Following persimmon around the world

Jo Hunter-Adams

Jo is a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town, where she studies food, migration, and health.

Ten years ago, when we were still living in Boston, in the days before the large Korean supermarket chain, H Mart, made sourcing Korean produce a breeze, my mother-in-law brought a plate of orange something to our dining table, cut up and with enough toothpicks for each of us. I, not being a very adventurous eater, immediately broke out in a sweat. In those early years of marriage my Korean mother-in-law and I (South African), did not have much in common, culinarily speaking. I wondered what I could do to avoid eating this. Nothing. On the bright side, it seemed fruity and didn’t appear to have been fermented, which typically increased the range of unknown tastes almost exponentially. So I speared my piece, hoping for the best. My first experience of persimmon. It was sweet, soft, and melted away too quickly.

Before it reached us, this particular persimmon had been on a long journey. My mother-in-law had received a phone call from the post office to tell her that she had a package there, that it was leaky, smelly, and fairly disgusting, and could she please hurry and pick it up? Her friend had sent a special box of Korean persimmon from California (to keep this legal we won’t discuss where it came from before that). With Thanksgiving, the package had sat for a couple of days in the post office, enough for most of the persimmon to explode and leave the post office smelly and goopy. My mother-in-law retrieved the smelly package, and salvaged one or two of the fruit for a late Thanksgiving celebration. She explained the significance of persimmon as symbolic of fall and winter in Korea. In the years that have followed I have eaten many persimmon… dried, fresh, and frozen… Now the fruit evokes memories for me, too.

Fast forward five or so years: On our family’s move to Cape Town with our children, I was surprised to discover persimmon in the supermarket. What was more, they were very cheap! Nobody knew what they were, and you could tell. The supermarket told us they were healthy! Full of vitamins! Good for children! Desmond Tutu was even photographed and quoted as liking it. They had a campaign donating bags of the fruit to “underprivileged” children. In South Africa, persimmon had been rebranded as Sharon Fruit, because the variety hailed from Israel, as did the businessmen with the capital and the will to invest in developing South Africa’s very own persimmon industry.

The businessmen had seen an opportunity in the South African agricultural sector for growing out-of-season persimmon cheaply for the northern hemisphere. Although South Africans had no experience of growing or eating persimmon, the business partners proposed that land be developed for persimmon export, and it was done. The persimmon that I saw on the shelves were the leftovers: the persimmon that didn’t make the cut for the northern hemisphere market.

It was apparent that these were very different fruit from the ones I’d eaten in Korea. First there’d be a batch where all the fruit was as hard as potato, never to ripen. For those of you who know persimmon, you know this is a bad sign. Then, there’d be a batch that was splitting apart and impossible to consume quickly enough. They were usually almost giving them away at the supermarket, though gradually the price has increased as the fruit became more recognizable to customers. My sister was suspicious. “do they taste like tomatoes?”, she asked while we were grocery shopping together. “No” I said. “Well, they look like tomatoes.” She didn’t buy them.

As I inevitably join the ranks of those trying to grow their own food, I wanted to see if I could grow persimmon trees so that one day, my children could have a tangible multigenerational connection to this fruit. The persimmon could be one way of expressing our collective, multi-continental heritage. Right?

Easier said than done. I asked around at all the local and national nurseries about persimmon trees. I didn’t mind the variety, Hachiya and Fuyu are fine, I said, trying to show my knowledge and flexibility (acquired mainly from Wikipedia). No nursery knew what I was talking about. I finally found a South African online nursery who said on their website that they sold persimmon trees. But when I contacted them, they said they’d never been able to find stock, despite a demand as South Africans began to take an interest in growing their own fruit.

So I contacted the association of Sharon fruit growers in South Africa, that boasts that “our partners in Israel … have invested millions of rands to establish and built a state of the art packhouse and coldstore facility in Buffeljagsrivier”. They claim the fruit is “astringent and inedible in the orchard and the packhouse, thus making it unattractive to both animals and mankind.” What they are really saying is that in South Africa, growers grow fruit that will not taste good to animals, hungry people or would-be thieves. The expensive processing centre also becomes an essential step. The need to gas the fruit means that farmers must route their fruit through a single processing facility, leaving them entirely dependent on that facility. Given that they are being grown for markets in the Northern hemisphere, notably the U.S., they’ll also be gassed as they arrive, to make sure there aren’t any critters hitching a ride over. They’ll often be irradiated. And finally, they’ll make it to the shelves in time for the Northern hemisphere summer. So that rather than being reminiscent of Fall, a well-traveled, pale cousin of the persimmon of my mother-in-law’s memory will be available all-year-round to Northern Hemisphere customers.

