Category Archives: religion

Review: Religion in the Kitchen

Religion in the Kitchen

Pérez , Elizabeth. (2016). Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. New York University Press. 320 pp. ISBN #9781479839551

Kristina Wirtz (Western Michigan University)

Does it surprise you that an ethnographic study of a religious community would be centered on the kitchen? In Religion in the Kitchen, Elizabeth Pérez makes a compelling case that religious communities are molded and religious sensibilities are seasoned in the kitchen. Her chosen site of the Black Atlantic is a religious household in the Chicago orisha community: its head is Ashabi Mosley, who was initiated into Cuban Santería by a Chicago-based Cuban-American priest, and whose home is an active “house-temple,” where ritual activities and sacred space-time infuse the domestic space with the spiritual imperatives of deities, ancestors, elders, and those who serve them.

In detailing the ethnographic particulars of this site, Pérez argues that the religious significance of the kitchen—the physical spaces and practices of food preparation, and what people talk about while so engaged—has been overlooked, and not just in Black Atlantic traditions. I hope that her book will stimulate much-needed corrective ethnographic attention—not just to special religious foods and the rules for their consumption in religious contexts, but to the often-marginalized work of food preparation for its moral and world-making contributions. Food preparation—and in particular the routes of live animals and raw ingredients that arrive at the house to become ritual offerings and spiritually-nourishing “food of the saint” connect the different spaces of the house-temple to produce a sacralization of private homes and a materialization of religious family.

As the book emphasizes from its first page, the sensuous engagement of orishas—African deities—in the world and their demands for savory and substantial offerings to provide the sacred energy—aché—that activates their worldly interventions, makes the kitchen especially significant in ritual work. But religion is not only in the kitchen. To venture into the kitchen and the realm of “ordinary home cooking” (the title of Part I) is to witness the confrontation between the time-space affordances of domesticity and the demands of religious observance in the house-temple. The name of Ashabi Mosley’s house-temple, Ilé Laroye, or House of Laroye (a reference to the orisha Eleggua) is also the name of the religious family of which she is matriarch. Domestic life is family life, and so Pérez closely attends to how bonds of kinship are forged and tested through religious practices. The religious lineage and family encompass vectors of religious authority and mutual obligation binding deities to the devotees whose “heads” they rule and devotees to one another.  And the house-temple is the physical space that materializes this ideal of the religious lineage, in an ongoing cycle of ceremonies cementing and expanding the familial network based on reciprocity. Deities demand offerings and discipline from those who serve them, and in turn offer tangible blessings of healing and resolved problems.

Pérez examines the physical layout of the house itself and how its spaces are used. Notably, Iyalocha Ashabi bought the house in large part because of its generous kitchen. The house’s  location in a Southside Chicago neighborhood also matters, in relations with neighbors and in instantiating a history of race relations and membership in an embattled Black community. The orishas point to a Black Atlantic context more rooted in the Caribbean and less understood amid the Baptist congregations and mosques of African American communities. But the labor—the servitude and sacrifice—that the orishas demand resonates with all-too familiar racialized and gendered regimes of Black life in America and their roots in transatlantic slavery. Serving the orishas and ancestors resignifies such regimes as spiritually charged, with the power to remake diasporic identities. Pérez seizes on evocative moments in which Ashabi and others in Ilé Laroye point out rhizomatic connections to other African diasporic experiences, from depictions of “conjure” in African American popular culture to “gangsta-code” moments of protecting the community from police interference. The food cooked up in the kitchen of Ilé Laroye, too, is a fusion of African American, Latinx-Caribbean, and West African cuisines diverging from common “roots” and remixed in the kitchen.

Pérez argues that the routes of religious activity through the house-temple, and especially turning the raw and live ingredients of offerings into cooked food, also fashion the trajectories of people into deeper engagements with the religion. Most centrally, talk accompanies food preparation tasks: instructions, reminders, and coaching in techniques, along with explanations, corrections, praise, complaints, and admonitions, but also chitchat that passes the time with humor and stories that all together serve to deepen social bonds and religious knowledge. The religious person is “seasoned” and cooked along with the food they help prepare, in a blending of talk and other embodied kitchen practice. This is the topic of parts two and three of the book, on “kitchen work” and “kitchen talk,” although the implied distinction between talk and other practice cannot be so clearly delineated.

