Category Archives: anthropology of food

Food Studies for Anthropologists

David Beriss

I have just returned from the joint annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society, which is one of the most interesting Food Studies conferences around. This year’s event, at Occidental College, in Pasadena, California, was organized by sociologist John Lang, who, along with his team, did a great job while also maintaining a kind of relaxed cool. Many participants live tweeted the event, providing an interesting subtext. Emily Contois, who organized the live social media team, has written up an excellent overview of the conference and provided an organized view of the social media feed here.

Food Studies is an inherently multidisciplinary field, which may be what makes it attractive to anthropologists, the Zeligs of the social and human sciences. The opportunity to experience different approaches to the study of society through food is hard to resist. Of course, sometimes these cross-disciplinary conversations can be complicated. Discussing the politics of “cultural appropriation,” for instance, can be difficult when we are not all working with the same definition of “culture.” Yet the value of trying to figure out what everyone means is worth the effort. Three of the trends I noticed at this year’s conference help to explain why.

First, over the last few years, public policy has become an increasingly significant part of the conference. In addition to examining local foodways, increasing numbers of participants have worked to relate their analyses to the broader political-economic context and to the public policies that shape people’s choices and actions. The idea of a “food movement” gained national legitimacy during the Obama years, but that seems to be changing in the Trump administration. Yet the opposite is happening among food scholars, who seem more anxious than ever to find ways to make their research relevant to public policy and public debate.

There are many areas of policy (sustainability, agriculture, public health, globalization, etc.) that can be approached through food studies. There were policy-related discussions of all of these things at this year’s conference, but I was especially struck by a particular focus on labor in the food industry. This was central to the conference plenary panel, which was led by Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food” show. The other participants were Joann Lo, the executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Diep Tran, owner and chef at Good Girl Dinette, and Besha Rodell, restaurant critic for the LA Weekly. Tran wrote a powerful piece about food work and “cheap eats” on the NPR food blog earlier this year. With quite a lot of direct experience in the industry, the panelists made a compelling case for the need to change wage and tipping structures, along with providing better social support for food industry workers. The panelists also insisted on the centrality of gender, race/ethnicity, and immigration to discussions of food industry labor. The struggle for equity and fairness, already significant during the Obama administration, seems likely to become even more difficult—and essential—in coming years.

The influence and responsibility of science and of universities was also a central theme at this year’s conference. The keynote address, by Sharon Friel of the Australian National University, examined the role of research, activists, and corporate lobbies in shaping global food and nutrition policies. The presidents of both of the organizing associations, Leland Glenna (AFHVS) and Krishnendu Ray (ASFS) addressed the place of university research and researchers in the public sphere. Glenna focused on the hazards of corporate control of university research, while Ray raised questions about the politics of teaching and knowledge. From climate change, to vaccines, antibiotics, obesity, nutrition, health care, and, indeed, labor, the need for solid research to support public policy seems more important than ever. Yet the increasing grip of private industry on university research, combined with a delegitimization of scientific knowledge, threatens the role of scholars in helping to shape public policy.

Finally, there was a remarkable number of presentations that focused on research collaboration with the people being studied. Collaborative research has been a central focus in anthropology in recent years, so it was interesting to see that this sort of work, involving students, faculty, and broader communities, has also become more common in other fields. Areas of collaboration included promoting food justice activism, creating food-related museum exhibits, developing local food initiatives, and more. This kind of collaboration may offer an important link to both the making of public policy and efforts to make university research relevant to the public sphere. The national discourse from certain quarters may work to delegitimize the voices and work of university and other professional scholars., Grassroots engagement with the people we study can have the opposite effect, legitimizing research because it is their research as well. This is, I think, a good trend to see in food studies.

There are many kinds of knowledge that can be used to make sense of society through food. I have touched on only a few of the many themes that were reflected in the conference program. As a field of knowledge, Food Studies is clearly growing and thriving. For anthropologists who are interested in finding ways to make their research more relevant to policy debates, there is a lot to learn and many people to collaborate with in Food Studies. Next year’s conference will be in Madison, Wisconsin. I hope to see even more SAFN members there.

Leave a comment

Filed under AFHVS, anthropology, anthropology of food, ASFS, Food Studies

Review: Metabolic Living

 Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and The Absorption of Illness in India. Harris Solomon. Duke University Press, 2016

Gauri Anilkumar Pitale
Southern Illinois University

          This original ethnographic work studies the meanings and practices surrounding metabolic functions in the everyday life and diet of contemporary urban Indians. Set in the city of Mumbai, the author challenges the reader to question the notion of “globesity”. Such terms loom important in the epidemiological considerations about the sudden increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes in India in the past few decades. Solomon provides the readers with detailed ethnographic vignettes that render his interlocutors as real people with problems and issues connected to city living, the same problems that affect their bodies in turn. Using the concept of ‘absorption of illness’ as the central theme of the book, the author states, “I consider how people make connections between food and urban life to explain that absorption is taking hold as the ground for experiencing and making sense of chronic illness” (Pg. 5).

