Reminder! 2019 Christine Wilson Awards Applications Due Soon!

Don’t Miss This Great Opportunity!

Students! Did you write a research paper on food and/or nutrition this year? Are you writing one now? Want fame and recognition? We want to hear from you!

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) is 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.

Complete application information is here.

Deadline: July 26, 2019.

Recent Award Winners:

2018

Christine Wilson Undergraduate Award: Jared Belsky (Hamilton College) and Mackenzie Nelsen (UNC Chapel Hill), Cultivating Activism Through Terroir: An Anthropology of Sustainable Wine Makers in Umbria, Italy.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Alyssa Paredes (Yale University), Follow the Yellow Brix Road: How the Japanese Market’s Taste for Sweetness Transformed the Philippine Highlands.

2017

Christine Wilson Undergraduate Award: Kate Rhodes (Macalester College), Having a Steak in the Matter: Gender in the Buenos Aires Asado.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Sarah Howard (Goldsmiths College, University of London), Coffee and the State in Rural Ethiopia.

2016

Christine Wilson Award Undergraduate Award: Cynthia Baur (Dickinson College), An Analysis of the Local Food Movement in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Imogen Bevan (University of Edinburgh), Care is Meat and Tatties, Not Curry.

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Abstracts still accepted: Cook and Health Conference

The 3rd Cook and Health Conference is organised by CUBE, the Research Unit of Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, and will take place at the Campus of Universidade Católica Portuguesa, located in Lisbon-Portugal, on October 17-18, 2019.

This event will bring together international experts, scientific researchers and practitioners to share up-to-date knowledge and debate key research findings regarding the impact of home cooking and its replacement by away-from-home food preparation on individuals’ nutrition, health, economic and psychosocial status.

The deadline for abstract submissions is June 21, 2019. http://www.cookandhealth.org/submission/

 

 

 

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Eataly and FICO Eataly: The Context

Amy Trubek: My conversation with food scholars of Italy revealed a shared belief that there is much potential for a collaborative, global research endeavor about the phenomenon that is Eataly – ranging from how it is organized, the values underlying it, and the consequences of its ever expanding empire. Here, Elisa Ascione provides crucial context for any further study.

Elisa Ascione, Umbra Institute

Eataly opened its first shop in 2007 in Turin, with a partnership with Slow Food. The creator, Oscar Farinetti, believed that Carlo Petrini’s mantra “good, clean and fair” could be incorporated into his vision of a new kind of supermarket. Farinetti was already a successful businessman, founder of a chain of electronics stores. He also hails from Piemonte, and had known Carlo Petrini for years. With the creation of Eataly, many of the Slow Food principles were used as strategies to create a place where smaller artisanal productions could be sold creating better wages for producers, and where consumer could be educated on different production methods, on the importance of origins, high quality and taste. It has been argued that Eataly, at least when it started, was an interesting model since it incorporated many of the ideals of alternative food movements (for example eating local and economic de-growth) into a successful modern retail chain (Venturini, 2008. p.2.)

FICO

Eataly, in fact, suggests that modern markets and technologies are not antithetic to traditional, highly localized practices, and although producers are asked to adapt to, and sometimes reach, new quality standards, they can actually benefit from the brand that Eataly provides. Eataly, for example, must follow strict standard hygiene checks, and for instance, some producers have been trained to follow those procedures, for example eliminating molds on some cheeses. Eataly has also a “fidelity and justice” contract with some of the producers, offering a three-year sale contract in exchange of the promise of not raising prices during that time. Eataly is in general more dependent on its providers than standard supermarkets, since they offer rare and unique products that cannot be easily replaced (Bosello, 2014.).

Overall, Eataly does not compete with other large retailers, but defines itself as complementary to them. For example, they emphasize less consumption and less waste: “Buy only what you need…but of good quality,” you can read on the walls of its malls. They want to convey the meaning that higher prices do not necessarily mean elite consumption patterns, if people pay “the right price” for products, but simply consume and waste less. However, since Eataly participates as a main stakeholder in many of the companies that produce food (such as water, wine, bread, salumi, and many more,) they are also able to keep their prices at a competitive level. Furthermore, just like standard supermarkets, Eataly employs people without specific expertise on the products (excluding the chefs and the category managers) allowing the use of a more flexible and cheaper labor force (Bosello, 2014).

Eataly offers products from large artisanal and medium-large industrial companies, and the boundary between the two is at times blurred. Starting with offering only unique and, even in Italy, not easy to source specialties, now Eataly also offers widely available Italian products. With the increasingly global scope of the Eataly stores, the meaning of such products might be transformed once on the shelves of Eataly’s marketsand bazaars(Colombino, 2018 p.80). As Annalisa Colombino explains, at Eataly even ordinary brands and products become part of an “imagined, epicurean, authentic Italian lifestyle” (p.81). She shows how the meaning of “local” food shifts with its international expansion, as many Eataly malls buy groceries, meat and fish from local farms, like the New York store that claims to make 70 per cent of their revenue from U.S.-based products, thus benefiting local suppliers. Italian producers have also benefited from the partnership with Eataly, Colombino explains: for example, thanks to the supply of Piedmontese beef sent to Eataly, a group of sixty farmers was able to keep their farms rather than closing them down as large retails were imposing on them the payment of low prices (p.83).

