Category Archives: cuisine

Thesis Review and Interview: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Waterlogged rice fields of rural Konkan, Maharashtra

Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Anna He Purnabramha: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India. Gauri Anilkumar Pitale. Ph.D. Thesis in Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 2017.

Elizabeth Finnis (University of Guelph, Canada)

Gauri A. Pitale’s doctoral work takes a biocultural approach to understanding potential health implications of dietary changes in the context of liberalization, globalization, and national change in India. Pitale worked with 66 pairs of Deorukhe Brahmin mothers and daughters living in rural and urban Maharashtra; mothers were all born and raised in a pre-liberalization India, with daughters born and raised in the post-liberalization era. Drawing on qualitative and anthropometric data, Pitale looks at intergenerational differences, asking how changing dietary practices are implicated in notions of the self and identity. In doing so, she considers Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (CNCDs), including obesity, hypertension and diabetes, testing a range of hypotheses, and exploring foodscapes in terms of the lived experiences of her participants and issues of purity, perceptions of health, and the body. What particularly stands out in her ethnographic approach is the placing of anthropometric measurements within larger contexts of notions of identity and caste purity. Her anthropometric results and discussions are bracketed by chapters that draw on her qualitative data and her fieldwork reflections, including considerations of changing perceptions of food/cooking and implications for relationships and exchange, and the ways that processes of urbanization can affect food habits and preferences.

There is much to think about in Pitale’s work, including reflections on the expected and unexpected in fieldwork, urbanization and the presence of CNCDs, and changes in food habits that have both dietary and moral implications for participants. Pitale’s dissertation allows readers to reflect on questions that are of importance both in contemporary India and that also address broader issues of identity, belonging, food, and place. These include: How do notions of purity and kinship intersect with cooking rules, not just in terms of food eaten, but also with regards to how the space of a traditional hearth is used, and what it symbolizes? How does convenience get complicated by notions of authenticity and taste? What do kitchen implements and home-grown or home-prepared spices mean in terms of family history and tradition? How do space and place affect the types of food that daughters want to cook, and their relative cooking skills? How are community ties reinforced through shared cooking activities? And, How are anxieties around maintaining caste identities and/or engaging with cosmopolitan identities, intersecting with food?

These questions are considered through different cultural and data lenses. For example, Pitale provides a discussion of cooking and kitchens, including the symbolic, sacred value of the traditional chul (a u-shaped clay stove, coated with a double-layer of plaster made from cow dung and water, and red earth) and its associated rules for use, versus the comparatively rule-free and convenient gas stove. Through her discussion, Pitale demonstrates some of everyday complexities of balancing multiple factors in food preparation and consumption.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Chul in a rural Deorukhe kitchen

Another example includes considerations of some of the differences when it comes to cooking skills among rural and urban daughters. While young rural women are expected to develop cooking skills and learn how to manage a kitchen at a young age, in part related to the need for an alternative cook when mothers are practicing menstrual seclusion, urban daughters are less likely to have significant skills in the kitchen. When urban daughters do cook, it is more likely non-traditional recipes, or “fun” foods like pizza and cakes. This also connects to the chul, with urban daughters preferring to use gas stoves, and in some cases, being unable to effectively cook on a chul at all.

With her anthropometric data, Pitale also considers how nutritional transitions are implicated in CNCDs; she hypothesises clear differences between her rural and urban participants, with a generational effect. Her findings indicate that, for example, based on weight circumference, almost all mothers (rural and urban) would be considered obese (86.4%), but rural daughters were more likely to be underweight than urban daughters. One of Pitale’s surprising findings was in terms of blood pressure; contrary to expectations, rural mothers had higher blood pressure than urban mothers. This finding questions underlying assumptions that traditional diets and activity levels can help to minimise high blood pressure, while urbanized diets and lifestyles can increase it.

Overall, this is a rich dissertation that uses a range of data collection methods to create a complicated picture of the ways that food intersects with notions of the self, and health. Who should read this dissertation? This work is of interest to anyone who is thinking about how food practices shape and are shaped by everyday rural or urban life, and the implications that this has for how people think about their identities and health, and to those looking for an example of the complexities of economic liberalization, rural-urban differences, and caste in contemporary India. The thesis will also be of interest to researchers thinking about how to approach biocultural research projects, and how to integrate anthropometric and qualitative data within ethnography. As I read the dissertation, a number of questions emerged for me around some of the public elements of Pitale’s work, her findings, and her fieldwork experiences, and my review concludes with an interview addressing some of these questions.

Elizabeth Finnis (EF): Hi, Gauri! I enjoyed reading your doctoral work, and thank you for letting the SAFN blog host this review and an interview with you about your work and research experiences. My first question is something that I often ask people during (or immediately after!) a defense: Who would you hope would read your work, outside of anthropological audiences?

