Category Archives: anthropology of food

Review: Making Milk

Making milk cover

Cohen, Mathilde, and Yoriko Otomo. Making Milk: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Primary Food. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. ISBN: 9781350029965

Kerri Lesh
Center for Basque Studies
University of Nevada, Reno

This interdisciplinary book offers a unique view on the scholarship of milk, which is enhanced by the diverse academic backgrounds from which the authors come. By loosely combining each author’s expertise, to include juridical, political, social, economic, artistic, historical, biological, and environmental perspectives, Making Milk examines ways in which milk embodies meaning, from production to consumption, through the lens of various intersectionalities. It provides food for critical thought by emphasizing the influential role that humans play in supporting or deconstructing the current systems in which milk exists.

The book is organized into four parts and starts by including a historical, theological, and political look at milk, continuing into the technological and natural means of milk production, all while cross-referencing and comparing milk within the dynamics of gender, race, class, and species. The book concludes in the last and fourth part by discussing plant milk, which in the final chapter emphasizes the influential role that humans play within the production and consumption of milk, offering a “DIY plant milk” recipe for those who might wish to more carefully ponder the relations they engage and resist in through milk.

New interpretations and ideas about milk are revealed throughout the book that make the reader reflect on our current, narrow interpretations of its importance, where it comes from, and how we formed a taste for it. For example, in Chapter 11, Gaard shares the passage from the Hebrew Bible in which the Promised Land is referred to as a “land flowing of milk and honey,” for humans that were the “chosen people for an exploitable land.” She explains that, according to the Talmud, the “honey” mentioned was actually plant honey, citing that the milk was derived from goats (not cows), and is interpreted by some as not being milk at all, but white wine. This passage forces the reader to acknowledge various interpretations of what milk is, in turn, questioning its modern standardized forms. Historical (mis)interpretations such as this, along with other accounts, demonstrate the ever-changing views on what milk has been, does, and should be.

In chapter one, Maillet notes that the Medieval medical interpretation of milk was considered to be “blood whitened in utero through the process of dealbation” transmitting characteristics of resemblance from a mother to the fetus, as “Milk is blood cooked in the uterus.” During and shortly after the Medieval period, the spiritualization of milk and its ability to take the place of blood was of great importance. Religious images of the lactating Virgin Mary can be seen on almost every wall of late Medieval churches, while stories of martyrdom liken the “realm of heaven” to having received mother’s milk.

Yet, in chapter four, the book juxtaposes such positive notions of receiving a mother’s milk to the inappropriateness of such practices in eighteenth-century Europe. There, Jackson and Leslie describe how breastfeeding practices were largely determined by race and social class. They explain that “Wet nursing was considered an acceptable occupation of working-class and non-white women—whose bodies were deemed closer to those of animals,” and that aristocratic women believed that breastfeeding would ruin their figures and interrupt social activities.

Modern day discussions surrounding the idea of breastfeeding include the concept of male lactation. In chapter eight, titled “The Lactating Man,” various ways in which males can participate in breastfeeding are detailed. The chapter discusses socio-cultural assumptions as to the gender of breastfeeding, explaining that fathers can breastfeed through a supplemental nursing system (SNS). The authors also explore the idea that males can participate in the breastfeeding act by taking part in other behaviors, such as supporting the breastfeeders to ensure their comfort and health, or by doing more childcare and housework to compensate for the time breastfeeders spend nursing.

This book encompassed a wide range of ideas surrounding the making of milk, supporting modern day ideas of milk-making through historical documentation. My own dissertation chapter, titled “Milk,” will benefit from this book by using a comparative analysis to understand its importance among different cultures and across time. In the book and in my own work, milk producers struggle to find balance between profit, authenticity, and safety as they consider these elements through processes such as industrialization, marketing, and pasteurization. Such issues demonstrate how milk can be used as a lens to highlight a culture’s political, social, economic, and even linguistic values to create a meaningful product for consumption.

