Editor’s Letter, Fall 2017

from Gastronomica 17:3

Lunches at my daughter’s school might include fried rice, dumplings, and noodles in addition to fruit, water, milk, and juice.
Photograph by Melissa L. Caldwell © 2017

As I write this editor’s letter at the beginning of June, I am in the home stretch of packing daily lunches for my daughter to take to school. As you read this in late August, I, like many parents, will already be back to the grind of trying to plan lunches that will both nourish my daughter and excite her enough that she actually eats what I pack. School lunches, as we all know, are a simultaneously fascinating and disturbing microcosm of the various power dynamics that exist among children, parents, schools, and other social observers and critics.

Most often, critical commentaries on school lunches have focused on the nutritional aspects of what children are eating: Are children eating “healthy” foods? Are they getting enough to eat? Are their meals prepared at home from fresh ingredients or in an institutional setting from mass-produced ingredients? A prevalent secondary concern has been whether children are knowledgeable about the foods they are eating: Do children know where their foods come from? Do they have personal experiences with planting, picking, or preparing the foods they eat? Collectively, such concerns with school lunches have pushed health to the top of the list as the most important aspect of children’s midday meal.

But what else might school lunches tell us?

A kindergartener contemplates lunch before heading to the playground.
Photograph by Melissa L. Caldwell © 2017

Several weeks ago, at the beginning of May, my daughter’s school observed Teacher Appreciation Week. So that the teachers could enjoy a special, catered lunch sponsored by the parents’ association, I volunteered for a shift as a lunch monitor for the kindergarten and first-grade classes. That hour offered a unique vantage point from which to observe what was most likely a fairly typical lunchtime experience for my daughter and her classmates. I quickly learned that the children were expected to show a teacher—or a parent, in this case—their lunches and how much they had eaten before they were allowed to be finished. If the adult decided they had eaten “enough” to be full, or at least finished, then the children were free to play on the playground.

Leaving aside issues of surveillance and monitoring, that small ritual afforded me a close glimpse into the lunchboxes and onto the lunch trays of about sixty students at an elementary school in the heart of Silicon Valley. What I discovered was that there was incredible diversity in the students’ lunches—far more than prevailing sentiment might suggest. I saw sandwiches, salads, couscous, dumplings, stir-fried noodles, curries, pastas, and soups, among many other items, alongside bags of chips, packaged cookies, and boxed juices. There was a striking cultural and culinary heterogeneity.

One student’s lunch includes couscous with grilled steak, yogurt, and strawberries.
Photograph by Melissa L. Caldwell © 2017

Clearly, I cannot draw conclusions about American children’s lunches from what I observed at a single lunch at a single elementary school. Yet this diversity prompted me to think more about the articles in this special issue. Specifically, I wondered if the children whose lunches I observed—or the parents who made those lunches—were aware of the global dynamics that were at play behind the scenes. Did globalization matter to them? Was it a meaningful category? Or were these simply normal, ordinary, and familiar lunches? And if they were normal, ordinary, and familiar, how might analytical observers make sense of that? Could an observer draw conclusions about the nature of this setting—an elementary school—as a space shaped by global or local processes?

These are some of the themes that concern the contributors to this special issue on globalization and heritage. In my comments to the contributors at earlier stages of review, I pushed them to consider whether globalization is still a productive concept for understanding cultural movements and cultural change, especially for food trends. Certainly, globalization is a reality that has existed for centuries, even millennia. Given that long history, how might our understanding of globalization have changed, especially over the past several decades as globalization theories have developed into a rich and robust field of study?

The contributors to this special issue have taken up this challenge of reconsidering globalization, and their articles engage with a number of issues of continuing and emerging significance. As a starting point, one of the central topics that weaves together the contributions to this special issue focuses on a deceptively simple question: how do foods make places? This question presents a different perspective from a more usual question about how places make or remake foods that circulate through global processes. Here, through comparisons across China, Japan, and Korea, the authors examine how foods and food practices contribute to the constitution of places—communities, regions, nations—and times. Central to these dynamics are issues of heritage, identity, and power. In so doing, the authors shed new light on the nature of global-local dynamics, with particular attention to the ways in which both individual foods and culinary practices can be simultaneously grounded in local communities and deterritorialized and circulate at regional, national, and even transnational levels.

