Tag Archives: Anthropology of Food

Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning

logos cfp

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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Thomas Marchione Award 2019

Graduate Students! Are you doing or have you recently completed research related to food and human rights? Food security? Food justice? Do you consider that these and related issues are among the most pressing issues facing humanity? Would you like your work to be recognized? SAFN wants to hear from you!

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) is seeking applications for the Thomas Marchione Award, which recognizes graduate student research on topics including food security, food justice and/or the right to food in both international and domestic contexts. Any field of study is eligible, and the winner will receive $750 and a year’s membership in both the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN).

Complete application information is here.

Deadline: July 26, 2019.

Recent Award Winners:

2018

Miguel Cuj (Vanderbilt University), Violence, Nutrition, and Health Issues: Maya Memories in Guatemala.

2017

Paula Fernandez-Wulff (UC Louvain, Belgium), Harnessing Local Food Policies for the Right to Food.

2015

Jessie Mazar (University of Vermont), Issues of food access and food security for Latino/a migrant farm workers in Vermont’s dairy industry.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, awards, human rights, Thomas Marchione

Christine Wilson Awards for 2019

Students! Are you writing great research papers on food and/or nutrition? 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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Milk…It’s Good to Think

David McMurray
Anthropology, emeritus
Oregon State University

I am a product of the Upper Midwest with its (waning) Scandinavian and German influences. I am entangled in “milk culture,” as Andrea Wiley might put it. I am a subject shaped by the dairy industry and its powerful lobby. I know all of these things without really knowing them. What I want to say is milk forms a part of the habitus I swim in but, by definition, never think about. That is until the other day when I came across a propaganda poster on milk (more about that in a minute). The shock of (mis) recognition caused me to begin to take an inventory of my interactions with milk. My whole life has been spent drowning in the white drink. Maybe not drowning, but certainly milk has been a constant foodstuff friend. Have I ever gone more than a day or two in my whole life without ingesting some form of dairy? I am no Michael Pollan and so I don’t claim to be exploring in depth the intertwined history and sociocultural context that binds milk and North Americans. I only thought to provide to the SAFN blog a quick day-in-the-life diary of dairy, using myself as subject. Here goes:

My earliest milk memory comes from growing up (b. 1953) in Webster City, Iowa where a couple of times a week Don the milkman would leave glass bottles of milk in a metal carrier at the back door and pick up the returnables set out for him. We would pester him in the summer until he stopped the truck, opened up the back door and carved off some ice chunks for us to suck on. Graham’s Dairy, his employer, was on Highway 20 going out of town to the west. We would ride our bikes out there on hot days and order ice cream cones from the retail shop at the front. I loved the black raspberry and vanilla combo. It was hard ice cream. Not the soft, whipped kind sold at the A&W root beer stand.

Milk was present in practically every day of my young life. We five children all had cold cereal and milk for breakfast every morning of my life. I think of those little pint cartons of milk given out in cafeteria lunchrooms during my K-12 years (the result of dairy price supports). Regular milk or chocolate milk; there was a choice. One was sweeter but didn’t taste as good with regular food, especially hot lunches.

My mother said that milk built bones and teeth. She also said that milk caused zits and was hard to digest. She forbade the drinking of milk whenever I had an upset stomach. I could only drink 7-up and eat saltines.

Once after football practice in junior high, I came home and drank half a gallon of milk without taking a breath. Coaches didn’t believe in hydration in those days, so they never provided anything to drink during sports practices.

I first left the USA at age eighteen to wander about Europe. I remember the first time I bought a carton of room-temperature milk off the store shelf. I wondered how they could preserve it without refrigeration. I opened it and tasted it. I spit it out. It was awful. That was my introduction to UHT. Whenever I met other Americans in youth hostels we would all long for good old American milk. The European stuff was undrinkable. There was one exception. I went to work that autumn for a winemaker in St. Emilion, France doing the vendange. We had a choice at breakfast every day of either café au lait or wine. Nothing else to drink. Being a corn-fed boy from Iowa, I had never drunk a cup of coffee in my life. But I had gotten drunk on bad sweet wines often enough in high school that the smell of any wine made me nauseous, especially at breakfast. I learned to make do with a bowl of café au lait that was 90% heated milk and 10% coffee. I slowly worked the ratio down over time to something closer to 50-50. To this day I love instant coffee dissolved in a cup of hot milk, UHT or otherwise. I have yet to drink wine for breakfast.

In my college dorm room I used one of those portable immersion heaters to make instant coffee. I made it palatable by pouring in a large dollop of Carnation sweetened and condensed milk. What a rush. I finally broke that habit, though it took me decades. Now when I am home I drink only good coffee with raw cream in it. No sugar. However, when I travel, I find that I can’t stomach airline coffee or truck stop coffee without diluting it with lots of cream and sugar.

