Category Archives: chefs

Review: Making Modern Meals

Making Modern Meals by Amy B. Trubek

Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today. Amy B. Trubek. University of California Press. 2017. 320pp. ISBN: 9780520289239.

Katharina Graf

SOAS-University of London

Making Modern Meals is a valuable addition to the growing literature on cooking and food preparation. Amy B. Trubek’s new book provides a kaleidoscopic perspective on all sorts of cooks: home cooks under pressure to produce a healthy meal for their families, people who cook to earn their livelihood, singles and professionals seeking to create the perfect meal as well as crafty bakers who trust their hands more than machines and the food industry. In this breadth of viewpoints onto the everyday practice of cooking lies the strength and novelty of this book. By pairing ethnographic case studies with surveys, statistics, cookbooks and historical sources, Trubek documents how cooking as a chore, as an occupation, as art and as a craft has changed over the last century in America. She found that despite a widespread perception that cooking and its associated knowledge and skills are declining, Americans do in fact have a decent level of cooking capabilities, but they do not necessarily make use of them every day largely due to the time constraints imposed by modern life.

The first chapter engages with what Trubek argues is the most common association with the role of the cook: the domestic female cook who considers cooking first and foremost a chore and an obligation to others. Through a brief history of the domestic science movement later turned home economics, she traces the still strong links between ideals of domesticity and home cooking. Despite the broadening of choices from pre-processed foods and eating   out options especially since the 1950s, women as mothers remain symbolically tethered to most domestic tasks related to everyday nourishment and nurturance. While she briefly focuses on learning to cook and the reproduction of knowledge, the main focus here is on formalised teaching through the domestic science movement   and popular cookbooks and less on the lived experiences of learning and knowing cooking as the book sets out to do.

The second chapter constitutes a special gem in that it reveals the hidden faces of much of everyday cooking over the last century, “the invisible army” (p. 72) of paid cooks. During the first half of the 20th century these tended to be domestic servants in middle class households, often poor girls and women of colour, whereas during the second half these are increasingly paid cooks, often migrants to America, in restaurants, take-aways and other non-domestic locations. In this story of substitution, as Trubek calls this shift, it is not only technological advances that have increased the possibilities for cooking, but especially “other people [who] help us to cook or not to cook” (p. 71, original emphasis), and this, she argues, since before the 1950s when pre-processed foods and fast foods significantly enlarged consumption choices.   She convincingly shows that while cooking has always constituted an occupation, the locations where paid cooks work have shifted into the public realm and multiplied over the last several decades. Importantly, she points out that much of American cuisine – past and present – is created and reproduced by these paid and often marginalised cooks, and whose knowledge and skill are far from disappearing.

In chapter three Trubek proposes considering cooking as a form of art, which she defines as virtuosity emerging in a dish that is prepared in a creative process and/or when the cook possesses an internalized aesthetic standard. According to her, in creative cooking the boundaries between professional and domestic cooking are blurred, and knowledge and skill emerge through varied bodily, formal and social experiences. To complement the predominant focus on domestic settings, Trubek briefly ventures into French Haute Cuisine and the upholding of a codified standard amongst professional chefs. Although she concludes that a cook’s aesthetics and standards are fluid, responsive and embedded in the sensuous experiences of cooks and eaters alike, throughout this chapter Trubek creates an unfortunate contrast between professional or leisurely cooking as creative and artful and everyday cooking as uncreative and largely lacking a standard, with the former being exemplified through mainly male and the latter through female cooks.

The fourth chapter treats cooking as a craft that simultaneously upholds certain skills and a larger way of life and identity. Trubek charts the history of baking, which has been one of the first domains of food preparation to be fully industrialized, but which in recent years has seen a revival as a craft through both artisanal and home bakers. We learn that cooking from scratch, and baking in particular, can be considered an oppositional category that resists technological and industrial means of making food and embraces the principles of embodiment and mastery. As such, crafty cooking shows the “evidence of the hand” (p. 186). In contrast to a growing emphasis on the final product rather than the process in much of contemporary American cooking, Trubek argues that craft cooks show fidelity to the process rather than the product of their work and, in doing so, “work toward a tradition” (p. 177), whilst also incorporating decades of advances in food science and technology.

