Category Archives: taste

Review: Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Media of Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Carole Counihan. Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia: Place, Taste, and Community. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. Pp. i-176. ISBN 9781474262286 (hardback) 9781474262309 (epdf)

Abigail E. Adams (Central Connecticut State University)

This review of the book by SAFN’s own Carole Counihan, based on her decades-long work in Italy’s Sardinia, is overdue but perhaps timely as we keep in mind the Italian people in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Counihan has helped me “ethno-graph” more deeply my own engagement in urban New England food justice and agriculture movements during a period that overlaps with her 2011-2015 research, and with a similarly necessary focus on the 2008 worldwide Great Recession. She writes of Italy’s marginalized south and islands, whose residents value their agro-pastoral economies, histories, traditions and who struggle “against competition from increasingly globalized foodways manifest in expanding distribution networks and high density of supermarkets” (2019: 1).

After her introduction, she structures chapters with case studies focused on particular places and communities of “food activists, food advocates and food rebels” (2019: 3). She draws throughout the ethnography on three themes signaled by her book’s subtitle (Place, Taste, and Community): the significance of place, territorio; the appeal of taste as a strategy for action; and the goal of forging community (2019: 1). Another unmentioned but valuable theme throughout the book is the local impact of state policies and practices.

I came into anthropology’s food studies from the social justice angle, rather than our discipline’s nutrition or even embodiment subfields. Counihan’s book put these two approaches together for me, demonstrating how people and communities can re-claim their experience, standards, and senses from the crazy-making gaslit maw of industrial food and agriculture. Her book was a form of “taste activism” for me, a term Counihan coins to express how “the social, sensual bodily engagement with food can be a wellspring of civil society participation” (2019: 65). And even her coining observes territorio, as it is grounded in the insight of Sardinia’s native son Antonio Gramsci about the vital “movement from knowing to understanding to feeling and vice versa …you cannot make history and politics without passion” (cited 2019:66).

Counihan sustains a close focus on cross-class interactions, alliances and solidarities among the region’s middle-class, its farmers, other food producers, processors, and purveyors, teachers and elementary school children, starting with the book’s first case study—of a Slow Food chapter or condotta — to one of the closing studies about the “teaching farms” and its elementary school partner.

In Chapter Two, “Middle-Class Activism and Slow Food,” Counihan takes on the elitism charge leveled against Slow Food and explores how the members of Cagliari’s condotta promote access to “good, clean and fair food.” She describes these as middle-class activists, “those with financial means, interest, and critical thinking to make consumption choices towards more sustainable and equitable food” (2019: 10)—but the members are from all walks of Sardinian life, including farmers and butchers; she encounters no food snobs in their midst. They are an active group, have just established two new “food communities between consumers and producers around regional varieties of capers and watermelons. A butcher member radically changed his meat ordering business to promote small and local meat producers. But they feel the disconnect between their efforts and the sharp decline in their region’s small-scale farming, as well as their own struggles to maintain the founding passion of their movement.

In Chapter Three, “Food and Territorio,” a study of three agricultural “communities of resistance” (citing Pratt 2007), Counihan’s top concern is whether these groups have spurned exclusionary reactionary “defensive localization” while aiming for food sovereignty, celebration of territorio, and self-reliance. The first of the three communities is Domusamigas (English: “house of women friends), a women-led group focused on local self-sufficiency, re-skilling and teaching, local varieties, and women producers). The second group is working through AGRIS (the Sardinian Regional Agency for Research in Agriculture) to recognize Sardinian bean varieties on the official government list of traditional species. The last community is gathered around the Cagliari urban garden whose creators restored an abandoned quarry/dumping ground using permaculture techniques developed in Japan and Spain. The Domusamigas founder defines territorio as follows: “You have a place in the world, you are part of something” (2019: 25) and Counihan finds that all three groups welcome newcomers, new ideas and techniques to “have a place.” For example, the urban gardeners want to qualify for social agriculture, the “catch-all name for farming used to provide work and social integration to ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” (2019: 37).

