Category Archives: anthropology of food

Review: Food and Power, A Culinary Ethnography of Israel

Food and Power by Nir Avieli

Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel: Nir Avieli.  Oakland, CA: University of California Press.  2018.  274 pp.  ISBN 9870520290105

Shir Lerman Ginzburg
Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Nir Avieli’s ethnography is a timely and necessary foray into the explorations and intersections of politics and food.  Avieli draws on his extensive semi-auto-ethnographic fieldwork in Israel to highlight the intricate and complex relationships between food and national identity, particularly in light of Israel’s deeply contentious relationships with both the Palestinians and with its Arab neighbors.  Throughout his ethnography, Avieli interweaves his experiences serving in the Israeli army and his personal life in Israel with his ethnography to discuss the power structures in Israel as they pertain to food preparation and consumption (page 14).   Specifically, Avieli claims that power derives from imbalances in a variety of resources, such as legitimacy, prestige, violence, and access to economic resources (pg. 8).  As an example, Avieli discusses the 2006-2009 Hummus Wars between Israel and Lebanon to illustrate the national prides at stake in claiming ownership of hummus (pg. 6), which stands as a unifying cuisine.  Israelis and Lebanese competed over creating the biggest dish of hummus to break the Guinness World Records.

Avieli structures his book around several vignettes showcasing the multilayered relationships between power and food in Israel.  In doing so, Avieli interlaces these vignettes with his personal experiences In Chapter 2 (‘Roasting Meat’), Avieli provides an in-depth analysis of barbecues and other meat-grilling activities on Israeli Independence Day (generally held in May).  Avieli focuses on the celebrations held at Sacher Park (a popular park in Jerusalem), discussing how the barbecues are ambivalent events in which potency and power are inseparately mixed with feebleness and victimization due to the differences between the types of meat used for barbecues (page 78).  Specifically, men get the superior meat (beef) while women receive the inferior meat (chicken [pargiot]) because meat is more muscular and bloodier, while chicken meat is softer and more vulnerable (page 67).

In addition to the type of meat typically consumed, Avieli outlines the organization and negotiation of space in Sacher Park, particularly as it pertains to food preparation.  Competition is fierce for space in Sacher Park, particularly for limited shade, access to the northern part of the park, which is closest to parking, and proximity to water, as water fountains are scarce in the park.  Barbecues in Sacher Park also clearly delineate the Israeli concept of Levad Beyahad (‘alone together’), or the blurring of boundaries between private and public space, which helps individuals deal with the social and structural superiority of the collective in Israel: people are together with other Israelis in superficially large numbers, but families still clearly demarcate personal space.  This principle reflects relationships among Israeli Jews, exposing the tension between the desire to be a part of the collective on the most important national day of the year, and the constant efforts of the participants to demarcate boundaries between themselves and others (pages 73, 78).  On a broader geopolitical scale, the struggle for space between Jews and Palestinians is also reenacted on a day that celebrates Israel’s victory over the Palestinians and reflects the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the shared space they occupy and serves to explain the practice of spot grabbing.  These struggles encompass many of the most pressing issues and dilemmas of contemporary Israel.

In Chapter 3 (‘Why We Like Italian Food’), Avieli emphasizes the role of homesickness and yearning: immigrant homesickness for their home cuisine, and Israeli yearning for American things, which denote modernity, sophistication, and cosmopolitanism (page 86).  This desire for high ideals is based in Israeli pizzeria owners’ experience working in the United States, as well as Israeli modification of traditional Italian dishes, since the majority of Italian dishes are imported by Israelis, not by Italians, who comprise a tiny portion of Israel.  Italian restaurants are successful in Israel for at least two major reasons: unlike, for example, French food, Italian food lends itself easily to kashrut laws, which forbid the mixture of meat and dairy (many Italian meals can stand as either dairy or meat).  Additionally, Italian restaurants tend to be family-friendly, which appeals to the family-central ethic of Israelis and to food preferences of Israelis, adults and children alike.  Israelis like Italian food because the similar weather and ecological conditions in the two countries make for similar ingredients, cooking styles, and taste preferences – similar ecologies between Israel and Italy have resulted in social, culture, and psychological affinities between Israelis and Italians, also known as Yam-Tichoniut (Mediterranean-ness).  The national character and habitus of Italians, especially southern Italians, is similar to those of Israelis, particularly hyperactivity, preference for simple food, and a lack of desire to wait long times for food to cook.  Given the length of time it takes to prepare pizzas, pizzerias have become places for families to hang out and socialize, unlike the ubiquitous falafel stands, which discourage lingering due to the in-and-out nature of these stands (page 95).

