Category Archives: foodways

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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Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity

Eating in the Side Room Cover

Review of: Warner, Mark S. 2015. Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Ashanté Reese
Spelman College

Mark S. Warner’s Eating in the Side Room reconstructs the foodways of two African-American families—the Maynards and Burgesses—who occupied the same house in Annapolis, Maryland from the 1850s until 1990.  Using archaeological data, archival research, and previously conducted oral history interviews, Warner crafts a narrative of food as a central site of resistance for African Americans. He illustrates this within several contexts: shifts in consumer culture, anti-black sentiments in the Chesapeake region and broader United States, the politics of freedom for African Americans (particularly those who were free during the early nineteenth century), and the racialization of food consumption.

The book is organized into eight chapters. Chapter one briefly lays out the central focus of the book, which is to: “explore how these families’ daily food choices within a newly emergent mass consumer society served as a relatively safe way to express a unique outlook and history, as well as offer a subtle, yet persistent, commentary of the racist stereotypes and violence that surrounded them (2015:2). Warner centers African American agency as salient to understanding communal and individual identities. Chapter two contextualizes the Maynard and Burgess families, detailing their economic lives within the context of Maryland’s growing and diverse African-American community. Chapter three explains the methods used to excavate the Maynard-Burgess house, detailing some of the politics of excavations in Annapolis, a city with a strong investment in colonial history. Chapter four presents the food assemblages discovered and offers analysis on how the Maynard and Burgess families acquired the pork, fowl, and fish that comprised the majority of the assemblages. Chapters five and six zoom out to contextualize the food choices made by the Maynards and Burgesses, demonstrating how their choices connected to broader trends in African-American consumerism and how they were contrary to choices made by whites. The final two chapters return to the Maynards and Burgesses, examining the legacies of food consumption and what those legacies reveal about sociocultural dynamics.

Warner argues that the Maynard and Burgess’ (and other African Americans’) consumption of pork was not due to economic constraints but was instead a form of resistance to shifts in mass consumer culture in which beef was becoming the meat of choice for whites: “while some might argue that a preference for pork is attributable to economic factors, a detailed examination of the archaeological, oral, and documentary record indicates that this was patently not the case. African American’s consumption of pork within this region was a profound expression of an identity as separate from white society. One need only survey forms of African American self-expression as distinct as quilts, blues lyrics, orally transmitted recipes, and folk poems to see the prominence of pork in the collective black consciousness” (2015:3).

This argument, a critical one, is one of the most ambitious and fascinating arguments made in the book. The archaeological and consumer data support the claim that African Americans consumed pork in greater quantities than beef and in greater quantities compared to whites.  Warner also presents an array of examples ranging from quilts to music lyrics to illustrate pork’s central role in African-American expressions. However, I was left wondering if, in fact, the resistance to beef could have been multifaceted? As he carefully shows in Chapter two, the Maynard and Burgess families were not wealthy, but they were economically stable (2015:7). While their reasons for eating pork may not have been economic, is it possible that—given the diversity in economic means among African Americans—it could have been an economic choice for others? This illustrates one of the challenges of writing about African-American foodways and one of the reasons why this book is timely and important. African-American foodways are woefully understudied and are often uncritically examined. In that way, Warner challenges the essentialization of African-American foodways by providing an alternative view of how and why pork was important in African-American foodways. At the same time, the argument rests on a binary: important because of economic constraints or not. Because no assemblages as detailed as that from the Maynard-Burgess house existed, Warner notes it was difficult to compare his findings with other sites (2015:74).  Even with the compelling evidence Warner presents—both archaeological and otherwise—I wonder about the economics of pork consumption for those who were not as economically stable as the Maynards and Burgesses. Is there room for multifaceted forms and interpretations of resistance?

