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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From Beans to Bread: The Community at the Heart of The Bread Lab

Laura Valli, PhD candidate

The Bread Lab, Washington State University

Bread Lab: what is the first image this phrase evokes for you? Maybe an artisanal sourdough loaf with a dark golden crust and chewy inside? A pile of such loaves? Or a wide selection of breads, representative of different culinary traditions across the globe?

These are indeed images from the Bread Lab, where skilled and knowledgeable people who care about good bread experiment with different grains, mills in many sizes and ovens that a home baker could only dream of.

However, when I think of the Bread Lab, I envision rice and beans.

R_Bandsauces

This is the lunch staple of my supervisor, Dr. Stephen Jones. He prepares rice and beans about once a week for everyone and anyone at the lab— sometimes to accompany our lab meetings, sometimes to feed our guests. Whoever is at the lab when the rice and beans are ready is welcome. There are two hints that rice and beans will be on the menu the next day. The first is direct: Dr. Jones asks what time your classes are the next day, and adds casually, “I will be making some rice and beans tomorrow. Would you be interested?” The second is through deduction: on the wooden table in the lab baking area you notice a container holding beans immersed in cold water. Just as with sourdough bread, preparations for rice and beans start at least a day before. The beans used are always locally grown, often a mixture of different varieties, misshapen and therefore perfect for family lunches. These remind me of a pizzeria owner’s comment that it was the pizzas deemed too imperfect for the customers and thus shared among the staff that were the tastiest. So, too, I find the broken and split beans are the creamiest and also tastiest when shared with others.

The meal is ritualistic with a firm set of steps to follow. Everybody goes through the same procedure exactly in the same order. We line up according to our arrival time in the kitchen. Everyone starts with a fork and a small bowl. We assemble our lunch by first scooping some plain brown rice (the saucepan on the left) into our bowl. The rice is then topped with the beans (the saucepan on the right) that sometimes is seasoned with chunks of smoked ham for added depth of flavor. Next, everyone grates aged cow’s cheese on top of their food, the heaped fluffy pile melting quickly into the hot rice and beans. Occasionally there are additional toppings, such as raw onion, shredded cabbage or slices of avocado. But when it comes to condiments, hot sauce is a must: at least five different kinds are offered. Heat is something that I still do not tolerate, and even though I was told that the hot sauce is not optional, I sprinkle sea salt flakes instead. For the crunch factor there are tortilla chips (conspicuously labeled as organic, non-GMO, without any preservatives), another non-negotiable element of the bowl. Last we pick up tall brown glasses of water.

Once we fill our bowls, we gather around the table and sit on red plastic chairs with black wheels. There are four large tables in the baking area at the lab. With eight people working at the lab, we could each have a table for two. Yet we always prefer to stick together as a group, elbows almost touching. We eat, sometimes we joke, sometimes we exchange news, sometimes we eat in silence, a silence is filled with the sounds of ticking, munching and crunching.

I move back and forth from my seat to the stovetop, adding a bit more of this and that to the bowl as I eat, to keep the proportions just to my liking. I always seem to underestimate the amount of cheese. As people empty their bowls, they are reluctant to leave the table right away. Sometimes it is the engaging group discussions that prevent us from returning to our offices, at other times we linger in stillness, each in our own thoughts. The pots and pans are never emptied, there are always leftovers. My theory is that it is due to our consideration for the collective.

The shared experience of repast punctuates the day. The simple meal of rice and beans is emblematic of the ethos of the Bread Lab. Both are unpretentious, welcoming, accessible, accommodating, wholesome and community-oriented — just the way we think of our bread and work. These values are also perfectly embodied in the Bread Lab’s latest project, the approachable loaf (http://thebreadlab.wsu.edu/the-bread-lab-collective/). The approachable loaf is a more wholesome alternative to the traditional white sandwich bread with all of its appealing features (softness, rectangular shape, even slices), but more flavor and no unnecessary ingredients. Bakers across the country are encouraged to sign up to become members of the Bread Lab Collective and start baking the Approachable Loaf, thereby making wholesome and nutritious bread more accessible and affordable for their communities. (See Ms. Valli’s previous post in FoodAnthro, April 11, 2019, which reviews Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.Beacon Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-080704467-4).

