What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 9, 2020

David Beriss

After a long hiatus, FoodAnthropology returns with 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.

I am writing this from New Orleans, where food is often used to frame discussions of nearly everything. A few especially good examples of this appeared this week. First, this poignant article by restaurant critic and perceptive cultural observer Ian McNulty on thinking about the New Orleans Saints football season of hope and disappointment through red beans and rice. This is a great example of how restaurant writing has evolved in recent years. Second, this interesting recollection of Leah Chase, by Lolis Eric Elie, that tries to disrupt some of the iconic ideas about that famous chef’s life. A good example of how people resist the narratives we use to box them.

Sometimes journalists manage to combine the discussion of a simple dish and a personal narrative in a way that provides a small insight into a society. Bryan Washington, writing for the New Yorker, did this in his article about omurice, a sort of Japanese fried rice omelet. More recently, Vidya Balachander wrote this beautiful example of how knafeh, a stunning Middle Eastern pastry, can be used to tell a lot of different stories about the region. This is exactly the kind of writing that I like to use to inspire my students to think about the links between food and culture.

Theodore Gioia argues in the Los Angeles Review of Books that restaurant criticism needs to transform itself to remain (or become) relevant for readers today. More than consumer advocacy or guides to taste, Gioia argues for both new approaches (focusing on ethics, politics, and culture) and new formats for restaurant reviews. For once, I suggest reading the comments below the article, which are also interesting…and looking for the twitter storm it generated among food writing professionals.

As Gioia remarks, a new generation of restaurant critics is taking up the kinds of tasks he suggests, including a bunch of newish critics on the West Coast. But how new is this kind of self-consciousness about criticism and food writing in general? This discussion, from The Splendid Table, between Soleil Ho and Ruth Reichl provides some useful nuance to this history. The interview, from last fall’s radio show is about how different kinds of food-related businesses deal with change between generations. You can listen to the whole thing here.

Many FoodAnthropology readers are familiar with the Racist Sandwich podcast, started by Soleil Ho (see above) and Zahir Janmohamed, which looks into race, class, and gender in the worlds of food. The podcast has two new hosts, Stephanie Kuo and Juan Diego Ramirez, and is very much worth following. Listen, for instance, to this very curious and somewhat clandestine interview with a French convict (yes, he is in jail) who has a viral Instagram page on cooking. And related to the discussion above about the changing world of food criticism, listen to their interview with Soleil Ho, after a year at the San Francisco Chronicle. There are other interesting episodes too, all on the website.

Does every immigrant or minority in America have a story about dealing with being embarrassed, teased, or ostracized for the foods their family made or that their mother packed into their school lunch? I certainly do and I am endlessly fascinated by all the related stories I read in this genre. In this sweet video from The New Yorker, Priya Krishna discusses growing up in Dallas and being ashamed of her mother’s cooking, preferring instead peanut butter and jelly. In a related article, chef Jenny Dorsey discusses the tensions around being Chinese-American, both growing up and as a cooking professional. I would recommend this article for use in a class on food and race/ethnicity. Has anyone put together a collection of essays of this kind? It seems like these are widely shared experiences in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere) and it would be fascinating to see them put together.

Everyone knows that “real” food happens in independent restaurants, not in fast food or fast casual joints. And yet, it seems that work in fast food or fast casual restaurant chains has shaped the experiences of many of our most interesting chefs today. At least, that is what Priya Krishna (cited above) reports in this fascinating article. She argues that working at Applebee’s, Waffle House, or IHOP can often provide training every bit as valuable as culinary school.

It may surprise people in dryer parts of the United States, but hardly a week goes by in New Orleans without some sort of water crisis. Our flooding problems are well-known, but I am referring in this instance to the annoyingly frequent boil water alerts that occur due to problems with our aging water infrastructure. It turns out that New Orleans is hardly alone in this (Flint, Michigan comes to mind, of course, as a much worse example). In this piece from Counter Punch, Andreea Sterea provides an alarming overview of the state of water across the U.S. Read this and allow yourself a brief moment of panic, then start writing and calling your elected officials.

Discussions of obesity and food tend to center on questions of public health and diet, often framed by deeper ideas about race and class. In the case of countries in the Pacific, you could even add in stereotypes derived from colonialism. Yet there are many other ways to frame these issues and, of course, there are anthropologists who study them. Listen, for instance, to this great episode of the Sausage of Science podcast in which Cara Ocobock and Chris Lynn interview Jessica Hardin about her work and recent book (Faith and the Pursuit of Health: Cardiometabolic Disorders in Samoa, 2018, Rutgers University Press) on religion, health, food, and more in Samoa. The podcast covers Hardin’s findings, but they also discuss the research process in ways that could be very useful for students as well.

