Category Archives: technology

Review: Meat Planet

Meat Planet by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Benjamin Wurgaft Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food. Berkeley: University of California Press. 264 pp. ISBN #9780520379008

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the thickly lush writing, which constructed or used every possible image from literature and film, in addition to cutting-edge conferences, participant observations, and interviews. I generally don’t appreciate reading philosophy, and this, despite the food and technology subject matter being germane to my interests, was no exception.  This in no way precludes my highly recommending the book and particular chapters.

From beginning to end what I appreciated most were the organizing questions, succinctly summarized on p.19: “What makes cultured meat imaginable?” with corollaries: how does cultured meat fit into the future of food as a concept or idea, and how does this food domain enter into futures-thinking in the technological futures realm more generally?  In his philosophical, historical, literary, media, and anthropological excursions, the author carefully traces the evolution and history of meat-containing human diets, and the ways promoters of laboratory foods, in this case meat specifically, frame issues to make cultured meat appear “natural.”  In other words, cultured meat is the next (if not final) step in the orderly development of human nourishment and relationships with animals, which conventionally are killed for human food, and in their most recent iteration, are raised industrially, on large-scale “factory” farms (concentrated animal feeding operations), which immiserate the animals and brutalize the humans allowing such conditions.  It is in these two evolutionary themes that this account of the travels and travails of cultured meat and its interlocutors (sci-tech producers, economic and political sponsors, thinkers, commentators, marketers, writers) that Wurgafts’s distinctive, erudite, thick descriptions of ideas and their contexts, were to me, as a food and nutrition anthropologist, most engaging.

Beginning with his focus on Richard Wrangham as the authority for certifying the significance of meat in the diets and evolution of humanity, this is a book that should engage anthropologists of all stripes.  The evolutionary questions are introduced in Chapter One, which reports an observational analysis on a 2013 videoconference introducing the first laboratory engineered burger. It focuses on the ways the engineers (Dutch mastermind Mark Post is the most often cited) and chief investors (Google cofounder Sergei Brin is a chief financial backer) have positioned their presentation and performers in cyberspace to make meat, but not meat from conventional animals, central to the human condition.  In other words, lab (cultured) meat, or “clean” meat as others term it, will spare animals suffering and death and thereby meet the main opposition to meat-eating, namely, the ethical concern about taking animal life and making creatures suffer.  In this account, environmental concerns, or health—all mentioned—take less priority than eliminating whole animals for food.  It follows that one final futures image justifying the quest for cultured meat is to have a backyard pig frolicking and lovingly interacting with children, rather than awaiting certain death by butchering after a year’s fattening.  Another is the possibility that cultured meat will fit just fine into ritualized meat exchange which has always been a hallmark of social connectedness and carefully defined kinship or friendship relations.

Along the way, there are many additional cultural images of meat, or, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss, using animal flesh to think with.  These include cultural domains of science, technology, science-fiction, Greek mythology, Jewish dietary laws, the facts and fictions surrounding overexploitation of whales, and the science and culture of futures-thinking overall.  There are profound  general questions, such as whether cultured meat is or should be aiming to produce innovative products that signify human ingenuity with products that are entirely new, or instead seek to imitate more rather than less successfully existing meats and meat products. The creators or inventors have mixed views on these issues, as do the marketers and those targeted to consume the products.

It is a bit of a tough slog to make it through Wurgaft’s endless images incorporated into clear, but often convoluted writing.  Not being a sci-fi or media aficionado, I did not immediately “get” many of his references, and after a while, in some chapters, found them over the top. So much tongue-in-cheek or commentary on tongue-filled cheeks in some cases made it hard to swallow and breathe (choking on the images, to paraphrase Wurgaft’s own language).  Particularly the chapter on Maastricht is cloyingly thick with sci-fi and tech-fi references to books, films, and imagery that I have never read, detracting from the narrative flow. That said, from beginning to end, there are mind-nourishing examples that would fit well into multiple food studies and anthropology courses.  The opening chapter, for example, is a fine example of observation and analysis of a video-conference—a welcome addition to any qualitative research methodology course or exercise which provides opportunities to discuss what can potentially be captured in media performances.  The short chapter on ‘Copy’ will be thought-provoking for food studies or other courses, as scientists-technologists and the author explore the realms of imitation and Creation/creativity in the evolution of humankind. The two chapters contrasting “Doubt” and “Hope” will also produce thoughtful reflections on the future of technologies and food, and the very short chapter on “Kosher” is a specialized excursion into the considerations of this Jewish set of dietary laws that are meant to reduce animal suffering, establish ritual authorities and precise rules, and also create meaningful separations between food domains containing animal meat versus dairy products.  The even shorter chapter on “Cannibals” or why scientist-technologists are not using human cells to create cultured meat will also provoke discussion, Also of great interest for anthropologists studying the role of food, social exchange, and cultural identities will be the chapter opening explorations into cultured food and ritual food culture (“Gathering/Parting”). It includes the imagined example of a backyard pig as an iconic animal surviving without predation, as a reminder or sign of how humans used to exploit animals inhumanely for food.