In Chapter Four, “Resistance Farming and Multifunctionality,” Counihan uses four case studies of “resistant” farmers to explore the contributions of alternative agriculture to food democracy: a wine cooperative, caper farmer, organic olive oil producer and teaching farm. Each of these producers aimed at making a living for themselves and others in agro-ecological (even organic) farming of historically important crops often on re-territorialized farmland. Each of the farms appears to be a success in resilient small-scale farming, successes perhaps best defined by the caper farmer: modest income, hard work, but satisfaction. Three of the case studies featured those Italian new young farmers whose 35% increase in numbers over the previous year lifted hopes for “a sustainable new peasant economy distinctively different from entrepreneurial and capitalist agriculture” (2019: 64).

Chapter Five, “Taste Activism and the Emotional Power of Food,” features another stakeholder in food democracy, the consumer. Three “tasting” events sponsored by the organizations and producers met in earlier chapters include a Slow Food caper tasting, the wine cooperative’s wine tasting, and a tasting of the organic olive oil farmer’s product through a thrice-weekly outdoor market sponsored by the Cagliari GAS (Solidarity Purchase Group). Although a shorter chapter, this is one of the more “ethnographic,” as Counihan explores the interactions among the producers, taste event “hosts,” and tasting participants. The strategy of these events is to recruit new activists by “grabbing them by their senses.” At each event, she documents how tasters develop their own critical conscious pleasure and experience of the flavors they sample .aThey thereby cement their commitment to local producers; no one is pushed to conform their palates to some imposed “universal” standard.

Chapter Six, “Restaurants,” shifts to full-time sites of “taste-making” with interviews in three restaurants: a high-brow white linen establishment, a vegetarian buffet, and a deli or gastronomia. The owner/chefs are militant supporters of local food and small farmers, innovators who introduce or resurrect new or forgotten tastes; two of the owner/chefs are younger returnees to their Cagliari birthplaces.

Chapter Seven, “Critical Food Education: Place, taste, and community” (perhaps my favorite chapter) is a tour of Sardinia’s “teaching farms” (an official designation!). Both the teaching farms and the participating primary school principal she interviews are guided by the mantra, “If I hear I forget; if I see I remember; if I do, I learn.” The principal wants her pupils to develop as critical citizens and consumers.She modeled this critical awareness for me when she discussed both her plan to achieve zero food kilometers for her school lunch program but also raised her concerns about the impact on her pupils, many of whom are immigrants, of an exclusionary assumption of localism that residents of the same locale share the same culinary culture (2019: 108-109).

Counihan’s final topical Chapter Eight, “Commerce and Activism takes us to those Sardinians directly confronting global capitalism. She introduces us to owners of three Cagliari organic food businesses including a producer coop, a store, and a home-delivery business. While she cites Heather Paxson’s economies of sentiment (2013), these owners use the explicitlypolitical solidarity economy concept. These are not “boutique” entrepreneurs claiming organic’s niche market, subsidies, and higher prices. These are alternative democratic merchants who use Sardinia’s Sardex alternative currency, promote territorio through local products that yield slim to no profit margins, and struggle to eke out a meager living in a region with Italy’s highest per capita supermarket saturation (2019: 125). They leave prestigious well-paying jobs in Italy’s metropolises to undertake these ventures; while the coop opened in 1982, the other two businesses were established by young returnees in 2003 and 2006. And the obstacles are considerable; the home-delivery service closed during Counihan’s research.

The Conclusion, “Italian food activism and global democracy” briefly summarizes her key points placing Italian food activism in the broader context of global efforts to promote food democracy.

This is a delightfully well-written volume, with generous and almost treasure-hunt-like literature reviews in each chapter as Counihan engages with colleagues for the terms and approaches that best help us understand what Sardinia’s activists accomplish in taste activism, food justice and participatory democracy. She lifts up the voices of the activists and so comes close to achieving one of the definitions of food democracy she cites, which is to represent “all the voices of the food system” (Hassanein 2003: 84, from 2019:3)).