Dr. Jones, a plant geneticist focusing on wheat breeds, founded the Bread Lab in 2011 initially as part of the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center and now housed in its own facility at the Port of Skagit. The Bread Lab is his way of working towards a more sustainable alternative than large-scale commercial agriculture dependent on monocultures, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

The researchers at the Bread Lab work with the community —farmers, bakers and consumers are all welcome and their voices are heard. Our collaboration helps us find grain varieties that are good for farmers (good yield and disease resistance), for bakers (good baking properties and flavor) and for people to eat (nutrition, flavor and affordability).

I think of Dr. Jones as a true Renaissance scientist, with an interdisciplinary approach that closely aligns with the principles of anthropology. It took little to convince him to include an anthropologist. I joined the Bread Lab four months ago as the first anthropologist, and hopefully not the last. My research focuses on the agronomy and social history of rye; current U.S. attitudes towards growing and consuming rye; women’s labor on farms and in bakeries; and power relations within kitchen. The Bread Lab is my intellectual haven and artisanal hotspot in the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

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Review: Baking, Bourbon and Black Drink

Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink: Foodways Archaeology in the American Southeast. Edited by Tanya M. Peres and Aaron Deter-Wolf. The University of Alabama Press. 2018. ISBN: 978-0-8173-1992-2

Kimberley G. Connor
(Stanford University)

As Tanya M. Peres and Aaron Deter-Wolf point out in their introduction to Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink: Foodways Archaeology in the American Southeast, it is no longer sufficient for archaeologists to just identify food remains in the past; they must “look beyond the data tables and pursue the larger picture of food and its role in human cultures—that is, the foodways of past societies” (2018:1). In practice, this is a difficult task. The nine chapters in this edited volume show both the great potential for using archaeology to study social practices and cultural meanings related to food, and the challenges for those who try to move beyond ‘laundry lists’ of animal and plant species.

Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink responds to a growing interest in modern and historic cuisine from the Southeastern United States (from the Atlantic Ocean into Arkansas and Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio River Valley), but expands the genre by introducing a range of archaeological approaches and increasing the time-depth to include the past 14,000 years. The temporal and methodological diversity of the chapters is one of the great strengths of the book, although that multiplicity also makes it difficult to bring them all together in a coherent narrative. While the chapters are arranged thematically in sections—feasting, social and political status, food security and persistent places, and foodways histories—the divisions often feel rather arbitrary.

The first section on feasting contains only one chapter by Megan C. Kassabaum on the importance of integrating ceramic, faunal and botanical datasets for studying feasting. The evidence she presents from Feltus, a Woodland period ceremonial mound site, raises questions about the role of feasting in pre-agricultural societies with low levels of social differentiation. This poses a challenge to traditional models which assume that agriculture is necessary for large-scale feasting, and that feasting is inherently linked to the creation and maintenance of social inequality. The emphasis on quantity rather than rarity of food items is welcome, although it is difficult to rule out the presence of labor-intensive foods without more evidence about food preparation techniques.

The second section deals with social and political status in southeastern foodways. Two chapters, one by Tanya M. Peres, and one co-authored by Peres and Kelly L. Ledford, provide zooarchaeological evidence for social stratification at Moundville in Alabama. One of the great highlights of the volume is Thomas E. Emerson’s chapter on Black Drink, a beverage made from caffeine-containing yaupon holly and very hot water used as both a social drink, and as an emetic for ritual purification. Emerson combines historical and ethnographic accounts with ceramic analysis and iconography to contextualise recent residue analysis which identified Black Drink at Cahokia. Following on in the vein of beverage studies, Nicolas Laracuente provides a strong introduction to the archaeology of whiskey production in Kentucky. As Laracuente notes, the role of women and enslaved African Americans has been sidelined in histories of the distilling industry and it would be very interesting to see a development of archaeological work which could illuminate the contributions of those groups.

