Author Archives: foodanthro

Intercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I spent two very intense weeks at the end of September leading the lntercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice (ILC) through various interesting sites of food production and consumption in Oregon. In December we will visit parallel sites in Ecuador. The ILC was developed jointly by food activists in Ecuador and Oregon in 2013 to de-colonize the typical study abroad program. We do this by forming an international, multicultural group of people from both Oregon and Ecuador who are invested in some aspect of the food system and feel that humankind can do better. We look for ways in which the practice of sustainable foodways can address some of today’s most pressing concerns, such as environmental degradation, climate change, the proliferation of ill health and marginalization of people. Through cross-cultural dialogue, collaboration, and experiential learning, participants further develop their knowledge, social networks and their capacity for engaging with food practices as global citizens, rooted in local realities.

We have an excellent group of participants this year, including professional chefs, farmers, food activists, and multidisciplinary graduate and undergraduate students. We began the tour in Portland with a visit to the Oregon Food Bank (OFB). The OFB is at the forefront of state food banks in taking a food systems approach to hunger, but they are still a dumping site for commodity goods that recent tariffs have left without a foreign market. OFB advocates for changes that address the root causes of hunger and they work hard at building community-based food systems. We saw evidence of this in the farms next to the warehouse where we spoke with Latina, African American and Native American farmers who were given plots of land to plant to grow culturally important foods that they share with their communities. Later in the trip, we spent time at the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde reservations and learned of their efforts to revitalize traditional foodways on land that was already full of invasive species. We also spent a morning with Latinx activists and heard about the challenges and successes of forming the farmworkers union in the Northwest. Later, we had a conversation in Spanish with the women’s field crew at a local organic farm. Twelve hour work days seemed abusive to many of the group members, but the women explained that they had to leave their children back home in Mexico and Guatemala and appreciated every extra hour that they could work.

We spent a fair amount of time visiting various OSU agrifood research sites (naked barley; whey vodka; black tomatoes; bacon-flavored algae) and also talked to breeders who are adapting Andean crops to the Willamette Valley (quinoa, amaranth, mashua, oca, melloco, uvilla, achoccha). We also spoke to an extension agent working with SNAP outreach. She showed us a photograph of a school lunch tray with a bag of Doritos on it. We were all shocked to see a branded product on the tray and even more shocked to find out that industries altered their products to meet the latest requirements and then bid to have their branded products included in the school lunch program, but that it was illegal to sell branded products in school vending machines in Oregon. An even stranger incident came to light later at the capitol in our discussion about the Farm to School program. We asked about culturally appropriate foods and were told a story about a Latina mother who wanted to get tamales into the school lunch program. She was told that any grain product had to be at least 50% whole grain and since the corn for masa is treated with lime or lye to make it more digestible (and nutritious) it is no longer considered whole grain. Several of our group members spoke up about the ancient technique of nixtamalization that made niacin available to corn eaters and prevented pellagra, but rules are rules, even when ethnocentric and lacking in historical perspective. Luckily the administrator was able to work with the mother to come up with a tamale that fit the requirements. We wonder how it tastes. (While on the topic of ethnocentrism, we could also mention the “American Grown” label, which the Ecuadorians were told meant that it was grown in the USA, not anywhere else in the Americas.)

As we drove around the verdant countryside, favoring agroecological, diverse production sites, we whizzed past giant fields of monocultures —not the corn and soybeans of the Midwest, but hazelnuts (now that OSU has developed a blight resistant variety), wine grapes (as California gets too hot and dry) and the recently legalized hemp. It has been called marijuana’s no-buzz cousin and has created a gold rush (or shall we say “green rush”) among farmers. But every silver cloud has a toxic lining. The original gold rush left arsenic in the land; the pollen from industrial hemp threatens to infect not only its increasingly designer high cousin, but also the taste of neighboring wine grapes.

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

One of the aims of the ILC is to engage physically as well as intellectually with the food system. We did this in the course of many meals made by local chefs with local ingredients, but we also lent our 34 hands to the Linn Benton Food Share to pack food boxes for hospital patients; to the OSU Organic Growers’ Club to weed the brassicas, and to the Food for Lane County Youth Farm to trim harvested garlic. In addition, we cooked an excellent Ecuadorian meal for Slow Food Corvallis and several of our presenters and host families. We were lucky to have two professional chefs in our group and they coordinated beforehand to bring ingredients like lupin beans (chochos) tostados, chifles, and a rare white cacao-like bean called macambo.

