Category Archives: food history

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, October 9, 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.

In the United States, food activists love to point to the French and their carefully demarcated terroirs for wine, cheese, and other products as an example of how to manage the relationship between food and place. Behind this image of careful attention to land and culture there is often a rough and even violent political history. To get a taste of that, listen to this interview with historian Andrew Smith about his recent book “Terror and Terroir: The Winegrowers of the Languedoc and Modern France” (Manchester University Press, 2016) from the New Books Network. This interview is conducted by Roxanne Panchasi and is part of the New Books in French Studies series.

On the subject of food and terror, New Books in American Studies has an interview with Bryant Simon, author of  The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (The New Press, 2017). The immediate incident that is at the heart of this history is a fire in 1991 at a food factory in Hamlet, NC that resulted in the deaths of 25 people, but the broader framework is the combination of American tastes for cheap processed foods and the deregulated industry that produces them. Stephen Hausmann conducts the interview. There is also a New Books in Food series that is always looking for hosts, if you want to get on the ladder to podcast fame.

The popularity of those cheap processed food has been linked to the rise in obesity and other diet-related health issues in many countries. If you have read Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura, and Deborah Gewertz’s 2013 book “The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century,” (University of California Press), then you are familiar with some of the ways those foods have become popular around the world. The New York Times Magazine published an excellent overview of this same process a few weeks ago, along with some rather stunning graphics. Share it with your students, start a great conversation.

In a related story, this piece from Bloomberg provides data on what Americans have been eating for the last few decades. When did we start eating more chicken than beef (sometime in the 90s)? What has happened to coffee consumption? Whatever happened to those California raisins? Americans are eating more mango, but fewer canned cherries. And we still love peanut butter. Enjoy the graphs too.

The survival of the American family farm is an ongoing struggle, as endless books and articles demonstrate. But the best of these also reflect on the broader historical and social context of that struggle. One of the more recent books in this genre is Ted Genoways’ book “This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm” (W.W. Norton, 2017). The book was the subject of a short piece on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, as well as an extended discussion on the NPR show On Point, both of which are worth listening too.

We have two strange and unexpected origin stories this week. First, the recent death of Hugh Hefner elicited a wide range of responses, which is not surprising, given his ambiguous legacy. However, one rather unexpected bit of history that popped up during all the discussions about Hefner’s history was his role in the start of Food and Wine Magazine. Food porn is not, it turns out, entirely metaphoric.

The Reuben Sandwich is a midwestern invention, at least according to this charming story from Elizabeth Weil, at Saveur. The story involves a conflict between Weil (whose grandfather seems to have invented the sandwich at a family-owned hotel in Omaha) and food historian Andrew Smith (not the same historian as the one above, by the way) that involved the New York Times. This also helps explain how a very un-kosher sandwich became an iconic Jewish deli food.

Is eating alone a bad thing? Some people think so, including writer Lloyd Alter, who begins his article with a citation from Baudrillard, “Sadder than the beggar is the man who eats alone in public.” Baudrillard meant this to be a critique of American society, but Alter takes it into the realm of actual physical health and links it to the aging population. There is probably an interesting theoretical point to be made related to French theory and American journalism, but meanwhile, it is an interesting read.

The debate around cultural appropriation may be a classic example of what the French mean by the phrase “dialogue de sourds” and we are happy to keep documenting it here. This piece, “Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef With Cultural Appropriation and Cuisine,” from writer Soleil Ho, was originally published a few years ago and was recently republished in the 20th anniversary edition of Bitch Magazine. Has anything changed since it originally appeared?

Is the great American casual dining chain doomed? Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, Houston’s, TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Friendly’s, and more, restaurants known for walls full of strange junk, waiters wearing flair, and huge piles of mostly inoffensive food, may be facing a crisis. This series from Eater.com explores the situation, raising questions about the American palate, the American middle class, and the fate of suburbia.

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Food and Drink as Symbols: Historical Perspectives

We recently received this call for papers that may be of interest to FoodAnthropology readers. Deadlines and contact information are below.