I went on a junior-year-abroad to the American University of Beirut in 1974-75. I found that the Eastern Mediterranean peoples are not big milk drinkers. I did, however, learn a wonderful breakfast treat from my Jordanian dorm roommate. He taught me how to pour yoghurt into a pillow case, add some salt, tie it to the shower head in the bath tub to let it drain and then unwrap it in the morning, put it on a shallow plate, carve out a little well and fill it with olive oil and then sprinkle zaatar over the whole thing. We would sit out on our dorm room balcony in the morning, drink tea or coffee and dip pita bread into our lebneh. It was a very refreshing breakfast.

I also spent a few years in Morocco carrying out dissertation research. My wife had our older son while we were living there. Fortunately, she was breastfeeding him, because it was the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Eastern Europe. We noticed in the months afterwards that the market in the city where we were staying was flooded with powdered infant formula, as well as canned and powdered milk products from Europe. Had they been contaminated and thus banned for consumption in Europe and so dumped on the markets in Africa?

Moroccans and North Africans in general are not big milk drinkers, except during Ramadan. Some dairies exist but production is low. Dairy cows imported from Europe invariably succumb to the heat or to various diseases. We did, however, live across the street from a “milk bar.” A deliveryman would come in from the country every couple of days with his wagon full of big, five-gallon milk containers. He would take one down and pour out the quantity requested by the milk barman. The milk barman would in turn fill up smaller containers brought to him by younger members of neighborhood households. The most amusing scene for me, the foreigner from an alcohol-soaked culture, was when, on a Saturday night, grown men would walk into the milk bar, order a big glass of leben, put one hand on the bar and then throw their heads back, drink the whole glass in one go, wipe their mouths clean and saunter out the door and into the awaiting night.

Today, I often have kefir and granola for breakfast. I’ve given up on milk and cereal. My wife is a kefir missionary. She talks up the ease of raising and maintaining the grains and then tries to give samples to anyone who shows the slightest interest. We are awash in kefir. We only eat it at breakfast time, though. If it doesn’t go on granola, it goes into the making of orange, banana and kefir smoothies. Delicious.

To feed her kefir, my wife signed us up for a herd-share CSA. I volunteered our carport as a drop-off spot. Now we only have to walk out the back door to get our raw milk. Life has come full circle. The cow lady, Aimee, and her partner milk about 5 cows on a rented farm 20 minutes outside of Corvallis. She often stops to talk when she makes the CSA drop-off. The other day she told me that they are confounded by their surplus of skim milk. They centrifuge off the cream in order to make butter, etc., but then don’t have good ways to market what’s left over. I volunteered to take three gallons off of her hands to see if I could find something to do with them. I made skim milk paneer, which turned out okay, but I hit a wall after that. I ended up cheating and just adding cream back into the other gallons to make kefir yogurt with one gallon and mozzarella and ricotta with the other.

When Aimee brought the three gallons, we got to talking about dairies along the coast. She said that the Tillamook Cheese Co. had grown enormously in the last decade. It had to stop increasing its herds around the town of Tillamook because the area had become too touristy and tourists didn’t want to smell cow shit while vacationing there and visiting the cheese factory. Instead, the company started buying milk from the mega dairies set up in Eastern Oregon along the Columbia River. “But that zone is practically a desert,” I said. “It couldn’t possibly produce hay for big numbers of cattle.”

“It doesn’t,” she said. “But it’s near a dam and so near a power plant and what they need more than hay is a source of cheap electricity.”

I wished I’d asked her why.

Ground zero for the mega dairies and milk factories is the small town of Boardman, Oregon. She said there are over a hundred thousand cows spread across a couple of operations in the vicinity. One of them, Lost Valley Farm, is being forced to close by the state of Oregon, because of its polluting practices. Is Tillamook still buying milk from them? Inquiring minds want to know.

I was thumbing through the latest issue of The Baffler at breakfast the other day. There on the back cover was a copy of an old Cold War propaganda poster that said “Milk…new weapon of democracy!” It showed a young girl smiling while she received countless glasses of milk pouring down from an American bomber. I thought it was pretty funny and would make a good present for Aimee, though I had no idea about its provenance. I googled the phrase and found that it dates from the 1948-49 siege of Berlin. The Americans launched the Berlin Airlift at that time in order to break the Soviet siege of the city. The poster was part of the propaganda created around the conflict.

