Tag Archives: food anthropology

From Jute Harvests to Mall Food Courts: Fostering Discourse through Food Spaces

Sarah Fouts
American Studies, UMBC

Blog editors’ note: This is the spring edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other countries in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact Sarah Fouts.

An inevitable part of all field research is cooking and eating. Food activities—in both the raw and cooked stages—help ease potentially awkward encounters through interaction and conversation. Gathering ingredients to make the dish, asking about a dish, listening to the stories that emerge while cooking can be as illuminating as a semi-structured interview. It provides a space that is inductive, informal, and allows for intimate exchanges. For me, rich discussions with Honduran women deeply affected by the diaspora emerged while we work together on food.

My research on Central American food vendors in post-Katrina New Orleans led me to Honduras for two summers. In 2013, I made my first visit to the department of Santa Bárbara to visit my friend and his family. A year prior, my friend had returned to his hometown, a small coffee-growing community of just under 1,500 people. He used earnings from work in construction and community organizing in New Orleans to buy land for coffee production and to build a large home for his family.

One afternoon, I was invited to tag along on a jute harvest with women of the household—my friend’s wife, his sister, their mother, a young cousin, and an eight-year old neighbor. Pachychilus, or jute snails, are freshwater gastropod mollusks, with a shiny, black-coned shell—and an overlooked yet integral protein source. The act of gathering jute links today’s peoples to centuries of Maya practice. Archaeological digs in middens and sixteenth century Spanish historical accounts show how the ubiquitous jute provided vital nutrients and barter power in the Maya lowland subsistence economy.[1]

We headed down the dirt road with our plastic bags.  The road became a path. We ducked under barbed wire, then picked up a trail along a quebrado (gully). As we walked, we told stories (I mostly listened), joked (I usually willingly bore the brunt of them), and learned about local flora from my friend’s mother. One of the women commented that she had never ventured beyond the soccer field at the base of the mountain. The journey was special. And rare.

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We climbed a small mountain towards the headwaters. Stagnant basins where kids swam quickly became fast-flowing streams and then, terraced waterfalls feeding pools. These pools were our destination:Fouts2

We descended upon the pools peeling the jutes from the submerged rock surfaces. We filled bags with jutes ranging from ½ inch to two inches in size, along with the occasional small crab, which were more annoyance than treasure. It wasn’t until the end that I realized that cosechando jutes was a competition. I had lost by a landslide.

We descended the small mountain with our bounty, and my friend’s mother collected large leaves from plants growing along the gully. The plant, juniapa, also known as hoja santa and scientifically named Piper Auritum, was the seasoning for our dinner—sopa de jutes.[2] With a flavor that blends sassafras, tarragon, anise, and black pepper, and a potency used medicinally to cure colds, juniapa added depth to the chicken broth base which also featured chunks of guineo verde. Jutes were added last, cooked briefly.

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To eat the jute, we removed the iridescent, plastic-like membrane cap of the snail, then sucked the meat from the shell. Jute shells piled next to our plates and formed contemporary middens. As we enjoyed the fruits of our venture, the women teased me for losing the harvest competition to an eight-year-old.

In 2015, I visited my friend’s family again, but I first met his sister in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second largest city. She had moved to join her two older sisters who worked in the food industry—the oldest sister owns a fried chicken restaurant, Riko Pollos y Licuados, located in a mall food court while the other sister is a server in a popular restaurant. We went directly to Riko Pollos y Licuados and caught up over a meal of pollo con tajadas (fried chicken on a bed of fried plantains with shredded cabbage drizzled by Russian dressing). She left their small village,after the murder of her child’s father made her feel that she no longer belonged there. She was also bored and there were no jobs for her. In the city she takes classes, does odd jobs, and cares for her son and a nephew. She even contemplated briefly a trek to the United States, following her brother. She decided against it.

The next morning we took an early bus for the four hour schlep to their village in Santa Bárbara. Once there, we caught up, played with new babies, and: set the date to go jute harvesting. A chance to vindicate myself and my defeat two years earlier!

Again, we headed out the dirt road and past the soccer field. Children splashed in the basin as we climbed the small mountain. My main rival—now ten years old—talked about school and nail polish. We arrived at the terraced waterfalls and began the hunt. I filled my bag quickly as the rest of the gatherers joked and splashed each other. I kept my eyes on the prize.

And after a couple of hours, when we compared our bounties, my bag over-filled with jutes clearly outdid everyone. I reveled as we hiked back, the banter drowning out my friends’ mother’s explanations of various medicinal plants as she collected juniapa leaves.

