Category Archives: Caribbean

Review: Food in Cuba

Cover of Food in Cuba by Hanna Garth

Hanna Garth. Food In Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 232 pp. ISBN 9781503604629

Emily Yates-Doerr (Oregon State University/University of Amsterdam)

My plan was to review “Food in Cuba” from Havana. The Society for Medical Anthropology’s meetings were scheduled to be held there this March. I had dreams of sitting on a patio overlooking the Straits of Florida, book and pencil in hand, a spread of elote hallacas to tide me over while I worked. Hanna Garth writes about how Cubans refuse to lower their food standards, ever in “pursuit of a decent meal” as a part of their commitment to living a decent life. I wanted to observe this firsthand in some small way as I reviewed the book.

Then COVID-19 began to circulate globally.

In the United States, I heard news of public health failures. Workers without federally protected sick leave who had tested positive continued to show up at work, not wanting to risk losing their income or jobs. The food magazine Eater notes that “restaurants and delivery services are notoriously hostile to shift workers calling in sick,” creating ideal conditions for the virus to replicate.

Just before my flight departed I decided not to go. Conference organizers had not canceled the conference. Their email in the days leading up to the conference relayed a message of calm, “It is also reassuring to know that Cuba has a very strong epidemiological surveillance system built on a well-articulated primary health care system.” Friends already in Havana relayed the message that life in Cuba, where daily routines already contained a good deal of “existential uncertainty” (p. 18) seemed to be continuing on without heightened fear.

This was not the case where I was in the United States. A radiologist at a local US hospital told me of seeing scans of lungs full of fluid, while a nurse spoke of waiting rooms of patients with fevers and dry coughs. These patients were not being tested because there were not enough tests. Meanwhile, in nearby counties where children had tested positive for coronavirus, administrators had to keep schools open because children who lived deeply in poverty would go hungry without school lunches.

When I decided not to travel to Cuba, there were no reported cases of coronavirus where I live. What was being credibly reported was that years of gutting public infrastructures – health and otherwise – would soon be catching up with us.

In retrospect, it’s perhaps fitting that I acted out an epidemiological logic — practicing social distancing to discourage viral spread by not traveling — while reading and writing about Cuba, a country known for encouraging “self-sacrifice for the good of the collective” (p. 114). Garth’s book explores the daily life struggles and successes to lead a decent life in a place with one of the most effective community health programs in the world, but where there is also widespread “culinary discontent” (p. 160).

Food in Cuba is based on intensive ethnographic research with 22 families in Santiago de Cuba in 2010-2011 and follow-ups in the years since. As a method, Garth participated in what she calls “ingestive practices” (p. 23) of household food acquisition activities, spending roughly a month deeply immersed in each family’s activities. She complemented this deep engagement with interviews and life histories of more than 100 individuals who worked to find food in this small, powerful island country that lies in the heart of the global project of modernity.

One of the book’s most powerful contributions is to explode the myth that people in conditions of scarcity will eat whatever they can simply by virtue of their precarity. Instead, the participants of Garth’s study care deeply about the taste, quality, and provenance of their food. They spend tremendous energy provisioning ingredients that reflect their cultural and national identities and they maintain an “intensely emotional” connection to their meals (p. 46, 53). While the Cuban government celebrates that there is “no hunger in Cuba,” Garth shows how people will feel stressed, anxious, unsatisfied, and even traumatized when they cannot find appropriate food. Rice, for example, is both scarce and a necessary component of a ‘real’ meal. Without it, satisfaction is impossible.

Each chapter explores an aspect of the ‘politics of adequacy,’ a phrase Garth develops in reference to how Cubans prioritize relational aspects of eating alongside any evaluation of whether food quantities are “enough.” As she explains, “the framework of adequacy can account for what is necessary beyond basic nutrition, prompting us to ask not whether a food system sustains life, but whether it sustains a particular kind of living” (p. 5). Throughout the book’s five chapters she connects the politics of adequacy to a broader political lucha (struggle) to maintain a good life through arts of invention.

Driven by a feminist commitment to the analysis of power relations, the book unpacks how race, gender, sexuality, and class politics all effect the production and consumption of daily meals. Garth, with the skill of an expert chef, pays close attention to the quiet and unspoken details of food procurement to show how Cuban nationalism has always been tied to Cuban cuisine, with women shouldering the burdens of Euro-American colonialism and socialist revolution alike (p. 67). She offers a history of Cuba through stories of food access, where flavorful ajiaco stews mark sites of contested patriotism, and small cups of sugared coffee are filled with the paradoxes of sweetness and calamity (“We never have food, but we always have sugar, always” one informant tells her).

The text is full of thick descriptions of how people make meaning in times of political unrest and global extraction. Alongside stories of anxious scarcity and unevenly experienced fears of breakdown are stories of shave ice in the summer, or the whistles of pressure cookers on narrow-cobblestone alleys while the scents of garlic and onion waft through the air. One especially poignant vignette, set amid the slight intoxication of drinking cheap state-subsidized beer while people dance in the streets, describes the sadness and anger of a man sobbing at the reggaetón lyrics “Give me… a little bit of anything so I can feel happy. It could be a soda or a tube of roasted peanuts.” Life’s small mundane details, Garth shows us, are anything but insignificant.