As many other grandi opere (large scale projects) in Italy, Eataly has been strongly debated across the political spectrum. Despite its success, some authors and commentators argue that Eataly has come to“betray” of Slow Food ideals, transforming ideals of change into a more mundane supermarket. Author Wolf Bukoski in his “La danza delle mozzarelle” criticizes the romantic narrative of the contadinoand small Italian producers used to sell more products, but de factostripped of any political relevance. The author claims that Eataly is in business with a powerful landowner of 900.000 hectares of land in Mapuche in Patagonia, while praising “farmers’ resistance”; it talks about “authenticity” while creating an artificial Disneyland for foodies. For the author, eating quality artisanal foods, as Eataly preaches, cannot bring any societal change, while change in social inequalities will also bring a change as far as consumption goes, including the ability to afford quality products. According to critics of this model, places like Eataly appeal to lofty leftist ideas of the artisan and the small producer that have survived global mass production, in order to fully participate in that very same market, not offering a real alternative, but creating a new elite brand around authenticity.

It’s interesting to note that Eataly has become a tourism destination itself, both in Italy and abroad. With the opening of FICO Eataly World, the shift towards the theme park, rather than the supermarket, is even more evident. FICO’s aim is to preserve“the heritage of Italian agri-food biodiversity”and teach people “about the culture, traditions, and craftsmanshipthat make Italian food the most famous in the world (with) tours to explore cropsanimals, and factoriesclassesmultimedia rides, and restaurants.” With its 8,000 sqm theme park outside of Bologna, it represents and hosts some of the most famous artisanal and industrial Italian products, factories and restaurants. With three million visitors in the first year (over 70% from outside Bologna), and 50 million euros revenues, they are however still behind the 6 million visitors expected from the third year. FICO’s aim is to sell products and services, but also to educate by showing certain parts of the procedures of iconic Italian foods. It is in part like a museum of Italian foods, and as such there is curation.

Even if Eataly has been linked, at least in its beginning, to the political left and it has incorporated some of the ideals of alternative food movements, it would be delusional to expect that a supermarket, privately owned and embedded in the global late-capitalist market, could be a real “revolutionary” force. Smaller artisanal Italian producers struggle to survive because of the price of land, because of Italian bureaucracy, because of competition with cheaper international goods, because of organized crime, and for a multitude of political, economic and structural reasons that should be publicly addressed and changed. Although Eataly incorporates some of the Slow Food ideals (that do offer powerful critiques to contemporary food systems,) I do not really expect a private business to create any radical change. I think that we must turn to our politicians for that. On the other hand, I think that by actively creating new narratives around Italian foods, places like Eataly and FICO can probably help the Italian economy in increasing the volume of export of foods abroad by feeding on the imaginaries of local and international touristic consumptions.

 

 

 

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Review: GMOs Decoded

GMOs Decoded

Krimsky, Sheldon. (2019) GMOs Decoded. A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 161 pp. + 9 pp. References Cited. Forward by Marion Nestle. ISBN 9780262039192

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

“What risks are acceptable and at what cost?” (p.14). These are the motivating questions of scientist-philosopher Sheldon Krimsky’s latest writings on GMOs, for which his findings can be summarized: much remains “uncertain.” As a corollary, he questions the widely touted “scientific consensus” of the benefits and safety of GMOs, rejected by European publics and policy makers who resist more widespread GMO approval and usage in the absence of greater certainty. This short book considers what additional evidence must be supplied before he and other skeptics would join the consensus.

The book is well organized. In an eight-page introductory overview, Krimsky lays out recurring questions that characterize the debate pitting GMO proponents against opponents, then chapter by chapter clarifies the logic of the frameworks, arguments, and evidence favoring one or the other viewpoint. Chapters 1 and 2 define and explicate, respectively, “traditional” vs. “molecular” plant breeding, and chapter 3 evaluates the “differences … and their significance for evaluating crops”. The next four chapters consider the evidence for qualities and safety of “early products in agricultural biotechnology” (Ch.4) and Herbicide-Resistant, Disease-Resistant, and Insect-Resistant crops (Ch’s 5-7). He explains how initial products included Calgene’s high-solids content, delayed ripening tomato, which was produced by “antisense technology … a small step in the move toward genetically engineered (GE) crops. No new genes were introduced into the tomatoes: the gene for one enzyme was removed and inverted” (p.34). The selected agronomic traits, by contrast, were constructed by engineering gene-transfers into multiple crops. Krimsky’s critical risk assessment comparing and contrasting molecular versus traditional breeding encompasses all GE.

