Category Archives: anthropology of food

Thesis Review: Tasting in Mundane Practices

Mann 2015_title page

 

Please note: As Associate Reviews Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory. Anna Mann. Ph.D. Thesis, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, Amsterdam. 2015.

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)

As an essential part of bodily experience, the cultural significance of taste can often be overlooked. While sensory science and food industry are typically interested in the physiological aspects of taste for practical reasons, the Western traditions of downgrading taste as only a bodily “sensation” may have affected the view of many social scientists—only in the last few decades did we start to look more intently into the role of taste from a cultural perspective. Indeed, a closer look at taste can reveal insights that may otherwise be ignored, as David Sutton (2010) proposes in his “gustemological” approach to culture. In her published dissertation Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory, Anna Mann adopts this approach, putting taste and tasting at the forefront of her study. Mann uses her ethnographic observations from three different everyday scenarios in various Western European countries in order to reveal and analyze what is happening in the process of tasting.

Tasting in Mundane Practices consists of five chapters. Mann introduces the topic by questioning the accounts of tasting by other social scientists, pointing out that tasting is influenced by the specific context a person exists in, and that it is not only a “physiological response” that takes place in the body, but also a simultaneous experience of the multi-sensorial qualities of the object being tasted. Instead of using “tasting as a vehicle to understand other matters” (17) as a student of Annemarie Mol, who is a leading figure in Science and Technology Studies, Mann takes the approach of “material semiotics” in this study. As Mann explains, this approach requires her to not take “tasting” for granted, rather, she starts by “not knowing what tasting is” so that she can focus on “tasting itself.” Tapping into the ethnographic data she gathered between 2009 and 2013 in Western European countries, in this first chapter, Mann sets the stage for an investigation of tasting: How is tasting accomplished in different practices?

From chapters two to five Mann describes a particular type of setting where tasting was happening. In the second chapter, Mann focuses her investigation on “physiological responses” by describing two sensory science laboratories’ experiments she observed between 2009 and 2011. While the first lab focused on flavor perception in chocolate liquids, the other one studied the relation between food intake and sensory qualities. Mann gives a detailed account of the design of both experiments. In addition, she attached excerpts of her fieldnotes for each lab, providing greater contexts for each observation. In the conclusion of this chapter, she summarizes what these two experiments have in common: they both enacted taste as “an object of science” yet one that is “staged in different versions of the bodily response” (47). In so doing, the researchers managed to tie their research to a set of “practical concerns:” To lab F, it is about optimizing the food product; to lab N, it is about how to prevent obesity (47).

In the third chapter, Mann focuses on particular moments of a family celebration event that took place in eastern Austria in June 2010, when the participants described the food they consumed as “schmeckt gut”— a German expression, which literally means “to taste good”. Taking the phrase schmeckt gut literally, she uses scenarios from her fieldwork as examples to discuss the three different modes of “ordering and organising” tasting: experiencing, socializing and processing food. She also suggests that despite the possibility of combining different approaches to investigate tasting, not all of these aspects are “equally relevant” in any particular moment. At the end of the chapter, Mann points out some challenges for ethnographic investigations of sensual engagement of participants in the future—how exclusions/inclusions are made in a “tasting together in difference” (71).

What, then, shapes people’s sensual engagement with food when they state schmeckt gut in different situations? In chapter three, Mann uses ethnographic data she collected from doctors, patients and nurses between 2009 and 2013 to the everyday life contrast with the theories on the contexts of taste from Pierre Bourdieu, Günter Wiegelmann, and Geneviève Teil, stating that none of these three contexts can apply to practices she observed (77). Instead, she argues that what is important to the experience of people’s sensual engagements with food in everyday life that lead to the comment of “schmeckt gut” is what she calls “mundane going-on”: the tasks and activities one was involved in “before, after and around eating” (83). Moreover, she also suggests some questions for contexts that could be further explored such as how different contexts relate to each other, and the possibility and challenge for us when we consider contexts as interventions.

In chapter four, she discusses tasting and subjective knowing, contrasting wine tasting with “mundane eating”. She uses examples from Teil’s works, which demonstrate that wine tasting is “a specific achievement”: the guides, trainings and tools for wine tasting help to “configure tasting as knowing” (109), where one needs to recognize particular colors, aromas and flavors in different wines in order to “pass a verdict” (109). Using examples from her fieldnotes, Mann states that the process of mundane tasting, however, highlights the fact that tasting is not about people “knowing” how to judge what they taste, rather, it “comes to flow over and blend into what happens before and afterwards” (114). People are not just “knowing subjects,” as they may “shift between different subject positions that imply a different relation to their food” or even “renounce being ‘a subject’ altogether” (122). In the convent Kloster Fahr, where food is shared among the collective, as Mann points out, nuns didn’t use expressions like “tasting good,” refraining from implications of differentiations. In this case of devotional living, “knowing and judging” can be even more insignificant. Instead, appreciating food is much more important. Here, as Mann puts it, “tasting dissolves into yet another way of being in a relation with God” (105).

