Category Archives: film

Some Pig

David Beriss

What is it we fear most in our food supply in the post-industrial West? Food shortages? Industrialized food? Genetic manipulation? Ecological disaster? Globalized food systems? The idea that we are either in or rapidly approaching some sort of food-related dystopia is certainly widespread, yet relatively hard to define. Wandering the aisles of American and European supermarkets, overflowing with astonishing plenty, it is hard to imagine what fuels our fears. Yet there is no doubt that many people have at least a nagging sense that something is deeply awry. There is a huge literature to reinforce those fears, of course, and a filmography to stoke our imaginations.

The film Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho, puts many of our contemporary fears into one neat package. It is the story of a big corporation’s effort to develop and market a genetically modified pig in a way that will make it appealing to the masses (an effort remarkably similar to Chipotle’s little films). To do this, the company distributes baby pigs to farmers around the world, who will raise them for ten years. The pigs, now “localized” thanks to the farmers, would then be celebrated and turned into food. The film focuses on one pig, named Okja, raised in Korea by a young girl, Mija, and her grandfather, in an idyllic mountain setting. The fully-grown Okja dwarfs hippos, but frolics in the forest in a way that is reminiscent of a very large and exceptionally intelligent dog. In fact, Okja is clearly Mija’s companion and not livestock. This proves to be a problem when the corporation comes to collect the pig.

In addition to the first two elements of the food dystopia—the evil corporation that controls our food supply and the genetically modified animal—the film also depicts cruelty to animals by buffoonish corporate scientists and the horrors of industrial slaughterhouses. This being a neo-liberal horror film, the government is present only in the form of police enforcing the will of the corporation (although there are also private mercenary goons in the pay of the corporation, because that too is part of a good dystopia). Okja is taken by the evil corporation, first to Seoul, then to New York, for study, celebration, and marketing. Mija, determined to rescue her friend, sets off in pursuit. She is aided, and betrayed, by a group called the Animal Liberation Front. There is an element of Citizen Ruth in the struggle between the corporation and the ALF activists for Mija’s loyalties.

In the end, capitalism wins, although not in an entirely predictable way. The film is depressing, hopeful, and a little funny. There is no sense that Mija’s struggle to save Okja will prevent the coming food dystopia, even if she may get to carry on her idyllic forest farm life. The film points to the ways we are manipulated by corporations, as they greenwash their products so that we can feel comfortable buying them. It suggests that the efforts of groups like the Animal Liberation Front are engaged in a futile struggle (although this review, from the real ALF, suggests they do not see it that way). It also may raise the hackles of anyone engaged in food science. It might—or might not—be an argument against eating pigs.

No doubt everyone in the film gets what they deserve, except, of course, the pigs. Or maybe not. Show it to your students and see what they think. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival last spring, it has been available through streaming on Netflix. Be sure to watch until the very end of the credits.

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Filed under anthropology, film, GMO food, reviews

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, April 21, 2017

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

As the Trump administration nears its 100 day mark, it is worth noting that the US Department of Agriculture, with over 100,000 employees spread out over 29 agencies, regulating parts of an industry that contributes around $992 billion to the U.S. economy, is still without a confirmed leader. Lack of leadership has not stopped the Trump administration from acting, however. For instance, a rule proposed under the Obama administration that would have protected the rights of farmers to sue corporations for whom they raise chickens and hogs has been suspended for six months—and possibly permanently—much to the dismay of some of those farmers. The unconfirmed nominee has had a hearing, with mixed reviews, as you can see here and here.

Also on agriculture, but on a more global scale, the Lancet has recently started an open access online publication, “The Lancet Planetary Health,” that will focus on “human health within the context of climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity, food and nutrition, sustainable fishing, agricultural productivity, environmental exposures to contaminents, waste management, air quality, or water and airbourne diseases.” The first issue is worth a look. It includes an editorial about the role of smallholder farms in the global food system and several related articles.

