Category Archives: culture

The Anthronaut Farmer (AAA 2013 panel proposal!)

2013-Logo-154x200

The Anthronaut Farmer

Session Organizer: Ted Maclin

An increasing number of anthropologists are turning to agriculture as a means of subsistence, a way of living in their communities, and a form of embodied research. Beyond a practice of study, this is a lived anthropology outside of academia: not a research venture bounded by funding cycles, but a journey of engagement with the world. Through their hands-on work, these ”anthronaut” farmers are transforming themselves, their communities and landscapes, and their academic work.

In a recent New York Times article, political scientist James Scott said that his own farming venture has made him a better researcher; but the institutions of farming and the academy conflict and coincide in complex ways. In this interactive session, we will explore how anthropologist-farmers navigate these complexities. We welcome discussions from all theoretical and agricultural perspectives, from apiculture to Actor-Network Theory, from eco-agriculture to ethnobiology, from permaculture to political ecology.

If interested, please submit an abstract (~200 words) to Ted Maclin (tmaclin@uga.edu) by March 1.

Leave a comment

Filed under AAA 2013 Chicago, agriculture, anthropology, Call for Papers, CFP, culture, farming, foodways

AAA 2013 Panel CFP: Politics of Public Food and Hospitality

2013-Logo-154x200

Politics of Public Food and Hospitality: Diasporic and Transnational Tables

 Organizers: Maria Curtis and Christine Kovic,  University of Houston Clear Lake.

Following Psyche Williams-Forson and Carole Counihan’s charge of “Taking Food Public,” this panel explores foodways as confluent networks of cultural and economic exchange between diverse communities, with the potential to invert or to reinforce existing hierarchies. The production, consumption, and distribution of food along with the discourse surrounding these processes take place across multiple public spaces including places of worship, soup kitchens and shelters, festivals, cultural centers, restaurants, cooking blogs and cooking shows, adjacent enclaves, community gardens, and street vendors. In these spaces, among many others, food itself crosses boundaries of nationality, class, ethnicity, and religion as it shapes and is shaped by multiple interactions. Food may be shared as an act of hospitality or as an obligation, bridge ethnic differences, mark social status and highlight distinctions and disparities, or profit certain groups at the expense of others. Food is a means by which new immigrants reach out to their new neighbors, offering them a taste of their culture by turning the dining room table, inviting the host to be a guest in their homes and cultural spaces. Yet the commodification and consumption of so-called “ethnic foods” may enact “cultural food colonialism,” to use Lisa Heldke’s term, in which dominant groups appropriate “the other” for their own purposes, attempting to engage in a “lite” multiculturalism. Using ethnographic examples from multiple settings (including the United States, Turkey, Mexico, and beyond), the panel seeks to map out food’s potential to build dialogue and enact hospitality across difference as well as the ways conflict and inequality are reproduced and even fortified through food sharing.

  • In what instances does the sharing of food evoke dialogue, when hosts are willing to see “others” (immigrants, the displaced, refugees, exiles, guest workers, second and third generation marginalized groups) and to share time and space, and to dialogue with them?  In what ways are parallel, and even divided, communities linked to each other through chains of food consumption and production?
  • In what ways might unacknowledged food chains lock some ethnic groups into low wage positions that impact their health and well-being while their food and care work feeds and nourishes others?
  • How is the public sharing of food tied to the “private” and “invisible” gendered work of domestic cooking?
  • How and why are some ethnic cuisines exalted while their communities remain marginalized?

As a related topic, the panel seeks to explore the role food in the ethnographic research process. To what extent does sharing food, drink, and meals carry the potential to build commensality, creating a common space for conversation and face-to-face encounter of fieldwork? To what extent does food consumption make visible inequalities that exist in the field?

Please contact Christine Kovic at Kovic@uhcl.edu with a short abstract by March 1st.

Leave a comment

Filed under AAA 2013 Chicago, Call for Papers, CFP, culture, Food Studies

The NFL Occupation of New Orleans

SuperbowlDavid Beriss
University of New Orleans

The National Football League came to New Orleans a few weeks ago and while everyone else has probably moved on, I am still thinking about it. Part of this is because the big game was here in the middle of Carnival season. In fact, the parade schedule in New Orleans was re-arranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. New Orleans is a party town, but this was a long stretch of festivities, even for us. New Orleans is also a town that has long engaged in very self-conscious self-promotion. The NFL provided a key opportunity for that, allowing the city to put on a show for the entire world to see. I have been interested in the ways in which cities (especially New Orleans) work to create a sense of distinctiveness—for tourism, business, etc.—and this was clearly a great moment to see that happen. The NFL brought us a standardized segment of Americana and New Orleans responded with a cleaned up version of itself.

