Category Archives: anthropology of food

Review: The Unending Hunger

The Unending Hunger by Megan A. Carney

Carney, M. A. (2015). The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN: 978-0520285477

Rachael McCormick
University of South Florida

In The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders, Megan Carney frames the city of Santa Barbara, California’s paradoxical problem as “hunger in the land of plenty.” Despite the region’s affluence and agricultural wealth, food insecurity occurs at a high rate. Carney attributes this problem to a neoliberal food regime which views food as a commodity – able to move across the southern border – while people lack both mobility and food. Rather than addressing the structural causes of food insecurity (evidenced by the high rates among women and people of color), food assistance typically consists of emergency relief and handouts.

Carney argues state approaches to food security, as to migration, are embedded in biopolitics. Food assistance agencies act as proxies of the state, bringing up questions of deservingness and surveillance. In the neoliberal context, the burden of procuring food falls on the individual. But not all individuals experience this burden equally: women, as the primary performers of caring labor, are tasked with feeding their families.

Carney, a critical medical anthropologist, is a faculty member at the University of Arizona with interests in migration, food systems and biopolitics (Carney, n.d.). The Unending Hunger is based on her dissertation at the University of California – Santa Barbara. Since then, her interest in migration has expanded into the Mediterranean region.

In The Unending Hunger, Carney characterizes her position as both insider (referring to her food-related activism during graduate school) and outsider (in relation to migrant women). Participants in her study were adult women who had migrated from Mexico or Central America and had experience with U.S. food assistance. Carney uses semi-structured and life history interviews, focus groups, dietary surveys and participant observation with both the population of interest as well as public health and nonprofit professionals. She draws heavily on feminist methodology, especially in her use of empowering methods like photo elicitation and focus groups. Based on these data, Carney found that concern for food is a central part of the migration experience for women. This was reflected in the terms alimentarse and comida saludable which women use when talking about the caring labor they perform. Carney also reports that subjectivities are altered through post-migration suffering and its embodied effects. Food insecurity in the migration context interacts with existing health vulnerabilities, increasing social suffering. However, rather than focusing on lack of food access, Carney calls attention to the ways she observed women strategically “making do,” cooperating, and resisting.

Carney’s book has a particularly strong gendered perspective which seeks to address a gap in the literature on migration: the experiences of women, as care workers, in addition to men as laborers. In some ways, The Unending Hunger can be thought of as a counterpart to Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (2013). Holmes analyzes the health consequences of farm labor on migrant men engaged in food production, while Carney turns to women as consumers whose “caring labor” is not valued by a capitalist system.

Carney’s heavy-handed critique of the neoliberal food assistance paradigm seems unproductive at times. There is plenty of room for improvement in both the overall structure of food assistance as well as the individual sites where it is implemented. However, food assistance in its many forms (consider food banks, faith-based organizations and federal programs) is a vital support system for food-insecure populations. While Carney acknowledges the limits imposed upon these organizations by bureaucracy, donor funding, and policy, a more productive critique might include concrete ways for food assistance services to improve their interventions.

In The Unending Hunger, Carney provides a nuanced view of mobility – both of people and food – that brings in the under-analyzed gendered elements of migration and food procurement. The book will be of interest to medical anthropologists, food system planners and other professionals engaged in food security projects. It may not be received as warmly by the organizations Carney criticizes; these would benefit more from research that generated specific suggestions for mitigating food insecurity within the neoliberal context. Nevertheless, Carney’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on migration, gender and health.

 

Works Cited

Carney, M. (n.d.). About Megan Carney. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from https://anthropology.arizona.edu/user/megan-carney

Holmes, S. (2013). Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

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Review: From Virtue to Vice

From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia

Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik. From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia. Food, Nutrition, and Culture Series. V. 4. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015.  ISBN: 978-1-78238-455-7 hardback; ISBN: 978-1-78238-456-4 ebook

Richard Zimmer
Sonoma State University

Richard O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik have written an excellent and very readable book on anorexia nervosa using anthropological perspectives.  Anorexia occurs when a person “obsessively chooses” not to eat. A person then puts her/himself at medical and psychological risk. It is extremely difficult to treat. Because anorexia relates to food in general and to many foods in particular, and because anorexia is a very “modern” disease (as is explained by the authors) this book is of importance to those interested in the anthropology of food and nutrition, as well as in medical anthropology and psychological anthropology.  It is also of use to medical and behavioral personnel treating patients/clients with anorexia.  Lastly, because of the way it is formatted, it can serve as a helpful resource for people struggling with anorexia, including those recovering from it.