Some of the chapters are driven by interviews rather than interactions and participant observation ethnography. For example, patrons and ethnography of dining are missing in the chapter on the restaurants . The strongest ethnographic chapter is Chapter Four about the tasting events. Other missing voices are those of Sardinia’s most marginalized—those “ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” served by Italy’s social agriculture (2019: 37). Given that so many of her interlocutors are returnees (in other words, Sardinians coming from a core Italian “immigrant” experience), returning to an island that is the first soil that scores of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants set foot on, I (along with Chapter Seven’s wonderfully woke elementary school principal!) would have liked more attention to immigration, territorio, and community.

The Italian immigrants living in the poorest neighborhood of New Britain, Connecticut, where I researched the flourishing and failure of an urban organic farm, transformed their tiny urban yards into vertical and horizontal horticultural miracles–in the midst of general blight. While carrying out research, I co-founded an urban food justice non-profit (New Britain ROOTS http://www.newbritainroots.org) and so I mined nearly every paragraph of Counihan’s book for more ideas for our work and with longing that our public schools were supported by critical pedagogical principles and principals. And teaching farms! Counihan adds new concepts to my activist vocabulary, such as Italy’s social agriculture, the teaching farms and the CSA variant, “your garden at a distance.” COVID-19 and quarantine coincided with Spring here, and a record run on gardening supplies. It’s not clear yet what industries and commerce the pandemic will pruned or clear-cut; perhaps we can transplant some of Sardinia’s alternatives and challenges to the global agro-food industrial complex.

For a recent video interview with Carole Counihan about her career in food anthropology, see:

https://foodanthro.com/2019/11/19/i-remember-the-day-i-said-okay-ive-read-everything-an-interview-with-carole-counihan/

References:

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni dal cacere, vol. 1. Turin: Einauldi.

Hassanein, Neva (2003) Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation. Journal of Rural Studies 19: 77-86.

Paxson, Heather (2013) The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pratt, Jeff (2007) “Food Values: The Local and Authentic,” Critique of Anthropology 27(3): 285-300.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, culture and agriculture, food activism, Italy, taste

Thesis Review: Tasting in Mundane Practices

Mann 2015_title page

 

Please note: As Associate Reviews Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory. Anna Mann. Ph.D. Thesis, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, Amsterdam. 2015.

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)

As an essential part of bodily experience, the cultural significance of taste can often be overlooked. While sensory science and food industry are typically interested in the physiological aspects of taste for practical reasons, the Western traditions of downgrading taste as only a bodily “sensation” may have affected the view of many social scientists—only in the last few decades did we start to look more intently into the role of taste from a cultural perspective. Indeed, a closer look at taste can reveal insights that may otherwise be ignored, as David Sutton (2010) proposes in his “gustemological” approach to culture. In her published dissertation Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory, Anna Mann adopts this approach, putting taste and tasting at the forefront of her study. Mann uses her ethnographic observations from three different everyday scenarios in various Western European countries in order to reveal and analyze what is happening in the process of tasting.

Tasting in Mundane Practices consists of five chapters. Mann introduces the topic by questioning the accounts of tasting by other social scientists, pointing out that tasting is influenced by the specific context a person exists in, and that it is not only a “physiological response” that takes place in the body, but also a simultaneous experience of the multi-sensorial qualities of the object being tasted. Instead of using “tasting as a vehicle to understand other matters” (17) as a student of Annemarie Mol, who is a leading figure in Science and Technology Studies, Mann takes the approach of “material semiotics” in this study. As Mann explains, this approach requires her to not take “tasting” for granted, rather, she starts by “not knowing what tasting is” so that she can focus on “tasting itself.” Tapping into the ethnographic data she gathered between 2009 and 2013 in Western European countries, in this first chapter, Mann sets the stage for an investigation of tasting: How is tasting accomplished in different practices?

From chapters two to five Mann describes a particular type of setting where tasting was happening. In the second chapter, Mann focuses her investigation on “physiological responses” by describing two sensory science laboratories’ experiments she observed between 2009 and 2011. While the first lab focused on flavor perception in chocolate liquids, the other one studied the relation between food intake and sensory qualities. Mann gives a detailed account of the design of both experiments. In addition, she attached excerpts of her fieldnotes for each lab, providing greater contexts for each observation. In the conclusion of this chapter, she summarizes what these two experiments have in common: they both enacted taste as “an object of science” yet one that is “staged in different versions of the bodily response” (47). In so doing, the researchers managed to tie their research to a set of “practical concerns:” To lab F, it is about optimizing the food product; to lab N, it is about how to prevent obesity (47).

