Category Archives: foodways

Post Doc Fellowships in Early Modern Foodways

The Folger Shakespeare Library has announced three post doctoral fellowships as part of a research project on early modern foodways. The project, entitled “Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures,” is part of the library’s Mellon Initiative in Collaborative Research. Find more details here and here or by following the links below.

The Folger Shakespeare Library seeks to hire three post-doctoral fellows for a multi-year collaborative and cross-disciplinary research project entitled “Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures.” This is the inaugural project in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Mellon Initiative in Collaborative Research. It is headquartered in the Folger Institute, whose mission is to foster vital research questions, gather knowledge communities, and stimulate collections-based research. The Folger Shakespeare Library is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and supports research on all aspects of British, European, and Atlantic world literary, cultural, political, religious, theatrical, and social history from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. “Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures” will investigate the pervasiveness of food in everyday life as a window into early modern culture, addressing such issues as labor, freedom and enslavement, practical knowledge, ethics, and imagination. These perspectives from a pre-industrial world will shed light on critical post-industrial dilemmas and aspirations. Additional information on the research project may be found at http://www.folger.edu/mellon-initiative-collaborative-research.  The postdoctoral fellows are expected to begin work in September 2018. The positions are renewable for three academic years (through June 2021).

Applicants must hold a recent (within 5 years) Ph.D. in early modern (c. 1450-1750) studies; specific disciplines may include art history, anthropology, food studies, history, literature, philosophy. A successful candidate will bring his or her own individual research to bear on collective decisions about projects in this innovative research initiative. The three post-doctoral fellows will work closely with the project’s co-directors and will be responsible for defining and pursuing research agendas, helping to select short-term fellows and other project associates, and creating scholarly and public programs as well as print and online products. We aim to assemble an interdisciplinary team of post-docs with a diversity of cognate interests and approaches, who will engage in independent and collaborative research, writing, and experimentation. Post-docs will share their findings in a variety of formats and with a variety of audiences, assist with organizing scholarly programs and public events at the Folger, and contribute to online digital projects and exhibitions. Additional information on the specific post-docs and a link to detailed descriptions and application instructions are included below.

The three post-doctoral fellows will be considered employees of the Folger and will receive a generous salary of $5,416.67 per month (equivalent to 65K per year) and a comprehensive benefits package. Housing and/or relocation assistance cannot be provided. Six months of paid individual research and writing time is included, and there will be specific opportunities provided throughout the post-doc period to participate in scholarly conferences and events.

Digital Research Fellow (one fellowship available):

The Digital Research Fellow will be tasked with developing, building, and trialing a structure for accessing and researching texts, images, and metadata relating to the major themes of the project, with an emphasis on the Folger’s unique collection of food-related manuscripts. Working closely with co-directors and Folger stakeholders, the post-doc will help establish and implement editorial and mark-up conventions for creating a searchable corpus of food-related texts and images. The corpus will provide quantitative and qualitative data for the team’s innovative explorations of a wide range of issues in food pathways and cultures of the period through a variety of techniques, including data mining, data visualization, mapping, network analysis, and text analysis.

Demonstrated knowledge and experience with technologies and standards used in digital humanities scholarship such as TEI markup, data visualization, text and network analysis, and common scripting languages, is required. Relevant experience in developing and leading digital humanities research projects is preferred. Applicants should be able to read and transcribe English secretary hand at an advanced level and mark up texts according to TEI: P5 guidelines. Ability to work in a team environment where consultation, flexibility, creativity, and cooperation is essential, as is the ability to manage multiple priorities and tasks.

To learn more about the Digital Research Fellowship and to apply for the position, please visit http://www.folger.edu/employment-opportunities.

Research Fellows (two fellowships available):

The Research Fellows will be tasked with conducting in-depth research into designated topics. Working closely with the co-directors, each will establish priorities for research and writing and will ensure that these goals are met in line with project needs. They will continually evaluate new ideas in light of the scope of the project, conduct project-related research, write and publish individually and collaboratively with other team members and co-directors, and report on results at team meetings and other activities. These fellows will engage with internal and external partners to create, monitor, and enhance an engaging and interactive online resource on their research topics while thinking creatively about the ways that early modern food cultures resonate with modern ones.

