Category Archives: book reviews

Review: Two Books on Hunger and Food Security

De Schutter, Olivier. and Cordes, Kaitlin Y. 2011. Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in an Era of Globalisation. London/New York: Hart Publishing (288 pp).

Timmer, C. Peter. 2015 Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (240 pp).

Jo Hunter-Adams
University of Cape Town

Accounting for Hunger and Food Security and Scarcity offer complementary pictures of food accounting for hunger coversecurity and hunger, one from the perspective of economics, and the other from a broader rights-based perspective. As an edited volume, Accounting for Hunger allows for several fine-grained analyses of specific dimensions of food security. In contrast, Timmer’s Food Security and Scarcity draws global lessons from the history of food security, and offers market analysis as a basis for recommendations to economists and policy planners.

In Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard, Timmer lays out the complexity of global food security in seven chapters. Each chapter builds on a set of key assumptions about economic policy. Timmer focuses on the need for pro-poor economic growth, in particular structural transformation or urbanization, with decreased labor on farms. He asserts again and again that, “historically, the structural transformation has been the only sustainable pathway out of poverty.” (p113, see also xii, p4, 9, 29, 37, 56, 85, 95). Beginning with this premise, he spends much of the analysis looking at ways that such structural transformation takes place (and very briefly on the consequences when such a transformation fails). Not being trained as an economist, I did not understand some of chapter 3, which lays out specific models for balancing control of the market while allowing competition. My own shortcomings as a reviewer aside, a major strength of this book lies in its scope, suggesting some of the ways that the food price stabilization can be achieved at a global level, and not shying away from the complexity of such a feat (i.e. achieving “a guaranteed nutritional floor for the poor” and “secure availability and stable prices in food markets” p31.)

food security coverAlso to the book’s credit, Timmer does mention failed agricultural transformations, where populations end up in growing urban slums rather than gaining momentum to move out of {material} poverty. Timmer also mentions the lack of transparency of market transactions and large-scale food purchases, and the slowdown of new agricultural research.

However, the assertion that structural transformation is the key route out of poverty is worthy of critique. While Timmer is up front about the Asian bias present in the book, he is less introspective about the potential issues this bias brings to the analysis. That is, without defining the boundaries and exclusions (geographical and historical) of successful structural transformation, I found it difficult to be convinced in favor of “pro-poor” structural transformation. Past successful structural transformation cannot, taken alone, predict the future; climate change and the declining availability of fossil fuels surely opens up the possibility that the future may be different from the past, and that new routes towards food security will be necessary. Narrow conceptualization of material poverty and hunger also masks historical power imbalances, where economists may feel empowered to make far-reaching policy based on their assessments of hunger, without considering the exploitation that has facilitated inequality. This critique notwithstanding, the book offers a good introduction for non-specialists (undergraduate and graduate) into the issues and complexities of global food security.

The editors of Accounting for Hunger begin by offering a summary of the challenges and relationships between urban food supply and rural agriculture, emphasizing the need to consider the imbalances of power in food systems, with particular attention to farmers. Thereafter, the book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on power imbalances in food systems, with three chapters focused on agribusiness (Cordes), food retail (Cowan Schmidt) and Biofuels (Cloots). The second part focuses on the role of trade and aid in creating an international environment that promotes the right to food. De Schutter begins with an overview of the policies that govern international aid and the ways that these tend to overlook their role in promoting the right to food globally. In the three chapters that follow the authors focus on rich-country agricultural subsidies (Mersing), the legal recourse in relation to the WTO (Konstantinov) and recommendations for food aid (Moreu).

Rather than review each chapter, I would like to highlight a few chapters as good potential assigned reading for particular issues in food security. In chapter three, Cordes offers attention to the relationships between biodiversity, mono-cultures, and trade agreements. She also weaves in studies of GMOs, farmer suicides in relation to debt, and the need for transparency in agribusiness. Schmidt offers key insights into the disproportionate burden borne by smallholders and small farmers when forced to compete on global markets. Cloots’ chapter on Biofuels offered a very helpful introduction to the ways that biofuels shapes the commodities market. She argues that the current orientation of the biofuels market tends to infringe upon the realization of rights to food in developing countries, and deepen the bargaining disadvantages of low-and-middle income countries. Cloots effectively weaves the relationships between food security, land use, climate change, energy needs, and biodiversity. In chapter 6, Mersing considers the complexity of phasing out rich country agricultural subsidies without increasing hunger amongst the very poor. Here is where the complexity of artificially low prices for commodity food is juxtaposed with the need for these low prices given low wages and unemployment in low-and middle-income countries. The final chapter guiding food aid recommendations is clear and concrete, and lays out the intersections between food aid, the agricultural decline of recipients, and the muddy waters of motivations of the nations providing aid.