Chapters 8 and 9, “Genetic Mechanisms and GMO Risk Assessment” and “Contested Viewpoints on the Health and Environmental Effects of GMOs” systematically probe the many uncertainties that still surround these manipulations of plant biology, genetics, and transformations, after more than thirty years of scientific evaluations. Krimsky is selective in citing sources for his skeptical analysis; for example, he finds particularly useful three points raised by David Schubert, a geneticist at the Salk Institute: (1) the same gene introduced into two different types of cells can produce two very different protein molecules; (2) the introduction of any gene can change gene expression and phenotype of the recipient cell (and by extension, organism); and (3) enzymatic pathways that synthesize small molecules (e.g., vitamins) can interact with endogenous pathways and produce novel molecules. All serve to question whether “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) or “substantial equivalence” evaluations are adequate to judge identity and safety of GMOs (pp.69-70). Krimsky additionally uses Schubert’s uncontested scientific reasoning to argue that all products produced by molecular breeding, including gene editing that does not involve foreign gene transfers (GMOs), should be safety- regulated by method of breeding rather than final product. This is because molecular breeding entails potentially more unexpected changes in the new GE product; new molecules or enzymatic pathways resulting from genetic introductions or rearrangements may not be so easily recognized by the laboratory or commercial breeder who is not looking for such variants. U.S. and European authorities largely disagree on how to respond to all these uncertainties. U.S. regulators have moved more quickly in the direction of deregulation of additional plant varieties and products that involve processes and outcomes that have previously been judged GRAS or substantially equivalent to conventional products whereas European authorities have decided to withhold safety approval until risks, including GE procedures that do not involve foreign gene transfer, can be exhaustively evaluated. Such contradictory judgments call for additional chemical-component compositional and ecological analyses, animal feeding trials, or both.

There follow three short chapters summarizing: (10) the arguments for and against GMO labelling, (11) the carefully balanced evidence and concluding uncertainties of the largely pro-GMO 2016 National Academies Study on agricultural biotechnology, and (12) “The Promise and Protests of Golden Rice,” the one crop designed to meet micro-nutrient nutritional needs of low-income consumers in developing countries. Chapter 13 shows where “Science Studies” cultural-political arguments against GMOs diverge from the preceding science, and provides a good summary of the social issues in which conflicting views on GMOs are embedded. These public and social-science positions can be summarized that (1) there is no value-free science so “it is neither unreasonable nor irrational for there to exist disagreements because the value judgments are not premised exclusively on scientific authority”; (2) non-scientists appeal to religion, folk wisdom, family values, among other “non-scientific beliefs … “ in their judgments; and (3) “individuals who are inclined to follow scientific advice exclusively on matters of risk and health benefits may accept the knowledge claims or statements highlighting uncertainty by outlier scientists who(se) … views fall outside the mainstream.” (p.xviii). Krimsky throughout embraces the principle that “The history of science teaches us that minority positions sometimes become validated and should not be discarded at the outset, especially when questions remain unresolved.” (Ibid). Carefully and thoroughly, he shows how GMO proponents have done their best to squelch any negative findings reporting risks, either of gene transfers into non-target crops, health damages to experimental animals, or unanticipated gene products and outcomes.

The final chapter summarizes answers to his initial questions. Scientists and the general public and policy makers disagree with each other on the risks and implications of GMOs, he concludes, because they are asking different questions and framing the issues and requirements for supporting information in different ways. Critical public discourses are not based exclusively or mainly on authoritative science, but motivated by cultural and political-economic, including “food sovereignty” considerations and public opinion. It follows that “science-based” evaluations on the safety and advisability of GMOs in general or specific food-crops in particular, can never satisfy all scientists or the public at large.

As someone who began exploring agricultural biotechnologies in the mid-1980s, with the motivating question, “what opportunities might GMOs present for ending world hunger?” I found Krimsky’s presentation both lucid and frustrating. As scientist and philosopher, he carefully defined terms and analyzed ecosystem, organism, cellular, and molecular dimensions of transgenic processes and products in exquisite detail. These specifics showed the relative controllability of each step in the transformation process, and indicated how uncertainties arise in GE products, outcomes, and impacts. New transgenic seed varieties that have been extensively but not exhaustively tested are attractive to farmers because they promise higher yields with lower labor, chemical, and environmental costs, which potentially raise incomes. As anthropologists, among others, have shown, such alleged benefits appear to atrophy over the longer term, because the pests particular transgenics were designed to protect against develop resistance, or the introduction of new GE varieties paired with agricultural chemicals raise new ecological challenges. These foreseeable consequences put the farmers and the product developers on a dangerous treadmill that, in addition to making farmers dependent on additional products of ever more concentrated seed-chemical companies, may increase, rather than decrease, chemical loads, costs, and damages.

