Author Archives: foodanthro

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology

Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning

logos cfp

Call for papers

The Food Studies Program, New York University (NYU),

the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Communication (CIRCe)

and the Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences, University of Turin,

in collaboration with the EU Program Marie Skłodowska   -Curie (MSCA – GA No 795025),

encourage submissions for the International Conference

Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning

dirs. Dr. Simona Stano and Prof. Amy Bentley

October 14-15, 2019

It was 1962 when Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced his famous idea that, in order to be “good to eat” (bon à manger), a substance must be first of all “good to think” (bon à penser): as the French scholar reported in the pages of Totemism, food must nourish people’s collective mind — i.e. their systems of values, beliefs, and traditions — to be considered suitable for their stomachs. Since then other theorists have weighed in on the nature of food and culture, including cultural materialists (Marvin Harris 1985), and practice theorists (including Alan Warde 2014, 2016) who assert that a focus on practices and actions provides a third way to think about culture and meaning, sidestepping tensions between emphasis on ideas and things. While materialism and practice theory have enriched and decentered discourses of food and identity, for example, the value of ideas, beliefs, and symbols remains salient in food studies.

While food habits, preferences, and taboos are partially regulated by ecological and material factors, research has shown that all food systems are structured and given particular functioning mechanisms by specific societies and cultures, either according to totemic (such as in animistic religions), sacrificial (such as in ancient history), hygienic-rationalist (such as in contemporary Western dietetics), aesthetic (such as in gastronomy), or other types of symbolic logics. This provides much “food for thought.” The famous expression has never been so appropriate: not only do cultures develop unique practices for the production, treatment and consumption of food, but such practices inevitably end up affecting also food-related aspects and spheres that are generally perceived as objectively and materially defined. Let us consider, for instance, dietary prescriptions, which are undoubtedly based on the material composition of food products, but are also dependent on the values and meanings conferred on specific food constituents by the narratives and discourses circulating within each culture; or food safety regulations, which are related to the concepts of dirtiness and hygiene — whose perception, as Mary Douglas (1966) effectively showed, is intrinsically related to cultural diversity.

Drawing on these premises, the conference “Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning” intends to enhance the cultural reflection on food, calling into action various theoretical approaches and analytical methodologies, also in the aim to offer new insights on how the study of food can help us understand better what we call “culture.” Topics of interest include, but are not limited to, the following:

a. Food, Taste, and Global Cultures

Food and taste have always represented crucial means of construction and expression of sociocultural identity, as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958, 1964, 1965), Roland Barthes (1961), Mary Douglas (1966, 1972, 1984), Pierre Bourdieu (1979) and a number of other scholars have effectively pointed out. What is more, in contemporary societies, migrations, travels and communications incessantly expose local food identities to global food alterities, originating remarkable processes of transformation that continuously reshape and redefine such identities and alterities. This originates a series of interesting questions: how can the cultural meanings and values associated with food be identified and described in today’s fast-changing food systems? How do the processes of hybridization (and domestication) of food and taste affect such meanings and values in different contexts and environments (e.g., creole home cooking, “ethnic” restaurants, fusion cuisines, diasporic foodways, culinary tourism, etc.)?

b. Nutrition and Cultures

Nutrition evidently relies on the material dimension of food, since it makes reference to its physical composition (in terms of nutrients, calories, etc.), but is also strongly influenced by the sociocultural sphere: not only do sociocultural factors such as ethnicity, class, education, gender, etc. affect eating habits, but the very ideas of health, beauty, safety and a series of other concepts playing a crucial role in the definition of dietary regimes are culturally defined. Furthermore, contemporary foodways have increasingly emphasized the connection between nourishment and aesthetics (mainly as a result of the generalized process of aestheticization of food and taste), as well as the link between nutrition and ethics (as a dominant position supporting meat-free dietary regimes clearly shows). The conference invites reflection upon such issues, and also consideration of the decisive role played by communication, and especially by the mass and new media, in the establishment of specific collective imaginaries and the association of particular values and meanings to food products, habits, and practices.

c. Food and Law: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Both at the local and global scale, nutrition is ruled by a complexity of laws regulating very diverse aspects — e.g. quality, safety, ecology, etc. — related to the production, trade and handling of food. Such aspects, exactly as any other facet of law, cannot be disentangled from culture (see in particular Geertz 1983; Rosen 2006). This explains the difficulty that might be encountered in establishing transnational regulations on food, as recently proved by the discussed case of food treatment within the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States, which reflects not only differences in legislation on food production and handling, but also cultural divergences related to its valorization and perception. The conference focuses on the cultural conceptions underlying food regulations and the way by which they contribute to activate specific meaning-making processes.