Applicants must have an understanding of early modern print and manuscript cultures. A demonstrated ability to read and transcribe English secretary hand is desirable. Project work, research, or familiarity with food histories, representations, cultures, etc. in the early modern period is strongly preferred. Applicants must have experience and fluidity with social media outreach in scholarly communities and an enthusiasm for introduction to academic-adjacent career paths, including academic administration, specialized library work, and the organization of and promotion of public programs events. Working knowledge of Word and Excel needed. Ability to work in a team environment where consultation, flexibility, creativity, and cooperation is essential, as is the ability to manage multiple priorities and tasks.

To learn more about the Research Fellowships and to apply for the positions, please visit http://www.folger.edu/employment-opportunities.

Application requirements include a cover letter, resume/CV and three letters of recommendation. Application deadline is December 1, 2017.

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Review: Bitter and Sweet

Bitter and Sweet: Food, Meaning and Modernity in Rural China. Ellen Oxfeld. University of California Press, 2017.

David E. Sutton
Southern Illinois University

The residents of Moonshadow Pond, a village in the Guandong province of southeastern China, care deeply about their food. Food procurement, preparation, sharing and eating is a constant topic of everyday conversation, both for its pleasures and its stresses and strains. Indeed, bitter and sweet are not just important flavors balanced in the local cuisine, they represent embodied metaphors of proper and improper ways of engaging with food. In this book, Ellen Oxfeld, who has conducted research in the predominantly Hakka village of Moonshadow Pond since the early 1990s, sets out to describe the food based worldview of this community in order to understand the interlocking ways that rural villagers enact social relations, experience migration, generational change and the changing aspects of life in contemporary China. Bitter and Sweet consists of an introduction, five substantive chapters and a brief conclusion. In each chapter, Oxfeld lays out a key theme in understanding the foodways of Moonshadow Pond: Labor, Memory, Exchange, Morality and Conviviality. Food, here, as in other recent works such as Jon Holtzman’s Uncertain Tastes or Anita von Poser’s Foodways and Empathy, provides a way in to exploring contemporary social life in a small community. Indeed, it is not just because it is so highly valued in Moonshadow Pond, but also because food seems to demand an understanding of questions of labor and economics, gifts and exchange, consumption and morality, history and memory, that it makes an ideal vehicle for giving new life to classic anthropological concerns with continuity and change at the local level.

“Labor” describes villagers’ changing relationship to the production of food and how that production is conceptualized as younger generations potentially leave agricultural labor behind or migrate to cities for jobs. Traditionally labor is thought of as gengtian, or “tilling the soil.” Moonshadow Pond has seen changes over time from periods of polycropping and animal husbandry to periods (especially in the collective era) of almost exclusive focus on rice (prepared plain or as congee, a porridge dish). The collective era (from the Revolution till around 1980) was also unusual in that agricultural labor was shared between men and women. Typically, women are primarily responsible for agriculture, while men’s labor is more oriented toward wages or other market activity. Since the reform era, the younger generation has increasingly moved away from agriculture, as “peasant” identity can be a stigma. While a primarily female older generation does much of the agricultural labor now, older women often make demands for aid during harvest or at other times on the younger generation, and such agricultural work and family provisioning is seen as providing security against the uncertainties of work in cities. While the distribution of agricultural labor in families can be a source of tension, gengtian is also a powerful symbol of “work for the family.” As Oxfeld notes, “’Eating one’s own rice’ is still highly valued, even if the reality of the younger generation’s work lives is making this goal more and more difficult” (53).

Oxfeld’s discussion of food labor does not end, as it so often does, with tilling the soil. The labor of food production equally demands shaohuo, or “tending the kitchen fires.” The labor of cooking in Moonshadow Pond is less divided by gender and generation. Although older women take the primary role, men and the younger generation are also comfortable in the kitchen, both in terms of everyday cooking and the extra labor involved in preparing celebratory banquets or special holiday treats (nianban). This is strikingly illustrated in Oxfeld’s description of being the only adult on a trip to a local mountaintop with a group of 20 6th graders:

After arriving [at the mountaintop], the students unpacked their knapsacks. They had pots and pans, cooking oil, cooking implements, and basic ingredients—cut up pieces of meat and vegetables, a bit of soy sauce, and fish sauce. At the top of the mountain these sixth graders, boys and girls tougher, started a fire and with a rice pot and wok proceeded to work together to cook lunch for the entire group. Imagining a similar situation in the United States, I was quite certain that the children would have taken sandwiches and bags of potato chips out of their backpacks instead (61).

