Author Archives: reblack

SAFN Membership Drive

 

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We’re having a membership drive! SAFN members, please tell friends and colleagues about our section and ask them to join. A lot of people do research on food and nutrition but they are not part of SAFN. We can’t understand why they are missing out on being part of such a great community. The benefits of membership are many:

  • become part of a supportive and engaging community
  • receive the SAFN newsletter
  • access the SNAC 4 syllabi set
  • attend the SAFN reception at the AAA meeting (we always have the best food)
  • take advantage of reserved seats for SAFN-sponsored workshops and special events at the AAA meeting
  • be featured on the Food Anthropology blog

Students can take advantage of the newly reduced cost for student membership: it is now only $10 for students to join SAFN.

For each person an existing members signs up, their name will be entered into a draw. Prizes will include olive oil, a SAFN membership, SAFN swag and other fun food and anthro-related items. Send your name and the new member’s name to reblack (at) gmail.com. Prizes will be distributed at the SAFN reception during the AAA conference in November or by mail for those not attending the meeting.

Join today!

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Happy New Year!

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The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition

wishes you a happy new year.

May your 2016 be full of joy and delicious!

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Food Studies Post-Doctoral Position – NYU

The Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU invites
applications from outstanding candidates for a full-time Postdoctoral
Research Fellowship. The position is within the Food Studies Program. It is
available for one year, with the possibility of renewal for one additional
year (contingent on availability of funding). Candidates must have received
a PhD within the last five years, with potential for outstanding research
in an area aligned with the department’s work as specified below:

*GOALS and SUBJECT AREAS*
1. Advance the field of Food Studies
▪ expand the boundaries of the field
▪ demonstrate the importance of Food Studies for other
disciplines
▪ advance the profile of Food Studies within NYU
▪ strengthen networks with other Food Studies or relevant
departments elsewhere

2. Emphasis will be placed on the cultural elements of Food Studies
▪ historical, modern and critical cultural, sociological, geographical, and
anthropological approaches will be prioritized
3. While not a requirement, selection will reward candidates whose work
addresses local-global connections, particularly in urban centers
▪ boundary crossing and exchange (intra and inter-ethnic,
international, etc.)
▪ global circulations of people, ideas, and products
▪ city geographies, demographics, and food environments

4. Particular attention will be paid to candidates whose work merges
aesthetic/cultural and economic/material dimensions
▪ and projects that engage seriously with taste, pleasure, and identity
alongside issues of regulation, transportation, commercialization, or other
biophysical aspects of food production and consumption
· candidates who can show competency in using mapping software and have
affinity for the digital humanities (e.g. in CartoDB, Omeka, etc.)

*FELLOWSHIP RESPONSBILITIES*

Fellows will be expected to:
▪ Continue research and expand their contribution to the field of Food
Studies while at NYU
-publish in appropriate academic journals
-present in appropriate academic conferences
▪ Play an active role in the Program, Department, broader NYU and Food
Studies community
-present their research formally at least once during the year (ideally
once per semester, in different formats and with different audiences)
-attend and participate regularly in relevant talks within the department
and beyond
-nurture relationships with students and faculty
▪ Teach one or two courses in a year (to be determined in discussion with
the Chair and the Program Director)
▪ Support the program for relevant initiatives (such as grant writing,
aiding in partnership development and organizing colloquia).

Applicants must send: 1) CV (2-pages maximum), 2) three reference letters
(to be sent directly to krishnendu.ray@nyu.edu and pvs1@nyu.edu), 3) a
statement (2 pages) describing a one-year research plan.

The application package should be sent to pvs1@nyu.edu and
krishnendu.ray@nyu.edu (electronic submission of one complete PDF file is
required). The deadline for submission is February 15th 2016. If the
search is successful the term will begin September 2016.

New York University is an Equal Opportunity Employer. New York University
is committed to a policy of equal treatment and opportunity in every aspect
of its hiring and promotion process without regard to race, color, creed,
religion, sex, pregnancy or childbirth (or related medical condition),
sexual orientation, partnership status, gender and/or gender identity or
expression, marital or parental status, national origin,
ethnicity, alienage or citizenship status, veteran or military status, age,
disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, domestic violence victim
status, unemployment status, or any other legally protected basis. Women,
racial and ethnic minorities, persons of minority sexual orientation or
gender identity, individuals with disabilities, and veterans are encouraged
to apply for vacant positions at all levels.