In the third chapter, Mann focuses on particular moments of a family celebration event that took place in eastern Austria in June 2010, when the participants described the food they consumed as “schmeckt gut”— a German expression, which literally means “to taste good”. Taking the phrase schmeckt gut literally, she uses scenarios from her fieldwork as examples to discuss the three different modes of “ordering and organising” tasting: experiencing, socializing and processing food. She also suggests that despite the possibility of combining different approaches to investigate tasting, not all of these aspects are “equally relevant” in any particular moment. At the end of the chapter, Mann points out some challenges for ethnographic investigations of sensual engagement of participants in the future—how exclusions/inclusions are made in a “tasting together in difference” (71).

What, then, shapes people’s sensual engagement with food when they state schmeckt gut in different situations? In chapter three, Mann uses ethnographic data she collected from doctors, patients and nurses between 2009 and 2013 to the everyday life contrast with the theories on the contexts of taste from Pierre Bourdieu, Günter Wiegelmann, and Geneviève Teil, stating that none of these three contexts can apply to practices she observed (77). Instead, she argues that what is important to the experience of people’s sensual engagements with food in everyday life that lead to the comment of “schmeckt gut” is what she calls “mundane going-on”: the tasks and activities one was involved in “before, after and around eating” (83). Moreover, she also suggests some questions for contexts that could be further explored such as how different contexts relate to each other, and the possibility and challenge for us when we consider contexts as interventions.

In chapter four, she discusses tasting and subjective knowing, contrasting wine tasting with “mundane eating”. She uses examples from Teil’s works, which demonstrate that wine tasting is “a specific achievement”: the guides, trainings and tools for wine tasting help to “configure tasting as knowing” (109), where one needs to recognize particular colors, aromas and flavors in different wines in order to “pass a verdict” (109). Using examples from her fieldnotes, Mann states that the process of mundane tasting, however, highlights the fact that tasting is not about people “knowing” how to judge what they taste, rather, it “comes to flow over and blend into what happens before and afterwards” (114). People are not just “knowing subjects,” as they may “shift between different subject positions that imply a different relation to their food” or even “renounce being ‘a subject’ altogether” (122). In the convent Kloster Fahr, where food is shared among the collective, as Mann points out, nuns didn’t use expressions like “tasting good,” refraining from implications of differentiations. In this case of devotional living, “knowing and judging” can be even more insignificant. Instead, appreciating food is much more important. Here, as Mann puts it, “tasting dissolves into yet another way of being in a relation with God” (105).

In the final chapter, Mann briefly revisits the “strategy” of engaging with the four aspects of taste and tasting in different practices, which is the physiological response (chapter 2), the multi-sensory experience (chapter 3), contexts (chapter 4) and knowing (chapter 5). She argues that it is possible to “tease out differences between the ways in which tasting is part of mundane goings-on” (131). Mann also points out that in most of the situations she discusses in these chapters, English is not the primary language; thus, by bringing all these observations together, the tasting that has been crafted here is “a composite of various entities” (132) in different languages that would resonate with the English term “tasting”. In the end, Mann suggests possible directions for future studies that could build on this one—to further our understanding of “the good” when something “tastes good.”

Tasting in Mundane Practices offers an interesting set of ethnographic studies of tasting in different scenarios ranging from laboratory experiments to devotional eating, revealing how different aspects of tasting can point to different subjects in our understanding of culture. Particularly, her call for attention to the roles of contexts and “mundane goings-on” instead of more general and abstract concepts of tasting that some well-known previous works have suggested is worth further exploration. To researchers who are interested in studying the culture of taste, tasting, and everyday life, this book can help to spark ideas for new directions in future studies.

Reference

Sutton, D. E. (2010). Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39(1), 209-223.