Before proceeding, I need to make several disclosures.  The first is that I am an anthropologist and a licensed psychologist. In the latter role, I have treated many clients with anorexia.  Whatever the procedures are for treating anorexia, the standard of care mandates that the clinician work with the client’s/patient’s physician because of the health risks involved, including malnutrition.  Furthermore, I also do pre-surgery psychological assessments for gastric bypass surgery for people with severe obesity. This assessment is a necessary pre-condition for getting the surgery. In the near future I will be reviewing another book in the Berghahn series about obesity.  Moreover, I have been a long-time board member for an agency which services people with disabilities–Disability Services/Legal Center, in Santa Rosa, California.  As a board member, a psychologist who works with people with disabilities and as an advocate for people with disabilities, it should be known that the politically correct and acceptable term is “a person with anorexia,” not an anorectic person, the term employed in the book. The reason is simple: the focus is on the person first, the disability second.  For the sake of simplicity and readability, however, I will use “anorectic” or “anorectic person” in this review. Lastly, the question arises: is anorexia a disability?  According to our agency’s legal center, it is, when it actually impacts major life functions.

By taking an anthropological and historical focus, O’Connor and Van Esterik bring a holistic, person-centered, and behavioral dimension to understanding and treating anorexia. Before detailing how they do this, it is important to review some current understandings about the causes and treatments for anorexia–which they review.

1. There is no single accepted etiology for anorexia.
2. There is no single, acceptable cure/treatment for anorexia.
3. Certain kinds of approaches can backfire, worsening the situation.
4. Anorexia is believed to have become a recognized issue in modern times, seemingly starting in the nineteenth century.
5, Anorexia seems to be more common among children/adolescents who are affluent and been given educational opportunities.
6. Conversely, it seems to be less common among less educated and less affluent and in minority communities.
7. While often portrayed in the media as a feminist issue, anorexia is found among teenage boys and young men at significant rates, although it is less prevalent than among teenage girls and young women.
8. While anorexia is often understood as an extreme reaction to modern ideas about body image, especially for girls and women, the subjects/informants that O’Connor and Van Esterik interviewed were less concerned and less influenced by contemporary images. Rather, they were motivated by other considerations, as will be discussed shortly.
9. O’Connor and Van Esterik situate their discussion about anorexia in a larger discussion of the emergence of Cartesian dualism and its effects of splitting mind and body. Anorectics thus act on this split, using mind over body. Coupled with this, anorectics preoccupy themselves with cleanliness, following Mary Douglas’ ideas about purity in general. This preoccupation is complemented with rituality in preparing and eating foods.

These considerations revolve around the idea of control.  Briefly, the young person who is becoming anorectic becomes entranced by the idea of control over her/his body, about the idea of perfecting this control, about the daily process of not eating, of getting “high” from a self-reinforcing feedback loop in the same way the authors say that ascetics do.  The anorectic person eventually loses control of the ability to control–control becomes an end in itself.  The anorectic withdraws from much social interaction, usually rejecting any parental, friendship, and sexual interaction.  According to the informants, this, too, becomes self-fulfilling.

The informants interviewed in this book were drawn from Canada and the US.  The authors give these informants the opportunity to express themselves at length throughout each chapter, addressing different aspects about their anorexia, including their family life, their starting point for not eating, their social life, their decision to address their condition, and their recovery. They all said that they enjoyed experimenting with food, including eliminating fats, sugars, and eating more vegetables and fruits.  To paraphrase the authors, the anorectic becomes what s/he eats and does not eat.