The thoroughness of his hypothetical questions and answers, however, offer the reader little guidance to answer the overarching questions. How much information is enough? Complete biochemical compositional analysis might be desirable; but would anything less suffice? Scientists and policy makers obviously disagree about how much uncertainty is tolerable, so what should non-experts think? For example, he insinuates that animal toxicity studies are always flawed. Yet his uncertainty assertions keep harking back to animal studies that indicated GMO toxicity, but which have never been replicated. Similarly, how valid are assertions that new allergens must always be considered a threat in GE products because the scientific community understands and has identified only a narrow range? Polarization on the dangers posed by known vs. unknown allergens continues; Krimsky gives no guidance on how to negotiate this divide.

Some arguments against GMOs, which Krimsky cites as worthy, can also be applied to non-GMO agricultural innovations. Changes in soil microbiome composition, for example, could be expected to accrue not only from GMOs, but from all new varieties and many of the new non-GMO seed dips, whose aim is to transform the microbial mix and benefit plant growth in expectable ways. Most frustrating, I wished that Krimsky had considered more carefully the management and monitoring issues. As a case in point, the virus-resistant papaya in Hawaii not only required development of protective seeding materials by molecular breeders, but also precise and vigilant management. Planting strategies kept ringspot viruses at bay by positioning more and less vulnerable and resilient varieties that successfully created buffers to virus co-evolution.

On balance, I finished the book with a clearer understanding of the debates, renewed skepticism about the scientific consensus, but the above frustrations. Ultimately, I think GE will be limited by the unsustainability of particular products and processes and farmer push-back against Big Ag industry strong-arm tactics and influence on farmer decision-making and management. In addition, health and environmental claims against the companies that produce GE seeds matched to ag-chemicals like glyphosate can be expected to multiply, along with damages connected to excessive, injudicious, wider-spread, and longer-term usage.

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EATALY and FICO EATALY: Good to Think? (Part One)

Pasta Eataly

Amy Trubek with Elisa Ascione (Umbra Institute), Rachel Black (Connecticut College), Jesse Dart (University of Sydney), Rebecca Feinberg (University of California-Santa Cruz and Fabio Paresecoli (New York University)

One of the wonderful consequences of stepping out of the office and classroom and going into the “field,” are those moments where participating in a singular experience creates a flash of insight, lighting up new neural pathways (or maybe generating alternative visions), an opening that allows you to ‘connect the dots’ in a new manner. All of a sudden a series of seemingly random moments or thoughts start to make sense in relationship to each other. This happened to me in March, during an extended trip in Italy. I went on a fieldtrip with food anthropologist Elisa Ascioneand her Umbra Institute students to visit Parmigiano-Reggianocheesemakers and members of the Parma Prosciuttoconsortium as well as a visit to FICO Eataly(outside of Bologna). Each of the stops on the fieldtrip was stimulating and facilitated many new thoughts about the taste of place, Italian food culture and the globalization of the food system. But the moment where I was jolted out of my familiar thoughts about such topics, the moment I realized something was happening right in front of me and I was not paying attention, was when we stepped into the vast building that is FICO Eataly World. This vast indoor and outdoor space (100,000 square meters) opened in late 2017 and promised visitors “a discovery of all the wonders of Italian biodiversity”. I had heard about Eataly from friends and family in New York City and last year I went on a quick walk through of the one in Boston. Without reflection or connection, my analysis was simple: this was a new version of the standard American food court (Eataly operations in the United States also include Las VegasandChicagoand the global total is 39). End of story.

But then I went to Italy for six weeks. And I spent much of that time exploring Italian food culture, talking to Italians invested in making food and drink or scholars interested in understanding such practices. Entering the former warehouse, now housing the “Disneyworld of food,”  the story of Eataly immediately became more complex and compelling. I had no previous expectations, as I didn’t know this theme park existed before we started the fieldtrip; on entering I tried to take in the wide lanes extending between many shops – the stand creating homemade pasta, the endless trattorias (45 total), the Grana Padano cheese plant, the stand making Mortadella – the list goes on and on. But there was more than the seemingly infinite offerings of food and drink. There was the amphitheater for presentations and classes! The free bicycles (with built in shopping baskets)! The outdoor miniature golf course themed with statues of farm animals! A volleyball court! The juxtaposition of talking with the cheesemaker in the Parmigiano-Reggiano plant, watching the shaping and aging of huge rounds of cheese earlier in the day, tasting the particularities of one cheese made in one place, and then wandering around this massive enterprise, gave me pause (and a little bit of a headache too!). I realized that a powerful vision and a massive infrastructure were crucial to the reality of Eataly, an enterprise only twelve years old, telling a very 21stcentury taleabout the allure of food and drink, evoking tropes about culture and heritage while existing in tension with the reality of global supply chains.

