Category Archives: United States

“I Remember the Day I said ‘Okay, I’ve Read Everything,’” an Interview with Carole Counihan

David Sutton

Here is the second in my series of video interviews with food anthropologists. This one is with Dr. Carole Counihan, who probably needs no introduction. In it she reflects on her career, her research in Italy and southern Colorado, and her role as editor of Food and Foodways. This interview was conducted at her summer home in Antonito, Colorado, and was followed by a delicious Tuscan soup that Carole prepared, which unfortunately I cannot share here. See also Carole’s “Proust Questionaire.”

More interviews to follow soon.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food history, history, Italy, United States

Review: Eating Tomorrow

Eating Tomorrow

Wise, Tim (2019) Eating Tomorrow. Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. New York: The New Press. ISBN 9781620974223

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
(Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA)

This is a must read for economists, anthropologists, and consumers interested in the future of food, nutrition, and smaller-scale farming. Its distinctive focus is smaller-scale farmers, and their struggle to survive on their farms and to produce diverse, nourishing and affordable foodstuffs over and against Big-Ag and Big-Food in collusion with national governments. It represents the most recent entry in the “Food First!” themed books, which formulate the chief causes of world hunger to be “who controls the food system,” what crops are produced by what methods, and how available food is distributed. All center on questions of food access, not absolute shortage.

The individual case studies, covering Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA); Iowa in the US; Mexico in Latin America, and India in South Asia, respectively address hot-button issues like destructive impacts of foreign direct investment (AKA land-grabs, especially in SSA), and environmental pollution of water, soils, air, plant and animal species and communities, that singly and together wreck farmers’ lives and livelihoods in rural communities across the US and globalizing world. A related theme is erosion of traditional land races of crops, especially maize, by introduction of genetically engineered, corporate controlled seeds in the US, Mexico, and SSA. These corporate invasions discourage or prevent farmers from saving and planting their own locally adapted, open-pollinated seed or locally produced and traded hybrids, and from adopting regenerative farming methods that lower requirements to purchase inorganic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, thus reducing farm costs and raising farmer livelihoods.

The entire volume, and the Indian chapter in particular, voice a demand for change that will advance everyone’s human right to food over and against profits for a few. The related terms,“food sovereignty,” call for an end to dependency for farmers, farm communities, and nations and their governments, who should be attending more to “food security” and not subservient to corporate demands in setting food policies that demonstrably disadvantage small (and sometimes large) farmers and usually lower rather than raise production and income. Yet this is no mere political-economic diatribe savaging industrial, capitalist agriculture and showing the inevitable associated ills of globalized food systems. Instead, the ten chapters are based on four years of repeated research visits to the focal countries, where Wise interviewed and here effectively channels the voices of local food and farm activists seeking solutions to under-production and remedies to reduce corporate controls. These voices don’t always agree with each other, particularly around issues of organic practices and labeling, or the requirement for open-pollinated versus locally adapted and controlled hybrid seeds. But they share the common characteristic that they oppose world capitalist dominance of their seed selections and soil maintenance practices, which speaks to the overarching issue: who controls the food system? They oppose conventional high-input, business-as-usual agriculture or more advanced molecular breeding techniques because these approaches are dominated by mostly outsider, agribusiness interests that collude with governments to dominate food policy and constrain more self-reliant, resilient ways to farm and eat. These locally and nationally grounded researcher, producer, and consumer associations, in short, put people and democracy first, as they seek new ways to deliver new life to farming and farmers, and in the process, help their communities and nations regenerate healthier foodstuffs, diets, and livelihoods.

The book is superbly written; throughout it shows the influence of Frances Moore Lappe and politically progressive colleagues at the Small Planet Institute, a spin-off of Food First—Institute for Social and Development Policy, which contributed physical, intellectual, and spiritual space in the forms of dedicated research assistance and a constructive writing environment where Wise shaped his arguments. The results are ten carefully organized and well-documented chapters sewn into a unified whole that seamlessly adopts Food First’s World Hunger: Ten (Twelve) Myths format, without articulating the formal structural repetition of this myth-demolition rhetoric. Like Lappe and her team, Wise, a well-seasoned, food and development policy journalist, artfully practices the craft of activist research and advocacy. The text flows, enlivened by the individual interviewees’ voices, juxtaposed with clear, common-sense explanations of scientific-technological procedures like hybrid plant breeding and use of cover crops to nurture soil regeneration. As he illuminates Big Ag industry domination of state-run agricultural research and extension institutions in country after country, he renders these multi-disciplinary analyses and understandings easily accessible to the non-expert reader or consumer.

