Author Archives: foodanthro

Review: In Defense of Jewish Food, A Kosher Eater’s Manifesto contra Michael Pollan

schorsch book cover

The Food Movement, Culture, and Religion. A Tale of Pigs, Christians, Jews, and Politics. Schorsch, Jonathan  Palgrave/Macmillan, 2018. ISBN 978-3-319-71705-0  98 pp.text.

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA

Jewish dietary laws, in particular the prohibition on eating pig, have long fascinated professionals who ponder food taboos and restrictions. Jonathan Schorsch’s nit-picking but far-reaching analysis of The Food Movement, Culture, and Religion. A Tale of Pigs, Christians, Jews, and Politics is the latest addition to this Jewish Studies and Food Studies literature. In  a carefully organized 98 page volume consisting of eight chapters, each with a clearly written abstract and clarifying footnotes, the author, a scholar-activist in Jewish studies, shares his outrage that Michael Pollan, and fellow foodie intellectuals/activists of Jewish descent, irreverently celebrate the joys of eating pig and ignorantly refuse to acknowledge the manifold values in their Jewish culinary heritage.

The first four chapters are best described as a carefully framed rant against the kosher-bashing behaviors of leading Jewish food writers and chefs. These alleged authorities of the modern food movement pointedly ignore the cosmological and more encompassing cultural significance of Biblical and subsequent Jewish dietary laws, which establish which foods are permitted (“Kosher”) or forbidden (“treyf”). The three most important abstention rules can be summarized in order of salience for modern Jewish practice as: (1) no pig, (2) no shellfish, and (3) no mixing of meat and dairy products in the same dish or meal.

Schorsch’s main argument, introduced in Chapter 1, asserts that Michael Pollan and other modern foodies who celebrate omnivory and above all, consumption of pig, are objectionable ignoramuses, who systematically disparage religious and cultural bases of food habits in favor of reductionist, materialist, and rationalist conformity to dominant, allegedly democratic, assimilationist values. They, in Schorsch’s view, ironically, embrace indigenous foods and food systems as valuable contributions to environmental, nutritional, and social-justice values without searching for or acknowledging analogues in their own Jewish heritage and food traditions. Chapter 2 provides a brief history of pig-eating (or not-eating) in Jewish ritual, culinary, and agricultural practice, and establishes how and why pig came to encapsulate and symbolize Jewish experience of anti-Semitic oppression. Chapter 3 bashes the anti-kosher rhetoric of leading (Jewish) foodies representative of the modern food movement and bemoans their studied disinterest in Jewish identity and food history. This diatribe continues in Chapter 4, where the author dissects Pollan’s selective knowledge of religion and demonstrates his ignorance of Judaism.

The next four chapters, while they continue to focus negatively on Pollan, explore more universal themes and show where Jewish food fits into the mix. Chapter 5 considers culinary worlds as cultural cosmologies. Chapter 6 reviews prohibitions of animal species in cross-cultural perspective. Chapter 7 explores omnivory as a universal, but rarely or never practiced ideal. Finally, Chapter 8 considers individual vs. group identity and dietary decision-making through food. These later chapters (5-8) offer a careful exploration of the guiding principles of Jewish omnivory for those who know and choose to follow the rules, and connect food rules and eating behaviors to their larger Jewish symbolic universe and Jewish history. The author did not really need Pollan as a target to present these well-grounded materials, which also contain well-developed historical point and counterpoint comparisons of Christian and Jewish attitudes toward pig-eating, including the well-known example that pig-avoidance was used by the Spanish Inquisition to identify secret Jews who had ostensibly converted to Christianity but nevertheless maintained this Jewish dietary prohibition. Schorsch’s cross cultural exploration of ethical omnivory (Chapters 7-8) finds that most traditional cultures, Judaism included, demonstrate selective construction of diet. So do 21st century foodies, Jewish and non-Jewish, who analogously embrace food restrictions, albeit with selectivity based on adherence to some universal, secular as opposed to sectarian, principles or creed, most often some formal criteria of food-, labor-, and environmental- justice, which now qualify as universal, rather than particular Jewish values.