Quite by accident my google search led me to the latest milk craze. Turns out that milk is the preferred drink of the goon squads of the alt-right. I was shocked, though I probably shouldn’t have been. Milk is “white,” which is their favorite color, and it is very common among Northern European cultures, where, I believe, the lactase enzyme is present in the gut well into adulthood. (Of course the alt-right ignores the fact that there are groups of people throughout Mongolia, East Africa and down into South Africa, inter alia, who also enjoy lactase persistence into adulthood. Most all of them are, or have been, associated with animal husbandry.) Both of those aspects make milk appealing to this new breed of lactose lushes. This latest “Got milk?” campaign was launched back in February of 2017 when the actor Shia LaBeouf opened an art exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC. The exhibit was a protest against the election of Donald Trump. A bunch of youthful, shirtless, pro-Nazi male demonstrators showed up at the opening to perform their own counter protest by stomping and yelling and…chugging milk from plastic quart bottles! Billy Bronson, a reporter covering the demo, put it succinctly: “Apparently, the white liquid that comes out of cows’ udders is the new, creamy symbol of white racial purity in Donald Trump’s America.”

As you can imagine, over the next year PETA had a field day with the connection between milk and “lactose tolerant racists.”

In the evening of my life as I look back, I am surprised to see that my existence was saturated in milk. How could I have missed the many different cultural connections I had made with different milk practices? Why had I never thought about the extraordinary number of forms milk takes as foodstuffs and as commodities and how it is interwoven with so many aspects of my personal life? How could I have been so blind to the politics of milk?

That last one really bugs me. Though I don’t have a milk cross to bear, I am surprised to feel affronted by the symbolic manipulation of a foodstuff that has formed such a central, if unconscious, part of me. That includes both moments of appropriation by forces on the left and the right. It is uncomfortable to admit that the American government’s manipulation of milk for Cold War propaganda purposes leaves me amused, but not outraged. The manipulation by the alt-right leaves a worse taste in my mouth. Why have I not even mentioned the worst of them all: Big Dairy and the national shame of milk overproduction? I still have blinders, apparently.

I am not a soldier in the battle against these kinds of symbolic appropriation; nor am I engaged in resistance to the dairy industry and its lobby. However, I think I know some who are: Aimee as a proud, self-exploited producer of milk, and my wife as a conscientious consumer working to enhance milk’s healthy characteristics both strike me as small, disgruntled producers and consumers united in their search for healthy alternatives to Big Dairy and its massive reach into every aspect of our everyday lives. I don’t want to get too Pollyanna-ish about this, but the tiny circles of raw milk producers and consumers struggling quietly around the country to keep alive a healthy, less exploitative milk tradition may be a likely ally in various attempts by middle-class consumers to leave behind the industrial milk marketplace via the creation of alternative forms of provisioning. And who knows, maybe in the process they can help neutralize the shady symbolic politics surrounding milk today?

 

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AAA Communities Coming Soon!

David Beriss

This is going to be a very quick note about two related things.

First, many SAFN members (and many members of the American Anthropological Association) have long been frustrated by the limitations of the listserv email system AAA sections use to communicate with members. I won’t go into the long list of problems (but one reason I am writing this here is because many of our members do not get the listerv emails). Rather, I want to point out that the AAA is rolling out a shiny new and very promising communications system that will combine email with a kind of social media platform. If it works well, it should solve a lot of our problems with the out-of-date listserv. If you are a current AAA member, you should look for email from the AAA in the next day or two outlining how the new Communities will work, how to log in, etc. The plan is to roll it out by March 1, which should give us the opportunity to use the new system to get organized for the 2019 AAA meetings.

Second, I was just looking at the AAA website and thinking about this new platform when I noticed that no less than two SAFN members have articles prominently featured on the Anthropology News front page. One is by Kerri Lesh, who writes about the anthropomorphizing of wine, starting with the Basque wines she studies, but raising interesting questions about the ways we talk about wine and place, about the dominance of French grape varieties in legitimizing wine tastes, about the problematic terms “New World” and “Old World,” and about Kansas mulberry wine.  The other is by Ashanté Reese, on what we bring to anthropology when we come from somewhere else (in disciplinary, political, ethnic, or other terms). It is not about food, but it is a good read, especially if you came to anthropology from another field (I came in from French Studies) looking for methods or theoretical frameworks, but not necessarily thinking about making anthropology the center of who you are as a scholar.

Go read the articles. Let us know about what you publish so we can write about it here and point readers in your direction. Be sure to especially let us know about things you write that are available to the public and not behind pay walls, because that is a great way to get people to read what you write. And if you are a AAA member, keep your eye on your email for announcements about the new communities in the next few days.