This book analyzes milk in a new way by incorporating multiple frameworks used for studying gender power relations, sex, ecofeminism, and “tranimalities.” These frameworks force us to consider a larger picture and address issues that include how we view relationships between humans and other mammals and plant species. Such discussions would be relevant in a wide range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, food studies, environmental studies, and gender studies, reading the book as a whole, or by using one or more sections for a more focused study. Making Milk proves through its carefully researched and detail-oriented descriptions to be a helpful resource to those wanting an understanding of what milk has been over time and place, for whom it is intended, the problematic issues behind how it functions symbolically in modern societies, and finally, suggestions on how to view milk going forward.

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Review: Food in Zones of Conflict

Food in Zones of Conflict: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. Edited by Paul Collinson and Helen Macbeth. Berghahn Books. 2014. 252 pp. ISBN  978-1-78238-403-8

Food in Zones of Conflict: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

Jacquelyn Heuer (University of South Florida)

Food in Zones of Conflict is a multi-disciplinary volume on global studies in food and conflict consisting of sixteen chapters that each present a unique perspective on the issue. Covering a wide range of geographic areas, including sub-Saharan Africa, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Croatia, Mexico, and Ethiopia, Food in Zones of Conflict emphasizes the need to examine inequalities and inequities in access to food, especially in times of conflict. Addressing concerns that seem all the more relevant in today’s political climate, the chapters demonstrate how food insecurity and conflict are often intertwined, with conflict causing food insecurity and food insecurity causing conflict, thereby creating a cyclical epidemic in these zones of conflict. The emphasis of this cycle also serves to illustrate the political significance of food, both as a means of social control and as an impetus for inciting rebellions and riots. Rusca’s chapter exemplifies this, utilizing examples from a post-World War I Weimar Republic, where famine was used both as a means to bring the Germans to heel after their involvement in the war, and as propaganda allowing the National Socialists to rise to power.

Food insecurity and conflict often also contribute to syndemic conditions, including trauma, disease, and poverty, as illustrated by a number of authors in this volume. Of course, as Shepler noted, these syndemic conditions often impact those who are of lower socioeconomic status, as the individuals who are fortunate enough to have fewer inequities are more likely to have the resources to eat better during times of conflict. Meanwhile, as Adeyemi Oyeniyi and Akinyoade demonstrated, these syndemic conditions are most likely going to affect those who produce the food for a country, creating a conundrum where these food producers and farmers cannot access the food they are growing, either because of physical barriers from the conflict or economic barriers due to their social class. It should be noted that removing individuals from these zones of conflict does not necessarily mean that food insecurity comes to an end, as Henry and Macbeth so aptly articulate in their chapter on nutritional concerns facing those who reside in refugee camps.

In her chapter on household food consumption in Sri Lanka, Kent provides an alternative measure to the USDA Household Food Security Survey Module. Instead of relying on the USDA measure, Kent sorted households into categories based on household consumption patterns that also took seasonal patterns of food shortage into account, thereby allowing for Kent to adequately assess if households dealt with food insecurity on a daily basis or only seasonally. Kimaro, on the other hand, utilized the three pillars of food insecurity—availability, access, and use—to ascertain the role that religion may play in the search for food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, several chapters explore the complexity of identity and food in conflict, with Cwiertka discussing the implications of globalization as soldiers on the Pacific Front received provision packages during World War II. Meanwhile Campbell provided a more personal story, discussing the identity crisis faced by American soldiers deployed in Iraq who often had to choose between eating MREs, going hungry, or willingly consuming “the enemy’s” food.

Yet while Collinson and Macbeth did an excellent job of compiling a wide range of studies in food and conflict, it is worth noting that a number of the studies take a historical approach, especially those that discuss food issues during WWI and WWII. That said, these case studies, while dated, contribute to the existing literature and provide potential frameworks for other studies to utilize in their examination of food and conflict. Given this, it should be noted that many of the case studies in this volume could benefit from the application of a more applied approach, or at least an examination of how these examples from the past can contribute to contemporary issues of food in zones of conflict today. This lack of an applied approach is felt especially when the chapters are examined in the larger context of conflict today, with refugee crises in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Myanmar. Furthermore, given the conflicts in the United States with regards to immigrants, detention centers, and the increased border patrol presence in the U.S.-Mexico border region, an applied approach that speaks to current instabilities seems all the more relevant today.

