Category Archives: anthropology of food

Review: Taste, Politics and Identities in Mexican Food

Media of Taste, Politics, and Identities in Mexican Food

Taste, Politics, and Identities in Mexican Food, Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz, ed., Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 240 pp. ISBN # 9781350066670

Emily Ramsey (University of Georgia)

Is there such a thing as “Mexican cuisine and taste?” As the essays in the volume compiled by Stefan Igor Ayora-Diaz argue, this is an eminently political question because it belies an undergirding assumption that unity exists at a national level. This assumed unity masks any temporal, spatial, social, economic, and ecological differences among cuisines and dishes labeled collectively as “Mexican” while ignoring the hybridity that thrives at local and regional levels. To probe more deeply into what constitutes “Mexican cuisine” in its breadth, Ayora-Diaz and the collection’s authors delve theoretically into the concepts of taste and flavor, emphasizing that, while fundamentally biological in nature, “nonlineal, complex sociocultural and political processes…shape how people simultaneously develop shared and differing experiences of taste in food” (2). These experiences are equally subjective and intersubjective, deriving from memory, emotions, commensality, and perceptions of identity and difference, affirming identities at local, translocal, ethnic, regional, and national levels. Taste in this volume has a distinctly Bourdieuian (1984) flavor: since taste is a social marker it thus becomes a political matter. The politics of taste gain new meaning with UNESCO’s 2010 declaration of Mexican cuisine as intangible cultural heritage, fostering “traditional” recipes and methods of preservation while complicating the landscape of regional cuisines in the Yucatán, Oaxaca, and beyond. Consequently, the volume’s authors attempt to explore how taste is negotiated amidst complex processes of cultural identity in light of history, memory, social class, and global processes.

The volume is divided into three sections, each with four essays. Importantly, it eschews an exclusively contemporary look at Mexican cuisine and taste, with several essays integrating historical texts, archival records, and archaeological evidence to present or reconstruct the evolution of Mexican cuisines. Although several essays are Yucatán- and Oaxaca-focused, the book also adopts a relatively broad geographic approach to “Mexican cuisine,” looking not only within national borders but to places where Mexicans or Mexican cuisine reside outside. It does so by looking to how certain ingredients and culinary styles have become instrumental in local, regional, and national identities, pushing us to consider the limitations and effects of discourses that promote a singular, often homogenizing, national cuisine.

Part I focuses explicitly on cuisines of the past. The first chapter, by Lilia Fernández Souza, attempts to develop a framework for doing “tasteful archaeology.” To do so, she draws on work by Sutton (2010), Stoller and Olkes (1989), and others on the foundational importance of multisensorial, sensual experiences and Hamilakis’ (2011) work on sensory experiences’ material grounding to argue that archaeology can reconstruct past flavors, textures, and aromas through material remains. As such, Souza reviews common ingredients in the Maya pre-Columbian archaeological record, considering the flavors and textures these would have contributed, and, in the absence of recipes, the effects of preparation and cooking techniques. Consequently, attention to such material traces opens the door to “multisensorial experiences of the human past” (32). The second article, by Sarah Bak-Geller Corona examines how calls to formalize and institutionalize culinary knowledge in early 19th century parallel wider processes of political reconfiguration promoting “republican principles of rationality, egalitarianism, and the common good” (37). She reviews these threads in the writings of Tepalcate, a parish priest who—viewing culinary science as demanding high levels of qualification and expertise—called for the creation of dictionary of cuisine for aspiring chefs, methods for grooming these chefs, and a code of cuisine establishing culinary rules and criteria. Cookbooks of the time perform similar republicanizing moves, maintaining that dining tables reinforce critical social ties to promote civility and civilization. Some 19th century authors, however, push back, nostalgic for past customs, simpler foods, and traditional preparation methods in light of new standardizing technologies like the corn mill.

Héctor Hernández Álvarez and Guadalupe Cámara Gutiérrez archaeologically examine the alcohol consumption patterns of the elite and poor at an early 20th century Yucatecan hacienda, focusing on the exclusionary mechanism alcohol played among social classes. They argue that the presence of whole and fragmented glass bottles from imported wines, beers, tonics, and liquors reflects the consumptive habits of the estate’s elite owners and guests; however, the presence of these bottles in the workers’ solares marks their reuse for containing aguardiente, a sugar cane-based alcohol traditionally drunk by indigenous populations. Álvarez and Gutiérrez argue that these bottles were refilled with the aguardiente produced and sold on-site to hacienda workers, a claim corroborated by hacienda workers’ descendants. In the last essay of this section, Mario Fernández-Zarza and Ignacio López-Moreno discuss the critical role of corn as a superfood in Mexican cuisine. Flavor is a sociocultural construction and corn’s countless flavors, they argue, result from a complex confluence of corn’s evolution driven by farmer cultivation and selection, its preparation, consumptive form, and especially its cultural significance. However, as the food industry increasingly reshapes tastes through processed foods and policies that have led to the abandonment of agricultural lands and the adoption of hybrid and transgenic corn varieties, corn’s diversity of flavors is more and more at risk.

