Tag Archives: COVID-19

Pandemic Ruminations

Pamela Runestad
Allegheny College

Now that courses have come to an end, I’ve had time to breathe a little. I have been able to mourn some of the events that won’t happen – activities I was looking forward to: research in Japan, presentations in Italy, a friend’s wedding in Hawai`i, and presenting at ASFS for the first time.

But my mind has also been occupied by someone who I did get to mourn (I say, as though the process is over), my maternal grandma. Grandma Wanda turned 90 in November. I missed her party because November is the Month of Academic Hell for me: the end of term (with progressively less light), travel for AAA, juggling kids with my husband who attends AAR, and hosting Thanksgiving. I mean, I love hosting Thanksgiving because we usually do nothing but cook and eat and watch TV, and that is what my extended family likes best about holidays. It is the saving sustenance (literal and figurative) that I gulp down as we head into finals. Anyway, I was able to spend a couple days with my grandma over the summer, so I didn’t feel bad doing my typical, crazy November Plan. We had had lunch at her assisted living home in July, and she watched my daughters color. She was disappointed the servers ran out of “pink fluff” before they reached our table (I’m guessing it’s some Jell-O whipped topping concoction). The kids were thrilled when she handed them grape popsicles from her freezer in return for their art – it’s the thing my 6-year-old remembers most.

Backing out of the garage on our way to my in-laws’ on December 22, my mom called to tell me that Grandma had suffered a fall and sustained several broken ribs. We made it to see her on December 27, and she was surprisingly lucid: she called me by name when I walked into her room, even though she wasn’t wearing her glasses or hearing aids (and has 6 granddaughters). My cousin Blake fed her some of her meals, and she talked to him, too. But then she rapidly deteriorated, and was gone the first week of January. The following week, we could do what most families now cannot: we had a visitation, funeral, and burial. We ate and drank together. A lot.

My grandparents went to the same church for decades. My parents were married there, and my brother was baptized there. These occasions are often followed by lunches or receptions: ham or turkey sandwiches, midwestern salads, potato chips. All manner of cake. Coffee and maybe Crystal Light or punch if the kids are lucky. After the services, I sat down with my parents, brother, and uncle, and we were joined by my dad’s college friends. In a lull in the conversation while everyone was eating their cake, I noted, “I think we all sat at this same table when Grandpa died,” and there was some soft laughter as they agreed.

I have had the strange privilege of writing the obituaries for the three of my four grandparents that I knew in life. To me, it is a task that almost no one wants to do, but for which anthropologists are well-suited. What details do you include so that you can paint a meaningful snapshot of someone’s life? How do you weave together the family fabric of those left behind when there are purposeful severings like divorce, or untimely losses of those who should be mourners, but preceded the deceased in death? Kinship is complicated. But participant observation and the creation of narrative served me well, and I found myself describing the place where we all spent time with my grandparents – the kitchen table.

Here are some things I didn’t write there. My maternal grandparents were both good cooks, but Grandpa more so. Grandma was the baker, really. They were both gracious hosts. In their “country house” where they lived for some 40 years, the kitchen faced the gravel road, and Grandpa was an expert at identifying just whose car was bombing down the lane, and whether they were planning to swing into the driveway for coffee or a beer. They had visitors almost daily and they loved it. Grandpa’s place at the head of the table was easy rolling distance to the fridge, and by the time you made your way into the house (the door was never locked) and up the stairs, he’d have a spread laid out for you. If it was coffee hour, there was probably a plate of cookies or some pie or a big bowl of cut melon (if it were summer). If it was beer o’clock, we all knew to go down to the basement and retrieve a couple of beers (or sodas) before coming all the way up. There would probably be crackers and cheese, maybe some sliced roast beef or pork, or maybe some sliced salami. If you stayed longer, you might be lucky and get what my grandparents called “Shipwreck Casserole” and veggies from the garden. Or you might be put to work canning tomatoes or making pickles or picking green beans by the 5-gallon bucket. It was at that kitchen table that I’d sobbed for what seemed like hours, unable to talk, with the passing of my paternal grandmother years before. Grandpa had poured me a glass of milk mixed with Kahlua and slid it across the table like an all-knowing bartender and my grandma Wanda put out a plate of her cookies. But it was also the table where I had countless weekend dinners while my laundry dried, ate my college graduation dinner, and devoured quick meals before my wedding. I don’t know how many holiday meals I ate at that table, or how many dishes I washed. I remember thinking many times over the years that it was strange to have carpet in the kitchen, but even when the 70s pattern wore out, they replaced it with carpet again. I suppose it was warmer on their feet in the winter than the alternatives.