Eating in the Side Room raises critical, important questions concerning African-American food consumption.  The writing style, range of data, and carefully crafted narratives that contextualize the Maynard and Burgess families make it suitable for a variety of courses on food and culture, African American histories and daily life, or courses that focus on the Chesapeake region or the south more broadly. For courses on African-American foodways in particular, an instructor should consider pairing Eating in the Side Room with the newly released Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama (2015, University of Arkansas Press), which is a collection of fifteen essays that examine forms of resistance in African-American foodways.

It also has contemporary relevance. As food studies scholars and practitioners continue to grapple with how food consumption reflects economic, social, and health disparities between African Americans and whites, Eating in the Side Room asks readers to step back to think about the roots of such inequalities and consider the ways African-American families have exhibited agency even when alleviation of inequalities seemed nearly impossible. More than just an examination of food remains, Eating in the Side Room places the Maynard and Burgesses’s food consumption in ideological, historical, and contemporary perspective to illuminate power dynamics and resistance.

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Robert M. Netting Best Student Paper Prize

The Culture and Agriculture section of the American Anthropological Association invites anthropology graduate and undergraduate students to submit papers for the 2015 Robert M. Netting Award. The graduate and undergraduate winners will receive cash awards of $750 and $250, respectively, and have the opportunity for a direct consultation with the editors of our section’s journal, CAFÉ (Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment), toward the goal of revising the paper for publication. Submissions should draw on relevant literature from any subfield of Anthropology, and present data from original research related to livelihoods based on crop, livestock, or fishery production and forestry and/or management of agricultural and environmental resources. Papers should be single-authored, limited to a maximum of 7,000 words, including endnotes, appendices, and references, and should follow American Anthropologist format style.

Papers already published or accepted for publication are not eligible. Only one submission per student is allowed. Submitters need not be members of the American Anthropological Association but they must be enrolled students. Students graduating in the Spring of 2015 are eligible. The submission deadline is August 31st, 2015. Submissions should be sent to Nicholas C. Kawa (Ball State), nckawa@gmail.com.

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Interrogating the “Authentic” Local Ethnic Restaurant

M. Ruth Dike
University of Kentucky

I moved to Lexington, KY last August to start a PhD program in Cultural Anthropology. After a few months, I decided to ask my fellow graduate student Daniel, who grew up in Cholula near Mexico City, about where I could find “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington. I wanted to know because I thought it would be nice to take my fiancé, Mario (who grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico until moving to the US in the 4th grade), to a restaurant that could remind him vaguely of his mother’s cooking (however futile that may be). Daniel obliged and even drew me a map of “Mexington” (no joke, that’s what Lexington calls it) with three “authentic” restaurants on it.

It was awesome that Daniel was so willing to show me places of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington but thinking back on it now, this wasn’t the best way to ask where to find less-Americanized Mexican food, or any type of international cuisine for that matter.

A few weeks later, we did end up going to Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez with a few other friends late on a Tuesday night. Below is a picture of my meal:

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

What even makes food authentic? Is it how long it’s been cooked in a certain way in a certain country? How far do we go back to look? 50 years? 1500 years? Are all the regional versions of couscous in Morocco just as valid as an imaginary “national” version of couscous? Is Neapolitan pizza more Italian than Sicilian pizza? Are we looking only at “authentic” Mexican food in Mexico or also in the US? Is Mexican food served in other parts of Latin America “authentic”?

When writing this post, I have to recognize my own privilege in being able to ask Daniel where “authentic” Mexican restaurants were in Lexington. Why don’t people ask me, “Where can we find “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis?” Am I any less knowledgeable of American food (having grown up in Memphis) than Daniel is of Mexican food? No, but we don’t expect Americans to make broad sweeping generalizations about a monolithic homogenous cuisine like we do for Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Moroccan, French, or other types of cuisine. We have regional varieties of American food but don’t realize that other countries are just as regionally diverse (thanks Olivia for this point). So maybe we should ask ourselves, would I ask that about American restaurants of my American friends?