The third section deals with food security and ‘places which persist’ as food preparation and consumption areas for long periods. Stephen B. Carmody, Kandace D. Hollenbach and Elic M. Weitzel use a diet breadth model—which predicts that foragers will preferentially go after higher ranked food products (based on the net cost of the caloric return minus the cost of energy to acquire and process it) but that as resources become rarer they will turn to a broader range of lower ranked products which provide less calories and/or require more processing time—to suggest that foragers at Dust Cave, Alabama shifted from a more general subsistence strategy to intensive mast collection and processing during the Middle Archaic in response to a changing climate. Meanwhile, Lauren A. Walls and Scot Keith look at the transformation of earth ovens from Woodland Period sites in Tennessee and Georgia as a sign of broader social changes.

Finally the section on foodways histories contains two chapters using “new methods of examining foodways to challenge the idea of monolithic cultural continuity during the Woodland and Mississippian periods” (9). Both deal much more with meals and cuisine than do the previous the chapters. Neill J. Wallis and Thomas J. Pluckhahn use shifts in the size and wall thickness of ceramic vessels to suggest changes in food preparation techniques that have not yet been recognised using faunal or botanical studies. The importance of considering food preparation techniques is reinforced by the final chapter, by Rachel V. Briggs on different forms of the hominy foodway. She uses a historical anthropological approach to demonstrate why the Native American technique of nixtamalization for maize was adopted within the African American hominy foodway, but not the European one.

The chapters which really stand out in this volume, especially those by Emerson and Briggs, are those able to really get at what Briggs calls “the vital relationship between what we eat and who we are” which “is not simply that we make choices about what we eat, but that the practices involved in what we eat, those we reproduce every day, are also generative” (161). It is no coincidence, I would suggest, that it was the chapters focusing on meals, cuisine and cooking rather than diet and subsistence which were particularly successful. Offering an excellent overview of archaeological work in the region, this book will clearly be important for those studying or teaching about southeastern foodways. However, it is also an interesting model for any archaeologist trying to figure out not just what was eaten in the past but what it means.

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Review: The Unending Hunger

The Unending Hunger by Megan A. Carney

Carney, M. A. (2015). The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN: 978-0520285477

Rachael McCormick
University of South Florida

In The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders, Megan Carney frames the city of Santa Barbara, California’s paradoxical problem as “hunger in the land of plenty.” Despite the region’s affluence and agricultural wealth, food insecurity occurs at a high rate. Carney attributes this problem to a neoliberal food regime which views food as a commodity – able to move across the southern border – while people lack both mobility and food. Rather than addressing the structural causes of food insecurity (evidenced by the high rates among women and people of color), food assistance typically consists of emergency relief and handouts.

Carney argues state approaches to food security, as to migration, are embedded in biopolitics. Food assistance agencies act as proxies of the state, bringing up questions of deservingness and surveillance. In the neoliberal context, the burden of procuring food falls on the individual. But not all individuals experience this burden equally: women, as the primary performers of caring labor, are tasked with feeding their families.

Carney, a critical medical anthropologist, is a faculty member at the University of Arizona with interests in migration, food systems and biopolitics (Carney, n.d.). The Unending Hunger is based on her dissertation at the University of California – Santa Barbara. Since then, her interest in migration has expanded into the Mediterranean region.

In The Unending Hunger, Carney characterizes her position as both insider (referring to her food-related activism during graduate school) and outsider (in relation to migrant women). Participants in her study were adult women who had migrated from Mexico or Central America and had experience with U.S. food assistance. Carney uses semi-structured and life history interviews, focus groups, dietary surveys and participant observation with both the population of interest as well as public health and nonprofit professionals. She draws heavily on feminist methodology, especially in her use of empowering methods like photo elicitation and focus groups. Based on these data, Carney found that concern for food is a central part of the migration experience for women. This was reflected in the terms alimentarse and comida saludable which women use when talking about the caring labor they perform. Carney also reports that subjectivities are altered through post-migration suffering and its embodied effects. Food insecurity in the migration context interacts with existing health vulnerabilities, increasing social suffering. However, rather than focusing on lack of food access, Carney calls attention to the ways she observed women strategically “making do,” cooperating, and resisting.

