Call for Papers: “Sugar and Beyond”

Here is a call for papers that may be of interest to FoodAnthropology readers:

Sugar and Beyond

Organizers: Christopher P. Iannini, Julie Chun Kim, K. Dian Kriz
The John Carter Brown Library seeks proposals for a conference entitled “Sugar and Beyond,” to be held on October 25-26, 2013, and in conjunction with the Library’s Fall 2013 exhibition on sugar in the early modern period, especially its bibliographical and visual legacies. The centrality of sugar to the development of the Atlantic world is now well known. Sugar was the ‘green gold’ that planters across the Americas staked their fortunes on, and it was the commodity that became linked in bittersweet fashion to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Producing unprecedented quantities of sugar through their enforced labor, Africans on plantations helped transform life not only in the colonies but also in Europe, where consumers incorporated the luxury commodity into their everyday rituals and routines.

“Sugar and Beyond” seeks to evaluate the current state of scholarship on sugar, as well as to move beyond it by considering related or alternative consumer cultures and economies. Given its importance, sugar as a topic still pervades scholarship on the Americas and has been treated in many recent works about the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions. This conference thus aims to serve as an occasion where new directions in the study of sugar can be assessed. At the same time, the connection of sugar to such broader topics as the plantation system, slavery and abolition, consumption and production, food, commodity exchange, natural history, and ecology has pointed the way to related but distinct areas of inquiry. Although sugar was one of the most profitable crops of the tropical Americas, it was not the only plant being cultivated. Furthermore, although the plantation system dominated the lives of African and other enslaved peoples, they focused much of their efforts at resistance around the search for ways to mitigate or escape the regime of sugar planting. We thus welcome scholars from all disciplines and national traditions interested in exploring both the power and limits of sugar in the early Atlantic world.

Topics that papers might consider include but are not limited to the following:

  • The development of sugar in comparative context
  • The rise of sugar and new conceptions of aesthetics, taste, and cultural refinement
  • Atlantic cultures of consumption
  • Coffee, cacao, and other non-sugar crops and commodities
  • Natural history and related genres of colonial description and promotion
  • Imperial botany and scientific programs of agricultural expansion and experimentation
  • Alternative ecologies to the sugar plantation
  • Plant transfer and cultivation by indigenous and African agents
  • Provision grounds and informal marketing
  • Economies of subsistence, survival, and resistance
  • Reimagining the Caribbean archive beyond sugar: new texts and methodological approaches

In order to be considered for the program, please send a paper proposal of 500 words and CV to jcbsugarandbeyond@gmail.com. The deadline for submitting proposals is December 15, 2012.

Presenters will likely have some travel and accommodation subvention available to them.
For more information, keep checking this site or email Margot Nishimura, Deputy Director and Librarian (margot_nishimura@brown.edu).

Dreamworlds of the Store-Bought Loaf

guest post by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, as part of his White Bread Blog tour!

“And which side does an object turn toward dreams?…It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims.” —Walter Benjamin, “Dream Kitsch

 Walk through the fluorescent arcades of a Safeway or Kroger’s and pick out a loaf of sliced white bread.  It is a fossil—the chemically preserved remnant of lost utopias and unrealized apocalypses. This is not to say that all the other breads—the six grains, the twelve grains, the Vienna hearths, the sprouted oats, and store-brand baguettes—reflect progress toward more enlightened eating.  They don’t, necessarily.  Nor is it to suggest that people don’t make new meanings out of industrial white bread.  They do.  What is lost is the shining aura that once surrounded this loaf.

“One for every family…every day,” c. 1955

If you look hard enough, though, you can still see material traces—in the loaf’s shape, structure, and contents—of a time when people in the United States got more calories from this one item than any other food; a time when the perfect, homogenous slice of spectacularly white bread embodied dreams of a stronger nation, vigorous health, and social status—alongside nightmares of “over-civilization” and moral decline.

“Science finds that white bread helps develop criminals,” 1929

I wrote a history of America’s most iconic industrial food because I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity.
The result—White Bread—is a book about one commodity that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements.  But it is not another story of how one food “saved the world.”  Rather, it’s a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world—or at least restore the country’s moral, physical, and social fabric.  Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion—even when they achieved much needed improvements in America’s food system.

Anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthy food today will find the trials and tribulations of one hundred-fifty years of battles over bread surprisingly contemporary.  In them, you will see all the contradictory expressions of our own food concerns: uplifting visions of the connection between good food and healthy communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, great generosity of spirit, and earnest desires to make the world a better place—but also rampant elitism, smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as “good food,” and open discrimination against people who choose “bad food.”

Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic, and health food reformers as you can get today.  But, in many ways, we owe its very existence and deep cultural significance to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate.  Perhaps learning this history can help us avoid the pitfalls of the past.

“I want to know where my bread comes from!” 1929

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon 2012) and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas (Duke 2007).  His writing on the cultural politics of food has also appeared in Gastronomica, The Believer, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review.