Category Archives: urban

Thesis Review: Placing the Apple

Nicol_apple trees

Please note: 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, Associate Book Reviews Editor (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Placing the Apple: Exploring the Urban Applescape. Poppy Nicol. Ph.D. Thesis, Cardiff University, Cardiff (Wales). 2015.

Camelia Dewan (Stockholm University, Sweden)

Poppy Nicol’s thesis Placing the Apple explores the dynamics of the urban apple in the UK. She follows the different types – commodity and club brands as well as different (heritage) varieties of apples across the food distribution chain from multiple retailers (like Tesco) and wholefood markets to community food initiatives and local growers and sellers. The thesis is firmly based in the intersection between geography and anthropology through its use of political ecology and multi-sited qualitative fieldwork to follow the urban apple in order to understand ‘the becomings of the apple’. The thesis itself presents a strong stance supporting place-based, knowledge-intensive, community-centered practices of ‘agro-ecology’ and argues that this has the potential to support more regenerative agri-food systems, particularly in city-regions, while being critical to dominant neoliberal forces that dominate the apple production and distribution sectors.

Throughout the six substantive chapters, Nicol shows the different motivations of producers, retailers and community-centered growers. The use of the London-based social enterprise Growing Community to illustrate agro-ecological logics in the urban apple is one that is particularly original and revealing in terms of an alternative food system within an urban environment. The concept of ‘agro-ecological practices’ permeates the thesis and Nicol juxtaposes it with global, intensified modes of agriculture. In doing so, the author departs from ideas of ‘urban metabolisms’ and ‘depletive agri-food systems’ where the commercial, globalized and corporate apple contributes to the depletion of biodiversity, soil and nutrition caused by the global industrial agri-food system in its search to maximize yield and profit. This is then contrasted with ‘regenerative agri-food systems’ based on agro-ecological practices aiming to optimize ecological processes promoting soil health. Nicol draws on Altieri (1988) to suggest that such practices consider cultivation as a food web rather than a food chain, whereby all elements, cycles and processes within the system are implicitly interrelated, interconnected and interdependent of one another. Such an approach enhances beneficial ecological processes to create a healthy soil with vital soil microbial and mycorrhizal activity that supports more resilient and efficient farming systems. This often involves a range of agronomic techniques, including intercropping, the recycling of manure and food crops into fertilizers and agroforestry, that reduce the use of external inputs and maximize resource efficiency (De Schutter 2014:9).

Nicol argues that the case of Growing Communities in Hackney, London, demonstrates how agro-ecological communities of practice support citizens to grow, trade and consume food in more healthy, ecological and just ways. With the support of the local authority (Hackney Council), housing associations and a number of community groups, Growing Communities have made use of public, private and community-owned space for expanding their patchwork-farming network, box-scheme distribution hubs, farmers’ market as well as the Growing Communities headquarters. Nicol offers many positive examples of the organization’s attempts to support apple variety diversity, including how it has supported a number of school food-growing projects within the borough, developed a network of market gardens and worked with local resident’s groups to plant a community orchard in the public Hackney area. It has also gone beyond Hackney by acquiring a 1.4-acre ex-council nursery site in Dagenham, the first Growing Communities ‘Starter Farm’, which is leased from Dagenham Council. Instead of being on a commercial basis, Growing Communities have focused on the multi-functionality of social spaces. Its distribution sites include three health food shops, an arts center, studio, a community garden, community center, city farm, two churches and a climbing center, as well as the Growing Communities headquarters, enabling interactions between residents.

The logic extends also to the shifting preferences of producers and buyers. Rather than the criteria for sameness, consistency of taste, durability (thicker-skinned apples) and perfection, pickers of local agro-ecologically grown apples tend to use their senses (taste, smell, sensation) to select apples for harvest, those that are deemed unfit for human consumption are used as forage matter or animal feed. The buyers of these apples, in turn, were found to prefer taste over looks and found beauty in imperfection after initial hesitation of how different these agro-ecological apples were compared to the more recognized supermarket brands. Nicol admits that though these sales are marginal in terms of proportions of apples consumed within the borough, she argues that Growing Communities provides a case of a community-led distribution scheme enabling the entry of the agro-ecological and proximate apple into the city.