Because this is a contemporary study, these anorectics indulged in “Virtuous Eating (Chapter 10.)” They thus shared the modern preoccupation with food–what to eat, what not to eat, how many calories, how large the proportions should be, and the provenance of the food. As Poulain notes, the anorectic fits into the category of the “fearful eater” (2017:165.)

This preoccupation with the kinds of food one ate in the West arose from historical movements begun in the early nineteenth century, such as those started by William Kellogg and Sylvester Graham:  “Diet reform emerged from a distrust of 19th century medical practices, as well as the temperance movement led by Protestants which gained popularity in the United States at the same time (https://www.lib.umich.edu/janice-bluestein-longone-culinary-archive/diet-reform-and-vegetarianism.)” Moreover, as Jonathan Kauffman notes throughout his book, Hippie Food (2018), modern and post-modern society promotes experimentations with food as a virtue in and of itself.  Consequently, the anorexia informants in this book talk endlessly about which foods to eat and how much of them they eat.

These extremes of virtuous eating were coupled with religious beliefs and asceticism. For many they were tied up with ideas about “purity” and “danger,” after Mary Douglas. They were also tied up with notions of attractiveness and thinness (Chapter 12). Thinness became another virtue for people, particularly women in many Western societies after WWI.  One need only look at the Flapper craze in the 1920’s.

The authors note that the informants said that they began their practice of control in their adolescence.  Whatever the causes, the informants noted that they saw their practice as an emerging practice of creating identity, one that differentiated them from their families and friends because of the prime focus on what they ate and did not eat.  So-called “traditional” societies, where one has a socially given identity and close monitoring, do not see the presence or rise of anorexia as modern societies do.  Furthermore, the authors note that the prevalence of anorexia increased in post-modern times in part because the number of different identities available to an adolescent multiplied. The anorectic person is the one who does not eat, just as the Goth dresses in black.  What is striking, from a psychological point of view, at least for the informants in their survey, is that they were all “good” kids, not prone to rebellion, successful in school, and most were involved in sports or dance.

The informants the authors have chosen have all recovered. They do note that their sample is skewed. (It would probably be difficult to find anorectics who have not recovered and who would be so willing to talk about their history, a point they address as well). The lessons learned from this sample, because not all anorectics do recover fully or partially, are that recovery is an individual choice.  No one intervention worked to get someone to change.  Overmedicalization and stigmatization were counter-productive.  Sometimes it was just “accidental”–the person decided one day that not eating was not working for her or him.

These lessons are clinically useful because they enable the physician and therapist to see the person as a whole trying to form an identity, rather than as a problem with medical issues.  The professional can have the anorectic strike a path forward that s/he chooses, giving that person agency.  The self-reports of the informants give those who treat anorectics sensitive ways to help the person.   The case examples, including statements about reasons to change and successful outcomes, provide resources that speak to the anorectic in language and sentiment to help her/him become their own change agent.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

n.d.  https://www.lib.umich.edu/janice-bluestein-longone-culinary-archive/diet-reform-and-vegetarianism (accessed March 5, 2019.)

2018 Kauffman, Jonathan. Hippie Food: How Back-To-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Ways We Eat.  Harper Collins. New York.

2017 Poulain, Jean-Pierre. The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society.  Bloomsbury: New York.

 

 

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Review: Authentic Italian

Di Maio, Dina M. Authentic Italian. The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People.  ISBN#13:978-0-9996255-0-7

Francesca Gobbo
University of Turin

 