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CFP: Special Issue for Food, Culture, & Society on Food and World’s Fairs/Expositions

A call for papers that could be of particular interest to SAFN members and FoodAnthropology readers who study festivals, fairs, and other events. 

Call for Papers: Special Issue on Food at the Fair

Bonnie Miller

This special issue of Food, Culture & Society will examine how fairs and expositions – at local, regional, national, and international levels anytime from the nineteenth century to the present – reflect and shape perceptions of food production and consumption for mass audiences. It will consider the perspectives of fair organizers, publicists, exhibitors, concessionaires, restaurateurs, and consumers in constructing and experiencing the diversity of food cultures on the fairgrounds.  Articles might consider questions like: how did (or does) the exhibition of food reflect transformations in food manufacturing or production over time?  What impact did factors like audience, location, funding, or managerial oversight have on the exhibition of food?  What techniques did food exhibitors use to attract the attention of visitors and how did these techniques shape fairgoers’ experiences?  Were there any significant differences in the food experiences of local vs. international tourists or of visitors of different gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, etc.? How did food exhibits function to reinforce or challenge ideas about progress, technology, agriculture, industrialization, race, region, class, nationality, ethnicity, or gender? What was the relationship between corporate and government food messages at the fair? How did fair exhibits and concessions strive to shape perceptions of the palatability and edibility of foods from around the country or the world and were they successful? How did the concessions and amusement areas of fairs represent food in comparison to more formal exhibition halls?  How did physical space within exhibition halls or of the fairgrounds as a whole impact depictions of food at the fair and its potential appeal to consumers? How did expositions allow for a more diverse, multicultural food experience for fairgoers while also replicating stereotypical and ethnocentric conceptions of specific cuisines? In answering these questions, this special issue invites authors who might take a comparative approach to the study of fairs and expositions, crossing regional or national boundaries or considering fairs of varying audiences and historical periods.

This special issue welcomes papers that place the scholarship on food and on expositions in conversation in order to demonstrate the importance of these mass cultural events as sites where local, regional, national, and corporate food identities were simultaneously made and unmade.

Submitted articles are usually between 8000-9000 words (including all notes, references, etc.) and must not exceed 9000 words in total.

Special Issue Publication Schedule:

Essay abstracts due:  March 15, 2019

Notification of preliminary acceptance (pending peer review): April 1, 2019

Full drafts due: November 1, 2019

Peer review process (4-6 months to review, revise and review again): up through June 2020

Copyediting:  Early 2021

Published: Mid-2021 (April or June issue)

If you are interested in submitting a paper to the special issue, please send a 300-word abstract to guest editor, Bonnie M. Miller (bonnie.miller@umb.edu), by March 15, 2019.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, CFP, farmers market, festivals, food history

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 26, 2019

David Beriss

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

Let’s start with a cheery report that argues, as we often do here, that whatever you are doing to improve the planet is probably not enough. Sorry. In this article, from The New Republic, Emily Atkin looks into companies (Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce) who send out boxes of damaged produce directly to consumers, as an alternative to the produce being destroyed or left in the field. This seems like a great way to prevent waste in our food system, which is a huge problem. Atkin, drawing on her own research and on analyses from a few food activists, shows that these companies may not actually be helping. This is not a simple story, however, so read it before you drop your subscription to one of these services.

Apparently many citizens of rich countries are worried about getting enough protein. Which seems truly weird, given the amounts of meat people consume, but what do I know? In this article from the Guardian, Bee Wilson writes that “anxiety about protein is one of the things that drives a person to drink a flask of vitamin-padded beige slurry and call it lunch.” Gah! Seriously, however, Wilson’s article explores this situation from a lot of angles, from debates about faddish nutritionism, to the dietary needs of athletes, to people with protein obsessions, and even a strange store called Protein Haus. This could be a really useful article to spark a fad diet discussion in a class!

As something of a corrective to the above fad, the medical journal the Lancet has recently published an article that looks at food systems and healthy diets around the world. They note that “unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined.” Which is impressive. By the way, this article is a product of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, whose web site you should visit for a lot more interesting content of this sort.

The debate about cultural appropriation and food has been raging for a long time now, on multiple fronts, at least in the U.S. In this intriguing blog posting, food historian Ken Albala raises some questions about the relationship between ancestry and the right to cook particular foods. If you are keeping a list of relevant public debate pieces on this topic, then this is another one to include. The big question, which is not addressed here, is what the debates about food and cultural appropriation are actually about. Probably not food, really.