            The book begins with a discussion of the ‘thin-fat’ Indian phenotype, used by scientists to comprehend the current rates of obesity and diabetes in India. Trying to attack the concept of metabolic syndrome from many perspectives, the author generates an ethnography that takes into consideration the problem of obesity and diabetes from several different directions. He carefully begins this book by discussing the Indian thin-fat phenotype. This phenotype, typical of Indians, results in the Indian people having a high amount of central adiposity (abdominal fat). A phenotype resulting from the environment of the womb (connected to the thrifty phenotype theory), this theory suggests that Indians are more susceptible to metabolic disorders. Diabetes and obesity are therefore developmental in origin. Giving us an account of his visit to Dr. Yajnik’s clinic (Dr. Yajnik is one of the two authors who proposed the theory of the thin-fat Indian phenotype), he reports Yajnik’s opinion that there is a need to address the underlying susceptibility of Indian bodies to being afflicted by metabolic disorders, rather than focusing purely on the treatment and prevention of the diseases themselves.  Talking to householders and the other people that he encountered throughout his fieldwork, Solomon plots the changing perspectives in relation to food and the body. He considers the conception of both the food and the body from the viewpoint of doctors, epidemiologists, scientists, nutritionists, housewives, street food servers, and manufacturers of processed food products.

            Tracing the historical perception of the problem of diabetes in India, Solomon brings forth the idea of “tenshun”. “Tenshun”, that mental stress which his interlocutors claim, afflicts the mind and predisposes people to obesity and diabetes, is at the heart of the epidemic that plagues contemporary Indians. Hinting at the ever-shifting discussions about bodies, he brings to light the many terms that people use to refer to overweight and obese bodies. This is important because people in India are showing signs of obesity. The words used range from mota (Hindi for fat) to the usage of the English word “healthy” to allude to overweight or chubby bodies. Diseases too are referred to with specific names. Diabetes could be referred to simply as sugar and cardiovascular disease as blockage. Solomon’s aim in discussing these terms is to imply that metabolic disorders have become common enough to form a part of the daily conversations of Mumbaikars. The threat of being afflicted with diabetes or obesity is real and looms large in their minds. This brings us back to the idea of “tenshun”. Through the course of this book, Solomon brings to light his interlocutors’ claims that merely living in Mumbai makes one’s body absorb the stresses of living, in turn creating diseased bodies that suffer from metabolic problems. Every discussion about obesity and diabetes gave way to deliberations pertaining to stress. His participants assert that the stresses of city living affected their diets, the development of their illness, and their body’s responses to such health conditions.

            Solomon weaves the chapters of his book together using interludes. These interludes, tangentially connected to the general theme of illness absorption that is so central to this book, are heavily fleshed out ethnographic vignettes about the city of Mumbai. These detailed descriptions talk about the mango madness that endangers the carefully prescribed diets given by exasperated nutritionists. They tell us of the struggles of Manuli (Manuli is that suburb of Mumbai where Solomon carried out household research) locals in attempting to have the governmental authorities take note of their troubles over accessing their share of food owed to them through the state’s ration card. These vignettes transpose the reader to the site of the study. They render Mumbai as a city of multiple communities and provides the reader with a multi-faceted understanding of Solomon’s field site.

            The strength of this ethnographic work lies in its multi-pronged approach. Not only does he interact with housewives, so well known as the domestic gatekeepers of Indian households, he also studies and interviews food corporation researchers and marketing heads, whose aim is to float “functional foods” that these very housewives will allow into their homes. By considering the struggle between the concerns about adulteration (milawat) which his respondents focus on intensely, the author discusses the newest fad of “functional foods” which are becoming popular in Indian households. Functional foods are foods created by food companies to render everyday staples healthier. Functional foods promise “extra benefits” because they are enriched with vitamins and minerals. They espouse to function categorically by aiding in the prevention of metabolic disorders. Fast gaining popularity in India, functional foods claim to assure buyers that they will alleviate their health problems. In such a manner, everyday staples such as wheat, rice, flour, and milk become functional foods. In the face of fears about adulteration and metabolic problems, the author demonstrates why and how functional foods are gaining traction in India.