In the final chapter, Mann briefly revisits the “strategy” of engaging with the four aspects of taste and tasting in different practices, which is the physiological response (chapter 2), the multi-sensory experience (chapter 3), contexts (chapter 4) and knowing (chapter 5). She argues that it is possible to “tease out differences between the ways in which tasting is part of mundane goings-on” (131). Mann also points out that in most of the situations she discusses in these chapters, English is not the primary language; thus, by bringing all these observations together, the tasting that has been crafted here is “a composite of various entities” (132) in different languages that would resonate with the English term “tasting”. In the end, Mann suggests possible directions for future studies that could build on this one—to further our understanding of “the good” when something “tastes good.”

Tasting in Mundane Practices offers an interesting set of ethnographic studies of tasting in different scenarios ranging from laboratory experiments to devotional eating, revealing how different aspects of tasting can point to different subjects in our understanding of culture. Particularly, her call for attention to the roles of contexts and “mundane goings-on” instead of more general and abstract concepts of tasting that some well-known previous works have suggested is worth further exploration. To researchers who are interested in studying the culture of taste, tasting, and everyday life, this book can help to spark ideas for new directions in future studies.

Reference

Sutton, D. E. (2010). Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39(1), 209-223.

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Review: Food in Cuba

Cover of Food in Cuba by Hanna Garth

Hanna Garth. Food In Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 232 pp. ISBN 9781503604629

Emily Yates-Doerr (Oregon State University/University of Amsterdam)

My plan was to review “Food in Cuba” from Havana. The Society for Medical Anthropology’s meetings were scheduled to be held there this March. I had dreams of sitting on a patio overlooking the Straits of Florida, book and pencil in hand, a spread of elote hallacas to tide me over while I worked. Hanna Garth writes about how Cubans refuse to lower their food standards, ever in “pursuit of a decent meal” as a part of their commitment to living a decent life. I wanted to observe this firsthand in some small way as I reviewed the book.

Then COVID-19 began to circulate globally.

In the United States, I heard news of public health failures. Workers without federally protected sick leave who had tested positive continued to show up at work, not wanting to risk losing their income or jobs. The food magazine Eater notes that “restaurants and delivery services are notoriously hostile to shift workers calling in sick,” creating ideal conditions for the virus to replicate.

Just before my flight departed I decided not to go. Conference organizers had not canceled the conference. Their email in the days leading up to the conference relayed a message of calm, “It is also reassuring to know that Cuba has a very strong epidemiological surveillance system built on a well-articulated primary health care system.” Friends already in Havana relayed the message that life in Cuba, where daily routines already contained a good deal of “existential uncertainty” (p. 18) seemed to be continuing on without heightened fear.

This was not the case where I was in the United States. A radiologist at a local US hospital told me of seeing scans of lungs full of fluid, while a nurse spoke of waiting rooms of patients with fevers and dry coughs. These patients were not being tested because there were not enough tests. Meanwhile, in nearby counties where children had tested positive for coronavirus, administrators had to keep schools open because children who lived deeply in poverty would go hungry without school lunches.

When I decided not to travel to Cuba, there were no reported cases of coronavirus where I live. What was being credibly reported was that years of gutting public infrastructures – health and otherwise – would soon be catching up with us.

In retrospect, it’s perhaps fitting that I acted out an epidemiological logic — practicing social distancing to discourage viral spread by not traveling — while reading and writing about Cuba, a country known for encouraging “self-sacrifice for the good of the collective” (p. 114). Garth’s book explores the daily life struggles and successes to lead a decent life in a place with one of the most effective community health programs in the world, but where there is also widespread “culinary discontent” (p. 160).

Food in Cuba is based on intensive ethnographic research with 22 families in Santiago de Cuba in 2010-2011 and follow-ups in the years since. As a method, Garth participated in what she calls “ingestive practices” (p. 23) of household food acquisition activities, spending roughly a month deeply immersed in each family’s activities. She complemented this deep engagement with interviews and life histories of more than 100 individuals who worked to find food in this small, powerful island country that lies in the heart of the global project of modernity.

One of the book’s most powerful contributions is to explode the myth that people in conditions of scarcity will eat whatever they can simply by virtue of their precarity. Instead, the participants of Garth’s study care deeply about the taste, quality, and provenance of their food. They spend tremendous energy provisioning ingredients that reflect their cultural and national identities and they maintain an “intensely emotional” connection to their meals (p. 46, 53). While the Cuban government celebrates that there is “no hunger in Cuba,” Garth shows how people will feel stressed, anxious, unsatisfied, and even traumatized when they cannot find appropriate food. Rice, for example, is both scarce and a necessary component of a ‘real’ meal. Without it, satisfaction is impossible.

Each chapter explores an aspect of the ‘politics of adequacy,’ a phrase Garth develops in reference to how Cubans prioritize relational aspects of eating alongside any evaluation of whether food quantities are “enough.” As she explains, “the framework of adequacy can account for what is necessary beyond basic nutrition, prompting us to ask not whether a food system sustains life, but whether it sustains a particular kind of living” (p. 5). Throughout the book’s five chapters she connects the politics of adequacy to a broader political lucha (struggle) to maintain a good life through arts of invention.