Finally, Food in Zones of Conflict could benefit from additional theoretical and methodological grounding. As it is written, the volume serves as a “taste test,” allowing the reader to skim the surface of a number of issues that arise in areas of conflict, from food insecurity to human rights violations to the pervasive use of food as a way to wield power over people. While this approach succeeds in providing the reader with a review of the current literature, it misses an opportunity to contribute to the reader’s theoretical understanding, despite having a multitude of opportunities to interweave contemporary theories. For example, while some chapters touched on the embodied consequences of conflict, the continued shaping of practice and agency surrounding food choices and practices is largely overlooked. Furthermore, given the emphasis on the interconnectedness between food, conflict, and power, it seems strange that theories of power, syndemics, political economy, and structural violence were not further expanded upon in order to strengthen the arguments made by the authors.

In sum, despite the seeming lack of theoretical contribution, Food in Zones of Conflict is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in the issue. The broad range of topics, time periods, and geographic locations make the volume approachable to those who are only seeking to gain a grounding in the topic while the focus on food insecurity also makes this volume ideal for any academic seeking to review the current literature. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary perspectives provided by the authors make these case studies relevant to a number of fields, including anthropology, history, sociology, public health, and food policy and planning. Given the accessibility of the volume to a number of audiences, I expect that Collinson and Macbeth’s edited work will influence future food studies in zones of conflict for years to come.

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Review: Egg (Object Lessons)

Egg (Object Lessons) Nicole Walker. London: Bloomsbury. 2017. 154 pp. ISBN 9781501322877

Egg

Leslie Carlin (University of Toronto)

When my children were small and I kept frequent company with Mother Goose and her oeuvre, I often wondered why Humpty Dumpty was depicted as an egg. Nowhere in the nursery rhyme is he so described, but just try to imagine him as something else, a teapot or a pane of glass or some other thing that might shatter irrevocably. When I opened Nicole Walker’s compact book, *Egg*, I had high hopes that she might enlighten me.
The book is part of a Bloomsbury series called “Object Lessons,” which aims to explore everyday items with an imaginative slant. Other publications in the list include *Dust*, *Bread*, *Shipping Container*, and *Password* (clearly ‘objects’ is loosely interpreted). All the books are petite, about 6″ by 4″, with silky-soft, touchable covers.

Walker teaches creative writing at a Northern Arizona University, and I imagine she is very good at it. Her interest in other people and their lives holds the book together. Her specific remit, the egg, provides her with a good deal of scope and she enthusiastically takes her readers along for the ride. “Writing is best,” she tells us, “when I sit down and the words just come out…”. That sentiment very much summarizes the tone of the book: stream of consciousness, loosely focused on eggs in all their forms, slightly scrambled. Much within the lovely covers is delightful; some is dull.

The book is at its best when Walker narrates her own or her friends’ personal egg-related (however tangentially) stories, including her life as a writer, her journey to motherhood, the vagaries of child-rearing. Once we accompany her on an anxious journey to the emergency room to learn whether she is experiencing an ectopic pregnancy (she is not). Another time, we join Walker for a camping trip on the rim of the Grand Canyon where she reunites with an erstwhile best friend, after the two had stopped speaking to one another for five years (they cook eggs). During these episodes, we feel as though we are sneaking a peek in a diary, albeit an authorized look. Walker discusses eggs as they appear in various origin myths (Dogon, Finnish, Vedic), and mixes in her own struggles with fertility, playing on meanings of ‘origins’. She calls upon friends and correspondents, some from different national or ethnic backgrounds to her own, and begs them to provide her with material. In this way, we learn about Korean egg-related proverbs, Ukrainian Easter egg traditions, and Chinese recipes. “Everyone has an egg story,” Walker concludes, though I note that all her informants are women. “Women tell me their egg stories,” might be more appropriate.