Perhaps a bigger city can absorb the NFL presence in a way that allows locals to get on with life as if nothing was going on. That would have been difficult here. In fact, city leaders worked hard to raise awareness of the arrival of NFL visitors. Locals were warned about the crowds and traffic to expect in the city center. New Orleans has a relatively concentrated core, with the Superdome very close to the neighborhoods where visitors like to gather. Those neighborhoods are easy to move around in, on foot, via bicycle (a temporary version of the bicycle share programs common in other cities was set up for the Super Bowl) or mass transit (an entirely new streetcar line serving the area near the Superdome was completed in time for the event). The NFL constructed a sort of independent town, with actual buildings and tents near the convention center and took over the vast convention center itself for a variety of events. The French Quarter was occupied by CBS, with banners and temporary structures creating backdrops for broadcasts. At one point people at CBS sparked indignant protests from locals when they decorated the iconic Andrew Jackson statue in the city’s central square with a sign from one of their shows. The sign came down, but the stage was still set. New Orleans was occupied by the NFL and the media. And, with a few exceptions, people were mostly pleased.

The Super Bowl seems to have become a secular holiday nearly on a par with Thanksgiving in the United States. Attending Super Bowl parties and preparing elaborate (if informal) feasts is now part of the regular ritual calendar for many Americans. Some claim that the Super Bowl provides the occasion for the second largest annual food consumption day in the U.S., surpassed only by Thanksgiving. It is clearly more than just a special football game. Spectacular sports events have been used in many countries as part of national holidays and sporting events can take on national significance that transcend the specific sport or game. This is certainly the case with the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, the Tour de France, and other events. Each of these provides an opportunity to showcase sports and promote the event’s sponsors, while at the same time providing a stage on which the event’s location also receives public attention.

The Super Bowl is a huge commercial and cultural juggernaut. Although I had an abstract sense of the event that had occupied New Orleans, the real size and flavor became much clearer when Rebecca Turner, of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, invited me to visit the “NFL Experience” in the Morial Convention Center. This turned out to be something like 800,000 square feet of football mania, with displays of everything the NFL and NFL-affiliated sponsors thinks you should think about when you think about football. There were dozens of games, ranging from tests of physical strength and coordination, to football trivia. There were displays of football memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, helmets and uniforms. Performers sang and danced and football players stopped by to sign autographs. The Southeast Dairy Association was there to promote a diet and exercise program it has developed with the NFL. Food offerings were mostly generic American industrial products–there were concession stands selling national beer brands and the usual fast food, while sponsors like Pepsi handed out samples of soft drinks (the dairy folks were distributing cheese sticks and chocolate milk). I suspect that NFL experience, or something like it, appears in every city that hosts the Super Bowl.

cochon de lait po boy

Cochon de Lait Po’Boy

Fascinating as this was, entering the NFL experience felt like leaving New Orleans. Of course, the city also put on a huge show of its own culture for the Super Bowl. This included endless interviews with local officials, activists, artists, musicians and, of course, restaurateurs. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and local chef Poppy Tooker used gumbo to help people think about the nature of New Orleans on one CBS show. The city and the NFL also organized a music and food festival in Woldenberg Park, next to the Mississippi River. I rode my bike over to that festival the day after I visited the NFL experience. Enthusiastic crowds surrounded several stages where local bands played everything from funk to brass band music. Rows of stands sold the kind of food that has made New Orleans famous. The French Quarter was just a few steps away, providing access to even more of the things that attract people to New Orleans (and the Times-Picayune provided an interesting analysis and guide to one of those things).

Crawfish beignets

Crawfish beignets

The distinctive version of New Orleans presented for the Super Bowl was just distinct enough to add some flavor to the dominant American football festival. There are reasons to think that the contrasts between New Orleans and the rest of America run deeper than those on display a few weeks ago. Although the contrasts have attracted attention for a long time, efforts to assert them have become something of a local cottage industry in the last few years. Some of this—including most of what was presented during the Super Bowl—is meant to attract and please tourists. Some of it is meant to challenge dominant ideas about how economic life is organized in the U.S. today. Some evokes parts of American history that challenge how we think of ourselves. I wonder what would happen if we put some of that on display for visitors the next time a big event comes to town?