As a knowledgeable reader in this realm (I have taught Mary Douglas’ “Abominations of Leviticus” and her critics’ responses in Anthropological Approaches to Religion courses, and include in-depth analysis of Kosher-food classifications and certifications in my Gastronomy course on “Local to Global Food Values: Policy, Practice, and Performance,” and also write about American Reform Jewish kosher and non-kosher food rules and practices) I found Schorsch’s questions and answers in the first four chapters rigorous, but irritating. I resented his scolding Pollan as a public intellectual and opinion maker who needs to be enlightened, and his overall tone, which was didactic rant. In my experience, modern Jewish omnivores of self-identified liberal or progressive persuasion often choose not to adhere strictly to religiously-based food avoidances or to seek Jewish sources for their “just-food” practices. This, I concur with the author, does not explain why leading food-movement advocates of Jewish descent obsessively raise, cook, consume, and extoll pig as the most delectable of all foodstuffs. But given their cultural choices and culinary companions, I don’t expect them to act differently or stop eating pig, even if they study and acknowledge the anti-Semitic food history that shows forcing Jews to eat pig made pig-eating a quintessential performative act of political subjugation. Nor do I expect them to give equal time to the Jewish sustainable food movement, which aims to raise the food-justice standards of kosher food. For sure, “relevant insights of concerned food activists such as Michael Pollan and those of cultural traditions are not at odds with one another. They are powerful potential partners” for saving the planet and improving nutritional welfare (p.97). But I doubt that the author’s vitriol will overcome Pollan’s unwillingness to respect, if not revere, his ancestral culture.

Moreover, by centering his essays as a critique of Pollan and to a lesser extent other high-profile foodies, the author misses the larger picture of what passes as “Jewish” food, particularly in America. For example, Schorsch could have expanded on the great diversity of opinions, attitudes, and practices represented in The Sacred Table (Zamore 2011), a collection of essays by American Reform Jewish thinkers, some of whom mix meat with dairy or  indulge happily in shellfish, but may still refuse to eat pig. He cites the book but does not fully explore issues of Jewish culinary identity. American Jewish culture has also produced dozens of community cookbooks, some of which include special sections with TREYF recipes that the editors considered to be Jewish food in that they are produced by Jews and intended to be imitated and eaten with fellow Jews, but incorporate non-kosher ingredients or mixtures.

Personally, I find the reasoning of celebrity chef Michael Solomonov (Zahav. A World of Israeli Cooking (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2015) more insightful in distinguishing between culinary and personal identities. Trained in classic French technique and in Italian restaurants, this celebrated Philadelphia restauranteur finds it challenging to eliminate butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in dishes containing meat, and sad to exclude high quality shellfish and pork from his repertoire. He does so, he testifies, not for religious but for culinary reasons, in order to “honor the spirit of a few fundamental rules of kosher cooking” and because he markets his art and craft as Israeli. In his thinking, “Kosher rules help define the boundaries of Israeli cuisine. The second you add pork or shellfish to a dish, it can become Greek or Turkish. When you add yogurt to lamb it can become Lebanese or Syrian. Without the influence of kosher rules, the notion of Israeli cuisine itself begins to fray.” (p.22). Here, the chef is conceptualizing integrity in terms of cuisine, not cosmology or religion, and he adds that in his personal practice, he is not kosher, and in the cookbook, he makes suggestions for non-kosher variations on his recipes should readers so desire to experiment.

The celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi presents a different tack and another contrasting approach. He grew up in a Jewish Jerusalem household that flagrantly violated the kosher rules by eating pork and shellfish. He briefly discusses the kosher vs. non-kosher divide in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, where what food and with whom you will or will not eat are based on degree of kosher practice, which clearly marks religious-political identity (p.231). Such an approach likely influenced and validates Pollan’s preference for viewing Jewish food mainly as a cultural or political identity issue, which Schorsch criticizes as a limitation and failing. Ottolenghi and his co-author Sami Tamimi in Jerusalem. A Cookbook (Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 2012), like Pollan, celebrate the cosmopolitan mixing of multiple traditions, in their case, Jewish and non-Jewish, inherent in Israel’s ethnic, religious, and culinary-identity divisions.

The take-away is that foodies like Pollan are certainly correct in defining their own cultural and culinary identity as belonging to a more inclusive, larger cosmopolitan culture. With that comes an apparent special titillation aroused by eating pig, shellfish and combined meat with dairy combinations that are forbidden in Jewish dietary regimes. They certainly have not engaged in research or demonstrated “due diligence” in making pronouncements about Jewish food. This is their prerogative. But as a corollary, they probably should confess ignorance, and not preach about the limitations of kosher eating, beginning with pig.

Food and nutrition anthropologists, food studies, gastronomy, and culinary historians should all find this book of interest. For Food Anthropology or Food Studies courses addressing food cultures and cosmologies, it offers a well-referenced exploration of Jewish and anti-Jewish food culture. It could also provide a week’s reading on “food and religion” in courses on anthropology of religion; particularly Chapter 5, “Cosmological Cultures as Forms of Resistance” will resonate with other non-food emphases. The book might serve equally well as a text and extended case study on food culture for religious, Judaic, or ethnic studies.

Reference cited

Zamore, Mary L., ed. (2011) The Sacred Table. Creating a Jewish Food Ethic. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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Reminder: 2019 Thomas Marchione Award Deadline is July 26!

Do not miss this opportunity to have your work recognized!

Graduate Students! Are you doing or have you recently completed research related to food and human rights? Food security? Food justice? Do you consider that these and related issues are among the most pressing issues facing humanity? Would you like your work to be recognized? SAFN wants to hear from you!