Gauri A. Pitale (GAP): I would love for everyone to read my dissertation because I certainly find it rather riveting a topic! Jokes apart, I think my study would be illuminating for those governmental agencies that are working on addressing problems related to the double-burden of overnutrition and undernutrition that India is facing. As a country, we [Indians] are leading in the numbers of deaths that are connected to CNCDs. The increasing encroachment of multi-national corporations that sell fast foods and ones that may result in the disappearance of small kirana (grocery) shops is concerning. India is in a precarious position. The coming two to three decades will vitally change the food consumption and the food distribution system of the entire country. Yes, certainly we should address the biological causes that make Indians susceptible to CNCDs. But if the government does not increase awareness among people, there is high likelihood that India will face the same challenges that western nations like the United States of America faced starting the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, we notice that an increasing number of urban Indians are becoming more and more conscious of how to maintain their health by going to dieticians and/or the gym. On the other hand, large swathes of Indians are turning to Ayurveda and traditional remedies to counter these same problems. It is my hope that this dissertation highlights how variable the answers can be within one country. Other than government agencies, I would also love for my research to be read by the Deorukhe community. I hope they find it useful. I have already given them a copy of my dissertation and am currently waiting to hear back from them.

EF: So, then what do you hope a non-anthropologist will really understand about your research?

GAP: When I explained my dissertation research focus to my Indian friends and family, their responses were rather interesting. Some found the research topic to be rather bland, while others thought that the information I was gathering was so commonplace that they couldn’t comprehend why it needed to be researched at all. Non-Indian friends and family also found the subject pale in comparison to studying the more “exotic” aspects of Indian culture and society. I soon realized that people take food for granted. While Indians have a medicinal system entrenched in food, westerners are usually more focused on the nutritional aspects of food. That said, food and eating has been and will always remain a social as well as an emotional experience. Though the relationship between food consumption and health seems like a straightforward one, my study demonstrates that making any sort of policy decisions to control or even address the rising appearance of Chronic Non-Communicable Disorders (CNCDs) will remain hopelessly abstruse if we disregard the historical, ecological, political, as well as the economic aspects of why people eat the way they do. Certainly, there are a multitude of factors involved but a deep understanding of the issue on both a local and global level is valid and necessary. To actually affect change, we need to start making lay people aware of this simple fact: food and the body are not things that can be studied bereft of their social surroundings.

EF: Your answer makes me think a bit about how the participants in your research thought about blood pressure and mental/emotional stress. You argue that for your participants, particularly the rural ones, high blood pressure is considered related to mental and emotional stress, and is therefore seen as a temporary condition. Are there bigger implications of this understanding of high blood pressure?

GAP: This is one of the aspects of my study that surprised me immensely. I hypothesized that high blood pressure would be more common among urban participants in comparison to rural participants. This is in line with published research doing a comparative analysis between urban and rural populations. Therefore, the results of my data collection coupled with my experiences in the field were atypical and confusing. My rural interlocutors did view high blood pressure to be the result of a temporary condition. These people were also going to rural medical practitioners. I wish I had the time to visit these doctors to ascertain whether they had actually told the interlocutors that this was a temporary condition. The main thing that concerned me was, if hypertension was being viewed as a temporary health issue occurring as a result of stress, then treating it accordingly might result in more health complications in the long run.

More importantly, the implications of this perspective are two-fold. One, if and when a complication does occur in the future when these women are older, the problem would be treated as something to be expected because high blood pressure is seen as a chronic health condition that plagues old people. Two, most studies expect hypertension to be a condition that is commonly noted among urban people; rural people suffering from the same condition might not even be considered to be at risk. This could mean that they will never be tested or treated until a complication arises. A large part of rural India bears the burden of undernutrition. The Deorukhes are comparatively well-off thanks to their caste status. Therefore, we must also acknowledge this occurrence of hypertension among this rural population might not be something that applies to people of all castes in rural India. For all of these reasons, it is highly likely that these conditions will not be noticed anytime soon. This concerns and worries me, especially in connection to their long-term health and their quality of life.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Roadside fruit seller, Mumbai

EF: I found it interesting to read your brief discussion of the guilt felt by some mothers if they don’t – or can’t – cook for their children. Do you think similar feelings can play out in different kinds of households, both within and outside of India? What makes it different (or not) for your participants?

GAP: What a fantastic question! I am happy you asked me this. The guilt felt by mothers is certainly not unique to Indian culture. There are many cultures in which I assume women experience guilt that corresponds with the diet and health of their family members. I assume because having grown up in India, I experience this guilt and deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I believe the difference lies in how my participants experience this within the social dynamics of Indian society. I am certain women in other cultures also have certain expectations that are thrust upon them. In the case of my interlocutors however, there is the added layer of caste-related food prescriptions. The expectation that Deorukhe Brahmin women in general have to safeguard household purity is a larger part of this guilt. Women have to learn to prepare traditional foods so that they can pass on traditions to daughters and daughters-in-law. And while every culture has a family recipe that can be learned from elders in the family, how integral these recipes are to one’s communal identity changes from one culture to another.