Department of History and Material Culture of English Speaking Countries
Pedagogical University of Krakow, Poland
Call for Papers
2nd International Conference
Food and Drink as Symbols: historical perspectives
27-28 October 2017 – Krakow

Eating and drinking have always been a part of socialisation. Humans have eaten together and mealtimes are events when the whole family or community comes together. Eating food can also be an occasion for sharing, for giving to others, for example, parents give food to their children, a mother gives her milk to her infant, thus making food a symbol of love and security. Two thousand years ago Jesus taught us to share food with others. He used food for both instruction and revelation, and food items bear a religious symbolism in the way they are made or the way they are eaten. For instance, in Christianity bread and wine have a symbolic meaning. Indeed, many dietary habits are derived from religious laws with certain foods chosen or avoided according to religious beliefs. In Greek mythology, food plays a role in defining the hierarchy of being: there is food for gods, food for men, and food for animals. In modern societies food indicates the status, power and wealth of individuals, and humans often symbolically interact when eating, for example, sitting at the head of the table symbolizes head of the house. Additionally, certain foods symbolize wealth and social class, and foods are symbolic or act as metaphors for body parts involved in sexual relations. In fact, any particular item of food might carry a system of symbolic meaning. Moreover, foods have been an important theme in the arts and various artists have employed them, for instance, to underline social issues.

This conference invites papers to be submitted that explore the meaning of food and drink as symbols, with focus on historical perspectives in different contexts. Although potential areas of interest might include the symbolism of food and drink in life and sensuality, its relation to political consciousness, honour and status, ethnicity, lifestyle, religions or art may also be addressed. The conference is not restricted to any specific historical period.
Keynote Lecture:

Prof. Fabio Parasecoli
(Associate Professor at The New School, New York; co-editor of Cultural History of Food)

The conference organisers:
Andrzej K. Kuropatnicki
Paweł Hamera
Artur Piskorz

All submissions should include:

The closing date for submissions is 15 May 2017.

The conference language is English. The conference fee is 200 PLN or 50€ (130 PLN or 30€ for students and PhD candidates) which will include the conference dinner, tea and coffee, the conference materials and the publication of a monograph (selected papers will be
published in a peer-reviewed monograph).

Please visit the conference website for details regarding the venue, conference programme, suggested accommodation, transportation and other practicalities.

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Journal Issue Review: Food and France

Special Issue: Food and France: What Food Studies Can Teach Us About History. Bertram M. Gordon & Erica J. Peters (eds). French Historical Studies 38, 2 (April 2015): 185-362.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

French historical studies centered on food can teach anthropologists a lot about gender, food habits, and class-based notions of a “proper meal”.  This special issue of French Historical Studies offers some delicious readings of particular interest for food and gender courses or lectures.  For appetizers, the introduction by the editors contains a good working bibliography on food-history and food-studies source materials in this amplifying field.  For a main course, food anthropologists can choose from a menu of five historical articles (four in English, one in French; with excellent abstracts in both languages).  The first is a cultural history of coffee.  The second (in French), on seventeenth through early nineteenth century notions of gourmet food product “terroir” and associated political-geographic connections with gourmet markets and tastes is very well crafted, and provides a good historical reference point from which to compare later conceptual and historical writings on this topic.  The third, on Parisian workers’ lunch away from home during the 19th and early 20th century, and the fourth, on female garment workers’ “Midinette” (lunch) behavior, describe in great detail the eating establishments that served workers, with their menus and prices.  Together, they communicate from nutritional and sociocultural perspectives the plight of the undernourished working girls, who were often hungry for small luxuries (a fashionable accessory) that competed directly with food.  Particularly the literary evidence suggests that these slender and allegedly “coquettish” maidens, who were probably very hungry, sometimes put moral reputations on the line in order to grab a bit more mid-day sustenance offered by enticing male companions. These articles provide excellent discussions and supporting evidence regarding what constituted “proper meals” and what substitutions were made (or which foods were eliminated) under conditions of financial duress.

