Tag Archives: film

Some Pig

David Beriss

What is it we fear most in our food supply in the post-industrial West? Food shortages? Industrialized food? Genetic manipulation? Ecological disaster? Globalized food systems? The idea that we are either in or rapidly approaching some sort of food-related dystopia is certainly widespread, yet relatively hard to define. Wandering the aisles of American and European supermarkets, overflowing with astonishing plenty, it is hard to imagine what fuels our fears. Yet there is no doubt that many people have at least a nagging sense that something is deeply awry. There is a huge literature to reinforce those fears, of course, and a filmography to stoke our imaginations.

The film Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho, puts many of our contemporary fears into one neat package. It is the story of a big corporation’s effort to develop and market a genetically modified pig in a way that will make it appealing to the masses (an effort remarkably similar to Chipotle’s little films). To do this, the company distributes baby pigs to farmers around the world, who will raise them for ten years. The pigs, now “localized” thanks to the farmers, would then be celebrated and turned into food. The film focuses on one pig, named Okja, raised in Korea by a young girl, Mija, and her grandfather, in an idyllic mountain setting. The fully-grown Okja dwarfs hippos, but frolics in the forest in a way that is reminiscent of a very large and exceptionally intelligent dog. In fact, Okja is clearly Mija’s companion and not livestock. This proves to be a problem when the corporation comes to collect the pig.

In addition to the first two elements of the food dystopia—the evil corporation that controls our food supply and the genetically modified animal—the film also depicts cruelty to animals by buffoonish corporate scientists and the horrors of industrial slaughterhouses. This being a neo-liberal horror film, the government is present only in the form of police enforcing the will of the corporation (although there are also private mercenary goons in the pay of the corporation, because that too is part of a good dystopia). Okja is taken by the evil corporation, first to Seoul, then to New York, for study, celebration, and marketing. Mija, determined to rescue her friend, sets off in pursuit. She is aided, and betrayed, by a group called the Animal Liberation Front. There is an element of Citizen Ruth in the struggle between the corporation and the ALF activists for Mija’s loyalties.

In the end, capitalism wins, although not in an entirely predictable way. The film is depressing, hopeful, and a little funny. There is no sense that Mija’s struggle to save Okja will prevent the coming food dystopia, even if she may get to carry on her idyllic forest farm life. The film points to the ways we are manipulated by corporations, as they greenwash their products so that we can feel comfortable buying them. It suggests that the efforts of groups like the Animal Liberation Front are engaged in a futile struggle (although this review, from the real ALF, suggests they do not see it that way). It also may raise the hackles of anyone engaged in food science. It might—or might not—be an argument against eating pigs.

No doubt everyone in the film gets what they deserve, except, of course, the pigs. Or maybe not. Show it to your students and see what they think. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival last spring, it has been available through streaming on Netflix. Be sure to watch until the very end of the credits.

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, April 21, 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.

As the Trump administration nears its 100 day mark, it is worth noting that the US Department of Agriculture, with over 100,000 employees spread out over 29 agencies, regulating parts of an industry that contributes around $992 billion to the U.S. economy, is still without a confirmed leader. Lack of leadership has not stopped the Trump administration from acting, however. For instance, a rule proposed under the Obama administration that would have protected the rights of farmers to sue corporations for whom they raise chickens and hogs has been suspended for six months—and possibly permanently—much to the dismay of some of those farmers. The unconfirmed nominee has had a hearing, with mixed reviews, as you can see here and here.

Also on agriculture, but on a more global scale, the Lancet has recently started an open access online publication, “The Lancet Planetary Health,” that will focus on “human health within the context of climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity, food and nutrition, sustainable fishing, agricultural productivity, environmental exposures to contaminents, waste management, air quality, or water and airbourne diseases.” The first issue is worth a look. It includes an editorial about the role of smallholder farms in the global food system and several related articles.

And while we are still thinking about agriculture, take a look at this article and short film about a form of urban agriculture that is rarely discussed. The focus here is on farmers in Guangzhou, China, who continue to farm even as their village has vanished around them, replaced by endless rows of skyscrapers. This process is an old one, but watching this raises a lot of questions about food, culture, and the future of our food supply.

There has been a lot written about American barbecue cultures and racism in recent years. This New Yorker article, by Lauren Collins, focuses on the particularly bitter history and present of Maurice’s Piggie Park, in South Carolina. Collins does a great job of unpacking the nuances of this particular story in a way that would make for a great discussion starter in a class on…food, racism, American society, or the country’s political present. Alas, this is an article about barbecue that may cause you to lose your appetite.

From the UK, we have this interesting observation about a new restaurant in Seattle that will feature foods from the American South…served with an “encyclopedia” that explains the cuisine. The idea is to combat racist perspectives associated with the cuisine.  Food that insists you think.