Points of intersection

In recent years, the focus on global hunger has shifted towards at least some consideration of local food environments and framing food security in terms of healthy foods—not only caloric sufficiency. The complexity of intersections between obesity and hunger deserved at least some consideration, as it has important implications for policy, including health policy amongst the growing populations of urban poor.

Both books frame hunger as primarily an issue of poverty, rather than an issue of agricultural production (though Timmer believes agricultural research and improved yield is a key part of food security in the future). Both books also highlight small-scale farmers

SmallholderNetBuyers revise

Illustration by E.B. Adams, http://ebadams.com/.

in the effort to improve global food security. One concrete point highlighted by Timmer is that farm sizes should increase somewhat to facilitate greater food security. Rather than advocating for large commercial farms, his argument is for moderately larger family smallholdings that would allow for more efficient household production and better local supply. This is consistent with chapter 3 of Accounting for Hunger, where Cordes highlights the ways that smallholders and small-scale market farmers currently shoulder disproportionate burdens of risk. However, while Timmer represents the market as a neutral force, the authors of Accounting of Hunger are much more willing to delve into the ways that powerful corporations may stack the odds against smallholder farmers. Both volumes highlight that higher food prices would not serve smallholder needs, as most smallholders are net buyers of food, and are at most risk for food insecurity, symbolizing the complexity of creating more equitable food systems.

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Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods

Manpreet K. Janeja. Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods. London: Routledge, 2010. 185 pages, ISBN 978-415553742.

Reviewed by Meraz Rahman
New Mexico State University 

In her detailed, sensuous ethnographically based book, Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods, Manpreet K. Janeja takes her readers transactions in taste coveron an extraordinary journey to the middle-class “normal” everyday “Bengali” foodscape by illustrating the everyday ordinary common food prepared and consumed there. The book’s emphasis includes people living in both sides of Bengal- the Muslim Bengal of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Hindu Bengal in Calcutta in the Indian state of West Bengal. Growing up in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, which is known for its rich food heritage, left a profound imprint on Janeja, who was mesmerized by the rich tastes, colors, smells, sounds, and touch of Bengali food. Various questions loom large in Janeja’s mind such as what was “Bengali” about so much of the food in Calcutta? How is food important in both East and West Bengali genealogies? And what was “normality” after all? (Page: xvi –xvii).

Janeja attempts to examine how food is a critical means by which Bengali Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta and Dhaka create a rational world and normality through the transactional “agency” that food acquires in its work of generating perceived normality (p.2). “Agents” can be objects other than persons, including  things and places, a perspective originally developed by anthropologist Alfred Gell in his book Art and Agency (1998) (p.19). By focusing on processes, preparation, storage, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food, this book illustrates the articulation of quotidian, mundane practices with a wider biography of social relationships (p.8-9). The book reveals the ways in which Bengalis (both Muslim and Hindu) attend to food and further explicates “the manner in which food as a thing-actant/patient mediate between other things, persons, and place –actants/patients” (P.24). Janeja develops a number of topics such as “foodscape,” “normality” and “non-normality.” She also examines the ways in which food emerges as “ordinary sacred,” how food evokes subjectivity in everyday life and hospitality transactions while producing everyday “normality,” the relationship between food and location, and lastly, how the preparation of foods in everyday hospitality relations elicits the modalities of ownership (belongingness, identity).

I want to highlight a few of the topics that I found most fascinating about this book. Janeja provided examples of relationships between the cook and the “desh” (region, area, district, native hometown, village, city, birthplace, country) in order to explicate the concept “desh as foodscape,” a concept Janeja develops to “describe the ability of food to bring forth the sense of place as particular configuration of relationship” (P.51). Janeja depicts the characteristics of a good cook and describes how her/his ability to replicate a recipe for the household can be considered as normally cooked in the “desh” of the recipient. On the contrary, the incapacity of a cook to continually replicate the everyday foodscape perceived as normal by food recipients is called “not-normality.” According to Janeja this is how “Desh as foodscape” becomes a theme for perceiving normality (P.52).  This book also provides its reader with the menu, philosophy, and the process of cooking of two restaurants in Calcutta and Dhaka to explain how “food reveals its agency in bringing forth temporal calibration of process of preparing normal Bengali food ‘traditionally’ everyday in restaurants” (P.138). The very definition of “normality” in this case differs significantly and suggests the ability of cooks working in these restaurants to continuously replicate “standard” Bengali food by excluding their respective “desh” as an actant. In order to make/create “standard” Bengali food, the cook tries to balance and modify the dishes (use and control of ingredients, cooking technique, process) to make them “standard” or “normal” in the perception of the restaurant staff and their customers (p.131).