Continuing this theme of expected multi-course meal structures and comparative duress, the final article documents the menus, food-sourcing regulations and circumventions, clientele, and politics of Black Market Restaurants during World War II.  It documents how the politically connected and influential French elites, as well as German officers, dined extremely well, despite food shortages, official rationing, and horrendous hunger among the French masses.  It adds to a growing literature on food and war.

Returning to the initial case study as a beverage course, anthropologists can use this history of coffee and its associated class and cultural entailments in France as illustrative of a holistic approach, which uses a wide range of primary political, economic, medical and nutritional, periodical, and literary sources.  Anthropologists might be frustrated, however, that the evidence-filled article does not get around to discussing coffee’s (medical) humoral value(s) until near the end.

As a set these papers effectively demonstrate the ways studies of food are contributing to new historical and anthropological understandings.  In the words of the editors’ introduction: “People’s hunger for any kind of food under conditions of deprivation or for more appetizing dishes when times are better provides a new angle from which to view questions of nationalism, global networks, gender, race, ethnicity and class.”  A 16 page compilation of recent writings on French food history completes the volume.

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Review of: American Cheddar Cheese-Ways

Edgar, Gordon (2015) Cheddar. A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese and what is can tell us about our history, cultural identity, and food politicsWhite River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Reviewed by Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

If you ever wondered what’s to like about the dairy lubricant flavoring Mac&Cheese, or why there is so much noticeable variation in identifiably named, branded cheddars, this book has the answers.  The lucid and sometimes witty text, crafted by San Francisco Rainbow Grocery Cooperative cheese-monger Gordon Edgar, unpacks the science, technology, arts, crafts, and cultural, economic, and political history behind cheddar, which was America’s favorite cheese (until pizza-mozzarella surpassed it!).  The fourteen chapters cover the methodologies for producing this cheese, the enterprising individuals (in the case of NY, a married couple) who figured out how to mechanize what had originally been a “farmhouse” process, and the localities that hosted increasing numbers of cheese factories.  It also traces the adulterations (skimmed milk cheese or vegetable-oil filled cheese) that ruined the U.S. superior quality cheddar export industry, which had previously dominated the original U.K. cheddar market, earlier undermined by the same problems. The book celebrates the recent resurgence of smaller-scale, exquisite American cheddars and industrialized aged cheddars expanding a quality niche in-between the artisanal and processed American cheese.  Throughout, there is also attention to labor, gendered social organization of production, economics, and political–especially policy—issues.     All are part of the story that makes cheddar “America’s most iconic cheese” and for delectable reading and eating-guidance for patriotic celebrations.

What distinguishes cheddar from other cheeses are the multiple milk-processing steps, which include, after “ripening the milk,” scalding, salting, milling, “cheddaring,” and finally aging.  This labor-intensive farmhouse-cheese manufacturing process traditionally occupied the time and energy of housewives until ca. 1850, when Rome, NY household producers constructed the first cheese factory, based on observations of best practices across farmsteads.  Because of the intensive labor, women especially welcomed the freedom to ship their milk to central creameries, where dairy cooperatives bulked and transformed milk into cheese.  Significantly, in well-known large-scale, branded cheddars—including  Cabot (in Vermont) and Hilmar (in California)—all  production, processing, and marketing operations are still organized as non-profits or cooperatives, although some of these enterprises have become subsidiaries of large corporations, such as Dean Foods, as a result of mergers, acquisitions, and sales.

These economic histories of particular brands are chronicled alongside what can best be described as an autobiographical cheese memoir about tasting cheddars.  Central chapters feature the state cheddar histories of Wisconsin, where cheese is a central theme of popular discussion and pride; New York, which boasts the origins of industrialized production, and which will engage readers interested in economic history of food and agriculture; and Vermont, where the author indulges in the lushest sensory descriptions of cheddars, although he was baffled by the rudeness and lack of cheese commitment of ordinary Vermonters, as contrasted with Wisconsin, where everyone he encountered loved to talk about cheese.  He is careful to make his terminologies accessible, while not excluding technical terms for those interested in learning more about the cheese science and engineering.  Happily, his findings regarding the expanding production and marketing of high-quality artisan cheddars hint at some contradictions in conventional understandings; for instance, that superb cheese ordinarily produced by more labor intensive methods can be scaled up, even though the blending of milks from multiple farms means that the end product loses the sense and sensibility of terroir (connection to particular grazing places).