This last comparison is telling because it underlines Oxfeld’s larger argument in this book that despite some inroads, food has not been commodified and subject to the forgetting of its sources that we see elsewhere, or even in more urban environments in China. As she sums up: “…the labor of food production within the village is still mainly incorporated into ongoing relationships based on social obligations, memories, and notions of moral debt” (71). It is to these topics that the subsequent chapters are addressed.

In her chapter on memory, Oxfeld explores the way food is made to stand for different periods of time. For example, in the “recall bitterness meal” during the Cultural Revolution, people were enjoined by the government to eat a paste made of bitter vegetables and rice chaff to remember their suffering during the pre-liberation era, and the sweetness of their current lives. Such memory practices could turn anti-hegemonic, as older villagers told Oxfeld that the meal brought to mind the recent experience of the Great Leap Forward rather than pre-revolutionary times (79-80). One of the intriguing things about Oxfeld’s approach to food memory is that she organizes it around different key foods and what they stand for. Thus, congee vs. rice can stand for the difference between times of poverty and relative plenty (when you didn’t need to stretch out rice by adding water), but also can be associated with the food of your childhood. Whereas eggs, which lend themselves to distribution within families, evoke memories of family diplomacy and conflict, as well as being associated for some with bribery in simpler times—times in which a party cadre might pay off his mistress with a simple egg! (89). Food memories also lend themselves to comparisons between tradition and modern times in terms of sociability—even periods of dearth and famine might be recalled nostalgically for their sense of solidarity, as opposed to the more plentiful, but atomized experiences of the present day.

The theme of sociability is explored in subsequent chapters as well. In analyzing food as “exchange,” Oxfeld explores both market and gift exchange. Within market exchange local markets remain preferable to larger, anonymous markets, precisely because they retain a certain transparency about the origins of their products that is lost in more advanced commodification. Local foods taste better and are healthier, as residents of Moonshadow Pond seem to resist the allure of the foreign and the “modern.” “’ You just shop in the market if you have no alternative,’” one woman underlines (102). While food is the subject of much informal, everyday exchange, Oxfeld pays more attention to the formal exchange that happens at banquets, describing in detail some of the key types of banquets held in the village, as well as typical recipients of banquet hospitality, which include not only family and neighbors, but other village presences, including gods, ghosts, ancestors and beggars. Indeed, an extended description shows how the role of beggars in contemporary feasts parallels that of ghosts in some traditional religious feasts: as a force that must be placated or dispatched in some way to insure ongoing health and harmony. Overall, Oxfeld takes a “circulatory perspective” (126) on exchange, echoing the classic insights as to the changing biographies of things as they pass through different social roles and undergo various value transformations.

Oxfeld’s chapter on “morality” gives considerable attention to proper “moral” exchange relationships within families, and how they have been impacted both by changing politics and economics. If sharing food and caring for children and elders defines family morality, these values have been tested during different time periods both by the dearth of famine and by the greater self-sufficiency of the contemporary period. During the Great Leap Forward, for example, attempts to collectivize cooking led to the destruction of family kitchens—key symbols of family unity, while at the same time the state attempted to encourage collectivization by using metaphors of “large families” to which people should transfer loyalties. In the reform era care for elders is still an ideal, but not unquestioned, as younger people juggle multiple considerations in their relationships with parents and parents-in-law. Oxfeld traces the nuanced moral discourses people use to negotiate particular circumstances in which exchange is used to create as much as to reinforce moral expectations, and  “elderly women are trying to engender a new sense of obligation that was not assumed in the past” by cooking for married daughters.a Oxfeld also looks at the ways that food discourses are used as moral discourses, in which “eating” is always a morally-charged expression with the potential to suggest taking more than one’s share or “gobbl[ing] up” public resources (146). I found this similar overlaying of social practices of food sharing and metaphorical uses of eating in Greek people’s conceptualization of their current economic crisis in which the ubiquitous concept of solidarity is often instantiated in food sharing, and in which the question of who “ate” during the good times and who did not make tangible and visceral discussions of blame and responsibility for current predicaments (Sutton 2016).