Eataly Florence

This story was about way more than a food court. But how to figure it out? In particular, what are the long-term consequences of the success of Eataly, especially for the livelihoods of Italian producers and the transfer of knowledge around Italian food culture. In a recent New York Times article (about the opening of the 39thEataly, in Paris), Nicola Farinetti, the store’s manager and son of the chain’s founder, explained Eataly’s role: “Unfortunately the world of small food shops, those small places dedicated to quality food, like Americans imagine, died many years ago.” Eataly, in this analysis, serves as – well, what? – a museum and mall? A 21stcentury town center? But my knowledge of Italian food culture is certainly not thick, so I decided to reach out to the experts! I contacted five scholars of Italian food culture, including anthropologists.

Rachel Blackemphasizes the differences in meaning and thus consequences, especially for everyday life. “I think you need to differentiate between Eataly in Italy and abroad. The first Eataly in Turin really spoke to Italians (Torinesi). There were many ‘idioms’ from open-air markets and regional food specialties and wines were showcased. [Whereas] Eataly inNYC and Boston tend to be more of a food court with some specialty items here and there. I find it to be a very superficial showcase of Italian food.”

Fabio Paresecoli agrees, pointing out that there are other robust means for Italian producers to reach consumers, especially Italian consumers: “Italian food culture as a live, changing, evolving dimension definitely does not need FICO Eataly or similar enterprises to remain viable. Already the government has provided a strong framework for the maintenance of heritage through geographical indication and the inscriptions on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list, a project that has also been embraced by producers as a way to boost their sales, command higher prices, and distinguish themselves from Italian-sounding products.”

Rebecca Feinberg generally agrees with these characterizations, but cautions: “I think Italian food culture will keep growing and changing, as it always has, and that commercializing it as a Disneyland will be a financial boost for a small cohort of producers (among the thousands who are not selected for Eataly’s shelves), but also part of the larger …trend to [a certain] museumification of food culture that producers already wrestle with when it comes to complying with DOC standards and consortia [demands].”

Everyone agrees that the increasing global reach of Eataly stores and the opening of FICO Eataly shifts the paradigm; what might have been the original vision with the store in Turin and a few other Italian cities has transformed. Feinberg says, “Ultimately Eataly is not for Italians–it is mainly for tourists to Italy and a way to step into an Italian food wonderland for a few minutes or hours elsewhere in the world. Eataly sells shelf-stable goods and restaurant meals, neither of which, to me, capture ‘Italian food culture’– that happens in the kitchen, at the table, at the outdoor market, in the vineyards or dairies, etc. And Eataly cannot package that…. [in this sense] Eataly is more about Italian food commerce than Italian food culture.”

Jesse Dart concurs, “I think Eataly is just the first to be able to capitalize on Italian food culture in a way that is profitable and in a format that is exportable. I personally think that FICO is a risky venture that seems most interesting for urban Italians (and some tourists).  Eataly is still an expensive store for regular shopping. Italian supermarkets, especially ones such as COOP, also sell locally sourced/specific products that are of similar or equal quality to many of those at Eataly.”

Paresecoli is of similar mind, “I think the concept of the relevance of origin, tradition, artisanality is well established among Italian consumers now. Even those who cannot afford the upscale stuff, they can have access to the supermarket avatar. I think Eataly/FICO are more for foreigners.”

The general consensus is that Eataly is a very successful Italian company capitalizing on the global allure of Italian food culture, but, for the moment, not a significant threat to the everyday habits of Italians. In Black’s opinion, “The real deal is breaking bread with people at someone’s home. It’s more than eating food–it’s conversations and the intimacy of the table, as well as the cooking and the food. Italian food culture is changing (like all food cultures) but as long as Italians keep eating together, it will stay vibrant.”

Eataly poses some possible perils for producers who want to engage with an increasingly large, bureaucratic and powerful company. Paresecoli points out, “There has been a lot of debate about the pressure Eataly is able to put on producers. On one hand, they ensure sales, but at the same time they have a huge bargaining power. Also, I suspect that some producers are so small that all their production goes to Eataly, so the visibility they get there does not help them expanding their business, unless they invest and scale up.” Feinberg echoes these sentiments: “Eataly will, I think, offer some producers an incredible infrastructure to accessing a global market, and probably take care of a lot of the export paperwork, relationship building, and bureaucratic labyrinths that impede producers from doing this on their own. Some producers, inevitably, will transform their business and practices in the effort to scale up and standardize, while others may struggle with inconsistency in ordering or short contracts.”

These realities generate other questions. Dart brings in the local/global tensions inherent in the Eataly enterprise: “I’m skeptical now that some of the smaller producers are able to meet the quantity demands that a company like Eataly might have. Maybe a better question is does America/Brazil/Russia/France/Japan need a Florentine version of Nutella or Easter cakes? Eataly in New York is full of contradictions too, like the Nutella Bar. It’s far from an artisan product but has a prominent place in Eataly in NYC.” However, there are novel opportunities that arise; Parasecoli provides this example: “At the same time, Eataly is helping new product categories to become visible. A good example is IGAs (Italian Grape Ales), which are hard to find anywhere else.”