Driven by a feminist commitment to the analysis of power relations, the book unpacks how race, gender, sexuality, and class politics all effect the production and consumption of daily meals. Garth, with the skill of an expert chef, pays close attention to the quiet and unspoken details of food procurement to show how Cuban nationalism has always been tied to Cuban cuisine, with women shouldering the burdens of Euro-American colonialism and socialist revolution alike (p. 67). She offers a history of Cuba through stories of food access, where flavorful ajiaco stews mark sites of contested patriotism, and small cups of sugared coffee are filled with the paradoxes of sweetness and calamity (“We never have food, but we always have sugar, always” one informant tells her).

The text is full of thick descriptions of how people make meaning in times of political unrest and global extraction. Alongside stories of anxious scarcity and unevenly experienced fears of breakdown are stories of shave ice in the summer, or the whistles of pressure cookers on narrow-cobblestone alleys while the scents of garlic and onion waft through the air. One especially poignant vignette, set amid the slight intoxication of drinking cheap state-subsidized beer while people dance in the streets, describes the sadness and anger of a man sobbing at the reggaetón lyrics “Give me… a little bit of anything so I can feel happy. It could be a soda or a tube of roasted peanuts.” Life’s small mundane details, Garth shows us, are anything but insignificant.

Garth undertakes a careful critique of how ideals of “community” transforms in the shadows of global capitalism and international sanctions, showing how Santiago de Cuba remains stratified through the nexus of skin color, class, and culture, with often discriminatory effects on darker-skinned and LGBTQ+ Cubans. Promises of gender and racial equality may have launched Fidel Castro’s socialist platform into power, but she demonstrates that patriarchy remains a reigning force in the culinary lives of Cubans today (p. 163). Ethics of socialismo (socialism) frequently give way to practices of sociolismo, where people use personal networks to access private, illicit goods for their immediate family or themselves. One informant shares stories of putting locks on the cabinets of her own home as “community borrowing” morphed into outright theft (p. 132).

Food in Cuba is an excellent text for food studies classes at all levels (I plan to assign it in both undergraduate and graduate ‘anthropology of food’ courses). Garth offers a literary masterclass in how the analysis of food can help us understand social relations while the analysis of social relations can help us understand food. Foodies will appreciate the colorful descriptions of how quimbombó, boniato, plátanos, malanga, or chicharrones give rise to the “flows of daily life” (p. 167). In the process of reading about the cuisine they will learn broad political lessons about how people are luchando la vida (struggling to survive) in Cuba’s declining welfare society, where the influence of global capital looms large and state supports are disappearing.

A good deal of hope, resilience, and solidarity fills the pages of this slim and accessible book, but the final image offers an ominous warning about this moment of global fragility in which we are living: after hours of scouring for ingredients, Garth’s longtime Cuban friends managed to procure a delicious meal. The table in the photograph shows beefsteak, hand peeled potato-fries, cucumber-avocado salad, and those hallacas I’d been imagining when planning my trip to Cuba. It would be a joyous image except for one thing: the table is set for one. In a time when social solidarity is needed to get through crises, be they pandemic viruses or food scarcity, the image of the solitary place-setting speaks to me of the struggle for a decent meal yet to come.

 

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Review: Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet

Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet

Nico Slate. Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind. University of Washington Press. Seattle: 2019. 237 pp. ISBN 9780295744957 (hardcover: alk. paper.)

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Nico Slate has penned a marvelous and well-written book about Mahatma Gandhi from a unique perspective. He uses the prism of food, of how the Mahatma changed his diet—of what he ate and when-to campaign for political and philosophical ends and to achieve personal perfection. Furthermore, Slate shows how Gandhi was influenced by the evolving experimentation with vegetarianism in England and India–and how that experimentation was itself a political and philosophical movement. In addition, Slate couples his presentation with a discussion of current nutritional research on Gandhi’s diet experiments. He ends by placing Gandhi’s own experimentation with diet and the larger, world-wide one in the context both of political/philosophical/personal growth and reform. Lastly, he provides the reader with several of Gandhi’s recipes.

In each chapter, Slate takes a different aspect of Gandhi’s diet and relates it to his personal struggles and the political issues of that time. To set the stage, Gandhi “… was born into a vegetarian family in Porbandar, India…” in 1869 (2019: xi) Gandhi did experiment with meat because he wanted to be as powerful as the Englishman. According to Slate, a rhyme Gandhi “…learned in his youth”   made precisely that connection (p.46) .

Food was not just a nutritional concern, it was the way to change power and the economy. In terms of nutrition, Gandhi tried to reduce his use of salt throughout his life. He was in part persuaded to do so by watching his wife, Kasturba, get better as salt was reduced in her diet after an illness (p.20.) An important feature, Slate refers to current research on the use of a particular nutritional practice, in this case, salt. Current research on how much salt one can consume, he says, is not clear (p.,20). Gandhi’s most famous use of food to protest British rule was his campaign against the salt tax. This was another key reason that Gandhi tried limit his intake of salt throughout his life. Nevertheless, he saw that others had a need of salt for their diet-and that the British taxed salt and held a monopoly of its production. Slate says that “…[t]he question, Gandhi argued, was not just whether Indians had access to salt, but whether they had a right to self-rule [swaraj]. (p.12).” Gandhi protested the British control by “…picking up a token piece of sea salt from the beach (James 1997:525).”

