).” This has been noted by other observers as well (cf. Wilson 2019: Chapter 1-The Food Transition.) The Norwegian Army, in one gesture, now requires one meatless day a week (Slate 2019:176).

Because Slate focuses so strongly on Gandhi, his diet, his connections with the nutritional movements of his day and with politics, this book is particularly useful for anthropologists, particularly food anthropologists and students of Indian history and society and food history. He presents the reader with an excellent and useful bibliography.   One small correction should be noted: On p. 21, He classifies Sidney Mintz as an historian, not as an anthropologist.

 

1997

Lawrence James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York.

 

2019

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

 

2019

Dexter Filkins. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/09/blood-and-soil-in-narendra-modis-india?verso=true. Accessed January 18, 2020.

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Review: Taste, Politics and Identities in Mexican Food

Media of Taste, Politics, and Identities in Mexican Food

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

Emily Ramsey (University of Georgia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Quick, (Cottey College)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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