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, city, culture, festivals, heritage, New Orleans, SAFN Member Research, urban

Smokin’ Fish, Smokin’ Culture

by David Beriss

Is it possible to be an authentic Indian in a society overrun with tourists who want to buy bits and pieces of Indian culture? Are those bits and pieces authentic if they are manufactured in Asia? How can people maintain their traditional foodways if the government forbids them from catching enough fish? Can a balance be found between the needs of native fishers and public policies designed to preserve fisheries? Is there room for any kind of distinctive cultural identity in a globalized, touristic, heavily regulated society like that of the contemporary United States? Also, are salmon some sort of deity?

Cory Mann. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

These are the kinds of questions raised by the fascinating film “Smokin’ Fish.” The documentary is the result of a collaboration between Luke Griswold-Tergis and Cory Mann. Having finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, Griswold-Tergis set off to Alaska, where he met Mann. Mann is just the kind of person who makes it hard to define culture. He is Tlingit and an entrepreneur with a business designing tchotchkes based on native Alaskan designs. His products are manufactured in Asia for resale in Alaska. Yet even as he pursues his global efforts at mass marketing native culture, he is also deeply engaged in exploring his own cultural identity. The collaboration between Griswold-Tergis and Mann has produced “Smokin’ Fish,” a documentary that explores the connections between native culture, global capitalism, colonialist exploitation of indigenous people, the environment, sustainable fishing and entrepreneurialism. Oh, and smoked salmon. And bears.

Smoking Fish. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

Mann seems to be quite a dynamic entrepreneur, pursuing several different business ventures at any given time, most with some sort of tie-in to Tlingit culture. But for a few months each summer, he closes things down in Juneau and heads back to Klukwan, where his extended family lives. There he works with members of his clan to catch and smoke salmon. The fish, both alive and smoked, are central to the film’s story. Mann asserts at various points that Tlingit worship the fish. The smokehouses they build seem central to their foodways. But this is not all about subsistence fishing. Some Tlingit engage in what appears to be commercial fishing. The smoked fish are also used in trade with other native Alaskans.

The film subtly weaves in the kind of ethnographic details that highlight what is distinctive—and unexpected—about contemporary Tlingit life. Mann explains that his mother took him to San Diego as a small child, where they lived what seems like a counter-cultural kind of life, more hippy than Indian. He never knew his father, who was white. At some point an aunt retrieved him and brought him back to Alaska, where he was raised by a large group of female relatives. This makes sense since, as Mann points out, the Tlingit are matrilineal. It is that kind of detail, along with discussions of clans and houses (Mann is a member of the Eagle Thunderbird Clan) and about the ways in which people build and maintain relationships (by helping build and maintain smokehouses, for instance), that remind us that even in a society heavily dominated by Euro-American values, groups like the Tlingit retain at least some aspects of cultural distinctiveness.

At the same time, the Tlingit continue to struggle with their relationship with non-native authorities. They must deal with the limits on fishing imposed by the state of Alaska, including both licenses and limits that would make it impossible for them to catch enough fish to meet their needs (these are very much ongoing debates, if recent news out of Alaska is any indication). The conflict here surpasses any kind of stereotypes about native relationships with the environment vs. rapacious outsiders. The Tlingit are presented as complex people with interests in salmon that are both traditional and commercial, not as natural environmentalists. Mann also must struggle with federal tax authorities, who do not seem to understand the unusual way in which he runs his business. He has to deal with border officials, as he goes to visit and trade with other natives in nearby Canada. I should note that he does all this while displaying a wry sense of humor and while using an astonishing array of vehicles, all of which appear to be in dire need of repair.

Filmed mostly in Alaska, much of the movie is quite breathtaking. Mann does his fishing from a canoe, in areas of stunning natural beauty. There is an amazing number of eagles flying around the region, as well as both brown and grizzly bears competing with the people for the fish. In addition, members of Mann’s extended family provide a wide range of additional voices, commenting on the history of native/nonnative relations, the exploitation of Tlingit lands, and the challenges they face in maintaining any kind of attachment to their heritage.