With her book Authentic Italian (2018), author Dina M. Di Maio aims to disseminate The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, as the subtitle explains, among American readers (and, presumably, also diners).  She wants to dispel the prejudices and biases about Italian immigrants and their food by demonstrating and reclaiming the authentic Italian identity of the dishes prepared and cooked in the kitchens of Americans of Italian descent—as she calls them. The chapters’ titles (What is “Italian” Food?: The Italy They Left; Is Cucina Moderna the True Food of Italy?; They Came to America; Spaghetti and Meatballs; Italian Food in America; Pizza; Italian Food Around the World; Italian Food in Italy; The Legacy of Italian Food) well describe the ample itinerary undertaken by the author. For Di Maio, the story of food and foodways of Americans of Italian descent cannot but intertwine with the history of the Italian South and its people, the emigration of millions of Southerners to escape poverty and lack of prospects in their homeland, the exclusion and prejudices suffered by those who landed in the United States (and that are still suffered by their descendants, according to Di Maio). It also includes the cultural resilience and creativity they practiced by succeeding in making their cuisine popular and highly appreciated by Americans. Thus, though she warns readers that “Italian history is convoluted,” and reminds them that the unification of Italy was achieved only in 1861, Di Maio thought it necessary to go into it in order to give “an understanding of how this history pertains to the food history of the early Italian immigrants”. Most of her references are the works of English authors, since not many Italian texts about the history of Southern Italy or Italian foodways are translated in English: her decision seems unavoidable, but I think that the contributions of Italian historians to the study of the post-unification conditions of the South would have been very valuable.

With regard to immigrants’ foodways, they brought them to the new land, as Di Maio documents, and initially they kept their cooking traditions within the family and neighborhood circles. Immigrants also grew their own vegetables and fruits (a habit some of them still maintained in 1974, when – to my surprise – I was able to buy some Roman chicory from an old man in New Haven). Furthermore, accustomed as they were to olive oil for cooking, they started to import it from Sicily as early as 1907, together with other specialties. Later the production of American made Italian food was launched, and restaurants and pizzerie were opened. Most of the enterprises were family based, capable of making and distributing products of high quality, and of impacting positively on the food industry in the United States, until “the local Italian-American business became corporations or died because of competition from corporations and quality subsequently degraded”. Many of those newly arrived to American shores shared the cooking and eating traditions of the South. Yet the Italian immigrants were a diverse group, both in terms of social status and specific history, as is testified by Di Maio’s research among the descendants of the Waldensian immigrants. The latter – as the Author explains – came from the steep valleys of Piedmont where they, as an Italian religious minority, had settled in the XIII century. The dishes that the descendants of the early immigrants still prepare testify of the strong relationship with the Piedmontese food traditions, notwithstanding their long exclusion from the surrounding Catholic society. And it is with a communal lunch, after a religious ceremony, that every year, on February 17, in the valley “capital” Torre Pellice, the Italian Waldensians  celebrate the civic and political rights (Lettere Patenti), granted to them by the Savoia Carlo Alberto in 1848.

Di Maio’s commitment to attest that “spaghetti and meatballs make up the story of the Italian people in the United States” is inaugurated by asking if such a dish, as well as pizza or eggplant parmesan, are perceived as authentic Italian, rather than as Italian American. The latter is a mistaken perception many Italians run into (especially if they are from the North) and it is due – as she explains – to the characteristics of the Italian cuisine that is divided by North and South, is regional, and characterized by important variations in produce and recipes, engendering a certain confusion with regard to the authentic origin of the dish. In fact, I can testify that, as a Northern Italian student in the United States in the early 1970s, I shared that confusion. It ended only when, in 1976, the Arberësh family from which I rented a room during fieldwork in Calabria decided to prepare a special treat – to wit: spaghetti and meatballs. Thus, that meal was not only tasty, but it also gave the ethnographer the opportunity to learn about the diversity of Italian food and the limited familiarity many Italians had with dishes prepared and eaten in other Italian regions.

However, things are changing, as Di Maio notices, and the concern of the Italian government  to validate “authentic products” underlines how the Italian food identity (or authenticity) is transmitted not only by recipes or internationally popular dishes such as pizza. This also happens now through the DOC and DOP designations (as well as those of the Slow Food Presidia) of local or regional products that thus become known and appreciated both at the national and international level. Pizza is one such dish, and the pages the author devotes to it and to its diffusion are quite interesting, though her claim that “the Southern Italians brought it to the United States who in turn brought it back to Italy” does not do justice, in my view, to the many Neapolitan families who introduced pizza and pizzerie in the towns – big and small – of Northern Italy.