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

It’s difficult to find the time for people to pursue individual research interests in such a packed agenda, but we managed to do so at the Corvallis Farmers Market. We first had an introduction to the market on Friday by its manager. Then we discussed questions we were interested in asking vendors and buyers at the market. We formed pairs of researchers and spent the next day wandering the market, observing, and asking questions. We got back together after lunch to discuss what we had learned. First of all, the Ecuadorians were very impressed with the Corvallis market. Several of them who sell at markets talked about ideas that they would try to implement back home. One pair documented ways in which vendors brought people into their booths. Another interviewed women producers about challenges they have faced in this work. Land access was another topic and one pair focused on Latinx shoppers asking what drew them to the market. Everyone was impressed with the number of times that “community” arose in their conversations. Here are some things that surprised the Ecuadorians: that the meat stands were so neat and sterile, no sign of whole animals either dead or alive; that amaranth was being used as a flower in bouquets; that the prices were fixed and posted; that most of the vendors had finished college; that some vendors had photographs of their farms; that there was a booth for children to be occupied while their parents shopped; that there were musicians and artists making the market an attractive place to be.

The trip left us satisfied and exhausted and ready to explore similar themes in Ecuador in December.

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CFP for the Best Annual Food Studies Conference in North America

Note: This is the call for papers for the best annual interdisciplinary food studies conference in North America. You can meet leading food scholars, have great discussions, probably eat some nice food. Also, this conference is very much open to work by students. SAFN members! SAFN is a sponsor and you may register for this conference at member rates.

asfs afhvs 2020 athens

2020 AFHVS/ASFS

Cultivating Connections: Exploring Entry Points Into Sustainable Food Systems

Athens, Georgia

May 27-30, 2020

https://cultivatingconnections2020.uga.edu/

The University of Georgia’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative is pleased to host the 2020  joint annual meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS).

The Abstract Submission Portal is now open. We invite the submission of abstracts for organized paper sessions, individual papers, lightning talks, roundtables, posters and exploration galleries, and working sessions.

The 2020 conference theme, “Cultivating Connections: Exploring Entry Points Into Sustainable Food Systems,” is an invitation to envision a more sustainable and equitable future by critically engaging with the histories and legacies that have framed agricultural food landscapes over time. Cultivating connections means that we are active participants, called to dig in for the preparation of building fruitful relationships with one another to foster greater sustainability within the food system. The food system is an intricate web of social connections, with each node of the web shaping how food is regarded, how it’s grown, how it will be distributed, who will buy it, and what its overall significance is within communities. These elements provide entry points for conversation, reconciliation, and action toward building stronger, more sustainable connections within the food system. Participants are invited to engage in conversations about changes to the current agri-food paradigm to better represent and advocate for a more just and equitable food system – from farm to fork – that strengthens community viability, food security, and the sovereignty of all people.

Abstracts can be submitted at https://ugeorgia.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9H7Xy41kEjn0n1H

Abstract submissions are due by January 31, 2020. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March 15, 2020. All presenters must be registered for the conference by May 1, 2020 to be included in the conference program.

Questions can be directed to cultivatingconnections2020@gmail.com

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About the Societies:

The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS) is a professional organization which provides an international forum to engage in the cross-disciplinary study of food, agriculture, and health, as well as an opportunity for examining the values that underlie various visions of food and agricultural systems. From a base of philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists, AFHVS has grown to include scientists, scholars, and practitioners in areas ranging from agricultural production and social science to nutrition policy and the humanities. AFHVS encourages participation by the growing community of researchers and professionals exploring alternative visions of the food system from numerous perspectives and approaches, including local and regional food systems; alternative food movements; agricultural and food policies, agricultural sustainability, food justice, issues of local and global food security, and food sovereignty. The organization publishes the journal Agriculture and Human Values.

The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) was founded in 1985, with the goals of promoting the interdisciplinary study of food and society. It has continued that mission by holding annual meetings and working with Routledge Publishing, the organization produces the quarterly journal, Food, Culture and Society. Members explore the complex relationships among food, culture, and society from numerous disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, as well as in the world of food beyond the academy. ASFS encourages vigorous debate on a wide range of topics, such as cross-cultural perspectives on eating behaviors, gender and the food system, recipes, cookbooks, and menu as texts, politics of the family meal, malnutrition, hunger, and food security, comparative food history, and the political economy of the global food system.

  • In the meantime, check out some of the most popular local restaurants and attractions to enhance your visit to Athens: https://www.visitathensga.com/

 

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Messer’s Postings

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

What’s new in food and nutrition research and policy in the world, the US, and sustainability?