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Romanian shepherds at the baracades

shepherd

Shepherds protesting in Bucharest. Photo EPA.

Everyone once in a while I read a news headline that makes me do a double take: “Romanian riot police fire tear gas at protesting shepherds” caught my attention in the December 15 issue of the British newspaper the Guardian. What is going on in Romania and why are shepherds, generally not a highly politicized group, being teargassed in Bucharest?

Over a thousand angry sheep herders gathered outside the parliament building in the Romanian capital to protest a new law limiting the number of sheep dogs they can use and forbidding the grazing of sheep during the winter. Politicians argued that Carpathian sheep dogs kill deer and wild boars, favorite animals among hunters, and that grazing sheep in the winter is not environmentally sustainable.

This new law was proposed by a group supporting hunting, an elite pass time that the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made popular. Hunting in Romania still retains its association with aristocracy and privilege. In contrast, sheep farming is a central agricultural activity and an important part of many local economies in rural areas. There are an estimated 10 million sheep and 1.5 million goats in rural Romania.

Images of shepherds in their wooly capes standing in front of the capital building initially made me think that this was a story about conflicts between tradition and modernity, and resistance to a changing way of life in rural areas à la Slow Food. However, there is little that is modern here. What was at stake were two age-old conflicting uses of land–pastoralism and hunting. This riot reveals the imposition of power on the part of elites to protect their interests and the rural population’s pushback.

What is truly incredible is the political response of shepherds and the success of their protest. Some traveled more than 300 miles to join the protest in Bucharest. Although the protest turned ugly as riot police teargassed the angry sheep herders who were rushing the barricades, the outcome was that the government temporarily lifted the bans and promised to find a permanent solution. While being interviewed on camera, one shepherd defends his right to graze his sheep on the land he owns. Another shepherd munching on a sausage, holds up a piece of cheese and declares the deliciousness of their cheese. Perhaps the cornerstone of this defense lies with taste.

 

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SAFN at the 2015 AAA Meeting in Denver

Rachel Black
SAFN President
Connecticut College

It was a busy and productive AAA Meeting for the Society for the the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. Our section sponsored 13 panels, which included one poster session and a session of the AAA Task Force on World Food Problems. SAFN was able to sponsor three invited sessions, which brought together research interests in nutrition, culture and food justice. The SAFN panels that I sat in on were well attended. It is great to see continued interest in the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. However, our program chairs Arianna Huhn and Joan Gross found 197 people presenting on food-related topics who were not members of SAFN. This made me realize that we still have a lot of work to do to recruit new members and expand our community of scholars working in the field of Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

During the meeting of the SAFN Executive Board, we talked about ways to attract new members and bring value to our existing membership. Next year we will be working on a creative membership drive which will include prizes for existing and new members. In addition, we will be working hard to build our community at the AAA meeting and throughout the year at events such as the Association for the Study of Food and Society meeting in Toronto that we will be co-sponsoring.

In Denver, SAFN members discussed ways to support our graduate students working on topics in the anthropology of food and nutrition. First, the Executive Board unanimously voted to cut the price of student membership in half. It now only costs $10 for students to join SAFN. Second, we plan on organizing a mentoring roundtable event with senior scholars, early-career scholars and graduate students. Third, our section will be creating a new prize to support student travel for research. Stay tuned for more details on the SAFN Student Travel Prize.

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Amy Trubek, SAFN VP, with Ji Yea Hong, the winner of this year’s Wilson Award.

This year SAFN awarded two student prizes. The Christine Wilson Award went to Ji Yea Hong for her paper entitled “”I Eat (Pork) Therefore I am (Na): Flexible Personhood and Wild Identity on One Plate”. Ji Yea Hong is a MA student in Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Hong’s paper:

“examines ways in which ritualized production and consumption of food make people who they are by establishing ontological personhood and ethnic identity. Botshasi, salted-and-dried-pork consumed daily by the Na persons in Southwest China, is ritually produced during the annual ancestral ritual, bokhosibu. On the one hand, throughout the ritualized process of making, eating, and exchanging botshasi, the distances among humans, ancestors, and pigs are constantly negotiated, contingently establishing a flexible human personhood. On the other hand, a similar process also renders individual identity, experienced as equally contingent and flexible. This fluidity of identity gives the Na persons a political wildness that cannot be institutionalized by the state.”