This book may interest a variety of audiences. The book can be used as reference for anyone interested in conducting food studies, especially food studies of South Asia or a text for teaching courses related to food studies, food and hospitality, or post-colonial studies. It is useful not only because of its rich content but also for the research methods employed. The idea of food having “agency” can also be further utilized by policy makers to look at the collaborative work food performs (in the creation of normality/non-normality), and to devise food relief policies related to the assembled world of the people the policies seek to address (P.166).

Janeja provided the reader with an innovative account of the everyday foodscape of Bengali life, challenging readers to think about food differently and understand the power and ability of food to control and shape our identity, environment, and the creation of normality/non normality in our everyday lives. However, the prose of this book is pretty dense and inundated with footnotes, which makes it more accessible to academic audiences. The frequent use of Bengali quotes and phrases throughout the book enriches the ethnographic description, but will occasionally distract the reader.

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Lentil Underground

 

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

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Carlisle, Liz. Lentil Underground. Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. NY: Gotham Books, 2015.

Lentil Underground is a book that many of us have been waiting for: a readable, journalistic rather than staid academic account of U.S. farmers’ struggle to create a mainstream organic, multi-crop alternative to conventional and genetically-engineered, monocrop agriculture. The story interweaves a triple interpretative biography of the farmers, the plant varieties in ecosystems, and their struggling but ultimately successful business, Timeless Seeds. It constructs the history of this Montana organic agricultural business through the life stories of its diverse and colorful members, the new-old seeds and biodiverse agro-ecological products and practices they re-pioneered, and the collective material- and information-sharing they achieved through collective action and networking. The narrative begins in 1974 and traces a developmental, alternative agricultural path that roughly parallels the Green Revolution and its successor Green-Gene Revolution, the mainstream energy- and chemical-intensive agricultures, through 2014. The experiences of the farmers, researchers, and business interests who jointly made these organic activities happen, provide additional shining testimonies to the role of government in encouraging or discouraging a healthier, more resilient rural environment and economy in an era of Big Agriculture, big corporate lobbying interests, and big risks for farmers facing uncertain natural and economic climates that put many conventional agriculturalists out of business.

The author, a product of University of California at Berkeley’s agro-ecological, sustainable-food, and writing programs (think Miguel Altieri, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan), dedicated three years to interviewing the principals and telling their individual, family, and networking stories. These colorful, dedicated, and resourceful characters, almost all of whom originally come from Montana farming backgrounds, include founding family farmer, Dave Oien, a philosophy and religious studies major who then contributed agroecology and business as assets to transform and manage their family farm and Jerry Habets, who backed into lentils and organic farming when he could not afford the chemicals necessary to continue conventional farming. Others are Casey Bailey, whose diverse background in music, urban studies, Liberation Theology, and counter-cultural activism, made him an excellent candidate for diversified farming and associated collective decision-making, and Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, who combined day-jobs that paid the bills and provided medical benefits with their passion, organic farming. Their politics range from right-wing libertarian to left wing progressive and this is Carlisle’s point: there is considerable diversity in the politics of the organic farming movement. Seasoning this mix are also heroic plant breeders and ecologists, who provide biological and physical (soils) information and materials to assist and improve organic operations.

Carlisle correctly realized that careful, qualitative, investigative research could document how U.S. and state government investments and regulations at multiple levels helped or hindered a more diversified agriculture, and what farmer-led actions could contribute to sustainability — farming and livelihoods — which was everyone’s value. The additional insights she gained over the course of these interviews concern the human community and what Frances Moore Lappe, in various food writings, has termed “living democracy.” Timeless Seeds constructed its network and thrived because it made human community an integral component of its sustainability vision. Their combined collective, seed, and farmer biographies also offer an argument against the growing preference for “local” food and agriculture, as the markets that make this regional success story possible illustrate another kind of globalization — from the grass-roots. All could agree that agricultural business-as-usual was not working for farmers like them or farms like theirs, and found that they needed grassroots organizations to support and voice their collective commitment to organic, multi-crop, and pluralistic botanical and social alternatives. They also required government support for research and organic-friendly regulations to make their enterprises viable. On these government agendas they have been partly successful in winning some dedicated (rather than “bootlegged”) funding for soils and pest research that will provide an evidence base for optimal, multi-crop organic management strategies. They have also managed to acquire some farmer protection against lawsuits should licensed GMO seeds incidentally rather than intentionally sprout in their fields, and bans on GMO wheat until such time as their Asian markets agree to accept this product.