Additionally, Italian food allows Israeli Jews to construct an alternative spatial and cultural imagination of Israel, one that is associated with the Southern European-Mediterranean region rather than the Arab Middle East.  Israelis consider themselves along the coast of southern Italy, as an escape from the Middle East.  Italy isn’t connected to the Diaspora or the Holocaust and it doesn’t stand for the iconic West (NW Europe and North America), where the largest Jewish and Israeli Jewish diasporas are now located (page 101).  Avieli situates the Israeli passion for pizzerias in the Ashkenazi Jewish[i] desire to remove the Oriental stigma attached to them by non-Jewish Westerners, by adopting Western-style foods and developing a Western nation-state, especially in the peripheries of Israeli dining outside of major culinary hubs like Tel-Aviv and Herziliya (pages 106-107).  In doing so, Israel affirms its Western nation-state status by relegating social segments of the population, such as North African and Mizrahi Jews, into the periphery and relegating their foods to the exotic Other.

Chapter 4 (“The McDonaldization of the Kibbutz Dining Room”) highlights the transformation of kibbutzim in Israel from a paragon of Israeli socialism into a concerted effort to adopt Western capitalism.  The kibbutz is the social heart of Israel, so the McDonaldization of kibbutz culinary practices from table service to self-service is seen as a reflection of changes in Israeli food service as a whole (pages 112-113).  In this chapter, Avieli argues that the biggest competitor for kibbutz members’ loyalty is the social institution, such as extended family and ethnic groups, as well as newly reestablished socioeconomic classes and allegiances (page 116).  The kibbutz dining room operated as hubs of commensality and food sharing: breaking bread and eating together were important venues of group consolidation and solidarity, even as such acts also reaffirmed social norms and demarcated the people who weren’t included (page 117).  By breaking up individual family units (adults sat with adults and children sat with children), the dining room stripped self-identity and reassembled identities as parts of a collective new whole: the Israeli identity (page 118).  In turn, kibbutz members felt that other kibbutz members presented as an alternative family whose members were all siblings (page 123).  However, as kibbutzim grew larger, budgets and food sources remained low, and there was little regulation of kibbutz members who took more food with little regard for other members, the transition to self-service and privatization became increasingly necessary.  By the end of 2010, 193 out of 264 kibbutzim in Israel were privatized (page 128).  Kibbutz members also considered the introduction of self-service to fall under McDonaldization ideology, as people could choose whatever food they want and sit wherever they want, a process which also saves long queues and work times and represents an ideological shift from the collective to the individual (page 143).  Kibbutz scholars unanimously argue that the kibbutz crisis and the ensuing shift to privatization is very much a consequence of the shift from collective ideology to individualistic tendencies (page 132).  The family remained a threat for kibbutz members’ allegiance: families couldn’t originally cook in their units because there were no kitchens, so everyone was required to eat in the dining rooms.  However, with the institutionalization of the kibbutz, the family gradually reemerged, along with the urge for family meals (page 133).

Along with the spatial and financial consequences of privatization, Avieli also details the culinary ebbs and flows of the kibbutz dining room.  Food was structurally and materially Ashkenazi: the main lunchtime meal consisted of starts, soup, a main course (meat, cooked vegetables, and carbs) along with desserts and beverages.  The ingredients used in food preparation consisted of schnitzel (fried and breaded chicken), meat stews, baked or mashed potatoes, pasta, and steamed rice with mild seasonings.  This process underscores the tensions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel, including the Otherization of Mizrahi cuisine.  Even though Ashkenazi Jews are not the majority in Israel, Ashkenazi fare is still termed “Jewish food”, while non-Ashkenazi food is usually given national labels, such as Moroccan, Iraqi, Kurdish, or Persian, but not Jewish.  This terminology demonstrates the Ashkenazi claim for exclusivity over Judaism and the dismissive attitude Ashkenazi Israelis exhibit toward non-Ashkenazis (page 221).