These tales are undeniably interesting in that diary-peeking sense. Where the book lost my attention, however, was in its more philosophical meanderings, for instance, about women as giant matryoshka dolls containing eggs that produce more eggs, and so on; numerous metaphors about hardness and softness, and ruminations on the state of the environment (endangered turtles and their eggs; eagles and theirs). Walker makes a foray into the psychology of decision-making by discussing whether having the choice of caged, cage-free, organic, and other types of eggs is paralyzing and counter-productive. We accompany her on various web searches, picking search terms, selecting sites. I find myself suspecting that she is sometimes struggling to bulk up the word count.

That said, I did enjoy the thread of stories personal to Walker herself. And I learned a few things, including why eggs in the UK, where I lived for many years, do not need refrigeration, whereas those in the US, where I was born and grew up, do. (It is because USDA regulations require that eggs be washed prior to sale in supermarkets, thus removing their natural anti-microbial coating.) And at the end, there is a nice recipe for egg-fried rice.
I did not, however, learn why Humpty-Dumpty is an egg. If anyone has ideas in that regard, please let me know.

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Review: Hippie Food

Hippie Food: How Back to the Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. Jonathan Kauffman. New York: William Morrow, 2018. ISBN 978-0062437303

Hippie Food

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Jonathan Kauffman ends his Hippie Food with the following: “When brown rice reminds us all of our childhoods, then the hippie food revolution will finally be won (p. 287.)” This food revolution-its origins, history, and present state-with its emphasis on healthy, natural, organic foods, mostly vegetarian, grown by and prepared by people committed to social change, is the subject matter of this excellent, witty, readable, and enjoyable book. Not only does Kauffman, a noted chef and food writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, return to the origins of the revolution, he weaves it into the politics, the philosophical revolution, the music, and the zeitgeist of the times. And he occasionally gives recipes! In sum, Kauffman says we are a different food-eating nation because of what the hippies and their forebears have done to our ways of thinking about, preparing, and eating food.
Each of his chapters deals with a different aspect of this revolution. He starts off with an examination as to how fruits, seeds, and nuts started to enter our diets. Its beginnings started in Southern California, with two restaurants featuring these items on their menus. Disparaged by the local press, the restaurants flourished, often with the help of a celebrity clientele. Of the Source, he gushes about: ” [The Source’s special]…they’d spread the lemon-herb vinaigrette onto a slice of whole-wheat bread, then layer on a thick green smear of guacamole, sliced raw mushrooms, tomatoes, and a poof of alfalfa sprouts.” They would add Cheddar cheese as well. Kauffman, citing some of the “family members” involved in the restaurant, said that “the …food was so good because Baker [the owner] brought them into the freshest fruits and vegetables, grown in the best possible way. Others say that the flavor was an expression of their devotion (pp. 53-4.)”
This trope, of health foods prepared lovingly by people who believed in the food, who believed in a revolution that would offer an alternative to bland, processed, “poisoned” food (after Rachel Carson,) food that was not nutritional, food that exploited the people who worked the soil, appears throughout. Chapter Two focuses on how brown rice came to be seen as better, healthier, and spiritual. Chapter Three focuses on “Brown Bread and the Pursuit of Wholesomeness,” leading to the artisan bread revolution of today. Chapter Four focuses on Tofu, which becomes “…the Political Dish” (p.131) because Francis Moore Lappe showed the world the high costs and destructive effects of meat production.
Kauffman argues that the Hippie Food Revolution comes from diverse sources, many of which those of us in the food anthropology world already know, and others less familiar. Food “changers” like the Seventh Day Adventists and John Kellogg developed early granola and other cereals over 150 years ago (pp.235-7.) Adele Davis argued for healthier eating and vitamin supplements in the early 1950’s (pp.111-3.) Samuel Kaymen helped organize a back-to-the land movement to grow healthier food and then distribute it (Chapter Five.) Chapter Six tells the story of the effect of cheap travel in the Sixties on curries, vegetarian, and international inspirations for alternative food. One splendid result is Anna Thomas’ The Vegetarian Epicure and its sequels. Thomas broadened the range of alternative foods, contrasting much of the earlier non-spicy meals found in the macrobiotic world.
This is just a partial list: each chapter reviews the origins of different aspects of this food revolution, eventually seeing it as a social and political response to American culture, traditional American diets, the Vietnam War, and capitalism (Introduction and Conclusion.) Moreover, each chapter has a plethora of information about all the past and recent actors, in this food revolution, with useful citations and references. Many of the names are familiar, such as Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Wolfgang Puck and the Moosewood Cookbook.
The next-to-the last chapter, Chapter 7, is about food co-ops. Kauffman tells the tale of food co-ops, food conspiracies, and food distribution producers and networks. These alternatives were developed as a reaction to the consumerist and capitalist ways of producing, distributing, and marketing what was often seen as unhealthy food, exploiting workers and the land at all levels of the food chain. Often, the co-ops and their auxiliaries, communal in nature and founded in Rochdale principles of one person, one vote, found themselves at political/economic/ideological loggerheads, with factional fighting over whether they should have meat, and whether they should serve whole neighborhoods or only each other and so on (p. 265 et seq.)
These co-ops, very fragile operations, were (and are) marginal economically, and, aside from the ideological and factional fighting, exhausted its members, who were and are often workers in the operation. This is an issue I explored in my own dissertation (1976) and expanded in 1981, which Kauffman does not reference. Nor does he explore the excellent work of John Curl’s study about cooperation and cooperative movements (2009.) One of my criticisms of this chapter, apart from this lack, is the failure to focus on the significant work existing on co-operative supermarkets, such as the then Berkeley, Palo Alto, Greenbelt Co-ops, and Associated Coops (the Warehouse for the Bay Area Co-ops), and what the Midwest Food Project out of Chicago with David Zinner did to promote food co-ops and food conspiracies. Zinner continued his work later on in the Washingon, DC. area, as reported by Lucy Norman (1981). Furthermore, Kauffman does not significantly address the extent to which student groups like Students for a Democratic Society grew out of the student co-op movement at the University of Michigan.
The strength of Kauffman’s book is in the portrayal of the revolution in food hippies brought to America and elsewhere. A cursory examination in one of the centers of alternative food, my home county, Sonoma, California, shows the diversity of foods and of the social changes that are its foundation. Jeff Quackenbush features Ted Robb expanding almond milk production (2018,) Jessica Zimmer tells the story of `another successful woman in the healthy food business, in this case, juice (2018.) The revolution has changed the way we eat and empowered the people who produce what we eat. I would add to Kauffman’s end statement: we will remember not just brown rice, but tofu, granola, organic \produce, and artisan bread, for openers.