He had developed  his non-violent, passive resistance approach “satyagrahain dealing with practices he did not like (James 1997: 468). Satyagraha, as James characterizes it, “…was a quality of the soul which enabled an individual to endure suffering for what he knew to be morally right (1997:48).” Gandhi felt that the political and the personal are one; he would test this to its limit.

Slate quotes Gandhi as saying in 1913: “‘…Nature intended man to be a vegetarian.’ (p.47.)” Several questions still remain: should vegetarians pressure others to give up meat? Should vegetarians not eat any meat-related products? In the first consideration, Gandhi said “no” (p.47.) He did not want his practices to seem to take sides and to use force. Rather, they were designed to convince people to change their behaviors. Hindus did not eat meat. But Parsis did, and Gandhi tried to find a middle ground (p.147) .

Gandhi also drank goat milk at times. He used it for strength (see recipe, p.183). At times Gandhi broke many of his restrictive practices, as he was still striving for perfection. He loved mangoes, though later he forswore them. He also had a non-sexual infatuation with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, while he was himself married–and celibate. Despite his refusal to eat some mangoes he had received, he wanted to share them with her (p. 163).Slate notes here, as he does elsewhere, that Gandhi was often contradictory in his search of perfection through food and other practices. Gandhi’s son was so alarmed by his Gandhi’s infatuation with Chaudhurani, that he urged his father to end the relationship (p.163).

Gandhi experimented with his diet permanently as part of his personal evolution and in response to the experimentations going on in European vegetarianism, especially English vegetarianism, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He occasionally appeared before English groups and involved himself in their nutritional disputes. Slate’s Chapter 4, exemplifies Gandhi’s experimentation with raw foods. Gandhi thought raw was best and strived to only eat uncooked meals. He admired Tolstoy, with whom he was in correspondence, and saw him as the ideal to follow (p.132 et seq). Gandhi conversed with many of the important reformers of his time, such as Margaret Sanger; Slate discusses their disagreements at length (p. 24-5).

Gandhi also saw that what one ate could not just lead to perfection but also heal one’s body. As Slate describes at length in Chapter 5, entitled “Natural Medicine,” Gandhi preferred the medicinal qualities of certain foods to much of Western medicine. But he did not reject the latter out-of-hand (p.107 et seq.) and respected its belief in scientific methodology.

Gandhi fasted many times, both for personal perfection and for political change. Slate notes that he had learned to do so in England (p..149 et seq). He admired the suffragettes’ use of the tactic. He had employed it in South Africa and then later in India. He used it to help a strike of Indian laborers and also to atone for one of his son’s unfaithfulness with another woman (p.150). His experimentation was both an end in itself and a tactic. He even admitted that he would fast on any pretext (p.151). His major fast, to try to bring civil peace in Calcutta after WWII, was emblematic of his approach: he “…told a group of Hindu demonstrators to ‘go immediately among the Muslims and assure them full protection.’ (p.160).” Unfortunately, as Slate notes, the civil war between Hindus and Moslems, which includes the fight over cows, has escalated (p.175) to a point where the present Hindu -led government in India had decided on an active program against Moslems (Filkins 2019).

Throughout the book, Slate shows the imperfections and attempts at perfection in Gandhi’s practices. For example, Gandhi did not always address race as a primary concern while in south Africa and had mixed feelings about eating mealie pap, which the black south Africans ate (p.132.) He also did not completely take on the issue of caste till later in life (p.158) . Yet he addressed the issues of the food chain and its exploitation of certain groups when he refused to eat chocolate in part because of the servitude of its growers (Chapter 2).

What Gandhi wanted was a peaceful world where people grew their own food–“a radical vision of food democracy (p.173) . That was the purpose of his various agricultural experiments, like his farm in South Africa and his ashram in India.

Slate ends his discussion of Gandhi by relating Gandhi’s struggles with contemporary dietary experimentation, for Slate, himself and others. These struggles range from the personal to the political. He contends that it would be ‘…impossible to render Gandhi’s diet a “model” anyone would want to follow–or could, even if they tried (p.171).” Gandhi, he argues, “…strove to resolve the greatest paradox confronting the modern world: many people starve, while others eat too much (p.173).” This has been noted by other observers as well (cf. Wilson 2019: Chapter 1-The Food Transition.) The Norwegian Army, in one gesture, now requires one meatless day a week (Slate 2019:176).

Because Slate focuses so strongly on Gandhi, his diet, his connections with the nutritional movements of his day and with politics, this book is particularly useful for anthropologists, particularly food anthropologists and students of Indian history and society and food history. He presents the reader with an excellent and useful bibliography.   One small correction should be noted: On p. 21, He classifies Sidney Mintz as an historian, not as an anthropologist.