In Chapter 5 (“Meat and Masculinity in a Military Prison”), Avieli traces the complex interactions and expressions of masculinity between Israeli soldiers, Israeli military police (MP), and Palestinian prisoners at the Megiddo military prison.  Tensions between the three groups draws on the overall logic of the occupation, particularly the cognitive and the emotional processes that allow Israeli Jews to reinterpret and redefine their relations with Palestinians so as to maintain a sense of weakness and victimization (page 146).  Despite the common-sense expectation that the armed IDF soldiers guarding the prison would feel empowered and in total control, they considered themselves victims of the situation and of the detainees.  The Israeli soldiers assigned to guard the prison frequently complained about the substandard fare they were provided, stating that they were given reheated chicken and limp vegetables while the prisoners and MPs were given better food.  Soldiers compared their meat rations to rations of prisoners and military police (MP), and to what they used to get at home (page 148), in the process hinting that they felt more masculine as civilians than as soldiers.  This comparison draws on the hegemonic interpretation of masculinity (e.g. authority, physical strength), which Avieli hearkens back to the days of hunter-gatherers, when prowess in hunting and the enjoyment of meat that a successful hunt allowed, led to increased chances of survival (page 152).

It is important to note that soldiers at Megiddo prison weren’t suffering from lack of food: they have 3 meals per day, including meat, fruits and veggies, dairy, eggs, bread, and a cooked starch.  The food was plain and not very fresh, but there was enough of it (page 162).  The competitiveness over food quality is rooted partly to frustrations about instructions they received about opening fire on prisoners.  Contrary to standard military procedure, at Megiddo prison, if prisoners attempted to escape, soldiers were to lock themselves in their towers and only use guns if prisoners tried to break in – otherwise, let them run away.  The administration’s reasoning was that if soldiers shot prisoners, it would look bad for the prisoner and for Israel in general, which they couldn’t afford to let happen (page 161).  Soldiers took this unusual policy amiss, understanding that the Israeli military saw their welfare as less important than that of either the prisoners or of the military’s international image, which enhanced the soldiers’ sense of victimization.  Soldiers also complained that prisoners received better food than they did and were allowed a greater sense of autonomy, especially with assigned tasks and day-to-day leadership (shawish/sergeant system, which the Palestinians elected and ran themselves), and with prisoners cooking and cleaning for themselves (page 158).  Comparatively, soldiers often received soggy, semi-frozen schnitzels and scorched stews; the bad food has occasionally led soldiers to mutiny, arguing that they needed more meat in order to have the energy to serve (pages 165-166).

The prisoners and MPs also saw themselves as victims.  Palestinians saw themselves as victims of Jews and the State of Israel, and Zionism a belated form of European colonialism. The MPs felt victimized due to their very postings: in the Israeli military, being part of the military police is considered a shameful appointment because they need to police their own comrades instead of fighting the enemy (page 169).  Despite Israel’s significant social, economic, and scientific achievements and its proven military might, Israeli Jews cultivate a self-image of the eternal victim.  In the masculine setting of the military prison, the transformation of armed soldiers, the epitome of hegemonic masculinity, into self-perceived victims of their own prisoners was neither simple nor straightforward (page 175).  Israeli Jewish soldiers felt that they were the real and only victims of the situation; even though the State of Israel and the IDF had devised and structured the institution that was victimizing them, they felt both victimized and justified in their actions (page 176).  Food bridges the gap between the theory and praxis of nationalism: food and eating were important topics within the reserve soldiers’ narrative of victimization due to the food not being fresh and the dining room staff doing their job poorly by failing to ensure that soldiers had better food (page 177).