The text is beautifully crafted to let the voices of the farmer families speak for themselves, and in the process recount the sorry history and ecology of US agriculture. Some are the children of family farmers, who followed US Department of Agriculture guidelines, investing yearly in ever higher priced seeds, energy, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides but regularly losing crops to bad weather, poor soils, or evolving pests. They found the only protection temporarily rescuing them from penury was government crop insurance or payments. So long as they followed the rules (monocropping with chemicals), the government payments at least partially bailed them out. But most years, this was not a living and future prospects were bleak. Both the soils and the human beings who worked them were exhausted, their health eroding from chemical poisons. The older generation despaired of leaving their farming legacy to their offspring. This next generation, however, a group of rugged and well-read individualists, nevertheless learned to apply modern scientific understandings of their more diversified agricultural past, and also created the kind of community that shares and helps each other overcome isolation, trauma, and risks. These social as well as agri-technical developments are clearly showcased in the stories of farmers’ improvement clubs, where new farmers could present and help solve each other’s problems, and ultimately stay in business. Their stories convincingly show that American rural life might yet thrive, based on the vision and determination of these fully dedicated but for economic reasons, part-time farmers.

As a text for teaching, I find author Liz Carlisle and her subjects are at their best when they are assessing the tradeoffs, and sometimes the ironies of their situations. Most of these tradeoffs concern economics and politics. Slowly, these new “weed” farmers, who know Montana farming can’t continue to practice business as usual because the older generation is going broke, learn to experiment first with new cover crops and green manure species, and only later add forage, feed, and food into the mix to make their farming operations viable. Although throughout this multi-decade learning process, individual farmers and the group as a whole learn to value organic agriculture by assessing energy saved and chemical expenditures avoided, they need crops they can sell at a premium if farming households are to survive. As Timeless Seeds moves into new legumes, in new combinations, and sometimes in combination with other “heritage” seeds such as purple barley, emmer (farro), and spelt, or more common grains and livestock that have the added value that they are produced and certified organic, the instigators find they must learn business skills and spend increasing time on administration and marketing.

These learning curves, which demonstrated that Timeless needed to have multiple crops and not rely on single buyers, proved as challenging as the field and processing skills they accumulated and shared over time. The cases developing markets for “new” legumes such as French green lentils (a one-time shot with Trader Joe’s) and “Beluga” black lentils (promoted by one particular high-end chef and then marketed through his client networks) are particularly instructive. Although most participating farmers entered organic farming with idealistic values that they were going to save the land and the population’s health, they find that some of their best customers are Asian nutrition supplement businesses, who turn their high-protein legumes into biochemicals that feed highly industrialized animal operations or high-income consumers. As one farmer opines: this is not why she signed up to work hundreds of hours each week, instead of living a normal professional life with a vacation house and time.

Another trade-off concerns government payments: was the goal to get government off or on the farmers’ backs? As organic farmers sought answers to agronomic questions, could they get equal funding for organic (as compared with conventional) agriculture, or create commodity check off payments that would help educate and promote organic production and consumption? Another effort was to access crop insurance, because, while organic production helped cool and sequester moisture in soils, it did not make one immune to natural weather disasters, which include not only ferociously dry, high temperature seasons, but also untimely rain and hail that can devastate harvests. A third was access to health insurance, because health problems posed a big barrier to sustainable farmers, who usually needed one fully employed spouse with benefits to make sure medical bills were covered. Although networked farmers did very well at sharing experiences and taking care of each other, these grassroots approaches, sadly, could not solve all their problems; they still needed government assistance.

Carlisle and her sources, significantly, also raise some unanswered questions. For example, how should farmers calculate returns on crops, when there are so many different species and varieties, and some of the returns are multi-year contributions to soil structural health and fertility, or plant-community based resilience to crop-specific pests, or simply long-term human health? Is there a more complex answer to the question, can GE ever contribute to soil conservation and restoration when soils and multi-crop ecology are so complex and genetic technologies treat one gene or gene-to-gene interaction at a time? The beauty of this text as an information source and teaching tool is that these questions are raised, and suggest plenty of directions for further research and discussion. It would serve well as a basic supplementary text in U.S. agricultural and food systems and policy courses at undergraduate through graduate levels. It would also make a terrific addition to the reading library of any organic gardener or consumer. Finally, to increase comprehensibility, there is an introductory map of Montana locating all the farms, towns, and major transportation routes mentioned in the text, and a glossary, defining key environmental, economic, and social-political concepts. The book is very beautifully produced, with botanical images and easily readable type in multiple gray to black shades. There is, alas, no index.