1. State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2019. This report, released in July 2019 (as contrasted with its usual October, World Food Day release date) gives governments and everyone much to ponder. Key findings indicate hunger numbers are increasing, not declining. Prevalence of undernourishment, the least exacting measure, affects close to one billion people; experience of food insecurity (not sure where your next meal is coming from) affects more than a billion more, including those suffering hunger in industrialized countries. This year’s themes, in addition to addressing conflict, climate change, and economic inequalities as causes of hunger, considered paths to recovery from economic downturn and the challenges of structural inequalities that lead to hunger. You can download the report, its executive summary, or in its entirety, here.  For a quick overview (especially to start off discussions in classes or presentations), access FAO’s (3+ minute) video, summarizing major numbers and themes here.

2. 2020 US Dietary Guidelines for All Americans (DGA) face substantial political challenges in the run-up to the Committee’s report. The White House administration has banned any discussion/recommendations regarding environmental impact (sustainable food systems), health impacts of red meat or processed meats, or ultra-processed foods and sodium. It has also disallowed reference to any research studies published before 2000, and reference to any non-USDA scientific studies (!). You can read the Washington Post summary here. My authoritative Tufts colleagues add: Nutrition scientists and policy makers need to change the term “plant-based” “foods or meat substitutes” to minimally processed plant foods, as many of the ultra-processed foods are plant-based!

3. Meanwhile, what’s new on the planetary health and diet front are new microbial “meat” substitute start-up’s (carbon footprints of these highly processed food operations still need to be scrutinized), and a report that the Swiss-based corporate giant Nestlé, along with other major food industry conglomerates, is taking steps to make its supply chains carbon-neutral by 2030. You can read more about the Nestlé’s initiative here or on the company’s website and more about the hype surrounding soil microbes and their potential to feed the world here.

4. Synthesizing discussion of all three above themes, Frank B. Hu (Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health) published a “Viewpoint” perspective in JAMA, pointing out the mixed environmental and health impacts of more or less processed plant-based foods that are meant to substitute for meat. An easily accessible interview on the major takeaways is here.

Reminder: SAFN members recently received an announcement from David Beriss regarding a new on-line journal, Nature Food, which is actively soliciting brief commentaries, opinion pieces, literature reviews, and original research articles from food professionals across many disciplines, including anthropology.  The editor-in-chief, Anne Mullen, intends to include anthropological materials of interest to a wider range of scientists in every issue.   You can find at more on the website.

Related Reminder from SAFN President David Beriss: If you are not a SAFN member and wish to receive our occasional updates via email, be sure to join the association, which you can do here. Once you are a member, you can receive communications via the new American Anthropological Association Communities communications system, here.

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The Market as a Village

Blog editors’ note: This is the summer edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other regions in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts: sfouts@umbc.edu

Tiana Bakic Hayden

“This is like a village,” said Toño, a lime merchant in Mexico City’s main wholesale food terminal, La Central de Abasto. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips.”

If La Central is like a village, it bears little resemblance to the pastoral imaginary of small houses dotting crop-covered hills and domesticated animals milling about. Inaugurated in 1982, La Central covers over 300 hectares of land in the southeastern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa. It is a sprawling, modernist complex of concrete warehouse and storehouse spaces, divided in grid-fashion by roads and alleys, which are invariably clogged by produce-laden cargo trucks. A purely commercial space, nobody lives—officially at least—in La Central, but the market is alive day and night, every day of the week, all year round. Inside, there are restaurants, shops of various kinds, banks, a day care, an art gallery, conference spaces, administrative buildings, garbage processing facilities, and much more. Daily, between 300,000-500,000 visitors are estimated to come to La Central, searching for the best deals on kilos or even tons of watermelons, blackberries, avocados, or dried spices.

mexico market

A street shot of La Central. Photo taken by author.

Food markets are often thought of and represented in largely visual and sensory terms, and indeed, La Central is a place that is striking for the senses. The sight of tons of fruits, jostling bodies passing money, an endless line of vehicles, the smell of putrefying produce mingling with exhaust are all part of La Central. But what interested me was the sorts of networks, informal rules, and vernacular mechanisms according to which the market worked. How, I wondered, were prices set? How was commerce regulated in a space where so many transactions—between employees and employers, buyers and sellers—were in cash and left little in the way of a paper trail? What sort of culture of commerce existed in La Central?

I quickly found that, while merchants and administrators were generally open to interviews, these tended to be stilted, bureaucratic affairs where I learned little in the way of how things actually worked. In a particularly memorable interview, the president of the produce wholesalers’ union UNCOFYL, simply read to me fragments of the market’s and the union’s Reglamentos (internal statues) in answer to my questions about the day-to-day operations of the market. Merchants were usually happy to complain at length about the administration, the nation’s political or economic climate, or share their ‘origin stories,’ but extremely reluctant to speak about who they bought produce from, how much they paid per kilo, or how they dealt with bureaucracy like paperwork and inspections.

