Tag Archives: ethnography

Pandemic Ruminations

Pamela Runestad
Allegheny College

Now that it’s mid-May and courses have come to an end, I’ve had some time to reflect. 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

CFP: The Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography

Got students? Do they do ethnographic research and write papers about it? Check out this CFP, which may not be directly about food and nutrition…but could be. Let your students know!

Call for Papers: The Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography

The Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography (JUE) is an online journal for research conducted by undergraduates. We distribute original student-produced work from a variety of disciplinary areas. Our goal is to bring readers, especially other undergraduates, insights into subcultures, rituals and social institutions. The JUE encourages current undergraduates or those who have graduated within the past twelve months to submit original ethnographic manuscripts for consideration. Papers may include research on any topic. We also encourage faculty to recommend promising student work.

Submissions are welcomed for our next issues. Deadlines are January 31 and July 31. Please check out our website (undergraduateethnography.org) for submission guidelines and past issues.

For more information contact Martha Radice at radice@undergraduateethnography.org.

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Book Review: Secrets from the Greek Kitchen

greek kitchen

Review of

Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and the Everyday Life on an Aegean Island.

By David E. Sutton
2014
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Reviewed by Rachel E. Black, Collegium de Lyon

David Sutton’s latest book delves into home kitchens on the Greek island of Kalymnos to focus on cooking as an important daily activity in and of itself. Cultural anthropologists have used cooking and eating as windows on gender relations, religious beliefs, social identities and so forth, but the idea that people place genuine significance on cooking and eating because taste, skill and knowledge matter is quite a refreshing approach. Building on his previous book Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (2001), Sutton addresses not only questions of memory associated with food and culinary knowledge in Greece but also the ways in which cooking is a powerful daily lived experience. In particular, the author looks at the ways in which culinary knowledge is passed on (or not) in a matrilineal society, how this knowledge adapts to new technologies, and how the cook embodies cooking tools that are tied to ever-changing social lives.

The introduction tells us how Sutton came to study cooking on Kalymnos and why this is an important topic. In addition, the author places his work in the broader literature on objects, the senses and skill. He also makes a call for more ethnographic research on cooking, pointing out an important lacuna in the anthropology of food literature. Sutton talks about research methods and the use of video to capture cooking methods. Reference to these videos clips, which are available on the University of California Press web site, throughout the book give it a multi-media dimension that bring to life the ways of doing and the cooking spaces in Kalymnian homes.

The first chapter “Emplacing Cooking” starts off with general background information about Kalymnos and how Kalymnians shop, cook, eat, and think about food. Chapter two changes gears to focus on the role of tools in Kalymnian kitchens. Here Sutton gives the interesting example of the way Kalymnians cut food in their hands rather than using a cutting board on a countertop. The author explains that at first this skill seemed to be a response to a lack of counter space—it was an efficient technique that responded to the built environment. However, upon further investigation, the author discovers that this ‘technique of the body’ has deeper roots in social life: by cutting in hand, the cook can remain in contact and communication with the other people in the kitchen. She does not need to turn her back on the action. This is just one of the great examples that Sutton uses to theorize the act of cooking in order to locate deeper social meanings and actions that are embodied and embedded in this repetitive daily activity. Can openers, rolling pins and outdoor stoves are some of the other tools that Sutton uses to demonstrate the embodiment of skill, organization of social order and changing attitudes towards technology in Kalymnian kitchens.

Chapter three looks at the case of a specific mother and daughter to ask the central question of the book: how is culinary knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to the next on Kalymnos? Sutton reveals the deep-seated tensions that often exist in these generational exchanges. The themes of learning, transmission and negotiation are carried through in chapter four, which further explores the control of culinary knowledge and its transmission. Here Sutton comes back to themes such as tools and body techniques and how they are passed on through verbal instruction and demonstration. Again, Sutton underlines that knowledge is power that is not always so easily ‘given up’ or ‘passed on’ from mother to daughter.