My takeaway? Food anthropologists and food studies scholars need to pay attention to Eataly! And perhaps our work should be collaborative, global and iterative; we need to mimic it.

Elisa Ascione responded to my questions with her own mini-essay, one that considers the importance of Eataly’s founder, Oscar Farinetti, the role of Slow Food to Eataly’s vision and organization, while also incorporating the analyses of Italian scholars. Her thoughts, combined with others on possible future research questions, can be found in Part Two (to be posted next week).

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Review: Greek Whisky

Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity

Tryfon Bampilis. Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity. Berghahn Press. New York: 2013. ISBN: 978-0-85745-877-3.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

The Greeks do not make whisky, but they surely drink a lot of it. Why they do and how that came to be is the subject of Tryfon Bampilis’ wonderful book. Greeks, Bampilis contends, have come to associate whisky with things “modern.” Whether it be in Athens or Skyros, an island in the Northern Aegean, whether it be in a modern restaurant or a traditional gathering place, Greeks are showing their connection to a larger world of sophistication. They arrived at this point as they became more oriented towards Western countries, especially after World War II, and also because well-crafted advertising and merchandizing helped this change.

Bampilis first sets his discussion by placing Greek whisky consumption in the larger issue of modernization and commoditization. It is an excellent discussion, and I would recommend it to people unfamiliar with this literature. Bampilis places whisky alongside other items in Greece as a growing marker of how, where, and when a person chooses to establish both a statement and a preference for this drink. He sees drinking whisky as a statement of a stylistic identity, of a person saying: “This is who I am.” Moreover, this identity is established, often regardless of the individual’s ability to maintain a lifestyle that the identity of drinking whisky entails. In other words, many people spend more on whisky than their incomes can support. (p. 18, et seq.)

How did the Greeks get to this place? Largely till the period before WWI, Bampilis argues, Greeks drank “traditional” spirits, such as ouzo–a licorice liquor, and they drank them in traditional settings, such as neighborhood bars and music venues. If the drinking was outside the home, it was mostly men who drank in these settings. Men generally drank the harder liquors. When women drank, they sipped sweeter liquors, and they did so at home.

Yet many Greeks also had an historical and spiritual connection with England, dating, in part from the early nineteenth century War of Independence and England’s help in it.   Things English began to be considered as modern and sophisticated. That included whisky. As the drinking of whisky became more widespread, Greek advertising featured English text in addition to Greek text in its promotion of whisky (see, for example, p. 41.)

Bampilis sees the popularization of this drink arising in many ways, adding to the richness of this book. The ways included movies, music, the increasing inclusion of Greece into the Common Market. Movies featured sophisticated men and women dressed in Western clothes, sitting in bars, drinking whisky. Bampilis reviews the history of the Greek movie industry to show precisely this association of whisky and modernism. He ties it to the history of Greek contemporary music as well, and he situates each kind of music in different settings where whisky is consumed. This discussion is fascinating in and of itself, for it features the ways in which media can and do change tastes–and styles.

Furthermore, he places all of this discussion within the larger history of the last several centuries. After the Second World War and the Greek Civil War, the conclusion of which saw Greece remaining within the Western sphere of influence, more Greeks identified themselves as part of the West. Greece became part of the larger European trading block and large corporations edged out smaller distributers of Western spirits. As the subtitle of the book suggests, many distributors targeted not just the modernization aspirations of more affluent and urban Greeks, they also featured local ways of appealing to these markets.

One intriguing discussion is the way in which the drinking of whisky brought together two contradictory styles and traditions. After the First World War, most Greeks living in Turkey were forced to move to Greece in the “Population Exchange” following the defeat of the Greek Army in Asia Minor in 1922. These Greeks played different types of music from what had existed in the country before. Initially, many Greeks saw these ‘musics’ as ‘tainted,’ affected by Turkish music and not suitable for people exploring their own traditions. Over time, however, these different styles of music came to be played not just in lower-class venues but eventually in nightclubs where Greeks came to display their taste for sophistication. Images of this were featured in ads and movies were set in these venues (p.112, et seq.) Bampilis’ discussions of Greek movies and music are delightful and informative, especially to people not familiar with Greek history and culture.

Bampilis then delineates how gender roles, stylistic presentations, and rituals accompanied these transformations in drinking and changed over time. He goes into substantive detail first about the drinking life in Athens. Bampilis, who claims he is Athenian on one side of his family, and Skyrian on the other side, used his family and school contacts to investigate Athens and Skyros for his informants and for their locales.