And yes, I have had people ask me where to find good barbeque in Memphis (my choice), but the fact that they know to ask about barbeque because I’m from Memphis shows that they actually recognize America’s regional diversity. The way we use “authentic” in everyday life masks the regional variety of our local ethnic restaurants.

Why has no one ever asked my fiancé Mario (who has lived in Memphis since the 4th grade) about “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis? Is he less knowledgeable about American cuisine than I am? Nope. But sometimes I ask Mario to guide me through all of Mexican cuisine and culture. I realize now that it’s not fair to ask my international friends and family to represent an entire place and culture anymore than it’s fair for them to expect me to represent all of American culture.

There can be a complicated relationship between Americanized ethnic food and those from the culture that a restaurant might be trying to represent. Jiayang Fan, for instance, admits in The New Yorker that she loves General Tso’s chicken, but feels embarrassed about ordering it in Chinese restaurants. Mario loves Taco Bell. He doesn’t call it Mexican food but he does go there during the day.

Our friends and I thought the meal at Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez was delicious. I was impressed with the variety of meats offered and the distribution of ingredients in the burrito. Mario thought that his meal was tasty but that the carne asada in his burrito could have been a little fresher (we did go around 8 pm). I was reminded that Mario grew up having tasty carne asada at various weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms throughout his life and had a much wider range of experiences with it than myself. Also that his mother is a cooking goddess.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

We need to stop using the word authentic in a way that homogenizes ethnic cuisine when we ask our local Cultural Tour Guide** (ahem, friend) about local international restaurants. Instead of using the word authentic, you could ask, “What region do you think this Chinese (or Italian or Mexican or French or Pakistani) restaurant most identifies with?” “Are there any restaurants here that serve food that reminds you of home?” “What local restaurant has the least-Americanized food from your culture?” or simply: “What do you recommend around here to eat?”

Or you can use asking about “authentic” cuisine as a starting point for a deeper conversation about other cuisines. I think all too often we use our knowledge about sushi or pho to show our cultural capital without actually knowing much about another culture.

Eater.com editor Joshua David Stein says that, “there’s nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity.” Perhaps instead of searching for authenticity in ethnic cuisine, we should be searching for the complicated lived experiences of our international friends.

I’d like to thank Daniel V., David B., and Olivia S. for their insightful comments about this blog. This blog was inspired by another awesome article about food cultures written by Amy S. Choi as well as graduate seminars in the Gastronomy program at Boston University and the Anthropology program at the University of Kentucky.

*By international I mean any immigrants/visitors from other countries.

**The term “Cultural Tour Guide” was introduced to me by Olivia Spradlin, who heard it in a Gender & Women’s Studies graduate class at the University of Kentucky.

Ruth Dike considers herself a food anthropologist and recently started her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her here and reach her at mruthdike@gmail.com.

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Wandering Washington: Food Journeys

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Joel Denker
Washington D.C.

The country’s largest Ethiopian community. The second largest concentration of Salvadorans in the U.S. The demographic details about the Washington metro area don’t square with the popular image. Washington had always attracted immigrants, but in the past, the settlers were small in number, relatively select, and barely visible. Foreigners were mostly students, embassy retainers, and affluent professionals. Now, Washington has not only become an immigrant city, but also a distinctive one. Unlike old immigrant towns, such as New York and Chicago, with their neighborhoods of people from Southern and Eastern European backgrounds, Washington is strikingly a haven for Third World newcomers. Metro Washington may not have a Hungarian restaurant, but it does have a score of Peruvian ones.

When I first arrived in Washington in 1967, after a year teaching in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I was struck by the city’s small town qualities. Its sweltering summer heat and southern folkways were unsettling for this northeasterner. I soon realized how apt was John Kennedy’s barbed description of the capital as a “city of northern charm and southern efficiency.”