I can give you an example of something that occurred in my own family. I happened to visit the family of a friend who was of a lower caste. They invited me for dinner one evening. I remember that her mom had made some type of shellfish that I had never tried before. I found it to be rather delicious. Upon returning home my grandmother promptly asked me what had been served for dinner. I told her about this unheard-of shellfish and asked my mother why she never cooked this fish at home. My grandmother immediately replied, “We don’t buy that kind of fish. Those are eaten by lower caste people.” Until that moment, I had no idea that my friend belonged to a different caste group at all. But my grandmother deemed it necessary to educate me about the differences in upper and lower caste fish consumption at the age of 10, lest I make any such demands again. These conversations are ubiquitous in rural and urban Indian households. The guilt felt at crossing these boundaries is an additional aspect of the guilt felt by my interlocutors. It may not be unique to India because I am sure this kind of gate-keeping also occurs in other world cultures. The difference may be in the amount of social consequences that result from women’s failure to control the food that enters their households in general and into the bodies of their family members in particular.

EF: I also appreciated the methodological and positionality reflections that you incorporate into your dissertation. For example, you write about how, when collecting data, you were positioned as the ‘expert’, but that when you entered kitchens, you became understood as lacking in experience and basic knowledge. What did this kind of ‘flip’ in perceptions of expertise teach you about doing ethnographic research?

GAP: The first lesson that I learned when I went into the field was that people tell you what they think you want to hear. This is a lesson we all learn as anthropologists, and that’s why we spend so much time getting comfortable with our interlocutors and participating in their lives as we observe them. My fieldwork was incredibly fruitful. Despite that, my appearance as an Indian woman who lived in America and had come back to India to study the Deorukhes put me in an interesting position. In one part of the introduction chapter of my dissertation, I discuss my position and the social capital that I had which resulted in the Deorukhes allowing me into their homes. However, my familiarity, while at times a disadvantage, was also an advantage in this case. I want to be clear that I’m not implying that non-native anthropologists may not have used this strategy to make their interlocutors comfortable. But the fact remains that the conversations about food and food habits that I had with Deorukhe mothers lacked the depth that I found satisfying. I also realized that talking in their living rooms about food often resulted in the whole family, and in some case entire neighborhoods, monitoring the interaction. The resultant conversation was stunted and awkward, something I noticed as I started transcribing my field recordings. I was spending more time asking questions and directing conversations rather than getting answers.

The request to enter their kitchens to watch them cook was put forth for two main reasons. One, not everyone is allowed entry into each other’s household kitchens. The audience had to leave or wait outside in the living room, allowing me and the woman to be alone or at least have fewer people around. This was something I noticed in one household during my first visit. I went into the kitchen to return a cup of coffee to the lady of the house. She told me where to place the dirty cup in the kitchen and promptly started amending some of her answers. Her husband and some men in the village were sitting outside in the living room hearing us talk. In the kitchen, she started complaining about how difficult it is to manage the food habits of her husband. It became obvious that the kitchen was her domain and the one place she felt safe to voice her opinions without being overheard, especially by the men since they rarely ventured into this space. The second reason was to reduce the awkwardness of sitting and talking without having anything to do. Most of my interlocutors were happy to show off their kitchens to me. No matter how small or large, how fancy or simple, these were their spaces, arranged to their liking, and spaces that they controlled. Also, if they kept busy, I assumed our discussions would be more fruitful. The dynamic shift was an unexpected discovery. As soon as I noticed it, I immediately began to ponder on the manner in which their assumption of my inexperience in matters related to running a household relaxed them and made them want to impart knowledge to me.

Present day anthropology has come a long way from what we thought about our interlocutors to how we perceive them today. They are the experts from whom we learn. I went into the field with that point of view. And while I fully intended to carry out semi-structured interviews, I also had a long list of questions prepared so that I could collect data on food acquisition patterns. I still have this data. I have piles of data about how much rice, flour, lentils, masalas, etc. each household buys. I also have data about the money each household spends on food and other food acquisition pattern information. While I meticulously collected this data in the field, I also realized that for me, the deep ethnographic data that started to shine and capture my attention was what I encountered in the kitchens as I watched women cook. These discussions and interactions were far more rewarding and indicative of what they wanted to tell me. I chose to focus on their voices rather than only focus on my initial study objectives. What this taught me is that it is important to go into the field with specific objectives. However, it is equally important to allow our interlocutors to tell us what they deem to be important for us to know. In between these two points is where the actual fun and research lies!

EF: In focusing on the health of women, did you ever get participants wondering why you weren’t also considering the health of men? If yes, in what kinds of ways did you respond to these queries?

GAP: The Deorukhe community did initially assume that my research was about the entire household. I would have very much liked to have focused on entire households because the data gathered would have been richer, especially ethnographically speaking. There were, however, several restrictions. For one, my study was self-funded, which meant I could only spend a certain amount of time in the field. For statistical reasons, I needed to recruit at least 35 families from both rural and urban settings. I also needed to visit each family at least three times to note seasonal changes in their diet as well as their anthropometric measurements. All of this really restricted my ability to spend more time with each family. The more people I needed to meet, the more difficult it was to find time to meet with them. The men of the household, especially rural men, often controlled my access to their wives and daughters in the initial stages of my study. Though I was requesting the women to be a part of my study, in many rural families the men closely monitored the initial conversations. In one household in particular, the women and her daughters never uttered a single word in reply until the husband said, “Alright, go ahead and add us to your list of participants.”