Chapter 8 (“Thai Migrant Workers and the Dog-Eating Myth”) draws on Israeli misconceptions of Thai migrant workers’ eating habits to highlight broader social ambivalence towards Thai migrants.  Thai migrants make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce in Israel, and rumors abound about Thai migrants hunting and eating Israelis’ pet dogs.   This is an Israeli myth in order to define Thai workers as subhuman, therein justifying their economic exploitation as cheap labor and solving any ethical quandaries arising from said exploitation (page 187).   However, Thai migrant workers did occasionally kill their employers’ chickens (sometimes with their bare hands) in order to obtain fresh meat.  Meat is relatively expensive, and migrant workers oftentimes had neither the income nor the transportation to go to a market on a regular basis (page 194).  Israelis view hunting negatively, particularly as fresh game is harder to kill according to kashrut laws; instead, Israelis prefer to purchase meat.  Furthermore, Israeli animal farmers tend to distance themselves from the act of killing, which is done elsewhere and by other people, so they considered themselves life givers rather than life takers.  By killing chickens with their hands, often in sight of their employers, the Thai workers were demolishing the symbolic barriers that protected their employers from facing the violent death they were inflicting on the millions of animals they farmed (page 196).

More broadly, Avieli draws on Aziza Khazzoom (2003) to emphasize Zionism as a modernizing, Westernizing experience during which early incarnations of the Jewish Diaspora were stigmatized by their successors for being Othered and Orientalized (page 210).  Yitzhak Rabin’s government’s decision to import migrant workers breached some of the fundamental values of Socialist Zionism that practitioners professed to champion, particularly social justice and an egalitarian ethos.  Instead, Israelis employed aggressive Orientalizing and stereotyping techniques to deal with the moral dilemmas instigated by the hard employment of migrant workers (page 211).  In the same vein, Israelis portray Romanian immigrants as poor drunkards, Filipina immigrants as gentle and submissive, and West African immigrants as dangerous, masculine, and intellectually limited (page 212).  However, Thai immigrants didn’t fit these easy molds because Thailand remains a popular Israeli vacation destination and because Thai immigrants work in the agricultural sector, which Israeli Zionism highly values as the epitome of strength and self-reliance (pages 212-213).  As such, the association of Thai migrants with the hunting and consumption of dogs allows Israelis to both exploit the fruit of Thai migrants’ labor and to enjoy Thailand as an exotic vacation without any sense of guilt.

Several questions yet remain after Avieli’s extensive ethnography.  For example, are barbecues interpreted differently on normal days than they are on Israeli Independent Day, a holiday ostensibly dedicated to an Israeli show of victory over not only British colonizers from the 1948 War of Independence, but also current-day Palestinians for whom Israeli Independence Day is a reminder of colonial rule (pages 54-55).  Furthermore, Avieli never made it quite clear why he chose Sacher Park as a field site if, as he claims on pages 55-56, the park doesn’t fully represent independence-day celebrations.  Additionally, while Avieli discusses several very salient points regarding food preparation and consumption as representations of elite power, he does not provide any ways in which those without power can use food to gain power on their own terms, or at least to claim culinary legitimacy.  These expressions of identity through food are important cultural actions, as Avieli himself showed during his commentary on the Hummus War between Israel and Lebanon.

Ultimately, Nir Avieli analyzes several comprehensive vignettes showcasing that food is a means of exercising power in Israel.  Avieli uses these vignettes to juxtapose idealized Israeli qualities with current practices.  For example, by discussing Israeli soldiers’ consistent complaints regarding their fare in comparison to the Palestinian prisoners, Avieli draws out the contradictions between Israel as a superpower in the Middle East with the eternal Jewish self-image as “absolute victims” (page 227).  Additionally, the Israeli association of red meat with bloody masculinity despite the distaste with which Israelis view hunting and blood consumption, indicates a disparity between desired qualities of idealized masculinity and actual cultural practices.  The cultural elite’s foodways are de facto the assumed culinary pathways for the entire population, regardless of alternative cuisines and practices (page 225).  Mizrahi cuisine is an Israeli creation, a way of Otherizing Mizrahi Jews who otherwise enjoy a wide variety of foods not limited to the Israeli perception of Mizrahi cuisine as merely spicy and overdone (page 221).  In this way do minority cuisines become limited to stereotypes in the face of the elite’s culinary preferences and perceptions of other groups.

 

[i] Ashkenazi Jews are Jews of German and/or Austrian descent.