The last chapter on health comes back to the first chapter in linking cooking as a chore to the underlying morality of cooking, whereby a century of home economics instruction has contributed to equating a failure to eat “healthy” with a cook’s failure to fulfil her (motherly) caregiving and her moral and civic obligations more broadly. Furthermore, Trubek shows not only that most domestic cooks are aware of micronutrients and dietary guidelines, but also that especially provisioning and choosing the “right” ingredients for a meal are as important for them, yet often ignored in research and national dietary advice. At the same time, her ethnographic cases illustrate that knowing and doing are often disconnected in everyday cooking due to a lack of time, making health a more aspirational category, but one that especially in today’s multifaceted food system requires a cook’s knowledge and skill to be vigilant in the market, the restaurant and the home.

While this book provides a unique breadth of perspectives on the practice of cooking, Trubek does not bring these different categories of cooking together in a comprehensive analytical framework. The resultant picture is colourful and rich in its range from home cooks, paid cooks, creative professionals and leisurely cooks, yet, domestic and everyday cooking is still described as a mother’s duty despite a growing range of alternatives to home cooking, paid cooks remain surprisingly hidden in Trubek’s ethnographic accounts, artful and creative cooking seems to take place outside of these ordinary spheres and persists as a mainly professional and male domain and, finally, crafty cooking stands out as that form of food preparation which upholds traditions and resists our current food system, while remaining seemingly incompatible with the fast-paced reality of most cooks’ everyday life. The reader is left wondering what unites these different categories of cooking despite more than a century of large and small revolutions in our kitchens and comes away with an uneasy feeling of “plus ça change, …”.

Overall, however, this book succeeds in showing the many ways in which cooking as a daily practice is far from declining. Indeed, Making Modern Meals effortlessly shows that to understand how knowledgeable Americans make modern meals today, we have to identify and represent all cooks. This book thus makes an essential read for anyone interested in the practice of cooking in a thoroughly industrialized society, both from a historical and a contemporary angle. The deliberate combined focus on home cooks and paid cooks, on lay and professional expertise in routine and leisurely settings bridges the gap between the hitherto predominantly divided ethnographic contexts of professional and domestic food contexts. Readers with an interest in empirical research will also benefit from the broad range of methods used for this research, ranging from participant observation, interviews and videotaping to surveys, statistical data, cookbooks and historical documents, which fruitfully complement one another.

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, chefs, cooking, food education, food history, United States

Activist Chefs and the Food Movement

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

A few weeks ago, Greg de St. Maurice wrote an intriguing piece on this blog about chef activism. He drew on the case of Chef Daniel Giusti, chef de cuisine at Noma, in Copenhagen, who is starting a company that will try to improve food in American schools. Greg raises questions about the ways in which we should evaluate chef activism, as well as about how that activism relates to other social movements. Reading both Greg’s piece and some of the links he provided, I was struck by two things, one related to the idea of a food movement, the other about Giusti’s specific approach.

The idea of a food movement has been discussed a lot in recent years. There has been significant scholarship on activism around food, including a very useful book edited by Carole Counihan and Valeria Siniscalchi, “Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy” (Bloomsbury, 2014). There are a lot of other publications, too many to cite here, focusing on different ways in which all kinds of people are trying to change food systems, ranging from broad questions of science and sustainability, to workplace issues on farms, in processing plants, grocery stores, and restaurants. There are also many efforts to address the ways in which food is processed, distributed, and consumed. It is incredibly hard to summarize all the different kinds of food activism that exist, because there is so much of it (here are three sites that can give you a sense of how much activism is out there: Civil Eats, Food Tank, and Slow Food USA; add more in the comments section below if you want).

Because of this, many people were surprised when a Washington Post writer recently asserted that there really isn’t a food movement. The writer, Tamar Haspel, drew on some studies of consumption as well as surveys about attitudes toward food in order to argue that people’s behavior has not changed significantly enough for her to be able to perceive a food movement. This is an odd way to measure whether or not a movement exists. If Haspel is measuring anything, it is the effectiveness of the food movement, not its existence. In fact, some food activists responded to Haspel’s article with different ways of measuring the success of the food movement. They demonstrate some notable successes.

Yet I wonder if that is the best way to measure the existence of a food movement. Since the 1930s, I am pretty sure that unions never enrolled more than 30% of all American workers. Should we conclude that there has never been a labor movement in the United States? Of course, the labor movement has been very effective at changing the American workplace and in introducing many ideas that we now take for granted, as well as setting the framework for debates about work even today, when few Americans are union members. Along with some very real successes in changing how food is produced, distributed, and consumed, the food movement’s existence can be measured by the ways in which its ideas have come to permeate our public discourse. It is easy to find areas of life where public debates have been influenced by the food movement. Whether we are discussing questions of equal access to healthy food, living wages for food workers, or the availability of organic or local produce at stores and farmers markets, the existence of a food movement—or many food movements—is demonstrated by the ways in which its terms and concepts have become part of how we think and talk.

