SAFN Student Awards, 2020

Students! Have you been doing research or writing on food and nutrition? Would you like fame, recognition, and money for your efforts?

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition has three awards for student research and writing. Details and links to more information are below. Given the turmoil and confusion of the last few months, we have delayed the deadlines for submission for the awards this year to September 18, 2020. You have plenty of time to get your materials together and send them in.

The awards are:

The Thomas Marchione Award

For graduate students engaged in or having recently completed research related to food and human rights, food security, food justice, and related issues. Work in any field of study is eligible, and the winner will receive $750 and a year’s membership in both the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN). Details on how to apply here.

The Christine Wilson Award

This is really two awards, one undergraduate and one graduate. We are seeking applications for the Christine Wilson Graduate Student Award and the Christine Wilson Undergraduate Student Award for outstanding student research papers on food and/or nutrition. The winner of the graduate award and the undergraduate award will receive $300 and be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association and receive a year’s membership in SAFN. Details on how to apply here.

The Student Research Award

SAFN is pleased to announce a new award for 2020. The new Student Research Award is open to all of our student members pursuing Masters or PhD degrees at accredited colleges or universities. The funding is intended to support the research phase of an original project focused on food and nutritional anthropology. Students from all four sub-fields of anthropology are encouraged to apply as well as from interdisciplinary fields that engage in anthropological methods and theory. It carries an award of $800. Details on how to apply here.

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Review: Anti-Diet

Anti-Diet

Christy Harrison Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. Little, Brown Spark. 2019. Pp. 326. ISBN: 0316420352 (Hardback).

Janet Chrzan (University of Pennsylvania)

Intuitive Eating?? Really????

For the last few years, I’ve been reviewing popular American diets for an upcoming volume on fad diets. Diets are, as all are aware, extraordinarily popular in the United States, with roughly 50% of adults trying to lose weight at any given time period (according to the CDC) and approximately 30% actively ‘on a diet’, whatever that might mean. It’s clearly a national obsession, right up there with Flamin’ Hot Nacho Cheese Doritos and the Wing Bowl. This means, of course, that there is an endless and near-bottomless appetite for diet books, diet blogs, diet therapies, and diet gurus… and that a sure way to make money is to create a new diet (or something that looks like a new diet), become a diet blogger and lifestyle advocate, write a peppy easy-to-read volume about your diet’s wondrous efficacy, get interviewed by Oprah, Gwyneth, and Dr. Phil and make time to go shopping for your new yacht.

A rational understanding of nutrition, human biology, or even food composition is not necessary for any of those ‘make-me-a-millionaire’ diet gurus.

Occasionally a diet book comes along written by someone who has studied nutrition at a good school, one known for the quality of its programming and faculty. Unlike, for instance, the ever-popular online programs for ‘certified sports nutritionists’ provided by the Institute for Functional Medicine or the ‘Online Holistic Nutritionist Specialist’ degree offered by the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts… and other similar for-profit degree mills. The book in question, Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, was written by Christy Harrison, who has experience in both food (she had been a writer for Gourmet Magazine) and nutrition, having completed the New York University’s RD/MPH dual degree (an excellent program to which this author has sent her own students for further training in public health nutrition). High hopes ensued for a rational, well-written and sensible book about the importance of forming habits promoting a balanced diet, with side notes on portion sizes and food frequencies for optimal dietary health. Alas.

The book is organized into two parts, the first being a description of what Harrison calls “diet culture” or “the Life Thief” and the second part designed to provide a personal and affirmation-based solution to the problem for those who have been victimized by diet culture. She defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of “health”” (Harrison, 2019: 7). At about this page the reader realizes that this isn’t a book about diets or food, it’s a self-help manual designed to make privileged dieters feel good about themselves by embracing and denouncing all the myriad ways they’ve been victimized by American culture.

Alas, there are no recipes or food plans. In fact, Harrison suggests that “no good scientific evidence exists that eating so-called ‘processed” (or “highly palatable”) food causes significant weight gain or poor health outcomes” (ibid: 48). She also maintains that getting rid of ‘disordered eating habits’ rather than modifying diet promotes health, although people with celiac might benefit from “making a few changes in how they eat” (ibid: 78; italics added). However, she also tells readers: “take diabetes, for example: diet culture makes people with this condition live in constant fear of carbohydrates, but these nutrients don’t need to be off limits at all – they just need to be understood. Yes, someone with diabetes might (italics added) have a blood-sugar spike from eating a carbs-only meal or snack – within their rights as an autonomous human being, if that’s what they want or need to do” (ibid: 231; italics added). While she then does explain (correctly) that including other macronutrients with carbs can blunt the rise of blood sugar, she also falsely claims that diabetics are told to avoid all starches due to a stigmatizing ‘diet culture’ that demonizes carbs. Of course this isn’t true; it’s virtually impossible to avoid carbs and any RD or medical doctor who treats diabetic patients will teach them to combine foods to ensure a diet that discourages insulin spikes. What these quotes demonstrate, instead, is Harrison’s primary rhetorical tool: she makes a misleading and dichotomizing statement-of-fact about a topic relating to food use or health and then asserts that the science is wrong and that ‘diet culture’ controls discourse and practice to victimize people (well, mostly women).

This strategy prevails throughout the volume – she describes a situation, makes a statement, provides a negation and takedown bolstered by carefully chosen (favorable and cherry-picked) references and a smattering of seemingly rational scientific evidence, and then presents a testimonial from either her own life, that of a patient, or of another ‘victim’ (usually another afflicted healer from the self-help industry) who reiterates the narrative trope of how diet culture constructed the problem. The problem is solved when the person stops doing what diet culture tells them to do, realizes their utter victimhood, and embraces a free expression of their inner, authentic self to forgo all food rules. Again and again she makes definitive, declarative and often misleading statements designed to support her agenda, such as “It simply is not evidence-based medicine to say that people “need to lose weight” for any health reasons, because we have no safe, sustainable method of producing weight loss” (ibid: 158; italics original to text). Clearly both ends of this sentence are untrue; some health problems do indeed benefit from weight reduction and we most certainly do know how to encourage healthy and safe weight loss.

This points out her problematic use of research materials and scientific studies to support her cause; too often she cites sources that don’t support her statements, occasionally cites a research report without providing a full citation or cites a magazine story as scientific evidence. Or she will cite a source or two about a topic, asserting that one or two published outliers demonstrate that most science is wrong – but ignoring the vast pile of research that better defines the scientific consensus. Her evisceration of how quantiles are used in scientific and epidemiologic studies is a good example (see pages 232-235). Another example is her citation-free negation of nutrition science research in a general statement that “animal studies cannot be extrapolated to humans; at best, they can alert researchers to areas for further scientific study on humans. These human studies, in turn, must be repeated multiple times with large groups of people in well-designed experiments (that is, in randomized, controlled, trials)” (ibid: 235). From this statement of misinformation (misinformed because many aspects of human nutrition can indeed be understood by study of analogous systems in appropriate animal models) she then explains that since most nutrition studies don’t follow that best-case-scenario research model they are not capable of providing accurate information, although her analysis is muddled through with chatty inconsistencies. She also assumes that the worst case scenario is the standard situation; for instance, that suggestions to ‘limit sugar’, are actually ‘eliminate sugar entirely and never eat it again’, which allows her to construct straw-man arguments against the scientific research about that topic. But what can we expect from someone who writes, apparently with absolute certainly and seriousness: “after the fall of Rome, the notion of body fat as a symptom to be cured went mostly underground for a long time” (ibid: 20). These are common rhetorical tactics used by diet gurus; many diet books are positively larded with declamations and citations that seem to incontrovertibly support the diet… yet digging into the cited reports reveals that the author often misstated the outcomes or findings of the studies.