            Solomon pushes the envelope on the famous concept of ‘gastropolitics’ put forth by Appadurai and studied by many food scholars since. Using the example of the famous Mumbai vada-paav, he connects street food to the very identity of urban spaces. Focusing on the vada-paav, referred to as the “lifeline of Mumbai” by some of his interlocutors, he pushes forward the concept of gastropolitics to demonstrate to the reader that street food can be reflective of politics, power, and class dynamics within a city. Attempting to trace the origin of the vada-paav, its usage, and its attempted standardization by both political parties and food corporations, the author states, “By moving beyond the confines of street food as a bounded entity, it is possible to map the reaches of gastropolitics into livelihoods, community injuries, dreams of urban renewal, and transnational enterprise” (Pg. 75).

            In the latter half of the book, Solomon focuses on the clinical therapies and gastric bypass surgeries taking place in Indian hospitals as the site to study the discussions pertaining to metabolism. While early on in the book he deliberates on the ever-blurry food-drug boundary, in the latter half of the book he acknowledges the necessity of looking at diets as therapy. Shadowing clinical dietary therapists and nutritionists, he demonstrates the daily struggles of both the clinicians and the afflicted when it comes to nutritional therapy.  In a clinician’s office where metabolism is being treated as a site of problem, multiple medical epistemologies collide. As Harris states, “These counseling visits illustrate the power of diets to coordinate the uncertainties of the metabolism” (Pg. 160). In these clinics, the onus is not only on the patient’s metabolism but also on their compliance. Dieticians insisted that patients’ compliance or non-compliance was what affected the result of dietary therapy. The dietician’s office was also a place where functional foods were prescribed to ailing patients. Such clinical therapies involved first measuring the patients’ bodies, both outwardly and internally. Weighing and measuring bodies went hand in hand with blood sugar, cholesterol, and hormonal level test. Through his ethnographic vignettes, Solomon manifests that the Ayurvedic concept of food as medicine is significantly overlapping with biomedical treatments for metabolic disorders. The result is a medical landscape that is vastly varied but one where food takes the center stage when it comes to health and disease.

            Solomon concludes the book by considering the idea that “as metabolic illness increasingly occupies global health interest and investment, what is needed is a perspective on metabolisms and their disorders different from one grounded in concerns about overconsumption” (Pg. 228). By tracing the historical food flows, the current shifting foodscape of Mumbai, the food standardization attempted by corporations, the author demonstrates to the readers that metabolic diseases are firmly entangled in social, political, gendered, and historical processes. Harris claims that through his work he approaches the concept of metabolism ethnographically. He states, “My principal concern in this book has been to develop an ethos of absorption at the interfaces between food and living” (Pg. 227).

            A wonderfully evocative ethnography, Solomon’s book makes one reflect on the very nature of metabolic syndrome. How does one address the solutions to a health problem that is so closely connected to food? The very food and eating which are sacred, political, social, and emotional.  Metabolic syndrome renders food as a focal point. Food can be addictive, rendering one’s body diseased, or it can be therapeutic, cleansing one’s body from the inside. Through this book, Solomon relays and reflects on this problematic relation, challenging medical experts to consider a multi-layered approach to solving the issues of obesity and diabetes that plague contemporary India.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology of food, food and health, India

Review: Real Pigs

Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork Brad Weiss. Duke University Press, 2016.

Neri de Kramer
University of Delaware

 

         This book is an ethnography of the various actors behind the local market for pasture-raised pork in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. It is based on fieldwork on farms, farmer’s markets, in butcher shops and restaurants. This impressive number of fields allows the author to describe the whole system of local pig production from the historic ancestry of the pigs in question to the eventual headcheese spread on crackers at the end. It offers a detailed account of the values, practices and networks that go into the creation of slow, local, food systems readers like us tend to appreciate.  

            The central objective of the book is to show how social actions and networks produce “real” pigs. To this end, the author explores all dimensions of the local pork production process (including the cultivation of the cross-breed, husbandry practices, butchery, marketing and cooking) and shows how they are connected in a network of producers and consumers and embodied by the pigs themselves in both a material and symbolic sense. This embodiment of practices and social relations is what makes these pigs real: more real than pigs raised in industrial confinement systems which are characterized by a fragmentation of history, place, animals, workers and consumers.

            The author’s ambitious theoretical approach is to combine political economic questions of production and consumption relations with phenomenological interpretations of the symbolic and embodied qualities of pastured pigs. While he does consistently show how the two are inextricably intertwined, relying heavily on Bourdieu’s theory of practice which roots the meaning of distinctive, class-affirming consumptive practices and preferences in social class position stemming from production relations, the book reads more as a phenomenological ethnography. It is important to realize this before reading this book, as it is written in dense discourse that may stump an unassuming reader. The emphasis on phenomenological interpretations might negatively affect the book’s accessibility to students and lay readers interested in the workings of local food systems.