Which brings me back to Chef Giusti. As he readily acknowledges, the groundwork for reforming school lunches has been laid already by a lot of other activists, including a number of professional chefs (Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver come to mind, of course, but there are many others). Some of the efforts to reform school lunch have focused on trying to get kids to eat healthier foods, while others have tried to get schools and governments to support the schools more, so they can produce better quality food. Giusti is bringing something of a distinct model to this effort. He is creating a for-profit company, Brigaid, that will bring professional chefs and kitchens to schools. Giusti is trying to make working in school cafeterias an attractive career choice for professional chefs. As he comments in his Lucky Peach interview, “The whole point of this is to make it a more attractive space for people who are passionate about food to join in.”

No doubt some people will see this as an effort to bring a kind of privatized for-profit ideology (aka, “neo-liberal” ideology) into the public sphere. I do not think it is necessarily helpful to frame it that way. On one hand, Giusti is trying to make a profit. Yet school cafeterias are already run by big corporations, with a focus on maximizing profits instead of on making an attractive workplace and producing quality food. Giusti wants his approach to be focused on making people—the cooks, the kids—happy first and on making profits second. Maybe we no longer have to choose between doing good and doing well. In a world that sets its priorities differently—do good for people, then make profits—you should be able to do both.

Can that sort of model be sustained? It appears to be the principle behind a lot of people in the food movement. It certainly seems to be at work in farmers markets, which are often a combination of nonprofit organizers and for profit farmers, bringing improved food that makes people happy. I think there are a lot of small food producers that are also engaged in similar activities, especially among those who promote local foods. It seems to be at work in restaurants that try to pay their workers a living wage. If this is the food movement, then the kinds of metrics invoked by Tamar Haspel will not be very effective in measuring its success or, frankly, its very existence. Understanding what food activists—including activist chefs—are doing, may require rethinking what an activist actually is, as well as paying attention to what they say and what they actually do. This may just be a different sort of movement.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, chefs, food activism, Food Studies

Chefs as activists–Daniel Giusti takes on America’s school lunches

Greg de St. Maurice
Ryukoku University

Chefs today wield a great deal of influence. They are (or are expected to be) simultaneously artisans, entrepreneurs, activists, and celebrities. In December the Washington Post published an article titled “A top chef from a world-famous restaurant wants to fix America’s school lunches.” The phrasing of the headline itself begs numerous questions: are Daniel Giusti’s actions worth following because of his celebrity? Is a chef better equipped to improve school lunches than someone in another profession, say an administrator, an economist, or an anthropologist? Such questions need to be asked. But it is, as the Washington Post article notes, worth observing that Giusti left his job at Noma, one of the world’s most influential restaurants and one with a very elite clientele, for another position meant to catalyze change in the food system. Giusti says, in an interview for Lucky Peach: “Well, if I’m going to feed people, I want to feed a lot of people and I want to wake up every day thinking that what I’m doing is affecting a lot of people’s lives in a positive way.”

Chefs today understand that their actions have consequences, whether sourcing or kitchen atmosphere or neighborhood economic impact, and they seek to influence society and guide change. Noma, incidentally, is closing so that it can be reconfigured as a restaurant organized around an urban farm. Sustainability, seasonality, and “local” are keywords. But chefs’ activism is evident not only through the choices they make in fulfilling their responsibilities as chefs, or in their “private” lives as individuals, but interestingly also in the networks they form with colleagues to pursue common goals. Chef Giusti, for instance, belongs to the Chef Action Network, which is engaged at the local level around school lunches and at the national level when it comes to legislation regarding food and nutrition. And, as he explains in his interview with Lucky Peach, he has received emails from people from a wide variety of backgrounds interested in participating in his project—some of them pro bono. Celebrity’s power to mobilize may very well help Giusti be successful where others have not.

We can be both critical and supportive of chefs’ activism. Chefs can be charismatic leaders who effect change. They should not be seen as heroes whose actions negate the need for other kinds of activism. Chefs do not operate in frictionless environments—they must engage with consumer trends, media narratives, government regulations, investors eager for profits, and so forth. Even when a restaurant such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns or Noma seems to epitomize some of the kinds of changes grassroots activists seek, there is always the question of reach: who benefits from such restaurants? Who is left out? Chefs, expected to be productive along many different dimensions simultaneously, may only accomplish so much. Their power is limited and we should not neglect to also support less charismatic actors working to improve our food systems.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, chefs, cuisine, food activism, restaurants, school lunch