The signs of a fad diet are well known; The Pennington Biomedical Research Group provides a concise description (see file:///C:/Users/Janet%20Chrzan/Dropbox%20(Blue%20Horseradish)/JAC/Documents/Articles%20and%20Books/PNS_Fad_Diets.pdf). From my research and reading, fad diet creators nearly always assert that their diet – and only their diet – works. First they tell you how your extra weight is hurting you, assert that health is only possible if you follow their diet and that it will prevent most known diseases, then they provide ample, often bogus information that proves that other diets and nutritionists in general are wrong, all designed to support their diet, to discredit other diets and most everyday food use as well. Only they have the answer, and it’s to follow what they say for success, perfect health, social acceptance and life-long well-being.

And perhaps not surprisingly, albeit amusingly, Harrison follows this structure almost perfectly. The chapters each focus on a topic within food culture, define how “diet culture” has corrupted the enjoyment of food, negates modern science about the diet, and then provides a testimonial about how someone overcame the cultural programming about the topic to get healthy and to accept herself. In the first section, chapter one provides a history of “diet culture”; chapter two a discussion of how modern diets cause you to be a victim of the wellness movement; chapter three a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming time sink; chapter four a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming money sink; chapter five is about how diet culture creates victims of all of us and destroys well-being and self-assurance by fat-shaming and stigma; and chapter six chronicles how being a victim of diet culture makes you unhappy. In the second section, chapter seven counsels the reader on how to set boundaries and escape from victimhood, and chapter eight asserts that we are all born intuitive eaters but diet culture causes us to be victims and to lose our capacity to know what we want to eat. Chapter nine tackles the tendency to label foods as good or bad as problematic, arguing that all food rules (even cultural ones) are inherently bad and cause victimization and that we should just eat what we want all the time. Chapter ten introduces the Healthy at Any Size movement, describes how being large is to be victimized, and is largely drawn from its website and educational materials; and chapter eleven tells the reader to find a community of other victims to join in victimhood to denounce people who might say something negative about fatness and being a victim and that dismantling diet culture will create social justice and equal rights for everyone. Do you perceive a pattern? I do.

I’d like to diagram her hypothesis and analysis. She has identified diet culture as the problem for almost all food-related issues, and links diet culture to a patriarchal, racist agenda designed to keep all women disempowered: “diet culture, it’s very much a system of oppression, with its roots in racist, sexist beliefs about food and bodies” (ibid: 49) and “in the twentieth century, being fat was seen as a sign of lower evolutionary status, as was failing or refusing to adhere to binary gender roles and beauty standards” (ibid: 33). The volume is littered with comments that dietary restraint of any sort is linked to victimization, and especially for people who belong to groups that have experienced profound discrimination in the United States such as people of color and members of the LBGQT community. But Harrison seems to equate the discrimination and inequalities experienced by those groups – real, life-altering and profoundly inhibiting – as similar and perhaps even equivalent to the projected discrimination experienced by those who follow diet culture. Not, I need to point out, only those who are indeed large bodied and who have experienced the real and deleterious inequalities resulting from fat phobia and stigma, but all people (women) who have ever gone on a diet or bought into the thin body ideal or been a food activist (chapter two) or simply wanted to fit into last year’s jeans again. In effect, any attempt to regulate what you eat makes you a victim of the most repressive forms of discrimination and socially engineered denigration, and equates the sufferings of women like the author – young, white, well-educated, middle class, entitled and able to follow their own form of ‘diet bliss’ – as equal to and equally deleterious as the discrimination suffered by truly oppressed peoples. To be a victim of diet culture is analogous to being a victim of white supremacist misogyny and racism, apparently (see pages 112 and 264 for examples of how she links and equalizes these forms of oppression). Really? It’s astonishing to think that victimology might allow privileged white women to decide they have it as bad as historically oppressed peoples.

If we take a metaphorical step back to examine the rhetoric and construction of this volume, the how and the why of her idée fixe becomes clear. The first part of this is tied to how and where she started her enquiry, the second to how she conducted her research, and the third to the original structure and purpose of the writing.

Her original interest in writing about diets were her own experiences with dieting, her perceptions and anxieties about body size, and her experience of disordered eating, as she makes clear in the introduction. She provides readers with story after story of her own problems; she even tells us that she entered the RD/MPH program at NYU because of diet culture, because she was so disordered in her eating and thinking that she thought it would solve the problem (see pages 113, 127, 131 etc.). She even includes her student loan debt as part of the ‘steals your money’ hypothesis of chapter four (ibid: 127). In effect, she’s decided she’s a victim because she had the opportunity to go to a very good school to study the topic she had a psychological problem about… But it’s clear from her writing that Harrison’s problem was deeply psychological rather than food-related; she had an eating disorder, or at least could have been diagnosed with disordered eating. She makes this clear in story after story about herself, but especially on pages 9, 10, 57 and 111 (in which she describes her recovery with the help of a good therapist). But she then states “I was finally able to recover from diet culture by giving up all forms of dieting” (ibid: 10) indicating that she considered her problem to be societal (diet culture) rather than psychological. She has projected the psychological onto culture, and determined that culture is ill, not the self. The problems are external, not internal or part of the self. She also implies that anyone who diets at all has an eating disorder… because of diet culture.

She then uses this projection of causality to frame her research. Almost all her testimonials and stories are from people who are either archetypical “afflicted healers” who have recovered from eating disorders or patients with eating disorders. In effect, she has globalized the psychological problem of an eating disorder into a rationale against all food rules and dietary behavior and assumed that anyone who alters their diet or is interested in wellness is a victim of a societal ill. Furthermore, those who are part of the food movement: “(Michael) Pollan, (Marion) Nestle, and their ilk” (ibid: 61; parentheses and first names added) are complicit in the oppression and victimization of others. Indeed, not only are they peddling a dangerous diet culture, they are racist oppressors: “The food movement also implies that if you eat what it deems to be the right foods, you’ll avoid “obesity” and end up thin, just like Pollan, Nestle, and other (overwhelmingly white) food-activist leaders. In this way the food-activist movement upholds white culture’s preference for thinness by equating it with the picture of health, and defines “real food” as the type preferred by white elites” (ibid: 61). Again and again she provides narratives of how someone with an eating disorder overcame it to eat whatever they wanted to get healthy, conflating a psychological problem with a cultural process and identifying the cause of the problem as outside the bodies and selves – and minds – of those with eating disorders. And of course, that’s true to some extent; without a cultural preference for thin bodies many eating disorders might not exist. But that does not allow one to declare that all people who change their food habits or are involved in any kind of healthy eating movement are victims of diet culture or psychologically damaged; nor that they are racist. Indeed, while food justice isn’t baked into every food activism process (yet), many people involved in the food movement are active precisely in order to promote food justice within communities of color… and food justice often means food-secure access to foods she labels white and elite such as fruit, vegetables, and other whole foods that people from disadvantaged communities want just as much as the privileged. Not everyone who works in food is an oppressor, nor is everyone who changes their diet a victim. But that she clearly thinks that everyone should read her book is obvious: “in our society at this moment in history, it’s basically impossible not to fall into diet culture’s clutches at some point. As you’ll see later chapters, however, it is possible to extricate yourself and move beyond it” (ibid: 73). Yep, everyone is a victim and everyone has an eating disorder constructed, created and controlled by “diet culture”. Which only she can fix.