Ben Wurgaft is trained as a philosopher and historian, with additional specialization in cultural studies of science and technology.  Given his high-level higher education and family history (his mother is a prominent food anthropologist), I was surprised that he claimed at multiple points considerable ignorance about anthropological ideas prior to his MIT post-doc that corresponded to this project.  Analogously, I was shocked by his claim that he had not been thinking about demographic arguments (e.g., Malthus) for transforming food systems prior to getting involved in food issues (pp.88-89).

Overall, the book is well worth reading, but perhaps selectively for students with shorter attention spans and less comprehensive philosophical and literary references and reasonings. The chapter on “Philosophers,” for example, is complex, although Wurgaft’s shrewd citation of poet Paul Muldoon’s verse (in this poem, Muldoon’s white cat Pangur goes hunting for mice; the poet for “precise words”) succinctly captures the different norms separating animals and humans. The author’s footnote (p.217) expands that the poem was excerpted from the poet’s collection, Hay, and “The poem is an adaptation of an oft-translated, anonymous poem thought to have been written by an Irish monk in the ninth century C.E.” It is not possible for a reader to know whether this citation suggests a Geertzian example of winks within winks. Such elaborations occur in the footnotes, which readers should read if they want to get additional subtle or complex flavors of particular examples reduced in the main text, which the publisher economically reduced to 194 (small type, small margin) pages.

Throughout I wondered whether I agreed with the cultured-meat promoters’ arguments that most people will not give up meat eating, because it is hard wired into biology if not soft-wired into culture. The very ubiquity of cheap meat and its decreasing flavor and questionable nutrition quality, not to mention animal welfare, environmental, and health arguments against current industrial meat practices, suggest that giving up twice daily, daily, or frequent meat eating is already an issue (and practice) in many circles. Whether people will then substitute cultured meat depends on price (Wurgaft and his interlocutors discuss viable price points), palates, sociocultural contexts, and possible substitutes. Over the four-year period of Wurgaft’s research (2013-2017), writing, and publication, at least two major cultured meat burger products (Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger) became widely accessible at price points that made them attractive, and additional entrants into chicken, egg, and dairy made the livestock industry increasingly nervous.  One sign of this concern was the livestock industry’s request(s) for regulatory protection of the terms “meat,” “beef,” and “hamburger.”  Both product creators and chefs are also working hard to improve flavor.

During the week I completed this reading, the Wednesday food section of the New York Times coincidentally featured article and recipes by a leading chef, who described how to prepare these cultured meat products so that they taste good. Burgers, he advised, have to be “thick” patties so they don’t dry out when cooked to medium rare or medium, and all these products are best served with intensely flavorful accompaniments, so the eater does not have to rely on the taste of the cultured meat for flavor satisfaction. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/dining/impossible-beyond-meat.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage  To  such guidance, skeptics like me respond, “why bother?” if one can get a similar intensely flavored chili using cheap and conventional hamburger helper along with good quality beans? (I also learned, through the simple comparative chart, that Impossible Burger is made with soy and potato protein whereas Beyond Meat is fashioned from pea and other protein substances.  The former has animal cells as base material; the latter does not.  Both, alas, contain coconut oils, which means someone like myself, sensitive to coconut, should probably avoid them, which I am doing for culinary reasons right now.)

For additional comparative context, I also read Paul Shapiro’s Clean Meat. How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World (Simon & Schuster, 2018).  This author, a vegan leader in organized animal welfare, answers the questions Wurgaft pointedly does not: “will consumers accept meat produced from cells in a laboratory?” why or why not, and at what price, over what time frame? The relatively sudden and expanding market for these products show that once the technical (hygienic, flavor) barriers had been largely overcome, manufacturers managed to scale up production and supply, while other marketers were scaling up demand.  Demand and supply have moved much more quickly than Wurgaft had envisioned even two years before (2017).