Part II shifts from a more historical orientation to a look at the identities and politics—and the politics of identity—in Mexican foods. Ronda Brulotte’s chapter on the politics and practices of mezcal connoisseurship traces how this once low-status liquor became prestigious nationally and internationally. This prestige, Brulotte argues, arises from complex inter-discursive processes. Oaxaca’s depiction as an off-the-beaten-path site of authentic craft industries, mezcal’s portrayal as a liquor requiring education and refinement for true appreciation, and elaborate bottle labels that detail its terroir­ and production details collectively add value and status to the liquor. This, in turn, has opened new markets and helped transform Oaxaca into a trendy destination for craft food and drink consumption. The second essay, by Stefan Igor Ayora-Diaz, argues that the Yucatán’s historically strong regional cuisine and identity are rapidly evolving as the demography of the region transforms. This expanding and fragmenting translocal foodscape is actively shaping Yucatecan consumers’ tastes, making some more open to experimentation in restaurants when novelty was previously only valued in the home. The multiplicity of cuisines to which they are exposed mean Yucatecans are less able to use preferences for traditional foods to assert their identification with ethnic, local, or regional identities; rather, they must now compare these preferences to the breadth of cuisines extant at that moment.

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina explores “the life delicious” in Mérida, Yucatán, portraying how food-centered events and celebrations structure the year and contribute to a life well-lived. Whether during February’s Mardi Gras festivities, spring and summer school vacations, Day of the Dead celebrations, or Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, families structure their lives around socializing with good food among friends and relatives. Drawing on Korsmeyer (1999) and Bourdieu (1984), she argues that food, music, laughter, and the sounds of the countryside and sea are fundamental to building community and establishing the good life for all Yucatecans, even if social classes participate differentially and separately in the good life. In the last essay of this section, Jeffrey Cohen and Paulette Kershenovich Schuster explore the multiple roles that chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers, have come to occupy for rural Oaxacans, urban Oaxacans, and the region’s more adventuresome tourists. For rural Oaxacans, chapulines are a food of last resort and means of survival amidst food insecurity, while for urban Oaxacans, they increasingly reflect the state’s indigenous heritage and have become steeped in nostalgia for a bucolic past. For tourists, chapulines often represent a challenge, portrayed as nutritionally valuable by restauranteurs to entice health-conscious consumers. Because of taste’s biological and cultural dimensions, the authors assert that chapulines reflect how taste preferences change yet simultaneously expose social stratification.

The final section of this volume treats Mexican food in a broader global context. Ramona Pérez’s chapter examines the role of flavor in Oaxacan foods cooked in lead-glazed ceramic cookware. Oaxacan cuisine’s unique flavor profile, she argues, is an amalgamation of the region’s many microclimates, edible herbs used, distinctive combination of ingredients. and especially the cookware in which dishes are made. This cookware imparts inimitable flavors that, despite attempts, her team was unable replicate for local Oaxaqueños using nonceramic instruments. For displaced Oaxaqueños living outside the region, this flavor becomes critical. Longing amidst displacement generates nostalgia for local ingredients and flavors, and although many are aware of the lead poisoning threat, they have the lead-glazed ceramics shipped to them for special occasions to maintain tastes of the past. Jeffrey Pilcher examines the evolution of beer taste and preferences in Mexico in light of the larger global market. Pulque, a drink fermented from the sap of the maguey plant, has a long history dating to preclassical Tenochtitlan, but became associated first with indigenous and later working-class backwardness by Spanish and then Mexican elites. In the 19th century, beer in Mexico increasingly became associated with modernity, taking cues from available imported European varieties. Yet by the 20th century, Corona had established a regional, national, and later international presence, especially in the United States. Since UNESCO’s declaration of Mexican cuisine as intangible cultural heritage, pulque production, once almost gone, has resurged amidst a growing craft beer industry in Mexico City, recently also spreading to New York and Chicago.

In the section’s third essay, Paulette Kershenovich Schuster examines the culinary preferences of Jewish Mexicans living in Israel, arguing that food and commensality helps them retain links to Mexico while maintaining a core part of their identity. First comparing the flavors and ingredients characterizing a Mexican diet versus an Israeli diet, she notes that Tex-Mex dishes have only recently begun to make their way into the Israeli mainstream. Traditionally Mexican dishes are often met with some uncertainty and confusion among Israelis, and thus Mexican restaurants adapt dishes to suit the Israeli palate. In their homes and social gatherings, however, Jewish Mexicans in Israel use food to anchor themselves to the past, teach their children about their heritage, and reinforce group membership through commensality. Consequently, food reflects both self-identification and cultural pride. In the last essay, Christine Vassallo-Oby explores culinary tourism in Cozumel, arguing that cruise line arrangements with and promotion of pre-vetted businesses results in sanitized tastes for most visitors. This sanitized model reaches its epitome with Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, which “builds a fantasy of paradise” (194) while it offers tourists a safe place to engage in “controlled debauchery” (196). This contrasts with a walking tour of local food venues offered by one U.S. expat, a tour that tends to attract a qualitatively different kind of tourist. The personal connections of the walking food tour thus counter the landscape of “Fordist mass tourism” generated by Cozumel’s corporatization (201).

Taken separately and as a whole, the volume’s chapters function well to disturb the idea of Mexican cuisine as unitary, or even as a concept altogether. I agree with Richard Wilk in the volume’s postface that national cuisines from a distance look very different, or even unrecognizable, to those from within, but that “the question of authenticity is really beyond the point” (208). As Wilk argues, understanding what motivates the different forms of authentication—including the need to “brand” national cuisines as forms of cultural heritage—is often as critical as is asking where the boundaries lie in defining not just what foods belong but how to characterize attendant social and culinary practices. The book, thus, does an effective job in pushing readers to consider food and tastes across multiple time scales and territorial distributions, recognizing that “these cuisines are actually in perpetual motion, with new dishes, spices, and combinations being absorbed and other things being exported abroad” (211). Each chapter does so in a broadly accessible way, engaging with theory but grounding its arguments in concrete examples. I thus find it appropriate for anywhere from upper-level undergraduates to graduate students and other academic professionals engaged in food studies.