Third, the logical inconsistencies of the interlocking arguments have been amplified by the rhetorical structure of her original writings. Christy Harrison was, and is, a food blogger… and the chapters reveal that genesis. The chapters are organized thematically but do seem to be constructed of re-worked previous posts, with internal subcategories that tackle individualized issues. They have then been grouped into themes and strung together. OK, not a crime – and not the first time a blogger has written a book using previous material. Furthermore, the strongly declarative statements (often false or misleading) are precisely the kind of attention-getting rants that generate eyeballs on a blog page and for a podcast. She employs – and frequently, often two or three times per paragraph – the use of quotations around a word or concept to indicate the she deems it false. She is clearly telling her readers exactly what’s wrong with the world that she’s trying to fix – and its “food activism”, “real food”, “better choices” and “watch what they eat” among many other concepts. It’s a clear tell (my italics!) of intent and a furthering of the strategy to criticize everyone else while arguing for her solutions. Her need to denounce any idea that she deems a part of diet culture causes her to attack scientific protocols and principles as faulty. She refutes how research is done and often misstates or misunderstands research outcomes. For instance, her discussion about how weight stigma causes allostatic stress ignores other stress-causing variables that play a role in an overall stress response. Instead she assumed that the health outcomes associated with allostatic loads are due entirely to weight stigma, rather than to stressors known to cause weight gain, such as lack of sleep and high anxiety (ibid: 137-140). It’s an effective strategy if your only analytical tool is to bash every nail with a hammer, but not always an effective explanation of scientific findings. What passes easily in a blog post might not make it past a peer reviewer, and much of this volume would not stand up to any kind of careful review.

Ah, solutions. And here is the big problem. There aren’t really any beyond self-acceptance and a description of the Health at Every Size platform. In fact, by chapter two I was wondering if the food industry had paid her to write this book, after reading statements such as: “the movement’s anti-food industry sentiment has distracted people from the fact that, by and large, food activists have built their case for changing the food system on a foundation of weight stigma, which directly benefits the weight-loss industry and harms everyday people, particularly those in larger bodies.” She then attacks Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle before declaring “The food movement considers itself socially progressive yet it unintentionally upholds an outmoded, racist, oppressive view of bodies by accepting and repeating “obesity epidemic” rhetoric and blaming particular foods for supposedly making people fat” (Ibid: 59). She repeatedly tells people to eat whatever they want, including cravings such as cupcakes, brownies and other high-sugar foods, even if diabetic (see pages 225-236). Indeed, her discussions about the need for individualized autonomy and choice-making uphold a rigidly neoliberal, consumption-oriented construction of the self (see page 172). Another tactic is to mislead readers about what a word really means or how it is used to dismiss practices she equates with diet culture: “speaking of chemicals, they get a bad rap under the Wellness Diet, but your body is 100 percent chemicals… and you’d die without them” (ibid: 104). Besides, “arguments about how the food industry or the ‘standard American diet’ is purportedly creating an ‘obesity epidemic’ are intertwined with racist and classist beliefs… and that’s to say nothing of the fact that pointing fingers at the food industry conveniently deflects attention from diet culture, which deserves a lot more scrutiny than it gets in the food-activist movement” (ibid: 55). So the solution is to accept yourself and eat twinkies, because anyone arguing for systemic change in the food system is racist and attacking the wrong causes, and the food industry is not the reason anyone has gained weight. I suspect this might make people feel even more disempowered than before.

Harrison is right about many issues, of course. She ably describes why and how diets cause rebound weight gain and is correct that many diet protocols are biased in favor of the thin, white, young body. And far too many of the foods deemed healthy at any given point in time are indeed precisely the foods that the elite and privileged prefer and eat (hello Keto and Paleodiet, I’m talking about you). She’s right to link 20th century racism to notions of the ideal body – and does indeed credit Helen Zoe Veit’s outstanding research for making that clear (Veit, 2013: Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. The University of North Carolina Press. Many of the messages about body acceptance and accepting the self are indeed valuable, and important to the creation of a healthy diet and relationship with food. She’s absolutely right to encourage people to explore the HAES protocols and to learn how to eat a diet framed by internal controls. The problem is that she has fallen into the trap of almost all diet gurus: she relies on attacking others’ work and concepts as a rhetorical strategy to improve the appeal of her own ideas. Rather than explore the content and context of her construct ‘diet culture’, she assumes that everyone in food advocacy is complicit in oppression and denounces their work as part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. And perhaps because, fundamentally, she has no solution – her constructed creation ‘diet culture’ is too large and too structurally messy and embedded to be changed through the efforts of the neoliberal individual. And because she refuses to honor the work of others, she is incapable of participating within a mutually respectful community of change. Or maybe she really was paid by the food industry to write this book.

Why did I bother writing about this book? Well, because I think it’s very typical of the diet/nutrition writing that’s available to the general public and which explains so much of the confusion about dietary advice. Overall, this book misleads the reader about diet and health, and especially about science and behavior. Yet to the average, untrained-in-biology reader this book might sound knowing and wise, because there are lots of nutrition science words, references, and positive testimonials. Of course, that the average reader might not realize that the references aren’t always appropriate is a problem and supports the need for a good reviewer and a good editor. But this is not a peer-reviewed volume and thus those services weren’t provided (ahem, see cited sentence about Rome above…). One of the central questions that I have been asking myself as I write about diet fads is how to effectively convey good information to a public yearning for explanations without being condescending or dismissive of the ‘alternate facts’ that comprise too much of the understanding of nutrition processes. I’m still not sure how to do that but I know that all of us in food do need to speak up when we encounter truly bad advice and information. Almost every conversation I have with people about their diets makes clear how much they seek accurate advice and too often can’t rely on what they read and hear.

For alternative readings that cover these topics in far more accurate and positive (and do-able) ways, I suggest Finally Full, Finally Slim by Lisa R. Young, and How Not to Diet by Michael Greger. Both provide excellent protocols for establishing personal habits that guarantee healthy weight maintenance – at any size. For on-target discussions of oppression, fat stigma, and feminism, I suggest the fiercely intelligent and brilliantly funny Lindy West, particularly The Witches are Coming and Shrill; her columns for the Guardian and the New York Times are also superbly well-written and cogent: http://www.lindywest.net/columns.

 

Veit, Helen Zoe (2013) Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, obesity

“La gente tiene que comer”: Food and COVID-19

Lisa Grabinsky
Oregon State University

“La gente tiene que comer.” (“People have to eat”), my mother replied when I decided to study Nutrition and Food Science, believing that such a career was going to result in a well-paid job offer once I graduated from college, especially in Mexico —a country whose population has grappled with metabolic illness for nearly 30 years, but also whose cuisine is considered Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2010). When I began looking for employment during my last semester, however, I was confronted with the reality: only a small number of dietitians are able to secure the steady and well-compensated job I envisioned for myself at the tender age of 18. The rest will most likely have to set up private practices—a service that the general population associates more with unattainable beauty standards than with long-term health and wellbeing. In addition, a traumatic event during my first-ever experience within a hospital left me dreading working in one; this significantly reduced my options either to private consultation or to institutional food services. In the latter, I would have had to harshly enforce company policies against kitchen employees “stealing” food, even if their reason to do so was an exploitative salary that made them unable to feed themselves and their families. I learned from this job hunting experience the sad truth: the hard work of insuring that all people have access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food —a most basic human need— is almost worthless within the Mexican economy.

live from agriculture

Image 1 Facebook post stating: “Have you realized yet that we do not live from mining but from agriculture?”