These essays, originally published in shorter form as blogs, present well-organized, first-person national food-policy case studies that combine interviews with farmers, scientists, policy makers, and business persons with national statistics showing the several ways un-democratic processes skew food production, choices, supply and demand. They make the book well worth reading and using for discussions of food policy not only in university classrooms but in social media and community venues more generally. In particular, I found chapter 6 on biofuels (“Fueling the Food Crisis”) a succinct history and political-economic account of this issue. Chapter 3, “The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Land Grab in Africa” exposes the multiple players, including China, who dispossessed small farmers in Mozambique. Farmers in this country (and elsewhere) have also fallen prey to predatory and ill-advised Jatropha plantings for bio-fuels. These are projects that failed to yield returns on investment to outsiders but never return land to grow food to the original subsistence and market cultivators, with the result that former cultivators and affected market consumers go hungry.

There are two energizing Mexico chapters, one on GMOs (especially corn) and the second on NAFTA’s impact on Mexico’s family farmers. In each case, activists sprouted around the country to make maize a unifying political cry for food security, food sovereignty, and the human right to food — Sin Maiz no hay pais!. At least in the short term, class action suits and court cases, plus political demands for change, kept GMO maize officially out of the country, and sought additional agricultural protections in re-negotiation of NAFTA terms. The conclusion foresees continual struggle of small farmers against big corporations, but hope’s edge (to borrow the title of Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe’s 2001 book) in democracy and the people’s mobilizations, which Wise has witnessed the world over, and the potential power of these food-related associations to change damaging courses of development.

These illuminations to one side, food anthropologists and other knowledgeable readers will likely identify, in each chapter, assertions that suggest Wise’s technical and social understandings are incomplete, and in some cases, elitist. Take the sentence “Everyone knows that Mexicans don’t want anyone to mess with their tortillas.” (p.192) It serves to drive home the theme of chapter 7, “Monsanto Invades Corn’s Garden of Eden in Mexico,” which is a carefully developed essay on the dangers GMO maize and transnational corporate dominance of food pose to traditional Mexican maize farmers, culinary practices, indigenous and other consumers of local cultural, maize-based diet, and maize biodiversity (because Mexico is a center of origin and diversity in that crop). Mexican anthropologists have managed to get the traditional maize-based Mexican diet classified and protected as a UNESCO cultural heritage of humankind. The original motivation for this UNESCO designation, however, was not merely GMO maize, but the widespread deterioration in the quality of tortillas even without these new varieties. The publicly subsidized corn products, machine made from inferior, cheaper, (sometimes imported) maize prompted low-income consumers to seek wheat alternatives, which the government also subsidized, as equally if not more palatable staple sources of cereal-grain calories.

Wise wisely shares with the reader the luscious, local indigenous-product based high-cuisine meal he enjoys at a top Mexico City restaurant (in the Hilton Hotel) run by a celebrity chef. His palate is delighted by traditional vegetables and sauces, accompanied by tortillas (it goes without saying) hand-made from top quality indigenous maize. But the food-insecure Mexican masses he cares about cannot afford to eat this way, and some of the details of the meal’s ingredients (cooked ant-egg sacs for specialty flavors and textures) reveal a tendency on the part of elite Mexicans to conserve as high cuisine traditional indigenous foods that most indigenous Mexicans, long suffering in the countryside, can no longer find or, as impoverished consumers in urban areas, afford to eat.

Among the SSA examples, the case of Malawi underemphasizes the role of government in collusion with grain-trader corruption relative to Monsanto (now merged into Bayer—how quickly the named, accountable identities of corporate boogey-men change). A key concern for democracy-watchers during one good harvest year was the government of Malawi’s non-transparent transfer of maize to Zimbabwe or other corrupt heads of state, who used this “food as a weapon” strategically to consolidate or maintain power. Such anti-democratic goings-on are not addressed directly — only in a phrase asserting that in one year maize production was sufficiently high to allow Malawi to export grain to hungry neighbors! The chapter on land-grabs in Mozambique, summarized positively above, lacks a fuller political contextualization describing the land-holding and farmer situations arising from the legacy (e.g., land mines, human displacement and dismemberments) of civil war (which is mentioned in passing).

But this is not to argue that Wise should or could completely address all relevant questions and contexts in a volume of less than 300 pages. Overall perspectives for further development include: “what role will (traditional) staple foods play in future food?” and “will people continue to farm mixed crops that include cereal grains, grain legumes, and vegetables, so that they maintain healthy traditional food patterns?”   These are questions that can be raised for Mexican, Central American, and other maize-eating populations, especially in SSA, but also for traditionally rice-eating nations, like Japan, who for decades have been consuming more wheat and other non-endogenous staple foods.