If the cooking up of communal, religious sensibilities sounds idealized, in practice it is hard, unglamorous work that tests the self-discipline and religious dedication of those conscripted into it. Those entering the religious domain of Ilé Laroye quickly find themselves put to work with the labor-intensive, menial tasks of chopping, carrying, cleaning, stirring, and sorting, under the watchful eye of those with specialized religious knowledge. This knowledge is gained primarily through practical instruction, working alongside others. During major ceremonies, the hours are long, extending all day and even all night, people’s nerves fray as they work into exhaustion, and the stakes of errors are high, lest an orisha be offended. Each orisha’s offerings must be kept separate from as many as a dozen others at a time. The work of draining blood, plucking feathers, butchering carcasses, and separating viscera is arduous and messy. This time in the kitchen is utterly essential to successful ceremonies, and yet the kitchen and other food preparation areas are separate from and peripheral to the dedicated ritual spaces. Some of the marginality of the kitchen is gendered, but gender dynamics are crosscut with other measures of religious authority, such as lineage seniority.

In slicing, plucking, and cooking her way through her fieldwork, Pérez garners important insights. For example, she comes to realize how the initial steps of butchering a chicken highlight exactly the parts of the body—head, nape of neck, shoulders, feet—that are the focus of the basic rogation or purification ceremony performed on a devotee’s body. She contemplates not just taste but disgust, which she considers with sensitivity and insight. She suggests that overcoming one’s disgust, especially of the blood, guts, and gore of butchering sacrificed animals, plays a key role in socializing religious newcomers to new regimes of self-discipline that will be necessary to their religious development. Her central metaphor of seasoning materializes historicizing, engendering, incorporative kin-making work through which “strangers” join the ever-expanding religious family. The talk that accompanies all of this activity also is a seasoning and socializing mechanism. In the kitchen, talk moves between topics of food preparation, ritual activity, questions and explanations, personal stories, joking and teasing, gossip, pop culture references, and more overt efforts to teach through the sacred stories about the orishas, where these topics are braided together in the flowing conversations that produce lasting relationships and shape spiritual subjectivities. In the seeming banality of this “chitchat,” Pérez identifies a speech genre, the initiation story, as proper to peri-ritual activity, in contradistinction to the many genres of properly ritual speech. Akin to Black Christian “testifying,” initiation stories emphasize the paths of suffering and salvation through which orishas claim devotees. Whatever those drawn to Ilé Laroye might want or expect, their time laboring and listening in the kitchen teaches them to recast religious commitment as submission to the will of the orishas.

In this accessible ethnography of an often unrecognized and marginalized religious community in the U.S., Pérez develops novel perspectives on a variety of themes at the nexus of food and religion. Through detailed, situated descriptions of her participation in a religious household, she emphasizes the importance of the embedded, embodied, sensory, and social involvement in kitchen-work and how it resonates with other aspects of diasporic religious participation. The book could readily be assigned to undergraduates as well as graduate students to highlight the importance of food and food preparation in classes in religious studies, the anthropology of religion, and African Diaspora Studies, and to draw out productive connections between food, spirituality, and community in classes on the anthropology of food.

 

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Review: Women on Food

Druckman, Charlotte + 115 Writers, Chefs, Critics, Television Stars, and Eaters (2019) Women On Food. New York: Abrams Press. 400 pp. ISBN 978 1 4197 3635 3; eISBN 978-1-68335 681 3.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

The day before all the libraries closed down to reduce spread of COVID-19 infections, I happened upon this collection of Women on Food writings in my local Newton (MA) Free Library. This multi-colored, 400 heavy-weight-page volume assembles an extraordinary variety of women’s voices, which present themselves in multiple sizes and sexual orientations, livelihoods and lifestyles, and span multiple generations and racial/ethnic/ religious identities, priorities, and themes.  As Druckman indicates in her introduction:

What you’re getting into is an anthology about women in—and on—food. That means women who work in or around food in some capacity, and what they think about that…and what they think about what you expect them to think about that.

Her interview questions encourage these women to “speak the truth…completely…[to] be analytical, furious, funny, serious, sad, harsh, silly, challenging, old-fashioned, avant-garde, creative, macho, pensive, unforgiving, unforgivable, opinionated, neutral must plain weird…[to] talk about what it’s like, really, to work in the food industry or food media, to get a meal on the table, or feed a community…[to] write about that without having to match the format or adhere to a particular genre or style” (p.6).