Restricting the study to women and girls was something that I had already discussed with my advisors and committee members. This is because ease of access to my interlocutors and the ability to hold conversations in both public and private was important to me. There is a high amount of gender segregation in India. As a woman, it was easier for me to get access to and speak with young girls and women. Conversations with men were not impossible but these took place more in urban settings rather than rural settings. As for your question about whether participants wondered about why my research did not consider men, they did not. That is because I told them when I was recruiting that I was focusing on women because they were the gastronomic gate-keepers and the ones in charge of managing the household’s food consumption patterns. This made sense to my interlocutors. From their perspective, I was not only measuring their and their daughters’ bodies, but at the same time I was discussing with them the health of their entire family. My interlocutors often told me how they managed to ensure their sons, husbands, or fathers-in-law stayed healthy. This was vital to their discussions about the various challenges that they face when trying to keep their families healthy, a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Food court of a mall, Mumbai

EF: Your picture of changing food habits among your participant households is both rich, and, as you indicate yourself, patchy in some ways. What’s next for you, in terms of research?

GAP: This is a wonderful question! I loved every minute of my fieldwork and found interacting with the Deorukhe community in general to be a very rewarding experience. As a doctoral candidate who went into the field for her first long-term fieldwork, I experienced a lot of anxiety when things did not go as planned. The lack of both time and money was on the forefront of my mind. This meant that as much as possible, I collected every piece of information that I could. Along the way, I also collected large swathes of data about factors that I had not even considered to be influential to my research results. This is a large reason for why my research results are rich and at the same time provide a patchy picture. I think that is the strength of ethnographic fieldwork. I struggled to make sense of the enormous amount of information that I gathered during my fieldwork after I returned to America. After much contemplation and several discussions with my advisors and doctoral committee members, it became clear that the only way I could write this dissertation, for me, was by focusing on things that my interlocutors spoke about the most. Those are the things I have written about. I am happy with the way my dissertation has turned out, but it honestly only speaks about 30% of the information that I have gathered during my fieldwork.

Going forward I will publish chapters of my dissertation. Someday soon, I would also like to return to the field with funding so that I can fill in the gaps that currently exist, while also noting the changes that have taken place since 2014. And while I want to continue working with the Deorukhe community, I would also like to add another caste group, preferably people who are meat-eaters. This might allow for a richer and better comparative analysis. In an India that is experiencing large-scale dietary changes, I would like to see how the idea of purity and caste identities continues to play out. That would enable us, as food anthropologists, to really study the communal tension that underlies the study of food and culture in modern day India.

EF: Thank you, Gauri, for your responses, and for your contributions to the SAFN blog!

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, cooking, cuisine, culture, diabetes, food and health, gender, India, nutrition, obesity

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

 

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

Meal Kits: Our Culinary Future?

photo of a toast

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont

Americans spend more and more money on food prepared outside the home, and every day cooking becomes more episodic and less linked to gender and domestic obligations. Your grandmother would be surprised by your dinner preparations whether she was born in 1900, 1920, 1940 or 1960, whether she was or is a good cook, a terrible cook, a happy cook, a hostile cook.  At the same time, she would also find much that is familiar, especially the cycle of organizing, shopping, cooking and cleaning up. The past 50 years have borne witness to major social, economic and technological transformations to an obligatory chore. Highlighting the broad transformations and the immediate realities of making a meal is a new intervention in addressing the demands of everyday cooking – meal kits – that would intrigue anyone’s grandmother. You can now purchase all the components of a designed meal – the recipe along with the portioned ingredients – and have them delivered to your house. Although in the United States each meal kit service promises uniqueness – we’re vegan! Our packaging is compostable! We source locally! – there is a similar structure to all of them (for example, Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh, Chefd ). The customer either subscribes to the service or orders individual meals from an online platform that provides a diverse array of meals to choose from. The ingredients and recipes are delivered to your home. But then you transform it from the raw to the cooked.

Are meal kits our future? My own research is preliminary but intriguing. In 2016, in the midst of finishing my book Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today, a University of Vermont undergraduate, Adelaide Cummings, approached me after a lecture on the topic about her interest in doing an honor’s thesis exploring these. I had been following the launch of Blue Apron and Purple Carrot with great interest. Why not? We worked together to create a feasible pilot project, combining a qualitative experiment with non-users of meal kits (providing a week of meals and doing follow up interviews) with a quantitative survey of consistent users of them (providing a combination of open ended and multiple-choice questions). By the end of this small research project, we were cautiously confident that meal kits are here to stay.

We who do research on food and nutrition should investigate meal kits – their very existence reveals our cultural preoccupations and our culinary navigations. But they might also have predictive power, providing a window into the cooks and eaters we may become, serving as a talisman in a story of transformation to our everyday lives. Meal kits signal our on-going liberation from a long-standing reality: that in order to feed and nourish, first someone must prepare the meal. In 1960, Americans, on average, spent 80% of their food dollars on foods to be prepared inside the home. By 2015, that expenditure was down to 50%. What will we be doing in 2060? If meal kits allow us to create the cultural object we desire – a meal that nourishes and nurtures and comes from somewhere known, an endeavor that involves some effort but not much planning, a result that tastes good and not boring, repetitive or bland – then by 2060 they just might be the new normal.

