Tag Archives: ethnic food

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, July 3, 2017

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.

Several weeks ago, we posted a link here to a New York Times op-ed by Bonnie Tsui that explored the strange case of “Asian Salad” on restaurant menus as part of a broader reflection on food and racism. It is perhaps not surprising that Tsui’s article generated quite a lot of commentary around the food world, especially the American food world. One of the more interesting set of commentaries on both Tsui’s piece and on the reactions to it can be found here, in a set of brief notes by Tsui, Shakirah Simley, Stephen Satterfield, Dakota Kim, and Tunde Wey. Along with the original salad editorial, this could be a great framework for a discussion in any number of classes.

The acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon has been the talk of the food world since it was announced a few weeks ago. What it may mean for the American food system, for food activists, for the food movement, is hard to determine, but there is no shortage of opinions. For instance, over at Slate, Joshua Clark Davis argues that it signals the demise of Whole Foods’ ability to be seen as a company with a somewhat different approach to capitalism. Derek Thompson analyzes the purchase as a business strategy in the Atlantic. On the NPR food blog, Mollie Simon examines small business owners who work with Whole Foods and finds their reactions surprisingly positive. And in the National Review, Henry I. Miller and Jeff Stier examine the purchase by raising some harsh questions about Whole Foods’ business model and ideology.

Soon after the 2010 BP oil spew in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the food critics here in New Orleans mused that seafood from the Gulf, long central to the local cuisine, would return to normal within a year. In this instance, he defined “normal” by saying that the seafood would not have any more oil in it than it did before the spill. A recent investigative article by Michael Isaac Stein, in the Lens, revealed what may be a very disturbing truth behind that comment (one probably not known by the critic, I should add): a surprisingly large number of the oyster leases off the coast of Louisiana are actually owned by oil and gas companies. The companies buy the leases in order to prevent lawsuits from oystermen from damage created by oil and gas exploration. Oil in seafood indeed…

There are a lot of different ways to try to capture a sense of place through food. Over at “First We Feast” there is a new series of food videos, Food Grails, devoted to exploring the “flavor” of different cities through iconic and somewhat less-well-known foods. These are variations on the kind of food television pioneered by Anthony Bourdain, with a focus on communities not often seen on more mainstream food networks. Miss Info (aka Minya Oh) is the presenter for each of the episodes, which explore Vietnamese Po’boys in New Orleans, mumbo sauce in Washington D.C., Jamaican beef patties in New York, and African-American tacos in South Los Angeles.

The Culinary Historians of New York have a journal and that journal has a new issue. You can read it here. Articles by/about Joy Santlofer, Paul Freedman, Charity Robey, and Kian Lam Kho, along with a list of (and links to) recent books by members of the association.

The most recent issue of Practicing Anthropology (volume 39, number 3, summer 2017) features research in applied anthropology from graduate students at the University of Maryland. Two of the articles should be of particular interest to our readers. First, Amber Cohen, Noel Lopez, and Katie Geddes reflect on subsistence fishing in rivers in the Washington, D.C., area. Second, Ashley Dam looks at the ways in which elementary school children in Maryland engage with federal nutrition education guidelines. In both of these cases, ethnographic research is used to make the case for particular kinds of social policies. These are both great examples of the kind of research we should be showing people when they want to know whether or not the anthropology of food and nutrition can be useful.

Want to buy domestic fruits and vegetables in the United States? There are farmers who grow such things, but they need workers to do that and for a long time many of those workers have been immigrants. As Tom Philpott has documented in Mother Jones, the Trump administration crackdown on undocumented workers has resulted in crops rotting in the fields. You can still get produce…it just has to be imported from Mexico.

Meanwhile, the fight for a livable minimum wage continues. Apparently one recent study seemed to suggest that raising the wage to $15 per hour actually hurt workers. But a review of a wider variety of studies by Michelle Chen at the Nation suggests that raising the minimum wage is particularly beneficial for workers in the restaurant industry. In addition, Michael Reich and Jesse Rothstein provide a very useful overview of some of the arguments and data in this debate here.

There seems to be a lot of industry interest in innovations in the food world. This may be a way of looking like a good corporate citizen or it might be about finding new products and new markets (or both). Certainly, the broad discourse around innovation, entrepreneurship, social marketing, disrupters, and all that is enough to make one wonder if companies are doing good or just trying to look good (refer back to the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon for an example of all of this). So it is with caution that we offer this link to an effort by Swedish furniture giant Ikea to help support startup businesses. They are looking for business ideas that will “challenge known truths in a world of ideas and technology.” Among the big thematic areas they want to disrupt: sustainability and food innovation. Got an idea? They might have resources for you.

You are going to want to wash your hands after you read this. It is a piece by Wayne Roberts, on Medium, about the effectiveness of soap and cool water washing of hands for food safety. But more than that, it is about the meaning people often bring to putting hands on food, in preparation as well as in eating. And it is an argument for thinking about food production as practice. Now, go wash your hands.