Carney’s book has a particularly strong gendered perspective which seeks to address a gap in the literature on migration: the experiences of women, as care workers, in addition to men as laborers. In some ways, The Unending Hunger can be thought of as a counterpart to Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (2013). Holmes analyzes the health consequences of farm labor on migrant men engaged in food production, while Carney turns to women as consumers whose “caring labor” is not valued by a capitalist system.

Carney’s heavy-handed critique of the neoliberal food assistance paradigm seems unproductive at times. There is plenty of room for improvement in both the overall structure of food assistance as well as the individual sites where it is implemented. However, food assistance in its many forms (consider food banks, faith-based organizations and federal programs) is a vital support system for food-insecure populations. While Carney acknowledges the limits imposed upon these organizations by bureaucracy, donor funding, and policy, a more productive critique might include concrete ways for food assistance services to improve their interventions.

In The Unending Hunger, Carney provides a nuanced view of mobility – both of people and food – that brings in the under-analyzed gendered elements of migration and food procurement. The book will be of interest to medical anthropologists, food system planners and other professionals engaged in food security projects. It may not be received as warmly by the organizations Carney criticizes; these would benefit more from research that generated specific suggestions for mitigating food insecurity within the neoliberal context. Nevertheless, Carney’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on migration, gender and health.

 

Works Cited

Carney, M. (n.d.). About Megan Carney. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from https://anthropology.arizona.edu/user/megan-carney

Holmes, S. (2013). Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

 

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Review: White Bread

whitebread

Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Beacon Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-080704467-4.

Laura Valli
Washington State University

Aaron Bobrow-Strain in White Bread follows specific dreams of “good” bread in the US’s 20th century to demonstrate how these ideals, seemingly nutritional judgements, were shaped by politics, economy and social issues. The book is organized by those ideals, rather than chronology, and presents dominant and countercultural discourses side by side. This structure, although making the stories a bit hard to follow, highlights how diverging ideas of good bread coexist and recur. For instance, contradictions around whole wheat bread come and go–and re-surge over and again. This poses an interesting thought experiment: what could have been the potential alternatives to Wonder Bread if different kinds of decisions had been made?

Chapter 1 opens the book by exploring how industrial bread production came to be preferred over small-scale bread baking in home kitchens and so-called cellar bakeries. The main problems with the cellar bakeries were dishonest practices (cutting the flour with cheap filler), disregard for hygiene, and employing immigrants, ‘polluted’ labor. The new industrial bakeries made the bread-making process transparent: people were invited to come and witness the sanitary baking in factories where machines did most of the work and the few workers were meticulously chosen for their health, habits and moral character (p. 41).

Chapter 2 explains that the resulting factory-produced white loaves, equal in size, uniform in shape, pre-sliced with precision, were the perfect example of the modernist aesthetic. These were considered far superior to home-baked bread that always varied in look and taste. No mother baking at home could match the industrial bakers’ control over ingredients, formulas and production processes. To choose to eat white bread was to participate in the process of ‘building a better nation’ (p. 64). And the whiter the bread, the better, because whiteness symbolized (racial) purity and control over disorder.

But support for white bread was not unanimous, and some even called it ‘the staff of death’ (p. 73). Chapter 3 presents three alternatives to the white bread movement. First, there was Sylvester Graham, the charismatic spokesman praising whole wheat bread baked from freshly milled locally grown grains. Graham’s teachings were further popularized by Alfred W. McCann who combined a Graham-influenced diet with ‘relentless exercise’ and ‘heroic fasts’ (p. 91). Many decades later, Christian Vande Velde, a cyclist from Chicago, promoted giving up (gluten-containing) bread altogether (p. 73). Initially popular among other athletes, gluten-free living is now all the rage.

