Editor’s Letter, Summer 2016

from Gastronomica 16:2

One of the greatest rewards of my position as editor of Gastronomica is that I have a front-row seat to the many developments taking place in studies of food. From the fascinating submissions and queries about potential submissions that I receive (sadly, there are always far more worthy and intriguing pieces than I can publish) to the new books that arrive in our book reviews office (again, far too many than we can feature or occasionally even fit on our shelves), and from the conversations that I have with established and emerging scholars, writers, and editors in the field to the many press releases I receive about all things food-related (innovative dinners, art exhibits, musical performances, among many, many events), it is clear that this is an ever-expanding field. This is especially gratifying given that when I first began my graduate work in social anthropology in the 1990s, food was largely considered an insignificant, even trivial topic. I still remember receiving reviews of grant proposals and early manuscripts in which reviewers suggested that I would be better served studying something more meaningful and weighty than food. Implicit—and sometimes explicit—in these comments was the message that food was too popular and too mundane to be a “real” scholarly topic.

At the same time, embedded within this criticism was what I understood to be a genuine concern that an overly focused orientation on food might be analytically limiting. For the case of the discipline of anthropology in the 1990s, there was recognition that simply collecting or describing cultural objects, recipes, and stories (i.e., what is often described as salvage anthropology) was not enough. Instead anthropologists argued for the need to think critically about the political, economic, and social systems in which those cultural artifacts existed and were made meaningful. In other words, food was intellectually meaningful not simply because of what it was but because of it what it might reveal.

The issue of food’s revelatory potential is one that has become ever more significant in light of the dramatically heightened scholarly and popular attention devoted to food. Within a context of increasingly food-related publishing, teaching, and experiences, there is a greater need to keep a focus on what, precisely, is at the center of all of this work. In other words, what is the actual object of our inquiry? Is it really about the food, or is it about something else? What are we trying to study when we consider food?

Food is a slippery, even elusive entity. Its commensal, at times even pleasurable, nature belies its fracturing and disruptive possibilities. Food cannot—and should not—be taken for granted but instead should be a starting point for deeper considerations. Food should provoke us to think, and more importantly to rethink what we think we know. When we engage in this more meditative work, a surprising thing happens: not only does food go in and out of focus, it also shifts our focus. Like a kaleidoscope, food never presents a single, stable picture but instead is constantly changing and refracting multiple possibilities, depending on which way we look at and through it. Turning food in different directions and changing our perspectives accordingly opens up new lines of inquiry: What new views might be revealed? What unexpected things might we discover? What new insights might be gleaned? How might we be surprised? Above all, food reminds us of the intellectual necessity of countering complacency and assumptions by dwelling in messiness and contradiction.

This imperative to turn food sideways, upside down, and inside out in order to see different properties comes through clearly in the contributions to this issue of Gastronomica. Each contributor provokes us to step back from what we think we know about food and food cultures and consider what a different vantage point might reveal. Anna Wexler begins our project of upending food by taking a rather ordinary foodstuff—the cherry tomato—and using it to expose the nationalist politics underlying and attempting to shape scientific research in Israel. This inquiry into the political sensibilities of ostensibly objective science is developed further in Susanne Friedberg’s article on “wicked problems,” in which she examines what happens when the messy and often contradictory nature of science gets caught up in national and international political debates and decisions about health and environment. One of the questions that emerges is how ordinary consumers navigate the roiling and pitching terrain of scientific knowledge and political interest, and what happens to any concrete or stable concept of “truth.”

Layla Eplett similarly tackles this question of “truth” in a fascinating essay on colonial labor, as told through nineteenth-century imperial chocolate wars, most notably captured in Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Oompa-Loompas who serve as (indentured?) migrant laborers for Willy Wonka. The multiple dimensions of labor within nation-making projects appear in a different vein in the article by Janet Fiskio, Md Rumi Shammin, and Vel Scott. Through a detailed ethnographic study of urban gardening among African American communities in the midwestern American urban setting of Cleveland (Ohio), the authors not only counter the prevailing whiteness of studies and popular understandings of America’s food providers, but they also offer a different vantage point for understanding how community is formed, experienced, and valued.

The places and means by which communities are formed and experienced are themes that circulate through articles by Ronald D. LeBlanc, Adrian De Leon, and Angela Meah. Ronald LeBlanc guides us on a fascinating journey through Soviet socialist realist literature and its ability to promote and parody the absurdities of everyday Soviet life. In this case, a novel about the Mikoyan mini-hamburger was transformed from a promotion of the Soviet meat industry into a pointed political commentary on many issues of critical importance to Soviet consumers—industrialization, safety, taste, aesthetics, and, above all, the omnipresence of the state. Moving around the world to the Philippines, Adrian De Leon uses siopao, a Filipino adaptation of the Chinese pork bun, to present a compelling political history about the legacy of Chinese migration and the Spanish and American occupations of the Philippines. Who eats siopao and how marks far more than simple taste preferences by illuminating the paradoxical and overlapping practices of culinary suspicion and appropriation.

Turning to a more grounded and material exploration of community, Angela Meah considers the interplay of physical spaces and emotional registers through a case study of British kitchens. Echoing Gaston Bachelard’s provocations that the physicality of spaces informs and shapes emotional experiences, Meah documents how people’s everyday lives—and the residues and memories of those lives—come to exist within the most intimate spaces where food is prepared, served, and consumed. Lisa Heldke takes up related themes in her personal essay about the sensory dimensions of memory as evoked by the food spaces associated with beloved and missed family members.

Lastly, Turna Ray and Sandra Clark Jergensen invite us to reconsider the form of food experiences. For Turna Ray, it is the question of how we eat—most notably, the rules and expectations about bringing body parts and bodily experiences into the acts of ingestion and how those rules might be challenged or disrupted and to what end. For Sandra Clark Jergensen, the focus is on the structures of recording food experiences and the forms of detective work mobilized by the very persons who are charged with preserving, protecting, and recuperating the past for contemporary audiences. By revealing the processes by which she deciphers the mysterious ingredients and instructions contained in recipes from the past, Clark Jergensen prompts intriguing questions about the interplay of past and present and whether taste is a universal sensory quality that can transcend temporal distance or must remain within its unique historical moment.

Thus each of these contributions challenges us to shift our attention across and outside of expected spatial, temporal, and even sensorial registers. Food is still there, but it has moved to the edges in some cases. Yet this does not mean that food has become peripheral or marginal. Rather, food’s new vantage point invites different participants and issues to the table, thereby sparking new conversations and possibilities.