But wait, there is more. Writing in Eater, Sara Kay draws on her studies of thousands of Yelp reviews to argue that those who comment on the authenticity of restaurants are often writing in support of white supremacy. She writes that “the word ‘authentic’ in food reviews supports white supremacism, and Yelp reviews prove it.” She is pointing to a wide range of expectations that focus mostly on restaurants associated with immigrants or with specific ethnicities (Mexican, Chinese, other Asian cuisines), that build on stereotypes about food and people and that reinforce a kind of casual racism. She is also pointing to a hierarchy of cuisines (with Euro cuisines at the top) that reflects U.S. social structure. This is an important observation and worth making. However, I wonder if the term “white supremacy” is what we should be using to describe this. I admit to having used it myself to describe the massive system that has kept structural racism in place in the U.S. for centuries. But in a moment in our history when the far right—people who explicitly call for and support white supremacy—is resurgent, perhaps we want to be more careful. It is one thing to call attention to and even denounce structural racism (the hierarchy of cuisines) and those who support it (perhaps these Yelp reviewers), it is quite another to associate those reviewers with the people who marched in Charlottesville. Unless you believe that the only ideological positions possible are “woke anti-racist” and “Nazi,” maybe we should use slightly more nuanced language.

Or perhaps invoking white supremacy requires building a more detailed argument. Writing in Civil Eats, Megan Horst looks into the reasons why farmers of color seem dramatically underrepresented in agriculture today. She explores the history of farming and land access in the U.S., discusses policies supporting different kinds of farming, notes the history of slavery and other forms of exploitation, and puts this into the broader context of the challenges faced by farmers today. Horst considers all of the history and policies together to form a kind of actually-existing white supremacy, which seems distinct from the far-right ideologues in the media of late. Perhaps juxtaposing these two uses of the concept would generate an interesting debate.

Returning, briefly, to those Yelp reviews: the stereotypes that associate the foods of certain non-European groups with both cheapness and a problematic “authenticity” have been the object of a lot of criticism recently. In scholarly work, Krishnendu Ray’s writing has contributed significantly to focusing the debate. Diep Tran’s piece on NPR raised the question of cheapness in 2017. And this has had an impact, I think, on the discourse about food. In the Washington Post, food writer Tim Carman has recently announced that he is dropping the title (“the $20 diner”) because it does a disservice to the restaurants he writes about.

Switching topics: Airport food is generally awful. It helps, when traveling (at least in the U.S.) to have low expectations. I don’t know if Tortas Frontera, a chain of restaurants owned by Rick Bayless, located mostly in O’Hare Airport in Chicago, is any good, but the story of the pork they use is itself quite interesting. Writing for Fooditor, Michael Gebert describes the steps that turn pig into sandwich, most of which occur on a farm owned by Greg Gunthorp, in Indiana. This is not only farm-to-table airport food, but also a very inspiring story of challenging the industrial food system. Maybe the story makes the food taste better too. Let us know if you happen to go through O’Hare and try it.

We toss around theories of race, class, and gender in the social sciences and often forget, I think, that non-academics do not think about these things in the same way. Take, for instance, this very odd yet alluring article on Waffle House “rockstar” short order cooks. The author, Theodore Ross, appears to be an experienced, thoughtful, veteran journalist and, also, a white guy (he says so in the article). The article is a meditation, often laced with pop psychology references, about masculinity, race, and class, all while observing and talking about (and somewhat with) Waffle House short order cooks in Atlanta. Ross really does not understand academic discussions of gender, as this quote demonstrates: “Yet men do exist — or they don’t, and masculinity is “socially constructed,” as is more generally thought these days, which is likely true but has no bearing on the embedded concepts about manliness that sway my perceptions — and these ideas about ourselves exist, if not intellectually then emotionally.” Ross may have some insights into the contradictory nature of work in places like Waffle House. Students could have great fun critiquing this piece, I think. Also, if Mr. Ross should read this: yes, the “embedded concepts about manliness” you refer to are socially constructed and that does in fact matter for your analysis. Socially constructed is not the opposite of real. Trust me on this.

Let’s finish this opinionated digest with a drink. If you have been to Louisiana, you may have been astonished by the garish neon slushy drinks available all over Bourbon Street, as well as the drive-through versions of the same that we have elsewhere in the state. My late lamented colleague, historian Michael Mizell-Nelson, wrote a rather amusing history of these drinks, which may have been invented at the Wilmart (that is not a typo) Liquor Store in Ruston, Louisiana, which is closer to Arkansas then to New Orleans. The complete story of this invention, which Mizell-Nelson (a Louisiana native) referred to as an example of “the less well-documented genius of Louisiana” will amuse and delight you, probably more than the drinks themselves. You can read the first part here and the second one here. I recommend drinking something else, maybe a Sazerac, after you are done.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, food history, gender, racism