In this third installment of interviews with anthropologists about their work on food, David Sutton talks with Joelle Bahloul, whose work on food and memory has inspired many other anthropologists. Family history, Jewishness in France, the influence of Maurice Halbwachs and her return to Algeria. Domestic memories of Jewish and Muslim communities that remain highly relevant today. But also connections between French citizenship and learning about food. And, of course, ham, imaginary and real. Watch and learn!
Category Archives: anthropology of food
“What counts is the imagination of ham, rather than its actual existence,” An Interview with Joelle Bahloul
Oregon State University
Just as our fall term was wrapping up at Oregon State University, the Intercultural Learning Community headed to Ecuador to complete the second part of this experiential program. To read about the first part in Oregon click here.
Before covering some of the highlights of this trip, let me give a shout out to Claudia García who drew on her deep knowledge of Ecuador’s food systems and connections around the country to organize a rich and enjoyable trip, and to the EkoRural Foundation that served as our Ecuadorian financial sponsor. We began our trip with a visit to the highly integrated Atuk Farm outside of Quito run by the Dammer sisters. Sixty of the ninety hectares they own are in forest. The chickens live in large teepee-shaped tractors and clean the pastures of parasites à la Salatin. They had a clever way of turning the compost down a hill and a lovely outdoor kitchen where they served us a farm lunch. After lunch we retired to a hand-made mud brick building where Javier Carrera talked to us about the Seed Savers Network. The Guardianes de Semillas have been in existence since 1998 and includes 110 families in 15 Ecuadorian counties, though they also do seed exchanges in Colombia and Bolivia. The point goes beyond saving seeds to sharing ancestral knowledge about nutrition and promoting social change. He gave an historical overview of settlement and soils in Ecuador, emphasizing the migrations of food crops as well as the ways in which indigenous peoples in different ecosystems fed themselves. Moving to more recent times, he talked about the 2008 national constitution which protects the rights of nature and food sovereignty. Despite this progressive legal framework encouraged by indigenous groups and agrifood activists, implementation is more difficult and there is constant pressure to conform to the industrial food system. Mandatory pasteurization and slaughter in state approved facilities put small farmers at a disadvantage, just like in the US. Saraguro women were told that they had to deliver their milk warm to be pasteurized, but the facility was two hours away. They went on strike and several of the women were put in jail. Carrera said that 30% of the farms in Ecuador are small, family farms and they produce 70% of what Ecuador eats. They are fighting to keep a separate system for small farmers in order to ensure future food sovereignty. He shared with us several successful experiments in permaculture around the country.
The following two days were focused on metropolitan Quito. With 2,500,000 people pressed between two volcanoes high in the Andes and a poverty rate of 12.8%, the challenges of keeping people well fed are great. Add to that, over 300,000 recent migrants from Colombia and Venezuela. Other numbers that Alexandra Rodriguez cited were that 71% of food consumed in the city was eaten outside of the home and 63% of the population was overweight or obese. Since 2002 Rodriguez has been working with a participatory urban agriculture program (AGRUPAR) to expand urban and peri-urban agriculture in Quito. They now have 1400 gardens, involving 5000 people. 57% of the produce goes to home consumption and the remainder is sold. We visited one of the oldest farms and saw a variety of food grown in 1500 m2. We bought some for our own dinner that evening that we prepared under the direction of chef/group member Santiago Rosero at the Gastronomic Laboratory.
Quito’s food bank delivers to 77 institutions and 655 families, working almost entirely with volunteers and no federal support. Their main source of food is leftovers from the markets and supermarkets. They do not receive a tax break for donations, but it does relieve them of having to dispose of food they can’t sell. We visited two of the markets in the old center of Quito, San Roque and Central. At San Roque we heard from anthropologist Anahí Macaroff who has been doing research on the markets of Quito. She explained how they were all connected and should be defended against the growth of supermarkets. She cited several instances where supermarkets opened very near the older markets and lowered their prices for as long as it took to put the market out of business and then raised their prices.
Talking to people from the food bank and markets rounded out our picture of the urban food system. Farm-direct, agroecological markets are growing, but serve a small percentage of the population. This year Quito approved an Agrifood Strategy and a Climate Action Plan. This is a good start, but, as always, the proof is in the implementation. We stopped at a small recycling center that wasn’t quite operating yet. Its main purpose was to teach people how to recycle, but without access to designated receptacles it’s going to take a while.
We heard about several social justice-oriented projects. First, we heard from a group of multidisciplinary researchers from the Catholic University who have been working on nutrition projects in the province of Cotopaxi where a large number of children suffer from malnutrition. Then, we heard about the FUEGOS project to bring a culinary school and food tourism to the province of Manabi that was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 2016. Finally, Marcelo Aziaga told us about feeding anti-austerity protesters. An estimated 20,000 people marched on Quito in October, closing the Panamerican highway and shutting down the capital city. The Catholic University, the Salesiana University, and the Casa de la Cultura housed several thousand people and chefs and food activists set up kitchens to feed them. The police dismantled the kitchens every night, which were then re-set up daily. Food arrived from various places. Volunteers organized food lines, dish washing and waste disposal. Medical students treated people who were wounded by the police, and also the police. Austerity measures were temporarily rolled back, but could re-emerge after the holidays. Later in our trip, we spoke with some indigenous leaders who recounted how they organized their participation through loudspeakers after the government shut down communications.