Later, as we ate, my fellow diners set aside some snails, uneaten, separate from the mound of empty jute shells. I didn’t pay much attention and like a “good guest,” I emptied my bowl, talking, reminiscing and joking along with everyone else. We finished our meals, cleaned up, and I packed my bags for the early bus ride to my next destination. The jute expedition was my despedida (farewell party).

In the wee hours of the night, my stomach began to gurgle. I brushed it off as travel belly. A few hours later, on the bus, my stomach (I’ll spare the details) made clear why the family had set aside uneaten jutes—these were bad. In my quest for victory I had unknowingly picked dead jutes. And then ate them.

While my second jute harvest illustrated my overly competitive spirit (and its consequences), it also shed light on the importance of these spaces for these women. The jute journey provided a playground for competitive banter and even bawdy humor. It was an escape from the routine and, for some, a venture into the unknown. For the mother, as the elder, it served as an opportunity to pass down her knowledge, teaching recipes and the properties of plants, lessons she had likely learned from similar trips with her elders. The second trek served as a homecoming for one sister, estranged from the community, and, for me, a familiar activity through which to reconnect.

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In the city, Riko Pollos y Licuados demonstrated the oldest sister’s mobility from campo to urban entrepreneurship, transferring skills bestowed by her elders. Riko Pollos y Licuados and plates of fried chicken anchored a space to catch up on tough issues such as violence in their community and questions of belonging. Observing, listening, participating, receiving in these processes—the not-so-subtle jabs, the laughter, learning, play, savoring, respecting tears of sadness—brought me into the family’s intimacy. And these women, so central to food production, elevated their voices and expertise, no longer relegated to the background.

[1] Healy, Paul F., Kitty Emery, and Lori E. Wright. “Ancient and Modern Maya Exploitation of the Jute Snail (Pachychilus).” Latin American Antiquity 1, no. 02 (1990), p. 175.

[2] Not to be confused with the traditional Honduran dish, sopa de caracol, which is conch soup and flavored with coconut milk.

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2017 Christine Wilson Award Winners!

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2017 Christine Wilson Awards. These awards are presented to outstanding undergraduate and graduate student research papers that examine topics within the perspectives of nutrition, food studies, and anthropology. Award winners each receive a check from SAFN and a free one-year membership in the American Anthropological Association and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. Of course, they also receive fame and glory.

The award committee this year was led by SAFN Vice-President Amy Trubek.

The awards will be officially presented to the winners at the SAFN reception during the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, December 1, 2017, from 7:45-9:00 pm, in Washington DC. In coming days, we will be posting more information about the upcoming meeting, so watch this space!

For now, congratulations to Sarah Howard, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London and to Kate Rhodes, an anthropology major at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the two winning Christine Wilson Award papers. Their paper titles and abstracts are below.

Coffee and the State in Rural Ethiopia
Sarah Howard

Although coffee is enjoyed for the material qualities of its taste, smell and stimulant effect, it is the social and symbolic aspects of coffee drinking that make it central to daily life in Ethiopia. Based on research in eastern Amhara Region between 2011 and 2015, the paper explores the buna ceremony during which coffee is prepared and served, and its role in the lives of rural government workers. Starting with an interest in the disconnect between the reach and control that the Ethiopian government is popularly supposed to hold over its citizens and the lived reality of low-level state workers who are charged with exerting this control, I realised that coffee consumption could be a useful lens through which to review received ideas about state power and hierarchy. While Ethiopian society is commonly portrayed as highly authoritarian with a vertical power structure, this paper shows, through the medium of coffee practices, a range of forms of sociality between government workers and farmers, encompassing closeness and trust as well as highlighting the material and social disadvantages faced by the bureaucrats, complicating the picture of a strict divide between state and society. The kin-like social relations that are built between state employees through buna drinking help to mitigate their vulnerability, as well as build a space for them to critically reflect on their position in ‘producing the nation’. This paper is thus a contribution to calls for attention to the ways in which material practices, such as coffee drinking, continually constitute the state as a reality.

Having a Steak in the Matter: Gender in the Buenos Aires Asado
Kate Rhodes

Asados have their roots in the romanticized culture of the Argentine gauchos, or cattle herders, where men, free from the confines of urban life, could express their masculinity through cooking meat outside over an open fire. These macho characteristics have reinforced the notion that asados are a masculine activity. In this paper I address why it is that women cook on a daily basis, but the gastronomic identity of Argentina is rooted in the single dish men traditionally cook. I argue that the culturally accepted deviation from the historically feminine kitchen space can be explained through the symbolic importance of male interactions with meat throughout Argentine history, the construction of a masculine meat narrative, and a media that sustains traditional culinary gender norms. I break the concept of a masculine meat narrative down into the three factors that work to define meat as male, mainly the physical characteristics of an asado that link it to the time of the gauchos: fire, cooking outdoors, and the primitive manipulation of bloody meat. I supplement a review of the literature on this subject with opinions and anecdotes from informants which illuminate trends in perceptions of masculinity from both men and women. I conclude that the recent push for gender equality in Argentina, specifically the rise of the Ni Una Menos movement to end gender violence, is mirrored in asado culture, as women publicly take to the parrilla.