Di Maio’s aims, in short, “to prove that the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in the United States is indeed Italian cuisine based on real dishes from Italy”. And further, “to show that classifying and interpreting the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in any other way but as ‘Italian’ is discriminatory”. This goal required not only research among the food habits of those Italian Americans, but also an exploration of Italian food cultures, cooking and eating practices, and of the changes they and the Italians have undergone in Italy. Her research places the topic of Italian American foodways and their authenticity in a wide perspective that comprises not only the past but also the present of Italy, and provokes memories as well as questions in Italian readers. While her efforts are devoted to establish the authenticity of the food of Americans of Italian descent, an Italian reader would point out that immigrants from all parts of the world are now part of the Italian population. Many of them collect tomatoes and oranges in the South (and the padrone system the Author mentions is remindful of the caporalato and of the heavy toll it takes from the field laborers), so that traditional food such as pasta al pomodoro or other dishes requiring fresh or processed tomatoes are now maintained also thanks to them. It is possible – as happens in the oldest pizzeria of Padova (in the Northeast of Italy) – that pizza is made to its usual perfection by a young Indian immigrant, or that Bangladeshi sellers of fruits and vegetables extol the freshness of the radicchio varieties, the tastiness of the fondi di carciofo (artichoke bottoms) as ably and convincingly as the next stalls’ local vendors who celebrate their goods in local dialect. With very few exceptions, neither grow the vegetables and fruits they sell as was often common in the 1960s and 1970s, however the immigrants too have learned to shave the artichokes and keep them in fresh water for the satisfaction of the customers. If the authenticity of the pizza or of the fondi di carciofo cannot be questioned when they reach the table, regardless of who cooked or prepared or sold them, will the meaning of “authentic” widen or, on the contrary, remain exclusively defined by historic origins? In my view, the etymology of “authentic” (from late Latin authenticus, and from the Greek authentikós, derived from authéntës, author, doer, master, cfr. Devoto 1968, Onions 1966) suggests that what is proved as true, genuine, or not false, implies the recognition of a maker, and of his/her activity, who relates to the original source in terms of inspiration and creativity rather than of respectful replication.

 

References

Devoto G. (1968), Avviamento alla Etimologia Italiana. Dizionario Etimologico, Firenze: Le Monnier.

Onions C. T. ed. (1966), The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology of food, Authenticity, food history, Italy, migration

Review: Against The Grain

James C. Scott Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN #: 9780300182910

David Sutton
Southern Illinois University

With his 5 decades of writing on questions of local resistance to state control and state planning, James Scott has been anthropology’s favorite political scientist. In groundbreaking books including Weapons of the Weak, Hidden Transcripts, Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott traces an approach that suggests the many ways that ordinary people evade the mechanisms of power, rather than submitting to hegemonic structures. And he explains why scholars have largely ignored these acts of resistance and hidden transcripts, indeed precisely because they are meant to remain “under the radar” of official accounts and practices of accountability. Scott’s “ordinary people” often refers to peasant life and agriculture. In his first book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott first develops arguments and critiques of the concept of false consciousness in the context of looking at peasant relations with land owners and the “moral economy” of traditional definitions of acceptable subsistence and peasant calculation of acceptable risk and reward.

So Scott’s work has a particular and longstanding relevance to food studies scholars. Perhaps all the more so with his most recent book. Against The Grain, which enters into what has become a popular discussion in venues such as The New Yorker of the so-called Neolithic transition to agriculture and its implications for human health and well-being. This discussion has reached popular consciousness in anarchist circles and in debates about the “Paleo Diet,” and recently the discovery of 14,000-year-old “bread-like” substances at a hunter gatherer site, made, it seems, from wild grains and tubers, sparking another round of popular discussions of “the diet of our ancestors” and its implications for contemporary health.[1] Popular or scholarly, this ongoing debate concerns the implications of grain agriculture in the story of human history. Scott’s contribution in some ways adds weight to the critique of the development of grain agriculture as human staple, but in other ways adds considerable complexity to how we might approach such questions. Scott wants to blur boundaries of institutions and processes that have been thought to imply each other. Scott separates the state form both from domestication of agriculture and livestock and the former two from sedentism. Sedentism could arise without domestication, as Scott shows with multiple examples of niche construction, and exploitation of diverse food sources in rich, wetland environments. This often involved niche construction through fire and other techniques of sculpting the environment.  He notes, ““Unlike optimal foraging theory that takes the disposition of the natural world as given and asks how a rational actor would distribute his or her efforts in procuring food, what we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create, over time, a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking” (40). Major sculpting was not always necessary, however. In the Southern Mesopotamian alluvium wetland marshes would have provided “an exceptionally rich riparian life” which drew all kinds of animals “preying on creatures lower on the food chain” (50), thus making sedentism perfectly feasible in the absence of agriculture. Many of the practices of hunter-gatherer-forager-pastoralists, as Scott sees them, were not inherently different in conception than agriculture, insofar as they involved planning for “delayed returns”—from landscape sculpting to preserving through drying and fermenting. Thus, the introduction of small-scale agriculture did not necessitate the creation of different “kinds of people,” another blurring that Scott suggests: “To treat those engaged in these different activities as essentially different peoples inhabiting different life worlds is again to read back the much later stigmatization of pastoralists by agrarian states to an era where it makes no sense” (62). Indeed, Scott argues that evidence suggests a common shifting between different subsistence strategies “along a vast continuum of human rearrangements of the natural world” (71).