Such issues accentuate, and do not diminish, the value of this text, and the need for additional, ground-level case studies of local organizations, their results in measurable agricultural practice, and their influence on national food policies. From beginning to end, Wise hones his theme that ultimately all producers and consumers need and want healthy food products, clean water, and a food environment that will be resilient in the face of climate change: “All are striving for the same thing: the right of everyone to eat safe and healthy food today while ensuring that we steward our natural wealth so we can all eat tomorrow.” This message puts human beings, particularly small food producers, along with their soils, water, and seeds at the center of advocacy for healthy food, and makes everyone responsible for ensuring everyone’s right to food. He brings the discussion back, time and again, to the radical economist’s directive not just to follow the money but also investigate who benefits, which in these cases are transnational seed and chemical companies and their national co-conspirators who compel small farmers to buy these seed and chemical products or exit the land. The message, as ever, is timely and urgent, and calls for readers to gain greater exposure of those in the battle for food-justice on all sides and at all levels.

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Filed under Africa, agriculture, anthropology, food activism, food security, GMO food, Mexico, United States

Review/Interview: Food and Animal Welfare

Food and Animal Welfare 

Food and Animal Welfare Henry Buller and Emma Roe. Contemporary Food Series, Bloomsbury Academic, London. 2018. ISBN 9780857855787

Sharyn Jones
(Northern Kentucky University)

Most people in Western countries eat meat and consume at least some form of animal products every day. Yet, pausing to consider the animal lives involved in our food systems and the complex web of human and non-human interactions that produce what we ingest is a rare occurrence. We have a long history of segregating food animals from our lexicon of items on the table and in the supermarket aisles. For example, cattle products are referred to by the generalized terms “beef” or “steaks”, or “burgers”; pigs are referred to as “pork”, or “bacon”, or “ribs”. One rarely notes that one is eating a “steer” or a “barrow” or “gilt”. Moreover, the way that animal food products and animal lives (their value and quality) are described, marketed, and sold reflects a distancing of living creatures from animal products and human consumption practices.

Henry Buller’s and Emma Roe’s new book, Food and Animal Welfare deals directly with this disconnect and the “de-animalization” of food animals from products and consumers. Buller’s and Roe’s central thrust, and their most fundamental argument, is that a concern for farm animal life and welfare is the critical link between consumption and production. Their text provides ample support for the assertion of essential human and animal interconnections and the prevalence of animal welfare issues which permeate our global food chains. I intentionally read this book slowly, digesting the details over several months and I relished every moment of it (as an aside it should be noted that my husband and I co-manage a humane, small-scale heritage hog and poultry farm, a fact which makes the subject of this book particularly important to me). After reading Buller’s and Roe’s book I had many questions for them. They generously agreed to share their thoughts with FoodAnthropology readers and I have included my interview with the authors below, following my general summary and impressions.

Buller and Roe, who are geographers, take a broad interdisciplinary approach to their subject, integrating information from economics, ethics, agriculture, politics, policy, animal science, animal studies, veterinary science, post-humanism, and ethnography. The perspectives presented in the text are primarily focused on the UK and Europe, however case studies from China, and Hungary are also provided and the authors often mention comparative situations in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. Importantly, the book incorporates narratives and participant observations from farmers, animal caregivers, and animal welfare specialists in the UK and China.

This dense yet compact text includes seven chapters and 222 pages. The first chapter focuses on the disciplines of food studies and animal studies and explores the idea of animal welfare as a link between these academic fields. Buller and Roe advocate for bridging the divide between production and consumption via recognition of animal subjectivities (their lives, realities, relationships, and roles in food systems). The second chapter explores three formal trajectories of concern and measurement for animal welfare, including: scientific, ethical, and economic. In the third chapter, Roe’s observational and ethnographic fieldwork on farms and with animal caregivers is shared. The fourth chapter is entitled, “Selling Welfare” and it addresses how animal welfare materializes into commodified, marketed, and consumed products. The fifth and sixth chapters take a comparative global view of the evolution of social interest in food-animal well-being as it relates to production and consumption. Finally, the last chapter returns to the idea of how producers and consumers might ethically engage with the lives of animals who become human food.

In general this book presents a case for the deep connection, affiliation, and mutual dependence between nature and culture, humans, animals, and our environments. The major strengths of this text are many, but several stand out to me personally. First, the authors’ skillful use of ethnography provides insights into the deeply empathetic and challenging relationships that animal carepersons have with farm animals. This approach contributes a provocative dimension to the research presented elsewhere in the book and it adds a great deal of detail about real life situations that animals and their carepersons experience. Roe worked with animal caregivers on a mixed-use farm in the UK for several weeks. In the process, specific on-farm practices of animal care, welfare assessment, daily maintenance, inter-species (or animal-human) communication, and decisions about animal killing were documented are described through participant observations and interviews. The day-to-day demands of caring for animals are explored in relation to how these practices are embodied in the animals themselves, and how they later translate into the value and quality of food products. Buller and Roe intentionally use the term “careperson” vs. “stockperson” in order to illustrate a shifting understanding of farm animals from mindless objects of property to sentient feeling beings. This ethnographic approach allows us to empathize and to better understand farm animals life on a daily basis.