 

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. R. Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hamilakis, Yannis. 2011. “Archaeology of the Senses.” In T. Insoll, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, 208-244. New York: Oxford University Press.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Stoller, Paul and Cheryl Oakes. 1989. “The Taste of Ethnographic Things.” In The Taste of Ethnographic Thing: The Senses in Anthropology, 336-352. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sutton, David. 2010. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology 39(1): 209-223.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Mexico, taste

“I Remember the Day I said ‘Okay, I’ve Read Everything,’” an Interview with Carole Counihan

David Sutton

Here is the second in my series of video interviews with food anthropologists. This one is with Dr. Carole Counihan, who probably needs no introduction. In it she reflects on her career, her research in Italy and southern Colorado, and her role as editor of Food and Foodways. This interview was conducted at her summer home in Antonito, Colorado, and was followed by a delicious Tuscan soup that Carole prepared, which unfortunately I cannot share here. See also Carole’s “Proust Questionaire.”

More interviews to follow soon.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food history, history, Italy, United States

Review: Introducing the Study of Food and Eating AND Food Studies

Media of Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating                 Media of Food Studies

Murcott, Anne. Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. 223 pp. ISBN 978-1-3500-2201-0

Zhen, Willa. Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. 212 pp. ISBN 978-1-4742-9871-1

Sarah Quick, (Cottey College)

As someone who has been regularly teaching a Food and Culture course for the past few years, finding new resources for such a course is always beneficial. Of late, I have not been relying on any one text (or edited volume) but pulling together chapters and articles from various sources to cover the usual topics—race, class, and  gender; what constitutes a meal in different social and cultural contexts, restaurants, globalization, etc. While I have moved away from one text structuring readings and course topics, either of these accessible books could serve in this capacity. Nevertheless, instructors would likely want to supplement them; and since the written narrative for both is under 200 pages and very reasonably priced (around $25), these works could easily be paired with an ethnography, or additional readings. However, pairing together at least in total would likely not be the most ideal option since there’s considerable overlap between the two.

Zhen’s Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide introduces and engages with food studies as an interdisciplinary field while it also emphasizes anthropological topics and sources; it offers six full chapters capped by a short introduction and epilogue followed by a glossary. Murcott’s Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating, not surprisingly, takes a sociological perspective albeit recognizing anthropology and cultural geography as the most overlapping and/or influential in the issues she explores. It contains a longer introduction and eleven full chapters before a short concluding chapter.

Both books delve into the analysis of meals as social constructions (albeit Zhen is much more expansive in her cultural coverage) as well as what the food system means to analysts. They also cover issues of race, class, gender, food waste, and globalization. They diverge in that Zhen provides a much more expansive (evolutionary) history for considering humans as producers, consumers, and innovators when it comes to food technology. Murcott, on the other hand, provides much more coverage on food in relation to public spaces (restaurants and more) and institutions like hospitals and schools.

Both books provide consistent formatting or structure across the chapters. Zhen’s chapters provide an introduction or overview, several sub-sections, occasional figures, and boxes—either “Food for thought” boxes that expand on a particular issue or “Activity” boxes that may be enacted by students individually or in groups—capped off with a summary, discussion questions, further resources, end notes, and further readings. After the introduction, Murcott’s chapters are framed by a commonly understood problem (or headline) when it comes to food and our society. For example, chapter two “Food at Home: ‘the family meal in decline?”’ takes on the ideologies attached to ‘the family meal’ and its so-called decline. Each chapter also has several subsections as well as boxes that cover specific issues, often methodological. At the end there’s a final box that serves as a summary of key points in the chapter. Murcott’s endnotes appear at the back of the book.

I asked an undergraduate student worker to read through a couple chapters in each book over the summer to garner her reactions. She found the narrative flow of Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide to be a little to choppy at times because of all the added boxes, while the boxes in Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating were a little less jarring to her reading flow. Nevertheless, she appreciated the price and reading accessibility of both books, and she seemed to refer back to topics in the Zhen book more so in our subsequent conversations. As an instructor, I actually really value the boxes that Zhen provides since they offer so much fodder for class activities, discussions, or assignments. All in all, for such short introductory books, both of these books pack a lot into their coverage in an engaging fashion.

 

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Review: Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Media of Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism. Beth A. Dixon. Bloomsbury Academic. 2018 ISBN #9781350054561. 192 pp.
Megan B. Hinrichsen (Monmouth College)

In Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism, Beth A. Dixon explores the paradoxes of our contemporary food system through the stories told about hunger and scarcity contradictorily coexisting with stories told about rising rates of morbid obesity. Her book covers the narratives constructing the collective understandings of contemporary food system and societal injustices that interest those studying the anthropology of food: food insecurity, the “voluntary” migration and naturalized oppression of farmworkers, and obesity. Each of these topics not only has a clear connection to food and the food system but is tied together through master narratives related to personal responsibility. Food justice narratives can undermine the power of these master narratives by positioning “us to make more accurate and nuanced appraisals of moral responsibility” about individuals who struggle with problems related to food injustices (113). Throughout the book, Dixon demonstrates how philosophical and ethical reasoning are activities that are deeply connected to everyday lives. Readers learn how we – philosophers and “ethical novices,” anthropologists or those in other fields, students and professors, experts and non-experts alike – can use the tools of ethical awareness to shape our knowledge of food justice and inform our activism.