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) is seeking applications for the Thomas Marchione Award, which recognizes graduate student research on topics including food security, food justice and/or the right to food in both international and domestic contexts. Any field of study is eligible, and the winner will receive $750 and a year’s membership in both the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN).

Complete application information is here.

Deadline: July 26, 2019.

Recent Award Winners:

2018

Miguel Cuj (Vanderbilt University), Violence, Nutrition, and Health Issues: Maya Memories in Guatemala.

2017

Paula Fernandez-Wulff (UC Louvain, Belgium), Harnessing Local Food Policies for the Right to Food.

2015

Jessie Mazar (University of Vermont), Issues of food access and food security for Latino/a migrant farm workers in Vermont’s dairy industry.

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Reminder! 2019 Christine Wilson Awards Applications Due Soon!

Don’t Miss This Great Opportunity!

Students! Did you write a research paper on food and/or nutrition this year? Are you writing one now? Want fame and recognition? We want to hear from you!

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) is seeking applications for the Christine Wilson Graduate Student Award and the Christine Wilson Undergraduate Student Award for outstanding student research papers on food and/or nutrition. The winner of the graduate award and the undergraduate award will receive $300 and be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association and receive a year’s membership in SAFN.

Complete application information is here.

Deadline: July 26, 2019.

Recent Award Winners:

2018

Christine Wilson Undergraduate Award: Jared Belsky (Hamilton College) and Mackenzie Nelsen (UNC Chapel Hill), Cultivating Activism Through Terroir: An Anthropology of Sustainable Wine Makers in Umbria, Italy.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Alyssa Paredes (Yale University), Follow the Yellow Brix Road: How the Japanese Market’s Taste for Sweetness Transformed the Philippine Highlands.

2017

Christine Wilson Undergraduate Award: Kate Rhodes (Macalester College), Having a Steak in the Matter: Gender in the Buenos Aires Asado.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Sarah Howard (Goldsmiths College, University of London), Coffee and the State in Rural Ethiopia.

2016

Christine Wilson Award Undergraduate Award: Cynthia Baur (Dickinson College), An Analysis of the Local Food Movement in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Imogen Bevan (University of Edinburgh), Care is Meat and Tatties, Not Curry.

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Eataly and FICO Eataly: The Context

Amy Trubek: My conversation with food scholars of Italy revealed a shared belief that there is much potential for a collaborative, global research endeavor about the phenomenon that is Eataly – ranging from how it is organized, the values underlying it, and the consequences of its ever expanding empire. Here, Elisa Ascione provides crucial context for any further study.

Elisa Ascione, Umbra Institute

Eataly opened its first shop in 2007 in Turin, with a partnership with Slow Food. The creator, Oscar Farinetti, believed that Carlo Petrini’s mantra “good, clean and fair” could be incorporated into his vision of a new kind of supermarket. Farinetti was already a successful businessman, founder of a chain of electronics stores. He also hails from Piemonte, and had known Carlo Petrini for years. With the creation of Eataly, many of the Slow Food principles were used as strategies to create a place where smaller artisanal productions could be sold creating better wages for producers, and where consumer could be educated on different production methods, on the importance of origins, high quality and taste. It has been argued that Eataly, at least when it started, was an interesting model since it incorporated many of the ideals of alternative food movements (for example eating local and economic de-growth) into a successful modern retail chain (Venturini, 2008. p.2.)

FICO

Eataly, in fact, suggests that modern markets and technologies are not antithetic to traditional, highly localized practices, and although producers are asked to adapt to, and sometimes reach, new quality standards, they can actually benefit from the brand that Eataly provides. Eataly, for example, must follow strict standard hygiene checks, and for instance, some producers have been trained to follow those procedures, for example eliminating molds on some cheeses. Eataly has also a “fidelity and justice” contract with some of the producers, offering a three-year sale contract in exchange of the promise of not raising prices during that time. Eataly is in general more dependent on its providers than standard supermarkets, since they offer rare and unique products that cannot be easily replaced (Bosello, 2014.).

Overall, Eataly does not compete with other large retailers, but defines itself as complementary to them. For example, they emphasize less consumption and less waste: “Buy only what you need…but of good quality,” you can read on the walls of its malls. They want to convey the meaning that higher prices do not necessarily mean elite consumption patterns, if people pay “the right price” for products, but simply consume and waste less. However, since Eataly participates as a main stakeholder in many of the companies that produce food (such as water, wine, bread, salumi, and many more,) they are also able to keep their prices at a competitive level. Furthermore, just like standard supermarkets, Eataly employs people without specific expertise on the products (excluding the chefs and the category managers) allowing the use of a more flexible and cheaper labor force (Bosello, 2014).