Driving north from Quito, we visited a biodiverse farm in the Andean dry forest that belongs to two of our group participants, Lucia and Fabian. We tasted four of the over 20 types of avocados that they grow and a variety of passion fruits and chirimoya. (I have to say, the Nacional avocado was to die for.) For lunch, Lucia made us a variety of Andean tubers, plantains and an excellent locro de zambo or squash soup. From there we continued north to Ibarra where we were hosted by MESSE, the Ecuadorian Movement for a Social and Solidarity Economy. Jorge García explained the Abya Yala Paradigm that reigned in the Americas before colonization. The four axioms are 1. Everything is alive; 2. Nothing is the same as something else and diversity generates life; 3. Everything is related to everything; 4. We are all of the cosmos and of the earth. He contrasted these with imported European beliefs about ownership and the primacy of humans that have led to environmental disaster. He gave examples of how the four elements: oxygen, fire, water and earth are the foundations of cooking.
Steve Sherwood outlined for us the relationship between agroecology and solidarity economies. Both share a focus on intersubjectivity between humans and between humans and non-humans, harking back to the axioms that everything is alive and connected. He encouraged us to focus on existence, rather than resistance, as we work to construct new ways of being through our own practices. He explained how food activists in Ecuador connected through various types of encounters that take place all around the country in a de-centralized fashion. This allowed food activists to come together during the strike and set up kitchens to feed people while the food industry called on the government to violently crush the strike, so that they could continue their businesses.
In nearby El Chota, Luzmila Bolaños also spoke of the four elements as she explained the history and foodways of the Afroecuadorian population of the Chota Valley. She spoke frankly about discrimination and said that the mestizo Ecuadorians had a lot to unlearn before they could learn. She talked about local foods that are part of the local diet, non-local foods that are part of the local diet and local foods that are not part of the local diet. In the latter group are prickly pear cactus which came from Mexico. They are starting to sell the fruit in Ecuadorian supermarkets now, but there is still no local market for the tender young leaves or nopalitos. She and her friend made a salad out of them for our lunch along with a delicious soup.
Both in Ecuador and the US, it is difficult to make a living by farming. Agritourism is one way that families have been able to stay on the farm, so we spent the rest of our time in Ecuador supporting these efforts. The MESSE activists are new to this, so our students served as guinea pigs. (Oops, they eat guinea pigs.)
The students had a variety of experiences: helping with farming, cooking and marketing and living without potable running water and indoor plumbing for two nights. One host woke up at 5am to walk 45 minutes to milk cows, then made cheese for the rest of the morning. The next four nights were spent with a more experienced community tourism group in Cotacachi. These indigenous women have been hosting tourists in their homes for 20 years and knew the importance of private bedrooms and bathrooms. They also let Claudia know that when stays are booked through the website, the money never leaves the men’s group, so we booked directly through the women’s committee. The women’s committee is focused on health and central to that are indigenous foodways. Discrimination and migration damaged ancestral farming and cooking traditions, and they are working to valorize these health-generating practices. They shared their knowledge about multiple varieties of corn and their uses, demonstrating the traditional preparation of chicha. They spoke to us about their process of stabilizing the recipe for the industrial production of chicha for sale.
The highlight of the Cotacachi stay was the preparation and eating of a pachamanka. Don Enrique had a huge bonfire going when we arrived in the morning, heating up the rocks that were used to line the hole making an earthen oven. Meat and vegetables were wrapped in leaves and placed in the hole which was covered up with leaves and sod and left to cook for about 2 and a half hours. The food had a delicious, smoky flavor and we enjoyed eating it together.
Our final stay was at Pambiliño Reserve run by one of our past participants, Emilia Arcos and her husband, Oliver. As we descended through the cloud forest, the air grew hot and humid and vegetation turned thick and tropical. Emi and Oliver self-identify as neo-campesinos or new farmers who are passionate about environmental education. Together with friends and family, they are re-creating food forests on land that was once dominated by cattle-raising and mono-cultures. On our last day there, we broke into groups and went foraging in the surrounding forest, bringing back cacao and macambo pods, different types of plantains and bananas, cardamom, oranges, lemons, yuca, guayabilla fruit, edible flowers and various herbs for teas. We made a wonderful lunch, using only very few staples from the kitchen.
Reading about similarities and differences in agrifood systems and conversing with people from other countries and other ecosystems who share your interest in creating more equitable and environmentally sustainable food systems are wonderful activities. What a privilege, though, to be able to see, hear, feel, taste and smell what people living different kinds of life experience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!