Mizrahi Jews are Jews of Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish, and/or Syrian descent.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Israel, Jewish food

Review: Burger

Media of Burger

Burger (Object Lessons): Carol J. Adams. London: Bloomsbury. 2018. 174 pp. ISBN 9781501329463

 
James P. Verinis
Anthropology and Sociology
Roger Williams University

Along with personal stereo and veil and egg (part of a Bloomsbury series recently reviewed in the SAFN blog by Leslie Carlin), burger is a lesson in human material culture; the second to last page suggests a subtitle- “the everyday object of burgerness”. As such, it is also a lesson in the symbolic practice of burger-making and burger-eating, burger-buying and burger-selling… the living of our burger-lives. Part commodity chain analysis and part poetry, there is something for most everyone in the object[ive] of this series, which also fits in an average back pocket (the books are as portable as many of the items they are concerned with, which is certainly no coincidence).

Most everyone familiar with the anthropology of food or with critical food studies of some other form is familiar with Carol Adams. I’ve long enjoyed re-deploying her provocative statements about the “sexual politics of meat” in my classrooms. While the conspiracy against women vis-à-vis beef is hard for some to swallow whole, few can deny either the power of her prose or the truth she speaks to powerful foods. burger is, like The Sexual Politics of Meat, a powerful work, if less overtly provocative or confined to the gender of things. At a few slightly awkward points Adams seems to be unsuccessfully reining her rant in, as she drops sharp lines like “cheap animal flesh on a bun” or “flesh-eating democracy” at the end of otherwise objective or bland sections on nutrition or U.S. history. Mostly the book is a superb invitation to contemplate both the pathetic lack of human imagination which drives contemporary burger innovators to simulate eating experiences that consumers assume are simply the results of primal human desires as well as the marvelous potential these same innovators see to further manipulate these cultural predispositions to accomplish such feats as reversing climate change.

Adams begins with the fetishization of cow flesh (as opposed to pig or deer) in the Old Testament and amongst the Romans, for example, before reviewing what is argued to be its most creative and monstrous form and the Americans who have conceived it. Our hands get greasy from eating burgers at county fairs and lunch wagons and car hops. And whether we like it or not we’re stunned, as the animals themselves are stunned and killed, by the systemization of the animal market in flesh. The numbers of cows killed annually today, miles of fencing, acres of annihilated space, and tons of growth hormones and antibiotics that have been required to produce cattle at hyper-industrial scales are altogether mindboggling, as is the spectrum and percentage of environmental damage that can be attributed to it all. The reader weaves through popular literature such as that by Eric Schlosser and more scholarly foundations erected by the likes of William Cronon, mainstream movies and surreal art. It’s kind of a perfect pocket book, and yet Adams also asks questions I’ve never heard anyone ask, such as why no grand narrative of violence associated with killing bovines has ever been deployed to further celebrate the myth of masculinity vis-à-vis hamburger meat.

The answers to this and other questions lie mostly in the histories of Western “technologies of violence”. Second to barbed wire fencing as perhaps the next most embodied form of structural violence in this story is the meat grinder, which “macerates and camouflages”. The resulting “whoppers” and “chubby boys”, as euphemisms for male erections, extend sexual dominance so far that perhaps there really is no need to also hone in on the specific violence perpetrated by mankind upon bovines. Mission accomplished.

We move through semiotics and “interspecies history” in this way to biochemistry and politics and law to other disciplinary techniques used to reveal or conceal the scope and power of meat. One hamburger contains the DNA of more than a thousand cows. Ag-Gag laws and the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” protect animal cruelty from acts of civil disobedience by conflating transparency on factory farms with terrorism.

In this book Adams also seems to create perhaps the definitive history of the non-meat/veggie/in-vitro meat burger. While some of these sections may have less oomph than those previous (certainly reflective of the disinterest most of America has long seemed to have in non-meat patties), together they foreground the incredible point the country seems to be at in terms of the “cognitive dissonance” surrounding burgers. The founder of one promising non-meat burger company, Beyond Meat, suggests we think about meat in terms of composition and not whether it comes from an animal. As he says of his plant-based protein burger, “At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is getting meat to people.” Is this really the precipice of a new frontier in burgers? Yes and no I guess. We’re only human after all.