The idea and the entrepreneurial activity to realize this idea are distinctly 21st century. The idea, interestingly, originated in Sweden, a nation and culture held up in the United States as a model of work/life balance, but where even so, making dinner every night can be a chore. The ‘invention’ is credited to Kristina Theander, a Swedish project manager interested in helping families figure out the ‘life puzzle’ of every day family activities. She launched Middagsfrid, which delivered bags of groceries with recipes to people’s doors in Stockholm; the business has expanded to deliver throughout multiple countries in Europe (Case Study) The first business in the United States based on delivering the components of a meal to be prepared at home was Blue Apron, founded in 2012 by three tech entrepreneurs. Other entrepreneurs (and now major companies such as Amazon) jumped into the game and now American companies generate over 1.5 billion dollars a year in sales of meal kits (See articles in the NY Times and Business Insider) .

Meal kits can be construed as a convenience product, but do they fall into the same category as frozen dinners and take away rotisserie chicken? The ingredients are compiled together in a warehouse and distribution center and then shipped in a cardboard box, ultimately delivered to the customer’s home. Each box contains ingredients that have been pre-measured and sometimes prepped for that specific recipe, as well as a recipe card with pictures to walk customers through the cooking process. Many companies, including Blue Apron, offer instructional videos for subscribers to learn different cooking skills that may appear in the recipes they receive.

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“Comparative Dynamics of Cooking Practices” – PhD opportunity in France

PhD. Student recruitment in social sciences – “Compared dynamics of cooking practices”

Context

Created in 2008, the Center for Food and Hospitality research at the Institut Paul Bocuse aims at developing a scientific expertise in service of knowledge and promotion of the pleasure of eating, everywhere and in every context. It develops an original strategy through an interdisciplinary approach, focusing on three major concerns:

– Taste and pleasure of meals

– Health and well-being

– Eater’s environment

Presentation of the subject

Today’s food is a common subject in the media: several reports are sometimes valorizing local “traditions”, or sometimes noticing – or denouncing – the consequences of “globalization”. In this large flow of information, works produced by the social sciences are hardly audible. They yet question the simplistic interpretations by underlining the complexity of these phenomena, between identity reactions, folkloristic reconstructions, intentional exoticism and food hybridization. They especially reveal that the stated evolution or practices does not get systematically along with a strong transformation of food patterns. Among the different aspects of food, cooking practices are a very interesting dimension. Indeed they combine transmission, acquisition and practical application of technics, linked with knowledges and representation of the products. They are also constrained by the time priorities and material aspects surrounding the act of eating. Anyway, they mobilize all the cultural dimensions of food and are thus a good indicator of the social and cultural dynamics of today’s eating habits.

The PhD. research project currently arranged at the Institut Paul Bocuse consists in a comparative study of culinary practices in two of three parts of the world (still to be defined). It will mainly use a qualitative approach, using the methods of the social and cultural anthropology. However, it can also call on more quantitative methods (questionnaires, etc.) from the sociology, in complementary perspectives. The research will have an applied dimension intended for the professionals of the food sector.

Supervising

The PdD. Thesis will be co-supervised by Mrs. Isabelle Bianquis (Professor of Anthropology at the University François Rabelais of Tours) and Mr. Maxime Michaud (Center for Food and Hospitality Research, Institut Paul Bocuse).

Required profile

Schooling and skills

– Master level in social sciences.

– Mastery of qualitative study (ethnography) essential.

– Mastery of complementary methods (interviews, questionnaires) strongly recommended.

– Mastery of French language essential.

– Theoretical knowledges in sociology and anthropology of food recommended.

Other profile information

– Knowledges on research methodologies

– Independence

– Attraction for theoretical reflections

– Attraction for the food domain

– Adaptation skills, especially to the constraints of working with the industry.

Practical information

– Duration : 3 years

– Beginning between September 1st 2017, and October 31st 2017.

– Place of work: Ecully (just next to Lyon), France. The PhD. student has to be on site (apart

from fieldwork periods).

– CIFRE contract (with participation of a French government agency), with a gross salary of

24600€ per year (with an obligatory health insurance).

To apply

Required documents:

– Cover letter

– A detailed CV (3 pages maximum) with schooling, professional experience, skills and

publications.

– A summary (5 pages maximum including bibliography) of the Master thesis.

– One to three reference letters.