Eataly offers products from large artisanal and medium-large industrial companies, and the boundary between the two is at times blurred. Starting with offering only unique and, even in Italy, not easy to source specialties, now Eataly also offers widely available Italian products. With the increasingly global scope of the Eataly stores, the meaning of such products might be transformed once on the shelves of Eataly’s marketsand bazaars(Colombino, 2018 p.80). As Annalisa Colombino explains, at Eataly even ordinary brands and products become part of an “imagined, epicurean, authentic Italian lifestyle” (p.81). She shows how the meaning of “local” food shifts with its international expansion, as many Eataly malls buy groceries, meat and fish from local farms, like the New York store that claims to make 70 per cent of their revenue from U.S.-based products, thus benefiting local suppliers. Italian producers have also benefited from the partnership with Eataly, Colombino explains: for example, thanks to the supply of Piedmontese beef sent to Eataly, a group of sixty farmers was able to keep their farms rather than closing them down as large retails were imposing on them the payment of low prices (p.83).

As many other grandi opere (large scale projects) in Italy, Eataly has been strongly debated across the political spectrum. Despite its success, some authors and commentators argue that Eataly has come to“betray” of Slow Food ideals, transforming ideals of change into a more mundane supermarket. Author Wolf Bukoski in his “La danza delle mozzarelle” criticizes the romantic narrative of the contadinoand small Italian producers used to sell more products, but de factostripped of any political relevance. The author claims that Eataly is in business with a powerful landowner of 900.000 hectares of land in Mapuche in Patagonia, while praising “farmers’ resistance”; it talks about “authenticity” while creating an artificial Disneyland for foodies. For the author, eating quality artisanal foods, as Eataly preaches, cannot bring any societal change, while change in social inequalities will also bring a change as far as consumption goes, including the ability to afford quality products. According to critics of this model, places like Eataly appeal to lofty leftist ideas of the artisan and the small producer that have survived global mass production, in order to fully participate in that very same market, not offering a real alternative, but creating a new elite brand around authenticity.

It’s interesting to note that Eataly has become a tourism destination itself, both in Italy and abroad. With the opening of FICO Eataly World, the shift towards the theme park, rather than the supermarket, is even more evident. FICO’s aim is to preserve“the heritage of Italian agri-food biodiversity”and teach people “about the culture, traditions, and craftsmanshipthat make Italian food the most famous in the world (with) tours to explore cropsanimals, and factoriesclassesmultimedia rides, and restaurants.” With its 8,000 sqm theme park outside of Bologna, it represents and hosts some of the most famous artisanal and industrial Italian products, factories and restaurants. With three million visitors in the first year (over 70% from outside Bologna), and 50 million euros revenues, they are however still behind the 6 million visitors expected from the third year. FICO’s aim is to sell products and services, but also to educate by showing certain parts of the procedures of iconic Italian foods. It is in part like a museum of Italian foods, and as such there is curation.

Even if Eataly has been linked, at least in its beginning, to the political left and it has incorporated some of the ideals of alternative food movements, it would be delusional to expect that a supermarket, privately owned and embedded in the global late-capitalist market, could be a real “revolutionary” force. Smaller artisanal Italian producers struggle to survive because of the price of land, because of Italian bureaucracy, because of competition with cheaper international goods, because of organized crime, and for a multitude of political, economic and structural reasons that should be publicly addressed and changed. Although Eataly incorporates some of the Slow Food ideals (that do offer powerful critiques to contemporary food systems,) I do not really expect a private business to create any radical change. I think that we must turn to our politicians for that. On the other hand, I think that by actively creating new narratives around Italian foods, places like Eataly and FICO can probably help the Italian economy in increasing the volume of export of foods abroad by feeding on the imaginaries of local and international touristic consumptions.

 

 

 

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EATALY and FICO EATALY: Good to Think? (Part One)

Pasta Eataly

Amy Trubek with Elisa Ascione (Umbra Institute), Rachel Black (Connecticut College), Jesse Dart (University of Sydney), Rebecca Feinberg (University of California-Santa Cruz and Fabio Paresecoli (New York University)

One of the wonderful consequences of stepping out of the office and classroom and going into the “field,” are those moments where participating in a singular experience creates a flash of insight, lighting up new neural pathways (or maybe generating alternative visions), an opening that allows you to ‘connect the dots’ in a new manner. All of a sudden a series of seemingly random moments or thoughts start to make sense in relationship to each other. This happened to me in March, during an extended trip in Italy. I went on a fieldtrip with food anthropologist Elisa Ascioneand her Umbra Institute students to visit Parmigiano-Reggianocheesemakers and members of the Parma Prosciuttoconsortium as well as a visit to FICO Eataly(outside of Bologna). Each of the stops on the fieldtrip was stimulating and facilitated many new thoughts about the taste of place, Italian food culture and the globalization of the food system. But the moment where I was jolted out of my familiar thoughts about such topics, the moment I realized something was happening right in front of me and I was not paying attention, was when we stepped into the vast building that is FICO Eataly World. This vast indoor and outdoor space (100,000 square meters) opened in late 2017 and promised visitors “a discovery of all the wonders of Italian biodiversity”. I had heard about Eataly from friends and family in New York City and last year I went on a quick walk through of the one in Boston. Without reflection or connection, my analysis was simple: this was a new version of the standard American food court (Eataly operations in the United States also include Las VegasandChicagoand the global total is 39). End of story.