And then there are the cultural issues. Serendipitously I also read two recent French novels that had been recently translated in English.  The first, J-B. del Amo’s (Frank Wynne, Trans.) Animalia (Grove-Atlantic, 2019) was a horrific account of the human-animal realm in traditional (World War I era) French small farming villages.  There, impoverished households relied on pigs and chickens for food and livelihoods, but had no compunction about violent killing or maiming of the animals that nourished them. These cultural actions were “natural” in their traditional agricultural realm.  Industrial production of pigs two generations later was even more violent and horrific; as one reviewer of Animalia pointed out, animals and humans shared characteristics of violence, but arguably humans were distinctive in that only their violence could be “cruel”.

Coincidentally, I accessed Marie Ndiaye’s The Cheffe. A Cook’s Novel (NY: Alfred Knopf, 2019).  (They were both reviewed in the same New York Times column covering translations of recent French novels.On p.68 of Jordan Stump’s excellent translation, I came across what might be a wonderful alternative wording for the mindfulness Wurgaft seeks to represent in his oeuvre. In this scene the youthful (16 year old) cook is launching her first meal for her patrons, which involves her preparing various fish and shellfish, vegetables and spices, and a “magnificent” chicken (raised by a local small farmer in the Bordeaux region of France), golden with fat and flesh: “…she saw as her obligation to show [them] all the talents she was certain she had, which necessarily implied, she recognized, some degree of artifice or display (showing off, she called it), but she was still ashamed that she hadn’t yet realized, that glorious summer, had felt no stirring of doubt, no need to silence her sensitivity, that she hadn’t realized the one and only justification for putting an animal to death lies in the respect, care, and thoughtfulness with which you treat its flesh and then take that flesh into you, bite by bite.”

The narrative (by the Cheffe’s loving sous-chef) continues:

“The Cheffe would later devote all her care to respecting the products she used, she inwardly bows down before them, paying them homage, grateful, honoring them as best she could, vegetables, herbs, plants, animals, she took nothing for granted wasted nothing, damaged nothing, mistreated nothing, defiled no creation of nature, however modest, and the same went for human beings, even if her work didn’t involve chopping them up, the same went for all of  us [i.e., her staff, including the narrator], she never humiliated us.”

This is one idealist future of food, and if lab meat has a place, what is it?  Wurgaft more or less ends on the same point, while contrasting this humble humane vision with dominant high-tech motivations to create non-animal meat substitutes.

 

 

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Review: Cooking Technology

Review of:

Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz (ed.) Cooking  Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America (London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2016).

Michael McDonald
Florida Gulf Coast University

The contributors to, Cooking Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America, view the kitchen, as a vital and dynamic locus of cultural production where, “the meanings of food, techniques, and technologies, as well as associated aesthetic values are endlessly negotiated” (p2).  The volume responds to a common misperception of the kitchen as a “place where tradition sits   uncontested” (p1) and general scholarly neglect of cooking activities and spaces.  Casting a wide geographic and cultural net, the authors present twelve cases of cooking activities and things that provide a window onto such dimensions of social life as power, identity, status, and change in social and cultural practices.  In the introduction, Professor Ayora-Diaz very cogently overviews the kitchen as a locus and technology as topic for anthropological inquiry. The physical cook space may change with the arrival of new appliances, ingredients and information. Methods and techniques of food preparation may likewise be transformed or globalized through diffusion and appropriation. Paradoxically the same forces may lead to a retrenchment or revitalization of traditional tastes, preferences and techniques. Three sections connect the book with related foci on refiguring the past, rethinking the present, transnational and trans-local meanings, and recreating tradition and newness.

Lilia Fernandez-Sousa opens the work by linking the past to present cultures through an examination of maize grinding and cooking technology in Yucatan, Mexico. Once central to Maya foodways, the metates y manos (grinding stones) and molcajates (mortar and  ), k’oben (three stone hearths) and pib (earth oven) are retained as part of the contemporary kitchen inventory alongside metal mills, plastic mortars, gas stoves and other mod-cons. The ancient Maya technology remains especially important for use in ritual foods, and for related household ceremonies but also for reasons including cost and efficiency of operation, nostalgia or sensory preferences. Julian López Garcia & Lorenzo Mariono Juárez present a similar essay   but focused on the Ch’orti’ Maya use of stone metates and clay comals (griddles) in Eastern Guatemala. Development plans to replace this technology with metal mills, solar stoves and iron comales has been met with resistance for a host of reasons including taste preference and the ritually expressed  and aesthetic relationships people share with  their food and foodways.