Everyone wants to know where their food comes from, but who looks at how it gets to you? This episode of the podcast Bite focuses on an interview with Alexis Madrigal, who has his own podcast series on the world of containers and shipping. In this instance, he discusses the place of small batch coffee in the world of enormous containerized shipping. The way this shapes the world of food is really so huge that it is hard to fully grasp. You should listen to this; it is where much of what you eat comes from. Also, the podcast starts with a brief segment on Indian cooks in America who are thrilled with their Instant Pot electric pressure cookers…which ought to be inspiring for anyone who has one.

Many people are distressed at the demise of Lucky Peach, which provided a place for all kinds of food writing that was hard to find elsewhere (at least in an accessible format). For an example of why, read this amusing (yet possibly serious) article on the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. Also, if you draw, you could join the Taco Bell Drawing Club.

Why are so many people being asked to work for free? This has been a crisis in the arts for a while, of course. Internships, mostly unpaid, seem increasingly necessary for college students before they can hope to start developing careers. Unpaid labor is also an important part of the world of food, with cooking school graduates and other aspiring cooks often engaging in “stages” (one of the culinary world’s words for “internship”) in restaurants. How useful is this? How exploitative? Is it even really legal? Corey Mintz explores these questions by looking at the astonishing extent to which the world’s most elite restaurants actually depend on unpaid labor.

The hipster food world is in love with mobile food vendors, perhaps best represented by trendy food trucks. Along with trendy trucks, a lot of food vending happens in carts that sell nearly every imaginable food.  This very useful article by Tejal Rao illustrates a day in the life of a New York City food vendor. His food looks great, by the way, but it is the result of hard work and what look like terrible economics.

In the realm of obscure-but-fascinating items, historian Paul Freedman provides this brief overview of the history of food at private clubs. The article includes lists and photos of current specialties at a variety of clubs around the U.S. One might expect the food to be rarified and elegant, but the photo of macaroons with Halloween candy corn suggests otherwise.

Finally, the first round of the French presidential elections is this Sunday (4/23). The outcome is anything but certain and, depending on your politics, you may need a drink afterwards. A French friend recently sent a clip from the movie “Le Tatoué,” with Jean Gabin and Louis de Funès demonstrating how to eat and drink with gusto. Even without faith in French politics, this should inspire everyone to have at least some faith in French cuisine, no matter the outcome. Remember this advice: “Manger des tripes sans cidre, c’est aller à Dieppe sans voir la mer.” Enjoy.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, film, Food Studies

The Best Food Film Not About Food

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Is it possible that the best food movie ever made is not a food movie?

Last fall I was teaching a course in urban anthropology and another course on food and culture. When I teach the latter, I usually provide the students with a short list of recommended movies to go with the course. These are mostly not ethnographic films or even documentaries (although I sometimes include a few). Instead, I recommend popular films that illustrate some of the points we are discussing in the class. I decided to do the same thing for the urban anthropology class and in an effort to simplify my life, I tried to make the two lists more or less the same. So most of the films I picked had both food and urban themes.

It was not especially hard to find movies that fit this description. Out of ten movies, there were only two that really had very little food content. One of those was Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire,” although there is a least one very sensual scene in which Peter Falk tries to explain the pleasures of the flesh—including food—to an angel while standing in front of a sausage stand in Berlin (I suppose the movie’s title could itself be a kind of food-related pun). The other was “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s film about Harvey Milk, whose last name is probably the closest thing to a food-related part of the movie. Food was central to seven of the other films. The movies were: “Ratatouille,” “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Julie and Julia,” “Tampopo,” “Toast,” “Babette’s Feast,” and “Chef.” It is safe to say that all of these would be on a foodie’s list of must-see-movies. They pair well with anthropology as well. Ratatouille has even been written about by anthropologists! (I forgot to include “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” this year, but that film deserves its own blog entry on history and anthropology anyhow.)

That leaves one movie. I picked Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” as a film about race, ethnic conflict, community, gentrification, and violence. I did not really think of it as a food movie and, frankly, it does not seem like anybody else does either. Yet a great deal of the movie takes place in and around a pizzeria in Brooklyn and the main character, Mookie (played by Lee) works there as a delivery guy. The movie’s central conflict is focused on the lack of representation of African American heroes on the restaurant’s walls. And the movie culminates with a riot in front of the pizzeria, in which one of the main characters is killed by the police and the restaurant is destroyed. Neighborhood pizzerias are of course iconic symbols of New York City. In Lee’s movie, the pizzeria is owned by an Italian (Sal, played by Danny Aiello) and his two sons (Vito and Pino, Richard Edson and John Turturro, respectively), who do not live in the neighborhood (Bedford-Stuyvesant). Along with Mookie, they are the entire restaurant crew. The Italian ethnicity of the pizza place is marked in both discourse and by the pictures of Italian and Italian-American celebrities on the walls. The African American character of the surrounding neighborhood is also marked in a variety of ways. Yet Lee shows that the conflict that ensues is not an inevitable result of that ethnic difference. It is clear that the restaurant is a neighborhood institution and that eating there is really central to local life. Everyone eats at Sal’s. The conflict springs from somewhere else in American culture, but like everything in life, it happens locally.