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Review: Taste, Politics and Identities in Mexican Food

Media of Taste, Politics, and Identities in Mexican Food

Taste, Politics, and Identities in Mexican Food, Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz, ed., Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 240 pp. ISBN # 9781350066670

Emily Ramsey (University of Georgia)

Is there such a thing as “Mexican cuisine and taste?” As the essays in the volume compiled by Stefan Igor Ayora-Diaz argue, this is an eminently political question because it belies an undergirding assumption that unity exists at a national level. This assumed unity masks any temporal, spatial, social, economic, and ecological differences among cuisines and dishes labeled collectively as “Mexican” while ignoring the hybridity that thrives at local and regional levels. To probe more deeply into what constitutes “Mexican cuisine” in its breadth, Ayora-Diaz and the collection’s authors delve theoretically into the concepts of taste and flavor, emphasizing that, while fundamentally biological in nature, “nonlineal, complex sociocultural and political processes…shape how people simultaneously develop shared and differing experiences of taste in food” (2). These experiences are equally subjective and intersubjective, deriving from memory, emotions, commensality, and perceptions of identity and difference, affirming identities at local, translocal, ethnic, regional, and national levels. Taste in this volume has a distinctly Bourdieuian (1984) flavor: since taste is a social marker it thus becomes a political matter. The politics of taste gain new meaning with UNESCO’s 2010 declaration of Mexican cuisine as intangible cultural heritage, fostering “traditional” recipes and methods of preservation while complicating the landscape of regional cuisines in the Yucatán, Oaxaca, and beyond. Consequently, the volume’s authors attempt to explore how taste is negotiated amidst complex processes of cultural identity in light of history, memory, social class, and global processes.

The volume is divided into three sections, each with four essays. Importantly, it eschews an exclusively contemporary look at Mexican cuisine and taste, with several essays integrating historical texts, archival records, and archaeological evidence to present or reconstruct the evolution of Mexican cuisines. Although several essays are Yucatán- and Oaxaca-focused, the book also adopts a relatively broad geographic approach to “Mexican cuisine,” looking not only within national borders but to places where Mexicans or Mexican cuisine reside outside. It does so by looking to how certain ingredients and culinary styles have become instrumental in local, regional, and national identities, pushing us to consider the limitations and effects of discourses that promote a singular, often homogenizing, national cuisine.

Part I focuses explicitly on cuisines of the past. The first chapter, by Lilia Fernández Souza, attempts to develop a framework for doing “tasteful archaeology.” To do so, she draws on work by Sutton (2010), Stoller and Olkes (1989), and others on the foundational importance of multisensorial, sensual experiences and Hamilakis’ (2011) work on sensory experiences’ material grounding to argue that archaeology can reconstruct past flavors, textures, and aromas through material remains. As such, Souza reviews common ingredients in the Maya pre-Columbian archaeological record, considering the flavors and textures these would have contributed, and, in the absence of recipes, the effects of preparation and cooking techniques. Consequently, attention to such material traces opens the door to “multisensorial experiences of the human past” (32). The second article, by Sarah Bak-Geller Corona examines how calls to formalize and institutionalize culinary knowledge in early 19th century parallel wider processes of political reconfiguration promoting “republican principles of rationality, egalitarianism, and the common good” (37). She reviews these threads in the writings of Tepalcate, a parish priest who—viewing culinary science as demanding high levels of qualification and expertise—called for the creation of dictionary of cuisine for aspiring chefs, methods for grooming these chefs, and a code of cuisine establishing culinary rules and criteria. Cookbooks of the time perform similar republicanizing moves, maintaining that dining tables reinforce critical social ties to promote civility and civilization. Some 19th century authors, however, push back, nostalgic for past customs, simpler foods, and traditional preparation methods in light of new standardizing technologies like the corn mill.