Fast-forward to April 5th, 2020. I am browsing through my social media and navigating the waves of COVID-19 news —fake, veracious, and questionable—, and I stumble upon a post a friend and fellow Food Studies scholar shared (Image 1). In the image, the statement “Have you realized yet that we do not live from mining but from agriculture?” is displayed in all caps, along with pictures of the fresh produce one fortunately can still easily find in grocery stores here in Corvallis, Oregon (USA), where I have been living for the past two years while I obtain my Master’s Degree in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds and governments worldwide issue orders of social distancing and staying at home, concerns in regards to food supply arise, along with images of panic buying that have left grocery store shelves completely empty. A dear friend living in a village in Italy —where stone-built houses from the 13th century stood strong and tall through two World Wars— describes these images as evidence for “a war without bombs”.

Since —as my mother wisely says—people have to eat not only to keep a strong immune system in these times of epidemiological emergency, but also for physiological need, those working at any point of the food production and supply chain are now deemed as “essential workers”:

  • The farmworkers —whether international or national immigrants— who endure long hours of hard work in the fields for barely livable salaries and little-to-no access to social services;
  • Chefs and food servers currently struggling to keep their businesses afloat with take-out curbside pickup and delivery options;
  • Store clerks constantly re-stocking shelves, cleaning, and sanitizing, while also maintaining a friendly attitude towards the customers; and
  • Many other intermediaries that are vital for families all over the world to have nutritious food on the table.
breakfast-omelet-e158939018450.jpg

Image 2 Breakfast omelet with vegetables from a local organic farm that employs immigrant farmworkers (photo by the author)

 

This status of “essential workers” issued to people working in the food production system, however, adds an enormous amount of pressure, for they must now work double or triple to keep up with the increased food demand that panic buying has caused. In the process, their contagion risk grows. Becoming “essential workers” in the eyes of the public —even though they always have been so because, again, la gente tiene que comer— does not necessarily translate into better, or even decent, working conditions. Half of all recently declared “essential” farmworkers in the US are undocumented, which makes them still ineligible for almost all public benefits (Bacon 2020), such as Medicaid and SNAP or WIC benefits. In this small college town in Oregon where I sit to write this (around 60,000 people), I have already signed three hazard pay and safety precautions petitions for employees working at different local grocery stores.

oat-flour-brownies-2.jpg

Image 3 Oat flour, roasted peanut brownies (recipe and photo by author)

At the end of one of my classes in a course called Advanced Medical Anthropology, Dr. Melissa Cheyney asked us what a possible silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic might be. I replied that it made me hopeful observing on social media that as people are encouraged to stay home, they are starting to cook more and more elaborated recipes, either as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, and/or boredom or as an effort to comply with the WHO’s “eat healthy” recommendation to protect their health from COVID-19. I myself have uploaded a few pictures to my Instagram stories of new foods and dishes I have recently experimented with, particularly baked goods. My anxiety and feelings of isolation and loneliness have made me crave certain comfort foods that I cannot simply go out to purchase at a store. I even tend to accompany each picture with the phrase: “Keeping sanity through cooking”.

People are finally realizing the importance of food in their lives, as well as just how hard “essential workers” must labor to make our eating possible. A friend from high school and her partner had been complying with the “stay at home” order when they decided to make quesadillas de chicharrón prensado from scratch. From the preparation of the Guajillo chili pepper salsa to their improvised tortilla press using two plates with which they shaped the masa, my friend documented the whole process and shared it as Instagram stories, which I thoroughly enjoyed going through. However, what stayed with me as food for thought (no pun intended) was her final story —a message in which she acknowledged the amount of time and effort that just went into cooking foods that we Mexican urbanites so often take for granted when we unthinkingly purchase inexpensive antojitos from female street vendors, whose own diets depend greatly on their daily earnings. At this very moment, these women cannot afford to take a single day off to stay at home, let alone consider a prolonged quarantine.

I feel optimistic seeing people in their kitchens re-connecting with their own food and building community around it, from young professionals in Mexico City currently engaging in home-office, to celebrities, such as comedian Iliza Schlesinger with partner chef Noah Galuten. These two in particular are doing “#DontPanicPantry”— a series of live cooking tutorials in which the couple prepares a variety of nurturing dishes using pantry staples present in most US homes. They even hosted a virtual Passover Seder, which —as an Ashkenazi Jew celebrating Passover alone for the first time— I appreciated greatly.

I have also seen people back home in Mexico City going beyond just cooking food and starting to grow their own, whether they live in a house with a garden or in a small apartment with nothing more than perhaps a small balcony where they can place a couple of pots. People in both Mexico and the US are supporting local businesses by ordering food and sharing pictures of it, making sure to refer viewers to said business’ accounts through their social media handles. Others have begun to seek out and enroll in CSA programs with local farms. The Central de Abasto in Mexico City —considered the biggest market in the world—will not only continue operating, but has also implemented a delivery service. Here in Corvallis, university-based institutions at OSU —specifically the Coalition of Graduate Employees and the Human Services Resource Center— have established mutual aid services for “all students and community members regardless of their citizenship status (Hurtado Moreno 2020)”; food assistance is one of their major pillars.

“La gente tiene que comer”, my mother says. People have to eat indeed, but we needed a major life-disruptor like COVID-19 to open our eyes to the incredible amount of human work that goes into producing, distributing, and cooking food in order to be able to do so— pandemic or not.  This experience has enabled us to see how fragile the current global food production system can be. As the situation unfolds, my hope is that more people will realize this and truly value these “always-essential workers”, advocate for the rights and wellbeing of the most vulnerable, and continue taking actions towards food sovereignty that have already been set in motion through these and other acts of solidarity we are all witnessing virtually.

References:

Bacon, David. 2020. “America’s Farmworkers—Now ‘Essential,’ but Denied the Just-Enacted Benefits.” The American Prospect.

Hurtado Moreno, Argenis. 2020. “El Virus: A Contagion of Racism & How Networks of Care Can Stop It.” Somatosphere.

UNESCO. 2010. “Traditional Mexican Cuisine.” Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Lisa Grabinsky is a Mexican Fulbright Scholar in her second year of the Applied Anthropology MA program at Oregon State University, minoring in Food in Culture and Social Justice.

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Filed under anthropology, food security, food sovereignty, Mexico

Review: Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Media of Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Carole Counihan. Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia: Place, Taste, and Community. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. Pp. i-176. ISBN 9781474262286 (hardback) 9781474262309 (epdf)

Abigail E. Adams (Central Connecticut State University)

This review of the book by SAFN’s own Carole Counihan, based on her decades-long work in Italy’s Sardinia, is overdue but perhaps timely as we keep in mind the Italian people in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Counihan has helped me “ethno-graph” more deeply my own engagement in urban New England food justice and agriculture movements during a period that overlaps with her 2011-2015 research, and with a similarly necessary focus on the 2008 worldwide Great Recession. She writes of Italy’s marginalized south and islands, whose residents value their agro-pastoral economies, histories, traditions and who struggle “against competition from increasingly globalized foodways manifest in expanding distribution networks and high density of supermarkets” (2019: 1).