For readers interested in sensory terminologies, each chapter also contains tastings, with descriptive vocabulary by an author who managed to combine the passions of his “day job” buying and selling cheese with his avocation, which is food writing.  This writing is uneven, sometimes lyrical and sometimes technical, which goes with the territory. This includes detailed descriptions of the processing along with personal experiences of savoring the end products.  For example, in his introduction to chapter 4, “What is Cheddar, anyway?” he writes, simply: “All cheese … is an attempt to intervene in the natural spoilage of milk” and “The rest of cheddar-making is also dedicated to this goal of creating an age able cheese without rotting.” He continues, informing, that cheddaring (named for the English town of Cheddar first noted for this type, in the 13th century) is the step that distinguishes cheddars from other categories. It separates curds from whey by piling up curds in slabs, which puts additional pressure on them to release the liquid whey, and also stretches the fat and protein chains. The reduced slabs are then milled and salted, which stops the fermentation process, and adds flavor and texture; and the resulting solids are packed into forms for ripening. In describing this technology, he intentionally “dumbs down” the language so that non-scientists (like himself) can understand it.

The language describing the resulting cheeses, by contrast, is full blown.  The Queen of Quality cheddar made from Vermont Jersey cows, as a case in point, uses a full palate of technical sensory terms to represent the “deep” but “accessible” sensory experience of savoring this material, which was “dark yellow from the beta-carotene in the grasses and the Jersey milk” and delivered notes of “buttery, salty, grassy, mushroomy, dank, and celery.” A separate chapter dedicated to tasting curds contains evocative language about sensory impressions and labels.  It also offers guidance for understanding why American cheddars seem to be sweeter than earlier or contemporary European cheddars: cheese makers, appealing to what they perceive to be American preferences, deliver a cocktail of microbes that ferment the cheese more quickly and produce more sweet notes.  The reader also learns that, with the exception of Cabot cheddars, the label “sharp” has no standardized flavor meaning; it is unregulated, not based on taste-testing of cheese-blocks, and used expressly as a marketing term.

The author’s historical account extends also to public health and regulations.  In the late 19th century, and then again in the late 20th century, cheese made from milk from cows fed brewers’ or distillers’ grains tasted “yeasty, bitey, and boozy.”  These flavor notes were considered a defect or virtue depending on tasteful marketing for artisan cheese.  During the period around World War I public-health concerns about milk as a carrier of tuberculosis and other infections caused a revolution in the dairy industry. Pressure mounted for mandatory pasteurization, which could eliminate these disease threats.  The resulting industry concentration, to accommodate the new science and technology, sparked the evolution of big brands like Borden and Kraft, and also encouraged the market for processed cheese. Kraft Velveeta, as a case in point, met industry desires for efficiency, yield, and flavor standardization as well as food safety, and technological aim for a product “that would last longer without spoilage, would be healthy (even if vitamins would start to be added as nutrition was lost in the process), and would feed people more cheaply.”  American know-how and efficiency was captured in its iconic naming—American cheese: “Factory food—safe and designed with nutrition in mind—was America’s contribution to the world.”  The author notes that from the consumer’s perspective, Velveeta, the heavily advertised scientific and technological wonder food, was comfortably satisfying, nutritionally balanced, and would not rot!  It also melted and blended well with other flavors and ingredients—hence its preferred role in mac-and-cheese or Mexican Nacho dips.

All this combined food-safety, economic rationale, and industry concentration had come at the expense of much smaller-scale production, which valued flavor and not standardization.  Ultimately, ca. 1990, American cheese makers and tastes began to return to appreciation of flavor and “place” as values.  Such turns were partly nostalgia, but also show entrepreneurial spirit, and Americans’ newfound desire to connect to the land and support small farmers. This history once again favored women, who had originally been in charge of household production; then displaced by males who took charge of factories; but who achieved renewed prominence in emergent artisan cheese businesses.

