Category Archives: anthropology of food

Review: Puer Tea

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Jinghong Zhang. University of Washington Press. 2014

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University)

Many scholars believe that the province Yunnan, in southwest China, is one of the most important places in the history of Chinese domestic tea-producing. The ethnic minority groups in Yunnan started cultivating tea about one thousand years ago, but it was in the last two centuries that Han migrants became involved in tea trading and made Puer—a unique type of tea to the region—well known to inland China. The tea is named after a town that was then the center to Puer tea trading in southern Yunnan and is one of six categories of Chinese tea. The writer Zhang, who was born and raised in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, has been familiar with Puer tea since her childhood. Perhaps this underlies her later interest in studying Puer tea: after she realized Puer tea’s growing popularity, and especially the rapid soaring and plummeting of trading prices in the Puer tea market in 2007, she became deeply interested. In tracing the “detailed social biography” of Puer tea, Zhang set out from Yiwu, Yunnan, where tea is produced for several other Chinese cities (e.g. her main research site Kunming). She planned to study its “packaging and unpacking process”—a “jianghu” culture developed around the theme of “handcraft authenticity” (2015:9).

As Zhang explains in her introduction, jianghu, literally means “river (jiang)” and “lake (hu)”[1]; it is often used as an analogical concept in Chinese folklore (related to fantasy novels of martial arts, or more precisely wuxia[2] portraits) and literature, describing a world outside of state governance. This creates a set of implicit yet practical rules and common understandings of righteousness, morality, and authenticity by leading heroes (or xiake[3] in Chinese, similar to vigilantes/knights) and their people. In the following chapters, combining approaches from anthropology and ethnography with unique Chinese concepts such as jianghu, Zhang shows us how the different actors and intrinsic features in the world of Puer tea resembles the world of jianghu in Chinese culture, reflecting current consumer culture and business practices in modern China. The book also presents a complicated picture of contradictions people face in regard to new forms of individuality, social relations, intellectual pursuit, cultural and national characters, and so forth in today’s Chinese society.

Puer Tea consists of an introduction, eight chapters—featuring the theme of four seasons which parallels a yearly cycle of tea producing—and a concluding chapter. While tea as a plant grows as the seasons change, it is also a well-known tenet that human life should follow the seasonal rhythms. The two chapters of “Spring” depict the production of Puer tea as a “sprouting” phase for the book in Yunnan: Zhang introduces the history of Puer tea in southern Yunnan in general by exploring the reconstruction of the “tradition” of raw Puer tea in Yiwu, with specific discussion on the construction of authenticity of Yiwu’s raw Puer tea. Furthermore, by telling captivating ethnographic stories, she sheds light on the aspects valued by consumers and producers who admire Yiwu tea: contrasting the features of Yiwu Puer raw tea with “the other”—the artificially-fermented Puer tea that is produced in much shorter time from Menghai. She shows how both the local and the nonlocal constructed their identities through the making of “imagined originality” which proves its authenticity (53). Further, she addresses the challenges producers in Yiwu are facing while the demand of their Puer tea grows. Indeed, as she points out, the business of Puer tea is like “the world of jianghu,” as it can further reveal aspects of modern Chinese culture as a close-up and condensed version of the transformation the entire society is going through. For example, she addresses the concerns about authenticity of Puer as an aspect of Chinese-style individualism:

Though not a dominant theme in Chinese history, individualism does exist and is quite evident in certain contexts, as in the case of jinaghu actors, whether in reality or in martial arts fiction, Chinese to act bravely in trying situations and to find their own solutions with their own special skills. If the factors affecting the “original aura” of Puer tea production are read as the social distinctions and counterforce among jianghu individuals, such anxiety over authenticity appears to be rooted in conflicting desires activated in the Reform era and by rising commoditization (76).

Thus, as Zhang discusses in this book, although the current official regulations for Puer tea may not be sufficient to eradicate the counterfeits, the competition between multiple jianghu voice for the standard of authenticity has filled the gap and in turn influenced the market in a variety of ways.

The following two chapters of the “Summer” section explain the convoluted relationship of the name “Puer” as a place claimed to be the original/authentic representation of Puer tea, while the controversy of what is authentic Puer remains a topic for discussion. Zhang introduces the debate about the origin of Puer tea between Simao and Xishuangbanna from multiple perspectives. For instance, while contention between these two areas remains central to the local development, it is “unnecessary” on a provincial level. Both areas are in the Yunnan province, and most consumers and even tea experts accept Puer tea from “Yunnan” without making distinctions within that geographical designation. Thanks to the success of Puer tea, the history of Ancient Tea-House Road has also been revisited recently by the Chinese public. The home of Puer tea, as Zhang summarizes, is “transregionally authenticated and multiply imagined” (103). Similarly, while the economic and geopolitical forces transform the definition and packaging of Puer tea, there are also consumer voices evaluating Puer tea and demanding clarifications of the quality standards. These ongoing debates, such as the “heating up” and “cooling off” of Puer tea as a result of “hastened transformation” and the coexisting desire “to package Puer tea” and “unpack it,” resemble the jianghu Zhang proposes, embodying contentions, constructions, and negotiations among different actors in different social contexts (120).