After her introduction, she structures chapters with case studies focused on particular places and communities of “food activists, food advocates and food rebels” (2019: 3). She draws throughout the ethnography on three themes signaled by her book’s subtitle (Place, Taste, and Community): the significance of place, territorio; the appeal of taste as a strategy for action; and the goal of forging community (2019: 1). Another unmentioned but valuable theme throughout the book is the local impact of state policies and practices.

I came into anthropology’s food studies from the social justice angle, rather than our discipline’s nutrition or even embodiment subfields. Counihan’s book put these two approaches together for me, demonstrating how people and communities can re-claim their experience, standards, and senses from the crazy-making gaslit maw of industrial food and agriculture. Her book was a form of “taste activism” for me, a term Counihan coins to express how “the social, sensual bodily engagement with food can be a wellspring of civil society participation” (2019: 65). And even her coining observes territorio, as it is grounded in the insight of Sardinia’s native son Antonio Gramsci about the vital “movement from knowing to understanding to feeling and vice versa …you cannot make history and politics without passion” (cited 2019:66).

Counihan sustains a close focus on cross-class interactions, alliances and solidarities among the region’s middle-class, its farmers, other food producers, processors, and purveyors, teachers and elementary school children, starting with the book’s first case study—of a Slow Food chapter or condotta — to one of the closing studies about the “teaching farms” and its elementary school partner.

In Chapter Two, “Middle-Class Activism and Slow Food,” Counihan takes on the elitism charge leveled against Slow Food and explores how the members of Cagliari’s condotta promote access to “good, clean and fair food.” She describes these as middle-class activists, “those with financial means, interest, and critical thinking to make consumption choices towards more sustainable and equitable food” (2019: 10)—but the members are from all walks of Sardinian life, including farmers and butchers; she encounters no food snobs in their midst. They are an active group, have just established two new “food communities between consumers and producers around regional varieties of capers and watermelons. A butcher member radically changed his meat ordering business to promote small and local meat producers. But they feel the disconnect between their efforts and the sharp decline in their region’s small-scale farming, as well as their own struggles to maintain the founding passion of their movement.

In Chapter Three, “Food and Territorio,” a study of three agricultural “communities of resistance” (citing Pratt 2007), Counihan’s top concern is whether these groups have spurned exclusionary reactionary “defensive localization” while aiming for food sovereignty, celebration of territorio, and self-reliance. The first of the three communities is Domusamigas (English: “house of women friends), a women-led group focused on local self-sufficiency, re-skilling and teaching, local varieties, and women producers). The second group is working through AGRIS (the Sardinian Regional Agency for Research in Agriculture) to recognize Sardinian bean varieties on the official government list of traditional species. The last community is gathered around the Cagliari urban garden whose creators restored an abandoned quarry/dumping ground using permaculture techniques developed in Japan and Spain. The Domusamigas founder defines territorio as follows: “You have a place in the world, you are part of something” (2019: 25) and Counihan finds that all three groups welcome newcomers, new ideas and techniques to “have a place.” For example, the urban gardeners want to qualify for social agriculture, the “catch-all name for farming used to provide work and social integration to ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” (2019: 37).

In Chapter Four, “Resistance Farming and Multifunctionality,” Counihan uses four case studies of “resistant” farmers to explore the contributions of alternative agriculture to food democracy: a wine cooperative, caper farmer, organic olive oil producer and teaching farm. Each of these producers aimed at making a living for themselves and others in agro-ecological (even organic) farming of historically important crops often on re-territorialized farmland. Each of the farms appears to be a success in resilient small-scale farming, successes perhaps best defined by the caper farmer: modest income, hard work, but satisfaction. Three of the case studies featured those Italian new young farmers whose 35% increase in numbers over the previous year lifted hopes for “a sustainable new peasant economy distinctively different from entrepreneurial and capitalist agriculture” (2019: 64).

Chapter Five, “Taste Activism and the Emotional Power of Food,” features another stakeholder in food democracy, the consumer. Three “tasting” events sponsored by the organizations and producers met in earlier chapters include a Slow Food caper tasting, the wine cooperative’s wine tasting, and a tasting of the organic olive oil farmer’s product through a thrice-weekly outdoor market sponsored by the Cagliari GAS (Solidarity Purchase Group). Although a shorter chapter, this is one of the more “ethnographic,” as Counihan explores the interactions among the producers, taste event “hosts,” and tasting participants. The strategy of these events is to recruit new activists by “grabbing them by their senses.” At each event, she documents how tasters develop their own critical conscious pleasure and experience of the flavors they sample .aThey thereby cement their commitment to local producers; no one is pushed to conform their palates to some imposed “universal” standard.

Chapter Six, “Restaurants,” shifts to full-time sites of “taste-making” with interviews in three restaurants: a high-brow white linen establishment, a vegetarian buffet, and a deli or gastronomia. The owner/chefs are militant supporters of local food and small farmers, innovators who introduce or resurrect new or forgotten tastes; two of the owner/chefs are younger returnees to their Cagliari birthplaces.

Chapter Seven, “Critical Food Education: Place, taste, and community” (perhaps my favorite chapter) is a tour of Sardinia’s “teaching farms” (an official designation!). Both the teaching farms and the participating primary school principal she interviews are guided by the mantra, “If I hear I forget; if I see I remember; if I do, I learn.” The principal wants her pupils to develop as critical citizens and consumers.She modeled this critical awareness for me when she discussed both her plan to achieve zero food kilometers for her school lunch program but also raised her concerns about the impact on her pupils, many of whom are immigrants, of an exclusionary assumption of localism that residents of the same locale share the same culinary culture (2019: 108-109).

Counihan’s final topical Chapter Eight, “Commerce and Activism takes us to those Sardinians directly confronting global capitalism. She introduces us to owners of three Cagliari organic food businesses including a producer coop, a store, and a home-delivery business. While she cites Heather Paxson’s economies of sentiment (2013), these owners use the explicitlypolitical solidarity economy concept. These are not “boutique” entrepreneurs claiming organic’s niche market, subsidies, and higher prices. These are alternative democratic merchants who use Sardinia’s Sardex alternative currency, promote territorio through local products that yield slim to no profit margins, and struggle to eke out a meager living in a region with Italy’s highest per capita supermarket saturation (2019: 125). They leave prestigious well-paying jobs in Italy’s metropolises to undertake these ventures; while the coop opened in 1982, the other two businesses were established by young returnees in 2003 and 2006. And the obstacles are considerable; the home-delivery service closed during Counihan’s research.

The Conclusion, “Italian food activism and global democracy” briefly summarizes her key points placing Italian food activism in the broader context of global efforts to promote food democracy.

This is a delightfully well-written volume, with generous and almost treasure-hunt-like literature reviews in each chapter as Counihan engages with colleagues for the terms and approaches that best help us understand what Sardinia’s activists accomplish in taste activism, food justice and participatory democracy. She lifts up the voices of the activists and so comes close to achieving one of the definitions of food democracy she cites, which is to represent “all the voices of the food system” (Hassanein 2003: 84, from 2019:3)).