This is in the middle of a hot New York summer in the 1980s, at a moment when there had been a number of racially motivated assaults on black people in the city. The threat of police violence and of mob violence seemed to loom over the city. There were also tensions surrounding corner grocery shops, often owned at that time by Korean immigrants, a situation portrayed in the film. The movie also references gentrification, which was beginning to sweep through neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But what is striking to me is the thickness with which Lee draws his characters. Even as Lee notes the tensions of the moment (and invokes America’s history of racism and conflict), the people in the movie are shown to have complicated histories with each other and with the neighborhood…and with Sal’s pizza. In fact, the character who instigates the movie’s conflict, Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito), is a regular at the pizzeria himself. The movie’s tensions and the riot, death, and fire, are all the more moving precisely because it is a conflict among people who know each other intimately.

Many movies that we think of as food movies make food their central character. They might even border on what people call “food porn,” in which the food becomes an almost unrealistically beautiful object of desire (“Tampopo,” it is worth noting, can be seen as an early satire of this sort of thing). “Do the Right Thing” does not make pizza into this kind of object of desire. It is not food porn. You may not even desire a slice after you see it. But it identifies a central institution in New York—the neighborhood pizzeria—and builds a story around that institution that reveals a great deal about communities and conflicts in the city. I think that this may make “Do the Right Thing” one of the best food movies. And it is not even a food movie.

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Anarchist Table Manners

The East Poster

David Sutton
Department of Anthropology
Southern Illinois University

So you’re seated at a table with a dozen strangers. Hungry, you’ve got a bowl of some sort of stew in front of you, and a large-handled, wooden spoon. The only problem—like everyone else at the table, you’re wearing a straightjacket. What do you do?

This was the problem posed to the main character of the 2013 movie The East. And spoiler alert, this is a good scene that I don’t want to ruin for the reader, so I urge you to see the movie before you read on. The East, by the way, might have flown under your radar screen. Released in the spring of 2013, it is a tense thriller focused on an eco-anarchist group and a private security firm’s attempt to infiltrate it, from the pen of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (Marling also stars in the film, along with Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard). While the film got mixed reviews (some complaining about the idealistic ending), I found it to be a compelling story and a meditation on different kinds of political action in the present.  

The scene comes fairly early in the movie when the main character Sarah (Brit Marling) has been taken to the hideout of The East by faking a serious injury as part of her plan to infiltrate the group. She is treated for her injury and while recovering she is invited to dinner, but not before she has donned the straightjacket. The putative leader of the group, Benji (Skarsgard), suggests that as their guest, Sarah should begin. This is the part of the scene where the viewer is put into Sarah’s perspective, trying to figure out how to proceed. After lifting the spoon with her teeth and seeing the seeming futility of this, Sarah drops the spoon. Then she puzzles for a bit longer before finally grabbing the side of the bowl in her teeth and lifting it up so that she is able to slurp a little bit of the stew into her mouth. Sarah looks up at the others, chewing in a seemingly self-satisfied manner. They all nod at her politely, then they pick up their spoons in their teeth, and, turning their heads to the side, proceed to feed each other. Sarah storms off feeling humiliated by this “lesson” in her own selfishness.

Some readers may recognize the basis for this scene in the allegory of the long spoons, a parable that can be found in a number of different cultures and religious traditions. Kirin Narayan discusses her discovery of this story in multiple religious/cultural traditions, and analyses a Hindu version of the story in detail, in her book Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching (1989, University of Pennsylvania Press). In this allegory, retold here by Bishop Desmond Tutu, it is Heaven and Hell that are being distinguished, i.e., Heaven is where people feed each other, Hell is where people are surrounded by sumptuous meals but unable to eat because they have failed to realize their interdependence. This allegory clearly encapsulates the moral significance of reciprocity and interdependence, and suggests that the radical individualism associated with untrammeled capitalism is, in fact, a hell on earth.

Similar techniques are also used in some anarchist groups (David Graeber, personal communication, December 12, 2013). However I think the scene is strikingly effective in the context of a U.S. culture where eating has become a key practice of individual choice and identity. My hypothesis is that the “solution” to this conundrum simply doesn’t occur to most Americans, steeped in a culture in which the recognition that eating involves the labor of other people has been deeply attenuated. Thus all 10 students who watched the movie in my class expressed surprise at this scene. By contrast when I described this scene to a table of Greek anthropologists they immediately guessed the direction of the scene. This perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me as I have been working on a project looking at the food-based responses to neoliberal policies in Greece, all of which center around the symbolic value of food in expressing ideas about social solidarity (see the previous FoodAnthropology posts on food used in Greek politics herehere and here).

Western Middle-Class common sense has often been skewered through challenging table manners, most famously in Bunuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty in which using the toilet is done publicly and is a site of sociability, while eating is seen as a disgusting act only to be done in private. While Bunuel’s point is the cultural arbitrariness of table manners and the scene from The East suggests a potentially universal message of interconnectedness, both scenes are reminders of how central food is to our human sociability, and perhaps together could form a good starting point for courses on food and culture.

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Filed under anthropology, film, food politics, Food Studies