And while we are still thinking about agriculture, take a look at this article and short film about a form of urban agriculture that is rarely discussed. The focus here is on farmers in Guangzhou, China, who continue to farm even as their village has vanished around them, replaced by endless rows of skyscrapers. This process is an old one, but watching this raises a lot of questions about food, culture, and the future of our food supply.

There has been a lot written about American barbecue cultures and racism in recent years. This New Yorker article, by Lauren Collins, focuses on the particularly bitter history and present of Maurice’s Piggie Park, in South Carolina. Collins does a great job of unpacking the nuances of this particular story in a way that would make for a great discussion starter in a class on…food, racism, American society, or the country’s political present. Alas, this is an article about barbecue that may cause you to lose your appetite.

From the UK, we have this interesting observation about a new restaurant in Seattle that will feature foods from the American South…served with an “encyclopedia” that explains the cuisine. The idea is to combat racist perspectives associated with the cuisine.  Food that insists you think.

Everyone wants to know where their food comes from, but who looks at how it gets to you? This episode of the podcast Bite focuses on an interview with Alexis Madrigal, who has his own podcast series on the world of containers and shipping. In this instance, he discusses the place of small batch coffee in the world of enormous containerized shipping. The way this shapes the world of food is really so huge that it is hard to fully grasp. You should listen to this; it is where much of what you eat comes from. Also, the podcast starts with a brief segment on Indian cooks in America who are thrilled with their Instant Pot electric pressure cookers…which ought to be inspiring for anyone who has one.

Many people are distressed at the demise of Lucky Peach, which provided a place for all kinds of food writing that was hard to find elsewhere (at least in an accessible format). For an example of why, read this amusing (yet possibly serious) article on the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. Also, if you draw, you could join the Taco Bell Drawing Club.

Why are so many people being asked to work for free? This has been a crisis in the arts for a while, of course. Internships, mostly unpaid, seem increasingly necessary for college students before they can hope to start developing careers. Unpaid labor is also an important part of the world of food, with cooking school graduates and other aspiring cooks often engaging in “stages” (one of the culinary world’s words for “internship”) in restaurants. How useful is this? How exploitative? Is it even really legal? Corey Mintz explores these questions by looking at the astonishing extent to which the world’s most elite restaurants actually depend on unpaid labor.

The hipster food world is in love with mobile food vendors, perhaps best represented by trendy food trucks. Along with trendy trucks, a lot of food vending happens in carts that sell nearly every imaginable food.  This very useful article by Tejal Rao illustrates a day in the life of a New York City food vendor. His food looks great, by the way, but it is the result of hard work and what look like terrible economics.

In the realm of obscure-but-fascinating items, historian Paul Freedman provides this brief overview of the history of food at private clubs. The article includes lists and photos of current specialties at a variety of clubs around the U.S. One might expect the food to be rarified and elegant, but the photo of macaroons with Halloween candy corn suggests otherwise.

Finally, the first round of the French presidential elections is this Sunday (4/23). The outcome is anything but certain and, depending on your politics, you may need a drink afterwards. A French friend recently sent a clip from the movie “Le Tatoué,” with Jean Gabin and Louis de Funès demonstrating how to eat and drink with gusto. Even without faith in French politics, this should inspire everyone to have at least some faith in French cuisine, no matter the outcome. Remember this advice: “Manger des tripes sans cidre, c’est aller à Dieppe sans voir la mer.” Enjoy.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, film, Food Studies

Unlikely Eats: Paying Homage to Marge Gunderson in Minnesota

Frances Santagate Sutton

Going to Minneapolis for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association? Readers of the blog who have never been to Minnesota may be trying to mix business with pleasure by visiting some of the iconic places in the Twin Cities area. I have never traveled to Minnesota but I associate it with three distinct cultural pilgrimages: paying homage to shopping in the same room as a roller coaster, paying homage to Prince, and paying homage to fictional hero, Marge Gunderson, of the 1996 Coen Brothers film, Fargo. With Marge Gunderson, the Coen Brothers gave us one of the most memorable heroes in modern cinema, beloved for her charm, wit, kindness, and bravery. Less notable but still noticeable was Marge Gunderson’s healthy appetite.