Some of the chapters are driven by interviews rather than interactions and participant observation ethnography. For example, patrons and ethnography of dining are missing in the chapter on the restaurants . The strongest ethnographic chapter is Chapter Four about the tasting events. Other missing voices are those of Sardinia’s most marginalized—those “ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” served by Italy’s social agriculture (2019: 37). Given that so many of her interlocutors are returnees (in other words, Sardinians coming from a core Italian “immigrant” experience), returning to an island that is the first soil that scores of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants set foot on, I (along with Chapter Seven’s wonderfully woke elementary school principal!) would have liked more attention to immigration, territorio, and community.

The Italian immigrants living in the poorest neighborhood of New Britain, Connecticut, where I researched the flourishing and failure of an urban organic farm, transformed their tiny urban yards into vertical and horizontal horticultural miracles–in the midst of general blight. While carrying out research, I co-founded an urban food justice non-profit (New Britain ROOTS http://www.newbritainroots.org) and so I mined nearly every paragraph of Counihan’s book for more ideas for our work and with longing that our public schools were supported by critical pedagogical principles and principals. And teaching farms! Counihan adds new concepts to my activist vocabulary, such as Italy’s social agriculture, the teaching farms and the CSA variant, “your garden at a distance.” COVID-19 and quarantine coincided with Spring here, and a record run on gardening supplies. It’s not clear yet what industries and commerce the pandemic will pruned or clear-cut; perhaps we can transplant some of Sardinia’s alternatives and challenges to the global agro-food industrial complex.

For a recent video interview with Carole Counihan about her career in food anthropology, see:

https://foodanthro.com/2019/11/19/i-remember-the-day-i-said-okay-ive-read-everything-an-interview-with-carole-counihan/

References:

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni dal cacere, vol. 1. Turin: Einauldi.

Hassanein, Neva (2003) Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation. Journal of Rural Studies 19: 77-86.

Paxson, Heather (2013) The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pratt, Jeff (2007) “Food Values: The Local and Authentic,” Critique of Anthropology 27(3): 285-300.

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CFP: AAA 2020 in St. Louis, MO

ATTN SAFN MEMBERS: DEADLINES EXTENDED, Plan and submit your sessions for AAA 2020 in St. Louis, MO!

The time has come to start planning and submitting sessions for the annual AAA meeting.

The meeting will be held November 18-22, 2019 in St. Louis, MO. The theme is Truth and Responsibility.

St. Louis promises to be a fun and productive meeting. SAFN’s AAA Program Committee and Executive Board look forward to putting together a great program for our members – but we need your help. Please begin organizing your oral presentation sessions, roundtables, gallery sessions, installations, and workshops!

The Submission Portal  is open – and all the submission details can be found hereWhen you submit, please select SAFN as your review section.

Submission Timeline:

  • Submissions must be started in the Submission Portal by Friday, May 15 at 3:00 p.m. EDT.
  • Submitters will have until Wednesday, May 20 at 3:00 p.m. EDT to finalize and submit their proposals.

SAFN encourages you to take advantage of a wide range of presentation formats:

  • Oral presentation sessions (standard and retrospective)
  • Roundtables (standard and retrospective)
  • Group flash presentations (5 minutes each)
  • Curated group gallery sessions (with posters or other visual content)
  • Installations (including performances, readings, or other creative forms of expression)
  • Individually volunteered papers and posters
  • Workshops
  • Mentoring event

Invited and Co-Sponsored Sessions

We will consider all sessions submitted to SAFN for Invited status. Last year we co-sponsored several sessions with Culture and Agriculture and the Society for Medical Anthropology. These co-sponsorships were a great success and they increased our visibility and audience! We hope expand our co-sponsorships this year. Please let us know about your sessions and make suggestions for co-sponsorships as soon as possible.

Organizing sessions vs. individually volunteered papers

We encourage you to take advantage of the AAA Communities and various listservs you may be a part of to organize a session or find a session for your individual contributions. The SAFN committee will do its best to organize individually volunteered papers into panels for review – but our experience is that organized panels are more cohesive.

Participation Rules

A reminder that you must be a member of either AAA and register for the meeting to submit a proposal. Also, individuals can only present one major (Presenter) role plus one secondary (Discussant) role per meeting. There are no limits on minor roles (Organizer/Chair).

All submission details can be found here— but please feel free to reach out to us if you have questions.

 

The 2020 SAFN AAA Program Committee

Daniel Shattuck – shattuck@unm.edu

Ashley Stinnet

Hillary Brooks

Susannah Barr

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Thesis Review: Tasting in Mundane Practices

Mann 2015_title page

 

Please note: As Associate Reviews 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).

Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory. Anna Mann. Ph.D. Thesis, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, Amsterdam. 2015.

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)

As an essential part of bodily experience, the cultural significance of taste can often be overlooked. While sensory science and food industry are typically interested in the physiological aspects of taste for practical reasons, the Western traditions of downgrading taste as only a bodily “sensation” may have affected the view of many social scientists—only in the last few decades did we start to look more intently into the role of taste from a cultural perspective. Indeed, a closer look at taste can reveal insights that may otherwise be ignored, as David Sutton (2010) proposes in his “gustemological” approach to culture. In her published dissertation Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory, Anna Mann adopts this approach, putting taste and tasting at the forefront of her study. Mann uses her ethnographic observations from three different everyday scenarios in various Western European countries in order to reveal and analyze what is happening in the process of tasting.

Tasting in Mundane Practices consists of five chapters. Mann introduces the topic by questioning the accounts of tasting by other social scientists, pointing out that tasting is influenced by the specific context a person exists in, and that it is not only a “physiological response” that takes place in the body, but also a simultaneous experience of the multi-sensorial qualities of the object being tasted. Instead of using “tasting as a vehicle to understand other matters” (17) as a student of Annemarie Mol, who is a leading figure in Science and Technology Studies, Mann takes the approach of “material semiotics” in this study. As Mann explains, this approach requires her to not take “tasting” for granted, rather, she starts by “not knowing what tasting is” so that she can focus on “tasting itself.” Tapping into the ethnographic data she gathered between 2009 and 2013 in Western European countries, in this first chapter, Mann sets the stage for an investigation of tasting: How is tasting accomplished in different practices?

From chapters two to five Mann describes a particular type of setting where tasting was happening. In the second chapter, Mann focuses her investigation on “physiological responses” by describing two sensory science laboratories’ experiments she observed between 2009 and 2011. While the first lab focused on flavor perception in chocolate liquids, the other one studied the relation between food intake and sensory qualities. Mann gives a detailed account of the design of both experiments. In addition, she attached excerpts of her fieldnotes for each lab, providing greater contexts for each observation. In the conclusion of this chapter, she summarizes what these two experiments have in common: they both enacted taste as “an object of science” yet one that is “staged in different versions of the bodily response” (47). In so doing, the researchers managed to tie their research to a set of “practical concerns:” To lab F, it is about optimizing the food product; to lab N, it is about how to prevent obesity (47).

In the third chapter, Mann focuses on particular moments of a family celebration event that took place in eastern Austria in June 2010, when the participants described the food they consumed as “schmeckt gut”— a German expression, which literally means “to taste good”. Taking the phrase schmeckt gut literally, she uses scenarios from her fieldwork as examples to discuss the three different modes of “ordering and organising” tasting: experiencing, socializing and processing food. She also suggests that despite the possibility of combining different approaches to investigate tasting, not all of these aspects are “equally relevant” in any particular moment. At the end of the chapter, Mann points out some challenges for ethnographic investigations of sensual engagement of participants in the future—how exclusions/inclusions are made in a “tasting together in difference” (71).

