Editor’s Letter, Summer 2020

From Gastronomica 20.2

I was fortunate to be able to do most of my reading for this issue in a location not available to many people: a lovely house overlooking a lagoon in South Africa’s West Coast National Park, a 90 (or so)–minute drive from Cape Town, where I live and work. The house is owned by close friends, and we’ve been visiting it long enough for their youngest child to have dubbed it “Signe’s house” because my husband and I always arrived for shared weekends before they did. So, for as long as she can remember, I’d already be busy pottering in the kitchen when they finally arrived after collecting children from after-school sporting events, or birthday parties, or negotiating Friday afternoon traffic (sometimes all of these commitments and more).

The house is technically situated in an area called Stofbergfontein, a local variation of a town name many South Africans will immediately recognize—fontein is Afrikaans (and Dutch) for “fountain” or “spring,” and its iterations are legion in the country, presumably in historical celebration of finding water on barren land (Bloemfontein, Matjiesfontein, Clara Anna Fontein, to name a few). But better known—and searchable on Google Maps—is the closest landmark, known as Churchhaven. (I say landmark with respectful caution: among the sparsely populated fishing community on the West Coast, Churchhaven would almost certainly qualify as a town, legal definitions aside; for those of us who live in cities, village or hamlet would probably be a more accurate description. There is indeed a church, and even a mayor, but no post office and definitely no Uber Eats.)

For a nonreligious person such as myself, our friends’—or “my”—house in Churchhaven is as heavenly as it gets. Given the poor cellphone reception out among the dunes, it is the calmest place I know, and therefore the best place I know to read. But the best place to read can also prove to be the hardest place to do so, because it is one of those rarest of places where all you actually want to do is sit on the stoep (local lingo for balcony or veranda) and gaze at the lagoon with a glass of wine, or, later in the day, stare into the flames of an outside fire as the wood whittles down to the glowing embers required for that evening’s braai (barbecue). With another glass of wine, of course.

Approximately halfway through my reading of the articles that populate this issue, I recall my intermittent gaze at the lagoon being distracted by a francolin (a guinea fowl–like bird common to South Africa’s Western Cape—our friend calls them “Churchhaven chickens”) in the small patch of shrubbery directly in front of the house. He—or she—was pecking furiously at a piece of orange peel left by the previous visitors to the house. I became intrigued by the bird’s persistence, even as the peel was clearly dried out and difficult to manage; its potential nutritional contribution questionable at best.

Persistence is one of the themes that run through the articles in this issue, and indeed frames many of the ways we speak and think about food today, be it in terms of protecting existing foods and traditions, lamenting those that are threatened by new behaviors or cycles of nature, or even in the perpetuation of certain language used to describe what and how we eat and drink. Zachary Nowak, Bradley M. Jones, and Elisa Ascione’s article on “Disciplining Polenta” begins with a spoof of the rules governing Italy’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) system, which is of course no joke, but the piece does encourage important critical reflection on the possibility of such systems operating as a “protective force against the specter of modernity and its flattening impulse” rather than a considered expression of which foods—and food traditions—require “saving,” as we explored in-depth in our special issue on “Saving Food” (19:3). Adam Calo’s research into the trope of the “Beginner Farmer” (portrayed as predominantly white, privileged, Herculean, and self-sacrificing) adds to the persistence of a myth that ignores, the author argues, the actual challenges of twenty-first-century agrarianism.

In Joel Harold Tannenbaum’s recounting of the myth-making “experiment”—there’s some doubt as to whether one such experiment actually took place—involving (dyed) blue steak, red peas, and green fries, we learn about the persistence and metamorphosis of a culinary (and scientific) myth: an excellent example of how the language of both food and science is transmitted, more fascinating with each retelling and embellishment, its origins harder to lock down with each iteration. Susan H. Gordon’s musings (incidentally also inspired by gazing at a wonderful landscape), which interrogate the appropriate word to use for Italian wines and produce rather than the French catch-all terroir, propose a keener, more captive descriptor in the Italian territorio—much less persistent, and more cognizant of geographical and historical fluctuations than its French counterpart.

In a nod to the nonpersistence of some traditions, Samuel H. Yamashita guides readers through the rise and influence of Japanese tasting menus, first in France in the 1970s, in Los Angeles and New York in the 1980s, and then across the general San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s and 2000s, while Carl Ipsen details the uncertain future of the centuries-old olive oil industry in Italy’s Puglia region thanks to a devastating scourge of the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium. In their piece on “worry-nostalgia,” Sarah Trainer, Jessica Hardin, Cindi SturtzSreetharan, and Alexandra Brewis examine the anxiety around individual and community health as traditional ways of eating are increasingly replaced by “globalized foodscapes” in three distinct—but evidently not so different—locations: Osaka, Japan; Atlanta, Georgia in the United States; and Apia, Samoa. Tackling the making and breaking of tradition from a somewhat different angle, Sabine Parrish lifts the lid, so to speak, on how gender affects the experiences of female baristas at US specialty coffee competitions, concluding that the construct of the “ideal barista” remains reserved for cisgendered males, where any deviation from that outcome is likely to be called out as irregular.

In our final section on “Saving, Fermenting, Remembering Food,” Frances Cannon goes in search of fermentation expert Sandor Katz, hoping for some clues on using fermented foods as alternative medicine, only to be cautioned not to expect too much from food alone. Corey S. Pressman’s reminiscences of three burgers that punctuated memorable moments in his life remind us of the visceral—and persistent—connection between food and lived experiences, and David Bacon’s photo essay on the public markets of Vigan in the Philippines provides a stunning series of snapshots of the everyday moments that add vitality to the necessary transactions of living.

As diverse in focus and approach as the pieces that make up this issue are, they all speak to something I saw in that Churchhaven chicken pecking away at an unyielding orange peel: a wonderful stubbornness; a refusal to let go. And while we cannot guarantee that traditions, myths, and ways of being will not change—sometimes for the better, sometimes quite clearly for the worse—having them recorded in these pages is one way they will persist, or at least be remembered. I hope you will enjoy this issue as much as I savored the privilege of editing it.