2018
Jeff Quackenbush. Almond Milk for Your Coffee. North Bay Business Journal. v. 32, Number 05. June 4, 2018. p.4.

2009
John Curl. For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden history of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America. PM Press: Oakland, California.

1981
Lucy Starr Norman. Food Co-ops: A Delicious Way to Save Money. The Washington Post. July 16, 1981. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1981/07/16/food-coops-a-delicious-way-to-save-money/83f10990-5db8-4c69-bd5d-882c1aa8426f/?utm_term=.6b6aec452ea7

2018
Jessica Zimmer. “Gia Balocchi owner of The Nectary advises if you aren’t scared in business ‘try harder’. North Bay Business Journal. v, 32. V. 18. September 13, 2018. pp. 19-20.

1976
Richard Zimmer, Small Scale Retail Food Cooperatives: (PhD. Dissertation, UCLA.)

1981
Richard Zimmer. Observer Participation and Technical Consultation in Urban food coops. In Donald A. Messerschmidt, ed. Anthropologists at Home In North America: Methods and issues in the Study of One’s Own Society. Cambridge University Press: New York. pp. 64-76.

n.d.
Alan Glenn. https://aadl.org/freeingjohnsinclair/essays/hidden_history_of_ann_arbor

 

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Review: The Story of Soy

 The Story of Soy. Christine M. Du Bois. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 266 pp. + References and Index. ISBN 978 1 78023 925 5.