There is a tendency in the thesis to strongly promote Growing Communities and agro-ecological practices. However, by showing how Hackney Council enable this community-based initiative by providing long-term access and security of tenure of production, trade and distribution sites, Nicol shows the importance of how regenerative agri-food systems are dependent upon securing physical, economic and political space that support and enable such practices. She suggests that forms of governance at local, regional, national and international levels can foster or frustrate the scaling-out of agro-ecological practices. Drawing on existing research by Altieri and Nicholls (2012:22), she argues that powerful political and economic organizations and institutions tend to support research and development for the conventional agro-industrial approach, while research and development for agro-ecology and sustainable approaches have been largely ignored or even ostracized. Nicol found that governance – particularly at national-level – marginalizes agro-ecological practices via the rise of investment in research and development in sustainable intensification, retail-led forms of market transformation and an obstructive policy and planning framework. She argues that practices of consolidation, privatization and externalization of risk enacted by a small number of multiple retailers are enacted within an enabling political and regulatory environment.

Nicol highlights that it is the dominance of multiple retailers in terms of market-share and policy environment that further complicate competition from more agro-ecologically oriented supply forms. The challenges of agro-ecological production and trade are compounded amidst a regulatory environment supportive of ‘market-led’ transformation, whereby supermarkets are considered the ‘familiar’ (HM Government 2008:64) and, it is suggested, default shopping environment for most citizens (pp. 223-224). Nicol shows that the corporate logic favors centralized, vertical forms of supply based on large-scale forms of production, while direct forms of supply tend to be decentralized and horizontal, facilitating trade with small-scale producers.

Nicol states that her analytical framework is informed by political ecology, relational geographies and social practice to explore “the distribution of power and politics in the scaling-up and scaling-out of [agro-ecological versus industrial] practices in and through place” (p. 278). Yet, the theoretical development and linkages to political ecology and how power dynamics shape the availability of the apple and structure of its trade could be developed further with clearer examples. It would have been useful to understand the political ecology that leads to agro-ecological practices being actively ‘marginalized’. In terms of scale, could it be that there is a limit to how much locally-grown and agro-ecological apples can meet demand? Could scaling up of spaces in the borough itself help meet the apple demand of the Hackney community considering that many community members are dependent on food vendors and multiple retailer brands buying commodity and ‘club’ brand apples? The question is, even if access to physical space was not precarious, would it be enough?

A deeper political ecology analysis of the constraints in scaling up agro-ecological apples would strengthen this thesis further. In terms of the use of ‘relational geographies’ and the recognition that non-humans do not just exist within the city and how things ‘become’ food, this could also be developed further with more explicit examples and linkages. It would also be interesting to gain a further understanding of whether the growers and Growing Communities themselves speak about their practices as agro-ecological? In addition, how do her interlocutors perceive the link between agro-ecology and the commodified and brand apples and do they express any concerns about sustainability, particularly in terms of ‘degenerative agri-food systems’ and how commodity and ‘club’ brands may reduce the biodiversity of apple varieties globally?

Her comparison between traditional, organic and biodynamic orchards and agroforestry is an interesting one, particularly in terms of how “biodynamic agriculture considers both the material and spiritual context of food production and works with cosmic as well as terrestrial influences” (p. 214). Pest and disease are seen as indicative of unbalanced fertilization and lack of soil fertility within biodynamic practices. It would be interesting to learn more about how these growers understood and/or embraced ideas of spirituality in agro-ecological practices as this speaks to current anthropological discussions on vitality, life-force and the unseen, as well as burgeoning research and the importance of symbiotic relationships between microbiomes, bacteria and fungi with other life forms (e.g. Tsing et al. 2017). In the concluding chapter, Nicols advocates that agri-biodiversity, agro-ecological and place-based practices as well as producer livelihoods are to be supported, but it is unclear what perspectives and information underlie these suggestions. Why agro-ecological above biodynamic or organic? Such a discussion would strengthen the arguments further.

