My daughter recently attended a birthday party at a local “teaching kitchen” that offers cooking classes for all ages. In a brightly lit, fully stocked presentation kitchen, fifteen five-year-olds were taken through the steps of making their own pizzas from scratch: making the dough and sauce, rolling the dough out into individual-sized portions, and personalizing them with sauce and toppings. The instructor emphasized hands-on engagement with the food. Each child was invited to touch, smell, and taste the ingredients as they went through the steps of measuring, mixing, rolling, chopping, and spreading. Parents helped as needed, but that help was minimal and most often directed at ensuring that the children were taking turns and sharing utensils or ingredients. Children and parents alike seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Beyond the obvious enjoyment, the children were very much focused on the materiality of the foods at hand, whether it was playing with the toppings they put on their pizzas or sampling all of the potential toppings for the cupcakes they decorated later. I watched as my daughter and her friends experimented with shapes, textures, colors, smells, tastes, and even sounds. Which toppings could stack easily, and which ones rolled off the frosting? Which ones bounced, and which ones squished? Which ones bled colors as they got wet from sweaty fingers, and which ones squirted liquid or chunks when they were squeezed? The children were not concerned with nutrients, calories, price, or ethics. Nor did they care about how their pizzas or cupcakes were plated or whether their creations were nutritionally appropriate. Instead, the children seemed to be focused on the materiality of the foods in front of them and the visceral experience of those foods. For them, food was more than fuel for their bodies; it was a material object to be explored, experienced, and enjoyed in multiple ways.
This reminder of the materiality of food—its thingness—is an important one, especially as we reconsider what food is and why it occupies such an important part of daily life. Even when we consider the more abstract, ephemeral qualities of food as it is caught up in symbolic systems of value, use, prestige, ethics, and morals, it is often the very tangible, corporeal dimensions that make those symbolic systems possible. Food’s significance comes precisely from the fact that it is always, indisputably and intrinsically, a material thing.
This issue of Gastronomica engages with the materialities of food and food experiences. By taking seriously the physicality of food and food events, the contributors to this issue seek to investigate what constitutes food as a thing that generates categories, values, beliefs, and experiences. As Emma-Jayne Abbots writes in her introduction to this collection of articles, this attention to the materiality of food is productive because “seemingly unquestionable assumptions about what constitutes food are disturbed, our embodied encounters with the stuff of food elucidated, and the ways in which we can think about the entanglements among foods, bodies, and things unpacked.”
Through pieces that explore such diverse topics as how expired food that becomes remaindered as waste is diverted to alternative consumption streams in Japan, the circulation of Portuguese wine through encounters between marketers and consumers, or the ways in which hummus moves across political boundaries between Israel and Palestine, Gavin Whitelaw, Nuno Domingos, and Nir Avieli, respectively, critically interrogate how the materiality of food and its entity as a thing may or may not coincide at different moments. While the material object stays the same, its existence changes. From a different angle, the related theme of the dynamic temporal rhythms made possible and visible by the very materiality of food emerges compellingly in Ben Coles’s provocation on agri-capitalism and chicken farming.
Another cluster of articles by Anna Lavis, Suzanne Hocknell, Alexandra Sexton, and Jon Holtzman examine the materiality of food in its visceral registers, most notably as it intersects with the body. Lavis’s article explores how the movement of food into and out of the body prompts individuals to focus on how the physical attributes of food prompt physical bodily responses, a theme picked up by Holtzman in his discussion of the cultural experience of sweets and bodily aesthetics in Japan. Hocknell and Sexton both address the materiality of food when it switches registers between “natural” and “synthetic,” with Hocknell considering British consumers’ concerns with fats such as margarine and Sexton examining how alternative protein foods stand in (or not) for “meat.” Yet another cluster of articles illuminates how we can engage with the material forms of food and food experiences to understand long-ago worlds. Through detailed archaeological analyses of food and food vessels, Louise Steel reveals the intricacies of kitchen culture and social worlds in the Bronze Age, while Philipp Stockhammer sheds light on transnational intercultural food exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age.
Lastly, the ways in which the physicality of food can evoke visceral, bodily experiences of both eaters and observers are captured dramatically by Adrienne Rose Johnson’s fascinating piece on competitive eating. When food—and not just food but massive quantities of it, and often things like spicy chicken wings or hot dogs—moves through the human body during training routines and competitions, it shifts from physiological registers of ingestion and digestion to affective registers of pride, amazement, and even enjoyment.
As each contribution shows, the thingness of food becomes a way both to ground our expectations and analyses and to disrupt them. When people use food, experience it, and reflect on their engagement with it, food becomes both solidified as a thing and fragmented into its many different dimensions and potentialities.
Melissa L. Caldwell