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Southern Provisions

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

southern provisions cover

Shields, David S. (2015) Southern Provisions.  The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Did you ever wonder where Carolina Gold Rice and other southern rices come from? Or what kinds of beans and peas, root vegetables and herbs, were typical of these “lowcountry” cuisines, and how these products were introduced and integrated?  Do you care about regional U.S. cooking and revivals, and the place of culinary history in such constructions or reconstructions?  Then this is the book for you.  The author, who is the principal of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which provides the seeds for this Carolina Gold Rice and southern culinary revival, has done exhaustive research.  He documents how scholars and food professionals and amateurs interested in rediscovering the flavors of traditional southern dishes worked from cookbooks, gardening records, and other historical culinary documents to create the historical “table” of 18th and 19th century southern cuisine, and then went about the arduous but ultimately rewarding tasks of finding the food varieties that farmers could plant and harvest to make these reconstructions possible.  This reversal of the usual “farm to table” mantra is supremely effective as an organizing tool, as the first half of the volume describes the history, institutions, concepts and methods, and the second half charts, crop by crop, the findings, which allow the understanding of cookery, gardening, field crops, and meals to inform the recovery of seeds, soil and water conditions, that revive the historical flavors and values of these foods and combinations.  The sheer diversity of plant materials is daunting.  In the earlier chapters, Shields lists the historical seed sources for 31 different varieties of beans, 37 different varieties of peas, 24 different kinds of turnips, ten different broccolis (white, purple, and green), and so on, although he finds evidence of only one potato and and a single tomato variety.  The seeds for these various crops came from Europe, the Northeast (NY) or in some cases, fellow southerners.  But the point is to recover and revive the foods, not only the seed sources.

I was particularly interested in Carolina Gold Rice, which must be distinguished from the modern GMO Golden Rice prototype, where the golden color permeates the edible seed. Using modern genetic mapping technologies, scientists have now traced Carolina Gold’s genealogy to a variety in Ghana, although the route by which this rice reached the Carolinas is open to interpretation.  The Carolina rice’s husk is gold, as are the (unhusked) seeds.  After reviving this variety, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation also revived an aromatic Charleston Gold Rice, which is similarly attractive in basic characteristics and adds scent.  Alongside these varieties, Shields sorts out the many European, Asian, and African sources that contributed to the South’s seed selections; their agronomic (productivity) and flavor (all sensory) profiles, as these influenced the rice preferences of producers, cooks, and consumers.  An indication of the precise, sensory-rich, detailed writing is the description, that “Gold seed yielded more per acre than the Piedmontese rice, exceeded it for pearly translucence,and surpassed it in lustrous mouth feel and wholesome taste” (p.237).  Knowledgeable cooks could furthermore distinguish the particular places or farms that produced their rice, which carried the very distinctive flavors of their soils and river-water of origin.  The reader also learns that this rice must be produced organically; additional enrichment of soils with chemical fertilizers will cause the rice vegetation to grow weedy and the seed heads plus stalks to lodge and fall over.  The reader also learns about weedy rice pests, especially red rice, which effectively competes with the cultigen, and the low-tech ways farmers must distinguish rice seed with lower or higher weed seeds by visually sampling and inspecting their contamination, or later invest significant manual labor in weeding.  Numerous historical supply notes and recipes indicate that white rice, as a staple food, was often paired with hominy (corn grits) and pulses (peas or beans). Rice furthermore served as a major ingredient in breakfast foods, in addition to later-day meals, at a time, prior to the technology of puffing rice for breakfast cereals, when the first major meal of the workday demanded hearty fare.  Additional chapters give similarly detailed histories of sugar cane, sorghum, oil, and peanuts, with a final concluding chapter returning to the distinctive taste of the south’s distinctive white flint corn.

Reading these descriptions in the wake of Mark Schatzker’s illuminating accounts of the subtle chemistry of flavors (The Dorito Effect., NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015) helps add to understandings of the agronomic as well as genetics of rice varieties and their sensory attributes.

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Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity

Eating in the Side Room Cover

Review of: Warner, Mark S. 2015. Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Ashanté Reese
Spelman College

Mark S. Warner’s Eating in the Side Room reconstructs the foodways of two African-American families—the Maynards and Burgesses—who occupied the same house in Annapolis, Maryland from the 1850s until 1990.  Using archaeological data, archival research, and previously conducted oral history interviews, Warner crafts a narrative of food as a central site of resistance for African Americans. He illustrates this within several contexts: shifts in consumer culture, anti-black sentiments in the Chesapeake region and broader United States, the politics of freedom for African Americans (particularly those who were free during the early nineteenth century), and the racialization of food consumption.