The final chapter, on “conviviality,” brings these themes together again through examining the pleasures of eating together and the sense of sociability that so often accompanies shared food. Here Oxfeld introduces two key concepts: rarity (nande) and “red hot sociality” (renao). Rarity is the appreciation and celebration of circumstance that allows for the bringing together of people for a far-flung family reunion, or even simply everyday opportunity for socializing that is extended through food (“You came just in time for my eggplant fritters!” (162)). Renao is a concept that combines emotions, social relations and sensory stimulation, a kind of Chinese version of collective effervescence, which allows for a celebration of social connection. Renao can be extended through food, but also through substances such as alcohol and tea—when deployed and managed properly. Banquets and family celebrations are typical settings for the production of renao, which can encompass both hierarchical banquets and more intimate and egalitarian gatherings. Similarly, gatherings need not be sumptuous nor expensive to achieve renao, simply socially convivial, which “’is constitutive of living in a socially meaningful way’” (161). Oxfeld’s stress on memorable meals as at the heart of proper conviviality and sociality put me in mind of my own research in Greece. During the past six years of the Greek economic crisis, the question of living with “dignity” has centered around issues of reproducing a life where meaningful social relations involving food sociability are under threat. Spending time in a coffee shop with friends, or finding alternate ways of enjoying scaled-back food celebrations which still can produce the Greek version of “red hot sociality,” have been ongoing themes in contemporary life under crisis conditions.

Bitter and Sweet is a rich and detailed ethnography that makes a convincing case for following food through its transformations as it is created, exchanged and consumed to reveal myriad themes of contemporary social life, what I would call a “gustemological” approach to culture. Though Oxfeld doesn’t discuss this explicitly, I think that her book is an excellent reminder of the ongoing importance of a holistic approach based in deep knowledge of a particular place that incorporates both historical and ethnographic perspectives. This book would make for an excellent choice in courses on food and culture, as well as for any scholars interested in a window onto contemporary China and its recent historical transformations as seen through the lens of food discourses and practices.

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Black Women’s Food Work is from the Future

Ashanté M. Reese, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Spelman College

 When I think about being a Black girl from the future, my mind goes to the contradiction that many Black girls and women encounter which is that we are often simultaneously hyper visible and invisible at the same time – Renina Jarmon

Black women are not seen as authorities in the kitchen or elsewhere in matters of food—culturally, politically, and socially—and when she dares to be, she may be described in reviews as “angry” or “not angry enough.” She is rendered absent, and made invisible by the continued salience of intersecting vectors of disempowerment: race/gender/class/sexuality. Or in the absolute worst cases she is confronted—face-to-face and in social media outlets—with a “how dare she” attitude because she does not, will not, cannot conform to a prescribed role of Black women who work with, as banal as it sounds, food (Nettles-Barcélon et al. 2015:35)

If there is to be a future where the food system is safe, equitable, and healthy how will we get there?

On March 30th, the newly launched Food Studies Program at Spelman College hosted a symposium on Food Justice featuring three Black women activists and scholars who work to improve the food system and health of communities in various parts of the country.  The symposium was clear in its purpose: to not only interrogate the successes and limits of food justice but to also highlight the work of Black women that is often invisible, ignored, or co-opted.

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Monica White, PhD in the field in Mississippi

I left the symposium feeling energized and challenged by the panelists and the audience. I also left with questions. How do we contend with the hypervisibility of Black women’s association with obesity on the one hand and the lack of visibility concerning Black women’s activist, artistic, and academic expertise in food production, preparation and writing on the other?  Nettles-Barcélon et al. provide a framework—Black women’s food work as critical space—for understanding how the future of the food system is deeply intertwined with the food work produced by Black women and the barriers that attempt to curtail that work. They argue that because Black women are positioned as both speakers for “the other” while also being Othered, their food work is not simply necessary but critical in the dismantling of an oppressive food system that consistently denies equal access to Othered bodies from which corporations profit.