When we first meet Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson, she’s being called to police duty at an ungodly hour. Her devoted husband, Norm, wakes up too, “Gotta eat a breakfast, Marge. I’ll fix ya some eggs.” She replies, “Aw, you can sleep, hon.” He sits up, “Ya gotta eat a breakfast…I’ll fix ya some eggs.” Their early morning breakfast together is a tender moment, as are all the moments shared between Marge and Norm in Fargo, most of which involve food. In one scene, Norm brings Marge lunch at the police station, a sandwich and drink from Arby’s. In another scene, they enjoy a hearty lunch together at a buffet restaurant where another police officer delivers Marge phone records relevant to the murder case.

Marge is “Minnesota nice,” whip smart, great at her job, and seven months pregnant. Apart from one case of near-morning sickness at the crime scene, we do not see Marge’s pregnancy affect her work. She never flounders, falters, or even flinches- even in the face of danger in the form of a man putting another man through a wood chipper. But she’s not hardened or gruff like the crime-fighting characters we’re used to. After she realizes she’s been given the runaround by a suspect, the first thing she does is stop at Hardee’s for a breakfast sandwich. There’s an entire scene dedicated to Marge sitting alone in her car, eating her breakfast sandwich, pausing at one point to smile – thus taking a moment of enjoyment during an otherwise stressful time. Like other Coen brother movies, Fargo marries elements of violence with elements of screwball comedy. But its key ingredient is its humanity, best exemplified by Chief Marge Gunderson and her Midwestern charm.

She may not be an anthropologist or even a real person, but as far investigators (of any kind) and food lovers are concerned- Marge Gunderson is the Fictional Patron Saint of Minnesota.  In fact, my trip to the AAA Annual Meeting will coincide with my pilgrimage to pay homage to her. “How?” you ask. I assume you’re asking because you too are interested in this pilgrimage. Although Marge is from Brainerd, the murder investigation brings her down to Minneapolis. While in the Twin Cities, she ends a call to her local police contact, Detective Sibert, with a request: “Would you happen to know a good place for lunch in the downtown area? … The Radisson… Oh yah, is it reasonable?” The Radisson in Minneapolis where Marge Gunderson stays and meets her friend Mike for lunch still exists in downtown Minneapolis. It is now called the Radisson Blu and it is home to a highly acclaimed restaurant. You can lunch there and yah, it’s pretty reasonable.

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Filed under AAA 2016 Minneapolis, anthropology, anthropology of food, film, Food Studies

The Best Food Film Not About Food

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Is it possible that the best food movie ever made is not a food movie?

Last fall I was teaching a course in urban anthropology and another course on food and culture. When I teach the latter, I usually provide the students with a short list of recommended movies to go with the course. These are mostly not ethnographic films or even documentaries (although I sometimes include a few). Instead, I recommend popular films that illustrate some of the points we are discussing in the class. I decided to do the same thing for the urban anthropology class and in an effort to simplify my life, I tried to make the two lists more or less the same. So most of the films I picked had both food and urban themes.

It was not especially hard to find movies that fit this description. Out of ten movies, there were only two that really had very little food content. One of those was Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire,” although there is a least one very sensual scene in which Peter Falk tries to explain the pleasures of the flesh—including food—to an angel while standing in front of a sausage stand in Berlin (I suppose the movie’s title could itself be a kind of food-related pun). The other was “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s film about Harvey Milk, whose last name is probably the closest thing to a food-related part of the movie. Food was central to seven of the other films. The movies were: “Ratatouille,” “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Julie and Julia,” “Tampopo,” “Toast,” “Babette’s Feast,” and “Chef.” It is safe to say that all of these would be on a foodie’s list of must-see-movies. They pair well with anthropology as well. Ratatouille has even been written about by anthropologists! (I forgot to include “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” this year, but that film deserves its own blog entry on history and anthropology anyhow.)