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Filed under AAA, AAA 2017 Washington DC, anthropology, awards, Christine Wilson

Teaching Food with Photos: High Point Food Anthropology

After a long hiatus, we return with the next installment in our Food Pedagogy Interview Series. We hear from Dr. Chelsea WentworthAssistant Professor of Anthropology at High Point University, who uses photo elicitation projects in the classroom to engage students, to fascinating end.

If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

Please note: An earlier, unedited version of this interview was published in error. The below interview is the intended version. Apologies to Dr. Wentworth and SAFN readers for the error. -lrm

Lauren Renée Moore: Can you start by telling us a little bit about this course, Anthropology of Food?

Chelsea Wentworth: This is a class I taught both at the University of Pittsburgh and my current institution, High Point University. I’ve taught it both as a semester-long class, and a shorter six-week summer class. At High Point, it will be a semester-long class with a May-mester component, which means that at the end of the semester, students will participate in a three-week study abroad where we’ll continue the themes of the class, but in an international context.

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Chelsea Wentworth, Ph.D., MPH High Point University

When I taught it at Pitt, it was an upper-division course, and I had 32 students. Every time it is offered it fills—it’s very popular. The anthropology of food is such an interesting topic now, and students are gravitating towards it. Everybody identifies with food. Everybody has something related to food that’s special, and meaningful, and significant to them. Plus, most of the students who are enrolling in this class love to eat, and they’re interested in talking about how food is personally meaningful. I’ve had a lot of students who were not anthropology majors in this class. I think that the anthropology of food appeals to those students because they need to fulfill the social science requirements for the liberal arts education. Students want a class they think they can apply somehow to their major or career. I try to encourage them to think about the connections between the anthropology of food and their major, and think about designing projects or picking project topics that will help them connect the course material to their career goals. I want my students, in all my classes, to think about what they’re learning here in our class that they can apply beyond the class. How we understand cultural patterns is something that can help us think through our human experiences with others. The material we’re learning isn’t isolated to the class.

LRM: Do you feel like students successfully connect course material to other areas of their lives?

CW: I have some really great projects right now in a medical anthropology class from students who are majoring in psychology. They are doing final projects in which they’re interviewing current graduate students in psychology, as well as professional practicing psychologists about cultural competency training. They’re trying to understand how cultural competency training has changed over time. I have a lot of students who are interested in thinking about how important culture is to our understandings of health, how culture influences health behavior, and then thinking through that in the contexts of their projects and their majors. This easily applies to food studies as many students are interested in food deserts, obesity, urban gardening, food pantries, and food waste.

LRM: How has the Maymester component changed your approach to planning the course?

CW: We are headed to Japan in May 2017! I incorporated more articles that speak to that region of the world because I want the students to be really well prepared to enter that cultural context. I don’t want it to be a glorified tourist trip. So making sure that students understand that specific place is key to helping them prepare and make the most of their experience abroad. I also have a photo-elicitation project. In the regular course that’s their final project, but the Maymester students will continue it during their study abroad. Students will choose a project topic that they will continue while we’re in Japan. They will not only expand their photographic data, but also compare and contrast the experience they have abroad with the experience they had with this project in the United States.

LRM: I’d like to hear a little bit about your work and your background as an anthropologist. 

CW: I am a medical anthropologist, with a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. I also have a Master’s in Public Health in Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. My interest in public health was to learn to speak the language of public health, because as medical anthropologists we are regularly interacting with people who are trained in public health or health-related fields. That training comes from a different perspective than our anthropological training. I believe learning the background and the perspective of public health practitioners makes me a better medical anthropologist.  I work very regularly with public health practitioners—both in my research in Vanuatu where I work with the Ministry of Health, and in my Pittsburgh-based research, with Family Support Centers. In Allegheny County I research how families access maternal and child healthcare services through their use of Family Support Centers.

In Vanuatu, there is a really significant problem with childhood malnutrition. About 30 percent of the kids in urban areas are stunted. Despite a number of public health interventions, there hasn’t really been a change in that number since the 1990s. My research examines the social and cultural factors are that contribute to chronic childhood malnutrition. I have a very broad research question which I have explored in a number of different ways—my dissertation was about how children in urban and peri-urban areas are using community feasts as a coping mechanism for food insecurity. They attend traditional customary feasts that tend to be quite large and last about a week in length, they attend those feasts to help them maintain food security.