I nevertheless asked the association if they could help me find a few trees. They responded with the problem stated on their website and experienced first hand with the variable quality of the fruit I’d eaten in our Cape Town supermarket: the fruit from their cultivar is inedible unless processed. I gave up on finding a grafted persimmon tree, and hoped that seed could grow true-to-type.

On our annual visits to my mother-in-law, now resettled in Korea, our family find her apartment surrounded by apricot, persimmon, Korean date and Gingko trees. Sadly, most of the fruit from these trees goes to waste. We occasionally happen upon elderly Korean ladies picking up gingko fruits and getting the nuts out, but people buy persimmon at the store, carefully packaged and shrink wrapped, despite the ripe, sweet fruit outside their apartments.

Nevertheless, the abundance of fruit presented me with my opportunity. My son and I looked odd scurrying around in the apartment-complex bushes with orange sticky hands. With a little effort, we had a bottle full of seeds. A year later, after various attempts at germination, we have two tiny persimmon trees: one Fuyu, one Hachiya.

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What FoodAnthro is Reading Now, February 21, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Did you know that Chinese farmers are playing a major role in African agriculture? Check out this report from the IIEED on Chinese experts coming to Africa to teach (large scale) farming. I found the scale and specialisation of the farming described fascinating: large monocultures of apples or citrus mean that Chinese farmers could end up completely unable to give expertise in the countries they found themselves.

I’ve linked to previous articles about taxes on sugary beverages in South Africa and the ongoing debate over whether it will be effective in combatting obesity (WHO says it will, though BevSA seems to think otherwise!) This week, an article in the NYTimes describes Vanuatu’s efforts to combat obesity. I couldn’t help but have a sinking feeling when the article mentioned Samoa’s attempts to combat the dumping of turkey tails onto the island nation, which were quickly shut down by the World Trade Organization, who accused them of protectionism. If you missed the tale of the turkey tails (spoiler alert, it’s the U.S. doing the dumping), here’s an NPR story from a few year’s ago. Relatedly, this week also brought with a story by Olga Gertcyk about changing diets in the arctic circle.  The story’s pictures alone warrant a look!

Apparently it is a good time to be pushing sustainability schemes?  The idea of going beyond organic labelling is becoming widespread (even as “organic” is only just beginning to catch on in places like South Africa) As food researchers, we will perhaps increasingly play a role in sharing the experiences and spirit of standards (from the perspectives of farmers, citizens, retail), and to what it looks like to go “beyond labelling.” In good news for FoodAnthro, Food systems experts are in demand, says this article in civil eats.

Check out this article about the future of food brings up important questions about who food movements include and exclude.

And lastly, even if nothing happened last night in Sweden, if it had, Sweden may not have had enough food stocks to last. They’re working on it, as most nations do. Yes, I had to find something about Sweden and food…

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APLA Book Prize Announcement

From our colleagues at the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology, a book prize competition that may be of interest to SAFN members and other readers of this blog:

The Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA) is pleased to invite nominations for the 2017 APLA Book Prize competition. The association will recognize work that best exemplifies creativity and rigor in the ethnographic exploration of politics, law, and/or their interstices.

Nominated books must be published in English during 2016. Books may be nominated by the author(s), the press, or an APLA member. Nominations must be accompanied by a nominating letter. Send the letter and a copy of the nominated book no later than May 1, 2017 directly to each of the APLA book prize committee members.

For more information on the APLA Book Prize along with submission and eligibility requirements, please visit: https://politicalandlegalanthro.org/2017/02/13/2017-apla-book-prize/.

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Food and Drink as Symbols: Historical Perspectives

We recently received this call for papers that may be of interest to FoodAnthropology readers. Deadlines and contact information are below.

Department of History and Material Culture of English Speaking Countries
Pedagogical University of Krakow, Poland
Call for Papers
2nd International Conference
Food and Drink as Symbols: historical perspectives
27-28 October 2017 – Krakow

Eating and drinking have always been a part of socialisation. Humans have eaten together and mealtimes are events when the whole family or community comes together. Eating food can also be an occasion for sharing, for giving to others, for example, parents give food to their children, a mother gives her milk to her infant, thus making food a symbol of love and security. Two thousand years ago Jesus taught us to share food with others. He used food for both instruction and revelation, and food items bear a religious symbolism in the way they are made or the way they are eaten. For instance, in Christianity bread and wine have a symbolic meaning. Indeed, many dietary habits are derived from religious laws with certain foods chosen or avoided according to religious beliefs. In Greek mythology, food plays a role in defining the hierarchy of being: there is food for gods, food for men, and food for animals. In modern societies food indicates the status, power and wealth of individuals, and humans often symbolically interact when eating, for example, sitting at the head of the table symbolizes head of the house. Additionally, certain foods symbolize wealth and social class, and foods are symbolic or act as metaphors for body parts involved in sexual relations. In fact, any particular item of food might carry a system of symbolic meaning. Moreover, foods have been an important theme in the arts and various artists have employed them, for instance, to underline social issues.

