Just recently in mid-September 2018, the state of California passed a new law that permits the sale of homemade food. A previous law—the Cottage Foods Law—permitted the sale of “non-potentially hazardous foods” such as fruit pies and jams, but otherwise outlawed the use of home kitchens for commercial purposes. By contrast, the new law allows home cooks to make and sell fresh food on the same day. Supporters argue that this new law will especially benefit members of marginalized communities—most notably, women, immigrants, and people of color. Opponents have drawn on arguments about food safety in order to voice concerns that commercially sold homemade foods carry the risk of spreading foodborne pathogens from poor handling and sanitation practices. What struck me was the presumption that homemade food might be more dangerous than food produced and consumed in a commercial sector—particularly in a context in which California’s food activists regularly encourage more home cooking as a way to prevent all kinds of social ills, such as obesity, and to promote social goods, such as children’s intellectual and social development, family and community bonds, and even support for local farmers and grocers. At the same time, “home-style cooking” appears regularly as a theme not just in restaurants but also in packaged foods, both across California and nationally. Clearly, homemade food is healthy and desirable—except when it is not.
It is the “when it is not” part that is so intriguing. What are the criteria by which food makers, diners, activists, and policy makers decide that homemade food is or is not desirable? Here in California, there is an obvious raced, classed, and gendered component to these decisions. “Street food” sold from a truck by young, white entrepreneurs is somehow quite different from the same “street food” sold from a pushcart or out of an ice chest in the back of a minivan parked along a side street and handled by an immigrant or person of color. Two cherubic elementary school children selling homemade lemonade at a sidewalk stand in front of their house are somehow perceived as clearly different from a homeless person selling bottles of warm soda from a tattered backpack. But what is the difference, or more precisely, what is the difference that matters? Is it the person making the homemade food? Or is it the nature of the “home” that is the source of the “homemade”? Does “home” really matter in “homemade”? And if it does, does “home” really need to be “at home”? When does the space between in-home and out-of-home become significant and in what ways? When is it preferable to eat one’s own homemade food, and when is it preferable to eat someone else’s “homemade” food, even if that food was not necessarily cooked in another’s home. Although the boundaries between in-home and out-of-home are blurred, distinctions matter to diners. Eating out is big business—even if what people are eating out is food from at-home.
So why do people eat out? How often do people eat out? And where do they eat out? These are some of the questions addressed by Alan Warde in his SOAS Food Studies Centre and Gastronomica Distinguished Lecture. In his Distinguished Lecture, Warde reports on changing patterns of eating out among diners in three large cities in England. As the research by Warde and his collaborators shows, since 1995 diners in England are eating more of their meals out of the home, and their habits reveal a diversification of dining options. Because this is a follow-up study, Warde and his collaborators are well positioned to probe the meanings behind these changes and ask their informants about their perspective and experiences. Informants can reflect on both past and present habits, offering a fascinating look at how consumers describe their habits and navigate the differences between eating at home and out, both past and present. What is especially intriguing is how eating out has become familiarized—in other words, whereas twenty years ago eating out was an exceptional, special event, now it is considered far more routine. Especially revealing is that these out-of-home spaces include other people’s homes in addition to more expected non-home spaces such as restaurants. Describing this as a process of familiarization, Warde considers how people come to feel a sense of familiarity, comfort, and even unremarkableness in these other spaces. As a result, these familiarizing dynamics open up interesting questions about when out-of-home spaces are as familiar as home spaces, and whether home spaces have become unfamiliar, even strange. How do we draw the line between home and not-home spaces? What constitutes these different spaces and how do they blur into one another? When is not-home more at-home than home?
Rethinking the familiarizing qualities of food life is a recurring theme in the other articles in this issue of Gastronomica, which take up the multiple relationalities that exist between life and death, aesthetics and analysis, real and imaginary, past and present, here and there. Bo McMillan, Michelle Bloom, and Jim Drobnick take on questions about the nature of reality, life, and liveliness through studies of food in its aesthetic modes. McMillan starts the conversation by thinking about the jazz-like qualities of food, and the food-like qualities of jazz through an examination of the food writing of American author Jack Kerouac. McMillan opens up possibilities not just for thinking about Kerouac as a food writer, but for seeing how food’s creative capacities endow it with possibilities for contributing to American culture and counterculture. Jim Drobnick focuses even more directly on the materiality of wine, and more precisely the materiality of wine bottles, and investigates how political aesthetics transform wine bottles from vessels into larger and critical social commentaries on life. Michelle Bloom expands our conversation about the aesthetics of life by critically comparing two Chinese-language films about maternal food memories. In both films, food is a way to preserve memory, culture, and family, but food’s preserving and connecting capacity is especially poignant in the context of Alzheimer’s and dementia, a topic typically omitted in both filmmaking and food studies. Bloom helps us see the power and possibility of food to make things real, to make memories and pasts come alive, and to provide comfort. Taking up literary studies from a different angle—that of Danish literature targeted at children, most notably children’s cookbooks—Karen Wistoft and Lars Qvortrup trace not just the evolution of a New Nordic Kitchen sensibility, but its disciplining qualities in the most intimate and ordinary spaces of children’s and families’ lives. In so doing, they map out not only the past of the New Nordic Kitchen but also its probable future, thereby blurring distinctions between past, present, and future, as well as between home and public.
Probing the ethical, metaphysical, and biological boundaries between life and death is central to Kelly Anderson’s critical inquiry into a newly enacted Swiss law banning the boiling of live lobsters. Through careful detailing of how chefs cook lobsters, and the practical and ethical considerations behind food preparation, Alexander considers the simultaneous transformations of, on the one hand, lobsters from live animal to food and, on the other, national culture to aesthetic politics. Devon Sampson continues the conversation about the shifting boundaries between politics and ethics in his analysis of the productivist approach to hunger alleviation. Moving between the realities of a farmer in rural Yucatan, Mexico, to formal, public events at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters in Rome, Sampson delves deeply into the disconnections between noble international attempts to alleviate poverty and the realities of the people who are forced to bear those attempts. Reality is multiple, and often contradictory. The multiple, even contradictory nature of reality colors Lacey Gibson’s comparison of drinking habits in France and England. Drawing on ethnographic research in Nice and London, Gibson poses possibilities for understanding how diners in these two cities enact and experience very different aesthetics of friendship, family, and national identity through their wine-drinking behaviors.
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Melissa L. Caldwell