            While the author is clearly personally invested in and enthusiastic about pastured pork in his home state, he thankfully does not romanticize or naturalize the system, the people, or the pigs in a Pollanesque way. At the same time, much as he wants to, the author is also not able to use his deep understanding of this local system to formulate a vision for a viable, revolutionary alternative to industrial hog farming confinement operations. He does show that the niche market for pastured pork emerged out of the conditions created by this system, which he describes in an historic overview in chapter 1, but this representation solidifies the distinction between the two systems rather than offering a hopeful view of the kinds of transformation that this niche market and their inspired actors might bring about in the broader system. Part of the problem is that what really motivated food activists to try to create an alternative to this system was not the working conditions and lives of the human growers and processers exploited by this system, but the environmental consequences and sustainability concerns of this way of producing food.  Weiss recognizes and honestly exposes this (unintended) racism and classism of the alternative food movement but ultimately offers no critique and no prospective solutions.

            Chapter two is about the construction of the local and describes how the networks of actors and their practices helped re-establish a connection between taste and place that was severed by the industrialization of pig farming and its reliance on enclosed confinement systems that got pigs “off the ground”. He shows in this chapter how raising pigs “on the ground” changes the meaning (and I would have added price) of the final product into local pork. In so doing, he denaturalizes the notion of terroir and shows how this is not some innate quality of a physical place, but actively constituted by the people at work in the local food system. He also describes how particular husbandry techniques help develop a distinctive taste in the pork, so that the pork from this system comes to taste of the way it was raised (“funky”, “like barnyard”): This is a lucid example of the way in which these heritage pigs embody social practices. The process of teaching consumers to discern this flavor, through branding, is also part of this and critically important, for if people could not taste the difference between industrial pork and local pork (and actually, not everybody in the book can) there would be less reason to buy it.

            Chapter 3 takes a similar denaturalizing approach to the notion of heritage. Weiss explains that it is not the actual genetic lineage of the Ossabaw Island Hog that establish its meat as local heritage pork, but the various practices, activities and discourse that give it this meaning. The meaning of this pork still stems from biology however, because certain husbandry techniques actually alter the genetic makeup of these pigs, which is another excellent example of the biocultural nature of the embodiment of practices and meaning in local pigs.

            Chapter 4 offers an ethnographic account of artisanal butchery programs that allow consumers to butcher parts of their own pig and thus gets a hands-on connection to the animal and the craft. These classes facilitate a bodily experience, not only of what it means to be an artisanal butcher, but also of the physical animal itself that is obviously missing from the experience of buying a piece of pork in a supermarket.

            Probably the most successful chapter in terms of combining political economy and phenomenology is chapter 5, which considers pork fat and how the experience of its taste motivates and gives shape to alternative modes of pig production and consumption. Though this sounds like a classic Mintzian story, Weiss delves deeper into how best to understand the sensory experience and perception of taste anthropologically, before showing how the taste of fatty pork inspired the production process that brings it into being and became an important foundation for the local market in pastured pork. He explains that taste is more than a personal and ephemeral experience, but also inherently social in nature, requiring memories, experiences, social networks and cultural capital to be recognized, appreciated, and communicated. Because of this social nature, taste can inspire social action and thus have political economic effects. He also describes how the taste of fatty pork came to stand in contrast to the industrial pork production system itself. We are reminded of the fact that many Americans do not seem to think of pork as a strongly flavorful meat, because of the way industrial pork production methods have changed pigs to yield lean bacon and long, lean tenderloins. This means that in this central North Carolina community, supermarket pork’s lack of fat has been turned into a visceral, sensory example of the inferiority of industrial production methods. By contrast, the abundant fat in pastured pigs is understood as a materialization of the superior local production process. The shared experience and appreciation of the taste of fatty pork creates and maintains these essential production and consumption networks that are vital to the success of the market, demonstrating neatly how phenomenological, as well as political economic qualities are expressed in pigs simultaneously.

            Chapter 6 describes how authenticity is derived from the way this local pork system re-establishes connections between producers and consumers with farm to fork production and between the various animal parts with snout to tail cookery. He describes how the culinary approach based on reconfiguring pork as a whole pig came about and how people and pigs are joined in production practices that incorporate the whole animal. The author also tries to describe the political economic implications of farm to fork and snout to tail activities and how these relationships are expressed in concrete qualities of local pastured pork that are appreciated by discerning consumers who thus become part of the authentic system.

            Each chapter ends with one or two profiles of people who participated in the project. They are essentially transcriptions of the interviews Weiss conducted with these people, which give the reader a sense of the author’s interpretation process. They offer an honest behind-the-scenes look into the ethnographic kitchen that typically remains hidden from view, adding transparency and giving the reader an opportunity to form her own opinions. The profiles repeat some of the information the author provides in the body of the chapter, but rather than feeling redundant they are helpful as there are a lot of details, facts, and developments to keep track of in this multi-sited ethnography.  