Héctor Hernández Álvarez and Guadalupe Cámara Gutiérrez archaeologically examine the alcohol consumption patterns of the elite and poor at an early 20th century Yucatecan hacienda, focusing on the exclusionary mechanism alcohol played among social classes. They argue that the presence of whole and fragmented glass bottles from imported wines, beers, tonics, and liquors reflects the consumptive habits of the estate’s elite owners and guests; however, the presence of these bottles in the workers’ solares marks their reuse for containing aguardiente, a sugar cane-based alcohol traditionally drunk by indigenous populations. Álvarez and Gutiérrez argue that these bottles were refilled with the aguardiente produced and sold on-site to hacienda workers, a claim corroborated by hacienda workers’ descendants. In the last essay of this section, Mario Fernández-Zarza and Ignacio López-Moreno discuss the critical role of corn as a superfood in Mexican cuisine. Flavor is a sociocultural construction and corn’s countless flavors, they argue, result from a complex confluence of corn’s evolution driven by farmer cultivation and selection, its preparation, consumptive form, and especially its cultural significance. However, as the food industry increasingly reshapes tastes through processed foods and policies that have led to the abandonment of agricultural lands and the adoption of hybrid and transgenic corn varieties, corn’s diversity of flavors is more and more at risk.

Part II shifts from a more historical orientation to a look at the identities and politics—and the politics of identity—in Mexican foods. Ronda Brulotte’s chapter on the politics and practices of mezcal connoisseurship traces how this once low-status liquor became prestigious nationally and internationally. This prestige, Brulotte argues, arises from complex inter-discursive processes. Oaxaca’s depiction as an off-the-beaten-path site of authentic craft industries, mezcal’s portrayal as a liquor requiring education and refinement for true appreciation, and elaborate bottle labels that detail its terroir­ and production details collectively add value and status to the liquor. This, in turn, has opened new markets and helped transform Oaxaca into a trendy destination for craft food and drink consumption. The second essay, by Stefan Igor Ayora-Diaz, argues that the Yucatán’s historically strong regional cuisine and identity are rapidly evolving as the demography of the region transforms. This expanding and fragmenting translocal foodscape is actively shaping Yucatecan consumers’ tastes, making some more open to experimentation in restaurants when novelty was previously only valued in the home. The multiplicity of cuisines to which they are exposed mean Yucatecans are less able to use preferences for traditional foods to assert their identification with ethnic, local, or regional identities; rather, they must now compare these preferences to the breadth of cuisines extant at that moment.

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina explores “the life delicious” in Mérida, Yucatán, portraying how food-centered events and celebrations structure the year and contribute to a life well-lived. Whether during February’s Mardi Gras festivities, spring and summer school vacations, Day of the Dead celebrations, or Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, families structure their lives around socializing with good food among friends and relatives. Drawing on Korsmeyer (1999) and Bourdieu (1984), she argues that food, music, laughter, and the sounds of the countryside and sea are fundamental to building community and establishing the good life for all Yucatecans, even if social classes participate differentially and separately in the good life. In the last essay of this section, Jeffrey Cohen and Paulette Kershenovich Schuster explore the multiple roles that chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers, have come to occupy for rural Oaxacans, urban Oaxacans, and the region’s more adventuresome tourists. For rural Oaxacans, chapulines are a food of last resort and means of survival amidst food insecurity, while for urban Oaxacans, they increasingly reflect the state’s indigenous heritage and have become steeped in nostalgia for a bucolic past. For tourists, chapulines often represent a challenge, portrayed as nutritionally valuable by restauranteurs to entice health-conscious consumers. Because of taste’s biological and cultural dimensions, the authors assert that chapulines reflect how taste preferences change yet simultaneously expose social stratification.

The final section of this volume treats Mexican food in a broader global context. Ramona Pérez’s chapter examines the role of flavor in Oaxacan foods cooked in lead-glazed ceramic cookware. Oaxacan cuisine’s unique flavor profile, she argues, is an amalgamation of the region’s many microclimates, edible herbs used, distinctive combination of ingredients. and especially the cookware in which dishes are made. This cookware imparts inimitable flavors that, despite attempts, her team was unable replicate for local Oaxaqueños using nonceramic instruments. For displaced Oaxaqueños living outside the region, this flavor becomes critical. Longing amidst displacement generates nostalgia for local ingredients and flavors, and although many are aware of the lead poisoning threat, they have the lead-glazed ceramics shipped to them for special occasions to maintain tastes of the past. Jeffrey Pilcher examines the evolution of beer taste and preferences in Mexico in light of the larger global market. Pulque, a drink fermented from the sap of the maguey plant, has a long history dating to preclassical Tenochtitlan, but became associated first with indigenous and later working-class backwardness by Spanish and then Mexican elites. In the 19th century, beer in Mexico increasingly became associated with modernity, taking cues from available imported European varieties. Yet by the 20th century, Corona had established a regional, national, and later international presence, especially in the United States. Since UNESCO’s declaration of Mexican cuisine as intangible cultural heritage, pulque production, once almost gone, has resurged amidst a growing craft beer industry in Mexico City, recently also spreading to New York and Chicago.

