Review: The Other Milk

The Other Milk

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-295-74403-2. 276 pp.

Juliet Tempest (SOAS, University of London)

Ambivalent Modernities

An historian by training, Jia-Chen Fu retells the story of soy in China—an account otherwise taken for granted. We may have been correct that soybeans enjoy a long presence in the region, but their forms and meanings in Chinese diet(s) have evolved over time. Fortified soybean milk became popular only following the efforts of Republican-era scientists, social workers, and producers, whom Fu calls “nutrition activists.” More than a readily digestible history of soybean milk, or doujiang—itself indigestible prior to the advent of modern processing technology—The Other Milk presents a case study on the drink as a modern, science- and nation-building enterprise for these nutrition activists. In so doing, it seeks, and, I would say, succeeds, to problematize narratives of Western science’s inevitable naturalization in China by revealing the context-specific development of Chinese nutrition science amidst dialogue with research abroad.

Propagation of soybean milk during the 1930s and 1940s as “traditional, modern, and scientific” epitomized this process, according to Fu (2018, 5). Nutrition activists employed scientific discourse to mobilize the materiality of such protein-rich “milk” to strengthen the population, as dairy was perceived to have done for the West. The author concludes that Chinese activists constructed the problem of population health in such a way so as to necessitate soybean milk as the solution, particularly in refugee aid projects. Yet the question of whether this discourse actually reached consumer-citizens on the ground, especially outside a Shanghai milieu, remains open. The Other Milk is thus a well-constructed and written resource on the biopolitics of soy and the epistemology of nutrition science for this period in China, even if it does not capture how the target demographic actually interpreted soybean milk messaging.

Bookended by an introduction and epilogue, each of the seven chapters builds towards Fu’s thesis—of an aspirational Chinese modernity as expressed in a homegrown nutrition science supporting consumption of soybean milk—by addressing an assumption underpinning it. Following the introduction, the book begins with anticipating the question of soy’s modern status through depicting the transformation of the Chinese soybean industry (Chapter 1). Such a development occurred in the wake of Western and Japanese economic growth and military defeats around the turn of the twentieth century, which Fu highlights to establish the latter’s national imperative to modernize, a project that manifested in both the development of domestic nutrition research and its application to “improving” individual bodies, thus the nation (Chapter 2). As for why diet became a site for intervention, Fu addresses this assumption just as nutrition activists did before: through portraying Chinese dietaries as the alleged key to unleashing the nation’s economic potential (Chapter 3). In extant diets, it was the lack of protein, especially animal-based, that compromised Chinese nutrition and bodies, which justified supplementation with “milk” (Chapter 4). Although preferable, cow’s milk was cost-prohibitive if not totally inaccessible for most, inspiring an alternative in fortified soybean milk marketed as a hybrid Western-Eastern product: a scientifically modernized version of traditional soy (Chapter 5).

The arguments of every chapter scaffold onto those preceding, with the exception of the fifth. There, Fu breaks away from discussing how nutrition activists conceived their object to analyze soybean milk advertisements. Fu explains this decision in terms of evaluating how producers theorized “the social” as a site of modernity negotiated for the public (111), but the link to nutrition activists discussed elsewhere remains tenuous. While soybean milk advertisers functioned as discourse-makers in addition to—and occasionally in cooperation with—nutrition researchers and aid workers, they did not operate in the same way or in the same field as these activists: in blending Daoist approaches to health with concerns about protein and hygienic manufacturing, the former treated biomedicine and Chinese medicine as “apparently complementary knowledge systems” (114) for the public; whereas the latter sought an epistemological break that would parallel and precipitate a new era of Chinese prowess that deprecated without vitiating earlier knowledge claims within the scientific community. Granted that such ambivalence characterized Chinese nutrition science in general and soybean milk advertisements in particular, this chapter implicitly shifts the scholarly gaze onto the public, about whose receptions to these communications and the products they advertised we can say little given the methodology.

I have interpreted this attitude among nutrition activists as characterizing their concept of “modernity,” this crux of Fu’s argument that is only ever defined indirectly, in relation to a “traditional,” “Chinese” identity. The equation of “traditional” and “Chinese” is in fact one assumption that Fu does not tackle head on, although the language nutrition activists employed substantiates this position. Similarly, Chinese society’s juxtaposition against the “modern” West remains implicit throughout The Other Milk, through references to “a polyphonic, hybrid modernity” that “combin[ed] elements from China and the West,” for example (110). On the other hand, that nutrition activists did not reject China’s capacity to become modern emerges from their choice of a soy product as the nation’s deliverance. Such complexity in their relationship to a modern, Chinese identity features within the tales of nutrition activists Fu tells. The lack of explicit definition of modernity, then, follows from Fu’s awareness of its situation in a unique context—that it is, indeed, a relative term. At risk of failing in the task that Fu smartly avoided, I take modernity in The Other Milk to mean nutrition activists’ aspiration for a stronger China in the future, modeled on the West’s and Japan’s perceived progress and so involving struggles with if and how to incorporate cultural aspects that have served as a source of national identity.

Compelling narratives about the work of individual nutrition activists culminate in a two-chapter discussion of Fu’s primary case: the efforts of the Refugee Children’s Committee to distribute soybean milk during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process promote a healthier, modern citizenry. Addressing why and how this aid organization focused on distributing soybean milk (Chapter 6) allows Fu to assert that technocrats like Nellie Lee and Hou Xiangchuan “situated nutrition as the crucial site for the dissemination of modern knowledge and values” (174; Chapter 7). Fu’s tone alternates between sympathy for and criticism of their sincere but misguided motivations, given the prevalence of hunger. The modern construction of hunger in Republican China paralleled developments abroad, where it also became quantified, hence solvable, in biomedical terms. The state’s historical obligation to feed the populace in times of famine (yangmin) consequently transformed into a responsibility to nourish, which nutrition activists like the medical researcher Wu Xian understood as seeking the “optimum” rather than the “minimum” (66). Consistent with denigration of Chinese diets for their “inadequacy” and backhanded compliments around their “potential to change” (179), that nutritional interventions were seen to offer the greatest return for economic growth continues as a mainstay in international development today (e.g. IFPRI 2016).

Such observations on cultivating modern subjects through self-governance recall the ever-growing literature on biopolitics in China. To wit, the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2010) has documented the intersection between individual fitness and population governance in state policies. Although Greenhalgh’s research principally concerns socialist and post-socialist China, the construction of inferior diets as a “social problem” (Fu 2018, 60) and the promotion of soybean milk as the scientific and obligatory solution prefigures more recent debates—that also sometimes err disturbingly on eugenicist rhetoric—about raising low “quality,” or “suzhi,” at both the individual and population levels.