Moreover, since wholesale food markets are centralizing nodes in larger commercial networks, communications with sellers in rural areas—large and small agricultural producers, packing plants, rural traders and brokers—are largely carried out over the phone or via email, and there was not much that could be observed. My questions about pricing were often answered in generalities about “supply and demand” and the “laws of the market”, or simply avoided altogether. Often, I would spend all day with a merchant, only to have him (for it was almost always a man) step away discretely to take phone calls, make deals with regular customers, or talk to the accountant working upstairs.

mexico market men

Merchants hanging outside of their storefront in the market. Photo taken by the author.

Slowly, I realized that my frustration around lack of access to information was in fact a reflection of my interlocutors’ own experiences as they navigated the market. Merchants had to gather and then piece together information from different sources, to come up with an understanding of the market’s potentials and risks. One banana merchant, for example, told me that he paid a monthly sum to a “runner” who would go around the terminal each morning and manually count the number of trucks carrying bananas and their state of origin. From this information—scribbled on a scrap of paper—the merchant would try to get a sense of how much his competitors were selling, from where they were sourcing their goods, and how much they would charge that week. Another regularly asked his employees to go and get gossip from the employees in other parts of the market to get a sense of how much their competitors were selling, about their health, and other goings on. Meanwhile, being too forthright with information could be seen as suspect. One day, while I was speaking to a watermelon merchant, his neighbor and competitor came over and started telling him about a shipment of watermelons he was waiting for which he had acquired for a good price from a new producer. When he left, my interlocutor was suspicious and kept making comments out loud, wondering why his competitor had told him what he had told him, asking himself why it might be so.

I realized that merchants, while reluctant to speak of their own finances and dealings, were often eager to speculate and gossip about their competitors. La Central was indeed like a village in this sense; everyone was interested in everyone else’s business, and gossip was the only way to access this information, since there were no real official channels to do so, and since direct conversation was mistrusted. For merchants in a perishable food market, gossip is an essential resource for piecing together the contours of the commercial landscape in which they participate with partial knowledge. As Clifford Geertz wrote of another market in a different time and context:

…the search for information—laborious, uncertain, complex, and irregular—is the central experience of life in the bazaar. Every aspect of the bazaar economy reflects the fact that the primary problem facing its participants is…not balancing options but finding out what they are. Clifford Geertz (1978).

This is a useful insight for ethnographers doing research in food markets to keep in mind. Behind the conviviality of these spaces, their sensory pleasures, their photogenic qualities, food markets are spaces in which information circulates among many different channels. Following our interlocutors’ own struggles to navigate these networks is important, and gossip is a tool in piecing together knowledge which can only ever be partial, but which shapes the circulation of foods in the bazaar and beyond.

Reference

Geertz, Clifford. 1978. “The Bazaar Economy: Information and Search in Peasant Marketing.” The American Economic Review 68(2): 28–32.

Tiana Bakic Hayden is a researcher at the Instituto Gino Germani in Buenos Aires. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from New York University in 2019. Her work is broadly concerned with understanding the interplay of political, sociocultural and technological factors in the production and regulation of urban food systems. She has conducted research in Mexico City and Buenos Aires on street food markets, wholesale food terminals, and the relationship between food security and everyday mobilities.

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Alaska Grown

Abigail Adams

Central Connecticut State University

Our plane descended for landing in Anchorage, which was fully visible at 10 pm in  June’s Alaskan midnight sun, and I stored my book:  Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about the young man who starved to death four months after he entered the Alaskan “wilderness” alone. The book squared with what I expected from Alaska: an environment that suffers no fools, where the distance between life and death is obvious and narrow, where humans have no illusions about their place in the food chain. I had begun my trip twenty hours earlier with DEET, a reservation for REI’s bear and moose safety class, a broken foot (bad),AA Foot provisions (Cheetoh’s—good!), and my 12-year-old son, who was reading Jack London’s White Fang. We were headed to a land where every other descriptor seemed to be “harsh,” “stark,” “extreme.”

But our strongest experience over our two weeks’ visit were of a gentle generosity. This does not erase very real harshness, including harsh human realities: our visit, anchored by the Association for the Study of Food and Society/Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society conference, “Finding Home in the Wilderness,” hosted at the University of Alaska Anchorage, came a month after US Attorney General William Barr toured with Alaskan Native Villagers and brought attention to the nation’s highest levels of domestic violence. And over our two weeks, the weather swerved from un-seasonally balmy to uncannily harshly scorching and smoking.