We end this week with crabs from the eastern shore of Virginia. Or, rather, this excerpt from Bernard L. Herman’s book A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories from the Eastern Shore of Virginia (2019, UNC Press) that appears on the Southern Foodways Alliance Gravy website. Hard crabs, sooks, busted sooks, lemons…this is about the language of Virginia crabbers and the definition of this particular terroir. The pictures will have you longing for crab.

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, May 12, 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.

It is 2017, not 1906. At least, that is what the calendar says. But if you read Michael Grabell’s recent article in The New Yorker about work at Case Farms, a chicken processing company in Ohio, you might think you were reading something by Upton Sinclair, from the early 20th century in Chicago. Underaged, undocumented, immigrant workers, working in extremely dangerous conditions, without benefit of unions, always in danger of being fired, living in awful conditions…this article is essential reading. Read it, assign it to your students, discuss, act. Also, after reading this, you may wonder if Mr. Trump and other anti-immigrant advocates have been discussing the wrong problem all along.

Here in Louisiana we are quite used to hearing about the toxic dead zone that appears regularly in the Gulf of Mexico. It is huge—the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, combined—and deadly to sea life. It is mostly caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River, which drains a huge portion of the United States. As it turns out, such hypoxia zones exist all over the world (the Baltic is actually the largest, the Gulf of Mexico is second). This graphic article from Civil Eats provides an overview of the situation and some forecasts for this coming year. The impact on our food system is enormous. That said, dead zones are reversible. Countries along the Rhine River and the North Sea have reduced pollution sufficiently to diminish their dead zones by upwards of 35% in recent years.

And yet, do we really know if chemical runoffs are creating the dead zones? What if we could find studies, produced by faculty at real universities, that suggested the chemicals used to fertilize, kill pests, etc. on farms are not really harmful? In this article, Bruce Livesey, writing in the Canadian publication “The Walrus,” examines the role of industry in funding research that at the very least tries to create doubt about the impact—on the environment, on food, on humans—of the chemicals used on farms. He looks particularly at industry funding for research at one Canadian university, but this is a persistent issue at many universities and seems likely to be more important as public funds for research are cut.

On a cheerier note, John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (an organization whose work often turns up in this digest) has recently published a new book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” (Penguin, 2017) and, possibly as a consequence, he is suddenly everywhere. John T. also recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, “The Hidden Radicalism of Southern Food,” which is about food sovereignty and race in the U.S. south (and specifically, the work and life of Fannie Lou Hamer). In addition, Kim Severson wrote an interesting bio of John T. for the same paper, which goes into some of the intellectual battles that have arisen around his work. Our advice: read it all!

Another leading member of the food intelligentsia, Jessica Harris, has published a memoir that we are looking forward to reading. The book, “My Soul Looks Back,” (Scribner, 2017) has already been reviewed by the New York Times, which you can read here.

Can a salad be a racist symbol? In this article, Writer Bonnie Tsui explores the continued existence of the “Asian Salad” on many restaurant menus. This is a useful way to get into a discussion about casual racism in the food world. As she points out, the situation for this (and other) salads with names referring to nations or ethnic groups, is not simple. It is worth noting that there may still be a few restaurants (usually Italian) in New Orleans with a salad named for an ethnic slur for Italians. In this article from a few years back, a chef explains where that fits in local culinary terms.

Ever wonder about the story behind Indian-Chinese cuisine? You should, because the world is full of all kinds of great stories about traveling foods and people. To that end, read this article by Sharanya Deepak, on the development of Chinese cuisine in Kolkata over two centuries ago. And while we are tracing foods across the globe, check out this blog posting from food historian Rachel Laudan about the Islamic influence on Mexican cuisine. She traces a chicken dish from “Moorish” to “Mestizo” over a few centuries.

Following on this theme of ethnicity and foods, we have often featured here articles that take on questions about how foods from different groups are represented. Are they “ethnic” foods, immigrant foods, or just food? And who can speak about them, cook them for the public, etc.? These are important questions because they help (or prevent) thinking about the lives of the people who make the food. And because these discussions are far from settled, here is another one, in which Angela Dimayuga, executive chef at Mission Chinese (in New York), discusses the food they serve as maybe Chinese and maybe “New American Food.” This is the same Angela Dimayuga who was recently in the news for having refused an interview with an Ivanka Trump-affiliated website using very powerful language.