The remorse of autumn is a common theme in Chinese literature. In the autumn section (chapter 5 & 6), Zhang investigates the local families involved in the private tea business. Through ethnographic materials, Zhang shows how the preferences of consumers in Taiwan affect the changes in Yiwu, and thus profoundly transformed Yiwu’s local culture. In the jianghu of Puer tea, the standards of the valued and the appreciated “are open to the influence of history” (141). Many local families had stopped other activities such as raising livestock, growing rice, or producing soy sauce, dedicating their time and energy in the Puer tea business instead, which brought them better income. At the same time, similar to the fair-trade coffee business in Rincón (Mexico), Daniel Jaffee discusses in “Brewing Justice,” the potential price fluctuation for products such as coffee and Puer tea can be quite unpredictable and therefore dangerous to family businesses. In the time of the coffee crisis, the sudden plummeting of coffee prices had greatly changed the producers and their families’ lives (2014). In the case of Puer, people have encountered a recession of the market in 2007, which leads to another process of transformation in local practices that Zhang proposes best described by the Chinese concept hua.

In traditional Chinese philosophy, the concept of hua refers to “ubiquitous transformation.” In the jianghu context of Puer tea, Zhang argues that hua “intrinsically indicates the strategies and settlements employed by multiple actors to transform an unsatisfying situation into a comparatively more satisfying one (145).” For instance, people use “chenhua” to refer to the “aging” or “fermentation” process in storage, which transforms “the astringent feature of raw Puer tea” into “a mild, smooth quality” (145). Despite the lack of the government’s effective supervision, a practice such as chenhua allows local people to redefine the authenticity of Puer “flexibly and pragmatically,” recontexualizing and transforming local pragmatic strategies.

The last section of the book, Winter, presents tea tasting events in teahouses in Kunming (complemented by the films she recorded). Zhang was most elaborate on the one organized by Sanzui (one of the most influential tea websites in China), which discusses whether the aged Puer tastes better and what condition it should be stored in to produce the best taste, in order to resolve the “battle” taking place on the Internet (their website) about the issue. According to Zhang, the tasting is more about human interaction (human space) than the supposed thematic tea storage space on site. In her analysis, she proposes that this event touched on “multiple layers of space.” For example, the space for the topic of this event—the tea storage space and the site where the tasting actually took place—the teahouse, are two layers of space she mentions. What is interesting to me is the role of cyber space: it was the cyber space where all these people first discussed Puer tea, which then turned into a debate that made it seem necessary and possible to hold this event in the teahouse. Further, the sensorial information of the event was recorded in the form of photos and articles posted on the website, and the discussion of the tasteful experience in the event also flourished on the website later that day, instead of an immediate discussion at the site of tasting. These interesting facts reflected how people constructed their identity in the real-life tasting event quite differently than they would have on cyber spaces. At the same time, we could also see the sensorial representation of the actual event on the internet as another dimension of the actual tasting event—people could post their pictures and comments to the website in the tasting session and also read other posts. In a way, it is quite similar to the function of social media ten years from then, which also makes me wonder what the tasting would be like today with the prevalence of the social media. I imagine most of the people would post pictures and videos on site to their WeChat moments (in Chinese, it literally means the “friend circle” among one’s contacts, and mostly consists of the friends in one’s life. Almost everyone has access to their WeChat and Wechat Moment[4] at any point on their phone, as long as the phone can use cellular data), which can reach almost any Chinese in theory. Many business like Sanzui and organizations have their official account on WeChat in order to take advantage of the access to the immense user market.

Zhang’s Puer Tea provides a rich and multi-perspective ethnographic account of the jianghu of Puer tea in China in the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially in connecting the packaging and unpacking of different actors in the process of “making” and transforming the authenticity of Puer tea. By investigating into a variety of narrations and representations, Zhang presents us a snapshot of contemporary China where debates and contentions are constant and ever-changing.

Jaffee, Daniel, 2014.  Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. Berkeley Univ of California Press.

[1] The Chinese character for jiang is “江” ; hu is “湖.”

[2] Chinese: 武侠

[3] Chinese: 侠客

[4] Wechat (微信) is an instant massaging app in China. Wechat moment is a social media platform in this app. People can post pictures, videos and messages to their friend circles and read others’ posts in it.