I sometimes wonder who else thinks of that table these days.

Grandma Wanda’s funeral was the first week of classes, so I had to explain to my students why I wasn’t there. One of my courses was a writing and speaking course that aims to teach our first years about genre and audience. I told those students about writing the obituary because… well, I suppose because it was on my mind and I couldn’t help it. But also because it was a good example of having to use your writing skills for tasks that you might not imagine otherwise while taking a writing course. Later in the term, after they had shared some of their writing with me, I read them a reflection piece I’d written about driving around town with Grandma Wanda as a kid. It was the details that they noticed and liked – and I used their comments to remind them to pay attention in structured ways. To use their senses. To take notes. To find good words to describe what they saw, smelled, touched, heard, felt. To plot out their writing plan. To put ideas and descriptions together in ways that other people would want to hear about them. They didn’t disappoint: when we talked about kitchens later in the term (and I stayed mostly silent this time), we heard all about recipes, kitchen tools, the smells of baked goods, and what it felt like to help in the kitchen. And then we talked about my favorite four, something I come back to once a week: race, gender, class, and ethnicity. This time, we talked about how these all play a part in how we gather, prepare, and share (or don’t share) food. We had a special treat at the end of this unit: special guest Michael Twitty lead a discussion about writing, speaking, cooking, and identity.

I basically prepped them to take my course in Ethnographic Methods while at the same time teaching them how to develop their voices as writers, how to choose your voice based on genre and audience, and how and when to cite.

A digression: I’m an anthropologist who specializes in East Asia at an institution that has neither an Anthropology Department nor an Asian Studies Major/Minor. I teach in Global Health, and was hired to teach Ethnographic Methods (among other things). I am cross-trained in medical and nutritional anthropology and much of my research is on HIV in Japan, but I chose to teach Ethnographic Methods as a food course and as an Asian Studies course because it was a way to talk about two things that I love and I wanted the students to love, too – and this way, they fit into our curriculum. I also just find it a really useful way to talk about race, ethnicity, gender, and class – through the 5s’s of food: sociality, safety, (in)security, sovereignty, and sustainability. Because there are other food courses on campus, different methods courses in my department, and various people on campus teaching other aspects of ethnographic methods, I do my best to teach participant observation, field notes to narrative, and how to craft questions.

So where does this leave me (us?) in a pandemic, when we’re faced with the worst versions of humanity that we teach about? We all mourning something, grieving for someone, raging about something. Chronic stress comes from many things:  pushing back against structural violence of state-by-state laws and who is protected and who is not – and the racist, classist assumptions inherent in those policies and how they are or are not enforced; trying to provide food, water, shelter and safety under increasingly difficult economic circumstances;  pushing back against gendered norms of cooking and childcare and professional labor under lockdown; pushing back against conspiracy theories and blatant systemic racism. And there is much, much more. This is just scratching the surface. It is easy to wonder, as a teacher-scholar, what good I’m doing when I see such suffering? Some days I have a hard time thinking and I retreat to my office to clean and organize, because it’s the one thing I can do that will still help me later and doesn’t require much brainpower. I’m also teaching my older daughter to cook and bake. Even with a desk upstairs, I write best in the kitchen. This place, and the things I make and teach here, bring me comfort when a lot is beyond my control. I know I’m privileged to be able to do these things. I hang on tight to them so that I can use my energy to help others find places of comfort, too.

Yesterday, I came across a really old manila file in my home office as I was cleaning. It was marked “Comprehensive Exam Answers” but clearly there were a lot of other papers crammed into it. I dumped it out on the floor to see what I’d hoarded away. Among the papers (and yes, my comps answers) I found a couple of documents that I was given in the first ever graduate course I took. One of them was a set of directions for how to read academic articles. I read it over and realized: I’ve been telling my undergrads to do the same things that I was taught many years ago, without really thinking about where I learned these strategies. (Thank you, Heather Young-Leslie.)

And then my thoughts drifted to a student I had in Ethnographic Methods in fall and Medical Anthropology of East Asia this spring. My goals for the latter were to help students learn about the region, while also learning how anthropologists collect, interpret, and write up their data by reading and discussing 3 book-length ethnographies on health. Students usually co-create the final essay prompt for this course, but this year I just gave it to them: Read Laura Gao’s “The Wuhan That I Know” (a series of illustrations that includes a discussion of dishes from Wuhan). Using the terms we’ve discussed in class, write an essay about how learning about East Asia has made you better able to understand COVID-19.