The Trump administration has picked a fight with Canada over milk and apparently both American dairy farmers and Democrats are happy. But should they be? Does the U.S. have a strange policy that generates huge milk surpluses? Perhaps. Read this, from Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, to learn about this situation.

During the last French presidential election debate, we learned a new word from France’s now-president elect, Emmanuel Macron: poudre de perlimpinpin. That is French for “snake oil” and Macron was accusing his opponent of being a purveyor. Dietary advice is, in America, one area where the poudre de perlimpinpin is regularly on offer. In this recent article from the Atlantic, James Hamblin looks into recent claims that lectins—substances found in plants—are to blame for American dietary woes. He critiques a book by a doctor who advises avoiding foods with lectins and who, as it happens, sells dietary supplements that he claims can help you deal with them. Along with casting serious doubts on the claims made by the anti-lectin doctor, Hamblin does a particularly good job of pointing to the signs and symbols deployed to lend legitimacy to this attempt at creating the next dietary fad. For that alone, this is worth a read.

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 10, 2017

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.

Feeling overwhelmed by all the political changes taking place at one time? Perhaps one way to get a grip on things is to focus on just one aspect of change. You might think about sustainability and food justice in urban environments, for instance. Fabio Parasecoli has written an intriguing review of two new books on this topic right here. The books are Rositza Ilieva’s “Urban Food Planning: Seeds of Transition in the Global North” (Routledge, 2016) and Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen’s “Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City” (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

A team of AP reporters (Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza) researched and wrote a series of the most disturbing and incredible stories about the slavery in the seafood industry last year. The series won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. You can—and should—read all of it here. If you are eating imported seafood, once you read this you will be very concerned about who has been victimized in getting it to your table. Assign this in your classes.

Once you have read the AP report, you will want to find out where you can get seafood that is not produced by slaves. You may also want the supply chain to be shorter, the seafood to be sustainable, and more. PBS and NPR have produced this fascinating story by Allison Aubrey on an effort in New England to get Americans to eat domestic seafood that meets those criteria. Similar efforts are going on around the country, of course, so look around locally and you may find something.

Has the United States been experiencing “the Golden Age of Restaurants” and is it about to come to an end? In this thrillist article, Kevin Alexander examines the evidence for the imminent bursting of the restaurant bubble economy. This the part three of three articles. Links to the other two are in the article, of course.

Meanwhile, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells recently gave no stars to the star-driven healthier fast food alternative restaurant Locol in Oakland. This might seem like an odd restaurant for the New York Times critic to review, but given the high profile of the owners (Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi) and the highly publicized social mission (“the most important fast food restaurant in America,” according to Willy Blackmore, at eater.com), perhaps it is not surprising. Whether he should have and whether he committed an injustice in so doing has been the object of much social media attention. The response from Chef Choi is here. Here is an overview of the debate from Jay Barmann and here is where LA food critic Jonathan Gold commented.

One of the more inspiring TED talks I have seen in a long while was this very brief lecture by culinary historian Michael Twitty. In it, he recounts both his personal trajectory and his ideological commitment to challenging the way Americans think about race and food. Excellent scholar activism and potentially very useful for class discussions.

Raising related issues, but in a curiously essentialist manner, this piece on the Intersectional Analyst blog by Lorraine Chuen attacks culinary appropriation by white chefs. The fundamental issue is an important one, but this blog posting seems to suffer from a deeply reductionist understanding of things like cuisine, culture, race, and ethnicity. This might be because the author is focused in this article on “data” rather than on actual people. All that said, it would make for a great reading if you want to spark a discussion in a class.

Why are cured foods so trendy and how does that relate to the former Soviet Union? It doesn’t, really, but you might think so if you read this lovely discussion between Christina Crawford and Darra Goldstein from Harvard Design Magazine. Great hypotheses are tossed out and discarded, large pieces of furniture are discussed, a jar of mushrooms is produced from under a bed. Get some dark bread, some herring, and vodka and enjoy.

What happens to culinary media stars in the wake of the election? Do they also think food is political? Anthony Bourdain clearly does. Read this biting and bitter interview from a few weeks ago, conducted by Helen Rosner. Bourdain appears to have a strong moral compass and a colorful way of speaking about it.

Let’s end this with the suggestion of a drink: Black Lightning. From the always-interesting Southern Foodways Alliance, this discussion between Jonathan Green and Kevin Young about the disappearance of black bootleggers from the public imagination. Get yourself a drink and settle in for a fascinating discussion. Enjoy the fact that anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston sets the theme.