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

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, March 7, 2017

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.

Here in New Orleans, we have just finished the Carnival season and have entered into the austere period of Lent. But in the rest of the United States, people are apparently still struggling to sort out the difference between serious stuff and the Carnivalesque. Witness, first, this very serious New York Times column by Frank Bruni, which asserts that people should stop criticizing President Trump’s desire for well-done steak with ketchup. In case you think that Bruni is desperate for something to write about, it seems that concerns over the President’s steak are part of a broader cultural critique, as this article by the editor of Eater.com makes clear. I wonder if we could interest President Trump in some Gulf seafood instead of steak, at least until Easter.

Of course, at FoodAnthropology we are in no position to criticize anyone who takes food seriously. Yet we do have to wonder what we might be missing while thinking about President Trump’s well-done steak and ketchup. For instance, there is this article, by Brian Barth, that looks into the deeper ambiguities of farm labor in the United States. Why is food cheap? One major factor is that food is grown, harvested, and processed by poorly paid and deeply exploited workers. Many of them are the undocumented migrants the new administration wants to deport. Certainly, the plan to deport people seems unjust, but as this article suggests, questions of justice—about wages, working conditions, and more—are far deeper than debates about immigration status would suggest (as we have noted before here on the blog, of course).

The most recent episode of Evan Kleiman’s KCRW radio program “Good Food” is devoted to immigration issues across the food industry, including immigrant restaurants, slaughterhouses, farms, farmers markets, and more. And there are points of view from across the political spectrum as well. Get your students to listen and start a discussion.

In the context of a new administration that wants to emphasize building and buying American, should we reevaluate the food movement’s obsession with the local? Read, for instance, this fascinating article about efforts to make the food provided on University of California campuses sustainable. In this version, “sustainability” is apparently defined by being produced in California. There is quite a lot of food produced in that state, but some things, like coffee, are generally not grown there. Is it more “sustainable” to find a way to grow coffee in California? Or are there arguments for some kinds of globalization worth considering?

Where you get seated in a restaurant matters. Ruth Reichl noted this in her famous review of Le Cirque in 1993, when her experience of dining in disguise and dining as the New York Times food critic led to rather different experiences. But the politics of the dining room can be complicated by any number of factors, including race and gender, and not only in the most famous fine dining establishments. Read, for instance, this brief, but ethnographically detailed piece by Osayi Endolyn on her experiences as a hostess in various restaurants. You will never look at restaurant dining rooms innocently again.

After the recent elections, many pundits suggested that the Democrats paid insufficient attention to suffering in rural America. This dovetails with many of the critiques leveled by food activists in recent years, who argue that failing to pay attention to who produces our food—and in what kind of conditions—is a major problem. This critique is also shared by James Rebanks, an English sheep farmer, who has traveled through rural America and suggests that the industrialized model of farming is problematic at many levels. His critique is similar to the analyses documented by Susan Carol Rogers in her article about the relationship between French agriculture and the French nation.

On a related note, there are also presidential elections in France, coming up in just a few weeks. In an obligatory effort to avoid being accused of neglecting rural France, the candidates make a point of showing up for the enormous agricultural exposition in Paris. This article from NPR examines the thinking of French farmers on the upcoming election…and if you read the Rogers article we cite above, this whole thing makes complete sense.

France is often the example we turn to when we want to point out a country that has not abandoned all the good things—meat, dairy, bread—in favor of one or another fad diet. Indeed, according to one study, only 37% of French people exclude some item (like meat or gluten) from their diet, compared to 64% of people worldwide (44% in Europe, 50% in North America, 84% in Africa and the Middle East). But this is changing, according to this fascinating article from Le Monde (which is where the statistics come from). It seems that the “individualization” of the French diet has led to all manner of interesting changes in what people will eat. Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this article is the fact that it never addresses religion, which is what probably motivates most people around the world to avoid particular foods and an area that has been especially fraught in France in recent years. This could be a great article for discussion with your students, but it is in French.

And while we are on the topic of fad diets, food scholar Emily Contois has recently published an article about food blogs that strive to create new ideas about nutrition, related to gender, class, and ethnicity. And food porn. She has written an extended description of the article on her blog, which you should read.

Here is a nice little piece by Amanda Yee on the African-American shoe box lunch. These were lunches packed for African-Americans traveling across the U.S. prior to the Civil Rights Act, when segregation meant that dining opportunities were rare. Nicely written, with a few good photos too.

It is fitting that we end this week more or less where we started, with some musings on the literary fate of restaurant criticism, by Navneet Alang. Alang riffs off of the work of Elijah Quashie, aka the Chicken Connoisseur, a London-based critic of fast-food fried chicken shops in the UK. Quashie’s reviews, which are available on YouTube, are wonderful in and of themselves, but for Alang, they represent a pivotal moment in the history of restaurant criticism. The tension between snobby elitism and populist fried chicken echoes certain themes in recent UK and US politics. Enjoy.