The food mirrored the atmosphere. A few swank, French outlets like the Sans Souci catered to Washington’s political and social classes. The sports crowd and city insiders congregated at the Connecticut Avenue restaurant, Duke Zeibert’s, which my father, an inveterate New Yorker, called a “poor man’s Toots Shor’s.” Baskets of onion rolls on the tables reflected the owner’s Jewish origins. The kitchen turned out chicken in the pot and, sometimes, matzoh ball soup. However, Washington could not boast a Lindy’s, Nathan’s, or a Luchow’s, culinary monuments of my father’s days in the Empire City.

More typical were southern-style lunchrooms and cafeterias. Sholl’s was a chain of cafeterias where ordinary government and office workers were offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals at rock bottom prices. The business, whose K Street location I frequented when I taught evening classes across the street, was founded by Evan H. Sholl, who grew up on a Pennsylvania farm. The entrepreneur, a man of strong religious conviction, established his first eatery in the late twenties, at the end of the Coolidge administration. Sholl’s shops served up hearty comfort food, daily specials like veal cutlet with tomato sauce and liver with onions. The dining tables were adorned with prayer cards. Its breakfasts were popular with Harry Truman, a country boy like Mr. Sholl.

In this “white bread” era, unusual ethnic restaurants stood out. Going with friends to the Omega, a Cuban restaurant on Columbia Road, had all the elements of an exotic excursion. The menu highlighted such Spanish specialties as paella and mariscada (seafood stew), along with such Cuban standards as ropa viella (“old clothes”), shredded beef. Like many such early Latin places, its dishes spanned the Americas. I hungered for their chicken enchiladas with a large helping of black beans and rice. The legend that the Bay of Pigs invasion was plotted there accentuated the Omega’s appeal.

The Omega was the first in a parade of Hispanic restaurants that opened their doors to curious Washingtonians. The El Caribe and El Dorado, both pan-Latin spots, also set up on Columbia Road. Not far away, in 1973, the Churreria Madrid began selling churros, Spain’s popular twisted crullers, and making gazpacho on weekends. Other Latin outposts are etched in my memory: Pancho’s, a Mount Pleasant night club with a rollicking mariachi band; Carlos Gardel, a bar owned by an Argentinian, where you ate empanadas in the balconies and reveled in the dance music pounded out by the band below. A nearby Cuban luncheonette, whose name I have forgotten, served media noche, the crusty sandwich of pork and melted cheese, and batidos, drinks made from soursop, mango, and other tropical fruits. A visit to the Calvert Café, a pioneering Middle Eastern eatery, was another adventure. Mama Ayesha, a Palestinian woman who was the room’s guiding spirit, prepared grape leaves at a corner table. Before it became a full-fledged restaurant, the café’s bar enticed drinkers with what were then unusual appetizers—hummus and baba ghanouj.

There were few ethnic food groceries in the early days. Skenderis, a Greek grocery near Dupont Circle, was a haunt of mine. In the cluttered upstairs space, Dino Skenderis started a gift shop which rode the Greek shoulder bag craze during the sixties. It blossomed into a purveyor of feta cheese, olives, nuts, dried fruit, and similar items. Dino carried what was then an unfamiliar product, Colombo Yogurt. I was to learn later and to write about the story of this product. Colombo, the country’s first commercial yogurt, was begun by an Armenian family in Massachusetts, the Colombosians.

As the years passed, I uncovered other hidden eateries. The Islander was one of the most memorable. The Trinidadian restaurant, then mostly a carryout near Georgia Avenue, was presided over by Addie Green, a proud, voluble woman. On special occasions, she wore a colorful turban. Addie initiated me into the culture and lore of her land and her food, a mixture of Indian, African, French, and Spanish influences. I tucked into many a curry with rice and peas and savored drinks like mauby, a slightly bitter drink made from the bark of a Caribbean tree. The Islander was one of the most colorful of the many Caribbean restaurants in the 1980s that the Washington Post Magazine highlighted in a cover article.