            Just as the history of industrial hog farming in North Carolina is illuminative of the wider changes in the American food production system, the story of local pig production in the Piedmont could be iconic of other contemporary efforts to reinvent food systems into slow, local versions. The problem is, as Weiss points out repeatedly, that this form of food provisioning is no solution to the vastness of the problems created and perpetuated by the industrial food system brought about by modern global capitalism itself. I do think that understanding local food as product of human actions and networks rather than as innate qualities of organisms or physical places offers hope, for this means local food systems could be introduced and constructed anywhere and by any group of people. I also think the methodical analytical deconstruction of human production and consumption relations, as Weiss has done here for this local food system, might be a promising avenue for exposing and challenging the nature of labor and consumption in industrial capitalist production systems today. Can what we have learned about the people in this wonderful local system help those trapped in the old industrial one?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, sustainability

What EM Is Reading and Watching

Another set of thought-provoking readings and recommendations from frequent FoodAnthropology contributor Ellen Messer. Note that while many of these are inspired by items from the Financial Times, Dr. Messer has found links to related stories from other sources. This is because access to the Financial Times is restricted for non-subscribers. If you do subscribe to the FT, you can probably find the original articles quite easily on their web site.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Weekly readings offer a few appetizers for reflection:

(1) the Swiss based global trading firm Glencore, which recently underwent reorganization because of its high debt obligations, seeks combination of its Glencore Agriculture unit with Bunge. It aims to break into the “big four” global agricultural trading firms (ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus) at a time when agricultural margins are low because of booming harvests, and as farmers the world over seek leverage to sell directly to buyers, squeezing the big four on profitability. Glencore Ag, which has a major presence in wheat, seeks expansion in the US and South America in soybeans and other commodity crops in which Bunge enjoys comparative advantage. Glencore Ag has the money to do this because the company recently offered a 50% stake in its business that was purchased by two Canadian pension funds, who now, in addition to owning 50% of Glencore Ag also own 50% of its debt, so that the company has raised its potential profitability ratings. Bloomberg news weighs in here, with graphs showing the markets’ reaction.

(2) European and North African olive oil production is way down because of drought, and prices for extra virgin olive oil have risen in tandem. This article gives the official reductions in product for Italy, Greece, and Spain (which it says is the largest producer) but does not discuss whether California olive industry is offering more product in response. Nor does it suggest any further dilution in product, which culinary experts say is always a problem in commercial oils. The Olive Oil Times has a series of supporting articles here.

(3) Coca Cola is trying to raise the desirability of its brand by emphasizing its “inclusivity” —with reference to its historic claim that everyone, however defined by ethnicity or economic class—can afford to enjoy Coke (citing Andy Warhol’s iconic image and phrase) and its efforts to improve its nutritional profile. The company officially endorses the WHO guidance that added sugars should provide no more than 10 percent of total caloric energy intake. The company claims to be contributing to reductions in sugar intake by reformulations or smaller portion size, both of which potentially reduce added sugar intakes in its products. But the company also has to find new revenue streams to replace lost sales from coolers, which are losing sales especially in locations like shopping malls, which are experiencing lower foot traffic as more people shop on line. The official company statement on “inclusive” culture can be read here.

(4) And finally, not really a “food” story but a feel-good sheep textile story, which replaces “farm-to-table” with “sheep-to-shop” traceability and authenticity, as people can watch their clothing being created in iconic textile mills with high skilled artisan labor input that they are willing to pay for. The designer realized that low cost Chinese labor would always outcompete British firms, and came up with this new old idea to compete on quality and local employment. The name of the entrepreneur is James Eden; the town was once known as Cottonopolis. The FT article can be accessed here.

In other news:

US PBS (National Public Television) has some food shows that are worth viewing for their stunning visual presentations of food and food culture, story lines, and possible critique. “A Matter of Taste” “Food—Delicious Science” aired in mid-May 2017. The lessons in the chemistry of taste and food preservation feature British science filmmaker Michael Mosley and ethnobotanist James Wong. For starters, they showed that taste is organized into five flavors, which can be reduced to their purified chemical essences—sweet, bitter, salty, sour, umami. These findings were connected to particular foods, which showed how acidity (sour) can be measured (by pH) that turns out to be pretty constant across fruit categories (watermelon is the least acidic), even though one senses that fruits such as strawberries are more sweet than sour. The reason for this is that aromatics enter into perception of sweetness, but the chemistry of this trickery and its connection to complex flavors was not well communicated. The program would have been more insightful (and more fun!) had it featured U.S. taste psycho-physicist Linda Bartoshuk describing her own experimental findings, which show how volatiles (the aromatics) leverage sweet taste perceptions and complexity. (An engaging interview about her career can be accessed at here. But further surfing on the web reveals that BBC already did a Bartoshuk piece, so maybe what we see here is Mosley, a BBC showmaster, distancing himself from the competition (Veronique Greenwood) and Wong, an ethnobotanist, privileging plants over people (psychology).