Submissions, including an abstract (250-400 words), affiliation and a short bionote (100 words), should be sent to conference@comfection.com no later than June 23, 2019.

References:

Barthes, Roland. 1961. “Pour une psychosociologie de l’alimentation contemporaine.” Annales ESC, XVI, 5: 977-986 [English Translation 1997. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 20-27. New York and London: Routledge].

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. La distinction. Paris: Éditions de Minuit [English Translation 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London and New York: Routledge].

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——. 1972. “Deciphering a meal.” Daedalus, 101, 1: 61-81.

——. 1984. Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective.” In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 167-234. New York: Basic Books.

Harris, Marvin. 1985. Good to Eat. Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon [English Translation 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books].

——. 1962. Le totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris: PUF [English Translation 1963. Totemism. Boston: Beacon press].

——. 1964. Mythologiques I. Le cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon [English Translation 1969. The Raw and the Cooked. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press].

——. 1965. “Le triangle culinaire.” L’Arc, 26: 19-29.

Rosen, Lawrence. 2006. Law as Culture: An Invitation. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.

Warde, Alan. 2014. “After Taste: Culture, Consumption and Theories of Practice.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 14, 3: 279-303.

——. 2016. The Practice of Eating. Cambridge: Polity.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, CFP, Food Studies

Thomas Marchione Award 2019

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.

Leave a comment

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

Christine Wilson Awards for 2019

Students! Are you writing great research papers on food and/or nutrition? 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, awards, Christine Wilson

CFP: Transformations of Global Food Systems for Climate Change Resilience

CALL FOR PROPOSALS

Transformations of Global Food Systems for Climate Change Resilience: Addressing Food Security, Nutrition, and Health

Editors:  Preety Gadhoke, PhD, MPH (St. John’s University), Barrett P. Brenton, PhD (Binghamton University), and Solomon Katz, PhD (University of Pennsylvania)

Due DateMay 31, 2019

In response to the September 2018 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) call to action, we are seeking contributions for book chapter proposals. Specifically, we request case studies on climate change resilience frameworks for nutrition-focused transformations of agriculture and food systems for food security and health of populations living in vulnerable conditions. Volume contributors are asked to address the local challenges that these ongoing food system transformations present from diverse cultural contexts and geographical areas. Particular attention will be given to the catalytic role that anthropologists can provide in community-driven participatory action research and practice. Chapters will illustrate forms of resistance, resilience, and adaptations of food systems to climate change. Consideration will be given to research on: 1) enhancing food sovereignty for rural and urban underserved populations; 2) improving locally contextualized definitions and measurements of food security and hunger; 3) informing public health programs and policies for population health and nutrition; and 4) facilitating public and policy discourse on sustainable futures for community health and nutrition in the face of climate change.

 If interested, please submit a 200-word abstract outlining your proposed chapter and a brief 100-word biosketch by May 31, 2019 to:

 Preety Gadhoke, PhD, MPH

Assistant Professor of Global Health

St. John’s University

Email: gadhokep@stjohns.edu 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, CFP, climate, food systems

Culinary Historians of New York Scholar’s Grant

These grants are a great opportunity for SAFN members seeking support for their research!

CULINARY HISTORIANS OF NEW YORK ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS FOR 2019 SCHOLARS’ GRANTS

APPLICATION DEADLINE FRIDAY, MAY 24, 2019

Culinary Historians of New York invites submissions for the 2019 CHNY Scholar’s Grant in support of research and scholarship in the field of culinary history.  Since 2012, the CHNY Scholar’s Grant has been recognized by the Julia Child Foundation with generous financial support.  We are pleased to announce that the support has been given again this year, allowing CHNY to award three grants in the amounts of $3,500, $2,500, and $1,500, respectively.  The grants are open to all individuals age 18 and older and are merit-based. Further details and application requirements and forms can be found at http://www.culinaryhistorians ny.org by clicking on the “Scholar’s Grant” link in the Scholarships tab.  The awards will be announced in July.