Chapter five “Horizontal Transmission: Cooking Shows, Friends, and Other Sources of Knowledge” takes into consideration the many other ways that Kalymnians learn about cooking and food. Cooking shows are at the center of this investigation, and Sutton broadens his ethnographic scope to include participants from Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. The author does not give much explanation why it is necessary to include another field site and why Thessaloniki is representative. Although cooking shows are certainly having an impact on how people around the world think about and prepare food, this chapter is a topical and methodological departure from the other sections of this book that are tied to participant observations and interviews. Sutton mentions cooking shows in other chapters, and a stand-alone chapter does not seem entirely necessary. While interesting questions are raised about the commercialization of tradition and the development of a sense of regional and national cuisines, this is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book–a departure from the tight focus on embodiment, knowledge and cooking.

Chapter six returns us to Kalymnos and its kitchens to discuss Kalymnians’s changing concepts of shared values, healthful eating and modernity. It is also here that Sutton includes men who cook on a daily basis, suggesting that men and women have alternate ways of learning to cook and different motivations for cooking. In conclusion, Sutton comes back to the point that cooking is important work in and of itself. Sutton rounds out his conclusion with a broader comment on the production of cooking knowledge elsewhere in the world and the centrality of taste. Finally, an epilogue addresses the impact of the recent financial crisis on cooking and eating in Kalymnos. Unlike many other places in Greece, Kalymnos seems to have fared well. Growing one’s own food and turning ‘gift foods’ into commodities are just a few strategies that Kalymnians practice to weather the storm. Although Sutton mentions economic change throughout this book, more focus on the economic crisis would have been an opportunity to bring the Kalymnian culinary realities into focus with those of other struggling European countries.

This ethnographically rich book will make a wonderful addition to reading lists for courses in the anthropology of food, ethnography of Europe and food studies at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The richness of the participant observations makes this work extremely accessible. At the same time, Sutton draws in theoretical considerations from the anthropology of the senses, skill and material culture. The author has a wonderful knack for theorizing the topic of cooking without losing the flavor of the ethnography. Although the chapters can stand alone as individual readings, the length of the book makes it appropriate for assigning as a whole.

Secrets from a Greek Kitchen is a wonderful ethnographic foray into the kitchen and an inspiration to other anthropologists to further explore the daily practice of cooking without forgetting the importance of experiences from techniques of the body to taste. “If we treat food, taste, and cooking tools […] not as some rhetorical flourish to liven up ethnographic writing, but as equally central to understanding the ways that people are living, reproducing, and transforming their everyday lives, we will, I think, see a whole new analytical terrain open before us.” [185]

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Proposed AAA Panel: Foodways in Discourse and Practice

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Foodways in Discourse and Practice:  A Discussion of Ethnographic Methods.

This panel will seek to find theory and methods that prove useful in overcoming the impediments to matching quantitative dietary recall data with qualitative ethnographic participant observation of foodways in the field. We will seek to share theories and practices that help illuminate these difficult but interesting areas of disjuncture.  Instead of presenting these incongruous results as failure in the field, I am seeking researchers who have dug deeper into these conflicts to find interesting ways to apply theory and further understanding of how humans use and interpret their foodways.

If you are interested in participating please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words discussing some aspect of your participant-observation fieldwork that has benefited from a renewed or novel understanding of anthropological theory (particularly practice theory, political economy, cultural materialism or symbolic/interpretive theoretical frameworks) in order to understand contradictory results in dietary surveys or other quantitative methods used to study foodways.  Please keep in mind the historical understanding and future directions implied by the theme of this year’s conference.

Please submit your proposal or direct any questions to Amber O’Connor at aoconnor@utexas.edu by February 25th.

Note from the editor: If you are organizing a food/nutrition related panel for the AAA meetings this year–or, really, for any conference–we would be happy to post it here at FoodAnthropology. Just send it along to foodanthro@gmail.com and we will take care of it.