This conference invites papers to be submitted that explore the meaning of food and drink as symbols, with focus on historical perspectives in different contexts. Although potential areas of interest might include the symbolism of food and drink in life and sensuality, its relation to political consciousness, honour and status, ethnicity, lifestyle, religions or art may also be addressed. The conference is not restricted to any specific historical period.
Keynote Lecture:

Prof. Fabio Parasecoli
(Associate Professor at The New School, New York; co-editor of Cultural History of Food)

The conference organisers:
Andrzej K. Kuropatnicki
Paweł Hamera
Artur Piskorz

All submissions should include:

The closing date for submissions is 15 May 2017.

The conference language is English. The conference fee is 200 PLN or 50€ (130 PLN or 30€ for students and PhD candidates) which will include the conference dinner, tea and coffee, the conference materials and the publication of a monograph (selected papers will be
published in a peer-reviewed monograph).

Please visit the conference website for details regarding the venue, conference programme, suggested accommodation, transportation and other practicalities.

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On Food and Labor, Briefly

David Beriss

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

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

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

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

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

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, February 13, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Where else to start but with the outlook for nutrition and agriculture policy in the new administration? This account from Civil Eats of a recent panel discussion on the 2018 Farm Bill gets to some of the essential questions: what will happen to farm labor? What is going on with SNAP? Any reason for optimism? Probably not. But this could be a good read to start a discussion with students about setting U.S. policy priorities.

For additional perspective on where the Trump administration may be going, listen to this interview that Evan Kleiman conducted with Helena Bottemiller Evich, from Politico. From Sonny Perdue’s background, to crop policies in the Farm Bill, SNAP, to soda taxes, food safety and regulation, immigration, and even the White House garden, there is a lot here. The same author has written about President Trump’s personal relationship to food here. This is a pretty detailed take on Trump, his family, and their history with food and well worth reading.

Hearings on President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, fast food executive Andrew Puzder, have been scheduled for later this week, but the debate about his qualifications seems to be picking up steam. In this Washington Post editorial, a long-time Hardee’s employee discusses wages and working conditions in Puzder’s company. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren persists in her efforts to raise important questions about Trump cabinet nominees. In this case, she has written a very long list of questions about Puzder’s qualifications that you can read about here.

As you may have heard, since the U.S. presidential election, George Orwell’s novel “1984” has returned to the bestseller lists. If you want to stoke the fires of your own paranoia, read this article, in which the very serious New York Times examines the strange deployment of military grade spyware (the kind deployed by agencies like the NSA) into the phones of soda tax activists and scholars in Mexico. Someone is taking food studies scholarship very seriously. At least in Orwell’s novel, everyone knew they were being watched all the time.

How do climate change, coastal restoration policy, indigenous foodways, community organizing, folk wisdom, seafood, food gardens, and tribal recognition all come together in one disturbing story? Read this article by Barry Yeoman, which uses a holistic perspective to examine how native people in south Louisiana are trying to save their communities and foodways as the Gulf of Mexico rises and destroys their land. Yeoman may not be an anthropologist, but this article would really be useful in any number of anthropology classes. Read it.

This piece by Nina Martyris on the NPR food blog examines the role of hunger in the lives of enslaved Americans. She draws on the work of Frederick Douglass, who wrote extensively about how desperate he was for food as a child. Yet Douglass also ended up using food in order to barter for literacy. This is a good piece for teaching about the use of food and hunger tools for controlling people.

From Lucky Peach TV, food science writer Harold McGee narrates this video on the relationship between pollution and the flavor of foods. He starts with the story of how a flavor scientist in LA became a major researcher and activist on smog, then looks at more recent work by folks from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy (yes, that is a thing) and the blog Edible Geography that use the concept “aeroir,” and “smog meringues” to get at the taste of cities. Quite a lot is packed into this little five minute video – show it to your students and you can discuss it for hours.

It turns out that mushroom hunting can be quite dangerous, but not because people end up eating poisonous mushrooms. Rather, it seems that people are themselves the danger, for a variety of rather disturbing reasons. Read this article, from Joshua Hunt on Eater.com for the details. Foolish behavior, murder, mayhem, and more. None of which is the fault of the mushrooms. Have the Cohen brothers made a movie about this yet?

Who invented Nutella and why? This seems like the sort of question that you could easily answer by visiting the web site of the company that makes the stuff (https://www.nutella.com/en/us, if you must). But this article, by Emily Mangini at Serious Eats, argues that the company’s story is missing details. She provides them in the article and refers determined readers to this blog, for an even more in depth examination of the subject.