Scott also argues that the shift from this situation to the Neolithic Revolution in which agriculture became predominant in some communities held many disadvantages. While it allowed for greater concentrations of human and animal populations in smaller spaces, it at the same time encouraged the possibility of zoonoses, all the diseases transmitted to humans and domesticated animals from agricultural pests of various kinds and from the concentration of human waste. The literal meaning of “parasite,” Scott is pleased to point out, is “beside the grain,” and most human infectious disease developed in this context beginning 10,000 years ago, thus playing into the pun in Scott’s book title. The Neolithic Revolution also, in Scott’s view, led to a vast deskilling of human populations, as the flexibility and knowledge that was part of shifting subsistence strategies was lost in the specialization of agriculture. Indeed, he intriguingly suggests, but does not develop, the notion that among the de-skillings that he associates with the Neolithic Revolution, we should include ritual life: “let us at least say that [the Neolithic revolution] represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life” (92). This is because of what he imagines as the centralization or funneling of ritual around the harvest (and eventually its centralized control by elites), as opposed to the multiple tempos, and presumably multiple localized rituals, of shifting subsistence. As suggestive as this is, one wishes that Scott further developed these ideas, and suggested what evidence we might want to see for them. All of these problems of concentration make up one of the reasons why agriculture does not lead to states in some inexorable way as old evolutionary theories might have argued. Rather agriculture (and sedentism) were necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of states, and that is why there tends to be a time lag of hundreds or thousands of years between the development of agriculture and of states in different parts of the world.

Scott sees grain as key, however, to this eventual development, because it afforded certain possibilities that other crops did not. Without cereal grains, Scott notes, one might get sedentism and urbanism in certain alluvial, well-watered areas, but not the state.  In particular, the fact that cereal grains ripen at the same time and above ground was crucial for early state building, as it made them assessible, measurable, and thus taxable. It is here that Scott’s argument in Against the Grain intersects with much of his best-known work on the state as constantly attempting to produce legible populations for the purposes of surveillance and control.[2] He thus sees that the development of writing was first and foremost a technology of tax assessment and accountability, making possible the measurement, storage and rationing of resources. Scott also seems aware of the functionalist and determinist sound of some of these arguments, and so includes questions, such as why couldn’t lentils or chickpeas have been bred for simultaneous ripening (133)? This is a question which he doesn’t attempt to answer. Scott’s insistence on blurriness of social categories for long periods of human history also dovetails with recent formulations that argue that different pre-state social arrangements are better seen as temporary collective projects rather than different types of fully-formed “societies” (Graeber & Wengrow 2015).