Please submit these documents in one single PDF file before April 7th by email to:

– Mr Maxime Michaud (Maxime.Michaud@institutpaulbocuse.com)

– AND Mrs Isabelle Bianquis (Isabelle.Bianquis@univ-tours.fr)

Agenda

– Receiving appliances until April 7th, 2017

– Audition of candidates: April 2017

– Grant file arrangement: May to September 2017

– Start of the PhD.: September/October 2017

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Review: Stirring the Pot

 

Cover of 'Stirring the Pot'

Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine. James C. McCann. Ohio University Press. 2009

Mary B. Sundal
Washburn University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

As part of the Africa in World History series, Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine by James C. McCann focuses on ingredients, meals, cooking, and cuisine as expressions of cultural identity. Contrary to popular (mis)conceptions about African foodways as a constant source of economic struggle, McCann explores food in African history “as a creative composition at the heart of all cultural expressions of ourselves as humans” (p. 2). To do so, McCann relies on primary historical resources, and work from geographers (e.g., Judith Carney), anthropologists (e.g., Audrey Richards), and novelists (e.g., Chinua Achebe) to provide readers with the rich sensory experience of African food. Furthermore, he weaves in contemporary recipes, and not just those found in cookbooks but “recipes” he collected from African cooks. Women described the basic ingredients necessary for a particular dish and the sensory experience of cooking and tasting. “She uses onomatopoeia (tuk tuk) to suggest the sounds made by the bubbling stew when it reaches its proper consistency. She uses her hands to indicate amounts and how to stir or to taste. In other words, to tell you how to make the dish, she has to show you using sounds and gestures. Written words convey little of the true sense of how to cook shiro wet sauce” (p. 85). It is in these descriptions that I found McCann’s illumination of the cultural aspect of food and cooking to be the most effective.

Stirring the Pot covers a hefty array of food related topics, which proves to be both the book’s strength and weakness. In part one, “basic ingredients,” McCann describes the availability of ingredients during precolonial and colonial times to show how these foodstuffs became staples in African cooking pots. Chapter two provides a great resource—one that could easily be incorporated an Anthropology of Food or Peoples and Cultures of Africa university course—on the cultural importance and environmental requirements of starchy staples including African grains such as finger millet, teff, and indigenous yams as well as New World grains, mostly importantly maize.

Turning away from African foodstuffs broadly, part two traces the development of Ethiopian highland cuisine to a specific event:  Queen Taytu’s feast in 1887. “The feast was thus one of the first acts that presented the new center of the Ethiopian state and its assertion of a site from which Menilek (and Taytu) sought to build a new political culture and claim a new national identity” (p. 71-72). McCann convincingly argues that Taytu’s feast was the point at which a national cuisine emerged in Ethiopia. While I truly enjoyed reading part two—especially the detailed descriptions of Taytu’s role as a female cook, household manager, and political leader—this section seems a bit disjointed from the rest of the text and could have been expanded into an entire text on its own.

The third part of the book, “Africa’s cooking: Some common ground of culture and cuisine” returns our attention to the history of West Africa, the central and southern maize belt, and maritime coasts. McCann argues that unlike in Ethiopia, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa does not have clear national cuisines but “broader patterns of cooking and signature foods the connect regions” (p. 107). Through a description of the cultural variation of starchy food preparation and consumption, McCann effectively shows how cultural diffusion—through intra-continental trade, the Atlantic slave trade, and colonialism—altered food habits and daily sustenance but did not eliminate core characteristics of West African diets. Much of the data for McCann’s argument comes from two female anthropologists, Margaret Field and Audrey Richards, who examined women’s contributions to daily sustenance by recording (and publishing) the oral traditions of food preparation. The second section in part three details the influence of culture contact on local women’s interpretations of diet throughout the maize belt. McCann here tackles how maize became the “food of choice” replacing sorghum, millet, and rice in African cooking pots. In addition, McCann categorizes the various relishes, or vegetable sauces, African women used to complement maize porridge. Again, McCann relies quite heavily on anthropological sources for these accounts, making part three particularly attractive for use in anthropology courses.

The final part of the book examines diaspora cuisine as two waves of culture contact:  the Atlantic slave trade and African emigration to the New World since the 1970s. McCann provides a host of recipes to compare African American, Creole, Brazilian, and Caribbean cooking to their West African counterparts. In this section McCann also returns to the thread of a national cuisine as Ethiopian fare appears to be the most popular African cuisine (re)produced in the New World.

Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine is an informative book and is suitable for a diverse audience, including anthropologists interested in food preparation and consumption both across the African continent and in the diaspora. While the underlying theme of food as a living history of culture change is evident throughout the text, the four parts of the book have a very broad focus making the text more episodic than a thorough examination of one topic. However, the diversity of topics adeptly meets the African in World History series’ goals of making African history accessible to secondary students, university students, and general readers to “stimulate further inquiry and comparison” (p. xi).

 

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Roundtable Report: “Globalization of Asian Cuisines”

To celebrate the publication of “Globalization of Asian Cuisines: Transnational Networks and Culinary Contact Zones,” three of the edited volume’s authors—Stephanie Assmann, James Farrer, and David Wank—gathered for a roundtable discussion on June 2 at Sophia University, Tokyo. While the book contains chapters that examine different Asian cuisines in different contexts—Sidney Cheung writes about crayfish in China, Krishnendu Ray about “Indian ocean cuisine,” and Keiichi Kawaguchi about Japanese food in Italy, for example—for this roundtable Wank, Farrer, and Assmann chose to talk about globalization and Japanese cuisine, offering insights based on their research in China, the US, and Japan. They observed that the globalization of Japanese cuisine is being led primarily by non-Japanese actors, with the Japanese state trying to shape the process of diffusion.