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Meal Kits: Our Culinary Future?

photo of a toast

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont

Americans spend more and more money on food prepared outside the home, and every day cooking becomes more episodic and less linked to gender and domestic obligations. Your grandmother would be surprised by your dinner preparations whether she was born in 1900, 1920, 1940 or 1960, whether she was or is a good cook, a terrible cook, a happy cook, a hostile cook.  At the same time, she would also find much that is familiar, especially the cycle of organizing, shopping, cooking and cleaning up. The past 50 years have borne witness to major social, economic and technological transformations to an obligatory chore. Highlighting the broad transformations and the immediate realities of making a meal is a new intervention in addressing the demands of everyday cooking – meal kits – that would intrigue anyone’s grandmother. You can now purchase all the components of a designed meal – the recipe along with the portioned ingredients – and have them delivered to your house. Although in the United States each meal kit service promises uniqueness – we’re vegan! Our packaging is compostable! We source locally! – there is a similar structure to all of them (for example, Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh, Chefd ). The customer either subscribes to the service or orders individual meals from an online platform that provides a diverse array of meals to choose from. The ingredients and recipes are delivered to your home. But then you transform it from the raw to the cooked.

Are meal kits our future? My own research is preliminary but intriguing. In 2016, in the midst of finishing my book Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today, a University of Vermont undergraduate, Adelaide Cummings, approached me after a lecture on the topic about her interest in doing an honor’s thesis exploring these. I had been following the launch of Blue Apron and Purple Carrot with great interest. Why not? We worked together to create a feasible pilot project, combining a qualitative experiment with non-users of meal kits (providing a week of meals and doing follow up interviews) with a quantitative survey of consistent users of them (providing a combination of open ended and multiple-choice questions). By the end of this small research project, we were cautiously confident that meal kits are here to stay.

We who do research on food and nutrition should investigate meal kits – their very existence reveals our cultural preoccupations and our culinary navigations. But they might also have predictive power, providing a window into the cooks and eaters we may become, serving as a talisman in a story of transformation to our everyday lives. Meal kits signal our on-going liberation from a long-standing reality: that in order to feed and nourish, first someone must prepare the meal. In 1960, Americans, on average, spent 80% of their food dollars on foods to be prepared inside the home. By 2015, that expenditure was down to 50%. What will we be doing in 2060? If meal kits allow us to create the cultural object we desire – a meal that nourishes and nurtures and comes from somewhere known, an endeavor that involves some effort but not much planning, a result that tastes good and not boring, repetitive or bland – then by 2060 they just might be the new normal.

The idea and the entrepreneurial activity to realize this idea are distinctly 21st century. The idea, interestingly, originated in Sweden, a nation and culture held up in the United States as a model of work/life balance, but where even so, making dinner every night can be a chore. The ‘invention’ is credited to Kristina Theander, a Swedish project manager interested in helping families figure out the ‘life puzzle’ of every day family activities. She launched Middagsfrid, which delivered bags of groceries with recipes to people’s doors in Stockholm; the business has expanded to deliver throughout multiple countries in Europe (Case Study) The first business in the United States based on delivering the components of a meal to be prepared at home was Blue Apron, founded in 2012 by three tech entrepreneurs. Other entrepreneurs (and now major companies such as Amazon) jumped into the game and now American companies generate over 1.5 billion dollars a year in sales of meal kits (See articles in the NY Times and Business Insider) .

Meal kits can be construed as a convenience product, but do they fall into the same category as frozen dinners and take away rotisserie chicken? The ingredients are compiled together in a warehouse and distribution center and then shipped in a cardboard box, ultimately delivered to the customer’s home. Each box contains ingredients that have been pre-measured and sometimes prepped for that specific recipe, as well as a recipe card with pictures to walk customers through the cooking process. Many companies, including Blue Apron, offer instructional videos for subscribers to learn different cooking skills that may appear in the recipes they receive.

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, July 12, 2018

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Is there such thing as “American cuisine”? This is the sort of question that can sustain long discussions over drinks and snacks among food studies folks or endless panels at conferences, like last year’s Slow Food Nations in Denver. Ruth Tobias provides an overview of the deliberations, more or less in time for the conference this year. One may quibble with the details here, the strange absence of the concept of “creole” foods, or even wonder why the existence of an American cuisine matters…but this is nevertheless an interesting read.

While we are trying to associate societies and cultures with cuisines, this article, by Kyle Fitzpatrick at Eater.com, explores the existence of “queer food.” I have to admit, when I first started to read it I was skeptical. There are restaurants and bars frequented by LGBTQ people, of course, and certainly many LGBTQ cooks, chefs, etc. But how could there be something distinctive about the food? And yet, as a kind of holistic anthropological approach to a wide range of practices, ranging from the campy to kinship, from rituals to recipes, and much more, Fitzpatrick makes a convincing argument for Queer culinary culture. This is a very good essay and could be used effectively in all kinds of classes. Also, my colleague D’Lane Compton is cited.

