Review: Food for Thought

Food for Thought: Essays on Eating and Culture

Edited by Lawrence C. Rubin
Foreword by John Shelton Lawrence
North Point Press
(307 pages)

Reviewed by Susan D. Blum
Department of Anthropology
The University of Notre Dame


Nothing human is alien to me. So said the Roman dramatist Terrence (185-159 BCE). And so can claim anthropology, sociology, psychology, history…. And what is more human than the ways human beings eat?

It is clear that there is little anthropological to say about how dogs eat (though of course how humans feed their dogs, or name their dogs, or regard their dogs, or eat their dogs, is thoroughly anthropological), or rat cuisine (aside from the anthropomorphized Ratatouille). But while humans—like all animals—have to eat, the ways we eat, the meanings we attribute to eating, the pathologies we develop around food, the foods we eat and avoid….all these are breathtaking in their variety. Food for Thought: Essays on Eating and Culture provides a collection of discoveries about food that reveal some aspects of that variety. Though none of the 19 authors is identified as an anthropologist—communications seems to be the field most represented—there is rich evidence of anthropological sensibility among them: curiosity about what people do, why they do it, and the many ways it can be explained.

Among my favorite chapters is “Passing Time: The Ironies of Food in Prison Culture,” where Jim Thomas describes how inmates procure ingredients—keeping them cool in plastic bags in toilets—to make home-made tortillas and beans on improvised stoves, demonstrating the importance of food choice even in the most difficult situations. Another is “Is It Really Better to Travel Than to Arrive? Airline Food as a Reflection of Consumer Anxiety” where Guillaume de Syon talks about the early history of airplane dining, modeled on ships and trains; the practices had to be modified, however, to keep forks and knives from flying through the air in the unpressurized cabins, but it had as its intention keeping passengers distracted, or perhaps drunk, to keep them from feeling terrified. In early years of air travel passengers faced one another around tables but economic necessity resulted in our now-familiar arrangement.

The book offers, as well, an account of the ornate serving pieces used by middle-class Americans who wished to portray the effortless and silent service characteristic of actual nobility in “Man, Machine and Refined Dining in Victorian America” by Hillary Murtha; analysis of the meanings of competitive eating contests in “Beyond Bread and Circuses: Professional Competitive Eating” by Lawrence C. Rubin; description of the shifting yet enduring social values involved in the opening of coffee bars in China, where tea was the traditional beverage of leisure in “The Espresso Revolution: Introducing Coffee-Bar Franchising to Modern China” by Jackie Cook and Robert Lee; consideration of the paradoxical relationship between Wal-Mart and organic food (“Mass Agrarianism: Wal-Mart and Organic Foods” by Dawn Gilpin); presentation of the particularities of food preparation serving as spectator entertainment (as in the Food Network) in “‘Everybody Eats’: The Food Network and Symbolic Capital” by Megan Mullen; ironies in old English food being presented as “authentic” as people engage in culinary tourism (“Reengineering ‘Authenticity’: Tourism Encounters with Cuisine in Rural Great Britain” by Craig Wight); and a moving discussion of the symbolic and literal preoccupations with feeding in both Spanish and Latin American literature (“Hunger and Satiety in Latin American Literature” by Santiago Daydi-Tolson).

We see from these chapters, in a conclusion that will not be unfamiliar to anthropologists, the many types of importance that food has for human beings, beyond simple material sustenance. This is not Marvin Harris’s rationalist account of the relative weights of calories expended and calories gained. There is not too much sociology, of the Mary Douglas sort. Simon Gottschalk’s “All You Can Eat: Sociological Reflections on Food in the Hypermodern Era” is a well-written exception, in which he uses his outsider’s sensibility (he grew up in Europe) to muse about Americans’ focus on quantity, uniformity, and hypermodernity. Some of the chapters build on explicit theoretical foundations, such as another gem, Phillip Vannini’s “Snacking as Ritual: Eating Behavior in Public Places.” The title does not quite do justice to his pleasing account of how Vannini, as a young adult Italian moving to the United States, learned to shop at Safeway ®–which appeared three times with the circle R. He writes of structure and antistructure, à la Victor Turner, in the strange camping he did with friends, where the only genuinely wild aspect of their eating was the stick on which they roasted the marshmallows for the s’mores that his friends gleefully introduced. Other chapters use a kind of common-sense analysis, as in the two chapters about food in films (a section puzzlingly called “Come Join Us”), “Deconstructing the Myth of the Dysfunctional Black Family in the Film Soul Food” by Tina M. Harris and “Cultural Representation of Taste in Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” by Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley.

As an anthropologist raised on the anthropological classics regarding food, it is strange to find as if new some of the insights of writers like E.N. Anderson, Carole Counihan, and others. Some chapters are dominated by an economic orientation, others by a psychological orientation. Food for Thought is not anti-culture, nor is it entirely culture-oriented. The editor admits plainly in his introduction that he advocates no particular perspective.

As in any edited collection, entries are uneven in strength. Some could have used a little tighter editing. There were some strange typos: Victor Turner’s “communitas” came out “communits” the first time it appeared (p. 243), and “minuscule” was spelled “miniscule” (p. 259). Many of the section titles—there are seven—are too vague or playful to be meaningful (Part VII: “Self-Reflection in a Fun-House Mirror”).

For those fascinated by human beings, by the arbitrary, variable, intriguing choices we have made of the universal need to consume, you will find this book a pleasant addition. For those who wish to use a book for a class on a particular approach to the study of food, you may not find this especially compelling. There is a taste of political economy, a dollop of gender studies and feminism, a soupçon of aesthetics…

Though initially somewhat skeptical, I recommend this book to readers who want to see some of the many ways food is conceived of by contemporary Americans and others. It is much more concerned with food as “good to think” than as biologically good to eat. The range of topics is both pleasing and edifying. The chapters are short, lending themselves to snacking….like two-bite brownies from Trader Joe’s. They average less than 15 pages each, including notes and bibliographies. Much of it is accompanied by a surfeit of food puns (we savor the spectacle; we chew on….). A smorgasbord, a potpourri, one can graze…

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