Which made how Alaskans (gently) introduced us to their home eye-opening and imperative. Their welcome immersed us in a critical environmental Alaskan resource: the matter-of-fact and constant rhythm of alerts, heads-up, survival tips:

“You only have two minutes, maybe three, if you fall in the bay.”

“Always lean back on snowmobiles, so you don’t go through if the ice breaks.”

“Cotton kills” (Wet cotton clothing is dangerous in the cold).

“Pre-act, don’t react”

“It is easier to stay warm than get warm.”

Some of the tips were direct instructions about the food chain reality:

“If you run into a bear…”

AA Aaron and Bear[

“If you run into a moose…”

955254-20190325-isle-royale-moose05

“If you run into mosquitoes…”

illustration-of-a-mosquito-biting-royalty-free-illustration-1124679781-1556840632

“If you run into cow parsnip (Alaskan “nettle”)…”

cow parsnip

Others were directly related to food, and there too, Alaskans gently alerted us:

“The long summer days here raise oxalic levels in broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage.”

“We have over forty varieties of rhubarb; three are poisonous.”

“Reindeer meat does better with high heat, but moose needs low, slow heat.”

“When you kill your fish quickly after landing it, it’ll taste sweeter later.”

I wasn’t expecting such a culture of generosity in a state renowned for self-reliance and survivalists (“Preppers,” people gently corrected me. “Preppers, not survivalists.”): which reflected my ignorance. Old-timers, skilled, experienced and knowledgeable people, know that self-reliance depends on good information, adapting and re-skilling. They include newcomers (even tourists like me) in the “tips” and “alerts” economy, quietly, and not pedantically. Newcomers, after all, can turn into old-timers, and will also depend on re-skilling, receiving and swapping alerts and information.

All around us, I met people learning to adapt and re-adapt, skilling and then re-skilling. Getting ready to hike a popular trail near Anchorage, I met Johanna, who had moved her family from their coastal Native village, so her younger sister and her daughter could continue high school. My 12-year-old hiked with the girls and her boyfriend, and she and I fell behind in a comfortable, companionable pace.  I was limping with the broken foot and she was hampered by overweight that came on quickly since their move and her office jobs; the sedentism brought her through the nutritional transition abruptly. But she made me a walking stick, and though she apologized over and over for being out of shape, we finished the three-plus mile hike.

She was so much more fit than I, in the larger sense. As we walked and talked, I learned about her life on the coast, about locating, catching and preparing different kinds of fish. About hauling fuel and supplies for miles. About harvesting and preserving wild fruits and plants. She hunts, handles firearms, can butcher moose and seal. So can her girls. Her mother showed them all how to improvise and survive when weather blocked supplies. Her father grew a garden every summer, a skill his native people had adopted from European settlers. When he married Johanna’s mother and moved to her village, he experimented with gardening in the new conditions, and fed his growing family. When the permafrost started thawing, and the village laundromat and other buildings “tore themselves apart,” the villagers had to re-think hunting seals over winter ice.

AA Organics

Through the conference field trips, we visited with Alaskan organic farmers, who are constantly learning, adapting and re-skilling: extending the seasons through high tunnels, meshes, different varieties; harvesting at high speed around the solstice when broccoli and herbs will bolt in a matter of hours; reveling in Alaska’s few pests but confronting invasive species; re-inventing composting [photo]. The farming scene in Alaska is dynamic and the state claims the highest rate of new farmers, including women farmers, in the nation! Farmers rely on their networks and exchanges of information and techniques: Alaska has only four extension agents for the entire state.

We met some of these new farmers during another conference field trip, women and men re-settling after violent displacement from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Nepal, Somalia, Guatemala. They showed us how they were re-inventing farming in urban Anchorage and shared food they adapted with Alaskan ingredients. I highly recommend the tamales filled with grapes and sorrel.

In Alaska, everyone seems to be involved in moving food from the raw to the cooked. When I chatted at a Friday evening reception with conference organizers about Alaskan hunting and fishing traditions, I realized that these women, these men–fashion forward and expert schmoozers –they hunted, fished and gathered.

AA Smoke

I went “North to the Future,” as Alaska’s state motto encourages, while Alaska’s fires, heat and smoke made national news. The climate change peril was palpable as the warmest spring ever crossed the solstice and became the hottest summer ever.  We are all facing harsh, stark, extreme environmental change, and Alaskans may be well-positioned to weather the Future that is coming. I, a returned traveler, am Alaska Grown now as well.

 

 

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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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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, awards, human rights, Thomas Marchione