Overall, this is a well-researched thesis that provides an interesting example of alternative food movements in the UK through the example of a community-based social organization using creative means to expand urban forms of gardening and local produce.

References

Altieri, Miguel, Environmentally Sound Small-Scale Agricultural Projects: Guidelines for Planning. Edited by H.L. Vukasin. New York: Codel. 1988.

Altieri, Miguel and Clara Nicholls, “Agro-Ecological Scaling-up for Food Sovereignty and Resilience.” Sustainable Agriculture Review 11 (2012): 1–29.

De Schutter, Olivier. “Final Report: The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. New York: UN General Assembly. 2014.

HM Government, Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the Twenty-First Century. London: Cabinet Office. 2008.

Tsing, Anna L., Heather A. Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. London: Minnesota University Press. 2017.

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, city, farming, food activism, reviews, United Kingdom, urban

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

Workshop on Feeding Cities: Ethical and Policy Issues in Urban Food Systems

Call for Abstracts!

Workshop on Feeding Cities: Ethical and Policy Issues in Urban Food Systems

Northeastern University, Boston, MA

March 27-28, 2015

Food defines cultures, is at the heart of religious and ethnic traditions, is central to familial and social gatherings, gives us joy (and sometimes pain), and shapes the rhythms of daily life. Of course, food is also about survival. Societies thrive – or collapse – based on ready, reliable, and equitable access to food. There is currently rising demand for food due to population growth and spreading affluence, as well as increasing production and distribution challenges, such as water and land scarcity, climate change, depletion in seafood stocks, and dependency on global food chains. All of this takes place amidst accelerating urbanization; over half the world’s population now lives in cities. Together these trends make studying urban food systems – and developing practices and policies for improving them – crucial to building socially just and ecologically sustainable societies.

This workshop aims to foster cross-disciplinary inquiry on topics relevant to urban food system sustainability, health, and equity. We invite abstracts of no more than 750 words from researchers working on social, ecological, political and ethical issues associated with urban food systems. Topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • Whether local or global food systems are better positioned to promote food availability, food security, resilience and food justice in cities
  • Opportunities and limits of urban agriculture and community-based food systems
  • Relationship between urban food systems and other urban issues, such as affordable housing, land use and environmental justice
  • Evaluation of particular technological and system innovations within urban food systems, with respect to such things as increasing food production, improving tracking/monitoring, promoting food access, and reducing wastage and improving waste management
  • Historical perspectives on food systems and cities
  • Strategies for developing climate change resilience within urban food systems
  • Studies of the structure and efficacy of alternative food advocacy groups or movements, as well as assessment of concerns raised regarding them
  • Whether the concept of ‘food miles’ is useful and, if so, for what end or in what contexts
  • Studies of the economics of urban food systems
  • The role of cultural identify in urban food practices and the construction of urban food systems
  • Issues related to food system workers, particularly in urban contexts
  • Evaluation of food security programs in cities – federal, state, local and non-governmental
  • The extent to which cities ought to be able to regulate foods to promote public health
  • Challenges of democratic governance related to urban food system

The abstract submission deadline is December 15th, 2014. Please email submissions (and questions) to Christopher Bosso (c.bosso@neu.edu) or Ron Sandler (r.sandler@neu.edu). Those accepted will be asked to submit papers one month prior to the workshop, and papers will be made available to other workshop participants. Papers can be of any length and may be stand alone articles or chapters/sections of larger projects, but speakers will be limited to twenty-five minutes to present their ideas, followed by thirty minutes of discussion. For more information go to http://www.northeastern.edu/foodsystems/.

This workshop is sponsored by the Consortium on Food Systems Sustainability, Health, and Equity and the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University, with financial and logistic support by the NU Humanities Center, College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

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Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean: AAA 2013 Panel!

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by Aeleka Schortman and Amy Lasater-Wille

Please consider submitting paper abstracts for our proposed panel on Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean (see full panel description below). While we focus on urbanism, we encourage the submission of research based in rural or urban areas, so long as it speaks to issues of urban change, planning, development, and the like in Latin America or the Caribbean.