 

1997

Lawrence James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York.

 

2019

Bee Wilson. The Way We Eat Now. Basic Books. New York.

 

2019

Dexter Filkins. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/09/blood-and-soil-in-narendra-modis-india?verso=true. Accessed January 18, 2020.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, India, protest

You know kimchi but how about kimjang?

Sangyoub Park and Sunyoung Cheong

At the beginning of the new year, a variety of news outlets and food-related venues usually predict upcoming food trends. USA Today, for example, predicts that “Kimchi will be in” in 2020. As a matter of fact, however, kimchi has been it-food at least over the past 10 years. I became aware that kimchi was next big America’s food when the New York Times stopped using an additional explanation for kimchi about 10 years ago. Before that, whenever the Times talked about kimchi, it followed with an additional explanation like “Korean spicy fermented cabbage.” Kimchi is the most common banchan, side dish, in Korea. When the Times stopped providing “what kimchi is to readers,” it signaled that everyone knows what kimchi is. In other words, there was no reason to describe kimchi as Korean spicy fermented cabbage any longer.

Fresh kimchi

The rising popularity of kimchi coincides with another trend in the culinary world – fermentation. As Americans are obsessed with well-being, they begin to pay extra attention to fermented foods. Fermenting food is not new, of course but it is one of the oldest ways of preserving food. The reason behind the latest trend is that many fermented foods are thought to entail health benefits. The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz was published around the time this trend was taking off. Kimchi is a probiotic lactic acid bacteria (i.e., good bacteria) fermented food. Many people believe that kimchi has a wide range of health benefits including improving digestion, increasing the body’s immunity, preventing aging, and preventing cancer.

Furthermore, as sociologists highlight how social class affects food preference, food can be a marker of social status. People create cultural distinction through food and eating. In the United States, the upper and middle classes are ready to embrace more “exotic” foods like tofu or sushi to distinguish their cultural identity. From this perspective, kimchi is very exotic. With exoticness and health benefits, it is evident that kimchi will enjoy longevity in the landscape of American food. This is exactly why I describe kimchi as an “Eww” food that has become a “Wow” food in terms of American taste trends.

Sunyoung Cheong, Preparing for kimjang in her home in Topeka, KS. She also pre-prepared for kimjang by washing about 25 heads of cabbage and salting them for 12 hours the previous day and making a huge batch of seasoning.

So, it is hip that you eat kimchi now. However, do you know anything about kimjang? Kimjang refers to making and sharing kimchi with others (click here for a short video about kimjang). Making kimchi requires collective effort because the process of making kimchi is very labor intensive. It is not unusual that kimjang is performed with large quantities like a couple of hundred heads of cabbage. Kimjang is usually done during November or December to last through the long cold winter. This explains why kimjang can be a communal activity. It is a way of communication, a way of creating memory, and a way of bonding together. The ritual of kimjang, in fact, was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

Kimchi-makers putting the kimchi paste between the layers of cabbage. This is a very important step to make good kimchi.

Over the past few years, we have invited community members, neighbors, and friends to our kimjang to experience firsthand how kimchi is made in a traditional way. We open our home to guests because we can help people broaden their understanding about “others.” We can be making kimchi together instead of “breaking bread together.” This year we invited friends (Akiko, Mary Anne and Luke) to make kimchi. In particular, this time kimjang was better organized thanks to kimjang mats, which we bought in Korea to test out for a potential kimchi festival – I am always dreaming of organizing a kimchi festival in Topeka, Kansas (Click here for the Kimchi Festival in Korea). Imagine making kimchi with strangers. And this might be exactly what we need in the Divided States of America today. During our kimjang, we conversed about children, marriage, changing food culture, and simply gossiped about everyday life. It is a way of bringing people together and creating a community. It can be a way of healing us. It can be a first step to unite a fractured community again. As an immigrant couple, after kimjang, we feel like our community has been extended by sharing our culture.

Making kimchi together.

Yes, it is good that more people are eating kimchi now but I hope that people appreciate kimchi simply beyond numerous health benefits. If kimchi can be used as a diplomatic tool, gastrodiplomacy, to enhance cultural understanding among countries (click here for a NPR story), it certainly can play a role in bringing us together.

Finishing up kimjang.

Let’s roll our sleeves and make more kimchi!


Usually after kimjang, Koreans eat steamed pork with fresh kimchi to celebrate the end of kimjang.

Sangyoub Park is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University. He teaches Food and Culture and filmed the documentary “A little bit more Korean.” Sunyoung Cheong is a visiting assistant professor of the department of visual art at the University of Kansas. She teaches Casting for Jewelry and CAD/CAM.  She also creates interactive art performance like Wearable Play.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, fermentation, korea

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 9, 2020

David Beriss

After a long hiatus, FoodAnthropology returns with 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.