The other featured foods included traditional Andean freeze-dried potatoes. This segment featured Wong (who spoke Spanish pretty well) visiting a highland Andean community, which grows many varieties of potatoes, and singles out an especially bitter variety for freeze drying into chunyo, a series of steps that take place at an even higher elevation. I did not think that the segment communicated the complexity of the process, which involves multiple days of washing, freezing, stamping out bitter alkaloids. They made the process look simple, and the taste of chunyo look delicious, which is a stretch. Another featured food was Iberian black pig. This segment showed plump pigs nosing out acorns as nourishment, which the narrator informed is what flavors the meat with its extremely delicious umami taste. Although butchering was the theme, the visuals showed limited blood and gore, as an extended family gathering around a festival table to share the annual pig-slaughter and processing ritual, which uses all parts of the animal in some culinary fashion. There were then multiple scenes of multiple people shaving off thin slices of exquisite ham, which they ecstatically sampled. The idea of traditional foods guided by flavor and artisan technologies informed both pig and potato segments; the filmmakers could have made more connections to tomato and strawberries, which are also preserved with value added through artisan technologies.

This is the second of three in their series, “Secrets of Food,” which aim to illuminate the biology, chemistry, and physics of the items people eat, although as reviewers emphasize, few Brits (or Americans) will have tasted many of the examples.

PBS also has new American Masters shows featuring lives of major chefs and cookbook writers, including Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, James Beard, and Alice Waters. So far, viewing them at night, they’ve put me to sleep, but that may be due more to the knock-out pollen load this spring in Boston and their relatively late viewing hours. For anyone teaching relevant course materials, they should provide opportunities to compare the relative advantages of visual media vs. text for communicating the food and restaurant history in the US. The Alice Waters story, “Delicious Revolution,” uses the metaphor of food politics and performance, which will provide a useful backdrop to my summer graduate seminar: “Local to Global Food Values: Policy, Practice, and Performance”.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, applied anthropology

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, May 12, 2017

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 2017, not 1906. At least, that is what the calendar says. But if you read Michael Grabell’s recent article in The New Yorker about work at Case Farms, a chicken processing company in Ohio, you might think you were reading something by Upton Sinclair, from the early 20th century in Chicago. Underaged, undocumented, immigrant workers, working in extremely dangerous conditions, without benefit of unions, always in danger of being fired, living in awful conditions…this article is essential reading. Read it, assign it to your students, discuss, act. Also, after reading this, you may wonder if Mr. Trump and other anti-immigrant advocates have been discussing the wrong problem all along.

Here in Louisiana we are quite used to hearing about the toxic dead zone that appears regularly in the Gulf of Mexico. It is huge—the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, combined—and deadly to sea life. It is mostly caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River, which drains a huge portion of the United States. As it turns out, such hypoxia zones exist all over the world (the Baltic is actually the largest, the Gulf of Mexico is second). This graphic article from Civil Eats provides an overview of the situation and some forecasts for this coming year. The impact on our food system is enormous. That said, dead zones are reversible. Countries along the Rhine River and the North Sea have reduced pollution sufficiently to diminish their dead zones by upwards of 35% in recent years.

And yet, do we really know if chemical runoffs are creating the dead zones? What if we could find studies, produced by faculty at real universities, that suggested the chemicals used to fertilize, kill pests, etc. on farms are not really harmful? In this article, Bruce Livesey, writing in the Canadian publication “The Walrus,” examines the role of industry in funding research that at the very least tries to create doubt about the impact—on the environment, on food, on humans—of the chemicals used on farms. He looks particularly at industry funding for research at one Canadian university, but this is a persistent issue at many universities and seems likely to be more important as public funds for research are cut.

On a cheerier note, John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (an organization whose work often turns up in this digest) has recently published a new book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” (Penguin, 2017) and, possibly as a consequence, he is suddenly everywhere. John T. also recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, “The Hidden Radicalism of Southern Food,” which is about food sovereignty and race in the U.S. south (and specifically, the work and life of Fannie Lou Hamer). In addition, Kim Severson wrote an interesting bio of John T. for the same paper, which goes into some of the intellectual battles that have arisen around his work. Our advice: read it all!

Another leading member of the food intelligentsia, Jessica Harris, has published a memoir that we are looking forward to reading. The book, “My Soul Looks Back,” (Scribner, 2017) has already been reviewed by the New York Times, which you can read here.