But then I went to Italy for six weeks. And I spent much of that time exploring Italian food culture, talking to Italians invested in making food and drink or scholars interested in understanding such practices. Entering the former warehouse, now housing the “Disneyworld of food,”  the story of Eataly immediately became more complex and compelling. I had no previous expectations, as I didn’t know this theme park existed before we started the fieldtrip; on entering I tried to take in the wide lanes extending between many shops – the stand creating homemade pasta, the endless trattorias (45 total), the Grana Padano cheese plant, the stand making Mortadella – the list goes on and on. But there was more than the seemingly infinite offerings of food and drink. There was the amphitheater for presentations and classes! The free bicycles (with built in shopping baskets)! The outdoor miniature golf course themed with statues of farm animals! A volleyball court! The juxtaposition of talking with the cheesemaker in the Parmigiano-Reggiano plant, watching the shaping and aging of huge rounds of cheese earlier in the day, tasting the particularities of one cheese made in one place, and then wandering around this massive enterprise, gave me pause (and a little bit of a headache too!). I realized that a powerful vision and a massive infrastructure were crucial to the reality of Eataly, an enterprise only twelve years old, telling a very 21stcentury taleabout the allure of food and drink, evoking tropes about culture and heritage while existing in tension with the reality of global supply chains.

Eataly Florence

This story was about way more than a food court. But how to figure it out? In particular, what are the long-term consequences of the success of Eataly, especially for the livelihoods of Italian producers and the transfer of knowledge around Italian food culture. In a recent New York Times article (about the opening of the 39thEataly, in Paris), Nicola Farinetti, the store’s manager and son of the chain’s founder, explained Eataly’s role: “Unfortunately the world of small food shops, those small places dedicated to quality food, like Americans imagine, died many years ago.” Eataly, in this analysis, serves as – well, what? – a museum and mall? A 21stcentury town center? But my knowledge of Italian food culture is certainly not thick, so I decided to reach out to the experts! I contacted five scholars of Italian food culture, including anthropologists.

Rachel Blackemphasizes the differences in meaning and thus consequences, especially for everyday life. “I think you need to differentiate between Eataly in Italy and abroad. The first Eataly in Turin really spoke to Italians (Torinesi). There were many ‘idioms’ from open-air markets and regional food specialties and wines were showcased. [Whereas] Eataly inNYC and Boston tend to be more of a food court with some specialty items here and there. I find it to be a very superficial showcase of Italian food.”

Fabio Paresecoli agrees, pointing out that there are other robust means for Italian producers to reach consumers, especially Italian consumers: “Italian food culture as a live, changing, evolving dimension definitely does not need FICO Eataly or similar enterprises to remain viable. Already the government has provided a strong framework for the maintenance of heritage through geographical indication and the inscriptions on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list, a project that has also been embraced by producers as a way to boost their sales, command higher prices, and distinguish themselves from Italian-sounding products.”

Rebecca Feinberg generally agrees with these characterizations, but cautions: “I think Italian food culture will keep growing and changing, as it always has, and that commercializing it as a Disneyland will be a financial boost for a small cohort of producers (among the thousands who are not selected for Eataly’s shelves), but also part of the larger …trend to [a certain] museumification of food culture that producers already wrestle with when it comes to complying with DOC standards and consortia [demands].”

Everyone agrees that the increasing global reach of Eataly stores and the opening of FICO Eataly shifts the paradigm; what might have been the original vision with the store in Turin and a few other Italian cities has transformed. Feinberg says, “Ultimately Eataly is not for Italians–it is mainly for tourists to Italy and a way to step into an Italian food wonderland for a few minutes or hours elsewhere in the world. Eataly sells shelf-stable goods and restaurant meals, neither of which, to me, capture ‘Italian food culture’– that happens in the kitchen, at the table, at the outdoor market, in the vineyards or dairies, etc. And Eataly cannot package that…. [in this sense] Eataly is more about Italian food commerce than Italian food culture.”

Jesse Dart concurs, “I think Eataly is just the first to be able to capitalize on Italian food culture in a way that is profitable and in a format that is exportable. I personally think that FICO is a risky venture that seems most interesting for urban Italians (and some tourists).  Eataly is still an expensive store for regular shopping. Italian supermarkets, especially ones such as COOP, also sell locally sourced/specific products that are of similar or equal quality to many of those at Eataly.”