My student proceeded to write a beautiful essay on food, ethnicity, and discrimination – despite facing many of the challenges we know that the pandemic and subsequent remote teaching and learning poses.

This is not to take credit for his work. He is a brilliant student, and it has been my privilege to work with him. His essay is also one data point, and teaching is only one piece of my fight against All The Unjust Things. But finding these old files and thinking about my student’s work reminded me that food matters, if not always in the ways we predict.

I suppose I have my grandparents (and everyone else who visited them), their kitchen, and the food I experienced there to thank for first teaching me that; my instructors and colleagues for helping me be methodical about my processing; and my students for being so willing to partake in learning as a truly shared endeavor – even during a pandemic.

**

Thank you to David Beriss and SAFN for supporting blog publication of this piece. I was originally slated to give a talk on teaching ethnographic methods as a food course at the Umbra Institute in June. This is rather changed from what I was going to say, but I hope readers find something useful in it. Again, many thanks.

I would like to dedicate this post to my writing group members: Robin Kempf, Amy Nichols-Belo, Debra Thompson, Arielle Selya, and Kirsten Wesselhoeft, with special thanks to Michaela DeSoucey for reading a draft version.

The Wuhan That I Know: https://www.lauragao.com/wuhan

Pamela Runestad is an Assistant Professor of Global Health, Allegheny College.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies, Pandemic

“La gente tiene que comer”: Food and COVID-19

Lisa Grabinsky
Oregon State University

“La gente tiene que comer.” (“People have to eat”), my mother replied when I decided to study Nutrition and Food Science, believing that such a career was going to result in a well-paid job offer once I graduated from college, especially in Mexico —a country whose population has grappled with metabolic illness for nearly 30 years, but also whose cuisine is considered Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2010). When I began looking for employment during my last semester, however, I was confronted with the reality: only a small number of dietitians are able to secure the steady and well-compensated job I envisioned for myself at the tender age of 18. The rest will most likely have to set up private practices—a service that the general population associates more with unattainable beauty standards than with long-term health and wellbeing. In addition, a traumatic event during my first-ever experience within a hospital left me dreading working in one; this significantly reduced my options either to private consultation or to institutional food services. In the latter, I would have had to harshly enforce company policies against kitchen employees “stealing” food, even if their reason to do so was an exploitative salary that made them unable to feed themselves and their families. I learned from this job hunting experience the sad truth: the hard work of insuring that all people have access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food —a most basic human need— is almost worthless within the Mexican economy.

live from agriculture

Image 1 Facebook post stating: “Have you realized yet that we do not live from mining but from agriculture?”

Fast-forward to April 5th, 2020. I am browsing through my social media and navigating the waves of COVID-19 news —fake, veracious, and questionable—, and I stumble upon a post a friend and fellow Food Studies scholar shared (Image 1). In the image, the statement “Have you realized yet that we do not live from mining but from agriculture?” is displayed in all caps, along with pictures of the fresh produce one fortunately can still easily find in grocery stores here in Corvallis, Oregon (USA), where I have been living for the past two years while I obtain my Master’s Degree in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds and governments worldwide issue orders of social distancing and staying at home, concerns in regards to food supply arise, along with images of panic buying that have left grocery store shelves completely empty. A dear friend living in a village in Italy —where stone-built houses from the 13th century stood strong and tall through two World Wars— describes these images as evidence for “a war without bombs”.

Since —as my mother wisely says—people have to eat not only to keep a strong immune system in these times of epidemiological emergency, but also for physiological need, those working at any point of the food production and supply chain are now deemed as “essential workers”:

  • The farmworkers —whether international or national immigrants— who endure long hours of hard work in the fields for barely livable salaries and little-to-no access to social services;
  • Chefs and food servers currently struggling to keep their businesses afloat with take-out curbside pickup and delivery options;
  • Store clerks constantly re-stocking shelves, cleaning, and sanitizing, while also maintaining a friendly attitude towards the customers; and
  • Many other intermediaries that are vital for families all over the world to have nutritious food on the table.
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Image 2 Breakfast omelet with vegetables from a local organic farm that employs immigrant farmworkers (photo by the author)

 

This status of “essential workers” issued to people working in the food production system, however, adds an enormous amount of pressure, for they must now work double or triple to keep up with the increased food demand that panic buying has caused. In the process, their contagion risk grows. Becoming “essential workers” in the eyes of the public —even though they always have been so because, again, la gente tiene que comer— does not necessarily translate into better, or even decent, working conditions. Half of all recently declared “essential” farmworkers in the US are undocumented, which makes them still ineligible for almost all public benefits (Bacon 2020), such as Medicaid and SNAP or WIC benefits. In this small college town in Oregon where I sit to write this (around 60,000 people), I have already signed three hazard pay and safety precautions petitions for employees working at different local grocery stores.