Stephanie Assmann begins this special issue with a critical look at how globalization as both process and theoretical framework sheds light on the ways in which East Asian societies navigated profound political, economic, and cultural changes during the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. A key insight is the emergence of nation-states’ interest in food as a means to enact new forms of identity politics, both internal and external. One of the results is that in the realm of global geopolitics, food occupies a privileged position in forms of “culinary soft power.”

This attention to the “soft power” of food in identity politics is central to Chi-Hoon Kim’s article on royal court cuisine in Korea. As Kim details, over the past decade the Korean government’s efforts to position itself as a regional and global power has included an explicit campaign to promote the uniqueness of Korean society. Specifically, by celebrating royal court cuisine of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), the Korean government attempted to present a civilizational model of a unified and progressive culture. Among the unintended consequences, however, were ongoing debates about the eliteness of court cuisine and more general conversations about what, precisely, constituted a uniquely and singularly Korean culinary heritage. In this way, food’s “soft power” was both projected to external audiences and subjected to critical interrogation from internal audiences.

Nation-state efforts to harness national, regional, and global politics to food are also the subject of Stephanie Assmann’s article on Japan’s Shokuiko Campaign, or the Basic Law of Food Education. This law was meant to introduce a nationwide food education program that would use nutrition as a means for addressing social problems across the country. Through a careful analysis that looks at the historical antecedents of Japanese efforts to use food education in order to inculcate particular social and moral values in citizens, Assmann shows how this new movement is embedded within Japanese concerns about the effects of globalization.

Ding-Tzann Lii continues this discussion of the anti-globalization potential of food politics in an analysis of rice as a material symbol in Taiwanese political mobilization. By considering three different moments of political mobilization—internationalization, globalization, and anti-globalization—Lii connects Taiwanese social action efforts with larger food justice movements across the globe.

Taking a different tack, Greg de St. Maurice examines how chefs in Tokyo have emerged as among the first line of activists in protecting local food cultures and reviving local food economies. Their efforts, however, are not necessarily exclusionary but include embracing and incorporating foreign ingredients into Kyoto cuisine and working with colleagues outside Japan to support and extend global circulations of culinary knowledge, skills, and cultures. As a result, Kyoto chefs have been navigating global processes in order to refashion and control the local.

At an even more intimately grounded level within Japan, C. Anne Claus invites critical rethinking of what constitutes “local cuisine.” Through a case study of a clam restoration project in southwestern Okinawa, Claus examines how clams disrupt expectations about what constitutes “true” Okinawan culinary heritage, both in terms of mainlanders’ skepticisms about the clams’ association with local cuisine, and in terms of the clams’ value to local islanders for whom they represent a social landscape. By attending to the ways in which clams evoke a sense of merroir, Claus prompts an important discussion on contestations over food heritage, locality, and the authority of minorities.

Ann Veeck, Hongyan Yu, and Gregory Veeck extend this conversation about the contested nature of heritage and locality through their examination of pig feasts in rural northeast China. As they show, despite the importance of pig feasts as a form of sociality among farming households, recent trends prompted by globalization—labor migration, urbanization, industrialization of agriculture, and the year-round availability of meat—are potentially undermining the significance and prevalence of this tradition. In this case, globalization is a process of social transformation that is reshaping not just the boundaries of the local but also the cultural heritage that exists within those boundaries.

For Lanlang Kuang, the issues of the effect of globalization on heritage and locality take on new shape as food moves into the realm of the intangible, most notably in the form of food media. In a discussion of increasing media attention to food in China, Kuang explores the processes by which food has become transformed into a global discourse that circulates among media celebrities, commentators, and viewers. Of particular interest here is how Chinese food documentaries have inspired new communities of viewers who evaluate and debate the aesthetic merits of food media, often resulting in heated battles among proponents of different aesthetic styles. These new forms of global media are thus producing not just new forms of food that are distanced from any tangible form to be physically ingested, but also new modes of global politics that play out in the realm of media aesthetics instead of through more traditional geopolitical or global economic processes.

Collectively, by considering the material dimensions of food’s potential for “soft power,” the articles in this special issue invite us to rethink many important questions about how food mediates the physical and temporal scales of global/local/regional/national/transnational relationships.