Paresecoli is of similar mind, “I think the concept of the relevance of origin, tradition, artisanality is well established among Italian consumers now. Even those who cannot afford the upscale stuff, they can have access to the supermarket avatar. I think Eataly/FICO are more for foreigners.”

The general consensus is that Eataly is a very successful Italian company capitalizing on the global allure of Italian food culture, but, for the moment, not a significant threat to the everyday habits of Italians. In Black’s opinion, “The real deal is breaking bread with people at someone’s home. It’s more than eating food–it’s conversations and the intimacy of the table, as well as the cooking and the food. Italian food culture is changing (like all food cultures) but as long as Italians keep eating together, it will stay vibrant.”

Eataly poses some possible perils for producers who want to engage with an increasingly large, bureaucratic and powerful company. Paresecoli points out, “There has been a lot of debate about the pressure Eataly is able to put on producers. On one hand, they ensure sales, but at the same time they have a huge bargaining power. Also, I suspect that some producers are so small that all their production goes to Eataly, so the visibility they get there does not help them expanding their business, unless they invest and scale up.” Feinberg echoes these sentiments: “Eataly will, I think, offer some producers an incredible infrastructure to accessing a global market, and probably take care of a lot of the export paperwork, relationship building, and bureaucratic labyrinths that impede producers from doing this on their own. Some producers, inevitably, will transform their business and practices in the effort to scale up and standardize, while others may struggle with inconsistency in ordering or short contracts.”

These realities generate other questions. Dart brings in the local/global tensions inherent in the Eataly enterprise: “I’m skeptical now that some of the smaller producers are able to meet the quantity demands that a company like Eataly might have. Maybe a better question is does America/Brazil/Russia/France/Japan need a Florentine version of Nutella or Easter cakes? Eataly in New York is full of contradictions too, like the Nutella Bar. It’s far from an artisan product but has a prominent place in Eataly in NYC.” However, there are novel opportunities that arise; Parasecoli provides this example: “At the same time, Eataly is helping new product categories to become visible. A good example is IGAs (Italian Grape Ales), which are hard to find anywhere else.”

My takeaway? Food anthropologists and food studies scholars need to pay attention to Eataly! And perhaps our work should be collaborative, global and iterative; we need to mimic it.

Elisa Ascione responded to my questions with her own mini-essay, one that considers the importance of Eataly’s founder, Oscar Farinetti, the role of Slow Food to Eataly’s vision and organization, while also incorporating the analyses of Italian scholars. Her thoughts, combined with others on possible future research questions, can be found in Part Two (to be posted next week).

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Going for the Gumbo

David Beriss

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a massive two weekend celebration of the music and culture of the city and the surrounding region. I have been attending regularly for years. At its core, the festival provides an opportunity to see great performers playing wonderful music. The musicians range from headlining national pop stars to relatively unknown local artists who usually play at the club around the corner; from national acts to bands made up of students from local high schools and universities (a not insignificant number of the former evolved from the latter). In addition, the festival showcases the work of visual artists and craftspeople, as well as parading groups of Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, and much more. All of this makes for a dazzling attempt to crystallize the contours of the artistic culture of south Louisiana. It is a self-conscious attempt to put that culture on display, to celebrate, venerate, and preserve the things that make the region distinctive.

And then there is the food. For many people, Jazz Fest is as much a food festival as it is a music festival. Your ticket, of course, buys you entrance to the festival and with that you can hear as much music as you can fit into your day. The food, produced by a wide range of local vendors, costs extra. But the food is as carefully curated by the festival organizers as the music. The vendors are not the circuit-riding professionals of state and county fairs. They are local restaurateurs and caterers, along with a few talented prejeans sign jazzfestamateurs, who often produce special dishes specifically for Jazz Fest. The array of foods on offer—from classics of Cajun and Creole cooking, to Vietnamese, Latin American, and Middle-Eastern specialties—provides an idea of the region that may be more diverse than the music itself.

 

There are people who plan their approach to the music schedule weeks in advance. There are also people who approach the food with similar careful strategizing. Emphasizing this food-focused view of Jazz Fest, Ian McNulty, a food writer at the Advocate newspaper, created a guide for such people this year that mimics the layout of the music schedule.

A lot of us start our annual Jazz Fest observances with a specific dish. When I get to Jazz Fest, before even thinking about which bands are performing, I seek out the pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo from Prejean’s Restaurant. The dish is part of our family history. When my wife was pregnant with our now 18-year old daughter and fighting first-trimester nausea, she nevertheless insisted on only one Jazz Fest food: prejeans gumbo jazzfestPrejean’s gumbo. This is a dark and smoky gumbo, filled with chunks of meat, served with rice. Eating at Jazz Fest is best approached as a team activity, so I share the gumbo with whoever is with me (usually my wife), as we comment on the quality of the year’s batch. The strong flavors prepare us for a day of music, food, and fascinating sights.