From the scholarly world to on-the-ground organizing, Black women ask difficult questions, put their reputations and bodies on the line, and demonstrate a Black feminist food future attuned to a far-off world in which we are all free.  This future is currently being written in the scholarly works about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farms Cooperative (White 2017), increasing visibility of Black women vegans outside the normative gaze (Harper 2010), and analyses of Black women’s agency, power and entrepreneurship in the context of stereotypes-turned-metaphors (Williams-Forson 2006). It is engaged with dismantling an unjust and unequal industrialized food system at the nexus of racial justice under the Movement for Black Lives. It is on the front lines on the Fight for $15. It is being built everyday on urban farms, in community gardens, in nonprofit organizations, and in classrooms where Black women’s labor contribute to everyday resistances.  It is present in intergenerational storytelling and cross-institutional relationship building. This work is generated from a simultaneous engagement with the past, the present, and a future where the dialectical hypervisibility and invisibility that Black women experience no longer exists.

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Community Member Supporting Urban Ag in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ashanté Reese)

In the sixth episode of season two of the WGN series Underground, Harriet Tubman—played by Aisha Hinds—delivers a passionate, hour-long speech to abolitionists who are at odds about how to move forward on the question of eradicating slavery. After detailing parts of her own journey to freedom and commitment to others’ freedom, she declared:

There ain’t no negotiations on freedom. I spent all my time knowing things instead of believing them. And that’s the first step to being free. When you can see past all the things that you know and believe something better.

Black women’s food work is often informed by an embodied knowing that it is difficult—if not impossible—to negotiate from the duality of hypervisibility and invisibility. Instead, this food work is rooted in a belief in something beyond. It is not simply a substance of things hoped for or the evidence of things not seen (see Hebrews 11:1 for biblical reference). No. Black women’s food work is the critical space from which the world we want to see is being built.  Black women’s food work is, indeed, from the future.

 

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Conference Report: 6th annual Asian Food Study Conference, Kusatsu, Japan

While there are many conferences of potential interest to food anthropologists, last weekend (December 3-4, 2016), I attended a conference that I found particularly useful and inspiring: the 6th annual Asian Food Studies Conference.

This is a conference that attracts historians, nutritionists, anthropologists, and researchers from fields like hospitality and tourism. The diverse presentation topics included these titles: “Chinese Ancient Food Culture Implied in Oracle-bone inscriptions” (Cheng Xuerong), “The Comprehensive Discourse on Edible Flowers in Pre-modern China” (Liu Jun Li), “Plagiarism and Originality: Focused on the Study of Modern Printed Cookbooks in Early 20th Century Korea” (Ra Yeon-jae), “Nutrition Education Affects the Use of an Escalator and Elevator to Reach a Women’s College on a Hilltop” (Ishihara Kengo and Takaishi Tetsuo), and “Beyond the ‘Super Shark’ Myth: Promoting Sustainable Shark Foodways in Japan and Asia” (Akamine Jun).

What really impressed me, however, was the true sense of internationalism evident at the conference. The conference’s venue changes every year. Last year the conference was held in Shangdong, China, this year in Kusatsu, Japan (hosted by Ritsumeikan University), and next year the conference venue will be in Korea. There are presentations in multiple languages (this year: Chinese, Japanese, and English). The first day’s keynote speeches, one in each language, were translated into the other two. But beyond this, the conference theme—Exchange and Dynamism of Food Culture in Asia—encouraged presentations of research that was itself transdisciplinary and transnational, with a mission toward forging connections and sharing knowledge.

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Takagi Hitoshi explaining how the Miskito categorize and use different parts of the sea turtles they hunt.

Let me give some examples. One of the panels on the first day included presenters from Malaysia, the Philippines, the US, Bulgaria, and Korea. All of the research on this panel had an obvious transnational component. A key example of such a project would be Korean scholar Ja Young Choe’s (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) research on the relative popularity of various Asian cuisines (Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian—in that order) in Hong Kong. On the second day Francoise Sabban’s research on the culinary perceptions of French and Chinese diplomats and envoys in the 19th century, Takagi Hitoshi’s observations from fieldwork conducted among the sea turtle hunting Miskito of the Caribbean, and Osawa Yoshimi’s probing of the simultaneous global appeal of umami and distrust of MSG are other examples.