Traditionally, families will bring a gift to the hosting family, and often times that includes food. And all of that food then kind of gets accumulated, and is used to produce large meals. It’s helpful in ensuring that the host family can feed everybody who comes. But with the influx of people moving from outer islands to the city, there’s a lot more people who live in close proximity to each other and so those networks of kin and close friends are really widened, with all these additional people who are living in the area, and people in urban areas don’t have the same access to garden lands that they did in their islands or in other parts of the country. So they have less food to contribute to something like a wedding or a funeral feast. There’s kind of a double problem with kids who come, without their families contributing anything—that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

 

LRM: This is a pretty writing-intensive course, with 30 to 40 students. How do you manage the kinds of projects and assignments that students are doing, in terms of grading?

CW: There are a couple of parts to this. Students turn in reading responses throughout the semester. Those are only one page. Typically, what I find is that I have to provide quite a bit of feedback for the first couple. Once they get the feel for how to effectively write this assignment, the later reading responses are much easier to grade.

I manage the grading for longer assignments by giving them milestones. They have to turn in a one page topic and cover sheet first, where they explain the topic and the question they want to answer, and they have to list some course readings that they plan on referencing in their paper and write a sentence or two about why that particular course reading will be helpful to them. I can make sure early on in the semester that they have a good project with a good question and they’re on the right track. When they get further into the project, their overall work is significantly better and easier to grade. I also require students to do either a peer review or a writing self-reflection with their draft, so they have to turn in a full draft in advance of the final paper. When they do peer review, I hand out ten questions that the reviewer has to answer. Those questions ask them to do things like: highlight the areas where the analysis is the strongest and write why. Highlight the areas of the paper in another color where the analysis is the weakest and explain why. Find the thesis statement and rephrase it in your own words. And then the students have some really tangible ideas to think, ‘Okay this is what I need to do to revise,’ or, ‘This is what I thought my thesis statement was and my partner wrote something totally different, so clearly I need to do some work on that.’ They get very good feedback from each other, and then they turn in higher quality papers at the end. That helps me with the grading.

LRM: Tell me a little bit about the food and nutrition activity. What is that?

CW: I give them some choices about themes from class they could look at more closely. For example, for one activity they participate in and write about a celebratory meal or feast. They attend an event and then answer specific questions about what role food played in the larger celebration. In the Fall semester it’s great because the students all pick Thanksgiving. It gets them to think about something familiar in a much more analytical way than they’ve ever thought about it before. I also gave them an opportunity to think about food and gender. I have students visit restaurants and make observations about the gender dynamics in the restaurant. so, who’s eating what, who’s ordering what, who tends to be the servers, and who tends to be the host and hostess, and did you see the manager, and are there gender roles being enacted here? Another option was to keep a food diary for themselves. They had to keep a log of the food they ate, and then they had to go through and analyze it. There are questions at the beginning—for example, generally how healthy do you think your food is, or how would you describe your eating habits overall? And then they have to write it down for a week and then go back and look at it. The point of that activity is to look at everyday experiences with food, and to think about them and analyze them through the lens of the topics that we’ve been learning about in class.

LRM: Tell me about your photo elicitation work, and how you use it in your course.

CW: I use visual methods in my own research, and I have done a lot of work with participatory visual research in a process that I call visual-narrative elicitation. This has participants thinking about and taking pictures, and also there are components where they have to caption the photograph, write the significance of the image, participate in a discussion group about the process of taking the pictures and learning from each other—looking in a small group at the other photographs that people have made, and then participating in some pile sorting activities with the photographs. In my research, it’s a much longer process that helps gather data that I can’t access using any other method. I wanted to give students an opportunity to get a taste of working with photographs as a type of data and method. Since they pretty much all have cellphones with cameras, it doesn’t really take any extra equipment. In this project they’re taking the pictures rather than finding participants to take the pictures for them. I give them some ideas about possible topics, but they can pick anything that they want.

This is a project that I have also done in my Introduction to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies class. The concept of the project can be applied to any class, you just need to direct the students toward a research question to drive the process of collecting photographs. I also help students make the connection between course content and the process of making the images. For example, I had a student who was really interested in gender and food. She did this fascinating project where she went to different, high-traffic areas of campus with a pizza that she had purchased.  As people walked by, she told them that they could have a piece of pizza for free if they were willing to let her photograph them with the piece of pizza. What she found was that none of the male students turned down the pizza once they found out they had to have their picture taken. When they realized that the catch was you have to let me take your picture, none of the male students said “Oh, never mind, I don’t want this pizza.” But she had a number of female students who said, “Well I’m gonna turn down the pizza if I have to be photographed with it, I don’t want it anymore.”