Second, Buller and Roe masterfully incorporate massive amounts of data from many lines of evidence. At the same time, they succulently make a powerful case for valuing and thinking deeply about the relationships we all have with food animals as well as the materiality and sentient nature of these creatures. Third, the authors have a great deal of empathy and concern (both for carepersons and the animals for whom they care) which is clearly expressed throughout their work. In this way they straddle the line between being objective social scientists and humane, caring, real people. This approach has become increasingly common and it supports their case as well as enhancing their writing, making this book easy to read and enjoyable.

Appropriate audiences for Food and Animal Welfare include anthropologists who study food or human-animal interactions; scholars interested in post-humanist approaches; anyone who wants to understand the nuts and bolts of what processes and practices deliver animal products to the table; graduate students, and advanced undergraduates. I think this book, in all or part should be required reading for students of food anthropology, economics, animal science, biology, and food systems ethics. Somewhat less traditionally, individuals who are either directly participating in, or perhaps simply interested in the sustainable food movement would find this book to be extremely revealing.

As noted at the beginning of this review, Henry Buller and Emma Roe answered my inquiries about their text and work. Here are the questions that I asked them and their thoughtful responses regarding Food and Animal Welfare:

  1. In a couple sentences please explain your approach (multi-disciplinary and theoretical?) to studying human-non-human interactions.

“Our approach is to study the sentient materialities of animal bodies as they are mobilized by the agro-food supply chain, along the process of going from a living farm animal through to becoming a packaged and labeled food product which is then bought and eaten. We are interested in bringing attention to care practices in the supply chain from stockperson, regulator, retailer, consumer, that has developed the market in higher animal welfare meat and dairy products. We also bring our interest in studying the performance of how farm animal welfare is being known, made and performed by discussing the sociology of animal welfare science as it has developed to offer scientific credibility for a topic that has had considerable civil society concern that farm animals have feelings that matter to them.”

2 . What personal experiences motivated you to write about this subject and the issuescovered in Food and Animal Welfare?

Emma Roe – “My mum has always been passionate about caring for animals and to try to improve the quality of animal lives’. We had a pet rabbit when I was growing up that she felt was unhappy in its cage, it ended up running wild in our Norfolk garden and mating with a wild rabbit. For her it has been about putting quality of life before health and safety. However, her concerns were never directed towards farm animals when I was growing up. Meanwhile my dad was the village shop keeper and so I became interested in food retailing, and where our food comes from, from quite an early age. I remember him boiling a leg of ham in the back of the shop. Growing up in Norfolk the connection between the food we eat and what was growing in the fields and the hens/veg patch/fruit trees in our garden definitely made an impression on me.”

Henry Buller – “I have long been fascinated by the role of veterinary medicine and veterinary action in mediating forms of human/animal relations. My mum wanted me to be a vet but I couldn’t do the math. So I have returned to it, many years later from the angle of social science.”

  1. What has the response been to your book in the UK and elsewhere?

“Silence! Amongst the community with which we work, there has been some (though limited, response). The social science of farm animal welfare sits uneasily between disciplines and ideologies. Although that is a space we enjoy occupying, others find it problematic.”

  1. What research findings that you share in the book do you consider to be the most profound or surprising?

“The men and women who actually work with the living farm animals and who work to give them a better quality of life are often having to negotiate the cultural, social and personal challenges of improving the life experience of the farm animal whilst keeping within the constraints of what the food market is willing to pay for higher welfare farmed food and caring for their own sentient sensibilities. These people understand a lot about the animals they work with, they are sensitive to what the animals may be communicating through bleat/cheep/grunt or moo. The same is often true for those men that handle and manage the living animals in the abattoir. These folk are too often forgotten or represented as complicit if there are occasions of poor animal welfare.”

  1. Based on your research and experiences what predictions do you have about the future of animals as food in the UK and/or beyond?

“The growing momentum behind finding alternatives to animal-based protein to address the environmental damage that livestock production is doing to the planet coupled with the ongoing concern about the welfare of animals produced by the meat and dairy industry, offers the prospect of a future with a reduced number of farmed animals. It may take some time to get there however, currently meat consumption is steadily rising in China for example, despite high-profile adverts urging reduction primarily from links to non-communicable diseases. In the short term we wonder how the market in higher welfare meat and dairy products may be affected by ‘so-called’ ethical consumers opting to not eat, or to eat less meat and dairy and what the consequence will be for work to continue to raise welfare standards. Meanwhile there are many low and middle income countries in the world with still much work to address farm animal welfare and to meet UK/European animal welfare standards and where the western diet of high-meat and dairy consumption is an aspiration which at a planetary level seems deeply undesirable.”

  1. What do you think is the single most effective change that the average consumer of meat and animal products could make to improve some of the problems you have identified in the book?