Although Fu does not reference Greenhalgh, nor for that matter Foucault, the author makes excellent use of anthropological literature on colonial medicine and diets in China (to which Fu thanks Judith Farquhar for having introduced her). In particular, interrogation of the epistemological privilege granted “biomedical” nutrition science in China “owes much to the work of medical anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock” (220). Along with the historian Michael Worboys, these scholars demonstrated conflicting views on the comparability of foreign bodies and diets in medical research during the colonial era and since. Chinese nutrition activists seem to have variously and selectively appropriated these ideas for the purpose of recasting food, like soybean milk, as a mechanical input for nutrition. Fu can therefore argue that this ambivalence permitted the ontological flexibility requisite to domestication and exploitation of the science, to build a modern nation of citizens nourished scientifically with Chinese foods. Although undeniably a historical monograph, The Other Milk thus offers an example of how interdisciplinary research can tell a more complete version of the story.

Much still remains untold, however, particularly for this anthropologist-reviewer. For one, it is unclear to what extent Fu’s findings may be generalized outside of urban, coastal China, given how most Republican-era nutrition activists appear to have operated within Shanghai and its environs. To the extent these places served as a locus for building such scientific worlds, the focus of Fu’s study, the distinction may be moot. For another, Fu’s treatment of materiality alongside discourse, while admirable, nevertheless glosses over the sensory qualities of soy—and milk—and their effects on bodies, the site of these modernist aspirations and interventions. The book argues for soybean milk’s promotion as evidence of a uniquely Chinese nutrition science and identity, so then what of Chinese tastes? Fu alludes only once to taste as a criterion “distinct from economic supply and demand” (143), which must have played a role in soybean milk’s dissemination, particularly in comparison with cow’s milk; if it did not, that is something worth noting.

These critiques revolve around a desire for more information about how the public consumed soybean milk and ideas about it. As such, they are perhaps unfair, because addressing them was not Fu’s intention and would have required different kinds of data. Fu acknowledges this shortcoming: “it is not clear that nutrition science in early twentieth-century China achieved this same kind ideological hegemony over the ways in which Chinese people thought about food and eating [sic]” (9). The Other Milk is therefore an excellent resource for research on soy, vegetarianism, and scientist modernity in China, even if its authoritative scope should potentially be confined to urban areas of Republican China and to answering questions other than (albeit relevant to) the meanings consumers assigned to soybean milk. Notwithstanding these significant contributions, the methodological choices directing attention to elites’ discourse-creation in this process of nation-building—Fu’s subject—imply a specific directionality for the construction of modern Chinese identities, namely as top-down and not bottom-up.

The nutrition activists who constitute The Other Milk’s explicit concern are, indeed, often elites. They operate outside formal state organs, whose involvement in rice distribution makes the grain a more appropriate lens through which to study the state, Fu suggests (16; see also Ohnuki-Tierney [1993] on Japan). It is perhaps due to the state’s more tangential role with respect to soy that Fu does not adopt a Foucauldian framework to analyze—what I understand to be—the biopolitics of soybean milk; because Fu does not invoke the concept of biopolitics, it is therefore implicit to the author’s analysis as well as the activities of nutrition activists to which it refers. In this way, Fu’s treatment of soybean milk offers a novel approach to understanding how the discourse and resources of non-governmental organizations nonetheless intersected with state power: nutrition activists deployed scientific research, especially social surveys and controlled experiments, as the arbiter of truth to summon legitimacy for their interventions, which would improve the nation’s (nutritional) status.

It bears noting that these nutrition activists did engage with the state, however, just as Fu’s argument dialogues with the historian Mark Swislocki’s (2011) work on “nutritional governmentality” in late Imperial and Republican China. In fact, Fu situates the book as a response to a question that Swislocki posed elsewhere: “How did nutrition become ‘an authoritative idiom in China for understanding the relationship between food and health?’” (Swislocki 2001, in Fu 2018, 9). In providing “one answer,” Fu sets out to complement Swislocki’s excellent work on the Chinese state’s interest in improving nutrition. Though it begs the question of whether the choice to downplay the state’s role in The Other Milk is justified when Swislocki argues the opposite, albeit not for a specific food like soy. Besides researchers’ personal ambitions—to produce advanced science as much as belong to a modern nation (Fu 2018, 11)—it would seem important to consider the state’s influence on the development of a nutrition science, given the mutual imbrication of the public and private spheres in China that both Fu and Swislocki acknowledge.

Rather than nutrition science per se, The Other Milk is a book about ambivalent modernity. Not only were China’s nutrition activists navigating between two poles of scientific authority in the East and West, their strategies betray resistance to abandoning everything traditional for something modern. Fu suggests that “expediency” motivated the unique blend of considerations in the research, production, marketing, and distribution of soybean milk (181). To the extent we subscribe to Fu’s argument, which I do, it is important to reiterate that activists advocated soybean milk for nutrition not as a humanitarian end, but as a means of building up the nation, to vie with the West and Japan for “wealth and power” (121). Unfortunately, this discourse around China competing with the rest of the world possesses great salience today—at least from where I write in the US.

Lest we fall blindly into this ideological trap, let us end by paying attention to other constructive lessons from The Other Milk. The power of soybean milk—in terms of its nutritional discourse and materiality—testify to a long history of globalized trade in goods and ideas. Many of Republican China’s nutrition activists had trained in the US (Chapter 2). An increasing interest in consuming milk occurred almost simultaneously in the US and China; the Chinese did not always drink soybean milk, nor did Americans regularly consume cow’s milk before the twentieth century (Chapter 4). Just as “milk” had to become a part of modern diets, so too did soy emerge as a global commodity when China started exporting it to fill a 1908-1909 shortage of vegetable oils in Europe and North America (Chapter 1). Now China’s relationship to soy, once a famine food, has changed again, as production has shifted overseas and the population has grown wealthier, consuming more meat, at times imported from the US (Epilogue). We may thus all benefit from reflecting again on how ideas and practices we take for granted are historicized products of local and global trajectories. And given that industrialized foods are now pitted against “traditional” foodways in the opposite direction to what Republican-era Chinese nutrition activists imagined, perhaps we, too, ought to approach modernity with a bit more ambivalence.