Gumbo, of course, is one of the key Louisiana dishes. Prejean’s gumbo is Cajun. The use of a very dark roux is something people often associate with Cajun gumbos, although that seems less indicative in this case than the vendor. Prejean’s is based in Lafayette, about 140 miles west of New Orleans and represents itself as a Cajun restaurant. It is a big restaurant, full of taxidermy alligators and other memorabilia meant to evoke Cajun culture. The food is good and they have excellent gumbos on the menu. But the pheasant, andouille, and quail gumbo is not on the restaurant’s regular menu. For that, you have to come to Jazz Fest.

Prejean’s is not the only gumbo at Jazz Fest. There is also a lovely shrimp, sausage, and okra gumbo, from Fireman Mike’s Kitchen. Mike Gowland is a real retired fire fighter fireman mikes gumbo jazzfestwho has been at Jazz Fest for years and recently opened a restaurant. His gumbo is much lighter in color than Prejean’s and it is hard to miss the okra floating around in it, which adds some texture to the dish. There is also Creole filé gumbo, from Wayne Baquet’s Li’l Dizzy’s Café, the current outpost of a family with a storied restaurant history in New Orleans. They serve Creole food at their restaurants and their seafood-heavy gumbo is representative of that style (alas, I do not have a photo of Baquet’s gumbo).

If you set all three of the gumbos available at Jazz Fest side by side, you might find it hard to believe that they are all variations of one dish. There are a lot of great gumbos in local restaurants and, of course, many home cooks make their own. If there is not one right way to make gumbo, there are nevertheless a lot of people willing to argue about the dish itself. On gumbo’s origins, for instance: claims about the invention of the dish invoke, variously, African, Fireman Mike Gumbo signNative American, and European origins. The word “gumbo” derives from the Bantu term for okra. Some point to Choctaw soups and to the Native American introduction of ground sassafras leaves to Europeans, which is the source of the filé powder often used to thicken gumbos (and there are often filé making demonstrations at Jazz Fest). The Choctaw word for sassafras is, in fact, “kombo.” Some have argued that the soup has its origins in local variants on French bouillabaisse. We might add that the rice usually served with gumbo is a major south Louisiana crop that was originally brought to the Americas by Africans. These arguments about origins are part of a broader tendency in local popular literature to want to attribute different recipes or parts of recipes to specific ethnic groups, usually relying on broad generalizations about how and what people of various origins cook (“the French” brought roux, “the Spanish” brought ham, “the Africans” brought okra and rice, “the Germans” brought sausage, and so forth) and contributing to deeper debates about who can represent local culture. Some of the people in these stories were probably less eager to participate in the making of that culture than others, a fact that contributes to these ongoing debates.

The controversies do not end with debates about origins. Brett Anderson, a James Beard award winning local food writer, recently wrote an article in the New York Times focusing on a ‘new wave’  of gumbos available in New Orleans restaurants. The article featured the headline: “Gumbo, the Classic New Orleans Dish, Is Dead. Long Live Gumbo,” and discussed everything from a curried gumbo at Saffron NOLA to a seafood gumbo with flavors that point to Vietnamese and Chinese foods at Maypop, along with many others. The article—especially the headline—drove locals into a social media frenzy. Many erroneously assumed that Anderson was claiming gumbo was dead and indignantly denounced the New York Times for once again completely misunderstanding the city’s culture and traditions. It probably would not matter much what Anderson wrote. Fiercely defending and preserving the city’s and region’s cultural traditions—the “heritage” in the Jazz and Heritage Festival—is a mission that many locals take seriously. Outside authorities, or even local authorities working for outside media, raise questions at their own risk.

There have been other controversies in recent years around gumbo, including outrage over a recipe for gumbo promoted by Disney on social media. There have also been fights over what constitutes a proper roux, the addition of hard-boiled eggs to gumbo, and the use of potato salad in gumbo. This is a lot to take on board when you taste that cup of dark gumbo at Jazz Fest. If nothing else, the ongoing controversies about the origins, making, and representations of gumbo indicate that people care enough to keep the traditions alive. The variations and innovations in gumbo-making suggest that New Orleans is still a Creole city, constantly adapting to new ideas and innovations. At this year’s Jazz Fest (there is still one weekend left, as I write this), there will be an entire day of cooking demonstrations devoted to different kinds of gumbo. Tempting.

 

 

 

 

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From Beans to Bread: The Community at the Heart of The Bread Lab

Laura Valli, PhD candidate

The Bread Lab, Washington State University

Bread Lab: what is the first image this phrase evokes for you? Maybe an artisanal sourdough loaf with a dark golden crust and chewy inside? A pile of such loaves? Or a wide selection of breads, representative of different culinary traditions across the globe?