Can a salad be a racist symbol? In this article, Writer Bonnie Tsui explores the continued existence of the “Asian Salad” on many restaurant menus. This is a useful way to get into a discussion about casual racism in the food world. As she points out, the situation for this (and other) salads with names referring to nations or ethnic groups, is not simple. It is worth noting that there may still be a few restaurants (usually Italian) in New Orleans with a salad named for an ethnic slur for Italians. In this article from a few years back, a chef explains where that fits in local culinary terms.

Ever wonder about the story behind Indian-Chinese cuisine? You should, because the world is full of all kinds of great stories about traveling foods and people. To that end, read this article by Sharanya Deepak, on the development of Chinese cuisine in Kolkata over two centuries ago. And while we are tracing foods across the globe, check out this blog posting from food historian Rachel Laudan about the Islamic influence on Mexican cuisine. She traces a chicken dish from “Moorish” to “Mestizo” over a few centuries.

Following on this theme of ethnicity and foods, we have often featured here articles that take on questions about how foods from different groups are represented. Are they “ethnic” foods, immigrant foods, or just food? And who can speak about them, cook them for the public, etc.? These are important questions because they help (or prevent) thinking about the lives of the people who make the food. And because these discussions are far from settled, here is another one, in which Angela Dimayuga, executive chef at Mission Chinese (in New York), discusses the food they serve as maybe Chinese and maybe “New American Food.” This is the same Angela Dimayuga who was recently in the news for having refused an interview with an Ivanka Trump-affiliated website using very powerful language.

The Trump administration has picked a fight with Canada over milk and apparently both American dairy farmers and Democrats are happy. But should they be? Does the U.S. have a strange policy that generates huge milk surpluses? Perhaps. Read this, from Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, to learn about this situation.

During the last French presidential election debate, we learned a new word from France’s now-president elect, Emmanuel Macron: poudre de perlimpinpin. That is French for “snake oil” and Macron was accusing his opponent of being a purveyor. Dietary advice is, in America, one area where the poudre de perlimpinpin is regularly on offer. In this recent article from the Atlantic, James Hamblin looks into recent claims that lectins—substances found in plants—are to blame for American dietary woes. He critiques a book by a doctor who advises avoiding foods with lectins and who, as it happens, sells dietary supplements that he claims can help you deal with them. Along with casting serious doubts on the claims made by the anti-lectin doctor, Hamblin does a particularly good job of pointing to the signs and symbols deployed to lend legitimacy to this attempt at creating the next dietary fad. For that alone, this is worth a read.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies

CFP: Food Security in the Pacific

Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania Annual Meeting

New Orleans, Louisiana

January 30 to February 4, 2018

Deadline for Submissions: 1 November 2017

As the effects of climate change increasingly shift the conditions of everyday life within the Pacific region, food security has come to the fore as a pressing concern. Changes in ocean temperature have shifted fish populations, rising water tables have changed soil salinity, and an increasingly globalized food system has created economies of import dependence. The organizers of this informal session invite participants working on issues of food security, sovereignty, and indigenous food knowledge, in order to explore how growing, provisioning, and eating are negotiated within Pacific Island communities. We invite these conversations to be wide-ranging, and to engage questions of gendered labor, new technology, epistemology, abundance and scarcity, and changes over time. We are also interested in the historical conditions that make and unmake ways of eating and engaging with the environment, including colonialism, modernity, migration, and trans-Pacific networks. Contributions are welcomed from a range of theoretical perspectives that critically interrogate how food economies, cultures, politics and cultural representations shape lives and livelihoods in the contemporary Pacific.

Themes could include, but are not limited to, critical consideration of:

• Frameworks of food security, food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty within Pacific contexts;

 • Analysis of contemporary and historical food politics, including different food and farming movements and campaigns, particular land and resource struggles and other considerations of the political economy of food;

• Changing practices of food provisioning in relation to reproductive work, intra-household inequalities, time burdens and time poverty;

• Informal food exchange and trading networks and the continued importance of subsistence livelihood practices for Pacific food security;

• Changing food security practices and food cultures in relation to diaspora, migration, displacement and environmental degradation of woodsheds;

• Reflections on the changing meanings, uses and uptake of Pacific staple foods, including the promotion of particular crops for food security and nutrition (e.g. breadfruit);

 • Relationships between cash crop economies, food exports and household food production/security;

• Critical perspectives on nutrition discourses and food, health, development interventions and biopolitics in Pacific contexts;

• Food aesthetics, practices and economies of desire in relation to militarization and tourism in the Pacific;

• the status of ocean resources, fisheries and marine management in Pacific Oceania;

• Representations of food in indigenous Pacific knowledge production and cultural representations, as well as in Western production of knowledge about the Pacific.