Works Cited

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2010. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016. Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. Washington: IFPRI.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Swislocki, Mark. 2011. “Nutritional Governmenality: Food and he Politics of Health in Late Imperial and Republican China.” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 9-35. DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2010-024

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, public health

CFP for the Best Annual Food Studies Conference in North America

Note: This is the call for papers for the best annual interdisciplinary food studies conference in North America. You can meet leading food scholars, have great discussions, probably eat some nice food. Also, this conference is very much open to work by students. SAFN members! SAFN is a sponsor and you may register for this conference at member rates.

asfs afhvs 2020 athens

2020 AFHVS/ASFS

Cultivating Connections: Exploring Entry Points Into Sustainable Food Systems

Athens, Georgia

May 27-30, 2020

https://cultivatingconnections2020.uga.edu/

The University of Georgia’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative is pleased to host the 2020  joint annual meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS).

The Abstract Submission Portal is now open. We invite the submission of abstracts for organized paper sessions, individual papers, lightning talks, roundtables, posters and exploration galleries, and working sessions.

The 2020 conference theme, “Cultivating Connections: Exploring Entry Points Into Sustainable Food Systems,” is an invitation to envision a more sustainable and equitable future by critically engaging with the histories and legacies that have framed agricultural food landscapes over time. Cultivating connections means that we are active participants, called to dig in for the preparation of building fruitful relationships with one another to foster greater sustainability within the food system. The food system is an intricate web of social connections, with each node of the web shaping how food is regarded, how it’s grown, how it will be distributed, who will buy it, and what its overall significance is within communities. These elements provide entry points for conversation, reconciliation, and action toward building stronger, more sustainable connections within the food system. Participants are invited to engage in conversations about changes to the current agri-food paradigm to better represent and advocate for a more just and equitable food system – from farm to fork – that strengthens community viability, food security, and the sovereignty of all people.

Abstracts can be submitted at https://ugeorgia.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9H7Xy41kEjn0n1H

Abstract submissions are due by January 31, 2020. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March 15, 2020. All presenters must be registered for the conference by May 1, 2020 to be included in the conference program.

Questions can be directed to cultivatingconnections2020@gmail.com

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About the Societies:

The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS) is a professional organization which provides an international forum to engage in the cross-disciplinary study of food, agriculture, and health, as well as an opportunity for examining the values that underlie various visions of food and agricultural systems. From a base of philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists, AFHVS has grown to include scientists, scholars, and practitioners in areas ranging from agricultural production and social science to nutrition policy and the humanities. AFHVS encourages participation by the growing community of researchers and professionals exploring alternative visions of the food system from numerous perspectives and approaches, including local and regional food systems; alternative food movements; agricultural and food policies, agricultural sustainability, food justice, issues of local and global food security, and food sovereignty. The organization publishes the journal Agriculture and Human Values.

The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) was founded in 1985, with the goals of promoting the interdisciplinary study of food and society. It has continued that mission by holding annual meetings and working with Routledge Publishing, the organization produces the quarterly journal, Food, Culture and Society. Members explore the complex relationships among food, culture, and society from numerous disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, as well as in the world of food beyond the academy. ASFS encourages vigorous debate on a wide range of topics, such as cross-cultural perspectives on eating behaviors, gender and the food system, recipes, cookbooks, and menu as texts, politics of the family meal, malnutrition, hunger, and food security, comparative food history, and the political economy of the global food system.

  • In the meantime, check out some of the most popular local restaurants and attractions to enhance your visit to Athens: https://www.visitathensga.com/

 

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Messer’s Postings

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

What’s new in food and nutrition research and policy in the world, the US, and sustainability?

1. State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2019. This report, released in July 2019 (as contrasted with its usual October, World Food Day release date) gives governments and everyone much to ponder. Key findings indicate hunger numbers are increasing, not declining. Prevalence of undernourishment, the least exacting measure, affects close to one billion people; experience of food insecurity (not sure where your next meal is coming from) affects more than a billion more, including those suffering hunger in industrialized countries. This year’s themes, in addition to addressing conflict, climate change, and economic inequalities as causes of hunger, considered paths to recovery from economic downturn and the challenges of structural inequalities that lead to hunger. You can download the report, its executive summary, or in its entirety, here.  For a quick overview (especially to start off discussions in classes or presentations), access FAO’s (3+ minute) video, summarizing major numbers and themes here.

2. 2020 US Dietary Guidelines for All Americans (DGA) face substantial political challenges in the run-up to the Committee’s report. The White House administration has banned any discussion/recommendations regarding environmental impact (sustainable food systems), health impacts of red meat or processed meats, or ultra-processed foods and sodium. It has also disallowed reference to any research studies published before 2000, and reference to any non-USDA scientific studies (!). You can read the Washington Post summary here. My authoritative Tufts colleagues add: Nutrition scientists and policy makers need to change the term “plant-based” “foods or meat substitutes” to minimally processed plant foods, as many of the ultra-processed foods are plant-based!

3. Meanwhile, what’s new on the planetary health and diet front are new microbial “meat” substitute start-up’s (carbon footprints of these highly processed food operations still need to be scrutinized), and a report that the Swiss-based corporate giant Nestlé, along with other major food industry conglomerates, is taking steps to make its supply chains carbon-neutral by 2030. You can read more about the Nestlé’s initiative here or on the company’s website and more about the hype surrounding soil microbes and their potential to feed the world here.

4. Synthesizing discussion of all three above themes, Frank B. Hu (Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health) published a “Viewpoint” perspective in JAMA, pointing out the mixed environmental and health impacts of more or less processed plant-based foods that are meant to substitute for meat. An easily accessible interview on the major takeaways is here.

Reminder: SAFN members recently received an announcement from David Beriss regarding a new on-line journal, Nature Food, which is actively soliciting brief commentaries, opinion pieces, literature reviews, and original research articles from food professionals across many disciplines, including anthropology.  The editor-in-chief, Anne Mullen, intends to include anthropological materials of interest to a wider range of scientists in every issue.   You can find at more on the website.

Related Reminder from SAFN President David Beriss: If you are not a SAFN member and wish to receive our occasional updates via email, be sure to join the association, which you can do here. Once you are a member, you can receive communications via the new American Anthropological Association Communities communications system, here.