In the third essay, “From Bitter Root to Flat Bread” we are given a brief overview of cassava (Manihot esculenta) by Hortensia Caballero-Arias. She follows with an explanation of the differences between sweet and bitter varieties. We are provided with a deft ethnographic view of the manual processing technology and techniques employed by the Indigenous peoples of the Venezuelan Amazon to detoxify the bitter cassava and prepare it for consumption in various forms. In the final chapter in this section Claudia Rocío Magana Gonzalez, describes the complementary role of the household kitchen and the ephemeral communal kitchens in Oaxaca Mexico and how the two settings serve to conserve culinary traditions and simultaneously adapt novel technologies into the preparation of food and foster its diffusion onto a wider regional foodscape through fiestas and rituals.

The Second Section contains five chapters which draw emphasis to the global-local and trans-local connections that are expressed in foodways and follow the movements of people and foods to and from their hearths. Chapter 5, offered by Margarita Calleja Pinedo, describes how carne con chili traverses a path from Mexican street food through assimilation into a generic Tex-Mex regional cuisine, and later codified into English language cookbooks and industrialized for wider orbits of consumption as chili con carne throughout North America. In Chapter 6 Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz presents technology which includes the tools, appliances, cookbooks, techniques and ingredients that along with in-migration and return migration effect a fluid and varied attachment to a global-local foodscape for contemporary Yucatecanos.

Mole Negro, a signature dish from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, is given a distinctive flavor by the inclusion of ingredients, namely the chilihuacle and passilla peppers grown in the region. In Chapter 7, Ramona Pérez discusses the powerful  terroir of Oaxacan foods as it affects expatriates and their mechanisms for maintaining or approximating the authenticity of their food culture when away from home. In the following essay, Jane Fajans reviews changes in the way Brazilians prepare and consume food in their homes noting that new and sophisticated culinary knowledge and practice and material inventory is emerging as a marker of social status. Fueled in part by media- especially celebrity chefs- and mobility, the once marked regional variation in the manner of cooking, choice of ingredients and the cookware employed to prepare the iconic dish of rice and beans is shown to diminish in a more cosmopolitan Brazil marked by internal migration, and a growing interest in gastronomic tourism. Chapter 9 connects the kitchen space of Cuban households to global geopolitical change over recent historic time. Anna Cristina Pertierra describes the different strategies employed for equipping kitchens, from preserving the very ancient pre-revolution appliances, to the Soviet- era distribution schemes and the more recent program of distribution connected to the 2006 Energy Revolution, and the ongoing remittance gift economy and black market.   Recorded in these material artifacts are legacies of former and current political eras and the social position of their owners.

In the final section of the collection, three authors consider the transformative power of tourism, nostalgia and haute cuisine as catalysts for valorizing and rehabilitating ethnic and traditional cuisine. Raúl Matta focuses on the catalyzing power of celebrity chefs in Peru who employ avant-garde techniques like sous-vide and purées to transform ‘indigenous foods’ like cuy (guinea pig) and arrachacha (tuber) into fine dining experiences, and the normalization of these foods into non-indigenous Peruvian diets. In the penultimate chapter, Juliana Duque-Mahecha reports on the recent dynamism in the foodscape of Colombia including a recent national policy that elevates cuisine to the category of intangible cultural heritage. In her examination of a growing culinary network she evaluates traditional Columbian cuisine as presented in three strata of public dining: fine restaurants, comfort restaurants and marketplace food stalls and in them she finds different expressions of authenticity and different strategies for interpreting   valorizing traditional Colombian foods. The final and most interesting chapter for me brings the tourist gaze to an Afro-Caribbean community on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. Here, like many other places in Latin America, traditional foodways have been supplanted with more convenient  commercially processed foods and regional identities are being subsumed into generalized otherness. Monica Nikolić argues that traditional cooking techniques and recipes are a form of embodied cultural capital that has become a performance art for tourist consumption. Preparing traditional foods in traditional ways provides a source of income for local interpreters and a means to project an authentic Afro-Caribbean identity in a globalizing and homogenizing era.

Carole Counihan concludes the book with a tidy summation and a few careful suggestions for further research in areas that emerge from the themes presented notably the continuous negotiations between the “modern” and the “traditional” in the world’s kitchens. Cooking Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America, is a wonderful trans-anthropological peek into the dynamic kitchen and strongly reminds us of the importance of food preparation and material culture in our greater understanding of food and foodways.  With a sample drawn from a generously inclusive region, this book will, in whole or in part, enrich reading lists for courses in the anthropology of food, ethno-archaeology, material culture, and people and cultures of Latin America at the undergraduate levels.  Buen Provecho!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Katrina Fridges, 10 Years After

Photo by Donna Bonner

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

It would be hard to not notice that the tenth anniversary of hurricane Katrina is upon us here in New Orleans. I have been trying to think of ways that this blog might be used as a platform for thinking about the last decade. What is it that anthropology—specifically, the anthropology of food—might have to say about how things have turned out here? I am going to try to write a few short blog postings that can help answer that question. These are mostly personal reflections, but there is also some actual research behind some of my observations. I will try to indicate when that is the case.