“To always buy higher welfare meat and dairy products and to ask if something is not labelled – not only in the supermarket but also when you eat outside of the home whether fast food van, cafe or restaurant chain. And perhaps ultimately to eat less meat and dairy and if one does ensure it is from a higher welfare production system.”

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Filed under anthropology, ethics, farming, food policy, United Kingdom, United States

Review: Making Modern Meals

Making Modern Meals by Amy B. Trubek

Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today. Amy B. Trubek. University of California Press. 2017. 320pp. ISBN: 9780520289239.

Katharina Graf

SOAS-University of London

Making Modern Meals is a valuable addition to the growing literature on cooking and food preparation. Amy B. Trubek’s new book provides a kaleidoscopic perspective on all sorts of cooks: home cooks under pressure to produce a healthy meal for their families, people who cook to earn their livelihood, singles and professionals seeking to create the perfect meal as well as crafty bakers who trust their hands more than machines and the food industry. In this breadth of viewpoints onto the everyday practice of cooking lies the strength and novelty of this book. By pairing ethnographic case studies with surveys, statistics, cookbooks and historical sources, Trubek documents how cooking as a chore, as an occupation, as art and as a craft has changed over the last century in America. She found that despite a widespread perception that cooking and its associated knowledge and skills are declining, Americans do in fact have a decent level of cooking capabilities, but they do not necessarily make use of them every day largely due to the time constraints imposed by modern life.

The first chapter engages with what Trubek argues is the most common association with the role of the cook: the domestic female cook who considers cooking first and foremost a chore and an obligation to others. Through a brief history of the domestic science movement later turned home economics, she traces the still strong links between ideals of domesticity and home cooking. Despite the broadening of choices from pre-processed foods and eating   out options especially since the 1950s, women as mothers remain symbolically tethered to most domestic tasks related to everyday nourishment and nurturance. While she briefly focuses on learning to cook and the reproduction of knowledge, the main focus here is on formalised teaching through the domestic science movement   and popular cookbooks and less on the lived experiences of learning and knowing cooking as the book sets out to do.

The second chapter constitutes a special gem in that it reveals the hidden faces of much of everyday cooking over the last century, “the invisible army” (p. 72) of paid cooks. During the first half of the 20th century these tended to be domestic servants in middle class households, often poor girls and women of colour, whereas during the second half these are increasingly paid cooks, often migrants to America, in restaurants, take-aways and other non-domestic locations. In this story of substitution, as Trubek calls this shift, it is not only technological advances that have increased the possibilities for cooking, but especially “other people [who] help us to cook or not to cook” (p. 71, original emphasis), and this, she argues, since before the 1950s when pre-processed foods and fast foods significantly enlarged consumption choices.   She convincingly shows that while cooking has always constituted an occupation, the locations where paid cooks work have shifted into the public realm and multiplied over the last several decades. Importantly, she points out that much of American cuisine – past and present – is created and reproduced by these paid and often marginalised cooks, and whose knowledge and skill are far from disappearing.

In chapter three Trubek proposes considering cooking as a form of art, which she defines as virtuosity emerging in a dish that is prepared in a creative process and/or when the cook possesses an internalized aesthetic standard. According to her, in creative cooking the boundaries between professional and domestic cooking are blurred, and knowledge and skill emerge through varied bodily, formal and social experiences. To complement the predominant focus on domestic settings, Trubek briefly ventures into French Haute Cuisine and the upholding of a codified standard amongst professional chefs. Although she concludes that a cook’s aesthetics and standards are fluid, responsive and embedded in the sensuous experiences of cooks and eaters alike, throughout this chapter Trubek creates an unfortunate contrast between professional or leisurely cooking as creative and artful and everyday cooking as uncreative and largely lacking a standard, with the former being exemplified through mainly male and the latter through female cooks.

The fourth chapter treats cooking as a craft that simultaneously upholds certain skills and a larger way of life and identity. Trubek charts the history of baking, which has been one of the first domains of food preparation to be fully industrialized, but which in recent years has seen a revival as a craft through both artisanal and home bakers. We learn that cooking from scratch, and baking in particular, can be considered an oppositional category that resists technological and industrial means of making food and embraces the principles of embodiment and mastery. As such, crafty cooking shows the “evidence of the hand” (p. 186). In contrast to a growing emphasis on the final product rather than the process in much of contemporary American cooking, Trubek argues that craft cooks show fidelity to the process rather than the product of their work and, in doing so, “work toward a tradition” (p. 177), whilst also incorporating decades of advances in food science and technology.