The CHNY Scholar’s Grant promotes research and scholarship in the field of culinary history and is awarded annually to individuals seeking financial support for a current, well-developed project that will culminate in a book, article, paper, film, or other scholarly endeavor, including ephemera. The grants are unrestricted and can be used to defray research expenses, attend conferences, or engage in other activities related to the applicant’s project. The CHNY Scholar’s Grant is merit-based and blind judged; financial need is not considered in making the award.

Previous CHNY Scholar’s Grant winners include:

2018:  Valerio Farris – Culinary Culture of the Spanish Roma ($3500);  Aleksandra Bajka-Kopacz, – ‘Old Polish’ Cuisine, Foodways of Rural Poland  ($2500); Kathryn Crossley, Butlers and Common Room Men: Wine, Class, and Conviviality in 19th Century Oxford Colleges. ($1500)

2017:  Claire Alsup – Colatura di Alici: How One Town on the Amalfi Coast Preserved Ancient Roman Fish Sauce   ($3500);  Elizabeth Zanoni – Flight Fuel: Pan Am and the Creation of Inflight Cuisines, 1930-1980  ($2500); and Tove Danovich – When Kosher Isn’t Kosher: 100 Years of Murder, Crime, and Fraud  ($1500)

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, awards, CFP, food history

Milk…It’s Good to Think

David McMurray
Anthropology, emeritus
Oregon State University

I am a product of the Upper Midwest with its (waning) Scandinavian and German influences. I am entangled in “milk culture,” as Andrea Wiley might put it. I am a subject shaped by the dairy industry and its powerful lobby. I know all of these things without really knowing them. What I want to say is milk forms a part of the habitus I swim in but, by definition, never think about. That is until the other day when I came across a propaganda poster on milk (more about that in a minute). The shock of (mis) recognition caused me to begin to take an inventory of my interactions with milk. My whole life has been spent drowning in the white drink. Maybe not drowning, but certainly milk has been a constant foodstuff friend. Have I ever gone more than a day or two in my whole life without ingesting some form of dairy? I am no Michael Pollan and so I don’t claim to be exploring in depth the intertwined history and sociocultural context that binds milk and North Americans. I only thought to provide to the SAFN blog a quick day-in-the-life diary of dairy, using myself as subject. Here goes:

My earliest milk memory comes from growing up (b. 1953) in Webster City, Iowa where a couple of times a week Don the milkman would leave glass bottles of milk in a metal carrier at the back door and pick up the returnables set out for him. We would pester him in the summer until he stopped the truck, opened up the back door and carved off some ice chunks for us to suck on. Graham’s Dairy, his employer, was on Highway 20 going out of town to the west. We would ride our bikes out there on hot days and order ice cream cones from the retail shop at the front. I loved the black raspberry and vanilla combo. It was hard ice cream. Not the soft, whipped kind sold at the A&W root beer stand.

Milk was present in practically every day of my young life. We five children all had cold cereal and milk for breakfast every morning of my life. I think of those little pint cartons of milk given out in cafeteria lunchrooms during my K-12 years (the result of dairy price supports). Regular milk or chocolate milk; there was a choice. One was sweeter but didn’t taste as good with regular food, especially hot lunches.

My mother said that milk built bones and teeth. She also said that milk caused zits and was hard to digest. She forbade the drinking of milk whenever I had an upset stomach. I could only drink 7-up and eat saltines.

Once after football practice in junior high, I came home and drank half a gallon of milk without taking a breath. Coaches didn’t believe in hydration in those days, so they never provided anything to drink during sports practices.

