Category Archives: 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