The last chapter on health comes back to the first chapter in linking cooking as a chore to the underlying morality of cooking, whereby a century of home economics instruction has contributed to equating a failure to eat “healthy” with a cook’s failure to fulfil her (motherly) caregiving and her moral and civic obligations more broadly. Furthermore, Trubek shows not only that most domestic cooks are aware of micronutrients and dietary guidelines, but also that especially provisioning and choosing the “right” ingredients for a meal are as important for them, yet often ignored in research and national dietary advice. At the same time, her ethnographic cases illustrate that knowing and doing are often disconnected in everyday cooking due to a lack of time, making health a more aspirational category, but one that especially in today’s multifaceted food system requires a cook’s knowledge and skill to be vigilant in the market, the restaurant and the home.

While this book provides a unique breadth of perspectives on the practice of cooking, Trubek does not bring these different categories of cooking together in a comprehensive analytical framework. The resultant picture is colourful and rich in its range from home cooks, paid cooks, creative professionals and leisurely cooks, yet, domestic and everyday cooking is still described as a mother’s duty despite a growing range of alternatives to home cooking, paid cooks remain surprisingly hidden in Trubek’s ethnographic accounts, artful and creative cooking seems to take place outside of these ordinary spheres and persists as a mainly professional and male domain and, finally, crafty cooking stands out as that form of food preparation which upholds traditions and resists our current food system, while remaining seemingly incompatible with the fast-paced reality of most cooks’ everyday life. The reader is left wondering what unites these different categories of cooking despite more than a century of large and small revolutions in our kitchens and comes away with an uneasy feeling of “plus ça change, …”.

Overall, however, this book succeeds in showing the many ways in which cooking as a daily practice is far from declining. Indeed, Making Modern Meals effortlessly shows that to understand how knowledgeable Americans make modern meals today, we have to identify and represent all cooks. This book thus makes an essential read for anyone interested in the practice of cooking in a thoroughly industrialized society, both from a historical and a contemporary angle. The deliberate combined focus on home cooks and paid cooks, on lay and professional expertise in routine and leisurely settings bridges the gap between the hitherto predominantly divided ethnographic contexts of professional and domestic food contexts. Readers with an interest in empirical research will also benefit from the broad range of methods used for this research, ranging from participant observation, interviews and videotaping to surveys, statistical data, cookbooks and historical documents, which fruitfully complement one another.

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, chefs, cooking, food education, food history, United States

Thesis Review and Interview: Tacos, Gumbo, and Work

Edited Copy FalconPhotograph: Fernando Lopez

Please note: As Associate 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).

Tacos, Gumbo, and Work: The Politics of Food and the Valorization of Labor. Sarah Fouts. Ph.D. Thesis in Latin American Studies, Tulane University, New Orleans. 2017.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter)

Tacos, Gumbos and Work interrogates the economic and social interplays between migrant food vendors and construction workers – both commonly undocumented – in post-Katrina New Orleans, and situates this synergism within a broader political framework of regulation, law and migration policy. Fouts argues that taco trucks and loncheras provide migrant workers with ‘familiar and sustaining foods’ (p.4) and, as such, she examines the cultural work food vendors perform in the creation of their own economic and political spaces. The cultural work of food is a prevailing theme, but the key contribution of this rich ethnographic discussion lies in Fouts’s illumination of the ways that vendors look to navigate an intrinsically unhelpful and constraining bureaucratic system laden with structural inequities. The thesis highlights the multiple barriers food vendors face in terms of language, their status as undocumented, their access to social networks, and a licensing system entrenched in semantics that does not reflect the needs of the community. It thereby demonstrates how vendors’ economic and cultural capital, in association with their legal status, shapes their capacity for both social and physical mobility: this occurs not only in the sense that those who are documented can be more visible, but is also shaped by the extent vendors have access to knowledge and actors that can facilitate their navigation of ‘the system’. The theme of (in)visibility thus emerges in myriad ways and Fouts teases out the tensions that stem from vendors working in public spaces, whilst remaining in the shadows.

In capturing and comparing the voices and personal biographies of vendors with a range of economic and cultural capital, Tacos, Gumbo and Work successfully shifts its gaze between individual motivations and practices and the broader political and economic dynamics informing vendor actions and decisions. Many of Fouts’s participants are clearly vulnerable and structurally marginalized, yet they are not devoid of agency and Fouts’s sensitive representation stresses vendors’ creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, and their capacity to affect change within the constraints of living and working. This is particularly well illustrated by the manner that some vendors have rejected work in the formal economy in favor of the informal sector – an observation that also offers, as the thesis does more broadly, a seething critique of neoliberal policies and its resultant conditions.

Tacos, Gumbo and Work also raises questions regarding applied research, gender dynamics and social divisions within migrant communities. Below, I put these questions directly to the author, Sarah Fouts, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Lehigh University.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (EJA): Your ethical sensitivity and integrity are clearly evident throughout your discussion, not least in your methodology and in the volunteer work you undertook for your participants and the Congress of Day Laborers. How did you go about balancing your engagement with the community and applied practice with the academic analysis required when writing a PhD? What value does an activist approach bring?