As a coop devotee and employee, the author also marvels at the community spirit that he encounters even in large dairy coops, like California’s Tillamook, whose cheddar and labor relations he finds—or defines— as iconic American.  Importantly, while recounting continual changes in food safety and technologies, he firmly rails against food-safety regulations developed to protect consumers and workers from the ills of large industrialized operations, without thought for careful, smaller operators, with their more limited capacities to comply, or the flavors they value.

The takeaway: like the American people, cheddar is one and many, an ever changing range of types that respond to new science, technology, economics, and marketing opportunities and demands.  Like Jasper Hill’s Independence Day banner, “Freedom, Unity, and Cheese” it exemplifies all-American values.  If you’re curious like me, visit your favorite supermarket and buy a half dozen cheddars, invite over some friends, and sample them with reference to his tasting terms, as you try to communicate which and why you prefer one over another.

 

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What FoodAnthro Is Reading Now, May 18 Edition

A selection of items from around the internet of possible interest to readers of FoodAnthropology. If you have items you think our readers should read, send a note to LaurenRMoore@uky.edu or dberiss@uno.edu.

Historian and food writer Rien Fertel has just published a new book about whole hog barbecue culture and history. You can read his moving chapter on the life, smoking traditions, and fate of Ricky Parker, one of the pitmasters, here.

It turns out that the lobbying groups/boards that represent commodities like pork, milk, beef, eggs, etc.—do not think they should have to reveal information about their activities to the public, despite being quasi-governmental organizations (overseen by the USDA).

So it should not surprise anyone that a cartoonist (and farmer) who did political cartoons for Farm News was fired after apparently being too critical of Big Ag. The New York Times covered this here. A more in depth analysis from the Columbia Journalism Review is here.

What happens if Congress changes the way it measures community eligibility to serve free meals to all school students? We may soon find out.

Does industrial chicken processing count when people say they want more manufacturing jobs in America? If so, they may want unions and health regulation with that, because otherwise they may need to wear diapers to work. Health conditions and bathroom breaks in the poultry industry, as reported by Oxfam.

Is urban agriculture the key to sustaining and reviving our cities? Here is a useful interdisciplinary overview of studies on urban agriculture from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Want to struggle with the nature/culture divide? Or do you prefer watching the FDA and NPR do the heavy lifting? Read this.

How did food studies become respectable? And why? An overview from Australia, in which anthropologists are recognized for having led the way.

At some point, we need to write something here about food related museums. But while we wait, here is an overview of the International Banana Museum, which is improbably (or maybe not, given the sort of museum it is) in California.

Last item for today is either indicative of the next paranoid health trend or is merely absurd, but in any case cries out for research by anthropologists. Getting your microbiome sequenced, because…well, you might find out something useful. Probably not, but you might. (Meanwhile, check out the American Gut Project, which is doing crowd sourced science related to your microbiome.)

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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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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cooking, cuisine, curry, food, food history, hunger, Japan, korea, North Korea, restaurants

The Sophie Coe Prize

Alert SAFN member Richard Wilk has called our attention to the looming May 1 deadline for submissions for the Sophie Coe Prize.

What is the Sophie Coe Prize? From the web site:

“The Sophie Coe Prize is the longest-running and most generous prize for writing in food history in the English language, given once a year for an essay or article of up to 10,000 words on any aspect of the history of food. First awarded in 1995, the fund that administers the prize was founded in memory of Sophie Coe, the eminent food historian who died in 1994.

The winner is chosen every year by an anonymous panel of distinguished judges and awarded to the author of an original, informative article or essay on some aspect of food history that embodies new research or provides new insights.”

Although the prize is technically for food history writing, anthropologists have been successful in the competition as well. The list of past winners can be found here, along with links to some of the winning articles (which make for pretty good reading).

Details on how to apply are here.

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