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Review: Reconstructing Obesity

Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings

Megan B. McCullough and Jessica A. Hardin, eds. Reconstructing obesity: the meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings. Berghahn. New York, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-78533-028-5. 245 pp.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Megan McCullough and Jessica Hardin have compiled an excellent series of essays as to how different societies and professional groups define and evaluate obesity. Briefly, the writers of these essays, including the two editors themselves, make several points. First, measures of obesity are not standardized, nor are they reliably accurate. Second, people from different societies, for historical and contemporary reasons, do not define obesity as do many Western health professionals. Third, the implications of the aforementioned mis-measurement and varying definitions of obesity affect how people do or do not receive services and how they may come to think and feel about themselves regarding weight. Consequently, “erroneous measurement” and “stigmatization” may affect the health of individuals and groups of individuals. Lastly, an important strength of the book is that the literature on this subject is well-reviewed and ample.

McCullough and Hardin set the stage in their introduction, showing how cultural assumptions about health and obesity distort weight understanding and services provided. As with the other contributors, they deconstruct the cultural assumptions behind the characterization of obesity: “The underlying message from popular media and health studies argues that there are direct, easily identifiable links between obesity and ill health. (p.7.)” They conclude that “…[a]pproaches to obesity should expand the scope of health intervention, promotion, and intervention beyond the individual to engage deeply with culture to account for gendered dynamics, models of embodiment, histories, globalization, and a host of other factors. (p.17.)”

Part I concerns itself with the measurement of obesity.

Anne E. Becker details different “fatness” and “obesity” measures. These measures, she contends, are culture-bound to Western ideas of agency.. Weight loss programs, however, focus on what the person “should be.” Most important, and this is a recurrent theme throughout the book, health care professionals expect the “overweight” person to accept an overweight characterization and to address by herself prescribed “necessary” remedies to lose weight—often, despite cultural pressures to the contrary. (pp.31-2.) I specifically use “herself” here because more pressure is put on women than on men. As Becker and the other authors suggest, this way of proceeding generally causes failure to lose weight, with serious other consequences, both medical and psychological.

Emily Yates-Doerr reviews and critiques in detail the measures used by health professionals to characterize obesity. One example she offers is the use of the BMI. Yates-Doerr relates how public health professionals in Guatemala would subtract the weight of the outer garments the women wore from their measured weight. But they would vary in terms of how much they estimated those garments weighed (p. 52.) Consequently, the BMI measures can be seriously misleading. She concludes: “How are risk of morbidity and mortality determined; what remains unspoken and what concerns are not attended to by using weight as a key determinant of health? (p. 67.)”

Darlene McNaughton focuses on the relationship in terms of health programs between diabetes and obesity. She terms this focus “diabesity.” Drawing on feminist theory and other perspectives, she says: “Overweight and obese people are imagined either as diabetic or becoming diabetic. (p. 77)” McNaughton couples these perceptions with a generalized fat prejudice, particularly in countries like Australia—because “fat” is visible (pp.78-82.) “Fat” people thus are stigmatized and experience the consequences of that judgmental stigmatization.

Part 2 focuses on Histories of “Fat”

Hannah Garth looks at the history of food scarcity in Cuba after the Revolution . She cites a previous study by J. Alvarez from 2004: the Cuban government instituted a system of food rationing “…because of an increase in the need for food due to increased purchasing power and decreases in domestic food production resulting from the shift towards state ownership of farmland and food production enterprises (p. 90.)”   The collapse of the Soviet Union brought in the “Special Period,” where there was even less food than before. Many people remember when there was very little or no food. In the present, they feel insecure about the availability of food. Thus, any program that addresses dieting and obesity runs into difficulties because people resist changes to their food consumption and eating habits. As Garth notes about several of her informants, people eat when they find food available (p.98.)

Jessica Hardin explores obesity and disease in Western Samoa, analyzing how culture and cultural/religious contradictions affect obesity determination and health programs in the area. Western Samoa is often thought of as one of the most obese areas in the world.   In the past and in the present, many Samoans feasted at important family occasions, consuming large amounts of food. Moreover, higher status Samoans tended to eat more, and their size was a measure of their importance (p.110, et seq.) In addition, they tend to eat processed and fast food and other nutritionally deficient food. Trying to introduce dieting runs counter to this value and practice. Since many Samoans are Christians, many fast as part of their religious practice. They do so, however, in church, which contradicts family social practices and weakens family ties. Furthermore, fasting by itself is not necessarily healthy. Hardin concludes by saying that programs that focus only on a metric basis for health must be replaced by a more sophisticated understanding of the “…intersections of health and religious belief [are] critical domains for use in health interventions, but they may provide new ways for thinking about the multiple meanings o f health and alternative modes of measuring health. (p.125.)”

Part 3 Focuses on How Different Cultures Address “Fat”

Rochelle Rosen draws important lessons about caring for diabetes and obesity in American Samoa. To best address the two conditions, she contends that health practitioners must incorporate each society’s often multiple cultural understandings of both conditions. Otherwise, the focus is on the person or client’s individual agency and individual responsibility to change. In particular, she notes: “Where health is communal, interventions predicated on individual self-care may fail to help. (p.142.)” Anthropologists and behavioral scientists, she contends, should continue to elicit these behaviors from the “…emic perspective of the people who engage in them …(p.142.)” to be effective.

Sarah Trainer examines the ways in which modern women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) think about the categories of “fat” and “thin”, nutrition, their concerns about them, and how to address these concerns. Emirati women, she says, are concerned about being ” thin, but not skinny” , using a variety of weight loss aids and exercise (pp.152-156.)   But the focus is not always maintained and consistent. In one of her studies, she notes “…sedentary patterns…coupled with nutritionally poor diets among the participants (p.156.)” Continuing with the critique of using standardized measurements, such as BMI and body fat percentage data, she says that “…none of these possible threats to health, nor the verbally expressed stress of many young women, would be obvious…[from the aforementioned data.] (p.156.)” As a result, public health, she contends, is not getting better (p.162,), despite increased governmental surveillance–because women want to be thin, regardless of many of the consequences of doing so (p.162.)