We further encourage non-anthropologists and applied researchers with similar interests to submit, especially as this year’s AAA meeting theme is “Future Publics, Current Engagements.”  This theme encourages us as anthropologists to engage with scholars in related disciplines as well as with issues of pressing social, political, and economic significance.

Working Title: Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean

Panel Abstract:

This panel addresses food and foodways in Latin America—here, including the Caribbean—to understand the processes, practices, and politics of urbanization and urban change in that region. Exemplifying worldwide trends, Latin America is growing increasingly urban, a transformation frequently associated with: land and resource consolidation, deepening inequalities, mounting security concerns, and growing involvement in—and dependency upon—globalized, industrialized, and inequitable agro-food systems. Today, historically unprecedented numbers of people, and city-dwellers, in particular, draw needed sustenance from novel and rapidly-changing food procurement and preparation networks. Changing metropolitan foodways present urban residents and visitors with new ways and places in which to consume, produce, or sell foods, and in which to (re)assess and (re)make the meanings of such practices. Providing far more than sustenance, food has social, symbolic, economic, and ideological value. Thus, participating in—or, alternatively, abstaining or being excluded from—eating, shopping, or laboring in urban markets, restaurants, kitchens, or informal locales can have profound social, symbolic, and economic significance. Moreover, changes in urban foodways frequently involve rural transformations, as both urban and rural residents engage with—and create—the production and distribution networks that characterize, and quite literally feed, the region’s growing cities.

Food is central to survival, daily life, and the webs of meaning, and power, that color human existence. Consequently, studies of food and foodways offer exceptional entry points through which to explore and engage with pressing issues of our time, including, here, urbanization and urban change. Latin America’s centuries-old involvement with inequitable, uneven, and increasingly globalized political-economies and agro-food systems makes the region a particularly alluring place for contemporary food-related research and scholarship. Moreover, despite great internal diversity, present (and historical) patterns of socioeconomic development, and inequity, unite portions of Latin America and the Caribbean, offering interesting fodder for both food-related analyses and discussions of regional trends. These include patterns of: foodway and demographic change; neoliberal development (and its alternatives, or backlash); deep, persistent (and frequently-racialized) socio-economic divisions; uneven/inequitable integration into regional/global political-economies; and tourism- and/or corporate-led development (amongst others).

Here, then, we explore food to shed light on the challenges, promises, and dynamic processes of urbanization and urban change in Latin America. In so doing, we engage with themes and issues of critical importance in the theory and practice of anthropology and related fields including: economics, social geography, sociology, urban planning/development, socio-economic policy, and nutrition/health. More precisely, individual panelists may address questions including: (How) are patterns of urban change—or development—implicated in shifting food acquisition, production, distribution, and consumption systems? Who benefits, or fails to benefit, from local, regional, and/or (trans)national food-related policies, programs, practices, and/or discourses? How do urban residents conceptualize and negotiate food-related constraints and opportunities, including potential paradoxes of food/nutritional scarcity amidst seeming abundance? How are Latin America’s urban foodways colored by long-entrenched (or newly emerging): socio-economic inequalities and patterns/practices of socio-economic, political, and/or spatial (geographical) exclusion (or inclusion)? And, how do people perpetuate or resist such inequities? How (and why) do city-dwellers ascribe particular meanings, or values, to specific food-related practices, policies, discourses, and/or symbolic representations? Moreover, what can studies of urban food and foodways tell us about changing—or newly emerging—economies, political systems (or visions), social movements, or global interconnections in Latin America, both urban and rural? What might studies of food reveal about the social, economic, political, and/or nutritional consequences—or implications—of existing economic models, socio-economic policies, or development programs?

DEADLINES (and Related Information):

Abstract Submission for Consideration in the Panel: Please submit proposed paper abstracts by Saturday, April 6th, 2013. All submissions should be sent to BOTH: Amy Lasater-Wille (ael337@nyu.edu) and Aeleka Schortman (schortman@uky.edu). We will respond to all interested parties by Tuesday April 9th (4/9/13) at the latest. We kindly ask that everyone abide by the April 6th deadline so that we may respond to all potential participants in a timely manner and assemble a full panel in time for the AAA abstract submission deadline (April 15, 2013).