There are cuisines—and peoples—that have faced persecution, genocide, and efforts to erase their trace from history. Reasserting their cuisines can be a way to revive historical foodways, but can also provide a context for difficult discussions about history, power, racism, and more. In this article from Eater.com, Suzanne Cope looks at the work of a group called the I-Collective in New York. Organized by indigenous activists from different parts of North America, the group uses food and cooking to explore indigenous foodways, but also to spark difficult conversations. As Hillel Echo-Hawk, a member of the group, says in the article, “People don’t like it when you call them a colonizer, and people don’t like it when you bring up genocide when you sit down and are having dinner. And… we do that.”

There may be trends in what people want to eat, but there are a lot of people, so keep in mind that a lot of them are not following the trends. That is one lesson we learn when David Brancaccio and Daniel Shin, of Marketplace, interview Jeff Harmening, the CEO of General Mills, about the way the corporation adapts to American food trends and tastes. This is fascinating. Harmening points out that rather than going in one direction—away from cereal for breakfast, for instance—American tastes go in a lot of different directions at once. Also, people still eat Lucky Charms for the marshmallows and still like Bugles. Bugles! Now that is something I have not had in a while.

Meanwhile, the state of the world’s fisheries is clearly something that should concern us. In this article, Livia Albeck-Ripka explores the somewhat counter-intuitive impacts of climate change on the lobster fishery in Maine. Boom, then possibly bust. Terry Gross interviews Paul Greenberg, who has written a new book about the Omega-3 supplement industry, revealing some very disturbing facts about a variety of fisheries. The same Paul Greenberg comments here on the difficulties we face if we want to eat local seafood, pointing in particular to a recent scandal involving a company that purported to do just that. Finally, as Congress considers reauthorizing and amending fisheries legislation, Marcus Jacobs, a New Orleans chef, weighs in with some insights into the relationship between the management of fisheries and restaurants.

The ongoing crackdown on immigration by the Trump administration has been having an especially severe impact on agriculture. Farmers are struggling in many places to find workers. In this article from Mother Jones, Maddie Oatman explores some of the current and potential impacts of these policies for wine makers in California. Mechanization is one possibility, although there are limits to how well that would work for smaller wine makers. Specific visa programs are also available, but the implications for workers and their families are shocking. Although much of the debate in the US has been about undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants, the deeper and more important question of managing immigration in general is made concrete in this article.

As recently as the 1920s, 14% of American farmers were black. Today they make up less than 2% of the farming population. In this article from Vice, Lauren Rothman explores the history of government supported discrimination against black farmers. She also looks into organized efforts by black farm activists to turn this around.

There was a great deal of surprise expressed last week when the U.S. used strong-arm tactics to try to modify or suppress a nonbinding resolution on breastfeeding that was being considered by the World Health Organization. In this article from the Atlantic, Olga Khazan explores the history of the cultural battle over advocating for breast milk. Industry advocates for formula play a role, but there are more complexities and a longer time frame then one might think.

It is summertime and it is hot, so you probably need a refreshing drink. Perhaps a Tom Collins? It turns out that this classic cocktail is in fact named after a man…and his name was not Tom Collins. It is a surprising tale. To learn more, listen to the latest episode of the Drink & Learn podcast, which features drinks historian Elizabeth Pearce and bartender Abigail Gullo. Pearce writes drink history, but is also a cocktail-focused tour guide and speaker here in New Orleans. Gullo leads the bar at Compère Lapin, a wonderful restaurant, also in New Orleans.

Last note, this one referring to what FoodAnthropology intends to read, but really has not read yet. The Southern Foodways Alliance suggests James Hannaham’s most recent novel, Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, and Company, 2015) as a summer read. To accompany that, they are going to publish a series of postings on their blog. Also, their fall symposium will have a focus on food and literature and Hannaham will speak there. Even if you are not planning on attending, this looks like a good read. Maybe we can get a food anthropologist to write something about the novel for us too.

 

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Col(LAB) on Food, Risk and Privilege

by Annie Sheng, Cornell University

We experience the world and our food with all our senses, so why not get tactile as we discuss risk and privilege in relation to food? Princeton University’s Col(LAB)—a product of the synergetic confluence of collaborations between the Program in American Studies, the CST StudioLab and the Princeton Food and Agriculture Initiative—immerses participants in the intersecting spatial realms of classrooms, farmer’s markets, food pantries and dining hall kitchens to bring together various perspectives on pressing food issues through a venture involving “creativity and the unexpected,” said Anne Cheng, Professor of English and Director of American Studies. While the concepts of risk and privilege were left relatively open for interpretation, through interactive experiences, participants come together to understand how economic (in)stability, food (un)safety and social stratification may affect personal, everyday habits and decisions surrounding food. Participants included faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, staff, dining chefs, nutritionists and experts from within and beyond Princeton University.