This year’s Thomas Marchione Food-as-a-Human-Right Student Award went to Jessie Mazar, a student in the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Food Systems. Mazar’s research focuses on issues of food access and food security for Latino/a migrant farm workers in Vermont’s dairy industry. The jury felt that Mazar’s work was very much in the spirit of Tom Marchione’s lifelong commitment to studying food as a human right.

The SAFN reception at the AAA meeting featured a fabulous spread that ranged from fondu to bison sliders–perfect for a chilly November evening in Denver. Between bites and sips, SAFN members enjoyed catching up with old friends and meeting new colleagues. Our SAFN former president and Colorado native John Brett gave an animated talk entitled “Driven By Justice: Food Work in Denver”. For those of us who had spent the past four days in the Denver Convention Center, Brett’s talk was a wonderful glimpse of the outside world, focusing on some of the most dynamic local food justice initiatives taking place in the city.

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SAFN Panels and Events at the 2015 AAA Meeting in Denver

This is a listing of food-related panels, papers, posters, & events at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, 2015 (Denver, CO)


Current & Future SAFN Members are Invited to Attend the

SAFN RECEPTION, BUSINESS MEETING & DISTIGUISHED LECTURE

Saturday, 21 November 2015, 7:45-10:30pm

Hyatt Regency, Centennial B

Distinguished Lecture by John Brett, University of Colorado Denver

“Driven By Justice: Food Work in Denver”

John Brett

light fare will be served + cash bar available


SAFN-Sponsored Panels, Posters & Events

WEDNESDAY

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

SATURDAY


Additional Events, Panels & Papers / Posters (Click on titles to see scheduling information)

WEDNESAY

 THURSDAY

 FRIDAY

SATURDAY

SUNDAY

Want to be included on our listing next year? Send Paper Info to Joan Gross, SAFN Programs Co-Chair at
jgross (at) oregonstate (dot)edu

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SAFN at the 2015 Association for the Study of Food and Society Conference

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Once again SAFN is co-sponsoring the Association for the Study of Food and Society meeting, which will be held this year in Pittsburgh from June 24-28. More details about the conference are available here on the conference web site.

Many members of SAFN will be presenting their research at the conference. The following is list of SAFN member papers and panels:

Thursday, 1:30 – 2:45

C7. PANEL Contextualizing Farming and Food Security
Buhl Beckwith
Hayden Kantor, Cornell University
Growing Ambivalence: Shifting Cropping Strategies for Staple Crops in Bihar, India


Thursday, 1:30-2:45, Mellon Devore Room

C5 PANEL: Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: Discussing Alternatives to the Academy for Scholars and Career Seekers in Food and Nutrition

Organizers: Leigh Bush, Indiana University; Maria Carabello, University of Vermont; Madeleine Chera, Indiana University; Elyzabeth Engle, Penn State University; Emily Stengel, University of Vermont
Participants: Elyzabeth Engle, Penn State University (Chair); Dara Bloom, North Carolina State; Jenifer Buckley, Organic Processing Institute; Greg Hall, Virtue Cider; Lucy Norris, Puget Sound Food Hub/Northwest Agriculture Business Center; Marisol Pierce-Quinonez, World Bank; Leslie Pillen, Penn State University; Dawn Plummer, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council

Abstract: Graduate school is an essential part of preparing for many careers in fields related to interdisciplinary agricultural and food studies. And while years are spent on building critical knowledge and skills to prepare students for employment post-graduation, how does one actually apply that learning to work, especially work that is outside of the academy or explicitly extends beyond it? How do we negotiate partner or employer demands for quantifiable outcomes, quick application, and more, in light of our commitments to ethical and thorough research and our experiences with different approaches and timelines? How do we translate our training into effective work that makes a “real world” impact but also reflects the scholarly rigor, values, and best practices of the academy?

As a follow-up to last year’s career-path panel for graduate students, this session aims to continue the conversation about jobs that utilize the engaged research skills graduate students in food and agriculture can offer to companies, non-profits, non-governmental agencies, and communities. This panel discussion aims to create a space in which graduate students can interact with a panel of early- and mid-career professionals, with the objective of profiling career trajectories and documenting important considerations for students with advanced degrees in agrifood-related studies who are interested in finding work beyond academia. The panel will reflect the interdisciplinary and diverse nature of agrifood careers, representing a variety of sectors, including businesses, research centers, non-profits, and governmental agencies. The panelists will discuss focus questions about balancing multiple interests and approaches in their work, and reflect on specific job experiences and the lessons gleaned from them. Then the audience will be encouraged to share questions and comments with participants.