LRM: Fascinating!

CW: She didn’t give them any direction, she just said, “I’m going to take your picture.” Most of the male students just started eating the pizza and then she took their picture, or they posed with the pizza in a way that showed them eating it—so they’ve got it in their mouth, or they’re turned to the side, or taking a really big bite, something like that. None of the female students wanted their picture taken while they were actually eating. Most of the time, they held up the piece of pizza off to the side in a way, with their body language, that showed they were trying to divert the attention towards the pizza—the pizza should be the focus of the image, not themselves. I call it the Vanna White method. They’re holding it up on display to really put the attention on the pizza, and focus on the pizza, instead of on themselves. Then she wrote this analysis about how she would never have learned that there’s this really gendered pattern of behavior with food had she not done the photographic part of the project. Because when you just offer people the piece of pizza, without the photo component, you don’t see them shifting their behavior in the context of kind of creating an image, or mediating their image or how they will be viewed or received. That’s an example of a really great project where students are rethinking gender roles in the context of food, and what that can tell us about eating behaviors and gender roles in society.

LRM: That’s a fantastic project and an interesting finding. What do other projects look like on the other end of the scale—perhaps where students are less successful, or more rote? 

CW: That would look like a less creative project. Sometimes students just look at dorm rooms, or something like that. So they just take pictures of kids eating in their dorms— the question that they started was less critical, so their answer is less compelling. What I will say about this project is that on the whole, it’s much more successful than any other type of project that I’ve assigned to my students. I think its because it’s so different from anything else that they’ve done, and they really like taking pictures. So they have more fun with it, and because they can pick the topic—they just have to gather data with photographs—they tend to pick something that they care about. The projects as a whole tend to be of a much better quality when they choose the topic.

LRM: Is this something that you would do in a 101 level class, or do you reserve this for your upper-level classes?

CW: I’ve done this in Introduction to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, which is an intro-level class that has a bunch of first year students.

I really think the difference is the quality of the research question they ask, and then how critically they’re able to look at their data. But first year students are just as capable of doing the project as fourth year students have been. I really structure all of my major projects in all of my classes with milestones—so I scaffold projects in my classes pretty heavily. This is not a project that you can do at the last minute the night before. By requiring students to turn components of the assignment in at several points throughout the semester, the work is more thorough.

LRM: Do you have any particular readings that have been really successful?

CW: I teach Mary Weismantel’s ‘The Children Cry for Bread,’ and the students really like that because it’s very clearly written and she lays the entire process of how food patterns have changed. I also teach Janet Poppendieck’s ‘Want Amid Plenty: From Hunger to Inequality,’ and Robert Albritton’s ‘Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Those are both really good overview articles of the concept of food systems, and social class, and hierarchy, and access to food and how those are intertwined with larger political and economic systems. In terms of the photo project, I try to teach a couple of articles where people use photographs as research data, so that they can read an example. Carol Counihan has written some pieces where she uses photographs in her writing, so I teach that.

In terms of something that’s been really successful that maybe isn’t as widely known—I teach a number of articles from this book called ‘Consuming the Inedible: Neglected Dimensions of Food Choice,‘ which is an edited volume. I do a class in the middle of the semester that’s devoted to the concept of food and non-food. And that’s something that they haven’t really thought about a whole lot, so we talk about people eating insects, or people eating dirt, and why that might be—why might people do something like that. But then we also transition that into: what types of food do we eat that we might not consider food?  I do an activity in the classroom where I bring in a bunch of things that we would all say are food when we look at them as a whole, but then I ask them to read the ingredients and think about the individual ingredients, and are those things food? I let them eat all the food too—so, I bring in things like candy, that’s full of ingredients that no one can pronounce, or things like Lunchables, which are also full of ingredients that no one can pronounce, but we can see that are meat, and cheese, and crackers in there. So as a whole, we recognize the piece of meat as food, and we think that its edible—but when you read the ingredients list, individually none of those things are considered food. Or, many people would say ‘I don’t really think that’s food, I don’t even know what that is.’ I ask them to think about: is a food item more than the sum of its parts? Or is it different than the sum of its parts? What makes something food, or not? They really enjoy thinking through that, because its a question they haven’t been posed before.

LRM: Those are a ton of great resources. You’re doing so many innovative things with your classes—thank you for taking the time to share them with us.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food education, pedagogy