The three-day workshop started off with a visit to the farmer’s market. Participant teams were tasked with purchasing food for a family of four within limited budget constraints. After interacting with fresh produce vendors, cheesemongers, various sellers and campus dining representatives at the farmer’s market, participants sported pens and texts and gathered to discuss readings on risk and privilege. We prepared analyses that interrogated issues of food production technologies, interspecies dependencies and slow food, drawing from writing by Allison Carruth, Anna Tsing, Angela N. H. Creager and Jean-Paul Gaudillière.

We all were asked to bring a food-related artifact, something that speaks of our own relationship to food to create a jumping off point for engaging in the questions of risk and privilege. Such personal artifacts ranged from coffee to eggs to soy-based cosmetics, as well as non-edibles such as a food scale, a mortar and pestle and a reusable water bottle. We talked of preservation and mechanical reproduction encapsulated in a can of cranberry sauce, the entitlement entailed in a jar of gourmet polenta and the caloric emptiness and capitalistic symbolism of a can of Diet Coke. For example, Tessa L. Desmond noted, “Soda companies have changed their marketing strategies to target low income neighborhoods, and kids in particular. Now it’s kind of like the suburbs. We’re vacating fast food and soda like we’ve vacated the cities for the suburbs…” The central concepts of privilege and risk framed these diverse personal food items and our conversation considered the scales of safe-to-dangerous, pure-to-toxic, sustainable-to-polluting, healthy-to-unhealthy and delicious-to-unpalatable.

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The conversation also turned to issues of culture and identity. What risks might be inherent in transmitting generationally the sense of culture through the vessel of a preserved egg—with some packages labeled lead-free and some, noticeably, not? How can and do ideas about maintaining a sense of cultural identity trump potential health risks?

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Review: Food Parcels in International Migration

Food Parcels in International Migration: An Intimate View. Diana Mata-Codesal and Maria Abranches (Eds.) Palgrave 2017.

Rhian Atkin (Cardiff University)

The prospect of a book dedicated to research on the ways in which food and food-related items circulate within and across geopolitical borders, and are used to maintain old affective ties and establish new ones, is exciting. The coming together of foodways research and migration studies holds the potential for us to understand more deeply the ways in which material cultures may support settlement of individuals in places that are new to them. From such understanding, more may be done to support those who migrate, as well as the communities into which they migrate. As such, the title of Food Parcels in International Migration holds great promise, suggesting even the development of methodological and analytical frameworks that could be used in the study of food parcels specifically. The subtitle, “intimate connections” points to the ethnographic approaches that underpin each of the eight chapters which, along with the editors’ introduction, are collected in this book.

The eight chapters employ a variety of methods to their studies of how individuals send and receive food in migration contexts, from a reflective autoethnography, to multi-sited fieldwork that makes use of observational and interview methods. Through all of the chapters, it is clear that, for people who migrate, food becomes crucial to the elaboration of their identities as migrants. It is equally important to the maintenance of old social and family relationships as well as to the establishment of new affective ties. As chapters 3 and 4 reveal, however, the sending of food by family members is not without its tensions, even as it is a means of expressing love. The circulation of comestibles by and among migrants may also be a way to elaborate and (re)produce knowledge and traditions from their place of origin, as two articles on migration from West Africa to Europe show (chapters 7 and 8). Specific ingredients might be revealing of the changes in their own food practices that people who migrate experience (chapters 3 and 6), including being a way to show hospitality and share in the life of those who remain in the place of origin (chapters 6 and 7). The affective facets of flavour, and the preciousness of the taste of home for those who can perceive it, are also covered, and in some detail, in chapters 2 and 8.

The editors’ introduction underlines the focus of the book as a whole on the materiality of maintaining contact across borders, and the ways in which migrants are connected to distinct places at once. Mata-Codesal and Abranches make a convincing argument for the book and seek to cast a certain level of cohesion on what is perhaps a somewhat disconnected   collection of articles. It is a pity that the editors do not seek to define what is understood by “food parcels”: the concept is used very loosely in some chapters, with “parcels” seemingly referring to anything from jars of ajvar (a paste widely used in South-East Europe) to the supply of ingredients to Mexican restaurants in the USA. The introduction also sets out the rationale for the organisation of the volume into three sections: the first on “Food, Identity and Belonging”; the second on “Transnational Kinswork”; and the final section on “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”.