The anthology collects original stories, told mostly in prose although occasionally in poetry or  in visual forms (drawings, photography, pictures of food, or food people or places). These single-authored pieces are mixed in or “up” with two-person “conversations” (Druckman interviewing respondents) and multiple short-responses to Druckman’s provocative queries on leading topics. Two early examples of this Q&A are:  “LEXICON. Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe WOMEN CHEFS (or really, women, period)?” (p.8) and  “COOK THIS, NOT THAT! What is a type of FOOD you wanted to cook  and were told you couldn’t—or are made to feel as though you couldn’t…and you’re pretty sure it’s because you’re a women?” (p.67).

Cross-cutting themes across formats include female chefs’, but also food writers’ and editors’ experiences with sexual harassment and gender discrimination, personal and professional relationships (negative and positive) with ethnic foods, identities, and heritages, and their reflections on the significance of their mothers (occasionally grandmothers, less often fathers) on their food-focused career choices and signature dishes.   Not one to steer clear of controversy, Druckman at the end of the volume also asks respondents to self-reflectively share their own personal experiences of complicity—“The C-word”—where they imagine how they, by acts of commission or omission, intentionally or incidentally contributed to women’s subjugation and harassment, particularly in the restaurant business, but also in media.

As in any collection of writings, readers will find some topics and narratives of greater interest than others.  Reflecting my interests in food, religion, and human rights, I found “A Conversation with Devita Davison” (interview format) (pp.144-152) profoundly moving because her responses to Druckman’s leading questions touched on the essential roles of institutionalized religion and faith in advancing her Detroit-based food activism.  In its most recent iteration, her activist problem-solving vision and skills for Detroit’s Food Lab, partnered with African American churches, whose underutilized kitchens facilitated and encouraged small-scale food-processing businesses by low-income women of color, helping them climb out of Detroit’s poverty and hunger while preserving traditional culinary knowledge and products, and contributing to the larger challenges of constructing healthy, sustainable, local food systems. Chief among Davison’s “pressing concerns” (Druckman’s final question to her) are the decline of Black churches and a growing awareness that “capitalism is going to destroy every single thing that these grassroots, community-based organizations were able to create.”  Whereas an earlier era saw church women and kitchens as drivers of community programs, civil rights, and philanthropy, “the churches in our community are losing their power…[as] the demographics of the church are getting older” and younger people do not affiliate, participate, or maintain their significant presence and power in Detroit’s communities.  Churches that used to fund social movements are in decline, and as a result, community organizers turn to foundations, but “foundations are not going to get us to freedom and liberation…I want to create an organization and then be able to share a model for other people to create an organization that’s funded by the people for the people.” (pp. 101-102).  This interview, in particular, captures the strengths of the interviewees and the many ways Druckman’s questions and directions, in these and other formats, bring forth the depth and passions of their experiences and reflections.

My second favorite entry was Tienlon Ho’s essay, “The  Months of Magical Eating” (pp. 80-92) which described her parent and grandparent generations’ traditional wisdom and medicinal arts as contributions to her “eating right” (birds’ nest soup, ginger) during the final months of her pregnancy and immediately following her successful childbirth. She ends by noting she still keeps a jar of this concentrated tonic in her refrigerator: “It is a jar filled with a family’s strength, a nascent wisdom, and the memories of ages that allowed me to bear the weight of this new life barely started.” (p.92). Her lyrical writing evoking visceral images and ideas substantively connect the individual female, through food, to cosmic forces and familial relationships beyond her present self or generation.

A third example that touched me particularly in these times of deep reflection on structural, racist violence in US society, was Von Diaz’ story, “Sitting Still.” Set in the South, it unveils the horrific legacy of lynchings through the telling lens of a simple recipe for “Bobbie Hart’s Banana Pudding” (pp.308-316).