Tracey Galloway and Tina Moffat explore the efficacy of school-based childhood obesity preventions in Canada. Many of these programs originated in the United States. They are largely behaviorist based, and often very strict. Children’s self-reports included the following: not being allowed to get up when eating, having to eat at one’s desk, and having food inspected and “unacceptable” items removed, to be returned at the end of the day (p.174.) Furthermore, girls and boys differed both in their perceptions of foods and the restrictions placed upon themselves.   Girls saw more restrictions on what they should and should not eat, while boys saw more restrictions on where they could move within the classroom (pp.174-5.) Galloway and Moffat go further: “…very few of the rules, restrictions, and rewards around food and beverage consumption in schools are related to nutrition or health…But it is surprising that these [positive] messages about food [issued by the Ontario Ministry of Education] are largely absent from the children’s perceptions of the rules and regulations governing their lunch and snack times (p. 178.”) They also note that children are rarely consulted in the design of programs. In addition, children’s privacy itself is invaded in the program process. Following the above genderization of food programs, they cite a previous study which shows that “…teachers socialize girls early into the idea that boys should be fed to satiety while girls should exercise restraint (p.183.)” Nevertheless, according to relatively recent research on school diets in Canadian schools, children are eating more healthy foods (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/examining-differences-in-school-hour-and-school-day-dietary-quality-among-canadian-children-between-2004-and-2015/EE852354AB74B07F23B88313348084AE/core-reader

Lisa Rubin and Jessica Joseph examine what it means to be “fat” or “thin” in the United States, among girls and women, and especially among African American women. Starting with the statistics on being overweight and obese, they note the result—a “war” on obesity (p.200.) The programs that have developed to address these issues focus on individual action and on “…biomedical intervention or surgery” (p.201.) This focus persists despite the evidence they cite from earlier researchers that suggests “…poverty, stress, and discrimination contribute significantly to the onset and maintenance of conditions often associated with obesity (p.201.)” Reviewing the literature on African American women, they note that these women saw that attempts to redress their weight and obesity issues were “…’part of an effort to diminish black [sic] womanhood.’ (p.209.)” They conclude that “…[m]ore research is needed to examine concerns about eating disorders, overweight, and obesity among Black women from their own perspective. Rather than one imposed by a dominant medical, or eating disorder establishment P. 211.)”

Megan McCullough starts off her essay this way: “I am a fat anthropologist and not an anthropologist who is fat. (p. 215.)” She then stated that if someone had seen her, that person would have decided that she was fat or obese (p.215.)   McCullough put out this preface because she will then take us through her experience with her pregnancy as she encountered the medical establishment’s treatment of her. She felt stigmatized, judged, misjudged, and shamed by medical personnel throughout. She quotes a nurse who said to her: “’I don’t have any extra large robes in here so you will have to make do with this and a sheet…’ (p.213.)” As a result of these experiences, and acknowledging that there are dangers in terms of obesity, McCullough raises larger questions: “ What kinds of care are obese African-American or Hispanic women receiving?   What about obese lesbian mothers? P.230.)”

Stephen McGarvey, in his Afterword, restates the central concern of these essays—mismeasurement, stigmatization, medicalization, focus on individual agency, and a failure to address historical and cultural circumstances. What he proposes is that attention must be paid to the effects all of these have on research, program, and treatment (pp.235-237.) The Afterword’s and the whole book’s focus on individual agency is itself of particular importance because ” A survey of more than three hundred international policy makers found that 90 percent of them still believe that personal motivation-a.k.a.–willpower–was a very strong cause of obesity. (Wilson 2019:21.)” McGarvey intends to have the issues he delineates addressed in a more sensitive and successful fashion.

As I have noted, the book is an important contribution to addressing what is a significant concern in the understanding of weight issues. I would like to address the issues raised from a somewhat different angle, hoping to add to future research, program, and treatment. In terms of my background, I am an anthropologist. I am also a psychologist. One of my specialties is that I assess clients who are going to get gastric bypass, laparoscopy, gastric band and gastric sleeve surgeries. The stated purpose of these surgeries is to enable a person who has had significant difficulties in losing weight to lose weight. These clients have tried diets, often to no avail. They are at risk for Type II diabetes and other medical problems, including heart conditions, etc. The purpose of the assessment is to make sure that the client has no underlying psychopathology or substance abuse that would prevent her or him from understanding the nature of the surgery and following the doctor’s post-operative orders.

My role is to assess, not say whether the surgery itself is indicated. Generally, the population I see for gastric bypass surgery is severely [ the preferred term] obese, even considering the issues of mismeasurement raised by many of the essay writers. The laparoscopy and other surgeries population is severely overweight, but not necessarily severely obese. Laparoscopy and the other mentioned surgeries is a less invasive surgical procedure, which is why it is used for this condition. All the patients I have seen have had difficulties with different diets. Approximately 70% have Type II diabetes. About 60% have either been molested or raped, equally across categories of their gender, sexual identity, or sexual preference.

The surgeries for severe obesity are often successful for reducing the presence and risk of Type II diabetes (see, for example, https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/Supplement_2/S361. The site offers a useful description of the measures used to determine severe obesity and the different types of surgeries considered.) The surgeries do entail risks, including rupture of the surgery area. The person must be careful in following all the post-operative instructions, including changing long-term eating patterns. Those receiving gastric bypass surgery can no longer drink carbonated beverages and must eat very small portions of food.

The physicians for whom I do the surgery assessments run support groups for their patients. Many of their patients have talked to family and friends who have had the surgery and they get ample visual and written material as well. As noted above, my “sample of clients” shows a high level of being sexually abused. Rarely have they gotten therapy for that abuse. I do recommend that they see a therapist. Depending on the circumstances, I may set this as a precondition of the surgery. My statistics may be slightly higher than other studies, as, for example:” Obesity rates were not different across groups in childhood or adolescence. By young adulthood (ages 20–27), abused female subjects were significantly more likely to be obese (42.25%) than were comparison female subjects (28.40%). Hierarchical linear modeling growth-trajectory analyses indicated that abused female subjects, on average, acquired body mass at a significantly steeper rate from childhood through young adulthood than did comparison female subjects after controlling for minority status and parity. (https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/1/e61?download=true.)” Other researchers have also seen the link between being sexually abused as a child and obesity, as, for example: https://www.obesityaction.org/community/article-library/sexual-abuse-and-obesity-whats-the-link/

There may be other co-occurring [the preferred term] conditions that may require stronger interventions than dieting and/or exercise. I also treat clients from Workers Compensation or with disabilities from non-work-related accidents. Many of them can no longer move easily and are often depressed as well. They often gain large amounts of weight, some moving into the category of severely obese. One client was hurt on the job so that he could not walk or move easily. Before the accident, ironically, he had the gastric bypass surgery, because he weighed 350 pounds. After the accident, he could barely move. Furthermore, his weight climbed to 450 pounds. He did not want to take medications and he did not want to come to therapy, either—even after the risks were explained to him. I offer details about these cases because I think the book should help further address how to best address populations with these kinds of issues.