IMG_5312.jpgChuanfei Wang, who conducts research on Chinese and Japanese wine cultures, introduces the roundtable participants. From left to right: discussant Christian Hess, chair Chuanfei Wang, James Farrer, David Wank, Stephanie Assmann.

James Farrer discussed the globalization of the Japanese culinary field via a case study of Japanese food in Shanghai, where the number of Japanese restaurants surpasses the number of French and Italian restaurants. Interestingly, in Shanghai, the authenticity of Japanese cuisine is important and it is bloggers and Chinese individuals who have tremendous influence in determining what is deemed authentic Japanese cuisine. Shanghai’s chefs and entrepreneurs show great creativity in localizing Japanese cuisine. Farrer gave the memorable example of Anthologia (地球美食劇場 chikyu bishoku gekijo in Japanese), a restaurant-theater in which the entire menu is in Chinese and the dramatically costumed and made-up chef performs not just cuisine but also ikebana (flower arrangement), music, dance, and swordplay in front of eaters. This restaurant has been such a success that a second such restaurant is planned to open in Nagasaki to accommodate demand from Chinese tourists there! In response to a question from discussant Christian Hess about periodization and change in contact zones, Farrer explained that in the late 19th century quite a few Japanese restaurants existed in California and in China but they didn’t last and didn’t create a Japanese food boom. While it might seem odd that Japanese food would enjoy such popularity in China given the political enmity between the two countries, the Chinese divorce politics from cuisine to a great extent. Even though Japanese restaurants were destroyed in protests, for example, the Japanese food scene in China recovered very quickly afterward.

IMG_5316An example of Shanghai’s booming Japanese restaurant culture from Farrer’s presentation.

David Wank’s presentation focused on the role Fujianese chefs and restaurateurs have played in popularizing Japanese cuisine along the East coast of the United States, a phenomenon he refers to as an “ethnic entrepreneurial niche.” He noted the presence of elements of deterritorialization and localization, with sushi now a regular feature of people’s foodscapes even in rural areas without a sizable Japanese or Asian population, and the development of the California roll, inside-outside roll, New York roll (with pastrami), Philly roll (cream cheese), and in Indonesia the gado gado roll. When asked to elaborate upon Fujian innovation in Japanese cuisine as related to localization, Wank gave the example of sauces; there are 5 basic sauces chefs use in Fujian-run Japanese restaurants, but he talked to one chef whose culinary arsenal includes 50 different sauces. This process of innovation within the current Japanese food boom continues—with ramen and izakaya (Japanese gastropubs) among the latest trends.

In her talk, Stephanie Assmann switched the focus to government actors in Japan, analyzing efforts to promote a specific concept of Japanese cuisine domestically and abroad. Through the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, a revived shokuiku (food education) campaign in schools, and projects encouraging Japanese consumers to purchase Japanese agricultural and food products for health reasons as well as to boost the national self-sufficiency rate for food. She noted a rhetoric of crisis operating in this discourse and perceives it to be a feature of the contemporary neoliberal state confronting globalization in line with national interests.

The roundtable touched upon key themes from the book—the role states play in determining what counts as national cuisines, debates around authenticity, processes of diffusion and change—and concepts such as “culinary fields,” “culinary contact zones,” “culinary infrastructure,” and “culinary capital.” The presentations and the enthused question and answer session that followed makes the edited volume seem well worth checking out.

 

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Curry’s Great Transnational Journey from India to Japan and North Korea

Guest contributor: Markus Bell, Australian National University

I hadn’t been in Japan more than a few weeks before I was hooked on Japanese karē raisu (curryrice/カレーライス). It was the rich, unmistakable smell that seeped under doorways and filled the undercover shopping markets of Osaka that first caught my attention.

I followed the scent down an alley and into a tiny eatery not large enough for more than half a dozen customers. Behind the wooden counter perched two large vats – the source of the seductive aromas. In one, the potbellied chef told me, is spicy curry. In the other is sweet curry. Perhaps noticing my indecisiveness he picked up two small, wooden bowls and dished out a ladle of spicy into one bowl and a ladle of sweet into the other. “Try,” he commanded.

Curry in a pot, Kyoto

Curry in a pot, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

Marking the beginnings of a ritual that I would repeat many times over the years, my tastebuds burst into life. Obediently, I took a scoop of the sweet sauce. The velvety texture of the piping hot substance wrapped itself around my tongue and left me wanting more. But I hadn’t finished. Unapologetically licking my spoon clean, I plunged it into the spicy sauce and into my mouth. This time my tongue burnt.

“Is it too much for you?” The smirking chef asked, almost gleefully. “No, no.” I replied, sucking air into my mouth and reaching for a glass of water. “It just took me by surprise.” Without asking, the chef took a larger bowl and filled it with sweet curry, beef, and potatoes. So began my love affair with Japanese karē raisu.

At that time I was carrying out research in Japan on Osaka’s incipient North Korean community. That evening, when I met my North Korean friends for our customary pork barbeque and beer in Korea town, I recounted my midday culinary adventure. “Oh yes,” they agreed. “Japanese curry is good. But until you’ve eaten it on a snowy Pyongyang day, you haven’t lived.”