This panel will be of great interest to graduate students or recent graduates, but also to other members at any stage of their careers, especially those advising undergraduate or graduate students, those considering new opportunities for themselves, or those struggling with the task of translating their training into their work.


Thursday, 2:45-4:00, JMK Library LCC2

D10 PANEL: Bridging Culture and Change

Madeline Chera, Indiana University
Between Meals and Meanings: Notes on Snack Culture in South India
Christine Knight, University of Edinburgh:
Changing cultural representations of the Scottish diet, c.1950-2014
Habiba Boumlik, LaGuardia Community College:
Traditional Cuisine-Modern Revisited Cuisine via Food Networks and social media. The case of Chumicha in Morocco


Friday, 10:15 – 11:30

F8 PANEL: Sensing Food: Taste, Place, Memory, Power

Carole Counihan, Millersville University:
Gustatory Activism in Sardinia: Taste and the Political Power of Food
Beth Forrest, Culinary Institute of America:
I Sensed this Tasted like Hell: The Role of Food, the Senses, and Identity in the Nineteenth Century
Lisa Heldke, Gustavus Adolphus College:
My Dead Father’s Raspberry Patch, My Dead Mother’s Piecrust: Understanding Memory as Sense
Deirdre Murphy, Culinary Institute of America:
Sugar Bush: Maple syrup and the Solitude of labor in the Industrial Age


Friday, 1:00 – 2:15 – JMK Library 103

G1. PANEL Intoxicants: Pleasure, Nutrition, Aesthetics Organizer: Kima Cargill, University of Washington
Kima Cargill, University of Washington
Sugar is Toxic, But is It Intoxicating?
Janet Chrzan, University of Pennsylvania
Alcohol: Drug or Food?
Sierra Clark, New York University:
The Problem of Pleasure: Intoxication and the Evaluation of Alcohol


Friday, 1:00-2:15 – Coolidge Sanger

G6. PANEL: What makes “food work” sustainable – values, representations, and images in contemporary foodscapes
Organizer: Carole Biewener, Simmons College
Carole Biewener, Simmons College:
“Good Food” and “Good Jobs”? Does Boston’s local food movement address “sustainability” and “justice” for food system workers?
Tara Agrawal Pedulla, Carrie Freshour, Cornell University:
Serving Up the Public Plate: Food work and workers in the public sector
Kimberly E. Johnson, Syracuse University
Contemplating myths, invisibility, and the value of food work on multiple levels
Penny Van Esterik, York University:
Breastfeeding as Foodwork


Saturday, 10:15-11:30, Dilworth 100

K8. PANEL: The Cultural Economy of Food in Place
David Beriss, University of New Orleans:
Tacos, Kale, and Vietnamese Po’Boys: The Re-Creolization of Food in Postdiluvian New Orleans
Gianna Fazioli, Chatham University:
The Ecological and Culture Effect of Development on Isaan Thai Food
Liora Gvion, Hebrew University
“I would expect from a Palestinian cook to…..”: Master Chef Israel, National Narratives and the Politics Embedded in Cooking


Saturday, 1:00 – 2:15, Dilworth 006

Panel L 9, Countering Globalization: The Protection and Representation of an Indigenous Food Fare in East Asia
Chair: Stephanie Assman, Hokkaido University
Organizer: Jakob Klein, University of London
Presentations: Stephanie Assman (Hokkaido University), The Return to a Culinary Heritage: The Food Education Campaign in Japan
Greg de St. Maurice (University of Pittsburgh), Kyoto Cuisine Gone Global
Lanlan Kuang (University of Central Florida), “People’s Food” : The Aesthetic of Chinese Food in Chinese Media in the case of a Bite of China and The Taste of China

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Postdoctoral Fellowships in Food Studies

The Culinaria Research Project at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) invites applications for two postdoctoral fellowships in the field of Food Studies, to work directly with the range of faculty at UTSC working in food studies. These fellowships are open to scholars who have completed a Ph.D. in Food Studies or any related field in the humanities and social sciences, by the time of appointment and within the last five years. The appointments will be for one year, starting in the summer of 2015. Salary will be commensurate with qualifications and experience. The fellowships are renewable for up to two years contingent on performance. Additional details about the position are offered below, and information about the Culinaria Research Centre can be found at: https://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/digitalscholarship/culinaria/

Position 1 – We seek applicants with primary research experience in one or more of the following areas: urban food security; food and diaspora; urban food activism; food and urban livelihoods/labour; and urban agriculture.