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Image 3 Oat flour, roasted peanut brownies (recipe and photo by author)

At the end of one of my classes in a course called Advanced Medical Anthropology, Dr. Melissa Cheyney asked us what a possible silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic might be. I replied that it made me hopeful observing on social media that as people are encouraged to stay home, they are starting to cook more and more elaborated recipes, either as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, and/or boredom or as an effort to comply with the WHO’s “eat healthy” recommendation to protect their health from COVID-19. I myself have uploaded a few pictures to my Instagram stories of new foods and dishes I have recently experimented with, particularly baked goods. My anxiety and feelings of isolation and loneliness have made me crave certain comfort foods that I cannot simply go out to purchase at a store. I even tend to accompany each picture with the phrase: “Keeping sanity through cooking”.

People are finally realizing the importance of food in their lives, as well as just how hard “essential workers” must labor to make our eating possible. A friend from high school and her partner had been complying with the “stay at home” order when they decided to make quesadillas de chicharrón prensado from scratch. From the preparation of the Guajillo chili pepper salsa to their improvised tortilla press using two plates with which they shaped the masa, my friend documented the whole process and shared it as Instagram stories, which I thoroughly enjoyed going through. However, what stayed with me as food for thought (no pun intended) was her final story —a message in which she acknowledged the amount of time and effort that just went into cooking foods that we Mexican urbanites so often take for granted when we unthinkingly purchase inexpensive antojitos from female street vendors, whose own diets depend greatly on their daily earnings. At this very moment, these women cannot afford to take a single day off to stay at home, let alone consider a prolonged quarantine.

I feel optimistic seeing people in their kitchens re-connecting with their own food and building community around it, from young professionals in Mexico City currently engaging in home-office, to celebrities, such as comedian Iliza Schlesinger with partner chef Noah Galuten. These two in particular are doing “#DontPanicPantry”— a series of live cooking tutorials in which the couple prepares a variety of nurturing dishes using pantry staples present in most US homes. They even hosted a virtual Passover Seder, which —as an Ashkenazi Jew celebrating Passover alone for the first time— I appreciated greatly.

I have also seen people back home in Mexico City going beyond just cooking food and starting to grow their own, whether they live in a house with a garden or in a small apartment with nothing more than perhaps a small balcony where they can place a couple of pots. People in both Mexico and the US are supporting local businesses by ordering food and sharing pictures of it, making sure to refer viewers to said business’ accounts through their social media handles. Others have begun to seek out and enroll in CSA programs with local farms. The Central de Abasto in Mexico City —considered the biggest market in the world—will not only continue operating, but has also implemented a delivery service. Here in Corvallis, university-based institutions at OSU —specifically the Coalition of Graduate Employees and the Human Services Resource Center— have established mutual aid services for “all students and community members regardless of their citizenship status (Hurtado Moreno 2020)”; food assistance is one of their major pillars.

“La gente tiene que comer”, my mother says. People have to eat indeed, but we needed a major life-disruptor like COVID-19 to open our eyes to the incredible amount of human work that goes into producing, distributing, and cooking food in order to be able to do so— pandemic or not.  This experience has enabled us to see how fragile the current global food production system can be. As the situation unfolds, my hope is that more people will realize this and truly value these “always-essential workers”, advocate for the rights and wellbeing of the most vulnerable, and continue taking actions towards food sovereignty that have already been set in motion through these and other acts of solidarity we are all witnessing virtually.

References:

Bacon, David. 2020. “America’s Farmworkers—Now ‘Essential,’ but Denied the Just-Enacted Benefits.” The American Prospect.

Hurtado Moreno, Argenis. 2020. “El Virus: A Contagion of Racism & How Networks of Care Can Stop It.” Somatosphere.

UNESCO. 2010. “Traditional Mexican Cuisine.” Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Lisa Grabinsky is a Mexican Fulbright Scholar in her second year of the Applied Anthropology MA program at Oregon State University, minoring in Food in Culture and Social Justice.

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Filed under anthropology, food security, food sovereignty, Mexico