Chapter 4 shifts the focus from the health of the individual to the health of the nation. On the eve of World War II, malnutrition was a serious issue in the US. White bread was now the primary source of calories for Americans; the easiest way to improve the nutrition of the population was to improve white bread- synthetically. Enter enriched white bread and the golden age of Wonder Bread in the 1950s and 60s (p. 109).

Chapter 5 demonstrates the importance of white bread in US foreign policy. In the 1940s, Americans were advised to save wheat to help starving (European) populations. Offering bread to the malnourished was seen as a way of supporting the war effort, fighting communism and securing democracy. The US was to be seen as the land of plenty. The export of industrial agriculture and industrial food (‘dietary imperialism’) during the Cold War radically changed the way the world ate (p. 135). White bread diet was promoted as nutritionally and politically superior (with great luck in some countries, such as Mexico), but this did not have universal global appeal (rice remained the staple food in Japan).

Chapter 6 documents how white bread, once the aspiration of many, is now considered white trash food, the icon of poor choices and narrow lives (p. 164), while the artisanal sourdough loaf is the marker of educated and ethical consumption.

Bobrow-Strain concludes his book with a call to problematize the preconceived boundaries of good and bad (p. 194) and unhelpful dreams of purity and naturalness (p.195) that reinforce social hierarchies. He acknowledges his own prejudices in considering that artisanal loaf as superior to Wonder Bread. He is prescient in holding up fermentation as the most progressive frame for thinking about the social world and food politics through the mindset of fermentation. It is a ‘natural’ process of making sourdough bread, but not ‘pure’ and ‘controllable’, as it involves the microbiome of yeast and bacteria that we cannot really see. Fermentation requires us to live with and benefit from impurity.

White Bread’s focus enables the author to deal with a wide range of issues, ranging from foreign policy (Green Revolution in Mexico) to national politics (creating a healthy nation through bread) to immigration and feminism. There is plenty of food for thought here, but the author advances no major theoretical arguments. Instead, White Bread addresses complex issues through food and makes these more relatable and ’digestible.’

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Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning

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Call for papers

The Food Studies Program, New York University (NYU),

the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Communication (CIRCe)

and the Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences, University of Turin,

in collaboration with the EU Program Marie Skłodowska   -Curie (MSCA – GA No 795025),

encourage submissions for the International Conference

Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning

dirs. Dr. Simona Stano and Prof. Amy Bentley

October 14-15, 2019

It was 1962 when Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced his famous idea that, in order to be “good to eat” (bon à manger), a substance must be first of all “good to think” (bon à penser): as the French scholar reported in the pages of Totemism, food must nourish people’s collective mind — i.e. their systems of values, beliefs, and traditions — to be considered suitable for their stomachs. Since then other theorists have weighed in on the nature of food and culture, including cultural materialists (Marvin Harris 1985), and practice theorists (including Alan Warde 2014, 2016) who assert that a focus on practices and actions provides a third way to think about culture and meaning, sidestepping tensions between emphasis on ideas and things. While materialism and practice theory have enriched and decentered discourses of food and identity, for example, the value of ideas, beliefs, and symbols remains salient in food studies.

While food habits, preferences, and taboos are partially regulated by ecological and material factors, research has shown that all food systems are structured and given particular functioning mechanisms by specific societies and cultures, either according to totemic (such as in animistic religions), sacrificial (such as in ancient history), hygienic-rationalist (such as in contemporary Western dietetics), aesthetic (such as in gastronomy), or other types of symbolic logics. This provides much “food for thought.” The famous expression has never been so appropriate: not only do cultures develop unique practices for the production, treatment and consumption of food, but such practices inevitably end up affecting also food-related aspects and spheres that are generally perceived as objectively and materially defined. Let us consider, for instance, dietary prescriptions, which are undoubtedly based on the material composition of food products, but are also dependent on the values and meanings conferred on specific food constituents by the narratives and discourses circulating within each culture; or food safety regulations, which are related to the concepts of dirtiness and hygiene — whose perception, as Mary Douglas (1966) effectively showed, is intrinsically related to cultural diversity.