These are indeed images from the Bread Lab, where skilled and knowledgeable people who care about good bread experiment with different grains, mills in many sizes and ovens that a home baker could only dream of.

However, when I think of the Bread Lab, I envision rice and beans.

R_Bandsauces

This is the lunch staple of my supervisor, Dr. Stephen Jones. He prepares rice and beans about once a week for everyone and anyone at the lab— sometimes to accompany our lab meetings, sometimes to feed our guests. Whoever is at the lab when the rice and beans are ready is welcome. There are two hints that rice and beans will be on the menu the next day. The first is direct: Dr. Jones asks what time your classes are the next day, and adds casually, “I will be making some rice and beans tomorrow. Would you be interested?” The second is through deduction: on the wooden table in the lab baking area you notice a container holding beans immersed in cold water. Just as with sourdough bread, preparations for rice and beans start at least a day before. The beans used are always locally grown, often a mixture of different varieties, misshapen and therefore perfect for family lunches. These remind me of a pizzeria owner’s comment that it was the pizzas deemed too imperfect for the customers and thus shared among the staff that were the tastiest. So, too, I find the broken and split beans are the creamiest and also tastiest when shared with others.

The meal is ritualistic with a firm set of steps to follow. Everybody goes through the same procedure exactly in the same order. We line up according to our arrival time in the kitchen. Everyone starts with a fork and a small bowl. We assemble our lunch by first scooping some plain brown rice (the saucepan on the left) into our bowl. The rice is then topped with the beans (the saucepan on the right) that sometimes is seasoned with chunks of smoked ham for added depth of flavor. Next, everyone grates aged cow’s cheese on top of their food, the heaped fluffy pile melting quickly into the hot rice and beans. Occasionally there are additional toppings, such as raw onion, shredded cabbage or slices of avocado. But when it comes to condiments, hot sauce is a must: at least five different kinds are offered. Heat is something that I still do not tolerate, and even though I was told that the hot sauce is not optional, I sprinkle sea salt flakes instead. For the crunch factor there are tortilla chips (conspicuously labeled as organic, non-GMO, without any preservatives), another non-negotiable element of the bowl. Last we pick up tall brown glasses of water.

Once we fill our bowls, we gather around the table and sit on red plastic chairs with black wheels. There are four large tables in the baking area at the lab. With eight people working at the lab, we could each have a table for two. Yet we always prefer to stick together as a group, elbows almost touching. We eat, sometimes we joke, sometimes we exchange news, sometimes we eat in silence, a silence is filled with the sounds of ticking, munching and crunching.

I move back and forth from my seat to the stovetop, adding a bit more of this and that to the bowl as I eat, to keep the proportions just to my liking. I always seem to underestimate the amount of cheese. As people empty their bowls, they are reluctant to leave the table right away. Sometimes it is the engaging group discussions that prevent us from returning to our offices, at other times we linger in stillness, each in our own thoughts. The pots and pans are never emptied, there are always leftovers. My theory is that it is due to our consideration for the collective.

The shared experience of repast punctuates the day. The simple meal of rice and beans is emblematic of the ethos of the Bread Lab. Both are unpretentious, welcoming, accessible, accommodating, wholesome and community-oriented — just the way we think of our bread and work. These values are also perfectly embodied in the Bread Lab’s latest project, the approachable loaf (http://thebreadlab.wsu.edu/the-bread-lab-collective/). The approachable loaf is a more wholesome alternative to the traditional white sandwich bread with all of its appealing features (softness, rectangular shape, even slices), but more flavor and no unnecessary ingredients. Bakers across the country are encouraged to sign up to become members of the Bread Lab Collective and start baking the Approachable Loaf, thereby making wholesome and nutritious bread more accessible and affordable for their communities. (See Ms. Valli’s previous post in FoodAnthro, April 11, 2019, which reviews Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.Beacon Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-080704467-4).

Dr. Jones, a plant geneticist focusing on wheat breeds, founded the Bread Lab in 2011 initially as part of the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center and now housed in its own facility at the Port of Skagit. The Bread Lab is his way of working towards a more sustainable alternative than large-scale commercial agriculture dependent on monocultures, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

The researchers at the Bread Lab work with the community —farmers, bakers and consumers are all welcome and their voices are heard. Our collaboration helps us find grain varieties that are good for farmers (good yield and disease resistance), for bakers (good baking properties and flavor) and for people to eat (nutrition, flavor and affordability).

I think of Dr. Jones as a true Renaissance scientist, with an interdisciplinary approach that closely aligns with the principles of anthropology. It took little to convince him to include an anthropologist. I joined the Bread Lab four months ago as the first anthropologist, and hopefully not the last. My research focuses on the agronomy and social history of rye; current U.S. attitudes towards growing and consuming rye; women’s labor on farms and in bakeries; and power relations within kitchen. The Bread Lab is my intellectual haven and artisanal hotspot in the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

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