AAA Submission Deadline: All accepted panelists must submit their own abstracts electronically to the AAA by April 15, 2013. (We will email instructions regarding how to do this.) Please note that participants must register (and pay) for the 2013 AAA meetings by that deadline as well.

Meeting Information: This year’s American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting will be held at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, Illinois on November 20-24, 2013. The meeting theme is Future Publics, Current Engagements.

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Filed under AAA, AAA 2013 Chicago, anthropology, Caribbean, CFP, foodways, Latin America, sustainability, urban

The NFL Occupation of New Orleans

SuperbowlDavid Beriss
University of New Orleans

The National Football League came to New Orleans a few weeks ago and while everyone else has probably moved on, I am still thinking about it. Part of this is because the big game was here in the middle of Carnival season. In fact, the parade schedule in New Orleans was re-arranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. New Orleans is a party town, but this was a long stretch of festivities, even for us. New Orleans is also a town that has long engaged in very self-conscious self-promotion. The NFL provided a key opportunity for that, allowing the city to put on a show for the entire world to see. I have been interested in the ways in which cities (especially New Orleans) work to create a sense of distinctiveness—for tourism, business, etc.—and this was clearly a great moment to see that happen. The NFL brought us a standardized segment of Americana and New Orleans responded with a cleaned up version of itself.

Perhaps a bigger city can absorb the NFL presence in a way that allows locals to get on with life as if nothing was going on. That would have been difficult here. In fact, city leaders worked hard to raise awareness of the arrival of NFL visitors. Locals were warned about the crowds and traffic to expect in the city center. New Orleans has a relatively concentrated core, with the Superdome very close to the neighborhoods where visitors like to gather. Those neighborhoods are easy to move around in, on foot, via bicycle (a temporary version of the bicycle share programs common in other cities was set up for the Super Bowl) or mass transit (an entirely new streetcar line serving the area near the Superdome was completed in time for the event). The NFL constructed a sort of independent town, with actual buildings and tents near the convention center and took over the vast convention center itself for a variety of events. The French Quarter was occupied by CBS, with banners and temporary structures creating backdrops for broadcasts. At one point people at CBS sparked indignant protests from locals when they decorated the iconic Andrew Jackson statue in the city’s central square with a sign from one of their shows. The sign came down, but the stage was still set. New Orleans was occupied by the NFL and the media. And, with a few exceptions, people were mostly pleased.

The Super Bowl seems to have become a secular holiday nearly on a par with Thanksgiving in the United States. Attending Super Bowl parties and preparing elaborate (if informal) feasts is now part of the regular ritual calendar for many Americans. Some claim that the Super Bowl provides the occasion for the second largest annual food consumption day in the U.S., surpassed only by Thanksgiving. It is clearly more than just a special football game. Spectacular sports events have been used in many countries as part of national holidays and sporting events can take on national significance that transcend the specific sport or game. This is certainly the case with the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, the Tour de France, and other events. Each of these provides an opportunity to showcase sports and promote the event’s sponsors, while at the same time providing a stage on which the event’s location also receives public attention.

The Super Bowl is a huge commercial and cultural juggernaut. Although I had an abstract sense of the event that had occupied New Orleans, the real size and flavor became much clearer when Rebecca Turner, of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, invited me to visit the “NFL Experience” in the Morial Convention Center. This turned out to be something like 800,000 square feet of football mania, with displays of everything the NFL and NFL-affiliated sponsors thinks you should think about when you think about football. There were dozens of games, ranging from tests of physical strength and coordination, to football trivia. There were displays of football memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, helmets and uniforms. Performers sang and danced and football players stopped by to sign autographs. The Southeast Dairy Association was there to promote a diet and exercise program it has developed with the NFL. Food offerings were mostly generic American industrial products–there were concession stands selling national beer brands and the usual fast food, while sponsors like Pepsi handed out samples of soft drinks (the dairy folks were distributing cheese sticks and chocolate milk). I suspect that NFL experience, or something like it, appears in every city that hosts the Super Bowl.

