Author Archives: foodanthro

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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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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