As a collection of food writings by more than 100 female authors, the anthology includes interviews and essays with well-known food historians, cook-book authors, and essayists, including Betty Fussell, Jessica Harris, and Bee Wilson. Wilson’s sharply terse and topical piece on the advantages and disadvantages of evolving “Labor Saving” technology (pp.254-263) for getting essential food on the family table, accessibly touches on so many work-life dilemmas involving feeding and food preparation, offering practical advice without being preachy or pretentious.  The words and images of Kristina Gill, “A Fig by Any Other Name” (pp. 375-383), illustrated with luscious and colorful sexual food imagery, is a clever and subtle triumph for all to enjoy.  Some readers may savor the published volume’s bright color coding (strong to paler orangish to greenish yellows setting off two-person, multi-person interviews or Q&A, and essays). I found the varying hues bold, but also distracting, and wish the heavy paged book had weighed a bit less, to make it more physically comfortable to position and read.  These hard-copy features may or may not translate discernibly into on-line, tinted copy, where volume weight is not an issue.  As SAFN (and other) food-studies readers move in and out of quarantines, they might want to access and read the electronic version, and recommend various particular chapters to students and other colleagues and friends. In the meanwhile, now that my local library is allowing (scheduled, outdoor) book pick-up’s and returns, I hasten to review and return the hard copy for other potentially appreciative readers.

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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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CFP: Putting the Cult back into Food Culture!

Food Cults

Call for Chapter Proposals

Editor:  Kima Cargill, University of Washington

Publisher:  Rowman & Littlefield/Food & Gastronomy Series

Series Editor: Ken Albala

Chapter Proposal Submission Deadline:  April 1, 2015

Book Overview:

Food Cults is an interdisciplinary edited volume which will explore questions of domestic and international, contemporary and historic food communities characterized by extreme nutritional beliefs, often viewed as “fringe” movements by mainstream culture.  While there are a variety of scholarly accounts of such food communities across disciplines, there is no single collection that pulls together these works, nor that anchors such communities in a theory of why we gravitate toward such groups and the social, economic, nutritional and psychological functions they serve.  Studying the extreme beliefs and practices of such food cults allows us to see the ways in which food serves as a nexus for religious beliefs, sexuality, death anxiety, preoccupation with the body, asceticism, and hedonism, to name a few.  Moreover, in contrast to religious and political cults, food cults have the added dimension of mediating cultural trends in nutrition and diet through their membership.

I suggest the term ‘cult’ as a dynamic one, and not necessarily a derogatory one.  I invite contributors to define culthood for themselves, perhaps ultimately rejecting it for the group they study.  Moreover, some contributors might argue that some of the dominant culture’s beliefs and practices surrounding food should be consigned to culthood, such as the cult of sugar, the cult of meat, or the cult of junk food.  While certainly many contributors will address cultural trends and fads, food cults differ from food fads in that membership in a food cult becomes a central organizer of one’s identity and revolves around a group dogma or ideology.  Cults of any kind function much like religion, often providing a conversion experience, a charismatic leader, collective identity, and a community of “worship” (either in person or increasingly online).  Like religion, cults provide a way to find meaning in confusing situations, like eating.

Pending submissions, the volume will likely be organized into two sections.  Section I (Theories and History of Food Cults) will include general survey chapters from multiple disciplines, such as anthropology, nutrition, theology, sociology, economics, and history.  Chapters in Section II (Historic and Contemporary Food Cults) will have more narrow foci, examining specific groups and practices.  These chapters might address topics such as:

  • Raw food diets
  • Psychoactive foods
  • Biblical diets (and/or other historical replication diets):
  • Disgust (culturally inappropriate food practices)
  • Supplements
  • Exotic game/endangered species
  • Poisonous/toxic food ingestion
  • Pet foods and pet diets
  • Muscle building/masculinity
  • Asceticism
  • Tapeworm/parasite diets

Submission Guidelines:

Length of each complete chapter manuscript: Each complete chapter manuscript must be between 4,000 and (no more than) 5,000 words, inclusive of the main text and references.

All submissions should include two documents: a Chapter Proposal and a separate CV of no more than three pages. The Chapter Proposal must contain (a) a working title of the proposed chapter, and (b) an 800 to 1,000-word exposition consisting of a clear description of the proposed chapter, including an annotated outline of the proposed chapter. Also include with your submission a separate CV of no more than three pages.

Submission format: All submissions must be written in English and prepared in accordance with Chicago Style. Please submit your documents in the MS Word file format as an attached document.

Please send your Chapter Proposal and CV in the same email on or before April 1, 2015 to Kima Cargill (kcargill@uw.edu)

Notification of acceptance status of chapter proposals: April 15, 2015

Submission deadline of complete chapters: on or before October 1, 2015

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