Editor’s Letter, Spring 2018

from Gastronomica 18:1

“What is the relationship between food and value?” This succinct but complex question stimulates many debates and discussions within critical food studies. Is the relationship dictated by the type of food or ingredients used? A particular recipe or the background of the person who picked, prepared, served, or consumed the food? Is it the way in which foods flow through personal, regional, or global networks? Does value arise through combinations of aesthetic, sensory, and cultural qualities? Is it a blend of some or all of these qualities? Or is something else at play?

In this issue of Gastronomica, Micah Trapp takes this question in new and fascinating directions by exploring the world of American grocery auctions. Through a detailed ethnographic case study of what actually happens during grocery auctions in Mississippi and Maryland, Trapp examines how the spoils and excesses of an industrialized food system are transformed into valued foods. In so doing, Trapp complicates our understandings of market capitalism in a world where scarcity, excess, desire, and need are remade. Themes of value also emerge in Jake Young’s provocation on offal. Once commonplace in American food cultures but now increasingly rare, offal’s presence and absence challenges Americans to grapple with their feelings about animal flesh. Which pieces of animal flesh are desirable and for whom? How do American consumers think about waste and wastefulness, as well as desire and enjoyment, when animal bodies are at stake?

Beyond nudging us to rethink value and desire, Trapp’s and Young’s articles also invite us to think about another important dimension of food: the performative. Both auction bidding and the preparation of food—especially an unfamiliar or challenging food—invite diners and their observers to consider how food is always embedded within rules and rituals. These are the topics that emerge in articles by Michelle King, Rebeca Maseda, and David Bacon. Taking as her focus Fu Pei-mei, a prolific cookbook author and television personality in postwar Taiwan who was often described as the “Julia Child of Chinese Cooking,” King examines how Fu Pei-mei’s work represented a blending of the cultural and the political for emerging nationalist values. By engaging directly with her female audience and promoting a diverse array of Chinese regional cuisines, Fu Pei-mei was at the forefront of projects to promote and perform the promise of a united nation. From a different vantage point, Rebeca Maseda uses film as a medium for understanding domestic cultural politics in post-Franco Spain. Centering on Pedro Almodóvar’s film What Have I Done to Deserve This!!, Maseda shows how Almodóvar’s use of food expresses cultural anxieties over gender and social conflict. Thus in Maseda’s article the performative operates at multiple registers. David Bacon then extends these themes of performance, politics, and people by moving backstage into the personal lives of the people who harvest our food. Through his beautifully moving and evocative visual essay, Bacon introduces us to Gervasio Peña Lopez, an indigenous migrant farmworker who labors in California’s fields. Weaving together different pieces of Peña Lopez’s life, Bacon asks profound questions about how and why people endure the hardships of migration to do some of the most difficult and taxing work imaginable. As Bacon shows, the performance of labor is also a performance of community solidarity, connection with heritage, and, ultimately, hope and optimism. As such, these are the values that inspire people to labor and that ultimately go into the foods that we eat.

Television, film, and photography as food media also invite discussion about the alternative materialities of food as it moves from an object to be ingested by the body to an object to be consumed and appreciated in other ways. Merriane Timko takes us into the literary world by analyzing a Christmas Eve supper menu detailed in Lawrence Durrell’s Monsieur, the first novel of The Avignon Quintet. Through her careful study of the foods presented, Timko not only reveals the culinary side of this British writer, but shows his attempts to create a sense of place—and specifically that of Provence—through his writing. Thus, part documentation of a meal and part explication of literary style, Timko’s article illuminates the polyvalence of food to speak to multiple registers simultaneously. Michael Kideckel takes up the topic of the many languages of food in his article on anti-intellectualism among American food activists and manufacturers over the past two centuries. Moving from the salvationist nutritional advocates of the nineteenth century to more contemporary food reformers, Kideckel traces out the multiple, and often conflicting and contradictory, knowledge systems that have been invoked to “educate” consumers about the foods they prepare and consume. At stake has been the authority of science in the face of populist food reform movements. Finally, Liselotte Hedegaard explores the ways in which taste and place come to be known and appreciated. Drawing from philosophical debates about the phenomenology of taste, Hedegaard suggests possibilities for rethinking how associations between taste, place, experience, value, and meaning come to exist. As she argues, place matters, but the way that place comes to matter reveals much about its underlying value systems.

From gendered performances to auction bidding, from holiday menus to the rejection of science, and from ephemeral experiences of place to very grounded, corporeal labor practices, the discussions and debates in this issue of Gastronomica invite us to think broadly about the value of food and our roles in bringing food to life.