I am writing this from New Orleans, where food is often used to frame discussions of nearly everything. A few especially good examples of this appeared this week. First, this poignant article by restaurant critic and perceptive cultural observer Ian McNulty on thinking about the New Orleans Saints football season of hope and disappointment through red beans and rice. This is a great example of how restaurant writing has evolved in recent years. Second, this interesting recollection of Leah Chase, by Lolis Eric Elie, that tries to disrupt some of the iconic ideas about that famous chef’s life. A good example of how people resist the narratives we use to box them.

Sometimes journalists manage to combine the discussion of a simple dish and a personal narrative in a way that provides a small insight into a society. Bryan Washington, writing for the New Yorker, did this in his article about omurice, a sort of Japanese fried rice omelet. More recently, Vidya Balachander wrote this beautiful example of how knafeh, a stunning Middle Eastern pastry, can be used to tell a lot of different stories about the region. This is exactly the kind of writing that I like to use to inspire my students to think about the links between food and culture.

Theodore Gioia argues in the Los Angeles Review of Books that restaurant criticism needs to transform itself to remain (or become) relevant for readers today. More than consumer advocacy or guides to taste, Gioia argues for both new approaches (focusing on ethics, politics, and culture) and new formats for restaurant reviews. For once, I suggest reading the comments below the article, which are also interesting…and looking for the twitter storm it generated among food writing professionals.

As Gioia remarks, a new generation of restaurant critics is taking up the kinds of tasks he suggests, including a bunch of newish critics on the West Coast. But how new is this kind of self-consciousness about criticism and food writing in general? This discussion, from The Splendid Table, between Soleil Ho and Ruth Reichl provides some useful nuance to this history. The interview, from last fall’s radio show is about how different kinds of food-related businesses deal with change between generations. You can listen to the whole thing here.

Many FoodAnthropology readers are familiar with the Racist Sandwich podcast, started by Soleil Ho (see above) and Zahir Janmohamed, which looks into race, class, and gender in the worlds of food. The podcast has two new hosts, Stephanie Kuo and Juan Diego Ramirez, and is very much worth following. Listen, for instance, to this very curious and somewhat clandestine interview with a French convict (yes, he is in jail) who has a viral Instagram page on cooking. And related to the discussion above about the changing world of food criticism, listen to their interview with Soleil Ho, after a year at the San Francisco Chronicle. There are other interesting episodes too, all on the website.

Does every immigrant or minority in America have a story about dealing with being embarrassed, teased, or ostracized for the foods their family made or that their mother packed into their school lunch? I certainly do and I am endlessly fascinated by all the related stories I read in this genre. In this sweet video from The New Yorker, Priya Krishna discusses growing up in Dallas and being ashamed of her mother’s cooking, preferring instead peanut butter and jelly. In a related article, chef Jenny Dorsey discusses the tensions around being Chinese-American, both growing up and as a cooking professional. I would recommend this article for use in a class on food and race/ethnicity. Has anyone put together a collection of essays of this kind? It seems like these are widely shared experiences in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere) and it would be fascinating to see them put together.

Everyone knows that “real” food happens in independent restaurants, not in fast food or fast casual joints. And yet, it seems that work in fast food or fast casual restaurant chains has shaped the experiences of many of our most interesting chefs today. At least, that is what Priya Krishna (cited above) reports in this fascinating article. She argues that working at Applebee’s, Waffle House, or IHOP can often provide training every bit as valuable as culinary school.

It may surprise people in dryer parts of the United States, but hardly a week goes by in New Orleans without some sort of water crisis. Our flooding problems are well-known, but I am referring in this instance to the annoyingly frequent boil water alerts that occur due to problems with our aging water infrastructure. It turns out that New Orleans is hardly alone in this (Flint, Michigan comes to mind, of course, as a much worse example). In this piece from Counter Punch, Andreea Sterea provides an alarming overview of the state of water across the U.S. Read this and allow yourself a brief moment of panic, then start writing and calling your elected officials.

Discussions of obesity and food tend to center on questions of public health and diet, often framed by deeper ideas about race and class. In the case of countries in the Pacific, you could even add in stereotypes derived from colonialism. Yet there are many other ways to frame these issues and, of course, there are anthropologists who study them. Listen, for instance, to this great episode of the Sausage of Science podcast in which Cara Ocobock and Chris Lynn interview Jessica Hardin about her work and recent book (Faith and the Pursuit of Health: Cardiometabolic Disorders in Samoa, 2018, Rutgers University Press) on religion, health, food, and more in Samoa. The podcast covers Hardin’s findings, but they also discuss the research process in ways that could be very useful for students as well.

We end this week with crabs from the eastern shore of Virginia. Or, rather, this excerpt from Bernard L. Herman’s book A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories from the Eastern Shore of Virginia (2019, UNC Press) that appears on the Southern Foodways Alliance Gravy website. Hard crabs, sooks, busted sooks, lemons…this is about the language of Virginia crabbers and the definition of this particular terroir. The pictures will have you longing for crab.