I first left the USA at age eighteen to wander about Europe. I remember the first time I bought a carton of room-temperature milk off the store shelf. I wondered how they could preserve it without refrigeration. I opened it and tasted it. I spit it out. It was awful. That was my introduction to UHT. Whenever I met other Americans in youth hostels we would all long for good old American milk. The European stuff was undrinkable. There was one exception. I went to work that autumn for a winemaker in St. Emilion, France doing the vendange. We had a choice at breakfast every day of either café au lait or wine. Nothing else to drink. Being a corn-fed boy from Iowa, I had never drunk a cup of coffee in my life. But I had gotten drunk on bad sweet wines often enough in high school that the smell of any wine made me nauseous, especially at breakfast. I learned to make do with a bowl of café au lait that was 90% heated milk and 10% coffee. I slowly worked the ratio down over time to something closer to 50-50. To this day I love instant coffee dissolved in a cup of hot milk, UHT or otherwise. I have yet to drink wine for breakfast.

In my college dorm room I used one of those portable immersion heaters to make instant coffee. I made it palatable by pouring in a large dollop of Carnation sweetened and condensed milk. What a rush. I finally broke that habit, though it took me decades. Now when I am home I drink only good coffee with raw cream in it. No sugar. However, when I travel, I find that I can’t stomach airline coffee or truck stop coffee without diluting it with lots of cream and sugar.

I went on a junior-year-abroad to the American University of Beirut in 1974-75. I found that the Eastern Mediterranean peoples are not big milk drinkers. I did, however, learn a wonderful breakfast treat from my Jordanian dorm roommate. He taught me how to pour yoghurt into a pillow case, add some salt, tie it to the shower head in the bath tub to let it drain and then unwrap it in the morning, put it on a shallow plate, carve out a little well and fill it with olive oil and then sprinkle zaatar over the whole thing. We would sit out on our dorm room balcony in the morning, drink tea or coffee and dip pita bread into our lebneh. It was a very refreshing breakfast.

I also spent a few years in Morocco carrying out dissertation research. My wife had our older son while we were living there. Fortunately, she was breastfeeding him, because it was the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Eastern Europe. We noticed in the months afterwards that the market in the city where we were staying was flooded with powdered infant formula, as well as canned and powdered milk products from Europe. Had they been contaminated and thus banned for consumption in Europe and so dumped on the markets in Africa?

Moroccans and North Africans in general are not big milk drinkers, except during Ramadan. Some dairies exist but production is low. Dairy cows imported from Europe invariably succumb to the heat or to various diseases. We did, however, live across the street from a “milk bar.” A deliveryman would come in from the country every couple of days with his wagon full of big, five-gallon milk containers. He would take one down and pour out the quantity requested by the milk barman. The milk barman would in turn fill up smaller containers brought to him by younger members of neighborhood households. The most amusing scene for me, the foreigner from an alcohol-soaked culture, was when, on a Saturday night, grown men would walk into the milk bar, order a big glass of leben, put one hand on the bar and then throw their heads back, drink the whole glass in one go, wipe their mouths clean and saunter out the door and into the awaiting night.

Today, I often have kefir and granola for breakfast. I’ve given up on milk and cereal. My wife is a kefir missionary. She talks up the ease of raising and maintaining the grains and then tries to give samples to anyone who shows the slightest interest. We are awash in kefir. We only eat it at breakfast time, though. If it doesn’t go on granola, it goes into the making of orange, banana and kefir smoothies. Delicious.

To feed her kefir, my wife signed us up for a herd-share CSA. I volunteered our carport as a drop-off spot. Now we only have to walk out the back door to get our raw milk. Life has come full circle. The cow lady, Aimee, and her partner milk about 5 cows on a rented farm 20 minutes outside of Corvallis. She often stops to talk when she makes the CSA drop-off. The other day she told me that they are confounded by their surplus of skim milk. They centrifuge off the cream in order to make butter, etc., but then don’t have good ways to market what’s left over. I volunteered to take three gallons off of her hands to see if I could find something to do with them. I made skim milk paneer, which turned out okay, but I hit a wall after that. I ended up cheating and just adding cream back into the other gallons to make kefir yogurt with one gallon and mozzarella and ricotta with the other.