Dixon’s goals for this work are clearly lined out. She presents case studies of food insecurity, farmworkers and farm labor, and obesity as representations of a narrative methodology informed by the concept of ethical perception. Ethical perception is an idea borrowed from Aristotle (and others) that conveys that ethical expertise has to be obtained in a developmental process, incrementally. Therefore, Dixon proposes that realistic narratives about our food system can guide readers to ethical conclusions that orient them towards activism. A compelling and precise food justice narrative “profiles individual people, social groups, or communities that suffer injustice and aims to make visible why we should classify their circumstances as unjust” (2). These are stories that are increasingly familiar. These stories tell us about who is hungry and why they go hungry. These are stories about our roles as consumers in an increasingly complex and hidden food system. There are stories about who is planting, picking, processing, and selling our food. There are also stories about the consumption of food and when it becomes problematic and marked as unhealthy. Dixon argues that the analysis of food justice narratives should position us to identify structural conditions that lead to some of these injustices. Dixon views these food justice narratives as “counterstories that correct the way in which master narrative implicitly disguise the identities and background circumstances of those who seek to nourish themselves” (9). Master narratives about the food system in the United States, according to Dixon, place an excessive burden on the individual person to bear responsibility for their position in society. She recommends that we adjust our “ethical lens” to focus on structural injustice and oppression that constrain people’s choices (10). The consideration of structural inequalities has been central in anthropology for decades, yet it remains an essential concept as we consider how people’s choices are constrained and opportunities are limited for individuals and groups of people in a variety of contexts.

We anthropologists and students of anthropology may be some of the ethical novices (defined as people who are developing ethical expertise on a topic) who can work to develop food justice narratives as counterstories that resist master narratives. Dixon argues that learning to “see food justice is part of a more general strategy for acquiring ethical expertise” (41). Dixon provides almost step-by-step instructions for how to develop narrative skill in the book’s second chapter. In one of the personal vignettes used to open and close the book’s chapters, Dixon describes working at a food pantry called Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard (MHC). In this section, the author herself explains how she began to acquire ethical perception as she volunteered at MHC and had to navigate the uncomfortableness of the situation of knowing a person using the food pantry and wanting to hide to prevent embarrassment for her acquaintance. Dixon described the situation, writing that “food insecurity is taking shape for me in a concrete way – individual people with faces and names, in a variety of circumstances, and with particular stories to tell about what they need to stand in line at the MHC food pantry” (59). Anthropologists accomplish a similar goal though applied research and through our teaching.

This book is especially beneficial for those of us who teach anthropology and food justice and want to develop the ability to see the structural conditions of society that create situations of food injustice without losing sight of the particular stories and circumstances of people who suffer these injustices. Dixon includes examples of constructive and destructive stories that can either disrupt master narratives or work to sustain them in our collective imaginations, respectively. Stories that attempt to show us “the faces of hunger” often represent a “complex tangle of moral concepts about accidental bad luck, personal responsibility, deservingness, and justice” can contribute a damaging master narrative about food insecurity as an individual character deficit or personal misfortune (61). People in the narratives are often cast as archetypes like the “pathetic victim” worthy of our sympathy or the “heroic victim” who is worthy of our praise for overcoming obstacles (66). These narratives create a high standard of “moral innocence and deservingness” that would be difficult for most people to meet (74). Anthropologists, philosophers, students, non-profit leaders, social workers, volunteers, and other professionals need to consider how the stories they tell either contribute to false master narratives or help situate the experience of food injustice in the context of systemic injustices that have generated and perpetuated experiences of poverty and inequality.

But how can we work to make sure our stories address these broader structural issues? Dixon answers this question throughout the second half of the book beginning with Chapter 4, entitled “Rewriting the Call to Charity.” This chapter argues that food justice narratives need to profile people who are food insecure and include descriptions of “social, political, and economic background” conditions (77). Using accessible and academic examples of good food justice narratives like the documentary A Place at the Table (Silverbursh and Jacobson 2013) and the ethnography Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (Holmes 2013), Dixon demonstrates that good food justice narratives resist damaging master narratives and allow those that see them to identify the conditions that disadvantage certain populations of people. In these situations, food injustices are not accidents that befall people nor are they somehow justifiable due to a moral failing. Food injustices become social problems, not an individual misfortune or fault. Finally, an effective food justice narrative inspires “ordinary citizens to undertake individual or collective action on behalf of food justice by shaping our moral imaginations about what is possible” (89).

The food injustice issues that Dixon addresses are all situations in which we can find moral fault and suggest easy answers and simple solutions. The strength of this book is that Dixon not only explains what food justice narratives and narrative ethics are, she also explains why and how they should be developed to be accurate representations of people’s experiences within social structures and to motivate people to act. This is primarily a book about skill development, so it is especially relevant for educators and practitioners who want to educate about these issues and change the status quo. It would be a useful book for advanced students, researchers, practitioners, and academics interested in food justice issues in fields like philosophy and religious studies, anthropology, sociology, communication studies, and media studies. The creation, use, and understanding of food justice narratives should ultimately, according to Dixon, create a drive for more sustainable change rather than a call to charity alone. Though not specifically about anthropology, this book could be a valuable tool for anthropologists and social scientists who want to know more about narratives and ethics and how we can incorporate these ideas to refine our work. We, too, are storytellers. We tell stories in our classrooms, in our presentations, and in our written work about the people with whom we work. Food Justice and Narrative Ethics is a good reminder for us consider how we present these stories and who these stories serve. We should strive to write, tell, and pass on stories that aim towards increasing ethical awareness and food justice activism.

 

Bibliography

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

Silverbrush, Lori and Kristi Jacobson, dirs. 2013. A Place at the Table. New York: Magnolia Pictures. DVD.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food activism, food education, food pantries, food systems, hunger, obesity

SAFN Members will be busy at AAAs in Vancouver!