Position 2 – We seek applicants with primary research experience in either or both of: food and sensory experience; and/or critical approaches to nutrition discourses and practices. This position will appeal to emerging scholars with a background in Science and Technology Studies or other humanistic or social science approaches to diet, nutrition, and foodways.

Fellows will interact with faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and food professionals across a wide range of disciplines. They will also be associated with the Connaught Cross-Disciplinary/Cross-Cultural Seminar “City Food: Lessons from People on the Move” and the Culinaria Research Project (https://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/digitalscholarship/culinaria/). This on-going research collaboration introduces the concept of ‘city food’ to examine the cultural, economic, and nutritional significance of food in diverse cities. Through collaborations between academic and non-academic partners, the seminar promotes transnational research on the politics, poetics, and economics of food in civic life in the past and present. In addition to engaging in collaborative and independent research, fellows will assist in planning and administering the seminar, and other events through the duration of the fellowships. Fellows will also have the opportunity to co-edit a book and a digital project on seminar themes.

Fellows are expected to be in residence at UTSC for both academic years and will be able to conduct research at the University of Toronto libraries and the Culinaria Kitchen Laboratory. UTSC, located in the richly diverse eastern end of the Greater Toronto Area, is part of the tricampus University of Toronto.

Applications should be submitted by 15 March 2015, but review of applications will begin immediately. Applications should include: 1) a cover letter; 2) a curriculum vitae 3) three letters of reference from supervisors or professors sent separately; (3) a writing sample; and 4) a statement of current and future research interests that explains how their research contributes to the goals of the City Food project. Applications, including letters of reference, should be submitted to culinaria@utsc.utoronto.ca. Questions regarding the positions should be directed to Jeffrey Pilcher (jeffrey.pilcher@utoronto.ca) or Daniel Bender (debender@usc.utoronto.ca).

All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply. However, Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority.

Employment as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto is covered by the terms of the CUPE 3902 Unit 5 Collective Agreement.

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Book Review: Secrets from the Greek Kitchen

greek kitchen

Review of

Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and the Everyday Life on an Aegean Island.

By David E. Sutton
2014
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Reviewed by Rachel E. Black, Collegium de Lyon

David Sutton’s latest book delves into home kitchens on the Greek island of Kalymnos to focus on cooking as an important daily activity in and of itself. Cultural anthropologists have used cooking and eating as windows on gender relations, religious beliefs, social identities and so forth, but the idea that people place genuine significance on cooking and eating because taste, skill and knowledge matter is quite a refreshing approach. Building on his previous book Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (2001), Sutton addresses not only questions of memory associated with food and culinary knowledge in Greece but also the ways in which cooking is a powerful daily lived experience. In particular, the author looks at the ways in which culinary knowledge is passed on (or not) in a matrilineal society, how this knowledge adapts to new technologies, and how the cook embodies cooking tools that are tied to ever-changing social lives.

The introduction tells us how Sutton came to study cooking on Kalymnos and why this is an important topic. In addition, the author places his work in the broader literature on objects, the senses and skill. He also makes a call for more ethnographic research on cooking, pointing out an important lacuna in the anthropology of food literature. Sutton talks about research methods and the use of video to capture cooking methods. Reference to these videos clips, which are available on the University of California Press web site, throughout the book give it a multi-media dimension that bring to life the ways of doing and the cooking spaces in Kalymnian homes.

The first chapter “Emplacing Cooking” starts off with general background information about Kalymnos and how Kalymnians shop, cook, eat, and think about food. Chapter two changes gears to focus on the role of tools in Kalymnian kitchens. Here Sutton gives the interesting example of the way Kalymnians cut food in their hands rather than using a cutting board on a countertop. The author explains that at first this skill seemed to be a response to a lack of counter space—it was an efficient technique that responded to the built environment. However, upon further investigation, the author discovers that this ‘technique of the body’ has deeper roots in social life: by cutting in hand, the cook can remain in contact and communication with the other people in the kitchen. She does not need to turn her back on the action. This is just one of the great examples that Sutton uses to theorize the act of cooking in order to locate deeper social meanings and actions that are embodied and embedded in this repetitive daily activity. Can openers, rolling pins and outdoor stoves are some of the other tools that Sutton uses to demonstrate the embodiment of skill, organization of social order and changing attitudes towards technology in Kalymnian kitchens.