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SAFN member Shingo Hamada describing traditional foodways–fishy and fermented–in Fukui prefecture, Japan.

Representing SAFN at the conference, Shingo Hamada presented new research on obstacles to commoditizing traditional fermented foods in Japan’s contemporary Fukui prefecture and I explained how Kyoto cuisine has benefited from international support (collaborators, promoters, funders) and resources (ingredients, ideas, technology) from far outside of Japan.

Next year, the conference will be hosted in South Korea. I heartily recommend attending to anyone interested in the topics of transnationalism, food, and Asia.

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Filed under anthropology, Asia, China, conferences, food, Food Studies, food systems, foodways, Japan, Korea

CFP: We Eat What? A Cultural Encyclopedia of American Regional Food

We recently received the following call for papers which may be a great opportunity for some of our readers. From akutaq to whoopie pie, there are some great things to write about here!

Call for Entries

We Eat What? A Cultural Encyclopedia of American Regional Food

A few years ago Natalya Murakhver and I edited They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of “Unusual” Food from Around the World, published by ABC-CLIO. The book, designed for libraries and classrooms, was designed to accessibly hook readers, middle school through college, into the study of food and culture through the “weird/wow” factor of foods with which they may be unfamiliar, keeping in mind that some of our most cherished foods (stinky cheese in my case) seem bizarre to others or bizarre when you take time to examine them closely (honey).

Based on that book, I am compiling a follow-up called We Eat What?, which will focus on regional foods in the US. We have a number of entries done or in revision from the previous volume but continue to seek contributors.

These are 1,000 word entries that cover the identity, history, cultural use, and nutrition of foods or dishes. Of drinks, especially coffee. Almost in every kitchen in America you can find a coffee machine (Rancilio Silvia espresso machine). They include a recipe either for the food itself or for something cooked with the food.

Contributors of two or more entries are provided a copy of the book on publication.  Last time we had strong contributions from both established and emerging scholars. I hope you will consider joining us.

For more information or to claim an entry, please contact Jonathan Deutsch at jdeutsch@drexel.edu and Ben Fulton at bjf67@drexel.edu. Deadlines will be rolling throughout the spring, but we hope to have a complete draft by June 1.

Thanks for your consideration.

Available entries:

Akutaq
Alligator
Barbacoa
Bean Hole Beans
Bear
Bialy
Boudin Blanc and Noir
Brains
Buffalo
Burgoo
Cannabis
Chaudin
Cheese Curds
Chislic
Chow Chow
Cincinnati Chili
Coddies
Coffee Milk
Deep Dish Pizza
Deep Fried Fair Food (Oreos, Milky Way, Butter)
Emu
Fluffernutter
Fried Green Tomatoes
Frito Pie
Frog Eye Salad
Fry Bread
Fry Sauce
Funnel Cake
Garbage Plate
Geoduck
Goetta
Gooey Butter Cake
Grits
Gumbo
Half Smoke
Hoppin’ John
Horseshoe Sandwich
Hot Brown
Hotdish
Hushpuppies
Jambalaya
King Cake
Koolickles
Livermush
Loco Moco
Loose Meat Sandwich
Muffuletta
Olive Loaf
Peanuts, Boiled
Pemmican
Pickled Pig’s Feet
Pig’s Ears
Po’ Boy
Poke
Polish Boy
Pork, salt
Red eye gravy
Reindeer
Shoofly Pie
Slinger
Son of a Bitch Stew
Sonoran Hot Dog
Spam
Spiedies
Squirrel
Steamed Cheeseburger
Succotash
Turducken
Watergate Salad
Whoopie Pie

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Review: Sacred Rice

Davidson, Joanna. (2016). Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa. Oxford University Press. (249 pp.)

