What Else Ho Reha Hai? Reflections On My Fieldwork Website

Several of us here at the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition recently had the pleasure of reviewing submissions for our annual Christine Wilson Award. Winners have been selected and will be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. It is common to say all the submissions were great, but, in fact, they were and we want to call attention to that fact by publishing abstracts of all submissions. This is the second abstract from the competition we are posting (the first one is here). This one comes from Abby Golub and reflects on fieldwork in a bakery in Belgium. One of the more striking features of this particular research is the use of various kinds of media, from a blog to videos. There is a link to some of that below.

What Else Ho Reha Hai? Reflections on my Fieldwork Website

Abby Golub
KU Leuven

This paper analyses the effectiveness of a website to display and develop fieldwork about a bakery. As it stands, the website was published before the bakery declared bankruptcy, and conveniently avoids mention of conflicts with the boss, making mistakes, hierarchy, gender, and how the bread is pleasant to make but not my favorite to eat. Despite these omissions, the website serves as a celebration of friendship and optimism. It accurately portrays my daily experience in the privileged position of an international, part-time student-worker and anthropologist. Videos of the baking process couched within a recipe immerse viewers in virtual field notes. Analytic entries explain the significance of language and timing in the bakery. The name of the website itself, “Pistolet Baking Ho Reha Hai,” means “Pistolet Baking is Happening,” and was inspired by my colleague’s singing. This name demonstrates the use of primarily Hindi grammar mixed with the English word “baking” and French word “Pistolet” applied in a Flemish context, here meaning “bread roll.” To facilitate daily communication, bakers often repeated ideas and instruction in different languages or in singing voice. This language use, friendly interaction, and learning appear front and center in the videos. Ideally the website will launch further sharing and reflection on diverse work experiences.

Please enjoy, and email me or comment directly if you have input or questions at this web site.

Author engaged in participant observation (Photo by Jeet Sherpa)

Dreamworlds of the Store-Bought Loaf

guest post by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, as part of his White Bread Blog tour!

“And which side does an object turn toward dreams?…It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims.” —Walter Benjamin, “Dream Kitsch

 Walk through the fluorescent arcades of a Safeway or Kroger’s and pick out a loaf of sliced white bread.  It is a fossil—the chemically preserved remnant of lost utopias and unrealized apocalypses. This is not to say that all the other breads—the six grains, the twelve grains, the Vienna hearths, the sprouted oats, and store-brand baguettes—reflect progress toward more enlightened eating.  They don’t, necessarily.  Nor is it to suggest that people don’t make new meanings out of industrial white bread.  They do.  What is lost is the shining aura that once surrounded this loaf.

“One for every family…every day,” c. 1955

If you look hard enough, though, you can still see material traces—in the loaf’s shape, structure, and contents—of a time when people in the United States got more calories from this one item than any other food; a time when the perfect, homogenous slice of spectacularly white bread embodied dreams of a stronger nation, vigorous health, and social status—alongside nightmares of “over-civilization” and moral decline.

“Science finds that white bread helps develop criminals,” 1929

I wrote a history of America’s most iconic industrial food because I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity.
The result—White Bread—is a book about one commodity that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements.  But it is not another story of how one food “saved the world.”  Rather, it’s a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world—or at least restore the country’s moral, physical, and social fabric.  Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion—even when they achieved much needed improvements in America’s food system.

Anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthy food today will find the trials and tribulations of one hundred-fifty years of battles over bread surprisingly contemporary.  In them, you will see all the contradictory expressions of our own food concerns: uplifting visions of the connection between good food and healthy communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, great generosity of spirit, and earnest desires to make the world a better place—but also rampant elitism, smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as “good food,” and open discrimination against people who choose “bad food.”

Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic, and health food reformers as you can get today.  But, in many ways, we owe its very existence and deep cultural significance to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate.  Perhaps learning this history can help us avoid the pitfalls of the past.

“I want to know where my bread comes from!” 1929

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon 2012) and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas (Duke 2007).  His writing on the cultural politics of food has also appeared in Gastronomica, The Believer, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review.