2019 Annual Meeting Logo 300

Jennifer Jo Thompson

As always, food serves as an interdisciplinary site for investigating a wide range of urgent social issues. This year’s SAFN menu at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association is no different – with nine panels focusing on food and health, tradition and identity, and climate change. There’s a full SAFN schedule, if you want it. This year’s conference, jointly organized with the Canadian Anthropology Society, will be in Vancouver from November 20 to November 24.

Wednesday, November 20, features a double panel entitled Syndemic Vulnerability and Entanglements of Food, Nutrition, and Health, with Part One co-sponsored with the Society for Medical Anthropology. These two panels examine the many intersections between food, health, and society—through biocultural, political ecological, and public health/nutritional lenses—and aim to identify “next steps” for advancing anthropological work in this interdisciplinary domain.

On Thursday morning, check out Crafting Cuisine: Changing Cultures of Apprenticeship, Production, and Value, which investigates the “cultural economy of craft” in contemporary foodways. Mid-afternoon, join us for Changing Climate, Changing Agriculture: Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Agriculture and Climate Change, where presenters (including myself) demonstrate the ways that anthropology is uniquely-situated to bring individual and highly-localized eco-social knowledge to global-scale efforts to combat climate change.

Friday, November 22, promises to be a busy day for SAFN members. The day begins with Terroir in Translation: Food and Identity in Changing Climates, co-sponsored with Culture & Agriculture (C&A). This panel re-conceptualizes the notion of terroir as a lens for examining social, political, and environmental change. Midday, join us for the SAFN Business Meeting. We have a few surprises up our sleeve for that meeting, but you’ll have to join us to find out what we’re planning. In the afternoon, panelists on Time for Change: Temporal Struggles in Contemporary Food Systems (co-sponsored with C&A) will argue that temporality has been under-theorized in anthropology by offering papers that demonstrate the importance of this dimension in the anthropology of food.

On Friday evening, we celebrate. We are again partnering with Culture & Agriculture to host a joint Distinguished Speaker and Awards event on Friday night. Our Distinguished Speaker will be Dawn Morrison of the Secwepemc Nation. The title of her talk is “Indigenous Food Economies and Cultures: Key Ingredients for Climate Justice.” Ms. Morrison has a background in horticulture and ethnobotany, and she is the Director of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty; the Founder, Chair, and Coordinator of the B.C. Food Systems Networking Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty; the Co-Founder and Curator of Wild Salmon Caravan; and a Community Self-Development Facilitator within her Secwepemc community. We will also announce the winners of the Christine Wilson Undergraduate and Graduate Paper Prizes and the winner of the Thomas Marchione Award.

Immediately following the Distinguished Speaker and Awards event, SAFN and C&A will host a joint reception at the nearby Pacific Rim Hotel. Join us to connect over hors d’oeuvres and drinks with a beautiful view of the city and waterfront.

But don’t stay up too late on Friday, because you won’t want to miss four more panels on Saturday, November 23. At 8am, you’ll have to choose between two sessions that feature recent anthropological writing. American Chinese Restaurant: Society Culture and Consumption is panel based on an edited volume of the same name in press with Routledge. Hungry for Change: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Food Studies is a roundtable, co-sponsored with C&A, featuring authors of recent critical ethnographies focused on food and agro-environmental justice. Midday will feature Changing Terroir, Tradition, and Identity, a panel with papers examining shifting food cultures in the US, Europe, and Japan. Finally, presenters on Critically Examining the Reproductive Politics of Nourishing Substances, shed light on a largely unexplored area of anthropology through ethnographic papers focused on the social lives of a wide range of “nourishing substances.”

We hope you’ll join us for all these great sessions and events. See you in Vancouver!

 

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Intercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I spent two very intense weeks at the end of September leading the lntercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice (ILC) through various interesting sites of food production and consumption in Oregon. In December we will visit parallel sites in Ecuador. The ILC was developed jointly by food activists in Ecuador and Oregon in 2013 to de-colonize the typical study abroad program. We do this by forming an international, multicultural group of people from both Oregon and Ecuador who are invested in some aspect of the food system and feel that humankind can do better. We look for ways in which the practice of sustainable foodways can address some of today’s most pressing concerns, such as environmental degradation, climate change, the proliferation of ill health and marginalization of people. Through cross-cultural dialogue, collaboration, and experiential learning, participants further develop their knowledge, social networks and their capacity for engaging with food practices as global citizens, rooted in local realities.

We have an excellent group of participants this year, including professional chefs, farmers, food activists, and multidisciplinary graduate and undergraduate students. We began the tour in Portland with a visit to the Oregon Food Bank (OFB). The OFB is at the forefront of state food banks in taking a food systems approach to hunger, but they are still a dumping site for commodity goods that recent tariffs have left without a foreign market. OFB advocates for changes that address the root causes of hunger and they work hard at building community-based food systems. We saw evidence of this in the farms next to the warehouse where we spoke with Latina, African American and Native American farmers who were given plots of land to plant to grow culturally important foods that they share with their communities. Later in the trip, we spent time at the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde reservations and learned of their efforts to revitalize traditional foodways on land that was already full of invasive species. We also spent a morning with Latinx activists and heard about the challenges and successes of forming the farmworkers union in the Northwest. Later, we had a conversation in Spanish with the women’s field crew at a local organic farm. Twelve hour work days seemed abusive to many of the group members, but the women explained that they had to leave their children back home in Mexico and Guatemala and appreciated every extra hour that they could work.

