Editor’s Letter, Spring 2016

from Gastronomica 16:1
Photographs by Melissa L. Caldwell

How do we make sense of foods on the move?

Mobile foods have proved to be intriguing points of departure for food scholars and food enthusiasts alike. Mobile foods are at the core of concerns about the impact of global processes, especially when multinational food corporations appear to resemble neo-imperial political and economic forces that are bent on invading and conquering new markets around the world. Mobile foods also offer sensory, emotional, and symbolic comfort for diasporic communities who are searching for a familiar sense of home. For health and environmental activists, meanwhile, traveling foods can represent the dangers of the global food system on individual bodies and landscapes. At the same time, foods and food cultures that are firmly rooted in place are just as provocative. Both local traditions and national economies are made possible by foods that are firmly embedded within ecosystems that are simultaneously cultural and environmental. Foods from particular locations provide the structuring parameters for identities and experiences. And for persons who travel—both actual and virtual tourists—foods offer a taste of other places, cultures, and times. Both the movement and emplacement of foods and food cultures open up possibilities for thinking about the nature of circulation, the conditions under which circulation does or does not happen, and the values and meanings attached to circulation.

What happens to “local” and “authentic” when Russian borscht travels to Asia as an American industrial food?

Yet what if we asked a different set of questions? What might foods tell us about places, histories, and people who are in motion? Although it is more common to think about foods that are shifting between different states of transit and emplacement, what happens if we think about the movements of the cultural, political, historical, and ecological systems in which food cultures are located? If foods move, can places also move? Can foods—both those in motion and those at rest—illuminate alternative geographies and temporalities?

In Mauritius, India’s colonial legacy of traveling foods is alive and well in the country’s mobile food delivery network.

These are some of the questions that interest the authors in this issue of Gastronomica, most notably the contributors to the special section on “Rescuing Taste from the Nation.” In their introductory essay, Cecilia Leong-Salobir, Krishnendu Ray, and Jaclyn Rohel raise provocative questions about the forms and processes by which circulations of food have occurred and the extent to which particular geographic features—terrestrial and marine, among others—have facilitated or impeded not only distinctive forms of national identity and heritage, but also geopolitical orders and hierarchies. The boundaries that demarcate conventional geographic categories like “Asia,” “Europe,” and “Caribbean,” as well as temporal categories such as “imperial” and “post-imperial,” become blurred as foods, food knowledge, food experiences, and the people who interact with these foods move in multiple directions and at varying speeds.

The authors of the essays in this special section respond to these provocations in different ways. Beverage cultures offer one tantalizing lens through which to observe global flows. Using the case of beer, Jeffrey Pilcher examines how the circulation of European brewers and their traditions has found receptive audiences in Asian markets and concomitantly has created new drinking styles and traditions. Lawrence Zhang looks to tea rituals in China in order to consider how traditions change over time, sometimes appropriating practices from elsewhere and then domesticating them into authentically local traditions.

In today’s Hong Kong, where daily life is marked by “one country, two systems,” the presence of foreign foods is less a marker of globalization than of Hong Kong’s long history of internationalism and internal cultural diversity.

This poster for USA Pears in a Hong Kong wet market raises intriguing questions about how movement troubles distinctions between origins and destinations, local and foreign, familiar and exotic.

Class emerges as another lens through which to reimagine borders, boundaries, and overlapping landscapes. In her essay on the movement of both turtle soup and mock turtle soup between overlapping networks that connect Canton, Europe, and the Caribbean, May-bo Ching critically examines how both an actual dish and its imitation reflect class and status positions, sensibilities, and aspirations within a colonial empire that spans multiple hemispheres and continents. Continuing these themes of class and empire, Ashutosh Kumar provides a fascinating historical account of the eating and drinking cultures among indentured workers aboard ships heading to India’s sugar colonies that not only sheds light on a population that is almost completely overlooked in accounts of labor but also resituates India and its periphery in a new colonial context.

Alternative geographies are especially resonant in Jean Duruz’s elegantly rendered inquiry into the economies of taste and care that link food, and most notably women’s food work, across Malaysia and Singapore, thereby illuminating the linkages that exist over and through water. Lastly, in their ethnographic case study of a new breed of culinary experts and enthusiasts in Turkey, Zafer Yenal and Michael Kubiena consider how innovations in food work and food cultures are repositioning Istanbul not at the edges but at the center of dynamic flows across many centuries and continents.

Ultimately, each of the contributors to this issue of Gastronomica critically considers the possibilities and limits of taste as a phenomenon that can illuminate and enable new ways of ordering, traversing, and understanding the world we live in. Come join us on this fascinating journey!

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Professor Sidney Mintz, who passed away at the age of 93 on December 27, 2015. Professor Mintz’s intellectual contributions to anthropology and food studies more generally have profoundly sparked, shaped, and reshaped numerous fields and conversations within and across the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. While his legacy is always very much evident in the articles featured in Gastronomica, this issue is a particularly illustrative example of the deep and extensive impact of Professor Mintz’s scholarship, leadership, and mentorship.