Salvadoran restaurants began to emerge as Central Americans flocked to Washington, lured by the magnet of the “capital” city and a host of laboring jobs in hotels, restaurants, and office buildings. Many of the early arrivals hailed from a single town, the small community of Intipuca, which flourished with funds sent back by the newcomers. Visitors to a Salvadoran restaurant encountered such revelations as the pupusa, the country’s variation on the tortilla, and marañon, a drink made from the cashew fruit.

Washington was gradually transforming from a sleepy southern town to a polyglot capital. I searched out novel eateries and wrote stories about my discoveries in a column for the Washington newspaper, The InTowner. One of the early pieces I did in my column, “The Ethnic Bazaar,” was about the Happy Inn, an Indonesian-Chinese eatery in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. It was owned by Eric C.C. Lin, a man of Chinese ancestry who grew up in Indonesia and studied atmospheric physics at Peking University. My wife Peggy and I spent many an evening there. Oseng-oseng, a dish of tiny shrimp stir fried with tempe and green beans in a heavy soy-based sauce ignited with chilis, was a passion of ours. I loved the ring of Indonesia’s culinary language, of words like nasi goreng, gado gado, and rendang.

Immigrant communities, which might have first arisen in the city, now began taking root in the suburbs. Restaurants serving these groups followed. My forays in quest of ethnic food soon required Metro rides from my home in the Adams-Morgan area to far-flung neighborhoods. I was excited by Jamaica Joe, a lunch room in a small Silver Spring, Maryland shopping center, which served up “curry goat,” one of the country’s national dishes. A long train ride to Ballston, an Arlington neighborhood, took me to the Pakistani café, Ravi Kabob, one of the many kebab joints that would mushroom in the suburbs. I was drawn by chicken tikka, nicely charred on the outside and moist on the inside and served with a spicy stew of chickpeas, nan, a piping hot thick bread, and coriander chutney. I washed the meal down with a creamy lassi, the traditional yogurt refreshment.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

The explosion of ethnic restaurants in the suburbs has rewarded Washingtonians with a wide

array of choices: Afghani, Persian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Guatemalan. Because of the large influx of Bolivians to northern Virginia, Washington can claim America’s largest enclave of these ethnics. Meanwhile, in the city, dining rooms have sprung up to serve once uncommon cuisines. Domku in the Petworth neighborhood near Georgia Avenue features Polish and Scandinavian dishes. A Czech bistro (Bistro Bohem) in the once unfashionable northwest Bloomingdale section has won a strong following.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Near Dupont Circle, a long-standing convenience store, the Oasis, is now selling sandwiches created by the operators of a food truck. A young, very affable Salvadoran woman prepares the food in the back of the shop owned by a Persian gentleman. One sunny afternoon at an outside table I enjoyed an El Porco sandwich from the intriguingly named Beer and Welding operation. The sandwich brought together pork shoulder flavored with garlic aioli, pickled spring onions, and ramps with swiss cheese and mixed greens. A Brazilian woman, who worked at a salon next door, sat next to me. We compared notes. I savored the food and mused about Washington’s changing ethnic landscape.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog posting from Joel Denker, a historian of ethnic foodways in the United States who has lived in and written about the changing ethnic foods in Washington D.C. He is author of, among many other things, “The World on a Plate: A Tour through the History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine,” (2003, Westview). Denker’s food writings appear on his website, www.foodpassages.com. This is the first in what we hope is a series of postings about the foodways of the D.C. area in anticipation of the upcoming AAA annual meetings. We would love to hear from more scholars with reflections on food and the D.C. area in coming weeks.

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Filed under AAA 2014 Washington DC, ethnicity, Food Studies, foodways, history

The New Southern Food and Beverage Museum

SOFAB sign

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Do you live somewhere with a cuisine of its own? How would you know? There have been some famous attempts to define cuisine, including one by Sidney Mintz that has generated a great deal of debate. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that a cuisine requires some kind of self conscious effort by people within a community to declare that their food should be thought of as a cuisine. Who gets to make that claim, what makes the claim legitimate, whether or not it might be disputed…I recognize that there are many questions that could be raised about this definition. But at least for my current purpose, the definition will work because it allows me to suggest that those of us who live in the American South have a cuisine. How do we know?