We spent a fair amount of time visiting various OSU agrifood research sites (naked barley; whey vodka; black tomatoes; bacon-flavored algae) and also talked to breeders who are adapting Andean crops to the Willamette Valley (quinoa, amaranth, mashua, oca, melloco, uvilla, achoccha). We also spoke to an extension agent working with SNAP outreach. She showed us a photograph of a school lunch tray with a bag of Doritos on it. We were all shocked to see a branded product on the tray and even more shocked to find out that industries altered their products to meet the latest requirements and then bid to have their branded products included in the school lunch program, but that it was illegal to sell branded products in school vending machines in Oregon. An even stranger incident came to light later at the capitol in our discussion about the Farm to School program. We asked about culturally appropriate foods and were told a story about a Latina mother who wanted to get tamales into the school lunch program. She was told that any grain product had to be at least 50% whole grain and since the corn for masa is treated with lime or lye to make it more digestible (and nutritious) it is no longer considered whole grain. Several of our group members spoke up about the ancient technique of nixtamalization that made niacin available to corn eaters and prevented pellagra, but rules are rules, even when ethnocentric and lacking in historical perspective. Luckily the administrator was able to work with the mother to come up with a tamale that fit the requirements. We wonder how it tastes. (While on the topic of ethnocentrism, we could also mention the “American Grown” label, which the Ecuadorians were told meant that it was grown in the USA, not anywhere else in the Americas.)

As we drove around the verdant countryside, favoring agroecological, diverse production sites, we whizzed past giant fields of monocultures —not the corn and soybeans of the Midwest, but hazelnuts (now that OSU has developed a blight resistant variety), wine grapes (as California gets too hot and dry) and the recently legalized hemp. It has been called marijuana’s no-buzz cousin and has created a gold rush (or shall we say “green rush”) among farmers. But every silver cloud has a toxic lining. The original gold rush left arsenic in the land; the pollen from industrial hemp threatens to infect not only its increasingly designer high cousin, but also the taste of neighboring wine grapes.

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

One of the aims of the ILC is to engage physically as well as intellectually with the food system. We did this in the course of many meals made by local chefs with local ingredients, but we also lent our 34 hands to the Linn Benton Food Share to pack food boxes for hospital patients; to the OSU Organic Growers’ Club to weed the brassicas, and to the Food for Lane County Youth Farm to trim harvested garlic. In addition, we cooked an excellent Ecuadorian meal for Slow Food Corvallis and several of our presenters and host families. We were lucky to have two professional chefs in our group and they coordinated beforehand to bring ingredients like lupin beans (chochos) tostados, chifles, and a rare white cacao-like bean called macambo.

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

It’s difficult to find the time for people to pursue individual research interests in such a packed agenda, but we managed to do so at the Corvallis Farmers Market. We first had an introduction to the market on Friday by its manager. Then we discussed questions we were interested in asking vendors and buyers at the market. We formed pairs of researchers and spent the next day wandering the market, observing, and asking questions. We got back together after lunch to discuss what we had learned. First of all, the Ecuadorians were very impressed with the Corvallis market. Several of them who sell at markets talked about ideas that they would try to implement back home. One pair documented ways in which vendors brought people into their booths. Another interviewed women producers about challenges they have faced in this work. Land access was another topic and one pair focused on Latinx shoppers asking what drew them to the market. Everyone was impressed with the number of times that “community” arose in their conversations. Here are some things that surprised the Ecuadorians: that the meat stands were so neat and sterile, no sign of whole animals either dead or alive; that amaranth was being used as a flower in bouquets; that the prices were fixed and posted; that most of the vendors had finished college; that some vendors had photographs of their farms; that there was a booth for children to be occupied while their parents shopped; that there were musicians and artists making the market an attractive place to be.

The trip left us satisfied and exhausted and ready to explore similar themes in Ecuador in December.

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Review: The Other Milk

The Other Milk

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-295-74403-2. 276 pp.

Juliet Tempest (SOAS, University of London)

Ambivalent Modernities

An historian by training, Jia-Chen Fu retells the story of soy in China—an account otherwise taken for granted. We may have been correct that soybeans enjoy a long presence in the region, but their forms and meanings in Chinese diet(s) have evolved over time. Fortified soybean milk became popular only following the efforts of Republican-era scientists, social workers, and producers, whom Fu calls “nutrition activists.” More than a readily digestible history of soybean milk, or doujiang—itself indigestible prior to the advent of modern processing technology—The Other Milk presents a case study on the drink as a modern, science- and nation-building enterprise for these nutrition activists. In so doing, it seeks, and, I would say, succeeds, to problematize narratives of Western science’s inevitable naturalization in China by revealing the context-specific development of Chinese nutrition science amidst dialogue with research abroad.

Propagation of soybean milk during the 1930s and 1940s as “traditional, modern, and scientific” epitomized this process, according to Fu (2018, 5). Nutrition activists employed scientific discourse to mobilize the materiality of such protein-rich “milk” to strengthen the population, as dairy was perceived to have done for the West. The author concludes that Chinese activists constructed the problem of population health in such a way so as to necessitate soybean milk as the solution, particularly in refugee aid projects. Yet the question of whether this discourse actually reached consumer-citizens on the ground, especially outside a Shanghai milieu, remains open. The Other Milk is thus a well-constructed and written resource on the biopolitics of soy and the epistemology of nutrition science for this period in China, even if it does not capture how the target demographic actually interpreted soybean milk messaging.