Some chapters in particular are well worthy of note for researchers in the field, and stand out in terms of the approach taken and the rigour of the research:

Raquel Ajates Gonzalez stresses, as do a number of the contributors to the book, a sense of continuity across borders in chapter 3: “Thank you for the Cured Meat, but is it Grass-fed? Contested Meanings of Food Parcels in a New Nutrition Transition”. Gonzalez draws out some of the tensions that emerge through food gifts, using a reflective, auto-ethnographic account of the author’s reception of parcels that include traditional hams and sausages sent to her from family in Spain. In her new environment, where she is both surrounded by and immersed in food concerns around health, sustainability, care and waste, these gifts take on a greater significance in both harking back to the person she was prior to migration and showing up the gaps in continuity of those family relationships which either don’t respond to, or are unaware of, the person she is now. In this captivating account of receiving three food parcels embedded in a solid and convincingly argued scholarly framework that draws on epidemiological nutrition transition theory, Gonzalez brings to light the various shifts in meaning that food items undergo in transit, and the contradictions, values, anxieties and pleasures that food parcels bring to light at the same time as they maintain the relationship between senders and recipient.

Part III, dealing with “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”, is the most revealing section of the book. Chapter 7: “West African Plants and Prayers in the Netherlands: Nourishment through Visible and Invisible substances” focuses on Islamic esoteric knowledge and practices made possible for Senegalese and other West African migrants in Europe by the transport and circulation of plants from West Africa in informal networks. Like some of the other articles in this volume, the author, Amber Gemmeke, could be more explicit about food parcels; nonetheless, it is clear that Marabouts and other migrants are reliant on the items that are transported by, for and between migrants, and that the material practices of herbal medicine are made possible by them. In this way, both the plants themselves and the people (Marabouts) who travel with them and perform esoteric rituals both in West Africa and in Europe act as a force to bridge geographical distance and facilitate settlement and feelings of continuity.

The affective resonance of foods and items relating to food is also the focus of Tiago Silveiro de Oliveira’s outstanding chapter 8: “Inkuminda di Téra: the Informal Circulation of Cabo Verdean Food Products”. This study focuses on Cabo Verdean migrants in Lisbon and their various interactions with foodstuffs – as transporters of food parcels and as consumers and producers of Cabo Verdean foods. This wide-ranging chapter touches on numerous key issues, from the ways in which architecture can change foodways, to the importance of objects of repeated use in producing stability and comfort in the migratory process, to the connections and relationships sustained and established through the transport of food, to the effects of affective associations on how people taste. Oliveira’s rigorous chapter is rooted in deep scholarship and draws extensively and productively on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Cova da Moura and Zambujal, two districts of Lisbon.

Read as a whole, Food Parcels repeatedly shows up the centrality of food and food-related items to the migratory experience, despite some variation in the quality, depth and rigour of individual chapters. Throughout the volume, food is shown to take on values that go well beyond nourishment, sustaining relationships, producing tensions, producing continuity, revealing separation from the place of origin. It is a pity that the editors chose to give the volume such a specific title, for this creates expectations and produces a sense of disorientation, at least for me, when not all of the articles focus on food parcels, and when this term, so central to the title and introduction, is never really defined. Many of the chapters, which seem somewhat disconnected in this specific context, would make more sense placed together under a different broad title for the volume. It is also a surprise, given the title, that there is no attention at all paid to food parcels in emergency contexts – particularly given the international refugee crisis that continues to leave displaced people reliant on food chosen for them by others. The geographical scope of the volume is, in fact, somewhat limited: of eight chapters, two focus on Filipino migrants (both of these chapters are based on fieldwork   from a decade ago, with one being a summary of material already published elsewhere); two on West Africans in Europe; three on intra-European migrations, and one on Mexicans in the USA. Given the range of possibilities that a volume on Food Parcels in International Migration ought to present, it is a real pity that the editors did not choose to commission a wider-ranging (and, in some cases, more up-to-date) set of contributions. In their introduction, the editors lament the lack of “solid, analytical frames through which to look at the relationship between food and migration”, and the potential for this volume as a whole to contribute to providing such frameworks is disappointingly unrealised. Nonetheless, the Introduction provides a review of relevant literature that is surely useful to scholars and students alike, and there is no doubt that the collection provides useful resources for more experienced scholars working on food and migration, who are able to overlook the rather unrepresentative title, distractingly frequent errors in English usage, and certain articles whose conclusion is unconvincing. These concerns aside, the volume does work together despite itself, in its collective uncovering of some of the ways that food is used in migratory processes and in the refreshing focus on individual stories. The pleasure of reading approaches to autoethnography such as Gonzalez’s or the solid and original work of Oliveira and Gemmeke on West Africans in Europe provide highlights and moments of inspiration for food researchers.

 

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, May 31, 2018

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

It is summer, so we are going to begin with something light, at least in spirit, if not in substance. Boston Cream pie, it seems, is under attack. And it really isn’t pie anyhow. Alert SAFN member (and frequent FoodAnthropology contributor) Ellen Messer sent us this story of scandal, outrage, and culinary history, which is by Kara Baskin, writing in the Boston Globe.