Sarah Fouts (SF): Prior to my academic career, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and worked for a non-profit, so much of my worldview is in applied practice. As an academic I have done my best to extend this commitment to service. While it may seem that an unbiased analysis precludes close involvement, I’ve found that the two can work in concert, and I think it’s important not to take from the communities with whom I work without offering support or service. I was also fortunate to study in my field site, so logistically it was easier to balance the research and community engagement. With the community-engaged work, I had to learn when to say no to volunteer assignments, for instance during intense phases of writing or teaching, and I had a good enough relationship with those folks that they understood. Like I mention in the thesis, I never realized the degree to which my community-engaged work would impact my actual thesis. Once I realized that I could use it as the thread to connect my research, it was obvious that that was the organizing principle all along. An activist approach allows for more collaboration, particularly for people to be a part of telling their own story. For the researcher, accompaniment brings a first hand glimpse into how people navigate systems. But it does more than just understanding the barriers people face, it also helps them get through these barriers by interpreting for them, helping them access other resources, etc. As long as researchers are transparent about their involvement with communities, I think engagement can lend more valuable insight based on first-hand experience than just bird’s eye observation.

EJA: You mention that a possible direction for further investigation is the gendered dynamics at play in this context and, although your argument and analysis takes you in a different direction, there are certainly some interesting ethnographic observations on gender in your thesis. Given the ongoing critical debates about the feminization of food work, can I ask you to reflect upon how your own findings, as well as further scholarship on informal food vending more widely, could enhance our understanding of reproductive labor, especially its interplays with productive labor?

SF: The first five years after Katrina, it was mostly men that came to New Orleans. Women and children started to arrive after 2010, to reunite with their families and as a result of political instability across Central America. Oftentimes, it was the women who recognized the dearth of food options and the market for mobile food vending services. Women also continue to understand the flexibility of the street vending industry and the potential profitability. In many of these cases, reproductive labor directly intersected with productive labor in that women are able to prepare food for sale, while taking care of their children and completing other domestic work. In some of the more clandestine economies, women produce and sell food from their own homes; people would pick up foods directly from the home or someone, oftentimes men, would deliver the foods to construction sites. So in those cases, the women never had to leave home. Your question makes me realize a key part I left out in the case of the two dueling tamale vendors in Chapter Two. I fail to mention that there is free childcare at the Congreso meetings where the women sell food. So, the women could set up their booth and sell foods while their children played inside. This is so important. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (2007) addresses this to some degree in her work, as does Lorena Muñoz (2013). The feminization of food work comes up throughout my thesis and as I continue on with the book project I plan to engage this concept more explicitly.

EJA: There are points in your ethnography where there are evident tensions between vendors, particularly in relation to battles over turf. In what ways do these dynamics reflect and intersect with hierarchies of economic and cultural capital within the community?

SF: The root of these tensions and turf battles between vendors reflect hierarchies that manifest in terms of access. Oftentimes, this access is connected to documentation status, because there is so much power or perceived power linked to having papers. Like in the case of Clara and Leonora, Leonora can access more spaces as a tamale vendor because she has legal status through her English-speaking husband. She was able to get licensing—albeit a catering license—when Clara was not. But based on the other cases, it is likely Clara could have gotten a license as well (if she called the right person), she just assumed that she could not due to being undocumented. Other examples of turf wars include brick and mortar establishments versus the food truck vendors, which isn’t exclusive to New Orleans. These types of battles usually depend on institutional support as part of the hierarchies of capital. Brick and mortar places received support from the Louisiana/National Restaurant Association to fight for policies limiting the mobility of food trucks. But as food truck popularity grew nationwide, New Orleans City Council increasingly backed more liberal food truck ordinances, yet even those policies had limitations as shown in Chapter Three. One argument I maintain is that many of these policies, even though they may attempt to be liberal, fail to take into account what is happening on the ground locally.

As I continue onto the book project, I draw in a more cross-racial analysis, which reflects integration of Latinx communities in a predominantly Black city and within a New Orleans food culture that is quite homogenous. So, I consider questions like how have Latinx foods been creolized into New Orleans food culture. Here, these hierarchies of economic and cultural capital definitely come into play, especially within a Bourdieusian theoretical framework. But my argument links back to my first statement, drawing in questions of access—documentation status, class, and race. Those issues are inherently linked to these hierarchical tensions.

References

Muñoz, Lorena, “From Street Child Care to Drive-throughs: Latinas Reconfigure and Negotiate Street Vending Spaces in Los Angeles,” in Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 2013, 133-143.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierette, Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: UC Press. 2007.

