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Review: Food Parcels in International Migration

Food Parcels in International Migration: An Intimate View. Diana Mata-Codesal and Maria Abranches (Eds.) Palgrave 2017.

Rhian Atkin (Cardiff University)

The prospect of a book dedicated to research on the ways in which food and food-related items circulate within and across geopolitical borders, and are used to maintain old affective ties and establish new ones, is exciting. The coming together of foodways research and migration studies holds the potential for us to understand more deeply the ways in which material cultures may support settlement of individuals in places that are new to them. From such understanding, more may be done to support those who migrate, as well as the communities into which they migrate. As such, the title of Food Parcels in International Migration holds great promise, suggesting even the development of methodological and analytical frameworks that could be used in the study of food parcels specifically. The subtitle, “intimate connections” points to the ethnographic approaches that underpin each of the eight chapters which, along with the editors’ introduction, are collected in this book.

The eight chapters employ a variety of methods to their studies of how individuals send and receive food in migration contexts, from a reflective autoethnography, to multi-sited fieldwork that makes use of observational and interview methods. Through all of the chapters, it is clear that, for people who migrate, food becomes crucial to the elaboration of their identities as migrants. It is equally important to the maintenance of old social and family relationships as well as to the establishment of new affective ties. As chapters 3 and 4 reveal, however, the sending of food by family members is not without its tensions, even as it is a means of expressing love. The circulation of comestibles by and among migrants may also be a way to elaborate and (re)produce knowledge and traditions from their place of origin, as two articles on migration from West Africa to Europe show (chapters 7 and 8). Specific ingredients might be revealing of the changes in their own food practices that people who migrate experience (chapters 3 and 6), including being a way to show hospitality and share in the life of those who remain in the place of origin (chapters 6 and 7). The affective facets of flavour, and the preciousness of the taste of home for those who can perceive it, are also covered, and in some detail, in chapters 2 and 8.

The editors’ introduction underlines the focus of the book as a whole on the materiality of maintaining contact across borders, and the ways in which migrants are connected to distinct places at once. Mata-Codesal and Abranches make a convincing argument for the book and seek to cast a certain level of cohesion on what is perhaps a somewhat disconnected   collection of articles. It is a pity that the editors do not seek to define what is understood by “food parcels”: the concept is used very loosely in some chapters, with “parcels” seemingly referring to anything from jars of ajvar (a paste widely used in South-East Europe) to the supply of ingredients to Mexican restaurants in the USA. The introduction also sets out the rationale for the organisation of the volume into three sections: the first on “Food, Identity and Belonging”; the second on “Transnational Kinswork”; and the final section on “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”.

Some chapters in particular are well worthy of note for researchers in the field, and stand out in terms of the approach taken and the rigour of the research:

Raquel Ajates Gonzalez stresses, as do a number of the contributors to the book, a sense of continuity across borders in chapter 3: “Thank you for the Cured Meat, but is it Grass-fed? Contested Meanings of Food Parcels in a New Nutrition Transition”. Gonzalez draws out some of the tensions that emerge through food gifts, using a reflective, auto-ethnographic account of the author’s reception of parcels that include traditional hams and sausages sent to her from family in Spain. In her new environment, where she is both surrounded by and immersed in food concerns around health, sustainability, care and waste, these gifts take on a greater significance in both harking back to the person she was prior to migration and showing up the gaps in continuity of those family relationships which either don’t respond to, or are unaware of, the person she is now. In this captivating account of receiving three food parcels embedded in a solid and convincingly argued scholarly framework that draws on epidemiological nutrition transition theory, Gonzalez brings to light the various shifts in meaning that food items undergo in transit, and the contradictions, values, anxieties and pleasures that food parcels bring to light at the same time as they maintain the relationship between senders and recipient.

Part III, dealing with “The Circulation of Nourishment and the Deterritorialisation of Food Consumption”, is the most revealing section of the book. Chapter 7: “West African Plants and Prayers in the Netherlands: Nourishment through Visible and Invisible substances” focuses on Islamic esoteric knowledge and practices made possible for Senegalese and other West African migrants in Europe by the transport and circulation of plants from West Africa in informal networks. Like some of the other articles in this volume, the author, Amber Gemmeke, could be more explicit about food parcels; nonetheless, it is clear that Marabouts and other migrants are reliant on the items that are transported by, for and between migrants, and that the material practices of herbal medicine are made possible by them. In this way, both the plants themselves and the people (Marabouts) who travel with them and perform esoteric rituals both in West Africa and in Europe act as a force to bridge geographical distance and facilitate settlement and feelings of continuity.

The affective resonance of foods and items relating to food is also the focus of Tiago Silveiro de Oliveira’s outstanding chapter 8: “Inkuminda di Téra: the Informal Circulation of Cabo Verdean Food Products”. This study focuses on Cabo Verdean migrants in Lisbon and their various interactions with foodstuffs – as transporters of food parcels and as consumers and producers of Cabo Verdean foods. This wide-ranging chapter touches on numerous key issues, from the ways in which architecture can change foodways, to the importance of objects of repeated use in producing stability and comfort in the migratory process, to the connections and relationships sustained and established through the transport of food, to the effects of affective associations on how people taste. Oliveira’s rigorous chapter is rooted in deep scholarship and draws extensively and productively on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Cova da Moura and Zambujal, two districts of Lisbon.

Read as a whole, Food Parcels repeatedly shows up the centrality of food and food-related items to the migratory experience, despite some variation in the quality, depth and rigour of individual chapters. Throughout the volume, food is shown to take on values that go well beyond nourishment, sustaining relationships, producing tensions, producing continuity, revealing separation from the place of origin. It is a pity that the editors chose to give the volume such a specific title, for this creates expectations and produces a sense of disorientation, at least for me, when not all of the articles focus on food parcels, and when this term, so central to the title and introduction, is never really defined. Many of the chapters, which seem somewhat disconnected in this specific context, would make more sense placed together under a different broad title for the volume. It is also a surprise, given the title, that there is no attention at all paid to food parcels in emergency contexts – particularly given the international refugee crisis that continues to leave displaced people reliant on food chosen for them by others. The geographical scope of the volume is, in fact, somewhat limited: of eight chapters, two focus on Filipino migrants (both of these chapters are based on fieldwork   from a decade ago, with one being a summary of material already published elsewhere); two on West Africans in Europe; three on intra-European migrations, and one on Mexicans in the USA. Given the range of possibilities that a volume on Food Parcels in International Migration ought to present, it is a real pity that the editors did not choose to commission a wider-ranging (and, in some cases, more up-to-date) set of contributions. In their introduction, the editors lament the lack of “solid, analytical frames through which to look at the relationship between food and migration”, and the potential for this volume as a whole to contribute to providing such frameworks is disappointingly unrealised. Nonetheless, the Introduction provides a review of relevant literature that is surely useful to scholars and students alike, and there is no doubt that the collection provides useful resources for more experienced scholars working on food and migration, who are able to overlook the rather unrepresentative title, distractingly frequent errors in English usage, and certain articles whose conclusion is unconvincing. These concerns aside, the volume does work together despite itself, in its collective uncovering of some of the ways that food is used in migratory processes and in the refreshing focus on individual stories. The pleasure of reading approaches to autoethnography such as Gonzalez’s or the solid and original work of Oliveira and Gemmeke on West Africans in Europe provide highlights and moments of inspiration for food researchers.

 

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