Drawing on these premises, the conference “Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning” intends to enhance the cultural reflection on food, calling into action various theoretical approaches and analytical methodologies, also in the aim to offer new insights on how the study of food can help us understand better what we call “culture.” Topics of interest include, but are not limited to, the following:

a. Food, Taste, and Global Cultures

Food and taste have always represented crucial means of construction and expression of sociocultural identity, as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958, 1964, 1965), Roland Barthes (1961), Mary Douglas (1966, 1972, 1984), Pierre Bourdieu (1979) and a number of other scholars have effectively pointed out. What is more, in contemporary societies, migrations, travels and communications incessantly expose local food identities to global food alterities, originating remarkable processes of transformation that continuously reshape and redefine such identities and alterities. This originates a series of interesting questions: how can the cultural meanings and values associated with food be identified and described in today’s fast-changing food systems? How do the processes of hybridization (and domestication) of food and taste affect such meanings and values in different contexts and environments (e.g., creole home cooking, “ethnic” restaurants, fusion cuisines, diasporic foodways, culinary tourism, etc.)?

b. Nutrition and Cultures

Nutrition evidently relies on the material dimension of food, since it makes reference to its physical composition (in terms of nutrients, calories, etc.), but is also strongly influenced by the sociocultural sphere: not only do sociocultural factors such as ethnicity, class, education, gender, etc. affect eating habits, but the very ideas of health, beauty, safety and a series of other concepts playing a crucial role in the definition of dietary regimes are culturally defined. Furthermore, contemporary foodways have increasingly emphasized the connection between nourishment and aesthetics (mainly as a result of the generalized process of aestheticization of food and taste), as well as the link between nutrition and ethics (as a dominant position supporting meat-free dietary regimes clearly shows). The conference invites reflection upon such issues, and also consideration of the decisive role played by communication, and especially by the mass and new media, in the establishment of specific collective imaginaries and the association of particular values and meanings to food products, habits, and practices.

c. Food and Law: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Both at the local and global scale, nutrition is ruled by a complexity of laws regulating very diverse aspects — e.g. quality, safety, ecology, etc. — related to the production, trade and handling of food. Such aspects, exactly as any other facet of law, cannot be disentangled from culture (see in particular Geertz 1983; Rosen 2006). This explains the difficulty that might be encountered in establishing transnational regulations on food, as recently proved by the discussed case of food treatment within the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States, which reflects not only differences in legislation on food production and handling, but also cultural divergences related to its valorization and perception. The conference focuses on the cultural conceptions underlying food regulations and the way by which they contribute to activate specific meaning-making processes.

Submissions, including an abstract (250-400 words), affiliation and a short bionote (100 words), should be sent to conference@comfection.com no later than June 23, 2019.

References:

Barthes, Roland. 1961. “Pour une psychosociologie de l’alimentation contemporaine.” Annales ESC, XVI, 5: 977-986 [English Translation 1997. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 20-27. New York and London: Routledge].

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. La distinction. Paris: Éditions de Minuit [English Translation 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London and New York: Routledge].

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——. 1972. “Deciphering a meal.” Daedalus, 101, 1: 61-81.

——. 1984. Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective.” In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 167-234. New York: Basic Books.

Harris, Marvin. 1985. Good to Eat. Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon [English Translation 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books].

——. 1962. Le totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris: PUF [English Translation 1963. Totemism. Boston: Beacon press].

——. 1964. Mythologiques I. Le cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon [English Translation 1969. The Raw and the Cooked. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press].

——. 1965. “Le triangle culinaire.” L’Arc, 26: 19-29.

Rosen, Lawrence. 2006. Law as Culture: An Invitation. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.

Warde, Alan. 2014. “After Taste: Culture, Consumption and Theories of Practice.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 14, 3: 279-303.

——. 2016. The Practice of Eating. Cambridge: Polity.

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