What, then, shapes people’s sensual engagement with food when they state schmeckt gut in different situations? In chapter three, Mann uses ethnographic data she collected from doctors, patients and nurses between 2009 and 2013 to the everyday life contrast with the theories on the contexts of taste from Pierre Bourdieu, Günter Wiegelmann, and Geneviève Teil, stating that none of these three contexts can apply to practices she observed (77). Instead, she argues that what is important to the experience of people’s sensual engagements with food in everyday life that lead to the comment of “schmeckt gut” is what she calls “mundane going-on”: the tasks and activities one was involved in “before, after and around eating” (83). Moreover, she also suggests some questions for contexts that could be further explored such as how different contexts relate to each other, and the possibility and challenge for us when we consider contexts as interventions.

In chapter four, she discusses tasting and subjective knowing, contrasting wine tasting with “mundane eating”. She uses examples from Teil’s works, which demonstrate that wine tasting is “a specific achievement”: the guides, trainings and tools for wine tasting help to “configure tasting as knowing” (109), where one needs to recognize particular colors, aromas and flavors in different wines in order to “pass a verdict” (109). Using examples from her fieldnotes, Mann states that the process of mundane tasting, however, highlights the fact that tasting is not about people “knowing” how to judge what they taste, rather, it “comes to flow over and blend into what happens before and afterwards” (114). People are not just “knowing subjects,” as they may “shift between different subject positions that imply a different relation to their food” or even “renounce being ‘a subject’ altogether” (122). In the convent Kloster Fahr, where food is shared among the collective, as Mann points out, nuns didn’t use expressions like “tasting good,” refraining from implications of differentiations. In this case of devotional living, “knowing and judging” can be even more insignificant. Instead, appreciating food is much more important. Here, as Mann puts it, “tasting dissolves into yet another way of being in a relation with God” (105).

In the final chapter, Mann briefly revisits the “strategy” of engaging with the four aspects of taste and tasting in different practices, which is the physiological response (chapter 2), the multi-sensory experience (chapter 3), contexts (chapter 4) and knowing (chapter 5). She argues that it is possible to “tease out differences between the ways in which tasting is part of mundane goings-on” (131). Mann also points out that in most of the situations she discusses in these chapters, English is not the primary language; thus, by bringing all these observations together, the tasting that has been crafted here is “a composite of various entities” (132) in different languages that would resonate with the English term “tasting”. In the end, Mann suggests possible directions for future studies that could build on this one—to further our understanding of “the good” when something “tastes good.”

Tasting in Mundane Practices offers an interesting set of ethnographic studies of tasting in different scenarios ranging from laboratory experiments to devotional eating, revealing how different aspects of tasting can point to different subjects in our understanding of culture. Particularly, her call for attention to the roles of contexts and “mundane goings-on” instead of more general and abstract concepts of tasting that some well-known previous works have suggested is worth further exploration. To researchers who are interested in studying the culture of taste, tasting, and everyday life, this book can help to spark ideas for new directions in future studies.

Reference

Sutton, D. E. (2010). Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39(1), 209-223.

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Review: Meat Planet

Meat Planet by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

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

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Review: Food in Cuba

Cover of Food in Cuba by Hanna Garth

Hanna Garth. Food In Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 232 pp. ISBN 9781503604629

Emily Yates-Doerr (Oregon State University/University of Amsterdam)

My plan was to review “Food in Cuba” from Havana. The Society for Medical Anthropology’s meetings were scheduled to be held there this March. I had dreams of sitting on a patio overlooking the Straits of Florida, book and pencil in hand, a spread of elote hallacas to tide me over while I worked. Hanna Garth writes about how Cubans refuse to lower their food standards, ever in “pursuit of a decent meal” as a part of their commitment to living a decent life. I wanted to observe this firsthand in some small way as I reviewed the book.

Then COVID-19 began to circulate globally.

In the United States, I heard news of public health failures. Workers without federally protected sick leave who had tested positive continued to show up at work, not wanting to risk losing their income or jobs. The food magazine Eater notes that “restaurants and delivery services are notoriously hostile to shift workers calling in sick,” creating ideal conditions for the virus to replicate.

Just before my flight departed I decided not to go. Conference organizers had not canceled the conference. Their email in the days leading up to the conference relayed a message of calm, “It is also reassuring to know that Cuba has a very strong epidemiological surveillance system built on a well-articulated primary health care system.” Friends already in Havana relayed the message that life in Cuba, where daily routines already contained a good deal of “existential uncertainty” (p. 18) seemed to be continuing on without heightened fear.

This was not the case where I was in the United States. A radiologist at a local US hospital told me of seeing scans of lungs full of fluid, while a nurse spoke of waiting rooms of patients with fevers and dry coughs. These patients were not being tested because there were not enough tests. Meanwhile, in nearby counties where children had tested positive for coronavirus, administrators had to keep schools open because children who lived deeply in poverty would go hungry without school lunches.

When I decided not to travel to Cuba, there were no reported cases of coronavirus where I live. What was being credibly reported was that years of gutting public infrastructures – health and otherwise – would soon be catching up with us.

In retrospect, it’s perhaps fitting that I acted out an epidemiological logic — practicing social distancing to discourage viral spread by not traveling — while reading and writing about Cuba, a country known for encouraging “self-sacrifice for the good of the collective” (p. 114). Garth’s book explores the daily life struggles and successes to lead a decent life in a place with one of the most effective community health programs in the world, but where there is also widespread “culinary discontent” (p. 160).

Food in Cuba is based on intensive ethnographic research with 22 families in Santiago de Cuba in 2010-2011 and follow-ups in the years since. As a method, Garth participated in what she calls “ingestive practices” (p. 23) of household food acquisition activities, spending roughly a month deeply immersed in each family’s activities. She complemented this deep engagement with interviews and life histories of more than 100 individuals who worked to find food in this small, powerful island country that lies in the heart of the global project of modernity.

One of the book’s most powerful contributions is to explode the myth that people in conditions of scarcity will eat whatever they can simply by virtue of their precarity. Instead, the participants of Garth’s study care deeply about the taste, quality, and provenance of their food. They spend tremendous energy provisioning ingredients that reflect their cultural and national identities and they maintain an “intensely emotional” connection to their meals (p. 46, 53). While the Cuban government celebrates that there is “no hunger in Cuba,” Garth shows how people will feel stressed, anxious, unsatisfied, and even traumatized when they cannot find appropriate food. Rice, for example, is both scarce and a necessary component of a ‘real’ meal. Without it, satisfaction is impossible.

Each chapter explores an aspect of the ‘politics of adequacy,’ a phrase Garth develops in reference to how Cubans prioritize relational aspects of eating alongside any evaluation of whether food quantities are “enough.” As she explains, “the framework of adequacy can account for what is necessary beyond basic nutrition, prompting us to ask not whether a food system sustains life, but whether it sustains a particular kind of living” (p. 5). Throughout the book’s five chapters she connects the politics of adequacy to a broader political lucha (struggle) to maintain a good life through arts of invention.