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Filed under AAA, AAA 2013 Chicago, anthropology, Call for Papers, CFP, methods

Behavioral Economics, Food and Culture

Picture courtesy of Emily Yates-Doerr

Try this as a thought experiment: Imagine a store that sells broccoli and doughnuts, along with everything else a grocery store sells.  Now, let’s manipulate the prices of those two items to see whether or not we can get people to buy more or less of each.  Why?  Well, we are going to assume that broccoli is healthier than doughnuts and we want to find out if we can get people to buy more of the former than the latter.  Of course, we can probably use price to influence these purchases.  But wait, you might say, that is silly.  Nobody substitutes broccoli for doughnuts.  People buy them for entirely different occasions.   And you might add that just buying them doesn’t tell us much.  Do people who buy broccoli actually eat it before it rots in the fridge?  Do they smother it in butter or cheese?  Is there someone out there who ponders whether or not to have doughnuts rather than broccoli with their steak?  Clearly this experiment leaves a lot of relevant information out of the picture.  We probably would not want to use this sort of experiment to figure out how to address obesity in the U.S.

One of the key insights of nutritional anthropology—of all anthropology, really—is that human behavior can best be understood holistically.  This means that food consumption choices, for example, can rarely be explained by only one thing, like price.  To understand why people purchase items at a grocery store—and why they later consume them, assuming they do—we need to look at the social relations those items help create and maintain, as well as the meanings people attach to particular goods.  We also want to put the whole set of transactions and meanings into historical and political-economic context.

In other words, when you buy broccoli or doughnuts, there is a lot of explaining to be done.  And if we, as a society, decide that we are too fat, we need to look very carefully at the whole context of fatness in figuring out what kinds of policies might help address the problem (for one good take on that, check out the wonderful book Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley).

About a week ago, National Public Radio ran a story on an effort to encourage grocery store shoppers to buy healthier food.  The journalist, Allison Aubrey, cited a study by researchers at the University of Buffalo who set up an entire fake supermarket and then recruited some mothers to shop there.  They supplied the mothers with money and then manipulated prices on items they (the researchers) decided were healthy and junk in order to see if they could influence choices.  They discovered that prices can have an impact, although they also found out that the mothers would still buy “junk” if they had money left over after purchasing reduced price broccoli.  The reporter also found a “behavioral economist” who, citing a “theory of loss aversion,” said he found this behavior (by the mothers, not the researchers) unsurprising.

As far as I know, they did not study whether or not anyone ate any of the stuff they bought.

This is stunning, you have to admit.  No, not the price sensitivity.  I think that is pretty obvious.  Rather, the idea that researchers would set up an entire fake grocery store.  Why not study how people really shop, in real stores?  Why not see what they do with the food they buy?  And find out what their families do with it?  Maybe even ask them about it.  No, not in a survey.  Not even in a focus group.  Go watch them.  Hang out with them.  Follow them around.  Check out differences between what they think they do, say they do…and really do.  The fake grocery store merely allows researchers—perhaps this is what behavioral economists do—to assume away big chunks of social, cultural and historic context.  It turns out, of course, that there are anthropologists who have studied consumption practices in a more holistic manner.  Daniel Miller and colleagues (check out the Material World blog) have done some great work in this area, for example.  And read this brilliant story about what happens when an anthropologist observes a family actually eating breakfast.

The vigilant team here at FoodAnthropology has found even more fantastic recent work by anthropologists that help put these choices in context.  Amy Paugh and Carolina Izquierdo recently published work on the battles between parents and children over what constitutes healthy dining in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (“Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction,”2009, vol. 19, number 2).  Joylin Namie has produced some very useful recent work on the role children play in family food choices, writing recently in Anthropology News that “When it comes to food in US households, children may not be driving the car, but they are often driving the cart” (“The Power of Children Over Household Consumption,” 2008, volume 49, number 4, pages 11-12).  Price, it turns out, is only one factor in determining why people buy food.  We need, as these anthropologists (and many others) show, to pay attention to what people really do and to why they do it if we want to develop policies that will really address obesity.

Otherwise we may as well be comparing broccoli and doughnuts.

Posted by David Beriss.

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Filed under economics, media, nutrition, obesity