That leaves one movie. I picked Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” as a film about race, ethnic conflict, community, gentrification, and violence. I did not really think of it as a food movie and, frankly, it does not seem like anybody else does either. Yet a great deal of the movie takes place in and around a pizzeria in Brooklyn and the main character, Mookie (played by Lee) works there as a delivery guy. The movie’s central conflict is focused on the lack of representation of African American heroes on the restaurant’s walls. And the movie culminates with a riot in front of the pizzeria, in which one of the main characters is killed by the police and the restaurant is destroyed. Neighborhood pizzerias are of course iconic symbols of New York City. In Lee’s movie, the pizzeria is owned by an Italian (Sal, played by Danny Aiello) and his two sons (Vito and Pino, Richard Edson and John Turturro, respectively), who do not live in the neighborhood (Bedford-Stuyvesant). Along with Mookie, they are the entire restaurant crew. The Italian ethnicity of the pizza place is marked in both discourse and by the pictures of Italian and Italian-American celebrities on the walls. The African American character of the surrounding neighborhood is also marked in a variety of ways. Yet Lee shows that the conflict that ensues is not an inevitable result of that ethnic difference. It is clear that the restaurant is a neighborhood institution and that eating there is really central to local life. Everyone eats at Sal’s. The conflict springs from somewhere else in American culture, but like everything in life, it happens locally.

This is in the middle of a hot New York summer in the 1980s, at a moment when there had been a number of racially motivated assaults on black people in the city. The threat of police violence and of mob violence seemed to loom over the city. There were also tensions surrounding corner grocery shops, often owned at that time by Korean immigrants, a situation portrayed in the film. The movie also references gentrification, which was beginning to sweep through neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But what is striking to me is the thickness with which Lee draws his characters. Even as Lee notes the tensions of the moment (and invokes America’s history of racism and conflict), the people in the movie are shown to have complicated histories with each other and with the neighborhood…and with Sal’s pizza. In fact, the character who instigates the movie’s conflict, Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito), is a regular at the pizzeria himself. The movie’s tensions and the riot, death, and fire, are all the more moving precisely because it is a conflict among people who know each other intimately.

Many movies that we think of as food movies make food their central character. They might even border on what people call “food porn,” in which the food becomes an almost unrealistically beautiful object of desire (“Tampopo,” it is worth noting, can be seen as an early satire of this sort of thing). “Do the Right Thing” does not make pizza into this kind of object of desire. It is not food porn. You may not even desire a slice after you see it. But it identifies a central institution in New York—the neighborhood pizzeria—and builds a story around that institution that reveals a great deal about communities and conflicts in the city. I think that this may make “Do the Right Thing” one of the best food movies. And it is not even a food movie.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, film, Food Studies

Food Forward on PBS

Food-Forward-COVE-16x9-288x162

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Food Forward is a new documentary series on PBS focusing on people experimenting with new (and sometimes very old) ways of producing food in the United States. The broadcast schedule is available on the PBS website and you can also watch full episodes there. There is a great deal of information about the show available on the Food Forward website as well.

If you visit the web site, you will see that the directors try to distinguish their shows from the cooking competitions, restaurant rescues, and searches for exotic foods that populate food television. But this is PBS, so that is not really a relevant comparison. Instead, Food Forward differentiates itself by not being another documentary about why our food system is inexorably leading us to nutritional and environmental doom. The makers of Food Forward argue that we need a way out, a plan, a way to save ourselves. The episodes document the stories of people who are trying to make food better. They call them “Food Rebels,” because they are taking on the industrial food system, finding ways to produce foods that they claim are environmentally sustainable, healthy, tasty, sometimes even affordable.

I have watched two episodes and the food rebellion looks delicious, the landscapes look beautiful, even the people seem spiritual and remarkably handsome. It would be easy to be cynical about all this — so much optimism in the face of our massive industrial food system might be a bit quixotic. But there is in fact quite a lot to think about here. There are fascinating food innovations, including sustainable farm raised fish in the very first episode. A lot of the innovations are described as efforts to return to older ways of doing things–from fishing with weirs to raising grass-fed beef without antibiotics or hormones. The farmers and fishers who are doing these things are also finding ways to make these methods profitable. These are hopeful films and, frankly, it is easy (and pleasurable) to get swept up in the optimism.