Driven by a feminist commitment to the analysis of power relations, the book unpacks how race, gender, sexuality, and class politics all effect the production and consumption of daily meals. Garth, with the skill of an expert chef, pays close attention to the quiet and unspoken details of food procurement to show how Cuban nationalism has always been tied to Cuban cuisine, with women shouldering the burdens of Euro-American colonialism and socialist revolution alike (p. 67). She offers a history of Cuba through stories of food access, where flavorful ajiaco stews mark sites of contested patriotism, and small cups of sugared coffee are filled with the paradoxes of sweetness and calamity (“We never have food, but we always have sugar, always” one informant tells her).

The text is full of thick descriptions of how people make meaning in times of political unrest and global extraction. Alongside stories of anxious scarcity and unevenly experienced fears of breakdown are stories of shave ice in the summer, or the whistles of pressure cookers on narrow-cobblestone alleys while the scents of garlic and onion waft through the air. One especially poignant vignette, set amid the slight intoxication of drinking cheap state-subsidized beer while people dance in the streets, describes the sadness and anger of a man sobbing at the reggaetón lyrics “Give me… a little bit of anything so I can feel happy. It could be a soda or a tube of roasted peanuts.” Life’s small mundane details, Garth shows us, are anything but insignificant.

Garth undertakes a careful critique of how ideals of “community” transforms in the shadows of global capitalism and international sanctions, showing how Santiago de Cuba remains stratified through the nexus of skin color, class, and culture, with often discriminatory effects on darker-skinned and LGBTQ+ Cubans. Promises of gender and racial equality may have launched Fidel Castro’s socialist platform into power, but she demonstrates that patriarchy remains a reigning force in the culinary lives of Cubans today (p. 163). Ethics of socialismo (socialism) frequently give way to practices of sociolismo, where people use personal networks to access private, illicit goods for their immediate family or themselves. One informant shares stories of putting locks on the cabinets of her own home as “community borrowing” morphed into outright theft (p. 132).

Food in Cuba is an excellent text for food studies classes at all levels (I plan to assign it in both undergraduate and graduate ‘anthropology of food’ courses). Garth offers a literary masterclass in how the analysis of food can help us understand social relations while the analysis of social relations can help us understand food. Foodies will appreciate the colorful descriptions of how quimbombó, boniato, plátanos, malanga, or chicharrones give rise to the “flows of daily life” (p. 167). In the process of reading about the cuisine they will learn broad political lessons about how people are luchando la vida (struggling to survive) in Cuba’s declining welfare society, where the influence of global capital looms large and state supports are disappearing.

A good deal of hope, resilience, and solidarity fills the pages of this slim and accessible book, but the final image offers an ominous warning about this moment of global fragility in which we are living: after hours of scouring for ingredients, Garth’s longtime Cuban friends managed to procure a delicious meal. The table in the photograph shows beefsteak, hand peeled potato-fries, cucumber-avocado salad, and those hallacas I’d been imagining when planning my trip to Cuba. It would be a joyous image except for one thing: the table is set for one. In a time when social solidarity is needed to get through crises, be they pandemic viruses or food scarcity, the image of the solitary place-setting speaks to me of the struggle for a decent meal yet to come.

 

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Which Language for Local Food in Wallonie?

Joan Gross

I just returned to my dissertation fieldwork site after 38 years.  Back in the 1980s I examined the use of the regional Gallo-Romance dialect, Walloon, in Liège, Belgium and particularly in the puppet theater.  Over the past couple decades I’ve gotten increasingly interested in how people resist the global industrial food system. Upon arriving at the Liège train station last week, my interest was piqued by the poster announcing a show of local alimentary products called CBon, CWallon. It took a minute to understand that they were not using aberrant initial consonant clusters, but the practice of using a letter (or number) to stand in for the name of that letter, like the francophone usage of K7 for “cassette.”

I went to the C’est Bon, C’est Wallon Fair today, wondering whether the Walloon language would appear as well as the products of Wallonie. One of the first booths I saw was a beer cooperative called Badjawe. My husband asked one of the festival workers walking by what “badjawe” meant and he didn’t know, but a woman in the booth quickly said that it was the Walloon word for a talkative person. The publicity announces that the beer will loosen your tongue and facilitate conversations.

They call it a farm beer and advertise that everything comes from the farm on which they built the brewery. It’s organic too. Later I found that they even put together a short video in Walloon, explaining the name.

This highlighting of the Walloon language, however, was far outweighed by the presence of English at the fair. In fact, this same brewery is sponsoring a festival of microbreweries in April and the advertisement reads “Soif the Date” emphasizing the similarity between the English word “save” and the French word for thirst. Below the date is a list of what will be there including the English words “food” and “more.”

I photographed several other signs that used English in their advertising, usually mixed in with French. I asked the croquette sellers why they chose to put “Home Made,” “Authenticity,” and “Diversity” in their logo and they said that their graphic designer proposed it, so that they could maybe eventually export their product to other countries. It’s true that “Belgian Single Malt Whiskey” and “Cookies” tell you what the product is, but the use of English in the advertising of the fair was not necessarily descriptive. “Feel Inspired” or “A Life in a Drink” does not tell you what the product is, facilitating referential understanding across linguistic borders. It fulfills more of an aesthetic or emblematic function, implying modernity and global connections. I’m not sure what to say about “Tits,” but I’m sure that it wouldn’t fly in an American context.

In Belgium, however, there is an additional motivation for the use of English. It avoids the age-old struggle between the two main official languages, Dutch and French. (German is a third official language, but is only spoken by 1% of the population.) Flemings and Walloons will often choose to speak to each other in English, even though one or both of them may be fluent in the other one’s native language. Truth be told, it’s usually the Fleming who is fluent in French. Walloons still seem to be reluctant to devote enough time to learning Dutch when they can learn English instead. Learning English is also far more popular than learning the Walloon that their grandparents spoke.

So, here was a fair meant to bring attention to local products, but many of the makers of these products relied on global English for their advertising. I can’t help but notice that the majority of products using English in their advertising are forms of alcohol. The Thomsin family who have been making the famous Sirop de Liège since 1884 did not use English in their advertising (but they didn’t use Walloon either). Belgium’s reputation for beer is very well known. In fact, Belgian beer culture was recognized as a UNESCO intangible heritage this year. There has been over a 50% rise in exports of Belgian beer in the last ten years, even overtaking Germany in 2017. The whiskey and wine industries in Wallonie are probably trying to ride on the coattails of Belgian beer. Meanwhile, Badjawe is using the local language, Walloon, to promote the conviviality of drinking beer together and talking. I wish them success.

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Filed under anthropology, beer, Belgium, Food Studies, Language

AFHVS/ASFS Conference Deadline Extended!

Note the new deadline for this great conference. Also: SAFN members can register for the conference at member rates!

ABSTRACT DEADLINE EXTENDED TO FEBRUARY 7th

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 conference will be help May 27-30 in Athens, GA. Abstracts are now due February 7, 2020. We invite the submission of abstracts for organized paper sessions, individual papers, lightning talks, roundtables, posters and exploration galleries, and working sessions. The Abstract Submission Portal is now open.

We have a great conference planned — with Monica White (U Wisconsin) as our Keynote Speaker, CheFarmer Matthew Raiford as the invited speaker for our Evening Program, and 6 pre-conference workshops and tours. All the info can be found at the conference website.
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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 now due on February 7, 2020. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March 15, 2020. All presenters must be registered for the conference by April 21, 2020 to be included in the conference program. (The registration portal will be open in just a few days.)

Questions can be directed to cultivatingconnections2020@gmail.com

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