The movie is currently traveling around the U.S. Details on where it may go next can be found here. The filmmakers have a Facebook page as well. “Smokin’ Fish” would make a very useful addition to a variety of anthropology courses, including any food and culture course, as well as introductory cultural anthropology classes, courses on indigenous cultures or even on globalization. It can be used to start discussions on food, kinship, identity and, of course, culture. I recommend, however, making sure you have some smoked fish on hand when you show it. The audience will be hungry.

1 Comment

Filed under Alaska, anthropology, culture, economics, film, fish, food security, hunting, indigenous people, media, seafood, sustainability

Traditions and Transformations: An Interdisciplinary Food Studies Conference

Saturday, April 20, 2013

California State University, Fullerton

Department of Liberal Studies

This conference examines the state of interdisciplinary food studies by focusing on the relationships between traditions and transformations of foodways and cuisines.

We are looking for papers that examine questions surrounding food traditions and traditional foodways such as:

Who decides on the authenticity of “traditional” food and foodways? (Home cooks? Cookbook authors? Chefs?)

How are food traditions constructed through cookbooks and culinary literature? How does culinary tourism fit in? Gastronomy?

How do particular foods become associated with nations or peoples?

What role might literature or art play in identifying or codifying food traditions?

Are traditional modes of food production and consumption sustainable? (environmentally, socially, politically)

We are also looking for papers that address questions surrounding transformations in foodways:

How have global food systems impacted local food traditions? (India’s new vegetarian McDonalds?)

Are new, globalized food traditions emerging? (cosmopolitan cuisine? KFC as a new global food tradition?)

How are new foods and foodways made available to global consumers? (magazines, food tourism, restaurants, ethnic markets)

Who has access to the food traditions of the world and who does not? (food politics, distribution)

Is a globalized food system sustainable? (environmentally, socially, politically)

One page abstracts for individual papers should be sent to April Bullock (abullock@fullerton.edu) no later than December 15, 2012. Panel submissions are also welcome, please send the abstracts in one email along with contact information for each panelist. We will also be hosting food studies related events on April 18th and 19th, more information can be sent to anyone who is interested in attending.

1 Comment

Filed under Call for Papers, culture, Food Studies

AAA meeting in San Francisco – Start planning more than just dinner reservations

The American Anthropological Association meeting in San Francisco is only a few weeks away. It’s time to plan more than just your restaurant reservations.

SAFN members might be interested in taking time to check out the Ben Kinmont exhibit at SF MOMA:

“Existing somewhere between Conceptual art and “social sculpture,” Ben Kinmont’s artwork takes the form of gesture, conversation, and promise, as well as the things that support and document such acts: contracts, transcripts, prints, shared meals.”

Leave a comment

Filed under AAA 2012 San Francisco, culture

Dreamworlds of the Store-Bought Loaf

guest post by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, as part of his White Bread Blog tour!

“And which side does an object turn toward dreams?…It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims.” —Walter Benjamin, “Dream Kitsch

 Walk through the fluorescent arcades of a Safeway or Kroger’s and pick out a loaf of sliced white bread.  It is a fossil—the chemically preserved remnant of lost utopias and unrealized apocalypses. This is not to say that all the other breads—the six grains, the twelve grains, the Vienna hearths, the sprouted oats, and store-brand baguettes—reflect progress toward more enlightened eating.  They don’t, necessarily.  Nor is it to suggest that people don’t make new meanings out of industrial white bread.  They do.  What is lost is the shining aura that once surrounded this loaf.

“One for every family…every day,” c. 1955

If you look hard enough, though, you can still see material traces—in the loaf’s shape, structure, and contents—of a time when people in the United States got more calories from this one item than any other food; a time when the perfect, homogenous slice of spectacularly white bread embodied dreams of a stronger nation, vigorous health, and social status—alongside nightmares of “over-civilization” and moral decline.

“Science finds that white bread helps develop criminals,” 1929

I wrote a history of America’s most iconic industrial food because I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity.
The result—White Bread—is a book about one commodity that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements.  But it is not another story of how one food “saved the world.”  Rather, it’s a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world—or at least restore the country’s moral, physical, and social fabric.  Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion—even when they achieved much needed improvements in America’s food system.

Anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthy food today will find the trials and tribulations of one hundred-fifty years of battles over bread surprisingly contemporary.  In them, you will see all the contradictory expressions of our own food concerns: uplifting visions of the connection between good food and healthy communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, great generosity of spirit, and earnest desires to make the world a better place—but also rampant elitism, smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as “good food,” and open discrimination against people who choose “bad food.”

Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic, and health food reformers as you can get today.  But, in many ways, we owe its very existence and deep cultural significance to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate.  Perhaps learning this history can help us avoid the pitfalls of the past.

“I want to know where my bread comes from!” 1929

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon 2012) and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas (Duke 2007).  His writing on the cultural politics of food has also appeared in Gastronomica, The Believer, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review.

4 Comments

Filed under book reviews, culture, economics, food security, Food Studies, history, nutrition

How Americans Think: About Horsemeat, For Example

by David Beriss

Photo by David Beriss

Should the slaughter of horses for food be permitted in the United States?  This question was raised recently when the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would permit horse slaughter in the U.S. for the first time since 2007. Back in 2006, Congress passed a bill that prohibited the USDA from inspecting horse slaughterhouses, which effectively stopped all horse slaughter in the country. This November legislators passed a measure to allow inspections to restart.  President Obama signed the bill and inspections (and thus slaughter) are again legal.  So far, no horse slaughterhouses have opened.  But it could happen and if it does, it will be controversial.

The first thing Americans often ask when they hear about horse slaughter is whether or not horse is actually good to eat. At the risk of being called horrid names, let me confess that I have eaten horse—in France, where they serve horse and have specialized “boucheries chevalines”—and I don’t remember anything special about it.  It was much like beef.  Horse is consumed in many countries in both Europe and Asia.  Anthropologists who visited Montreal in November might have tried the steak tartare at the “Frites Alors!” Belgian-style French fry chain there, which is offered in both beef and horse versions. According to the 1988 edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, steak tartare is prepared with horse “according to the purists” and in Belgium is known as “filet américain.”

This seems quite ironic since Americans generally do not eat horse. In fact, horse meat has not been consumed in the U.S. in any regular way for a very long time.  At the end of the Second World War, when beef was scarce, Americans resorted to horsemeat and Republicans ran against “Horsemeat Harry” Truman.  Again in the early 1970s, when beef prices skyrocketed under the Nixon administration, people tried horsemeat, a trend illustrated on an episode of “All in the Family.”

Today eating horsemeat  is very controversial, to the point that activists object to any law that would allow slaughter, even for consumption in other countries.  But with plenty of affordable meat in the U.S., the debate now is not really about food.  It is about a series of other issues, ranging from how Americans classify and treat animals, to how they evaluate the social and political organization of society.

There have been many controversies regarding the humane treatment of animals in the past several years.  Foie gras is one such item, condemned because of the manner in which ducks and geese are raised to produce very fat livers.  Similarly, veal is often reviled because of the treatment of calves prior to slaughter.  I suspect, however, that most opponents of these foods do not object in principle to the consumption of these animals.  If it were possible to obtain foie gras or veal without inhumane treatment, they would probably cease to object to consumption (read here about humane veal and here about humane foie gras).  Ducks, geese, sheep, and cows are all seen as livestock, raised to become food.

People have, of course, long raised objections to animal slaughter in general.  Watch, if you dare, this short 1949 documentary by French filmmaker Georges Franju, “Le Sang des Bêtes.

It starts out like a surreal film of life on the edges of Paris, but quickly becomes a meditation on the slaughter of animals, including a horse. It is graphic, bloody and full of death.  It is worth considering, along with the conditions in which cows, sheep and poultry are raised for mass consumption in the U.S. today.  Why do horses stand out amidst the larger problems of our industrialized meat production system?

Horses are not seen as livestock.  At least not by anti-slaughter activists.  One might invoke the history of horses in the American imagination, associated as they are with everything from Paul Revere’s ride to the Wild West.  The terrible fate that awaited unwanted, lame or old horses was always the glue factory, not the slaughterhouse.  That was bad enough.  Click here to view an early Popeye cartoon about a rescued glue factory reject. Eating horses has not been central to the American equine imagination in quite a while.

Yet horses are not exactly pets either, at least not like cats and dogs.  They are still working animals, racing, pulling tourists, herding cattle, etc.  We name our horses, cats and dogs and tend to see them as having a closer relationship to us than livestock.  Horses seem to fit somewhere in between pets and livestock, neither edible nor entirely part of the family.