Some of the essays specifically concern how weight issues affect African American women.      The American Psychological Association issued a report on ideas and changes that should be made concerning this population: https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/obesity.pdf

As the book recommends, more research should be done and greater sensitivity should be shown to this population and to similar ones as well (2014: 14.) Often, however, external factors, such as no place to exercise, family dysfunction for some, lack of money—cannot easily be addressed in programs.

In sum, this is an excellent, well-written book that is useful for anthropologists, public health and policy makers, and practitioners working in the field of obesity. It would also be useful for graduate students in these same areas.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

2019. Bee Wilson. The Way We Eat Now. Basic Books: New York.

https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/obesity.pdf 2014 (Accessed August 26, 2019.)

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/examining-differences-in-school-hour-and-school-day-dietary-quality-among-canadian-children-between-2004-and-2015/EE852354AB74B07F23B88313348084AE/core-reader 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019)

https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/Supplement_2/S361 2011(Accessed August 26, 2019

https://www.obesityaction.org/community/article-library/sexual-abuse-and-obesity-whats-the-link/ 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019)

https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/1/e61?download=true 2007(Accessed August 26, 2019)

 

 

 

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Thesis Review: Food in the Making

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A cook has shaped  a daily bread dough and is sprinkling semolina grains on top so it doesn’t stick when she places it under a cloth to rise before she brings it to the nearby public oven for baking. (Photo: Katharina Graf)

 

Food in the Making: Food Preparation, Material and Social Change in Urban Morocco. Katharina Graf. PhD/MPhil Thesis, SOAS University of London, London, UK. 2016.

Maria Carabello (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA)

In this thesis, Katharina Graf engages with and explores the daily acts and rhythms of food preparation in lower income households in Marrakech, Morocco. Taking a phenomenological approach to ethnography, Graf assumes the role of an active apprentice in the homes of three Marrakchi women (Fatimzahra, Rachida, and Aicha). She uses her position and the multi-sensory experiences it affords to pursue two central aims—first, to understand the embodied knowledge and processes of reproduction that underlie daily acts of Marrakchi cooking; and second, to probe and expose the changing material and social context of an urbanizing Morocco. Thoughtful in approach, rich in description, and insightful in its analysis, her work contributes meaningfully to the increasingly intersectional fields of food and gender studies, and to the anthropology of knowledge, learning, and the senses, within and beyond Moroccan borders.

In pursuit of these stated aims, Graf leans upon the ethnographic experiences of provisioning, processing, cooking, baking, and sharing meals with her research participants, as well as several key strands of social theory that lend both depth and context to her research. For example, using Ingold’s (2001) concept of an education of attention to frame the process of learning to cook as multi-sensorial and continuous; bringing in Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of habitus to recognize how repetitive practice gives rise to internalized structures that guide acts of Marrakchi cooking as they unfold as a dialogical exchange between cook, food, and environment; and engaging with Sutton’s (2006) view of cooking as a skillful practice, which helps to bridge the materiality of food production with the social nature of its consumption. By weaving together these and many related anthropological, sociological, and philosophical concepts Graf provides a sound theoretical foundation from which to present her empirical work, and effectively recalls key ideas throughout the thesis to note areas of resonance and distinction with her own findings.

The thesis itself is structured around five central chapters, which loosely track the natural sequence of food preparation—from provisioning and processing, to cooking and baking, to sharing and eating food. At the same time, they also follow Graf’s own experiential trajectory from a novice cook primarily tasked with provisioning at the market to an expert entrusted with the preparation of full dishes. The body chapters are bookended by an introduction which lays out the aims of the thesis and introduces its theoretical foundations, and a conclusion framed around the case study of Ramadan—“a month when boundaries are made and unmade and both continuity and change asserted” (p. 228)—that is used to tease out the main findings from her fieldwork. Although innovative and largely effective, an extended conclusion would have afforded an opportunity to remind readers of the key findings from earlier chapters and to also reflect more deeply on the ways in which this thesis confirms and challenges prior research. Graf also artfully intersperses each section of the thesis with a series of six reflective interludes derived from her fieldnotes, providing a nice contrast to the analytical passages of the thesis while also effectively underscoring its phenomenological methodology.

In the first chapter, Graf introduces the historical and geographic context of her fieldsite in Marrakech, using the preparation of bread to illustrate how the city’s foodscape is made (and re-made) through the movement and interactions of cooks and ingredients. In Chapter 2, she shifts her focus to the economic dimensions of cooking, and explores how cooks make decisions about how to source and process ingredients that are good for themselves and their families in a largely unregulated and unstandardized food environment. She articulates two vernacular indices of quality that cooks and consumers in Marrakech use to categorize food items; beldi (‘from the country’) and rumi (‘foreign’). However, origin alone is not the sole criterion evoked by Marrakchi consumers when they make use of such terms. What makes food good (or, beldi) in Morocco involves “a cook’s multi-sensory and ethical assessment . . . relate[d] to taste, provenance, context of production, health and well-being, safety and food security (p. 117).” While this may call to mind similar concepts such as “taste of place” (see: Trubek 2009), Graf argues that a beldi designation is more contingent on personal context and evaluation. For example, a woman would be likely to judge meat from her hometown as beldi even if other products with similar, or even preferable, sensory characteristics were available closer to her current location. In this way, it can be seen that Moroccans have come to rely on a deeply personal and sensory-based evaluation schema for what constitutes good food and good cooking in the absence of externally imposed standards and regulations, thus posing a challenge to the possibility of a shared social context for quality designations.

Chapters 3 and 4 constitute the core of Graf’s thesis and interrogate, in turn, what constitutes cooking knowledge and how girls and women in Marrakech come to acquire and hone it. These explorations give way to Graf’s central argument, which is that cooking and taste knowledge are inherently multi-sensory and synesthetic, and thus learning to cook entails a tactical education of all the senses. These findings largely resonate with Sutton’s (2014) ethnography of home cooking on the Greek island of Kalymnos, yet Graf notes an intriguing difference in the circumstances by which Marrakchi and Kalymnian women learn to become cooks. While older female relatives often coached along young cooks in Kalymnos, the Marrakchi women underwent a “lifelong multi-sensory immersion” yet only truly metamorphosed into active cooks when called to replace the lead food preparer in the household. While the two contexts clearly afford women different opportunities to enact—and thus, embody—their cooking knowledge, the basis of that knowledge in both cases is rooted in continuous exposure to the sensory, material, and social culture of preparing and sharing food.