Garth undertakes a careful critique of how ideals of “community” transforms in the shadows of global capitalism and international sanctions, showing how Santiago de Cuba remains stratified through the nexus of skin color, class, and culture, with often discriminatory effects on darker-skinned and LGBTQ+ Cubans. Promises of gender and racial equality may have launched Fidel Castro’s socialist platform into power, but she demonstrates that patriarchy remains a reigning force in the culinary lives of Cubans today (p. 163). Ethics of socialismo (socialism) frequently give way to practices of sociolismo, where people use personal networks to access private, illicit goods for their immediate family or themselves. One informant shares stories of putting locks on the cabinets of her own home as “community borrowing” morphed into outright theft (p. 132).

Food in Cuba is an excellent text for food studies classes at all levels (I plan to assign it in both undergraduate and graduate ‘anthropology of food’ courses). Garth offers a literary masterclass in how the analysis of food can help us understand social relations while the analysis of social relations can help us understand food. Foodies will appreciate the colorful descriptions of how quimbombó, boniato, plátanos, malanga, or chicharrones give rise to the “flows of daily life” (p. 167). In the process of reading about the cuisine they will learn broad political lessons about how people are luchando la vida (struggling to survive) in Cuba’s declining welfare society, where the influence of global capital looms large and state supports are disappearing.

A good deal of hope, resilience, and solidarity fills the pages of this slim and accessible book, but the final image offers an ominous warning about this moment of global fragility in which we are living: after hours of scouring for ingredients, Garth’s longtime Cuban friends managed to procure a delicious meal. The table in the photograph shows beefsteak, hand peeled potato-fries, cucumber-avocado salad, and those hallacas I’d been imagining when planning my trip to Cuba. It would be a joyous image except for one thing: the table is set for one. In a time when social solidarity is needed to get through crises, be they pandemic viruses or food scarcity, the image of the solitary place-setting speaks to me of the struggle for a decent meal yet to come.

 

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Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean: AAA 2013 Panel!

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by Aeleka Schortman and Amy Lasater-Wille

Please consider submitting paper abstracts for our proposed panel on Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean (see full panel description below). While we focus on urbanism, we encourage the submission of research based in rural or urban areas, so long as it speaks to issues of urban change, planning, development, and the like in Latin America or the Caribbean.

We further encourage non-anthropologists and applied researchers with similar interests to submit, especially as this year’s AAA meeting theme is “Future Publics, Current Engagements.”  This theme encourages us as anthropologists to engage with scholars in related disciplines as well as with issues of pressing social, political, and economic significance.

Working Title: Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean

Panel Abstract:

This panel addresses food and foodways in Latin America—here, including the Caribbean—to understand the processes, practices, and politics of urbanization and urban change in that region. Exemplifying worldwide trends, Latin America is growing increasingly urban, a transformation frequently associated with: land and resource consolidation, deepening inequalities, mounting security concerns, and growing involvement in—and dependency upon—globalized, industrialized, and inequitable agro-food systems. Today, historically unprecedented numbers of people, and city-dwellers, in particular, draw needed sustenance from novel and rapidly-changing food procurement and preparation networks. Changing metropolitan foodways present urban residents and visitors with new ways and places in which to consume, produce, or sell foods, and in which to (re)assess and (re)make the meanings of such practices. Providing far more than sustenance, food has social, symbolic, economic, and ideological value. Thus, participating in—or, alternatively, abstaining or being excluded from—eating, shopping, or laboring in urban markets, restaurants, kitchens, or informal locales can have profound social, symbolic, and economic significance. Moreover, changes in urban foodways frequently involve rural transformations, as both urban and rural residents engage with—and create—the production and distribution networks that characterize, and quite literally feed, the region’s growing cities.

Food is central to survival, daily life, and the webs of meaning, and power, that color human existence. Consequently, studies of food and foodways offer exceptional entry points through which to explore and engage with pressing issues of our time, including, here, urbanization and urban change. Latin America’s centuries-old involvement with inequitable, uneven, and increasingly globalized political-economies and agro-food systems makes the region a particularly alluring place for contemporary food-related research and scholarship. Moreover, despite great internal diversity, present (and historical) patterns of socioeconomic development, and inequity, unite portions of Latin America and the Caribbean, offering interesting fodder for both food-related analyses and discussions of regional trends. These include patterns of: foodway and demographic change; neoliberal development (and its alternatives, or backlash); deep, persistent (and frequently-racialized) socio-economic divisions; uneven/inequitable integration into regional/global political-economies; and tourism- and/or corporate-led development (amongst others).