Reviewed by Mark Dailey
Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT

In Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa, anthropologist Joanna Davidson presents a nuanced and in many ways classically holistic ethnography of rice production and the way this key crop ripples meaningfully through all aspects of West African Jola society. Rice is much more than a major food crop for the Jola of Guinea-Bissau: it is also the key idiom and central metaphor through which they express and negotiate household, community, gender, ritual, religious, political and economic relationships. This reality, which Davidson compellingly explores in thematically focused chapters, is all the more compelling given its contemporary unraveling due to climate change. Rice is central to Jola agriculture and identity, yet declining rainfall in the region is increasingly rendering adequate rice production impossible. Davidson’s book therefore revolves around two key questions: How does the centrality of rice production mediate social reality among the Jola; and in Davidson’s words, “what happens when this changes? How does something so totalizing unravel and disentangle itself from spheres of social, cosmological, moral, economic, political, and familial life?” (8) She draws equally on theoretical literature and on details of villagers’ lives to address these questions, and in so doing presents a rich ethnographic portrait of agricultural and social transition.

The book’s initial chapters frame these questions in some detail, convincingly emphasizing both the “sacralization” of rice and its material centrality. Chapter One provides a useful and interesting overview of the history of rice, drawing attention to the underappreciated endemic diversity present in West African varieties. The following chapters serially explore the role of rice in mediating dimensions of social life: we learn how rice production is gendered, how rice becomes a ritual ingredient of cosmological significance at spirit shrines, how its productive requirements filter through family and community relationships, and how the very bases of knowledge and morality cannot be construed without rice. Her treatment of rice’s mediating centrality of all things social is anthropologically familiar, recalling, for instance, Herskovitz’s “East African cattle complex” and Evans-Pritchard’s study of witchcraft among the Azande. Unlike these foundational studies, though, her portrait captures motion and transformation: by drawing upon fieldwork in 2001-2002 and a return visit in 2010, she shows us Jola lives in transition, struggling with outmigration, changing family norms, and even the key moral values that tell them “who they are.” We richly sense what is happening and become acquainted with significant trends, but like Davidson and the Jola themselves, we cannot see with certainty what the future will bring. (Although she acknowledges global trends of deruralization and agricultural modernization, a richer comparative basis would have been welcome.)

As an anthropologist, Davidson does several things very well, eschewing convenient tropes and easy essentialisms at every turn. Her constructivist caveats about African environmental studies, gender, the basis of knowledge, and the concept of “sacred,” for instance, subtly but critically remind us to avoid thinking through easily derived categories. The wealth of community-level data makes this possible, and pleasurable: she weaves together the lives of key informants with her own experiences in compelling ways. Her authorial presence is ample enough to humanize and ground her ethnography in rich and instructive stories, but they do not overtake the wealth of empirical data and theoretical contextualization that provide the book’s broadest foundation. We meet and hear the stories of real Jola individuals, and watch as their lives are clearly contextualized within macro-level data on climate, economics, demography, and national politics. The perceived value of “hard work” begins to unravel in the face of diminishing agricultural returns; families slowly turn to institutional educational opportunities versus subsistence production-oriented lives; and parental authority negotiates the new realities of unwed daughters returning pregnant from city schools.

One shortcoming of the book is more likely due to an editorial miscasting than to any deficiency by the author. The book is part of Oxford University Press’s “Issues of Globalization: Case Studies in Contemporary Anthropology” series, but there is precious little globalization here—and in fact, there needn’t be. As anthropologist Ted Lewellen has pointed out, globalization too often becomes a totalizing perspective, the default analytical frame of reference, when the phenomena we seek to explain are often best addressed by local, regional, and national levels of analysis—with globalization simply offering another level of context. And so it is with Davidson’s exploration of Jola lives. Given the theoretical contexts the author offers throughout the book (Chapter Four on the role of secrecy among the Jola, and between Jola and outsiders, is as fascinating as it is theoretically rich!), the paucity of scholarly attention to globalization studies is noticeable. Her book feels shoe-horned into Oxford’s series on globalization studies.

Nonetheless, Joanna Davidson’s scholarly presentation of the interesting, holistic, and changing world of Guinea-Bissau’s rice-farming Jola is impressive ethnographic work, and useful for environmental anthropologists, development experts, agricultural and social policy makers, agricultural and food historians, and both undergraduate and graduate audiences. For anyone interested in the multiple and inextricable ways that social lives and material production are mutually embedded, in fact, this book provides clear evidence, good story-telling, and a case-study that continues to unfold.

 

 

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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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Filed under anthropology, food history, foodways