cochon de lait po boy

Cochon de Lait Po’Boy

Fascinating as this was, entering the NFL experience felt like leaving New Orleans. Of course, the city also put on a huge show of its own culture for the Super Bowl. This included endless interviews with local officials, activists, artists, musicians and, of course, restaurateurs. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and local chef Poppy Tooker used gumbo to help people think about the nature of New Orleans on one CBS show. The city and the NFL also organized a music and food festival in Woldenberg Park, next to the Mississippi River. I rode my bike over to that festival the day after I visited the NFL experience. Enthusiastic crowds surrounded several stages where local bands played everything from funk to brass band music. Rows of stands sold the kind of food that has made New Orleans famous. The French Quarter was just a few steps away, providing access to even more of the things that attract people to New Orleans (and the Times-Picayune provided an interesting analysis and guide to one of those things).

Crawfish beignets

Crawfish beignets

The distinctive version of New Orleans presented for the Super Bowl was just distinct enough to add some flavor to the dominant American football festival. There are reasons to think that the contrasts between New Orleans and the rest of America run deeper than those on display a few weeks ago. Although the contrasts have attracted attention for a long time, efforts to assert them have become something of a local cottage industry in the last few years. Some of this—including most of what was presented during the Super Bowl—is meant to attract and please tourists. Some of it is meant to challenge dominant ideas about how economic life is organized in the U.S. today. Some evokes parts of American history that challenge how we think of ourselves. I wonder what would happen if we put some of that on display for visitors the next time a big event comes to town?

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Filed under anthropology, city, culture, festivals, heritage, New Orleans, SAFN Member Research, urban

AAA Panel CFP! Eating in the City: Foodways, Publics, and Urban Transformation

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Eating has become a provocative and political element of urban contestation.  Through food, publics are effectively (re)defined and urban futures popularly (re)imagined.  As cities transform, the ways that people eat and procure food also change, along with the sociocultural meanings of food itself.  This panel will explore the relationships between these contemporary urban processes and changing food habits.  These shifting patterns of consumption and production can be linked to a variety of intertwined processes at global and urban scales — from cycles of de-industrialization and gentrification in the global north to the rapidly urbanizing megacities of the developing world.  Food studies scholars have noted the impact of such urban transformations on diets, from the (post)Fordist homogenization of industrially produced food to the highly differentiated food landscapes of today’s gentrified cities.

In response, urban publics and counterpublics are reimagining — and being reimagined through — the circulation of food and dietary discourse that draws upon a range of sources from urban agriculture and farmer’s markets to the role of grocery stores and restaurants.  Food also provides a significant public idiom for policies that address or entrench urban inequality, from “food deserts” to feeding prohibitions.  Food even renders the contemporary city’s global connections “good to think” for urban dwellers: dependent on producers they do not know and rarely see, fearful about how and where their food is produced — and where it will come from in the future – consumers circulate a host of new discourses about whole, local, organic and sustainable foods.

Panelists will pursue several questions in order to understand how food remakes the city and vice-versa: Who has access to food and who does not?  How do people come to understand their place in the urban social order through their food practices — particularly amid the urban manifestations of global political-economic restructuring and cultural change?  How do the politics of food figure in the transformation of urban spaces?  What roles do immigration and migratory foodways play in shaping modern urban life?  What of the proliferation of ever more extravagant restaurants and eating experiences for the wealthy alongside ever worsening rates of poverty, hunger and ill-health for the poor?  Above all, we ask, how are processes related to eating and urban transformation intertwined?

Abstracts should be submitted by March 1 to Maggie Dickinson (mdickinson@gc.cuny.edu).

Note from the editor: If you are organizing a food/nutrition related panel for the AAA meetings this year–or, really, for any conference–we would be happy to post it here at FoodAnthropology. Just send it along to foodanthro@gmail.comand we will take care of it.

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Filed under AAA 2013 Chicago, anthropology, Call for Papers, CFP, city, food policy, food security, Food Studies, urban