The two episodes I watched, “Go Fish!” and “The Meat of the Matter,” are about fishers, ranchers, and farmers, documenting both production (on ranches, boats, fish farms, etc.) and distribution (community supported fisheries, community supported farmers, restaurants, markets, etc.). There will be episodes that explore urban farming, GMOs, obesity, school lunch, and even hunting (at least 5 episodes are currently available on the PBS site; I assume more are to come). If all the episodes are as good as the first two, any of them could be usefully shown in anthropology classes dealing with food and culture. There is a great deal here to generate discussion among students, many useful questions to be raised. The length of the episodes (about 25 minutes each) also lends itself to class use. Take a look. Let us know (in the comments section) what you think.

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Filed under anthropology, farming, film, food activism, food and health, food policy, Food Studies, nutrition, sustainability

CFP: Anthropology of Child Feeding

CFP for Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association

December 3-7, 2014, Washington, D.C.

Panel Organizers: Chelsea Wentworth (University of Pittsburgh) and Lisa Garibaldi (UC Riverside)

Employing Visual and Digital Methods to Produce an Enhanced Anthropology of Child Feeding

This panel investigates the use of visual methods in researching childhood dietary practices. Drawing on the recent resurgence of interest in the experience of childhood and the expansion of visual methodologies, these papers will contribute to our understanding of the practice of child feeding. The intersect of visual methods as instruments of data collection and the study of child feeding provides greater insight into our understandings of how children access food, children’s food preferences, and the decision-making processes of caregivers as they feed children. We operationalize child feeding as any interaction that a caregiver or the child has in making food choices, and consuming food. Much research on child feeding practice has relied on heavily quantitative measures that examine nutritional value of foods and child growth (see Birch et al. 2003, Pelto et al. 2010). However, we argue that our understandings of the practice of child feeding are greatly advanced through the use of visual methods.

Filmic, photographic, and artistic representations of food production, distribution and consumption enable anthropologists to analyze the role food plays in the enculturation and the nutrition of children, particularly when these materials are gathered in conjunction with other methods such as participant observation, focus groups and interviews that allow for the contextualization of these data. We seek papers that discuss innovative visual methods including, but not limited to photo-elicitation, photovoice, visual voices, ethnomimesis, and drawing exercises, which create an opportunity for anthropologists to see participants’ perspectives of child feeding, leading to more nuanced understandings of human behavior. Visual methods, then, provide a way for researchers to gather data potentially inaccessible via other methods; for example, photographing food can help researchers work with illiterate caregivers who could not keep dietary journals, and illustrations can help young children, who have a hard time verbalizing, communicate.

Visual methods are not new to anthropology, indeed Mead and Bateson’s pioneering research using ethnographic film and photos dates to the 1930s and 40s. With the rapid advancement in digital technologies and increasing affordability of these products, however, ethnographers and research participants have more tools available than ever before through the use of products like camera phones and online media sharing websites. Acknowledging previous research on the use of visual methods in anthropology, this panel will examine how visual methods are applied in the study of child feeding. These methods help researchers gather data from both the children’s perspectives, as well as their caregivers.

We seek papers from all geographic regions that address methods in which the participants themselves create the images, helping anthropologists achieve a variety of objectives including, but not limited to: engaging in participatory and community-based research; helping participants use their film, photography, and artwork as forms of community activism; viewing activities and behaviors that occur when the anthropologist is not present. Additionally, we seek papers where the ethnographer creates the visual record capturing the process, movement, and fluidity of activities and events, as well as interactions, behaviors and food preferences. Keeping in mind the ways that we produce anthropology today, we argue that this mix of participant-driven and ethnographer-driven data collection using visual methodologies will foster new conversations and collaborations amongst those researchers engaging in food studies and visual methods. We encourage submissions that include innovative presentations of data in an effort to support the AAA’s work to “Reimagine the Typical AAA Presentation Format.”