When Aimee brought the three gallons, we got to talking about dairies along the coast. She said that the Tillamook Cheese Co. had grown enormously in the last decade. It had to stop increasing its herds around the town of Tillamook because the area had become too touristy and tourists didn’t want to smell cow shit while vacationing there and visiting the cheese factory. Instead, the company started buying milk from the mega dairies set up in Eastern Oregon along the Columbia River. “But that zone is practically a desert,” I said. “It couldn’t possibly produce hay for big numbers of cattle.”

“It doesn’t,” she said. “But it’s near a dam and so near a power plant and what they need more than hay is a source of cheap electricity.”

I wished I’d asked her why.

Ground zero for the mega dairies and milk factories is the small town of Boardman, Oregon. She said there are over a hundred thousand cows spread across a couple of operations in the vicinity. One of them, Lost Valley Farm, is being forced to close by the state of Oregon, because of its polluting practices. Is Tillamook still buying milk from them? Inquiring minds want to know.

I was thumbing through the latest issue of The Baffler at breakfast the other day. There on the back cover was a copy of an old Cold War propaganda poster that said “Milk…new weapon of democracy!” It showed a young girl smiling while she received countless glasses of milk pouring down from an American bomber. I thought it was pretty funny and would make a good present for Aimee, though I had no idea about its provenance. I googled the phrase and found that it dates from the 1948-49 siege of Berlin. The Americans launched the Berlin Airlift at that time in order to break the Soviet siege of the city. The poster was part of the propaganda created around the conflict.

Quite by accident my google search led me to the latest milk craze. Turns out that milk is the preferred drink of the goon squads of the alt-right. I was shocked, though I probably shouldn’t have been. Milk is “white,” which is their favorite color, and it is very common among Northern European cultures, where, I believe, the lactase enzyme is present in the gut well into adulthood. (Of course the alt-right ignores the fact that there are groups of people throughout Mongolia, East Africa and down into South Africa, inter alia, who also enjoy lactase persistence into adulthood. Most all of them are, or have been, associated with animal husbandry.) Both of those aspects make milk appealing to this new breed of lactose lushes. This latest “Got milk?” campaign was launched back in February of 2017 when the actor Shia LaBeouf opened an art exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC. The exhibit was a protest against the election of Donald Trump. A bunch of youthful, shirtless, pro-Nazi male demonstrators showed up at the opening to perform their own counter protest by stomping and yelling and…chugging milk from plastic quart bottles! Billy Bronson, a reporter covering the demo, put it succinctly: “Apparently, the white liquid that comes out of cows’ udders is the new, creamy symbol of white racial purity in Donald Trump’s America.”

As you can imagine, over the next year PETA had a field day with the connection between milk and “lactose tolerant racists.”

In the evening of my life as I look back, I am surprised to see that my existence was saturated in milk. How could I have missed the many different cultural connections I had made with different milk practices? Why had I never thought about the extraordinary number of forms milk takes as foodstuffs and as commodities and how it is interwoven with so many aspects of my personal life? How could I have been so blind to the politics of milk?

That last one really bugs me. Though I don’t have a milk cross to bear, I am surprised to feel affronted by the symbolic manipulation of a foodstuff that has formed such a central, if unconscious, part of me. That includes both moments of appropriation by forces on the left and the right. It is uncomfortable to admit that the American government’s manipulation of milk for Cold War propaganda purposes leaves me amused, but not outraged. The manipulation by the alt-right leaves a worse taste in my mouth. Why have I not even mentioned the worst of them all: Big Dairy and the national shame of milk overproduction? I still have blinders, apparently.

I am not a soldier in the battle against these kinds of symbolic appropriation; nor am I engaged in resistance to the dairy industry and its lobby. However, I think I know some who are: Aimee as a proud, self-exploited producer of milk, and my wife as a conscientious consumer working to enhance milk’s healthy characteristics both strike me as small, disgruntled producers and consumers united in their search for healthy alternatives to Big Dairy and its massive reach into every aspect of our everyday lives. I don’t want to get too Pollyanna-ish about this, but the tiny circles of raw milk producers and consumers struggling quietly around the country to keep alive a healthy, less exploitative milk tradition may be a likely ally in various attempts by middle-class consumers to leave behind the industrial milk marketplace via the creation of alternative forms of provisioning. And who knows, maybe in the process they can help neutralize the shady symbolic politics surrounding milk today?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food history, food politics