In this thesis, Graf provides a detailed and multi-dimensional study of Marrakchi home cooking knowledge and its reproduction, while also recognizing the window this topic provides into a changing, urbanizing Morocco. As Marrakchi women increasingly have the opportunity to study and work outside the home to gain financial independence, shifts in the constitution of an ideal family have begun to veer away from larger multi-generational households towards more intimate conjugal dwellings. While Graf suggests that young Marrakchi women still derive a deep sense of identity from preparing food for their families, it stands to question whether this will continue if they struggle to balance the independence achieved from working outside the home with the dependence now placed upon them as the primary food preparers for their immediate households. This study alone cannot provide any certain resolutions to such questions. What this work provides instead is a clear indication that so long as Moroccans continue to value the preparation of foods in the home, there will continue to be people in those households that rise to the occasion of making the meals that are so central to their social and material lives.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977.

Ingold, Tim. “From the Transmission of Representation to the Education of Attention.” In The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology Versus Ethnography. Edited by H. Whitehouse. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2001: 113–153

Sutton, David E. Cooking Skill, the Senses and Memory: the Fate of Practical Knowledge. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture. Edited by E. Edwards, C. Gosden, & R. Philipps. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2006: 87–118.

 Sutton, David E. Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island. Oakland, UK: University of California Press. 2014

Trubek, Amy B. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley, CA: University of California. 2009.

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The Market as a Village

Blog editors’ note: This is the summer edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other regions in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts: sfouts@umbc.edu

Tiana Bakic Hayden

“This is like a village,” said Toño, a lime merchant in Mexico City’s main wholesale food terminal, La Central de Abasto. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips.”

If La Central is like a village, it bears little resemblance to the pastoral imaginary of small houses dotting crop-covered hills and domesticated animals milling about. Inaugurated in 1982, La Central covers over 300 hectares of land in the southeastern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa. It is a sprawling, modernist complex of concrete warehouse and storehouse spaces, divided in grid-fashion by roads and alleys, which are invariably clogged by produce-laden cargo trucks. A purely commercial space, nobody lives—officially at least—in La Central, but the market is alive day and night, every day of the week, all year round. Inside, there are restaurants, shops of various kinds, banks, a day care, an art gallery, conference spaces, administrative buildings, garbage processing facilities, and much more. Daily, between 300,000-500,000 visitors are estimated to come to La Central, searching for the best deals on kilos or even tons of watermelons, blackberries, avocados, or dried spices.

mexico market

A street shot of La Central. Photo taken by author.

Food markets are often thought of and represented in largely visual and sensory terms, and indeed, La Central is a place that is striking for the senses. The sight of tons of fruits, jostling bodies passing money, an endless line of vehicles, the smell of putrefying produce mingling with exhaust are all part of La Central. But what interested me was the sorts of networks, informal rules, and vernacular mechanisms according to which the market worked. How, I wondered, were prices set? How was commerce regulated in a space where so many transactions—between employees and employers, buyers and sellers—were in cash and left little in the way of a paper trail? What sort of culture of commerce existed in La Central?

I quickly found that, while merchants and administrators were generally open to interviews, these tended to be stilted, bureaucratic affairs where I learned little in the way of how things actually worked. In a particularly memorable interview, the president of the produce wholesalers’ union UNCOFYL, simply read to me fragments of the market’s and the union’s Reglamentos (internal statues) in answer to my questions about the day-to-day operations of the market. Merchants were usually happy to complain at length about the administration, the nation’s political or economic climate, or share their ‘origin stories,’ but extremely reluctant to speak about who they bought produce from, how much they paid per kilo, or how they dealt with bureaucracy like paperwork and inspections.

Moreover, since wholesale food markets are centralizing nodes in larger commercial networks, communications with sellers in rural areas—large and small agricultural producers, packing plants, rural traders and brokers—are largely carried out over the phone or via email, and there was not much that could be observed. My questions about pricing were often answered in generalities about “supply and demand” and the “laws of the market”, or simply avoided altogether. Often, I would spend all day with a merchant, only to have him (for it was almost always a man) step away discretely to take phone calls, make deals with regular customers, or talk to the accountant working upstairs.

mexico market men

Merchants hanging outside of their storefront in the market. Photo taken by the author.

Slowly, I realized that my frustration around lack of access to information was in fact a reflection of my interlocutors’ own experiences as they navigated the market. Merchants had to gather and then piece together information from different sources, to come up with an understanding of the market’s potentials and risks. One banana merchant, for example, told me that he paid a monthly sum to a “runner” who would go around the terminal each morning and manually count the number of trucks carrying bananas and their state of origin. From this information—scribbled on a scrap of paper—the merchant would try to get a sense of how much his competitors were selling, from where they were sourcing their goods, and how much they would charge that week. Another regularly asked his employees to go and get gossip from the employees in other parts of the market to get a sense of how much their competitors were selling, about their health, and other goings on. Meanwhile, being too forthright with information could be seen as suspect. One day, while I was speaking to a watermelon merchant, his neighbor and competitor came over and started telling him about a shipment of watermelons he was waiting for which he had acquired for a good price from a new producer. When he left, my interlocutor was suspicious and kept making comments out loud, wondering why his competitor had told him what he had told him, asking himself why it might be so.

I realized that merchants, while reluctant to speak of their own finances and dealings, were often eager to speculate and gossip about their competitors. La Central was indeed like a village in this sense; everyone was interested in everyone else’s business, and gossip was the only way to access this information, since there were no real official channels to do so, and since direct conversation was mistrusted. For merchants in a perishable food market, gossip is an essential resource for piecing together the contours of the commercial landscape in which they participate with partial knowledge. As Clifford Geertz wrote of another market in a different time and context:

…the search for information—laborious, uncertain, complex, and irregular—is the central experience of life in the bazaar. Every aspect of the bazaar economy reflects the fact that the primary problem facing its participants is…not balancing options but finding out what they are. Clifford Geertz (1978).

This is a useful insight for ethnographers doing research in food markets to keep in mind. Behind the conviviality of these spaces, their sensory pleasures, their photogenic qualities, food markets are spaces in which information circulates among many different channels. Following our interlocutors’ own struggles to navigate these networks is important, and gossip is a tool in piecing together knowledge which can only ever be partial, but which shapes the circulation of foods in the bazaar and beyond.

Reference

Geertz, Clifford. 1978. “The Bazaar Economy: Information and Search in Peasant Marketing.” The American Economic Review 68(2): 28–32.