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Interrogating the “Authentic” Local Ethnic Restaurant

M. Ruth Dike
University of Kentucky

I moved to Lexington, KY last August to start a PhD program in Cultural Anthropology. After a few months, I decided to ask my fellow graduate student Daniel, who grew up in Cholula near Mexico City, about where I could find “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington. I wanted to know because I thought it would be nice to take my fiancé, Mario (who grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico until moving to the US in the 4th grade), to a restaurant that could remind him vaguely of his mother’s cooking (however futile that may be). Daniel obliged and even drew me a map of “Mexington” (no joke, that’s what Lexington calls it) with three “authentic” restaurants on it.

It was awesome that Daniel was so willing to show me places of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington but thinking back on it now, this wasn’t the best way to ask where to find less-Americanized Mexican food, or any type of international cuisine for that matter.

A few weeks later, we did end up going to Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez with a few other friends late on a Tuesday night. Below is a picture of my meal:

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

What even makes food authentic? Is it how long it’s been cooked in a certain way in a certain country? How far do we go back to look? 50 years? 1500 years? Are all the regional versions of couscous in Morocco just as valid as an imaginary “national” version of couscous? Is Neapolitan pizza more Italian than Sicilian pizza? Are we looking only at “authentic” Mexican food in Mexico or also in the US? Is Mexican food served in other parts of Latin America “authentic”?

When writing this post, I have to recognize my own privilege in being able to ask Daniel where “authentic” Mexican restaurants were in Lexington. Why don’t people ask me, “Where can we find “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis?” Am I any less knowledgeable of American food (having grown up in Memphis) than Daniel is of Mexican food? No, but we don’t expect Americans to make broad sweeping generalizations about a monolithic homogenous cuisine like we do for Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Moroccan, French, or other types of cuisine. We have regional varieties of American food but don’t realize that other countries are just as regionally diverse (thanks Olivia for this point). So maybe we should ask ourselves, would I ask that about American restaurants of my American friends?

And yes, I have had people ask me where to find good barbeque in Memphis (my choice), but the fact that they know to ask about barbeque because I’m from Memphis shows that they actually recognize America’s regional diversity. The way we use “authentic” in everyday life masks the regional variety of our local ethnic restaurants.

Why has no one ever asked my fiancé Mario (who has lived in Memphis since the 4th grade) about “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis? Is he less knowledgeable about American cuisine than I am? Nope. But sometimes I ask Mario to guide me through all of Mexican cuisine and culture. I realize now that it’s not fair to ask my international friends and family to represent an entire place and culture anymore than it’s fair for them to expect me to represent all of American culture.

There can be a complicated relationship between Americanized ethnic food and those from the culture that a restaurant might be trying to represent. Jiayang Fan, for instance, admits in The New Yorker that she loves General Tso’s chicken, but feels embarrassed about ordering it in Chinese restaurants. Mario loves Taco Bell. He doesn’t call it Mexican food but he does go there during the day.

Our friends and I thought the meal at Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez was delicious. I was impressed with the variety of meats offered and the distribution of ingredients in the burrito. Mario thought that his meal was tasty but that the carne asada in his burrito could have been a little fresher (we did go around 8 pm). I was reminded that Mario grew up having tasty carne asada at various weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms throughout his life and had a much wider range of experiences with it than myself. Also that his mother is a cooking goddess.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

We need to stop using the word authentic in a way that homogenizes ethnic cuisine when we ask our local Cultural Tour Guide** (ahem, friend) about local international restaurants. Instead of using the word authentic, you could ask, “What region do you think this Chinese (or Italian or Mexican or French or Pakistani) restaurant most identifies with?” “Are there any restaurants here that serve food that reminds you of home?” “What local restaurant has the least-Americanized food from your culture?” or simply: “What do you recommend around here to eat?”

Or you can use asking about “authentic” cuisine as a starting point for a deeper conversation about other cuisines. I think all too often we use our knowledge about sushi or pho to show our cultural capital without actually knowing much about another culture.

Eater.com editor Joshua David Stein says that, “there’s nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity.” Perhaps instead of searching for authenticity in ethnic cuisine, we should be searching for the complicated lived experiences of our international friends.

I’d like to thank Daniel V., David B., and Olivia S. for their insightful comments about this blog. This blog was inspired by another awesome article about food cultures written by Amy S. Choi as well as graduate seminars in the Gastronomy program at Boston University and the Anthropology program at the University of Kentucky.

*By international I mean any immigrants/visitors from other countries.

**The term “Cultural Tour Guide” was introduced to me by Olivia Spradlin, who heard it in a Gender & Women’s Studies graduate class at the University of Kentucky.

Ruth Dike considers herself a food anthropologist and recently started her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her here and reach her at mruthdike@gmail.com.

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Filed under anthropology, ethnicity, Food Studies, foodways