As to the issue of why anyone would want to live in a state (aside from those who controlled it), Scott’s book is in essence a dismissal of long-held arguments that states provided more security, better health, or better amenities than non-states. In the latter chapters of the book, Scott describes the fragility of the early state based on the notion that many people would have simply fled from its exploitative and dulling routines. Slavery was thus a key aspect of shoring up the state, as slaves, according to Scott, would have been a key source of the state’s agricultural labor force, (while not, of course, being absent from non-state societies). This also means, in Scott’s narrative, that the “Barbarians” living outside of state control were as likely to be refugees from state-making processes as much as they were pristine primitives living untouched by the state (231-2). Those groups living outside the boundaries, but on the margins of states, might often have various interactions with states, from trading, to creating protection rackets with particular states, to selling captured populations as slaves to states to fill labor needs.  Scott suggests that in shoring up states in various ways, these “Barbarian” polities may have eventually been squeezed out, contributing to their own demise, though one that happened over a very long time span.

As noted, this work fits into Scott’s larger project of questioning the top-down, synoptic and abstract mechanisms of control and categorization that he argues are at the base of state projects.  In Against the Grain, Scott once again suggests that scholars contribute to such views by favoring the legible, in this case, the fact that early states, as opposed to non-state groupings, left many more records for historians to ponder. The bias for “civilization” over “Barbarians”, then, reflects the fact that, winners and losers aside, we read history from the point of view of the writers, or in this case, the states (even if some of this “writing” took the form of stone monuments).

Scott always hedges his claims, though, not arguing that non-state societies were some kind of utopias and that writing and abstraction represented a “fall of mankind” as in the works of some anthropological primitivists,[3] even if everything in his argument suggests that life must have been substantially better for non-state peoples. Thus, Scott offers up only “Two Cheers for Anarchy,” in a recent collection of essays which includes thoughts on the petite bourgeoise,[4] which he sees as potentially resistant to state control and the forces of organization, abstraction and modernity. This comes alongside a plea for generalized everyday rule-breaking, or what he calls “Anarchist calisthenics” (2012). And Scott is eager to dispel the idea that his work should give comfort to Libertarians in their critiques of the state, even if the Libertarians at the CATO institute seem to disagree and offered a published volume in his honor (Scott n.d.).

In terms of offering a final answer for the question of why states arose, given the factors Scott arrays against them, readers may not be satisfied with the lack of a tidy solution. What he suggests, as discussed above, is a combination of force and chance which led to the possibility of states being successful given the degree of human exploitation, disease and general misery that they imposed. So Against the Grain doesn’t directly address questions of how inequality might have arisen, although Scott’s approach typically, in giving credit to the understandings of the oppressed, tends to suggest less of a role for hegemony (in the sense of consent of the governed) or false consciousness (thought not, as noted, unintended consequences).

The value of Against the Grain, then, lies not in its providing radically new theories or new data on the old question of the origin of the state. It is rather Scott’s synthesis of current existing materials and approaches that food studies and other scholars may find most useful. In particular, Scott reveals how these materials can be read in terms of the critique of state abstraction processes, and the lengths many people have gone to avoid or to thwart them—themes he made famous in his earlier work.[5] The focus on abstraction and legibility is certainly all the more relevant to the monocultures and general commodification of agriculture that we are familiar with from the legacy of the Green Revolution and the ongoing demands of contemporary capitalism.[6] Against the Grain helps us to see this as also part of a broader struggle of the very long durée.

References

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. 2009 The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott, James C., et. al.  n.d.. Seeing Like A State: A Conversation with James C. Scott. Cato Unbound Series. Cato Institute.

Wengrow, David, and David Graeber. “Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’: Ritual, Seasonality, and the Origins of Inequality.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21: 597-619.

Wilson, Peter Lamborne. 2016. “Abdullah Ocalan.” In Dilar Dirik et. al (eds). To Dare Imagine: Rojava Revolution, pp. 33-42. New York: Autonomedia.
[1] https://gizmodo.com/discovery-of-14-000-year-old-toast-suggests-bread-can-b-1827631358

[2] This is where Scott’s argument can also be seen in relation to neoliberalism and its regimes of audit and assessment which he explicitly critiques in education (see Scott 2012)

[3] See, e.g., Wilson (2012) which draws a line from Ancient Sumer to contemporary anarchist movements in Northern Syria.

[4] In which he includes small farmholders and artisans.

[5] Scott 1998, 2009

[6] Themes that he has also explored in Seeing Like a State.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, archaeology, Origins of the State