Those interested in presenting a paper for this panel, please submit a 250 word abstract to Chelsea Wentworth cwm23@pitt.edu and Lisa Garibaldi lisagaribaldi@gmail.com on or before Friday, March 28, 2014. We will notify you by April 4th if your abstract has been selected to be a part of the panel.

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Filed under AAA 2014 Washington DC, anthropology, CFP, film, motherhood and feeding, nutrition

Anarchist Table Manners

The East Poster

David Sutton
Department of Anthropology
Southern Illinois University

So you’re seated at a table with a dozen strangers. Hungry, you’ve got a bowl of some sort of stew in front of you, and a large-handled, wooden spoon. The only problem—like everyone else at the table, you’re wearing a straightjacket. What do you do?

This was the problem posed to the main character of the 2013 movie The East. And spoiler alert, this is a good scene that I don’t want to ruin for the reader, so I urge you to see the movie before you read on. The East, by the way, might have flown under your radar screen. Released in the spring of 2013, it is a tense thriller focused on an eco-anarchist group and a private security firm’s attempt to infiltrate it, from the pen of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (Marling also stars in the film, along with Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard). While the film got mixed reviews (some complaining about the idealistic ending), I found it to be a compelling story and a meditation on different kinds of political action in the present.  

The scene comes fairly early in the movie when the main character Sarah (Brit Marling) has been taken to the hideout of The East by faking a serious injury as part of her plan to infiltrate the group. She is treated for her injury and while recovering she is invited to dinner, but not before she has donned the straightjacket. The putative leader of the group, Benji (Skarsgard), suggests that as their guest, Sarah should begin. This is the part of the scene where the viewer is put into Sarah’s perspective, trying to figure out how to proceed. After lifting the spoon with her teeth and seeing the seeming futility of this, Sarah drops the spoon. Then she puzzles for a bit longer before finally grabbing the side of the bowl in her teeth and lifting it up so that she is able to slurp a little bit of the stew into her mouth. Sarah looks up at the others, chewing in a seemingly self-satisfied manner. They all nod at her politely, then they pick up their spoons in their teeth, and, turning their heads to the side, proceed to feed each other. Sarah storms off feeling humiliated by this “lesson” in her own selfishness.

Some readers may recognize the basis for this scene in the allegory of the long spoons, a parable that can be found in a number of different cultures and religious traditions. Kirin Narayan discusses her discovery of this story in multiple religious/cultural traditions, and analyses a Hindu version of the story in detail, in her book Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching (1989, University of Pennsylvania Press). In this allegory, retold here by Bishop Desmond Tutu, it is Heaven and Hell that are being distinguished, i.e., Heaven is where people feed each other, Hell is where people are surrounded by sumptuous meals but unable to eat because they have failed to realize their interdependence. This allegory clearly encapsulates the moral significance of reciprocity and interdependence, and suggests that the radical individualism associated with untrammeled capitalism is, in fact, a hell on earth.

Similar techniques are also used in some anarchist groups (David Graeber, personal communication, December 12, 2013). However I think the scene is strikingly effective in the context of a U.S. culture where eating has become a key practice of individual choice and identity. My hypothesis is that the “solution” to this conundrum simply doesn’t occur to most Americans, steeped in a culture in which the recognition that eating involves the labor of other people has been deeply attenuated. Thus all 10 students who watched the movie in my class expressed surprise at this scene. By contrast when I described this scene to a table of Greek anthropologists they immediately guessed the direction of the scene. This perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me as I have been working on a project looking at the food-based responses to neoliberal policies in Greece, all of which center around the symbolic value of food in expressing ideas about social solidarity (see the previous FoodAnthropology posts on food used in Greek politics herehere and here).

Western Middle-Class common sense has often been skewered through challenging table manners, most famously in Bunuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty in which using the toilet is done publicly and is a site of sociability, while eating is seen as a disgusting act only to be done in private. While Bunuel’s point is the cultural arbitrariness of table manners and the scene from The East suggests a potentially universal message of interconnectedness, both scenes are reminders of how central food is to our human sociability, and perhaps together could form a good starting point for courses on food and culture.

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Filed under anthropology, film, food politics, Food Studies