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“What counts is the imagination of ham, rather than its actual existence,” An Interview with Joelle Bahloul

In this third installment of interviews with anthropologists about their work on food, David Sutton talks with Joelle Bahloul, whose work on food and memory has inspired many other anthropologists. Family history, Jewishness in France, the influence of Maurice Halbwachs and her return to Algeria. Domestic memories of Jewish and Muslim communities that remain highly relevant today. But also connections between French citizenship and learning about food. And, of course, ham, imaginary and real. Watch and learn!

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Intercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice, Part II

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The Intercultural Learning Community at the vegan restaurant, Quinoa, operated by one of our own members, Luz Zaruma

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

Just as our fall term was wrapping up at Oregon State University, the Intercultural Learning Community headed to Ecuador to complete the second part of this experiential program. To read about the first part in Oregon click here.

Before covering some of the highlights of this trip, let me give a shout out to Claudia García who drew on her deep knowledge of Ecuador’s food systems and connections around the country to organize a rich and enjoyable trip, and to the EkoRural Foundation that served as our Ecuadorian financial sponsor. We began our trip with a visit to the highly integrated Atuk Farm outside of Quito run by the Dammer sisters. Sixty of the ninety hectares they own are in forest. The chickens live in large teepee-shaped tractors and clean the pastures of parasites à la Salatin. They had a clever way of turning the compost down a hill and a lovely outdoor kitchen where they served us a farm lunch. After lunch we retired to a hand-made mud brick building where Javier Carrera talked to us about the Seed Savers Network. The Guardianes de Semillas have been in existence since 1998 and includes 110 families in 15 Ecuadorian counties, though they also do seed exchanges in Colombia and Bolivia. The point goes beyond saving seeds to sharing ancestral knowledge about nutrition and promoting social change. He gave an historical overview of settlement and soils in Ecuador, emphasizing the migrations of food crops as well as the ways in which indigenous peoples in different ecosystems fed themselves. Moving to more recent times, he talked about the 2008 national constitution which protects the rights of nature and food sovereignty. Despite this progressive legal framework encouraged by indigenous groups and agrifood activists, implementation is more difficult and there is constant pressure to conform to the industrial food system. Mandatory pasteurization and slaughter in state approved facilities put small farmers at a disadvantage, just like in the US. Saraguro women were told that they had to deliver their milk warm to be pasteurized, but the facility was two hours away. They went on strike and several of the women were put in jail. Carrera said that 30% of the farms in Ecuador are small, family farms and they produce 70% of what Ecuador eats. They are fighting to keep a separate system for small farmers in order to ensure future food sovereignty. He shared with us several successful experiments in permaculture around the country.

The following two days were focused on metropolitan Quito. With 2,500,000 people pressed between two volcanoes high in the Andes and a poverty rate of 12.8%, the challenges of keeping people well fed are great. Add to that, over 300,000 recent migrants from Colombia and Venezuela. Other numbers that Alexandra Rodriguez cited were that 71% of food consumed in the city was eaten outside of the home and 63% of the population was overweight or obese. Since 2002 Rodriguez has been working with a participatory urban agriculture program (AGRUPAR) to expand urban and peri-urban agriculture in Quito. They now have 1400 gardens, involving 5000 people. 57% of the produce goes to home consumption and the remainder is sold. We visited one of the oldest farms and saw a variety of food grown in 1500 m2. We bought some for our own dinner that evening that we prepared under the direction of chef/group member Santiago Rosero at the Gastronomic Laboratory.

Quito’s food bank delivers to 77 institutions and 655 families, working almost entirely with volunteers and no federal support. Their main source of food is leftovers from the markets and supermarkets. They do not receive a tax break for donations, but it does relieve them of having to dispose of food they can’t sell. We visited two of the markets in the old center of Quito, San Roque and Central. At San Roque we heard from anthropologist Anahí Macaroff who has been doing research on the markets of Quito. She explained how they were all connected and should be defended against the growth of supermarkets. She cited several instances where supermarkets opened very near the older markets and lowered their prices for as long as it took to put the market out of business and then raised their prices.

Talking to people from the food bank and markets rounded out our picture of the urban food system. Farm-direct, agroecological markets are growing, but serve a small percentage of the population. This year Quito approved an Agrifood Strategy and a Climate Action Plan. This is a good start, but, as always, the proof is in the implementation. We stopped at a small recycling center that wasn’t quite operating yet. Its main purpose was to teach people how to recycle, but without access to designated receptacles it’s going to take a while.

We heard about several social justice-oriented projects. First, we heard from a group of multidisciplinary researchers from the Catholic University who have been working on nutrition projects in the province of Cotopaxi where a large number of children suffer from malnutrition. Then, we heard about the FUEGOS project to bring a culinary school and food tourism to the province of Manabi that was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 2016. Finally, Marcelo Aziaga told us about feeding anti-austerity protesters. An estimated 20,000 people marched on Quito in October, closing the Panamerican highway and shutting down the capital city. The Catholic University, the Salesiana University, and the Casa de la Cultura housed several thousand people and chefs and food activists set up kitchens to feed them. The police dismantled the kitchens every night, which were then re-set up daily. Food arrived from various places. Volunteers organized food lines, dish washing and waste disposal. Medical students treated people who were wounded by the police, and also the police. Austerity measures were temporarily rolled back, but could re-emerge after the holidays. Later in our trip, we spoke with some indigenous leaders who recounted how they organized their participation through loudspeakers after the government shut down communications.