That’s what we’re working with here in the end- our vast yet limited human potential, in terms of our relationship with animals, what we’re willing to put in our mouths, our capacity to understand the ways we follow capitalism’s lead and distract ourselves into not thinking about it, and what this all has to do with the Anthropocene. Adams lays out the bare bones as well as the myths we tell ourselves about burgers with unsettling and inspirational style. In so doing, she provides the uninitiated student and the casual consumer as well as the expert in critical food studies a handbook for the new burger age.

Adams, Carol. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum International, Oxford: Polity Press, 1990.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, climate change, culture and agriculture, gender

Review: Eating Nafta

 

Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico. Alyshia Gálvez. University of California Press. 2018. 260pp. ISBN:9780520291812.

Joan Gross

Oregon State University

Alyshia Gálvez has written a very important and timely book about the connectedness of international trade agreements, migration, diet-related diseases and the loss of biodiversity. She focuses on the two decades plus since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 and its impact on the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border. Gálvez interweaves large scale statistics from reliable sources with her own ethnographic encounters with people from various walks of life, rural and urban, labor migrants and politicians. She complements her decades-long ethnographic fieldwork with discourse analysis and policy analysis, linking the micro with the macro. She pays particular attention to the changing lifestyles of rural Mexicans who no longer can support themselves with milpa agriculture since the USA began dumping subsidized corn in Mexico. Not only have their diets changed, but they can no longer maintain multigenerational households as they have been sucked into a cash economy and family members have migrated to cities and abroad in pursuit of cash. She tells us that today Mexico imports 42% of its food and has a 55.1% poverty rate. She tells us that the top three causes of death and disability are now diet-related chronic diseases. She tells us that in 2007, 12.8 million Mexicans were residing in the USA. She proposes in the Introduction that we consider this as a kind of structural violence. “’Gringos’ clamor for handmade tortillas, while Mexicans have become the world’s top consumers of instant noodles” (p. 10).

Chapter Two provides an ethnographic look at the elevation of traditional Mexican food into the world of haute cuisine, blessed by René Redzepi, the celebrated Danish chef. Gálvez examines “the role of narrative capital in telling certain kinds of stories that simultaneously romanticize specific elements of cuisine (like hand-ground landrace corn), while cleaving them from the historical conditions of their production and the people responsible for their development and custodianship over millennia” (p.30). Mexican cuisine was inducted into UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. Gálvez addresses the timelessness of the UNESCO description, while providing examples of changes in Mexican cuisine since the Spanish conquest, and notably since NAFTA. Some farmers of landrace corn fed it to their animals because the price and demand was so low, but today, top chefs are paying premium prices for ancestral corn that they serve along with huitlacoche, insect larvae, mezcal, and other traditional Mexican foods that have been newly discovered by elite chefs and diners. Gálvez stresses the importance of stories and who gets to tell them. She recounts stories that Mexican farmers tell about hybrid vs. criollo corn. Hybrid corn “requires more water and pesticides, costs more, and behaves like a spoiled baby” (p. 60) according to Nahuatl-speaking farmers of  Asunción Miahuatlán. Other farmers justify the higher cost of raising hybrid corn with market demand for the larger ears eaten as corn on the cob.

Chapter Three shifts from corn to goats, but repeats the messy pattern of some people deciding to continue raising criollo goats which taste better while others follow the advice of government agronomists to invest in fancy goats. Gálvez rehearses for us the history of Mexico’s development policy and the constant desire to make agricultural production more “efficient.” She argues that small-scale agriculture is compatible with other subsistence and economic activities and it ensures biodiversity and environmental sustainability. Central to her argument is the contrast between a market-driven food security model promoted by free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and a food sovereignty model that calls for democratic control of the food system. As marginalized rural residents are blamed for Mexico’s “inefficiency,” their displacement has led to increased consumption of US products and labor migration to the US, both actions subsidizing the US economy.

Chapter Four begins with a description of Doña Yolanda’s small store, filled with candy and other processed foods. Stores like this are typical in many poor countries, so I was glad that Gálvez spent some time explaining the attraction of getting into this type of business and the competition they face from larger chains, such as Oxxo and Walmart. She describes how processed food at first marked cosmopolitan modernity, but now is associated with lower status. Mexicans have embodied free trade and the nutrition transition in the form of widespread obesity, though Gálvez questions whether the cause is skyrocketing consumption of sugar or the myriad chemicals used in farming and food processing. She states that chemical exports from the US to Mexico increased 97% in the first decade after NAFTA was passed.