Jacket Image

Ellen Messer, (Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Boston University Gastronomy Program)

Anyone interested in global diet and agriculture should be interested in soy because it is by far the most grown oilseed and fourth most cultivated crop in the world (after the cereals maize, wheat, and rice) (p.223).  As a major source of plant protein, it sustains the diets of humans and livestock, and has contributed the world over to agricultural livelihoods and nutrition.  That said, this voluminously documented volume takes care to situate soy in its diverse historical and contemporary contexts. It shows how soy in each era paradoxically created conditions to sustain life, including fixing nitrogen for agricultural ecosystems, but also to destroy environments and societies through relentless and sometimes violent pursuit of food and wealth based on soybean cultivation, processing and distribution.

The opening chapter, “Hidden Gold,” introduces readers to the long-term history of soy, as a food, feed, and industrial crop, and to major flash points, like the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, which made soy loom large in political-geographic history. Chapter 1, “Asian roots,” speculates about soy’s original domestication and diffusion as a significant food that was processed to facilitate and extend its nutritional reach. Chapter 2 documents the European history of soy, including war-related developments that expanded soy’s nutritional potential to feed hungry populations that could afford little meat.  Chapter 3 turns to United States adoptions and genetic and agronomic improvements for food, feed, and industrial purposes. Chapter 4, “Soy Patriotic” returns to Asian soy as a war and post-war crop.  Here the stories include post-World War II innovations, like citric acid processing that removed off flavors, and utilization of stainless steel processing equipment that prevented contamination. These stories include how soy became implicated the development of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which drew botanists into ethical and political opposition to the Vietnam (American) War after military scientists used their basic research understandings of crop maturation to de-forest Vietnam and expose fighters’ hiding places.

Chapter 5, “Fattening with Feed” covers developments of inexpensive, soy-based animal nourishment, which transformed and enabled concentrated poultry and pig production the world over.  Like all the other chapters, this one opens with a human, personal-interest story, then opens out onto implications for larger scale economies, social units, and national, regional, and world diets.  In this case, the human-interest story tells how “chickens dramatically changed the destiny of a rural woman, thirty-year-old Amal Ismail, as well as the lives of millions of her fellow Egyptians:

“Since the 1950s, both beneficial and injurious aspects of the mass feeding of soy to animals have powerfully shaped our world, thanks to the export of American techniques for livestock production.  Mrs. Ismail and her chickens serve as a humble yet revealing entry into a far larger story.  Our survey of soy and livestock will include a chicken-blood cookbook, giant economic aid programmes, airlifted hogs, corporate treatment of animals, antibiotics, wild-bird diseases, obesity, fecal river pollution, drowned hogs and more.” (p.93)

Positive and negative consequences pile up, as the world population in aggregate gains greater access to healthy protein, either directly by eating processed soybean products or indirectly by consuming more and cheaper soy-fed animal meats.   But this expansion, particularly of the soybean feed industry has not been without environmental destruction, covered in Ch.6, “Soy Swoops South” which scrupulously documents deforestation, erosion of land and biodiversity, and violence against the people who were already living there.  Country by country, soybean livelihoods demonstrably increased soy-related household, provincial, and national incomes, but also pitted subnational private soybean interests against state desires to establish and use soybean taxes and revenues to pay for national infrastructure and human development programs.  All also proved vulnerable to multi-national (biotechnology) seed and chemical companies, which imposed their will as they sought ever greater control over farmers and national agricultural regulations. Ch. 7 continues these discussions of corporate control over seeds, toxic chemicals, and water and land use.  But again, outcomes need not prove pre-determined.  As the author summarizes in the conclusion to this chapter,

‘           ’Growing soybeans and other crops poses many actual and potential challenges to environments, including habitat loss, monoculture, genetic modification, toxic chemicals, climate change, erosion, and depletion of fresh water.  But fatalism is misguided: the destructive effects of farming can (emphasis in the original) be mitigated through careful research and ingenuity.  No-till cultivation, pest control through organic methods or chemicals with reduced toxicity, effective penalties for environmental rule-breakers and a reduction in meat eating that drives so much agriculture can each make a genuine difference. The question is how much effort we will put into protecting our natural world. This is our only world. There is no other planet for us. There is no ‘escape hatch’ from our responsibilities—or from the consequences of our actions.” (p.172).  Readers here get a sense of the author’s ambivalent sensibilities, which are also passionate, and draw on a complete range of pro- and anti- technology advocates.