The book is organized into eight chapters. Chapter one briefly lays out the central focus of the book, which is to: “explore how these families’ daily food choices within a newly emergent mass consumer society served as a relatively safe way to express a unique outlook and history, as well as offer a subtle, yet persistent, commentary of the racist stereotypes and violence that surrounded them (2015:2). Warner centers African American agency as salient to understanding communal and individual identities. Chapter two contextualizes the Maynard and Burgess families, detailing their economic lives within the context of Maryland’s growing and diverse African-American community. Chapter three explains the methods used to excavate the Maynard-Burgess house, detailing some of the politics of excavations in Annapolis, a city with a strong investment in colonial history. Chapter four presents the food assemblages discovered and offers analysis on how the Maynard and Burgess families acquired the pork, fowl, and fish that comprised the majority of the assemblages. Chapters five and six zoom out to contextualize the food choices made by the Maynards and Burgesses, demonstrating how their choices connected to broader trends in African-American consumerism and how they were contrary to choices made by whites. The final two chapters return to the Maynards and Burgesses, examining the legacies of food consumption and what those legacies reveal about sociocultural dynamics.

Warner argues that the Maynard and Burgess’ (and other African Americans’) consumption of pork was not due to economic constraints but was instead a form of resistance to shifts in mass consumer culture in which beef was becoming the meat of choice for whites: “while some might argue that a preference for pork is attributable to economic factors, a detailed examination of the archaeological, oral, and documentary record indicates that this was patently not the case. African American’s consumption of pork within this region was a profound expression of an identity as separate from white society. One need only survey forms of African American self-expression as distinct as quilts, blues lyrics, orally transmitted recipes, and folk poems to see the prominence of pork in the collective black consciousness” (2015:3).

This argument, a critical one, is one of the most ambitious and fascinating arguments made in the book. The archaeological and consumer data support the claim that African Americans consumed pork in greater quantities than beef and in greater quantities compared to whites.  Warner also presents an array of examples ranging from quilts to music lyrics to illustrate pork’s central role in African-American expressions. However, I was left wondering if, in fact, the resistance to beef could have been multifaceted? As he carefully shows in Chapter two, the Maynard and Burgess families were not wealthy, but they were economically stable (2015:7). While their reasons for eating pork may not have been economic, is it possible that—given the diversity in economic means among African Americans—it could have been an economic choice for others? This illustrates one of the challenges of writing about African-American foodways and one of the reasons why this book is timely and important. African-American foodways are woefully understudied and are often uncritically examined. In that way, Warner challenges the essentialization of African-American foodways by providing an alternative view of how and why pork was important in African-American foodways. At the same time, the argument rests on a binary: important because of economic constraints or not. Because no assemblages as detailed as that from the Maynard-Burgess house existed, Warner notes it was difficult to compare his findings with other sites (2015:74).  Even with the compelling evidence Warner presents—both archaeological and otherwise—I wonder about the economics of pork consumption for those who were not as economically stable as the Maynards and Burgesses. Is there room for multifaceted forms and interpretations of resistance?

Eating in the Side Room raises critical, important questions concerning African-American food consumption.  The writing style, range of data, and carefully crafted narratives that contextualize the Maynard and Burgess families make it suitable for a variety of courses on food and culture, African American histories and daily life, or courses that focus on the Chesapeake region or the south more broadly. For courses on African-American foodways in particular, an instructor should consider pairing Eating in the Side Room with the newly released Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama (2015, University of Arkansas Press), which is a collection of fifteen essays that examine forms of resistance in African-American foodways.

It also has contemporary relevance. As food studies scholars and practitioners continue to grapple with how food consumption reflects economic, social, and health disparities between African Americans and whites, Eating in the Side Room asks readers to step back to think about the roots of such inequalities and consider the ways African-American families have exhibited agency even when alleviation of inequalities seemed nearly impossible. More than just an examination of food remains, Eating in the Side Room places the Maynard and Burgesses’s food consumption in ideological, historical, and contemporary perspective to illuminate power dynamics and resistance.

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Book Review: Secrets from the Greek Kitchen

greek kitchen

Review of

Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and the Everyday Life on an Aegean Island.

By David E. Sutton
2014
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Reviewed by Rachel E. Black, Collegium de Lyon

David Sutton’s latest book delves into home kitchens on the Greek island of Kalymnos to focus on cooking as an important daily activity in and of itself. Cultural anthropologists have used cooking and eating as windows on gender relations, religious beliefs, social identities and so forth, but the idea that people place genuine significance on cooking and eating because taste, skill and knowledge matter is quite a refreshing approach. Building on his previous book Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (2001), Sutton addresses not only questions of memory associated with food and culinary knowledge in Greece but also the ways in which cooking is a powerful daily lived experience. In particular, the author looks at the ways in which culinary knowledge is passed on (or not) in a matrilineal society, how this knowledge adapts to new technologies, and how the cook embodies cooking tools that are tied to ever-changing social lives.