We have a museum dedicated to proving it.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is an actual free-standing cultural institution devoted to documenting the foodways of the American South. I have visited some fascinating, fun, and sometimes odd exhibits and museums devoted to food over the years. These include the Maison Cailler Chocolate Factory in Switzerland (and Hershey, PA as a kid), a mustard museum in Dijon, a beer museum in Prague, a flour museum in Minneapolis, many brewery and winery tours, visits to cheese makers (Roquefort Société puts on a good show), and of course the Coca Cola museum. Fascinating and entertaining as these can be, most are really advertisements for a particular company and its products, often with an excellent opportunity for sampling at the end of the tour. The Mill City museum is an exception. Run by the Minnesota Historical Society, it is built in the ruins of a flour mill on the banks of the Mississippi and really does make an effort to put the history of flour into a social context. But it, like nearly all the others, is still devoted to only one product. This is not where you go to learn about the food of a region or country.

As an effort to document and display the foods and foodways of the American South, SoFAB (yes, that is the acronym) joins a surprisingly robust range of other institutions around the region devoted to similar objectives. The Southern Foodways Alliance, which is part of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, for example, or food studies as part of a larger program in American Studies at the University of North Carolina, contribute to the idea of distinctively southern culture and foodways.

SoFAB started out as the vision of one woman, Elizabeth Williams, who began work on the idea well over a decade ago. Starting in improvised spaces, she recruited people to build exhibits, participate in conferences, and organize events over the years, eventually landing a space in the Riverwalk shopping mall in New Orleans. I should probably reveal at this point that I am one of the people she recruited and am thus no impartial observer, having enthusiastically participated in a wide range of events at the museum. Liz has worked hard to build an institution that has ties to an immense network of people involved in food studies (including scholars from all over the world), but also to people in the food industry and activists of all sorts.

The museum has a new home, where it may become even more of a cultural juggernaut in the South and beyond. Last week I attended the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new museum, which is now housed in a substantially renovated former market building in a neighborhood of New Orleans that is, as we say, “coming back.” The new site is quite a bit larger and will house permanent and temporary exhibits, a restaurant devoted to the region’s foods, the Museum of the American Cocktail (yes, that has been part of SoFAB all along), and an ongoing series of lectures, cooking demonstrations, conferences, and other events. SoFAB is also home to a substantial research library that is already a very useful resource for scholars interested in the study of food.

The new museum is a big deal here in New Orleans. The ribbon cutting was standing room only, with a surprisingly large media scrum and celebrities from all parts of New Orleans life in attendance. These included chefs and restaurateurs, musicians, scholars, neighborhood activists, and a large number of elected officials (or their representatives) from the state and the city. The museum’s new location contributes to the renovation of a neighborhood that has seen better days and is part of other development in the area, including the future home of the New Orleans Jazz Market (a performance space organized by musician and cultural activist Irvin Mayfield) and other restaurants (including Café Reconcile, a restaurant and institute devoted to training “at risk” young people for the restaurant industry). All of this is part of the ongoing effort to develop New Orleans “cultural economy” by the city and state, turning culture into an economic asset.

Which leads me back to the original question: how would you know if you have a cuisine? I don’t think having good or interesting food is enough. All food is interesting, at least for anthropologists. Not only that, but every society has its own foodways. To make those foodways a cuisine, people need to be interested and passionate about it. They have to be self-conscious about it. Above all, they must want to call it a cuisine. Here, in the American South and, especially, in New Orleans. we have all that. We have a museum to prove it.

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Filed under anthropology, cuisine, culture, foodways, museums, New Orleans, south