In the section’s third essay, Paulette Kershenovich Schuster examines the culinary preferences of Jewish Mexicans living in Israel, arguing that food and commensality helps them retain links to Mexico while maintaining a core part of their identity. First comparing the flavors and ingredients characterizing a Mexican diet versus an Israeli diet, she notes that Tex-Mex dishes have only recently begun to make their way into the Israeli mainstream. Traditionally Mexican dishes are often met with some uncertainty and confusion among Israelis, and thus Mexican restaurants adapt dishes to suit the Israeli palate. In their homes and social gatherings, however, Jewish Mexicans in Israel use food to anchor themselves to the past, teach their children about their heritage, and reinforce group membership through commensality. Consequently, food reflects both self-identification and cultural pride. In the last essay, Christine Vassallo-Oby explores culinary tourism in Cozumel, arguing that cruise line arrangements with and promotion of pre-vetted businesses results in sanitized tastes for most visitors. This sanitized model reaches its epitome with Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, which “builds a fantasy of paradise” (194) while it offers tourists a safe place to engage in “controlled debauchery” (196). This contrasts with a walking tour of local food venues offered by one U.S. expat, a tour that tends to attract a qualitatively different kind of tourist. The personal connections of the walking food tour thus counter the landscape of “Fordist mass tourism” generated by Cozumel’s corporatization (201).

Taken separately and as a whole, the volume’s chapters function well to disturb the idea of Mexican cuisine as unitary, or even as a concept altogether. I agree with Richard Wilk in the volume’s postface that national cuisines from a distance look very different, or even unrecognizable, to those from within, but that “the question of authenticity is really beyond the point” (208). As Wilk argues, understanding what motivates the different forms of authentication—including the need to “brand” national cuisines as forms of cultural heritage—is often as critical as is asking where the boundaries lie in defining not just what foods belong but how to characterize attendant social and culinary practices. The book, thus, does an effective job in pushing readers to consider food and tastes across multiple time scales and territorial distributions, recognizing that “these cuisines are actually in perpetual motion, with new dishes, spices, and combinations being absorbed and other things being exported abroad” (211). Each chapter does so in a broadly accessible way, engaging with theory but grounding its arguments in concrete examples. I thus find it appropriate for anywhere from upper-level undergraduates to graduate students and other academic professionals engaged in food studies.

 

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. R. Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hamilakis, Yannis. 2011. “Archaeology of the Senses.” In T. Insoll, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, 208-244. New York: Oxford University Press.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Stoller, Paul and Cheryl Oakes. 1989. “The Taste of Ethnographic Things.” In The Taste of Ethnographic Thing: The Senses in Anthropology, 336-352. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sutton, David. 2010. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology 39(1): 209-223.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Mexico, taste

Review: The Taste Culture Reader (2nd Edition)

The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink. 2nd edition. Carolyn Korsmeyer (ed). Bloomsbury, 2016.

Greg de Saint-Maurice (University of Toronto and EHESS)

Taste is of interest to anthropologists of food and nutrition, of course, but also to researchers and professionals in a large number fields—psychologists, biochemists, artists, philosophers, and many others. I once heard Professor Rick Wilk talk about a conference he attended at the Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue in 2015. Cognitive scientists, physiologists, food scientists were among the participants. It struck Rick that they all located taste somewhere completely different: the cognitive scientists looked to the brain and nervous system, the physiologists the retro nasal cavity and tastebuds, and the food scientists argued that the sensory qualities of food were in the food itself. Clearly, researchers approach the study of taste from many angles and often do not engage in substantial interdisciplinary dialogue.