The introduction tells us how Sutton came to study cooking on Kalymnos and why this is an important topic. In addition, the author places his work in the broader literature on objects, the senses and skill. He also makes a call for more ethnographic research on cooking, pointing out an important lacuna in the anthropology of food literature. Sutton talks about research methods and the use of video to capture cooking methods. Reference to these videos clips, which are available on the University of California Press web site, throughout the book give it a multi-media dimension that bring to life the ways of doing and the cooking spaces in Kalymnian homes.

The first chapter “Emplacing Cooking” starts off with general background information about Kalymnos and how Kalymnians shop, cook, eat, and think about food. Chapter two changes gears to focus on the role of tools in Kalymnian kitchens. Here Sutton gives the interesting example of the way Kalymnians cut food in their hands rather than using a cutting board on a countertop. The author explains that at first this skill seemed to be a response to a lack of counter space—it was an efficient technique that responded to the built environment. However, upon further investigation, the author discovers that this ‘technique of the body’ has deeper roots in social life: by cutting in hand, the cook can remain in contact and communication with the other people in the kitchen. She does not need to turn her back on the action. This is just one of the great examples that Sutton uses to theorize the act of cooking in order to locate deeper social meanings and actions that are embodied and embedded in this repetitive daily activity. Can openers, rolling pins and outdoor stoves are some of the other tools that Sutton uses to demonstrate the embodiment of skill, organization of social order and changing attitudes towards technology in Kalymnian kitchens.

Chapter three looks at the case of a specific mother and daughter to ask the central question of the book: how is culinary knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to the next on Kalymnos? Sutton reveals the deep-seated tensions that often exist in these generational exchanges. The themes of learning, transmission and negotiation are carried through in chapter four, which further explores the control of culinary knowledge and its transmission. Here Sutton comes back to themes such as tools and body techniques and how they are passed on through verbal instruction and demonstration. Again, Sutton underlines that knowledge is power that is not always so easily ‘given up’ or ‘passed on’ from mother to daughter.

Chapter five “Horizontal Transmission: Cooking Shows, Friends, and Other Sources of Knowledge” takes into consideration the many other ways that Kalymnians learn about cooking and food. Cooking shows are at the center of this investigation, and Sutton broadens his ethnographic scope to include participants from Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. The author does not give much explanation why it is necessary to include another field site and why Thessaloniki is representative. Although cooking shows are certainly having an impact on how people around the world think about and prepare food, this chapter is a topical and methodological departure from the other sections of this book that are tied to participant observations and interviews. Sutton mentions cooking shows in other chapters, and a stand-alone chapter does not seem entirely necessary. While interesting questions are raised about the commercialization of tradition and the development of a sense of regional and national cuisines, this is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book–a departure from the tight focus on embodiment, knowledge and cooking.

Chapter six returns us to Kalymnos and its kitchens to discuss Kalymnians’s changing concepts of shared values, healthful eating and modernity. It is also here that Sutton includes men who cook on a daily basis, suggesting that men and women have alternate ways of learning to cook and different motivations for cooking. In conclusion, Sutton comes back to the point that cooking is important work in and of itself. Sutton rounds out his conclusion with a broader comment on the production of cooking knowledge elsewhere in the world and the centrality of taste. Finally, an epilogue addresses the impact of the recent financial crisis on cooking and eating in Kalymnos. Unlike many other places in Greece, Kalymnos seems to have fared well. Growing one’s own food and turning ‘gift foods’ into commodities are just a few strategies that Kalymnians practice to weather the storm. Although Sutton mentions economic change throughout this book, more focus on the economic crisis would have been an opportunity to bring the Kalymnian culinary realities into focus with those of other struggling European countries.

This ethnographically rich book will make a wonderful addition to reading lists for courses in the anthropology of food, ethnography of Europe and food studies at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The richness of the participant observations makes this work extremely accessible. At the same time, Sutton draws in theoretical considerations from the anthropology of the senses, skill and material culture. The author has a wonderful knack for theorizing the topic of cooking without losing the flavor of the ethnography. Although the chapters can stand alone as individual readings, the length of the book makes it appropriate for assigning as a whole.