On a related pie/cake note, you should read this wonderful piece from the Oxford American by SAFN’s very own student representative, Kelly Alexander. It is the story of half a cake, includes Rick Bragg and Pat Conroy, southern manners, and Jewish wit. And, Kelly, pick up the phone. We want to know.

We eat red beans here in New Orleans, as everyone knows, but sometimes we also eat white beans and black beans. There are a lot more beans out there, as this great article by Burkhard Bilger, writing for The New Yorker, indicates. The focus is on Rancho Gordo, a company that searches out and distributes a huge range of bean varieties, mostly from Mexico. Questions of cultural appropriation, fair trade, and even implications of anthropology are raised. Good read.

While the Rancho Gordo folks source beans from very specific places in Mexico, your local baker in the U.S. is unlikely to be able to source wheat from particular farms. The desire for locally-sourced grain hits something of a wall in the enormous sea of commodity wheat, as Amy Halloran explains in this article from The New Food Economy. This is a fascinating example of the economics of mass grain production versus the growing desire for local products.

In contrast to the problems faced by bakers who want local wheat, public school systems have not been especially picky about where they source their ingredients for school lunches. In this article, from The Nation, Anna Lappé and Jose Oliva argue that they should. They suggest that school lunch makers should attend to more than the bottom line and should make an effort to source ingredients in ways that “promotes public health, community well-being, animal welfare, social justice, and environmental protection.” Citing the example of the Good Food Purchasing Program, developed in Los Angeles, but now used in other cities as well, they show how this approach can achieve their goals. Curiously, and in contrast to the piece above about commodity wheat, they cite a claim that over 80% of the bread products used in LA schools now come from “California-grown, sustainably produced wheat.” Want to chase that number down? Visit this site.

Circling back to globalization, in this article from Civil Eats, Stephanie Strom writes about new processes for extending the life of foods that must be transported long distances. Beginning with cassava, which can be used to make gluten-free tortillas, she focuses on the development of “an all-natural, virtually invisible coating” from Apeel Sciences that can preserve produce. The idea is to help small farmers in a variety of countries get access to foreign markets.

The famous Balti cooking of Birmingham may be vanishing. The reasons range from generational shifts among the owners (the children of Pakistani immigrants do not necessarily want restaurant careers), to changing tastes among British diners, and more. Daniel Stephen Homer and Natalie Grover explore these issues in this article, from Atlas Obscura.

Everything that happens in society seems to happen in restaurants. This is especially true of the growing opioid addiction crisis. In this article from Nation’s Restaurant News, Gloria Dawson explores the ways restaurants are choosing to address the issue. Some have taken to keeping naloxone shots on hand for anyone who needs it. Others are training their staff to deal with overdoses and providing resources for those with addiction issues. The article points out that this is both a staff and customer issue.

Co-operative organization of workplaces has long been an alternative to the usual way businesses are owned and managed. Given all the social issues confronted by restaurants, could co-operative ownership and management help? In this article from Eater, Brenna Houck explores the question. There are several intriguing examples, including bakeries, coffeeshops, and breweries, and mention of useful organizations, like the Democracy at Work Institute.

Apparently everyone in America is on a special diet. Paleo, Keto, Whole 30, not all of which we have heard of here at FoodAnthropology. In this article from the Washington Post, Sophie Egan looks at why this is. Ironically, it seems that a lot of people are following fad diets because they believe that their bodies are unique. Also, people do not trust what they read in newspapers about nutrition, so they read articles about fad diets (in newspapers) and follow them. Yes, this is why we need social science.

We started this with something light and that is the way we will finish. In this lovely short piece by the New York Times’ Samin Nosrat, she describes leaving her mother’s Iranian cooking behind in order to learn all about Italian pasta, only to eventually cook her way back home by bringing the two culinary cultures together. You will enjoy reading this.

 

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Residences, Rentals and Redolent Delectables: Women entrepreneurs and the Japanese baking industry

WomenEntrepreneurship

By Annie Sheng, Cornell University

In one baking school in Yokohama, I wait as my bread dough rises. The instructor serves me mochi (pounded rice cake) that she had placed atop an electric furnace and it had expanded, ballooning into a crispy, yet gooey warm snack. We sip tea. She talks to me about the baking instruction business until it is time to pound and shape the dough for Japanese curry bread again. We chat as we work. Then I’m startled – the door opens.

Her kids pop in, coming home from school.

This instructor’s school-home is one of many such establishments started by women entrepreneurs in the food industry. With a hyper-aged population and strict immigration laws, labor is a particularly critical and thorny issue in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has pushed to increase productivity through the presence of more women in the workforce, using the catchphrase “Womenomics” to promote his policies. As these macroeconomic policies and issues inform, affect and transform the perception of employment in Japan, female agency in food entrepreneurship also operates under these concerns and pressures. These businesses provide ways in which women can traverse the (perhaps fuzzy but albeit socially existent) line between domestic and career endeavors and aspirations.