The picture he paints of the role of whisky and other drinks in the drinking life of Athens is complex and nuanced. In Athens, those men who drink whisky do so to signify modernism and masculinity Moreover, these men compete in several areas–spending money on the liquor itself, on how much liquor they can consume without appearing out of control, (p.141,) and of spending money on associated rituals, such as throwing flowers onto the stage for the performer (p.142.) The flower ritual, in recent times, replaced an earlier ritual of breaking bottles. Women who consider themselves modern also consume whisky, often as their sole drink (p.135.) As a general rule, single malt whiskies are the drink of choice. In addition, little food, except for nuts and similar edibles, is consumed when drinking whisky.

Bampilis paints a different role of why whisky and other alcoholic drinks are consumed on Skyros, his other research site. He presents a detailed portrait of an island from an historical and ethnographic perspective, giving both the specialist and non-specialist a rich view of the social life of the island. Despite its small population of less than three thousand, there are many public and private venues for liquor consumption, including whisky. The choice of liquors to drink and where to drink them is another debate between modernism and traditionalism (p.177.) For the most part, traditional Greek liquors are drunk in the home and for certain occasions. Women drink ” …a sweet liqueur, which is homemade and is considered a female drink…(p.173.)” Alcohol consumed in the home is accompanied by different kinds of foods. Meze on Skyros is usually local cheese, olives, and bread and is “…consumed outside the home…(pp.174-5.)” It is symbolically opposed to “real food” which is “…made in the household by the housewife (p.175.)” The household is the domain of the “feminine (p.175.)”

The above examples are just a small picture of Skyros’ social life and the role of alcoholic beverages in it. Bampilis covers older families, people who have spent time in Athens, shepherds, laborers, single men, single women, married women with children, married women without children, and prostitutes. Each group has its own choices of drinks, how much one can drink, what to eat with which drink, and what music to listen to when doing all the above. As Bampilis notes, “The modernism of whisky on Skyros Island in the North Aegean is associated with an imagined Athenian style, which opposes the values of shepherhood [sic] and domesticity and is widely shared by the laborers of the island pp.210-11.)”

Moreover, gambling is one of the ways men engage in competition and reciprocal exchange in Skyros (and, as Bampilis notes, other North Aegean islands (p.189 et seq.) Like drinking whisky and other beverages, men play different card games in different venues, with different kinds of interactions, including how to deal with the people who lose at cards. It is also a way for laborers “…to make their style with ksodema (spending) and identify with the popular culture of Athens (p.197.)” Bampilis concludes his analysis of the role of whisky in Skyros society thusly: ” [whisky consumption} is for those who want to break apart from the matrifocal rules and extended matrifocal kinship obligations (p.213.)”

Greek Whisky is of importance for those anthropologists studying the ways food and other products become both globalized and localized in neo-liberal economies and societies. It is of further importance because of the ways in which Bampilis portrays how politics and media create reinforce these lifestyle changes, how they become genderized, how they express styles of identity, and how they relate to social life, including different kinds of food, movies and music. It is also useful for students of economics and business, and it is appropriate for upper division undergraduates. And it is a delight for the general reader. One suggestion for future editions of this book is that, given the large number of Greek words, a glossary be provided in addition to the Index.

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Going for the Gumbo

David Beriss

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a massive two weekend celebration of the music and culture of the city and the surrounding region. I have been attending regularly for years. At its core, the festival provides an opportunity to see great performers playing wonderful music. The musicians range from headlining national pop stars to relatively unknown local artists who usually play at the club around the corner; from national acts to bands made up of students from local high schools and universities (a not insignificant number of the former evolved from the latter). In addition, the festival showcases the work of visual artists and craftspeople, as well as parading groups of Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, and much more. All of this makes for a dazzling attempt to crystallize the contours of the artistic culture of south Louisiana. It is a self-conscious attempt to put that culture on display, to celebrate, venerate, and preserve the things that make the region distinctive.

And then there is the food. For many people, Jazz Fest is as much a food festival as it is a music festival. Your ticket, of course, buys you entrance to the festival and with that you can hear as much music as you can fit into your day. The food, produced by a wide range of local vendors, costs extra. But the food is as carefully curated by the festival organizers as the music. The vendors are not the circuit-riding professionals of state and county fairs. They are local restaurateurs and caterers, along with a few talented prejeans sign jazzfestamateurs, who often produce special dishes specifically for Jazz Fest. The array of foods on offer—from classics of Cajun and Creole cooking, to Vietnamese, Latin American, and Middle-Eastern specialties—provides an idea of the region that may be more diverse than the music itself.

 

There are people who plan their approach to the music schedule weeks in advance. There are also people who approach the food with similar careful strategizing. Emphasizing this food-focused view of Jazz Fest, Ian McNulty, a food writer at the Advocate newspaper, created a guide for such people this year that mimics the layout of the music schedule.