Driving north from Quito, we visited a biodiverse farm in the Andean dry forest that belongs to two of our group participants, Lucia and Fabian. We tasted four of the over 20 types of avocados that they grow and a variety of passion fruits and chirimoya. (I have to say, the Nacional avocado was to die for.) For lunch, Lucia made us a variety of Andean tubers, plantains and an excellent locro de zambo or squash soup. From there we continued north to Ibarra where we were hosted by MESSE, the Ecuadorian Movement for a Social and Solidarity Economy. Jorge García explained the Abya Yala Paradigm that reigned in the Americas before colonization. The four axioms are 1. Everything is alive; 2. Nothing is the same as something else and diversity generates life; 3. Everything is related to everything; 4. We are all of the cosmos and of the earth. He contrasted these with imported European beliefs about ownership and the primacy of humans that have led to environmental disaster. He gave examples of how the four elements: oxygen, fire, water and earth are the foundations of cooking.

Steve Sherwood outlined for us the relationship between agroecology and solidarity economies. Both share a focus on intersubjectivity between humans and between humans and non-humans, harking back to the axioms that everything is alive and connected. He encouraged us to focus on existence, rather than resistance, as we work to construct new ways of being through our own practices. He explained how food activists in Ecuador connected through various types of encounters that take place all around the country in a de-centralized fashion. This allowed food activists to come together during the strike and set up kitchens to feed people while the food industry called on the government to violently crush the strike, so that they could continue their businesses.

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A pambamesa offered to us at MESSE’s Kuricancha in Ibarra

In nearby El Chota, Luzmila Bolaños also spoke of the four elements as she explained the history and foodways of the Afroecuadorian population of the Chota Valley. She spoke frankly about discrimination and said that the mestizo Ecuadorians had a lot to unlearn before they could learn. She talked about local foods that are part of the local diet, non-local foods that are part of the local diet and local foods that are not part of the local diet. In the latter group are prickly pear cactus which came from Mexico. They are starting to sell the fruit in Ecuadorian supermarkets now, but there is still no local market for the tender young leaves or nopalitos. She and her friend made a salad out of them for our lunch along with a delicious soup.

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Luzmila’s cousin and his prickly pear plantation near El Chota, waiting for a market.
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Both in Ecuador and the US, it is difficult to make a living by farming. Agritourism is one way that families have been able to stay on the farm, so we spent the rest of our time in Ecuador supporting these efforts. The MESSE activists are new to this, so our students served as guinea pigs. (Oops, they eat guinea pigs.)

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The students had a variety of experiences: helping with farming, cooking and marketing and living without potable running water and indoor plumbing for two nights. One host woke up at 5am to walk 45 minutes to milk cows, then made cheese for the rest of the morning. The next four nights were spent with a more experienced community tourism group in Cotacachi. These indigenous women have been hosting tourists in their homes for 20 years and knew the importance of private bedrooms and bathrooms. They also let Claudia know that when stays are booked through the website, the money never leaves the men’s group, so we booked directly through the women’s committee. The women’s committee is focused on health and central to that are indigenous foodways. Discrimination and migration damaged ancestral farming and cooking traditions, and they are working to valorize these health-generating practices. They shared their knowledge about multiple varieties of corn and their uses, demonstrating the traditional preparation of chicha. They spoke to us about their process of stabilizing the recipe for the industrial production of chicha for sale.

The highlight of the Cotacachi stay was the preparation and eating of a pachamanka. Don Enrique had a huge bonfire going when we arrived in the morning, heating up the rocks that were used to line the hole making an earthen oven. Meat and vegetables were wrapped in leaves and placed in the hole which was covered up with leaves and sod and left to cook for about 2 and a half hours. The food had a delicious, smoky flavor and we enjoyed eating it together.

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Loading up the Pachamanka
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Eating the Pachamanka

Our final stay was at Pambiliño Reserve run by one of our past participants, Emilia Arcos and her husband, Oliver. As we descended through the cloud forest, the air grew hot and humid and vegetation turned thick and tropical. Emi and Oliver self-identify as neo-campesinos or new farmers who are passionate about environmental education. Together with friends and family, they are re-creating food forests on land that was once dominated by cattle-raising and mono-cultures. On our last day there, we broke into groups and went foraging in the surrounding forest, bringing back cacao and macambo pods, different types of plantains and bananas, cardamom, oranges, lemons, yuca, guayabilla fruit, edible flowers and various herbs for teas. We made a wonderful lunch, using only very few staples from the kitchen.

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Luz, Camilo and Lisa foraging for their lunch at Pambiliño Reserve

Reading about similarities and differences in agrifood systems and conversing with people from other countries and other ecosystems who share your interest in creating more equitable and environmentally sustainable food systems are wonderful activities. What a privilege, though, to be able to see, hear, feel, taste and smell what people living different kinds of life experience.

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“It tastes like ginger”

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