If you are interested in the history of the restaurant business in the United States, then looking into fast food is unavoidable. From Andrew Puzder (see above) to Ray and Joan Kroc and, of course, to all the activists and workers struggling for decent pay and working conditions (also see above), it is hard to underestimate the importance of the industry to American culture. The success of The Founder, a film about Ray Kroc, provides at least one fascinating perspective. This interview, in which Russ Parsons talks with Lisa Napoli, author of the book  “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away” (Dutton, 2016) is equally interesting.

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Fear, Fire, and Solidarity in New Orleans

David Beriss

Someone tried to burn down the Flaming Torch restaurant last week. The restaurant, flaming-torch-menu-signlocated in my neighborhood in New Orleans, is a French bistro that has been in business since 2004. It is small and friendly, with good French food, a little bit fancy (they have tablecloths), but very much part of the neighborhood. It is a reliable place for locals seeking classic French dishes (they make a great coq au vin), not a tourist destination. I have eaten there many times, but I especially remember eating there soon after Hurricane Katrina. The Flaming Torch was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood to reopen and although they were desperately short-staffed, their presence was deeply appreciated by those of us who had come back to the city, because they provided a much-needed place to reunite with neighbors around good food and wine.

The fire, according to news reports, was deliberately set. The owner, Zohreh Khalegi, says she was upstairs, doing inventory, when someone broke into the dining room, doused the place with gasoline, and set it on fire. At least some of this was recorded by a security camera. She escaped to the roof and was rescued by the fire department. The interior damage is apparently quite extensive, so the restaurant’s future is uncertain.

flaming-torch-doorThe arsonist’s motives are unclear, but suspicions have been raised that this may have been a hate crime. Zohreh Khalegi, who started the restaurant with her late husband Hassan Khalegi, is an American citizen who immigrated decades ago from Iran. Although their origins were no secret, until recently there was very little in the restaurant that might have indicated the owners had any ties to Iran. In the last few years, the restaurant had begun to feature occasional special menus with Persian food. Certainly, for many people, this only made the restaurant more attractive, since there are not many other places to eat Persian food in the area. But the current American political context seems to have encouraged and given legitimacy to prejudice against people from countries like Iran (one of the countries subject to President Trump’s immigration ban). Could such prejudice have motivated someone to act against the restaurant? As far as I know, nobody has claimed responsibility for this act. But there have been threats and incidents of violence against immigrants and minorities all over the country since the presidential election. All of this is of grave concern and if the fire at the Flaming Torch is any indication, such things must be taken very seriously.

We do not know if this crime was related to anti-immigrant prejudice. But the fact that people are ready to believe that it is suggests that the political climate in the United States has reached a point (not, of course, for the first time) of critical danger. From fine dining to neighborhood diners, immigrants from many countries play a major role in the American restaurant industry. In New Orleans, as elsewhere in the United States, there are many restaurants owned and operated by people from predominantly Muslim countries, serving food from those regions. There are also many immigrants (perhaps most) who prepare and sell foods that have nothing to do with their origins, so they may not be visible as sellers of foods associated with immigrants. All of them may be targets for people who want to advance the nationalist agenda that has accompanied the rise of President Trump.

flaming-torch-thank-you

There has been an outpouring of support for Zohreh Khalegi and for the restaurant. People have posted testimonials and statements of support on the restaurant’s doors. Money has been raised to help with expenses. There are many people here in New Orleans who are eager to show their solidarity. The stakes involved are very high. By choosing to stand by owners of restaurants and other businesses that are targeted by racists and nationalists, we make a statement about what kind of community and nation we want to live in. We must all consider where we stand at this moment and what we will do to make sure that heated political rhetoric is not turned into more violence.

So why document this on an anthropology blog? There is a lot that anthropologists and other social scientists can do—and are doing—to help us understand the rise of nationalism and fear around the world in recent years. For anthropologists, this sort of incident can be an opportunity to think about how institutions like restaurants tie communities together, as well as about the ways violence, fear, and terror, can work to tear communities apart. We can call attention to the way such acts are named and discussed. President Trump recently claimed that many acts of terror are not adequately covered by the media and that, as a consequence, people do not take the threat of terror seriously enough. This act of arson, if it turns out to have been motivated by politics or hate, is an act of terror, but one that Mr. Trump will probably not define as terror, either because it is too small or because it had the wrong sort of victims. Yet acts of mass violence, including attacks on restaurants, schools, or religious communities, create exactly the kind of fear that terrorists try to achieve. We need to document the impact of these events and examine why they are interpreted by people as acts of terror. And, in this case, we can also show people coming together to resist and to show solidarity. In doing all of this, anthropology can help increase understanding and help resist those who would sow fear among us.

flaming-torch-rebuild

Resistance.

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