Secrets from a Greek Kitchen is a wonderful ethnographic foray into the kitchen and an inspiration to other anthropologists to further explore the daily practice of cooking without forgetting the importance of experiences from techniques of the body to taste. “If we treat food, taste, and cooking tools […] not as some rhetorical flourish to liven up ethnographic writing, but as equally central to understanding the ways that people are living, reproducing, and transforming their everyday lives, we will, I think, see a whole new analytical terrain open before us.” [185]

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Book Review: Food Policy in the United States

food policy cover photo

Wilde, Parke. 2013. Food Policy in the United States. An Introduction. Routledge, Earthscan Food & Agriculture series, New York and London.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Parke Wilde has produced a concise, encyclopedic text on Food Policy in the United States. An Introduction. Organized into twelves chapters, the volume could serve as a basic narrative text in agricultural economics for undergraduates, or for anthropologists teaching US food policy courses from multiple cultural perspectives. Chapter 1, “Making food policy in the US” presents the author’s interdisciplinary approach. By “interdisciplinary” he means economics and politics that enter into the evidence base for food policy making, in relation to what he depicts as “a social ecological framework for nutrition and physical activity decisions”, a figure incorporating environmental, social, cultural, and psychological components, drawn from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) formulations. This initial chapter carefully defines terms of analysis: food marketing chains, markets and government agencies; public goods, externalities, and calculations of inequalities and pareto optimal conditions; interest groups and advocacy coalitions and what they do; the various government legislative branches and committees and executive agencies, and how they function with respect to policy planning, implementation, and evaluation; Farm Bill and “captured agency” (one overwhelmingly subject to one group’s influence). In total, Wilde defines in bolded type 31 separate terms in this introduction, which asserts the volume’s theme, that “all of US food policy-making takes place … subject to the push and pull of competing private interests and public objectives”.

The next three chapters describe cases of “Agriculture,” “Food production and environment,” and “Food production and agricultural trade”. Chapters 5 and 6, co-authored with Daniel Hatfield, expand into “Food manufacturing” and “Food retailing and restaurants”. Chapters 7 through 11 consider food quality and nutrition issues: “Food safety,” “Dietary guidance and health,” “Food labeling and advertising,” “Hunger and food insecurity,” and “Nutrition assistance programs for children”. There is a short “Postcript–looking forward”, followed by twelve pages of references and an index.

Each chapter, with clearly articulated learning objectives, is organized with numerical headings and subheadings, so readers stay on track. Plentiful illustrative graphics visually elaborate quantitative and occasionally narrative concepts, and numerous tables describe the different activities of the various food-policy agencies responsible for particular points of policy, and what kinds of actions they take to advance (whose) priority political agendas with respect to the chapter’s issues. Many key policy controversies are presented in “Box” form, including hot-button issues, such as the safety or advisability of GMOs or the costs of biofuels, both summarized in Chapter 3. Non-economists will appreciate that mathematical tools to calculate policy costs, impacts, and tradeoffs are summarized in box form, and do not distract from the comprehensive and comprehensible narrative.

The book offers anthropologists teaching agriculture, food, and nutrition courses a useful handbook, written from the perspective of a policy maker operating inside and outside of USDA. Individual chapters, boxes, and figures provide provocative materials for class discussions; for example, how useful is the “social ecological framework” (Figure 1.1) for describing or evaluating sustainable food systems, and how does it compare and contrast with anthropologists’ models of food systems, and agricultural or dietary change? It might be pedagogically effective, in addition, to pair certain of the chapters with other contrasting policy materials: for example, this book’s chapter on production and environment issues (which defines the terms “local” and “organic” and boxes policy issues related to “GMOs” and “biofuels”), with readings from Food First-Institute for Food and Development Policy, or articles published in Culture & Agriculture‘s journal, CAFE; or Wilde’s chapters on “Dietary guidance and health” or “Food labeling and advertising” with Margaret Mead’s 1940s summary of “Food Habits” research and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics critique of the same topics. Discussions of effective consumer demand and its influence on market supply in chapter 6, and of food safety issues summarized in chapter 7, might make good basic reading and discussion materials, whereas “policy options” discussions related to dietary guidelines, food labels, food-security calculations, and child nutritional regulations could form the basis for policy exercises the instructor might want to tailor to particular class interests and skills levels. The conclusions to chapter 4 (p.76), on “food and agricultural trade,” quite effectively illuminate the commonalities and differences between the concerns of food economics and the anthropology of food and nutrition. How convincing are the ‘real-world data” that allow economists to dispassionately assess potential benefits of exchange across borders, but lose individual or community perspectives on winners and losers?

In sum, whether or not you personally purchase the book, it would be useful to have an electronic copy on hand at your library, where professionals and students can consult its definitions and statistics on demand, and so inform their participation in evidence-based and highly emotional food-policy debates.

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