Bookended by an introduction and epilogue, each of the seven chapters builds towards Fu’s thesis—of an aspirational Chinese modernity as expressed in a homegrown nutrition science supporting consumption of soybean milk—by addressing an assumption underpinning it. Following the introduction, the book begins with anticipating the question of soy’s modern status through depicting the transformation of the Chinese soybean industry (Chapter 1). Such a development occurred in the wake of Western and Japanese economic growth and military defeats around the turn of the twentieth century, which Fu highlights to establish the latter’s national imperative to modernize, a project that manifested in both the development of domestic nutrition research and its application to “improving” individual bodies, thus the nation (Chapter 2). As for why diet became a site for intervention, Fu addresses this assumption just as nutrition activists did before: through portraying Chinese dietaries as the alleged key to unleashing the nation’s economic potential (Chapter 3). In extant diets, it was the lack of protein, especially animal-based, that compromised Chinese nutrition and bodies, which justified supplementation with “milk” (Chapter 4). Although preferable, cow’s milk was cost-prohibitive if not totally inaccessible for most, inspiring an alternative in fortified soybean milk marketed as a hybrid Western-Eastern product: a scientifically modernized version of traditional soy (Chapter 5).

The arguments of every chapter scaffold onto those preceding, with the exception of the fifth. There, Fu breaks away from discussing how nutrition activists conceived their object to analyze soybean milk advertisements. Fu explains this decision in terms of evaluating how producers theorized “the social” as a site of modernity negotiated for the public (111), but the link to nutrition activists discussed elsewhere remains tenuous. While soybean milk advertisers functioned as discourse-makers in addition to—and occasionally in cooperation with—nutrition researchers and aid workers, they did not operate in the same way or in the same field as these activists: in blending Daoist approaches to health with concerns about protein and hygienic manufacturing, the former treated biomedicine and Chinese medicine as “apparently complementary knowledge systems” (114) for the public; whereas the latter sought an epistemological break that would parallel and precipitate a new era of Chinese prowess that deprecated without vitiating earlier knowledge claims within the scientific community. Granted that such ambivalence characterized Chinese nutrition science in general and soybean milk advertisements in particular, this chapter implicitly shifts the scholarly gaze onto the public, about whose receptions to these communications and the products they advertised we can say little given the methodology.

I have interpreted this attitude among nutrition activists as characterizing their concept of “modernity,” this crux of Fu’s argument that is only ever defined indirectly, in relation to a “traditional,” “Chinese” identity. The equation of “traditional” and “Chinese” is in fact one assumption that Fu does not tackle head on, although the language nutrition activists employed substantiates this position. Similarly, Chinese society’s juxtaposition against the “modern” West remains implicit throughout The Other Milk, through references to “a polyphonic, hybrid modernity” that “combin[ed] elements from China and the West,” for example (110). On the other hand, that nutrition activists did not reject China’s capacity to become modern emerges from their choice of a soy product as the nation’s deliverance. Such complexity in their relationship to a modern, Chinese identity features within the tales of nutrition activists Fu tells. The lack of explicit definition of modernity, then, follows from Fu’s awareness of its situation in a unique context—that it is, indeed, a relative term. At risk of failing in the task that Fu smartly avoided, I take modernity in The Other Milk to mean nutrition activists’ aspiration for a stronger China in the future, modeled on the West’s and Japan’s perceived progress and so involving struggles with if and how to incorporate cultural aspects that have served as a source of national identity.

Compelling narratives about the work of individual nutrition activists culminate in a two-chapter discussion of Fu’s primary case: the efforts of the Refugee Children’s Committee to distribute soybean milk during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process promote a healthier, modern citizenry. Addressing why and how this aid organization focused on distributing soybean milk (Chapter 6) allows Fu to assert that technocrats like Nellie Lee and Hou Xiangchuan “situated nutrition as the crucial site for the dissemination of modern knowledge and values” (174; Chapter 7). Fu’s tone alternates between sympathy for and criticism of their sincere but misguided motivations, given the prevalence of hunger. The modern construction of hunger in Republican China paralleled developments abroad, where it also became quantified, hence solvable, in biomedical terms. The state’s historical obligation to feed the populace in times of famine (yangmin) consequently transformed into a responsibility to nourish, which nutrition activists like the medical researcher Wu Xian understood as seeking the “optimum” rather than the “minimum” (66). Consistent with denigration of Chinese diets for their “inadequacy” and backhanded compliments around their “potential to change” (179), that nutritional interventions were seen to offer the greatest return for economic growth continues as a mainstay in international development today (e.g. IFPRI 2016).

Such observations on cultivating modern subjects through self-governance recall the ever-growing literature on biopolitics in China. To wit, the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2010) has documented the intersection between individual fitness and population governance in state policies. Although Greenhalgh’s research principally concerns socialist and post-socialist China, the construction of inferior diets as a “social problem” (Fu 2018, 60) and the promotion of soybean milk as the scientific and obligatory solution prefigures more recent debates—that also sometimes err disturbingly on eugenicist rhetoric—about raising low “quality,” or “suzhi,” at both the individual and population levels.

Although Fu does not reference Greenhalgh, nor for that matter Foucault, the author makes excellent use of anthropological literature on colonial medicine and diets in China (to which Fu thanks Judith Farquhar for having introduced her). In particular, interrogation of the epistemological privilege granted “biomedical” nutrition science in China “owes much to the work of medical anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock” (220). Along with the historian Michael Worboys, these scholars demonstrated conflicting views on the comparability of foreign bodies and diets in medical research during the colonial era and since. Chinese nutrition activists seem to have variously and selectively appropriated these ideas for the purpose of recasting food, like soybean milk, as a mechanical input for nutrition. Fu can therefore argue that this ambivalence permitted the ontological flexibility requisite to domestication and exploitation of the science, to build a modern nation of citizens nourished scientifically with Chinese foods. Although undeniably a historical monograph, The Other Milk thus offers an example of how interdisciplinary research can tell a more complete version of the story.