American horses become food when something else breaks down in their relationship to humans. They are unable to continue their other roles, due to age or infirmity. Or their humans are unable to continue to support them.  One of the motivations behind lifting the ban on horse slaughter inspections was a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office arguing that the same number of horses that had been slaughtered prior to the ban were now being shipped, often in difficult conditions, to Canada and Mexico for slaughter there.  In addition, with the recession, the number of cases of neglect or even abuse of horses has increased significantly in the U.S.  Horse rescue organizations are overwhelmed and unable to meet the need.

The GAO report recommended, among other things, re-establishing slaughter inspections as a way of addressing this problem.  This suggests that we think differently about horses, even if we do name them.  When people abandon dogs and cats, we do not slaughter them for human consumption.

It is worth noting that the debate around horse slaughter has taken on some of the same terms and concepts used in other political debates in the U.S.  For example, a video on the United Horsemen web site, a pro-slaughter group, asserts that “saying that the slaughter of horses for human consumption is wrong because we do not eat it ourselves…shows how far this country has fallen.”  They go on to claim that suppressing slaughter is the same thing as suppressing freedom.  This is, if I am not mistaken, Tea Party language.

Similarly, opponents of horse slaughter draw on the language of the left to make their points.  The Humane Society recently issued a call to action that could have come from those denouncing the banking industry, arguing that “the predatory horse slaughter industry has cash signs in its eyes, and it’s unrestrained by any compassion for these creatures. Its profiteers treat the horses like commodities on the hoof.”

Freedom horses. Horses as commodities. Somewhere between livestock and companions, horses may not be food for the American table, but they certainly show us a thing or two about how Americans think.

7 Comments

Filed under anthropology, culture, film, food policy, horsemeat, humane slaughter, Montreal

Montreal: Smoked Meat!

by Alan Nash
Department of Geography, Planning and Environment
Concordia University, Montreal

Schwartz's in 2008, photo by Alan Nash

 

“What should I eat in Montreal?”

As if answering your question, Calvin Trillin, in a November 2009 column in The New Yorker, acknowledged the reply that most Montrealers would likely give when he remarked “smoked meat was probably Montreal’s best-known food…”.

Similar august endorsements will answer your obvious follow-up question, “where’s the best place to eat smoked meat?”

“When you’re in Montreal, you must go to Schwartz’s” opines The New York Times (a headline that I have been unable to track back to the original – but come from a poster on the wall of the restaurant itself).

Small wonder, perhaps, that Schwartz’s restaurant has recently been the subject of a stage musical (called – yes, you’ve guessed it — Schwartz: The Musical) that ran in Montreal’s Centaur Theatre to packed houses in early 2011.  I have the t-shirt.

As the place for the food, the epicenter of smoked meat in the city, there is no doubt in the minds of many that Schwartz’s is Montreal. Certainly, it fits the bill of an “iconic food” – to borrow Jennifer Berg’s helpful term – and, as an iconic food becomes one that we do not have to eat (or like) before we will recommend it to others. Like the newspaper headline, smoked meat has passed into legend and becomes a marketer’s dream.

If, after a visit to Schwartz’s cramped 61-seater diner-style restaurant on St Laurent Boulevard, you still have the stomach for further questions, they are almost certainly going to be “What exactly is Montreal smoked meat?” “What’s the difference between Montreal smoked meat and New York pastrami?” and “Which is best?

Photo by Alan Nash

I won’t answer that last one — on the grounds of personal safety — but as to the historical background of this story, I can turn to Eiran Harris, perhaps the authority on Montreal smoked meat.

In an interview in Cuizine, he ascribes smoked meat’s origins to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who, in the late nineteenth century, brought with them a familiarity with the meat known as pastrami in Yiddish. Once in Montreal, he notes, two ways of making smoked meat developed. The ‘dry cure’ used the brisket, a cut of meat taken from a steer’s forequarters, which was then rubbed with salt and spices and left to soak for between 12-20 days, before being smoked for six hours. A subsequent development, the ‘wet cure’ reduced the soaking period to about four days to speed things up, and one final innovation, “steaming” the meat for three hours, replaced volume that the brisket had lost through curing. For the record, Schwartz’s (established in 1928) uses the traditional “dry cure” with a final steaming before slicing and serving.