Mostly, I want to evoke some of the scenes that have shaped the experience of the last decade in terms of food in New Orleans. I could start, for example, with the sublime meatball sandwich I had at the Italian Pie (a local chain) at the corner of Magazine and Joseph streets in mid-October 2005. Sublime largely because it was there and available in a city in which most of the restaurants were still closed. Or the stunningly good shrimp po’boy I ate at Crabby Jack’s soon after I returned, possibly in the company of my colleague Martha Ward. To this day, that post-exile shrimp po’boy stands out in my mind as the best po’boy ever. Eating in restaurants then was an opportunity to reconnect with friends and with strangers while getting a sense that the city was really coming back to life. But there was also a practical reason why people, even people who did not live in flooded neighborhoods, had to eat out in the beginning. There simply was not a lot of food available in stores (if the stores were open).

And whether or not your house flooded, in all likelihood, you did not have a refrigerator. In 2006, in an online discussion, someone posted a very theoretical query about refrigeration and technology. I was inspired to write a very short (not very theoretical) response that summed up our refrigeration issues. In thinking about the “Katrinaversary” (a word I did not make up), I remembered that note and dug it up. Given the importance of technology like refrigerators for making our contemporary food system possible, I think it is worth recalling what the failure of that technology meant back in 2005. Here is the note, more or less as originally posted, with a few additional thoughts:

Photo by Donna Bonner

Photo by Donna Bonner

Here in New Orleans, refrigerators became, after Katrina, the site for many reflections on identity, decay and waste.  They stank and were teeming with maggots.  Several weeks without power, it turns out, reveals that your refrigerator is not actually well sealed against bugs.  It also reveals that things like meat eventually turn to liquid if left to their own devices, without refrigeration.  Actually, many other things concerning the place of refrigeration in our lives were revealed that most of us would have been happier not knowing.

Anyhow, most people (and many restaurants) found it impossible to fully clean the refrigerators, so that even in the unflooded parts of the city, all last fall the streets were lined with hundreds of thousands of discarded refrigerators (I am not exaggerating — scale is important to this story), most of them duct-taped closed, in order to prevent the putrid contents from walking off.  The mostly white exteriors proved to be an irresistible canvas for commentary about everything from FEMA and President Bush, to Saints owner Tom Benson (who had threatened to take the team from the city permanently), the mayor, and, of course, the general funkiness (not the good kind) of the fridges themselves.  If you search on Google, you will find many collections of photos of these fridges available on the web.  Here are a few links to some collections of pictures:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Fridges_damaged_by_Hurricane_Katrina

http://www.flickr.com/photos/84995794@N00/sets/1733550/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/unapologetic/sets/1092465/

One thing that is hard to express in writing is the overwhelming smell that hung over the city during most of the fall of 2005.  We call it the Katrina smell and, if you were here, you recognize it immediately.  I guess it is the smell of death and decay on a large scale.  It is not a nice smell.  It was accompanied by large numbers of what I am told are called “corpse flies” buzzing about the city and even inside your house (if you had one).

Those of us who have houses mostly have new refrigerators by now.  Our relationship to those beautiful new machines has been transformed, I think.  At least mine has.  But that is another story.

Mardi Gras, 2006. Photo by David Beriss

Mardi Gras, 2006. Photo by David Beriss

Let me conclude with a sense of how that relationship has changed. Before 2005, I suspect I was like a lot of other Americans, using the fridge and freezer to store a lot of food, some of which we might not get around to using for quite a while. No more. In the last decade, we have become very much of a “just in time” family, keeping only enough food around for the week. There is too much danger of having to toss the entire contents of the fridge (and waste both food and money) to keep much more than that around. What we do have in terms of surplus, we are quick to share with our neighbors when the power goes out. The last time we had an extended power outage here (Hurricane Isaac, 2012, I believe), we had a series of dinners and parties with our neighbors over a few days in which we all tried to exhaust the contents of our refrigerators. Then we threw the rest out, unplugged the machines, and left the doors open. When the power eventually returned, the refrigerators mostly worked. And they were maggot free. Which is priceless.

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Filed under disaster, katrina anniversary, New Orleans, refrigeration, technology