Much still remains untold, however, particularly for this anthropologist-reviewer. For one, it is unclear to what extent Fu’s findings may be generalized outside of urban, coastal China, given how most Republican-era nutrition activists appear to have operated within Shanghai and its environs. To the extent these places served as a locus for building such scientific worlds, the focus of Fu’s study, the distinction may be moot. For another, Fu’s treatment of materiality alongside discourse, while admirable, nevertheless glosses over the sensory qualities of soy—and milk—and their effects on bodies, the site of these modernist aspirations and interventions. The book argues for soybean milk’s promotion as evidence of a uniquely Chinese nutrition science and identity, so then what of Chinese tastes? Fu alludes only once to taste as a criterion “distinct from economic supply and demand” (143), which must have played a role in soybean milk’s dissemination, particularly in comparison with cow’s milk; if it did not, that is something worth noting.

These critiques revolve around a desire for more information about how the public consumed soybean milk and ideas about it. As such, they are perhaps unfair, because addressing them was not Fu’s intention and would have required different kinds of data. Fu acknowledges this shortcoming: “it is not clear that nutrition science in early twentieth-century China achieved this same kind ideological hegemony over the ways in which Chinese people thought about food and eating [sic]” (9). The Other Milk is therefore an excellent resource for research on soy, vegetarianism, and scientist modernity in China, even if its authoritative scope should potentially be confined to urban areas of Republican China and to answering questions other than (albeit relevant to) the meanings consumers assigned to soybean milk. Notwithstanding these significant contributions, the methodological choices directing attention to elites’ discourse-creation in this process of nation-building—Fu’s subject—imply a specific directionality for the construction of modern Chinese identities, namely as top-down and not bottom-up.

The nutrition activists who constitute The Other Milk’s explicit concern are, indeed, often elites. They operate outside formal state organs, whose involvement in rice distribution makes the grain a more appropriate lens through which to study the state, Fu suggests (16; see also Ohnuki-Tierney [1993] on Japan). It is perhaps due to the state’s more tangential role with respect to soy that Fu does not adopt a Foucauldian framework to analyze—what I understand to be—the biopolitics of soybean milk; because Fu does not invoke the concept of biopolitics, it is therefore implicit to the author’s analysis as well as the activities of nutrition activists to which it refers. In this way, Fu’s treatment of soybean milk offers a novel approach to understanding how the discourse and resources of non-governmental organizations nonetheless intersected with state power: nutrition activists deployed scientific research, especially social surveys and controlled experiments, as the arbiter of truth to summon legitimacy for their interventions, which would improve the nation’s (nutritional) status.

It bears noting that these nutrition activists did engage with the state, however, just as Fu’s argument dialogues with the historian Mark Swislocki’s (2011) work on “nutritional governmentality” in late Imperial and Republican China. In fact, Fu situates the book as a response to a question that Swislocki posed elsewhere: “How did nutrition become ‘an authoritative idiom in China for understanding the relationship between food and health?’” (Swislocki 2001, in Fu 2018, 9). In providing “one answer,” Fu sets out to complement Swislocki’s excellent work on the Chinese state’s interest in improving nutrition. Though it begs the question of whether the choice to downplay the state’s role in The Other Milk is justified when Swislocki argues the opposite, albeit not for a specific food like soy. Besides researchers’ personal ambitions—to produce advanced science as much as belong to a modern nation (Fu 2018, 11)—it would seem important to consider the state’s influence on the development of a nutrition science, given the mutual imbrication of the public and private spheres in China that both Fu and Swislocki acknowledge.

Rather than nutrition science per se, The Other Milk is a book about ambivalent modernity. Not only were China’s nutrition activists navigating between two poles of scientific authority in the East and West, their strategies betray resistance to abandoning everything traditional for something modern. Fu suggests that “expediency” motivated the unique blend of considerations in the research, production, marketing, and distribution of soybean milk (181). To the extent we subscribe to Fu’s argument, which I do, it is important to reiterate that activists advocated soybean milk for nutrition not as a humanitarian end, but as a means of building up the nation, to vie with the West and Japan for “wealth and power” (121). Unfortunately, this discourse around China competing with the rest of the world possesses great salience today—at least from where I write in the US.

Lest we fall blindly into this ideological trap, let us end by paying attention to other constructive lessons from The Other Milk. The power of soybean milk—in terms of its nutritional discourse and materiality—testify to a long history of globalized trade in goods and ideas. Many of Republican China’s nutrition activists had trained in the US (Chapter 2). An increasing interest in consuming milk occurred almost simultaneously in the US and China; the Chinese did not always drink soybean milk, nor did Americans regularly consume cow’s milk before the twentieth century (Chapter 4). Just as “milk” had to become a part of modern diets, so too did soy emerge as a global commodity when China started exporting it to fill a 1908-1909 shortage of vegetable oils in Europe and North America (Chapter 1). Now China’s relationship to soy, once a famine food, has changed again, as production has shifted overseas and the population has grown wealthier, consuming more meat, at times imported from the US (Epilogue). We may thus all benefit from reflecting again on how ideas and practices we take for granted are historicized products of local and global trajectories. And given that industrialized foods are now pitted against “traditional” foodways in the opposite direction to what Republican-era Chinese nutrition activists imagined, perhaps we, too, ought to approach modernity with a bit more ambivalence.

Works Cited

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2010. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016. Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. Washington: IFPRI.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Swislocki, Mark. 2011. “Nutritional Governmenality: Food and he Politics of Health in Late Imperial and Republican China.” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 9-35. DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2010-024

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, public health