Tiana Bakic Hayden is a researcher at the Instituto Gino Germani in Buenos Aires. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from New York University in 2019. Her work is broadly concerned with understanding the interplay of political, sociocultural and technological factors in the production and regulation of urban food systems. She has conducted research in Mexico City and Buenos Aires on street food markets, wholesale food terminals, and the relationship between food security and everyday mobilities.

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Review: Food Anxiety in Globalising Vietnam

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Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam. Judith Ehlert and Nora Katharina Faltmann eds. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 330pp. ISBN 978-981-13-0743-0

.Shao-Yun Chang (Tulane University)

In 2018, Vietnam battled outbreaks of African swine fever, a highly contagious disease that prompted concerns over poultry products especially from China. A Vietnamese coffee manufacturer reportedly used batteries and dust in its production. Food anxieties are rampant in Vietnam, reflecting concerns over national security and expressing worries in more intimate realms around health and consumption. Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam addresses these issues by contextualizing rapidly changing politico-economic dynamic around food in the socialist state.

Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam is divided into three parts: Bodily Transgressions, Food Safety, and the Politics of Food Security. The authors come from multiple perspectives, ranging across development studies, sociology, economy, history, and anthropology. This multi-disciplinary approach provides a comprehensive outlook on food anxiety, addressing both state-level policies and developmental projects, but they are also attentive to everyday practices and discourse. The three parts also follow a scaler approach, moving from micro-processes to the macro, from private realms to public sphere, and from Vietnam towards larger regional interactions with China and Southeast Asian countries.

In their introduction, co-editors Judith Ehlert and Nora Faltmann position food anxiety as processes of incorporating food into the physical body. These processes involve boundaries – boundaries between inside and outside and between the self and the world, emphasizing how anxiety reflects “questions of integrity in terms of material ‘realities’ but also regarding the transgression of discursive structures” (15). Food transgresses not just in the visceral sense as people ingest what they eat; it also transgresses boundaries of class, gender, and capitalist relations, especially in Vietnam where economic reforms or Đổi Mới have exacerbated people’s concerns with food because of the country’s rapid and compressed modernization. In this volume, the individual authors trace historical trajectories from the precolonial era to the contemporary period. They focus on recent state-level projects intended to ensure food security by integrating food production into the global capitalist system and welcoming neoliberal agricultural practices.

The first part, “Bodily Transgression,” situates class, gender, and familial dynamics in socio-political implications of food consumption across different historical periods. Erica Peters shows how in both precolonial and colonial periods, people with power and command were most prone to anxiety when their power seemed most vulnerable. For instance, Minh Mạng, the second ruler (1820-1840) of Nguyễn dynasty, established culinary methods to institutionalize wet rice cultivation, which alienated non-Việt practices. Anthropologist Nir Avieli depicts ambivalence of consuming jungle meats and goat meats in present day Hội An, showing how ritualized public killings are tied to asserting cultural intimacy. Judith Ehlert focuses on a gendered phenomenon – mothers’ food network and emerging public debate around child obesity. By focusing on discussions of food anxiety and motherhood, Ehlert argues food anxiety arise through women’s ambivalence with being caring mothers and feeding practices.

The second part of the volume, “Food Safety,” addresses the emerging and evolving power players of food production in Vietnam, including state, private sector, and the consumer. Muriel Figuié et al. lay the groundwork for understanding shifting food systems in relation to modernization processes in which consumers are now distanced from food production, generating anxieties around delocalized food and “unidentifiable edible object[s].” (145) Nora Faltmann dives deeper into the issue of distanciation by showing how the niche market of organic foods in Vietnam is still largely controlled by foreign corporations and governed by neoliberal logics. But citizens’ quest for organic and safe food is not limited to the niche market as Sandra Kurfürst shows in her chapter on urban gardening and rural-urban supply chains of food. She plays on the longstanding dichotomy between urban versus rural. Food anxiety disrupts the usual dichotomy of urban and rural, putting more trust in food from countryside as opposed to prevalence of polluted and alienated food in the city.

The final part, “The Politics of Food Security,” shifts towards national and transnational level of politics involved in food security. At the state level, Timothy Gorman examines Resolution 63, a legislative mandate targeted at food security and increasing rice production. Gorman shows the emphasis of food security is on food production instead of access to food. The fixation on the supply side intensifies agrarian transition, favoring large-scale mechanized production over smallholder farmers. In the last chapter, Hongzhou Zhang examines the dialectical relationship between Vietnam and China, a recurring theme in food anxieties discussed throughout the volume. In recent years, food security strategy in China has promoted imported foods and expanded overseas agricultural investment, giving rise to exponential increase in trade between the two countries. However, consumers are mistrustful of low-quality food from China, suspecting illegal chemical additives or containing gutter oil.[1] Interregional exchange further complicates issues of trust in food and edibility. Jean-Pierre Poulain closes the volume by foregrounding the idea of “compressed modernity” proposed by Kyung-Sup Chang, which describes evolving socio-economic dynamics happening in condensed time and space and pertinent to fast modernization of Asian countries such as Vietnam (303). The intensity of modernity threads together discussions throughout the volume, underscoring the evolving relationships in households, private and public sectors, and neoliberal logics in a socialist state through the consumption and production of food.

The volume provides multi-dimensional approaches for understanding food anxieties in contemporary Vietnam. Anxiety around food production, consumption, and exchange is neither a localized phenomenon nor situated outside of socio-cultural histories. Authors discern nuances at the individual level (should one consume goat meat which is rumored to provide aphrodisiac effects), the household level (what feeding practices make a good mother), the state level, and lastly, international projects of food security and organic production. The volume powerfully penetrates the surface of food-related outbreaks, which have dominated the news. Authors contemplate the multiplicity of relations involved in production and consumption, scrutinizing the implications of neoliberal governance and global capitalist structures specifically within food anxieties. However, several authors point towards food anxieties derived from the relationship between Vietnam and China. It would be interesting to see how food anxieties speaks to political tensions between two countries. Do issues of national security exacerbate food anxiety, particularly discourse around interregional exchange?

The volume will appeal to range of academic audiences. Authors speak to social scientists who are interested in understanding growing food anxieties in Asian countries that have experienced rapid modernization. The edited volume is also a great resource for classrooms to provide students insights into how neoliberal projects shape conceptions of food and how food is politicized in daily practices. Each chapter approaches food anxiety from a specific angle, presenting qualitative findings and interpretations on food anxiety in Vietnam.

[1] Gutter oil refers to sourcing oil from restaurant waste, sewages, and grease traps. Recycled oil is processed and sold as cooking oil.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Asia, globalization, neo-liberal public policy, Vietnam