Here, then, we explore food to shed light on the challenges, promises, and dynamic processes of urbanization and urban change in Latin America. In so doing, we engage with themes and issues of critical importance in the theory and practice of anthropology and related fields including: economics, social geography, sociology, urban planning/development, socio-economic policy, and nutrition/health. More precisely, individual panelists may address questions including: (How) are patterns of urban change—or development—implicated in shifting food acquisition, production, distribution, and consumption systems? Who benefits, or fails to benefit, from local, regional, and/or (trans)national food-related policies, programs, practices, and/or discourses? How do urban residents conceptualize and negotiate food-related constraints and opportunities, including potential paradoxes of food/nutritional scarcity amidst seeming abundance? How are Latin America’s urban foodways colored by long-entrenched (or newly emerging): socio-economic inequalities and patterns/practices of socio-economic, political, and/or spatial (geographical) exclusion (or inclusion)? And, how do people perpetuate or resist such inequities? How (and why) do city-dwellers ascribe particular meanings, or values, to specific food-related practices, policies, discourses, and/or symbolic representations? Moreover, what can studies of urban food and foodways tell us about changing—or newly emerging—economies, political systems (or visions), social movements, or global interconnections in Latin America, both urban and rural? What might studies of food reveal about the social, economic, political, and/or nutritional consequences—or implications—of existing economic models, socio-economic policies, or development programs?

DEADLINES (and Related Information):

Abstract Submission for Consideration in the Panel: Please submit proposed paper abstracts by Saturday, April 6th, 2013. All submissions should be sent to BOTH: Amy Lasater-Wille (ael337@nyu.edu) and Aeleka Schortman (schortman@uky.edu). We will respond to all interested parties by Tuesday April 9th (4/9/13) at the latest. We kindly ask that everyone abide by the April 6th deadline so that we may respond to all potential participants in a timely manner and assemble a full panel in time for the AAA abstract submission deadline (April 15, 2013).

AAA Submission Deadline: All accepted panelists must submit their own abstracts electronically to the AAA by April 15, 2013. (We will email instructions regarding how to do this.) Please note that participants must register (and pay) for the 2013 AAA meetings by that deadline as well.

Meeting Information: This year’s American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting will be held at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, Illinois on November 20-24, 2013. The meeting theme is Future Publics, Current Engagements.

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Filed under AAA, AAA 2013 Chicago, anthropology, Caribbean, CFP, foodways, Latin America, sustainability, urban

Call for Papers: “Sugar and Beyond”

Here is a call for papers that may be of interest to FoodAnthropology readers:

Sugar and Beyond

Organizers: Christopher P. Iannini, Julie Chun Kim, K. Dian Kriz
The John Carter Brown Library seeks proposals for a conference entitled “Sugar and Beyond,” to be held on October 25-26, 2013, and in conjunction with the Library’s Fall 2013 exhibition on sugar in the early modern period, especially its bibliographical and visual legacies. The centrality of sugar to the development of the Atlantic world is now well known. Sugar was the ‘green gold’ that planters across the Americas staked their fortunes on, and it was the commodity that became linked in bittersweet fashion to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Producing unprecedented quantities of sugar through their enforced labor, Africans on plantations helped transform life not only in the colonies but also in Europe, where consumers incorporated the luxury commodity into their everyday rituals and routines.

“Sugar and Beyond” seeks to evaluate the current state of scholarship on sugar, as well as to move beyond it by considering related or alternative consumer cultures and economies. Given its importance, sugar as a topic still pervades scholarship on the Americas and has been treated in many recent works about the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions. This conference thus aims to serve as an occasion where new directions in the study of sugar can be assessed. At the same time, the connection of sugar to such broader topics as the plantation system, slavery and abolition, consumption and production, food, commodity exchange, natural history, and ecology has pointed the way to related but distinct areas of inquiry. Although sugar was one of the most profitable crops of the tropical Americas, it was not the only plant being cultivated. Furthermore, although the plantation system dominated the lives of African and other enslaved peoples, they focused much of their efforts at resistance around the search for ways to mitigate or escape the regime of sugar planting. We thus welcome scholars from all disciplines and national traditions interested in exploring both the power and limits of sugar in the early Atlantic world.

Topics that papers might consider include but are not limited to the following:

  • The development of sugar in comparative context
  • The rise of sugar and new conceptions of aesthetics, taste, and cultural refinement
  • Atlantic cultures of consumption
  • Coffee, cacao, and other non-sugar crops and commodities
  • Natural history and related genres of colonial description and promotion
  • Imperial botany and scientific programs of agricultural expansion and experimentation
  • Alternative ecologies to the sugar plantation
  • Plant transfer and cultivation by indigenous and African agents
  • Provision grounds and informal marketing
  • Economies of subsistence, survival, and resistance
  • Reimagining the Caribbean archive beyond sugar: new texts and methodological approaches

In order to be considered for the program, please send a paper proposal of 500 words and CV to jcbsugarandbeyond@gmail.com. The deadline for submitting proposals is December 15, 2012.

Presenters will likely have some travel and accommodation subvention available to them.
For more information, keep checking this site or email Margot Nishimura, Deputy Director and Librarian (margot_nishimura@brown.edu).

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Filed under Call for Papers, Caribbean, sugar