A lot of us start our annual Jazz Fest observances with a specific dish. When I get to Jazz Fest, before even thinking about which bands are performing, I seek out the pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo from Prejean’s Restaurant. The dish is part of our family history. When my wife was pregnant with our now 18-year old daughter and fighting first-trimester nausea, she nevertheless insisted on only one Jazz Fest food: prejeans gumbo jazzfestPrejean’s gumbo. This is a dark and smoky gumbo, filled with chunks of meat, served with rice. Eating at Jazz Fest is best approached as a team activity, so I share the gumbo with whoever is with me (usually my wife), as we comment on the quality of the year’s batch. The strong flavors prepare us for a day of music, food, and fascinating sights.

Gumbo, of course, is one of the key Louisiana dishes. Prejean’s gumbo is Cajun. The use of a very dark roux is something people often associate with Cajun gumbos, although that seems less indicative in this case than the vendor. Prejean’s is based in Lafayette, about 140 miles west of New Orleans and represents itself as a Cajun restaurant. It is a big restaurant, full of taxidermy alligators and other memorabilia meant to evoke Cajun culture. The food is good and they have excellent gumbos on the menu. But the pheasant, andouille, and quail gumbo is not on the restaurant’s regular menu. For that, you have to come to Jazz Fest.

Prejean’s is not the only gumbo at Jazz Fest. There is also a lovely shrimp, sausage, and okra gumbo, from Fireman Mike’s Kitchen. Mike Gowland is a real retired fire fighter fireman mikes gumbo jazzfestwho has been at Jazz Fest for years and recently opened a restaurant. His gumbo is much lighter in color than Prejean’s and it is hard to miss the okra floating around in it, which adds some texture to the dish. There is also Creole filé gumbo, from Wayne Baquet’s Li’l Dizzy’s Café, the current outpost of a family with a storied restaurant history in New Orleans. They serve Creole food at their restaurants and their seafood-heavy gumbo is representative of that style (alas, I do not have a photo of Baquet’s gumbo).

If you set all three of the gumbos available at Jazz Fest side by side, you might find it hard to believe that they are all variations of one dish. There are a lot of great gumbos in local restaurants and, of course, many home cooks make their own. If there is not one right way to make gumbo, there are nevertheless a lot of people willing to argue about the dish itself. On gumbo’s origins, for instance: claims about the invention of the dish invoke, variously, African, Fireman Mike Gumbo signNative American, and European origins. The word “gumbo” derives from the Bantu term for okra. Some point to Choctaw soups and to the Native American introduction of ground sassafras leaves to Europeans, which is the source of the filé powder often used to thicken gumbos (and there are often filé making demonstrations at Jazz Fest). The Choctaw word for sassafras is, in fact, “kombo.” Some have argued that the soup has its origins in local variants on French bouillabaisse. We might add that the rice usually served with gumbo is a major south Louisiana crop that was originally brought to the Americas by Africans. These arguments about origins are part of a broader tendency in local popular literature to want to attribute different recipes or parts of recipes to specific ethnic groups, usually relying on broad generalizations about how and what people of various origins cook (“the French” brought roux, “the Spanish” brought ham, “the Africans” brought okra and rice, “the Germans” brought sausage, and so forth) and contributing to deeper debates about who can represent local culture. Some of the people in these stories were probably less eager to participate in the making of that culture than others, a fact that contributes to these ongoing debates.

The controversies do not end with debates about origins. Brett Anderson, a James Beard award winning local food writer, recently wrote an article in the New York Times focusing on a ‘new wave’  of gumbos available in New Orleans restaurants. The article featured the headline: “Gumbo, the Classic New Orleans Dish, Is Dead. Long Live Gumbo,” and discussed everything from a curried gumbo at Saffron NOLA to a seafood gumbo with flavors that point to Vietnamese and Chinese foods at Maypop, along with many others. The article—especially the headline—drove locals into a social media frenzy. Many erroneously assumed that Anderson was claiming gumbo was dead and indignantly denounced the New York Times for once again completely misunderstanding the city’s culture and traditions. It probably would not matter much what Anderson wrote. Fiercely defending and preserving the city’s and region’s cultural traditions—the “heritage” in the Jazz and Heritage Festival—is a mission that many locals take seriously. Outside authorities, or even local authorities working for outside media, raise questions at their own risk.

There have been other controversies in recent years around gumbo, including outrage over a recipe for gumbo promoted by Disney on social media. There have also been fights over what constitutes a proper roux, the addition of hard-boiled eggs to gumbo, and the use of potato salad in gumbo. This is a lot to take on board when you taste that cup of dark gumbo at Jazz Fest. If nothing else, the ongoing controversies about the origins, making, and representations of gumbo indicate that people care enough to keep the traditions alive. The variations and innovations in gumbo-making suggest that New Orleans is still a Creole city, constantly adapting to new ideas and innovations. At this year’s Jazz Fest (there is still one weekend left, as I write this), there will be an entire day of cooking demonstrations devoted to different kinds of gumbo. Tempting.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, festivals, Food Studies, New Orleans