Oh – and how is it different from pastrami? Let me turn to Montreal food writer and Montreal Gazette columnist, Bill Brownstein, who is brave enough to record a view on this contentious matter. He writes that Montreal smoked meat “can be differentiated from pastrami or corned beef by its higher ratio of fat and spice, which connoisseurs will attest accounts for its superior taste’ (2006, 17). Be that as it may, just for the record, there are some basic differences between the two. “New York” style pastrami, according to Bacon’s entry on the subject in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, uses plate rather than brisket – a superior cut of beef  and one usually dry-rubbed with a mixture of spices and then refrigerated for up to ten days before smoking.

Debates about smoked meat in Montreal are always hard to settle, but no one doubts that the secret of Schwartz’s success must lie in a heady combination of its ability to serve top-quality smoked meat, and the publicity that has come to surround both the food and the place.

You should try some.

Reading/References:

Bacon, J. ‘Pastrami’, in Smith, A.F. (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. New York: Oxford University Press, vol. 2, 2004, 240-241.

Berg, J. ‘Iconic Foods’, in Katz, Solomon H. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. New York: Scribner, vol. 2, 2003, 243-244.

_____. ‘From the Big Bagel to the Big Roti? The Evolution of New York City’s Jewish Food Icons’, in Hauck-Lawson, A. and J. Deutsch (eds.), Gastropolis: Food and New York City. New York: Columbia Press, 2009, 252-273.

Brownstein, B. Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 2006.

Harris, E. ‘Montreal-Style Smoked Meat: An interview with Eiran Harris conducted by Lara Rabinovitch, with the cooperation of the Jewish Public Library’, Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures vol.1 no. 2, no pagination [e-journal article accessed on 2 March and 8 April 2010 at www.erudit.org/revue/cuizine/2009/v1/n2/037859ar.html] .

Trillin, C. ‘Canadian Journal: Funny Food’, The New Yorker (23 November), 2009, 68-69.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under AAA 2011 Montreal, anthropology, culture, heritage, Montreal

Let’s Root for Montreal’s Bagels!

by Christine Jourdan

Fairmount Bagel Bakery

 

Forget about the rivalry between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadians, or between the Cortland apple and the McIntosh apple, or between the Met orchestra and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. All these do not matter! What really matters is the rivalry between New York bagels and Montreal Bagels. Now, that is a serious thing to argue about! You did not know Montreal had bagels? We may be Canadians, Eh! but we have bagels too! And if you’ve visited other iconic shops like The Halal Guys in Montreal – it’s time to treat yourself to dessert in the form of a delicious Montreal space bagel.

These bagels are symbolic. To start with, Montreal bagels have big holes. Not ordinary holes but holes with meaning. You see, we like big holes in Montreal: be it the city finances, or the Big O (the O shaped Olympic stadium that looks like the big hole of a urinal), or the island of Montreal, itself a hole in the St-Lawrence river, or the pot holes we have in our streets all year long, holes matter here. Good bagel holes have got to be big too! Then of course, there is the matter of the chewy dough. We have plenty of things to chew on: the corruption in the construction industry; the highest income tax in all the Americas; the Plan Nord that is selling our wood away; and of course, the winter that lasts forever. No wonder our national animal is the beaver! Chew is what we do! But then of course Montreal bagels are sweeter, boiled in honey-sweetened water and always cooked in wood-fired ovens. And there are plenty of things we are sweet on: the green spaces in the city; the majestic beauty of the St Lawrence river; bilingualism and the exhilaration it brings to some of us; the café-terrasse culture; the safety of the streets; the walkability of this city; the friendliness of people, and of course, the McIntosh apple, the Canadians and the MSO!

St-Viateur Bagel

Montreal bagel aficionados know their bagels and the true amateurs are divided between two groups of faithful bagel eaters: Those who prefer the Fairmount Street Bagels  and those who prefer the St-Viateur Street Bagels. All others are pale copies and do not measure up in quality. Some enlightened New Yorkers have come to their senses and affirm a preference for Montreal Bagels. Some even developed an expertise in these matters. For instance, my New York friend Bambi prefers the St-Viateur version while my New York friend Kate prefers the Fairmount version. Be they from Fairmount or from St Viateur, nothing beats fresh bagels bought in the middle of the night, after a party or a late movie, from a tiny shop with a roaring fire oven, when the stomach reminds the mind that food is needed, or when the mind reminds the stomach that food is wanted. Like a proud Montrealer, I truly prefer Montreal Bagels, complete with big holes, piping hot, right out of the wood oven, covered with roasted Sesame Seeds, chewy and sweet.

 

2 Comments

Filed under AAA 2011 Montreal, anthropology, bagels, culture, Montreal