The Taste Culture Reader, edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer, in a revised second edition, offers an introduction to the vast literature on taste. It is difficult to review the second edition of The Taste Culture Reader independently from its predecessor because the first edition was successful and very well received. Texts and perspectives varied along a number of dimensions. It included excerpts of foundational texts like Brillat-Savarin’s “On Taste” and M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Pale Yellow Glove” alongside newer work by leading scholars like Amy Trubek (“Place Matters”), Lisa Heldke (“But is it Authentic?”), and David Sutton (“Synesthesia, Memory, and the Taste of Home”). The volume’s eight sections covered a wide range of subtopics, namely physiology, history, flavors, spirituality, aesthetics, discernment, emotion and memory, and authenticity. Among other things, this diversity of texts and perspectives ensured that the volume considered taste alternately as: a field for scientific study, a “lower” bodily sense in the Western philosophical tradition, a notion largely synonymous with flavor, a means of establishing cultural distinction, a tool for social cohesion, a very subjective phenomenon, and a realm of moral and religious consequence. Geographically and culturally, the contributions spanned the globe, illustrated by the juxtaposition of Jack Goody’s “The High and the Low: Culinary Culture in Asia and Europe,” D.T. Suzuki’s “Zen and the Art of Tea,” Marjo Buitelaar’s “Living Ramadan,” and Richard Watson’s “On the Zeedijk.”

The first obvious requirement for a second edition that comes out 12 years later is that it is updated and includes recent material speaking to new questions and themes. Two of the strongest additions to the volume can be found in Section III, Eloquent Flavors. This section, which already contained classic material from Sidney Mintz and Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes, is particularly of interest to anthropologists. The first addition is a brilliant analysis by M.J. Weismantel of how Zumbagua Quichua-speakers classificatory terms for talking about food and taste are used as a means of adjusting to cultural-economic change. The second is a very short but nonetheless thought-provoking excerpt of Francois Jullian’s about the insight we can gain from classical Chinese perspectives on what might be called “blandness” or “flavorlessness” (an underresearched topic, to be sure).

With the existence of other readers (and blog lists) on the scene, however, the mere incorporation of recent material doesn’t necessarily justify a second edition, even when a dozen years have passed since the first. But because Korsmeyer recruited authors to write new original material, this second edition is more than simply an updated survey of relevant literature about taste, food, drink, and culture. On the whole, her strategy proves to be a very successful one. In Part I, Taste: Physiology and Circumstance, for instance, the foundational excerpt from Brillat-Savarin, a somewhat dated reprint of a useful Bartoshuk and Duffy text on chemical approaches to smell and taste, and a now shortened contribution by Paul and Elizabeth Rozin, are complemented by an original chapter about multisensory approaches from experimental psychologist Charles Spence. As a chapter written specifically for this volume, it is current, eminently readable, and explicitly engages with the volume’s core themes—taste, food, and human experience. In the 2005 edition, Part VIII was titled Artifice and Authenticity. In the second edition, it has expanded to become Artifice, Authenticity, and Artistry with three new pieces all consisting of chapters written specifically for the volume. Here the volume’s diversity is evident in a new way: the invited original material includes pieces that you might not ordinarily find in scholarly journals about the topics of food, taste, culture, and society. Case in point is the chapter by Claire Schneider, an art director who writes about the exhibit “Eat Your Hearts Out: A Sensual Migration through Buffalos’ Past, Present, and Future” which she curated.

As much I recommend this second edition to scholars interested in issues connected to taste, it has its flaws. In her introduction, Korsmeyer notes that the now 43-chapter reader contains gaps—notably related to the topics of health and ethics, but explains that “an anthology must draw boundaries for both unity and for practicality, and this necessity has mandated that several important subjects be left for future consideration.” This comment leaves me hoping for a third edition that will go even further, adding reprints of relevant but under-read texts and new original material, in order to minimize overlap, keep the reader current, and create a textual dialogue about the diversity of human experiences with food, drink, and culture.

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, taste