Category Archives: anthropology of food

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?

photo of a toast

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont

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

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

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

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

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

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, July 12, 2018

David Beriss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Col(LAB) on Food, Risk and Privilege

by Annie Sheng, Cornell University

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

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

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

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

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Review: Food Parcels in International Migration

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

Rhian Atkin (Cardiff University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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