Participants interested in this session are invited to contact the co-organizers with a suggested topic of interest, intention to participate, or any questions that you might have.

Hiʻilei Julia Hobart: hiilei.hobart@northwestern.edu

Amanda Friend Shaw: a.f.shaw@lse.ac.uk

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, CFP, Oceania

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, April 21, 2017

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.

As the Trump administration nears its 100 day mark, it is worth noting that the US Department of Agriculture, with over 100,000 employees spread out over 29 agencies, regulating parts of an industry that contributes around $992 billion to the U.S. economy, is still without a confirmed leader. Lack of leadership has not stopped the Trump administration from acting, however. For instance, a rule proposed under the Obama administration that would have protected the rights of farmers to sue corporations for whom they raise chickens and hogs has been suspended for six months—and possibly permanently—much to the dismay of some of those farmers. The unconfirmed nominee has had a hearing, with mixed reviews, as you can see here and here.

Also on agriculture, but on a more global scale, the Lancet has recently started an open access online publication, “The Lancet Planetary Health,” that will focus on “human health within the context of climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity, food and nutrition, sustainable fishing, agricultural productivity, environmental exposures to contaminents, waste management, air quality, or water and airbourne diseases.” The first issue is worth a look. It includes an editorial about the role of smallholder farms in the global food system and several related articles.

And while we are still thinking about agriculture, take a look at this article and short film about a form of urban agriculture that is rarely discussed. The focus here is on farmers in Guangzhou, China, who continue to farm even as their village has vanished around them, replaced by endless rows of skyscrapers. This process is an old one, but watching this raises a lot of questions about food, culture, and the future of our food supply.

There has been a lot written about American barbecue cultures and racism in recent years. This New Yorker article, by Lauren Collins, focuses on the particularly bitter history and present of Maurice’s Piggie Park, in South Carolina. Collins does a great job of unpacking the nuances of this particular story in a way that would make for a great discussion starter in a class on…food, racism, American society, or the country’s political present. Alas, this is an article about barbecue that may cause you to lose your appetite.

From the UK, we have this interesting observation about a new restaurant in Seattle that will feature foods from the American South…served with an “encyclopedia” that explains the cuisine. The idea is to combat racist perspectives associated with the cuisine.  Food that insists you think.

Everyone wants to know where their food comes from, but who looks at how it gets to you? This episode of the podcast Bite focuses on an interview with Alexis Madrigal, who has his own podcast series on the world of containers and shipping. In this instance, he discusses the place of small batch coffee in the world of enormous containerized shipping. The way this shapes the world of food is really so huge that it is hard to fully grasp. You should listen to this; it is where much of what you eat comes from. Also, the podcast starts with a brief segment on Indian cooks in America who are thrilled with their Instant Pot electric pressure cookers…which ought to be inspiring for anyone who has one.

Many people are distressed at the demise of Lucky Peach, which provided a place for all kinds of food writing that was hard to find elsewhere (at least in an accessible format). For an example of why, read this amusing (yet possibly serious) article on the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. Also, if you draw, you could join the Taco Bell Drawing Club.

Why are so many people being asked to work for free? This has been a crisis in the arts for a while, of course. Internships, mostly unpaid, seem increasingly necessary for college students before they can hope to start developing careers. Unpaid labor is also an important part of the world of food, with cooking school graduates and other aspiring cooks often engaging in “stages” (one of the culinary world’s words for “internship”) in restaurants. How useful is this? How exploitative? Is it even really legal? Corey Mintz explores these questions by looking at the astonishing extent to which the world’s most elite restaurants actually depend on unpaid labor.

The hipster food world is in love with mobile food vendors, perhaps best represented by trendy food trucks. Along with trendy trucks, a lot of food vending happens in carts that sell nearly every imaginable food.  This very useful article by Tejal Rao illustrates a day in the life of a New York City food vendor. His food looks great, by the way, but it is the result of hard work and what look like terrible economics.

In the realm of obscure-but-fascinating items, historian Paul Freedman provides this brief overview of the history of food at private clubs. The article includes lists and photos of current specialties at a variety of clubs around the U.S. One might expect the food to be rarified and elegant, but the photo of macaroons with Halloween candy corn suggests otherwise.

Finally, the first round of the French presidential elections is this Sunday (4/23). The outcome is anything but certain and, depending on your politics, you may need a drink afterwards. A French friend recently sent a clip from the movie “Le Tatoué,” with Jean Gabin and Louis de Funès demonstrating how to eat and drink with gusto. Even without faith in French politics, this should inspire everyone to have at least some faith in French cuisine, no matter the outcome. Remember this advice: “Manger des tripes sans cidre, c’est aller à Dieppe sans voir la mer.” Enjoy.

Leave a comment

Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, film, Food Studies