Chapter Five addresses strategies to combat obesity and diabetes in Mexico. Here, Gálvez points out that the solutions to this problem always seem to rest on the individual and don’t address changes in the larger food system. She, then describes three parts of the Mexican government’s response to diabetes and obesity: the soda tax and regulations on food marketing; the anti-poverty program, Prospera; and the Crusade against Hunger. She shows how the latter two strategies propel people towards a cash-based economy and away from traditional knowledge concerning healthy food. She ends the chapter with a discussion of women’s labor and how, even when working outside the home, women are expected to be responsible for the diets of their families. As their access to money increases and their time decreases, they are more likely to rely on prepared foods. The author points out that it is not fair that they and not the state should be held responsible for obesity.

Chapter Six looks at diabetes and asks about the role of migration in the rise of this disease. The focus is on the relationship between stress and diabetes on one hand and stress and migration on the other. She cites Mendenhall’s work on syndemic suffering which calls attention to the intersection of both diseases and epidemic social problems. Research is only beginning to explore the connections between diabetes and stressors such as separation from family members, discrimination, labor exploitation, poverty and lack of health insurance. The diets of migrants change, but also the migradollars they repatriate increase the consumption of larger quantities of processed foods back home.

Chapter Seven begins with watercress, a food that many Latin Americans have a nostalgic response to, but that never figures into stereotypes of Latin American cuisine. Gálvez asks “how many humble but clearly significant foods are forgotten in the transition to more urban lifestyles or with migration?” (p. 174). She also asks how much of our nostalgia for certain foods is nostalgia for the contexts in which they were produced and eaten and notes that migration intensifies nostalgia for specific places and tastes, especially when free circulation is prevented. Decontextualization enabled traditional foods to be appropriated and commodified like the expensive tamales offered by Williams -Sonoma or McDonald’s McBurrito. In response, food activists are promoting traditional foods and their health benefits as part of food sovereignty. At the same time that traditional Mexican cuisine is going global, global products like Coca-Cola have invaded indigenous culture and ritual and this, in turn, has become a useful marketing tool.

In the Conclusion, Gálvez tells the story of one Mexican migrant to New York who found his way back to the land with help from a non-profit called GrowNYC. The migrant in this story stands in contrast to the multitude of Mexican migrants who have become “’surplus bodies,’ and bodies as repositories of surpluses, storing the products of overproduction and uneven trade negotiations” (p. 192). Gálvez proposes that the rise of diet-related illness in Mexico is “a logical result of the prioritization of foreign direct investment, industrial agriculture, theories of comparative advantage, and a specific role of development that sees no role for small-scale agriculture” (pp. 192-193). At the end of the book, she takes us back to alternative movements such as GrowNYC that promote social justice, resistance and resilience  while promoting ways of eating that “build our connections to each other and to land and culture” (p. 199). Nevertheless, she warns that solutions require more than consumer activism at the local level.

Throughout the book, Gálvez often shifts her discourse from explaining to giving the reader insight into the conversations and observations that led her to make particular points. Sometimes these are descriptions of encounters; at other times, direct transcriptions from interviews in Spanish. These are not translated in the text, but merely summarized and commented on. (Interested readers can find the exact translations in the endnotes.) It’s a refreshing style that maintains reader interest in the topics at hand while also opening the research curtain. Gálvez successfully presents the complexity of a food system gone awry and the important role played by NAFTA. I highly recommend it as a text in courses dealing with food systems, social justice, migration and public policy, as well as courses on Latin America.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cuisine, diabetes, economics, globalization, Mexico, neo-liberal public policy

Review: Making Milk

Making milk cover

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

Kerri Lesh
Center for Basque Studies
University of Nevada, Reno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, book reviews

Review: Food in Zones of Conflict

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

Food in Zones of Conflict: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

Jacquelyn Heuer (University of South Florida)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, applied anthropology, food history, food security, war

Review: Egg (Object Lessons)

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

Egg

Leslie Carlin (University of Toronto)

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, 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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cuisine, farmers market