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, labor, Latinx foodways, migration, New Orleans, reviews, United States, urban, work

CFP: Southern Cultures Special Issue on Coastal Foodways

This is a bit last minute, but seems like it may be of interest to SAFN writers and other readers of this blog:

Call for Papers
Special issue of Southern Cultures: Coastal Foodways
Spring 2018

Southern Cultures, the award-winning, peer-reviewed quarterly from UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, encourages submissions from scholars, writers, and artists for our Coastal Foodways Issue, to be published Spring 2018. We will be accepting submissions for this special issue through October 3, 2017, at https://southerncultures.submittable.com/Submit .

This call aims to gather work that documents and understands the food and foodways-related issues of the southern coast, in its present moment, and in the voices of scholars, fishers and fishmongers, coastal activists, environmentalists, and communities broadly defined. We understand southern foodways to exist across many genres, disciplines, and collaborations and seek to expand the conversation to the interaction of peoples and cultures with the broader forces of political, social, historical, and economic change at work in the Atlantic and Gulf Souths. Global South analyses are welcome as well.

Submissions can explore any topic or theme related to southern coastal life, with a special interest in pieces that seek new understandings of the coast and its food cultures, identify current communities and concerns, and address its ongoing challenges. We welcome explorations of the region in the forms Southern Cultures publishes: scholarly articles, memoir, interviews, surveys, photo essays, and shorter feature essays.

Possible topics might include (but are not limited to):

  • The politics of evolving coastal food economies
  • Changing labor and fishing industry scenarios
  • Coastal tourism and real estate development issues
  • Climate change and sea rise, wetlands loss, and environmental degradation
  • Local seafood movement

As we also publish a digital edition, we are able to supplement essays with video, audio, and interactive visual content. We encourage creativity in coordinating print and digital materials in submissions and ask that authors submit any potential digital materials with their essay or introduction/artist’s statement.

We encourage authors to gain familiarity with the tone, scope, and style of our journal before submitting. Those whose institutions subscribe to Project Muse can read past issues for free via http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/southern_cultures/ . To read our current issue, access our submission guidelines, or browse our content, please visit us online at http://www.SouthernCultures.org/ .

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On Food and Labor, Briefly

David Beriss

Andrew Puzder has decided to withdraw his name from consideration for Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, nominating a fast-food executive who opposes raising the minimum wage and likes the idea of replacing workers with machines raises a lot of questions. Yet even without Puzder, most of those questions remain relevant, especially since Mr. Trump has, in his other cabinet picks, pursued an agenda that favors big corporations and their leaders over improving the lives of workers. As a consequence, the conditions faced by workers in the food industry need to be at the core of the food movement for the foreseeable future.

When I posted the weekly reading digest earlier this week, I forgot to include a link to an important editorial on immigration, restaurant work, and low wages. Written by Diep Tran, for the NPR food blog, the piece focuses on the problematic idea that foods associated with certain ethnicities and immigrants should be cheap. Tran, who runs Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, points out that the expectation of cheap food in Vietnamese, Mexican, or other restaurants can only be met if workers in those restaurants are very poorly paid. His article is a call for better pay and working conditions in “ethnic” restaurants, linked to a willingness by consumers to pay a more reasonable price for the food they serve.

There are many reasons to call attention to the issues raised in this editorial. Questions of low pay and bad working conditions are critical in many parts of the food industry, not just in restaurants. A number of anthropologists have in fact written about these issues – Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, for instance (on undocumented Mexican workers in Chicago restaurants), or Steve Striffler (on workers in a chicken processing plant, mostly immigrants), or Seth Holmes (on migrant farm workers). As these authors (and others) all indicate, the struggle over wages and working conditions in the food industry is also related to debates around immigration in the United States.

Although many of us like to celebrate the idea of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, it is worth keeping in mind that it has long been a nation in which those immigrants are exploited and abused, especially if they are undocumented. People often seem to remember Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” for its depiction of the horrors of the meat packing industry in early twentieth century Chicago. Those horrors were inflicted mostly on immigrant workers. In fact, virtually every way in which those workers were exploited in the novel is still being practiced somewhere, either in the United States or elsewhere, today, as we have pointed out on this blog before. We should keep that in mind whenever we wonder about why food at the grocery store, the fast food restaurant, or “ethnic” eatery seems ridiculously cheap. Perhaps what we should be celebrating is that, historically, the U.S. has also been a nation of labor activists, in which workers have mostly received better wages and working conditions when they have successfully organized for them. That is happening now in much of the food industry and seems more necessary than ever.

Anthropologists will no doubt continue to do an excellent job of documenting the exploitation and dangerous conditions that workers—immigrant or not, documented or not—encounter in the food industry. We also need to remind people that if workers are going to have living wages and decent working conditions, all of us may have to pay more for our food. This points to a broader issue, since food industry workers are far from alone in being poorly paid. The struggle for a living wage for all workers, linked to access to affordable housing and health care, should be central to the food movement itself. And, of course, it remains the core issue confronting the future Labor Secretary, whoever that turns out to be.

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Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, labor, United States