And there it was. My curiosity was piqued and I had to know: How did curry, ostensibly a product of the Indian Subcontinent, make its way onto tables in the most isolated nation on the planet?

Curryrice with side of miso soup, Kyoto

Curry with a side of miso soup, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

The story of curry is emblematic of the early days of colonialism, and the beginnings of what we now simply refer to as globalization. Academics claim that people may have been eating curries as far back as 2,500BCE, and that it has addictive properties.

The roots of the word “Curry” are undecided, with some arguing that it comes from the Old English word “Cury,” ostensibly first used in an English cookbook published in 1390. Others contending it is a derivative of the Tamil word, ‘Kari’ (கறி), referring to a dish cooked with vegetables, meat and spices.

The “curry-flavoured” powder that members of the British colonial administration took home from India became popular in 18th century England. Hannah Glasse published the first curry recipe in English in 1747 in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. Her interpretation was more of a “gentle, aromatic stew” than a fiery vindaloo, but it featured curry powder as a key ingredient. In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened Britain’s first curry house, the “Hindustan Coffee House”: it was a massive failure, but in the years that followed curry as an English dish re-emerged in restaurants across the United Kingdom. Curry gradually became an accepted part of every British pub menu, perhaps offering balance to an otherwise lackluster English diet.

Anglicized interpretations of Indian cuisines were subsequently taken to Imperial Japan via the Anglo-Indian officers of the Royal Navy and other stalwarts of the British Empire. They were among the first British subjects the Japanese came into contact with, after Commodore Matthew Perry landed his “Black Ships” at Kurihama in 1853. By the late 19th century, the Japanese navy had adapted the British version of curry, just as the English had earlier Anglicized Indian curry.

In 1872, the first karē raisu recipe was published in a Japanese cookbook, and in 1877 a Tokyo restaurant first offered karē raisu on the menu. Just as it had done in England, curry rapidly became a staple of the Japanese diet. Today, Friday nights on-board the vessels of the Japanese navy are still curry nights. A website of the Japanese Self-Defence Force’s “Family Page” lists its most popular curry dishes with recipes for the public to try. These mouth-watering recipes come with step-by-step cooking instructions and pictures of over fifty different curries popular on Japanese military bases.

In 1968, inspired by the Swedish army’s “pouched sausages,” Otsuka Foods Co. launched vacuum-sealed boil-in-a-bag curry. The convenience of these ready-to-eat treats appealed to thrifty students and overworked salarymen. Within a few years Otsuka Foods’ annual sales topped 100 million packets.

In the 1960s, when the Japanese government pressured Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese – former subjects of the Japanese Empire to self-deport, curry also followed tens of thousands of repatriating Koreans to North Korea. Family who stayed behind in Japan sent tightly packed parcels crammed full of ready-made karē raisu to loved ones in North Korea.

The North Korean government prohibited repatriates from ever returning to Japan. Immigrants from Japan struggled to survive the often-harsh conditions of North Korea. Access to imported karē raisu and other imported food products became a matter of life and death. They used karē raisu as a currency, trading it for local products – kimchee, rice, and meat – and strategically gifting it to cadre of the Korean Workers’ Party. The more industrious, daring individuals opened black market curry and noodle stalls operating out of their apartments.

Over dinner, my friend Hye-rim Ko, recently escaped from North Korea, explained that during this time, “We native North Koreans tried to mimic immigrants from Japan. We wanted to dress like them and eat the food they had. We were curious. What they ate was better than our food.” “Native” North Koreans, like Hye-rim, had to rely on immigrants from Japan for a regular fix of curry.

In between mouthfuls of fried pork wrapped in perilla leaves, another friend, Sazuka Tanaka, who migrated to North Korea in 1960 told me, “I managed a small restaurant in a northern city of North Korea. We served karē raisu and other dishes from Japan. It was a hugely popular place to eat for North Koreans and I became quite famous for my curry.”

The tastes and smells of curry reminded immigrants from Japan of the home they’d left behind. More importantly, such dishes were a lifeline during the famine that gripped North Korea in the 1990s.

In 2002 Kim Jong-Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens. The Japanese government reacted by imposing trade sanctions on the DPRK. These sanctions choked off the supply of curry to North Korea. Consequently, North Koreans living near the Sino-Korean border were forced to import a Chinese version of karē raisu. North Korean defectors I worked with assured me that “fake” karē raisu wasn’t a patch on the real thing. They claimed that it “lacked flavor” and was “made with inferior ingredients.”

Curry is a chameleon of a dish and a well traveled one at that. From India to Pyongyang, to Tokyo, and the NASA space program; in each place it’s traveled to people have adapted and blended it to local tastes, making it one of the world’s most loved cuisines. Perhaps this is why many of my friends and I feel such affection for it: curry, like us, shifts and evolves through its travels, the cultures it passes through, and the people who love and adopt it.

Markus Bell is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University’s anthropology department, researching on North Korean society and North Korean migration. From September 2016 he will take up a lectureship in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell 

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