The book could have ended here.  But wait, there’s more.  The two-sided approach continues, in subsequent chapters on nutrition and international business and trade. Ch.8, “Poison Or Panacea” discusses the positives (accessible protein) and negatives (anti-nutritional and allergenic factors) associated with soy nutrition, and also certain health issues, like relationship between soybean consumption, female estrogen levels and male sperm counts, and a range of possible risks and benefits associated with more extensive genetic engineering of soybeans for food and medicine.  There are also added discussions of soy in disaster relief and food aid. Chapter 9 examines “Big Business”, which is largely under the control of a few very large agricultural production, processing, and trading firms, like ADM.  In this chapter, readers can follow the journey from mid-western farm to global feedlot or food processor.  The author adroitly unpacks the abstractions and workings of commodities futures contracts, including the thought processes of hedgers and speculators, winners and losers. (There’s even a reference to the 1983 hit movie, “Trading Places” and FBI investigation of fraud on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (pp.226-232)).  There follow the dynamic mergers and acquisitions among leading seed (biotechnology) companies competing for markets, the politics of managed markets and subsidies in industrialized, developing, and transition countries; and finally, the land grabs that have characterized soy-growing areas especially since the world food price crisis of 2007-2008.

These business and environmental concerns spill over into Chapter 10, on “Soy Diesel”, which continues country-by-country discussions of soy strategies such as  efforts to recycle soy oil in order to cut down on pollution and waste in Brazil and Indonesia.  In all these developing country stories, however, the reader sees the downsides, as small operators inevitably lose access to food and energy resources when world prices rise beyond their control.  The book ends with an “Afterword” about Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which harbors some 27,000 varieties of soy. This short chapter ends with a rehash of the individually grounded, cultural stories that show promise and peril inherent in soybeans, which are used as a “lens for new perspectives on our very selves.” (p.266).  Readers can decide whether they appreciate and want to use these reflections to structure discussions of additional, non-soy domains.

As I was preparing this review of Christine Du Bois’s comprehensive, The Story of Soy  (London: Reaktion Books, 2018) I happened to read an “early view” of Andrew Ofstehage’s (2018) “Farming Out of Place,” which describes “flexible farming” modes of production by a younger generation of mid-Western US farmers, who buy up and farm South American lands after they have been priced out of the land market in their home places of origin.  I also read and reviewed Gerardo Otero’s Neoliberal Diet, which covers some of the same territory from a quantitative, larger-scale agricultural and nutritional perspective, focusing in part on the huge growth of plant fats in global diets.  To cover community cultural and the “big” political economic picture, I’d recommend that readers and instructors in food-studies and anthropology of food, nutrition, and diet courses use all three sources together.

Finally, as someone who has followed Du Bois’ work on soy (Messer 2009, 2016), and also as someone trained in ethnobotany, I particularly appreciated Du Bois’ exhaustive dedication to exploring the entire range of relations between this economic and nutritional species and the human populations that have used and will continue to use it.  I look forward to reading comparative studies on other oilseeds based on the excellent research presented here.

References cited:

Messer, Ellen (2009) Review of: The World of Soy, by C. DuBois, T-C. Chan and  S. Mintz, Gastronomy 9,4:101-103. Access at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.issue-4

 

Messer, Ellen (2016) Remembering Sid Mintz. Food Anthropology, 4 January 2016. Access at: https://foodanthro.com/2016/01/04/remembering-sidney-mintz/

Ofstehage, Andrew (2018) Farming Out of Place: Transnational family farmers, flexible farming, and rupture of rural life in Bahia, Brazil.  American Ethnologist 45,3: 317-329

Otero, G. (2018) The Neoliberal Diet. Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People. University of Texas Press.

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Review: Puer Tea

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

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Chinese: 武侠

[3] Chinese: 侠客

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

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Meal Kits: Our Culinary Future?

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Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont

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

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

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

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

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

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