Chapter three looks at the case of a specific mother and daughter to ask the central question of the book: how is culinary knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to the next on Kalymnos? Sutton reveals the deep-seated tensions that often exist in these generational exchanges. The themes of learning, transmission and negotiation are carried through in chapter four, which further explores the control of culinary knowledge and its transmission. Here Sutton comes back to themes such as tools and body techniques and how they are passed on through verbal instruction and demonstration. Again, Sutton underlines that knowledge is power that is not always so easily ‘given up’ or ‘passed on’ from mother to daughter.

Chapter five “Horizontal Transmission: Cooking Shows, Friends, and Other Sources of Knowledge” takes into consideration the many other ways that Kalymnians learn about cooking and food. Cooking shows are at the center of this investigation, and Sutton broadens his ethnographic scope to include participants from Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. The author does not give much explanation why it is necessary to include another field site and why Thessaloniki is representative. Although cooking shows are certainly having an impact on how people around the world think about and prepare food, this chapter is a topical and methodological departure from the other sections of this book that are tied to participant observations and interviews. Sutton mentions cooking shows in other chapters, and a stand-alone chapter does not seem entirely necessary. While interesting questions are raised about the commercialization of tradition and the development of a sense of regional and national cuisines, this is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book–a departure from the tight focus on embodiment, knowledge and cooking.

Chapter six returns us to Kalymnos and its kitchens to discuss Kalymnians’s changing concepts of shared values, healthful eating and modernity. It is also here that Sutton includes men who cook on a daily basis, suggesting that men and women have alternate ways of learning to cook and different motivations for cooking. In conclusion, Sutton comes back to the point that cooking is important work in and of itself. Sutton rounds out his conclusion with a broader comment on the production of cooking knowledge elsewhere in the world and the centrality of taste. Finally, an epilogue addresses the impact of the recent financial crisis on cooking and eating in Kalymnos. Unlike many other places in Greece, Kalymnos seems to have fared well. Growing one’s own food and turning ‘gift foods’ into commodities are just a few strategies that Kalymnians practice to weather the storm. Although Sutton mentions economic change throughout this book, more focus on the economic crisis would have been an opportunity to bring the Kalymnian culinary realities into focus with those of other struggling European countries.

This ethnographically rich book will make a wonderful addition to reading lists for courses in the anthropology of food, ethnography of Europe and food studies at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The richness of the participant observations makes this work extremely accessible. At the same time, Sutton draws in theoretical considerations from the anthropology of the senses, skill and material culture. The author has a wonderful knack for theorizing the topic of cooking without losing the flavor of the ethnography. Although the chapters can stand alone as individual readings, the length of the book makes it appropriate for assigning as a whole.

Secrets from a Greek Kitchen is a wonderful ethnographic foray into the kitchen and an inspiration to other anthropologists to further explore the daily practice of cooking without forgetting the importance of experiences from techniques of the body to taste. “If we treat food, taste, and cooking tools […] not as some rhetorical flourish to liven up ethnographic writing, but as equally central to understanding the ways that people are living, reproducing, and transforming their everyday lives, we will, I think, see a whole new analytical terrain open before us.” [185]

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Behind a Forager, the Pickers: Wild Food Production’s Other Side

mushroomprices

Wild food harvesting is piece-work.

Foraged foods from the wilderness are this year’s hottest trend in natural, ethical eating. They’re lauded as more organic than organic: after all, they grow in the wild, where there aren’t just ‘approved’ pesticides and fertilizers, but none whatsoever. Growing of their own volition, these native species don’t need a farmer to tame them—and perhaps warp their purity, sapping them of taste and nutrient value.

Wild food is also, paradoxically, celebrated as the most local of foods, though the wild was once upon a time the most remote and alien of places. This sense of locality arises in the figure of the forager, the man (and almost always it is a man) whose profile makes up most media reports on wild food; the man who goes deep into the woods and brings its bounty back out, directly to you. Like the family farmer he’s wholesome, connected to the soil and its seasons. And in this way wild food becomes small-scale, fair trade, a way of supporting local economies. There aren’t any intermediaries, and no 2 500 miles, just a quick jaunt out of the city, into your local wilderness.