In my multi-year fieldwork in Japan, I interviewed various actors: wheat farmers, wheat marketers, bakers, bread consumers, and others throughout East Asia and the US as I conducted research touching on critical aspects of food and foodways, such as food safety, trade policies, global economics, gender, nationalism, identity, morality, commensality and social meaning.

In Japan, I traversed residential neighborhoods and walked up stairs to apartments to learn to bake as part of participant observation. These homes-turned-professional-kitchens are cultural spaces of gender reproduction, knowledge dissemination and social gathering. While some of the female baking instructors I’ve encountered teach also male clients, the students are predominantly female. I have met instructors who only cater to female students and do not accept male students into their business-home, creating a specialized women-space for tutelage and food knowledge reproduction. This practice offers a venue where grievances, dreams, goals and news can be voiced in relative ‘comfort’ and ‘openness’ without perceived ‘outside’ judgment—and deepens a sense of empowerment and ‘sisterhood’ across age lines.

The Forbes article, “Why Japanese Girls Want To Be Bread Makers Rather Than Breadwinners” from earlier this year emphasizes the hold that the food and baking business has on young female conceptions: “For Japanese girls, food services (tabemonoya-san/食べ物屋さんsuch as bread-maker and baker remained at number one for the 21st year in a row.” Here the article stresses bread-making and baking—and although that does not encapsulate the whole of the food-purveying industry—it does capture the interest I see among women towards baking in Japan. While charismatic baking masters reaching celebrity status are often the likes of men (a disparity well documented in the chef/cook stereotype, for example see Druckman 2010), female baking enterprises take root regularly in overlooked spaces (—home spaces that remain somewhat hidden, unless one goes searching for them), in jūtakugai (residential) areas and out of foyers or repurposed living rooms. That’s not to say there are no female bakers employed in chain businesses or big bakeries, but rather, here I want to emphasize these smaller enterprises, run by women and too easily missed.

In my fieldwork, I have spoken with informants about how they converted their homes into bakeries and workshops, remodeling their kitchens and domestic spaces to accommodate for their entrepreneur aspirations and career goals. After this conversion, the labor for their profession isn’t over, but remains intensive— for instructors, they must lesson plan, prepare the ingredients, print and distribute recipes and not to mention the rigorousness of the actual class itself. They have to take into consideration mothers bringing their kids (as I saw one accompanying nine-month old tear off a remote-control holder from an electric fan at one bakery school-home)—or they must set up clear guidelines—for example, dictate policies that disallow children. They need to consider how to create clear access to the bathroom, while maintaining privacy for their own personal activities. The nature of their shared space requires them to consider the business and practical aspects of their culinary enterprise.

The first bakery class I mentioned above, the one on curry bread—the baking instructor told me that she has seen a big increase in these baking instruction “salons” operating out of homes. Baking as a pastime, in general, is becoming increasingly popular, and more women are capitalizing off this, contributing to this bakery home-school “boom,” as she calls it.

While I discuss female entrepreneurship in baking instruction and bread—there are many other small-scale food-related enterprises undertaken by female entrepreneurs. For example, I’ve participated in sushi decoration classes (rolling up sushi in a way that creates cartoon and/or designed cross-sections when cut). For these classes, the instructor rented out a part of a café to conduct her business activities. There are many enterprises like this, as these converted and rented spaces mean less initial capital and more flexibility for working women—“salons” where such savvy entrepreneurs can roll out their redolent delectables. For these women, salons provide a space for ‘safe’ and ‘open’ discourse while helping them achieve and bridge domestic and career-oriented ambitions. In Japan, home based entrepreneurship, especially with regard to salons and classes focused on food, an arena readily associated with female production, labor and knowledge, allows women to simultaneously fulfill domestic obligations and also to transcend them.

References

Adelstein, Jake. “Why Japanese Girls Want To Be Bread Makers Rather Than Breadwinners.” Forbes. January 11, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adelsteinjake/2018/01/11/why-japanese-girls-want-to-be-bread-makers-rather-than-breadwinners/.

Druckman, Charlotte. “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Gastronomica 10, no. 1 (2010): 24–31. https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2010.10.1.24.

Sheng, Annie. “Forging Ahead with Bread: Nationalism, Networks and Narratives of Progress and Modernity in Japan.” In Feeding Japan – The Cultural and Political Issues, by Andreas Niehaus and Tine Walravens, 191–224. Cham, CH: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Tagawa, Miyu. Chīsana pan’yasan, hajimemashita. Tokyo: Raichosha. 2013.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Japan