Who is this forager? He’s a character drawn at first glance from our collective imagination of the mushroom picker. A solitary and vaguely European, upper- or at least middle-crusty sort with a walking stick and wicker basket, perhaps accompanied by a well-trained hound that can sniff out the prey, he knows the secret patches where these sorts of things grow and will take their locations to his grave. And in this latest incarnation he’s also become a lay botanist, conjuring names and identities out of the tangle of green, bringing us closer to the miracles of nature we city-dwellers forgot from want of exposure: our plant-loving, Earth-loving Adam. With that basket he spreads the seeds and spores, helping the foods grow. At the same time, with his compass and his technical outwear and the shimmering blade of his knife, he also takes reasonable precautions in light of the animals, the elements, of getting lost: all our vague urban fears of the wilderness handily dispatched.

A commercial mushroom buyer's shack.

A commercial mushroom buyer’s shack.

But the fact of the matter is that while this man really exists, is who he says he is, and does what he appears to do, hidden behind him is a whole society of other men (or almost as often women, elders and families) who we never seem to hear about. They are the pickers. Like fruit pickers and vegetable pickers on farms, they’re often marginalized and poor, working a physically demanding and dangerous job to make ends meet the only way that seems possible. They confront the cold in threadbare sneakers and jeans they bought at Walmart, pick into a plastic bag that last held groceries or a six-pack of beer, and don’t need a compass because they know these woods well, as anyone who worked them day after day, year after year would. Their dog is a burly one designed to take on a bear, and if they carry a weapon it’s a rifle, because their knife is a tool, meant to cut stalks and stems as quickly, numerously and profitably as possible: they’re paid by the piece, and the profit always seems less than it should.

In Canada these people are most often refugees from ruined local resources economies: from shuttered sawmills and denuded oceans, from blighted reserves. In the United States they tend to be refugees of another sort, Laotians, Hmong, Vietnamese and Cambodians fleeing the still-rippling violence of the Vietnam War. In other words, the people who produce the vast majority of wild food aren’t foragers but pickers, resource workers displaced by machinations of power they did little to cause but do much to suffer. They struggle to survive in capitalism’s precarious hinterlands by gathering raw materials for the profit and use of someone more powerful. Someone somewhere else: someone in the city.

It’s hardly fair to blame anyone involved for this. The media are interested in a hot new trend; they want to find a local business that’s engaged in it, to tell about it. The owner, the forager who sells wild foods to chefs or at farmers’ markets, really is a forager; that’s why and how he is in this business. Although obviously one man is not enough to supply all of a city’s restaurants, some of the product comes from their own forays in the bush, and when the press comes knocking, they take them to the place they both love the best: the woods. They believe in wild food, in its value and uniqueness, in its healthfulness, in its superiority to the products of the global industrial food system. And in many ways, they’re right. For instance, unlike many agricultural workers, the Canadian pickers at least love their work: love being in the woods, the freedom and excitement of it all; love being their own bosses instead of working a soul-crushing job with an overseer who treats you like dirt.

Mushrooms packed in standard baskets for shipping.

Mushrooms packed in standard baskets for shipping.

What they don’t love is having all the risk and few of the rewards: having nothing to eat when nothing grows to pick; ending up stranded at the end of the season, having spent all their money on gas that’s gone, 1 000 km from home—if they have one. They don’t love trying to break into urban markets on the other side of the continent. Failing to negotiate the cultural and class differences, they are turned away at the airport when they try to ship their product because of their lack of credit and their soiled clothes. They are turned away at the restaurant for fears of contaminated or misidentified mushrooms. And so the contradictions of contemporary capitalisms gain another foothold. Once again, and this time in the realm of the most natural, most ethical, most plainly good product yet, the true nature of production and the difficult circumstances of the producers are well-veiled. The wild, that place that seemed so newly close to home, at end remains so very far removed.

Dylan Gordon (@KnowWildFood) is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Toronto, researching the ethics and economics of wellbeing in the Canadian trade of wild food products. (www.dylangordon.ca)

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Filed under anthropology, foodways, sustainability, Wild foods