Editor’s Letter, Winter 2020

From Gastronomica 20.4

Our last issue focused entirely on the impact of COVID-19 on food, and with this one we still cover the pandemic although we return to our regular format. The Gastronomica Editorial Collective decided to continue to offer a forum for authors to share their experiences, observations, and initial research in a dedicated section titled “COVID-19 Dispatches.” Several of these contributions examine the impact of COVID-19 on teaching. Others provide narratives of everyday life. Together, they offer new insights into the ways the pandemic has changed lives and how people have responded to it.

When my own anxiety over the effects of the pandemic and other global problems seem too much to cope with, I turn off the news and look to nature for its current events. I live in the Kansas countryside with gravel roads that turn my car into the dirtiest one in town. But in this last year especially I have come to appreciate how these roads force me to slow down. When I run—slowly—on them week by week, I can watch the transition in the life of the plants by the roadside, allowing me to mark the passage of time in the arrival and disappearance of dandelions and daisies. Trumpet vine and bindweed thrive on the roadside despite the efforts of some of my neighbors to eradicate them. Zen Master Dōgen (1200–1253) observed, “in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread” (Tanahashi 1985: 69).

One of my best decisions in recent years was to stop cutting my lawn, and the yard is now so much more interesting. Frogs have a place to hide and fireflies lay their eggs on the native plants that have overgrown the grass. Mother Nature has not only returned, she has taken over both my property and home.

Someday I may regret the squirrels living in my attic, but I have stopped worrying about the band of groundhogs under the porch who ravage the garden, gnawing my broccoli down to the bone. In light of climate change and so many other environmental problems, I find comfort in nature claiming these small victories. I did draw a line when the raccoon matriarch started teaching her kits how to use the cat door. But I only watch now as she regularly overturns the birdfeeder to dump out the sunflower seeds and raids the compost for the melon rinds. After all, we are all sheltering in place together.

Another recent pleasure of mine has been working on this issue with my Gastronomica colleagues. I am grateful to them and particularly the Managing Editor, Jessica Carbone, for the effort and advice she provided in putting this issue together (and the ones that preceded it). And I thank the contributing authors (and the reviewers) for sharing their work with us.

An often-used expression in Japanese is that the best cooking “gives life to the taste of ingredients” (aji o ikasu), meaning that a chef should try to bring out natural flavors as opposed to disguising their cooking with a cloying sauce. The section “Working with Ingredients” showcases three authors who breathe new intellectual life into what might otherwise be prosaic foodstuffs from salmon to chicken to wine.

While many of us are still staying at home due to COVID-19, John Gifford’s description of hopping on a boat off the coast of Vancouver Island is an even more welcome escape. When Gifford points out the huge Japanese-owned aquaculture endeavors farming salmon, we realize that this is more than a pleasure trip: we discover how an international company is firmly entrenched in what we thought was a pristine setting. While aquaculture is growing to meet the global demands for fish, it is not without its own environmental effects, as Gifford delineates. He ends by offering an alternative model of fishing that is both sustainable and in harmony with indigenous culture.

Sarah Kollnig provides a detailed examination of the reasons for and the implications of Bolivia’s high rate of chicken consumption. Bolivians eat more chicken than beef, and more poultry per capita than the United States. Industrially produced poultry may be less expensive, but cheap chicken does not mean the end of social inequities. On the contrary, Kollnig documents how this source of protein actually facilitates the economic exploitation of the poor. If the chickens themselves could speak they would report how before the 1980s they lived in backyards and received the care of families until they were needed for a holiday; since then, chickens have become a “genetically improved” but disease-prone factory commodity produced by big poultry industries owned by the privileged white elite. Although chicken consumption unites Bolivians, the poor often have to make due with necks and feet.

Famous for her ability to coax out the natural flavor in her grapes, award-winning winemaker Sandrine Caloz also reveals great sensitivity in her interaction with her Eritrean coworkers and the environment, as Scott Haas’s portrait of her shows. Haas indicates that consumers in North America may soon be able to taste the Swiss varietals that Caloz transforms into organic wine. When they do, Haas’s article should be remembered for disclosing the labors and love that went into each bottle.

The trio of articles about “Technology and Taste in East Asia” began as papers at a workshop at the University of Hong Kong in 2019. When it came time to think about revising the papers for publication, the conference organizers and the authors agreed that Gastronomica would be an ideal home for these three essays. After more than a year of revising in response to external reviews, the articles became ready for publication at the same time that I took my turn as issue editor. As editor, I find it awkward to be including my own work here. I do so at the insistence of the other members of the editorial collective. As an author, however, I am honored for my article to be published alongside two provocative essays on the history of flavorings representative of East Asia: soy sauce and prickly ash (sanshō). These three articles have a separate introduction that precedes them.

The next section, “Excursions,” encompasses food-focused journeys as well as
transgressions against the barriers supporting systems of discrimination and economic
inequality. Coline Ferrant and Gary Alan Fine help us navigate the food scene for
Mexican residents in Chicago. The authors observe that the terms “food oasis” and
“food desert” are too static to explain the dynamic ways that Mexicans drive around
the city to dine out and in quest of cumin, the pastry concha, fish, chilis, and other
items.

Daniel E. Bender narrates an earlier tale of travelers Lucile and Bill Mann, whose 1937 search in Asia for animals for the Washington National Zoo led them to culinary discoveries that Lucile carefully scrapbooked. Lucile’s record of “colonial indulgence and Eastern exoticism” speaks to the privileges that she, a middle-class housewife, not only relished but also never questioned. Lucile illustrates how someone can travel, face challenges, and meet new people but never once be fundamentally changed by these experiences. In her entitlement she remained as trapped as the animals her husband purchased abroad.

Our “Dolce” section highlights sweets that deserve respect. Andrea Chase asks us to consider the sublime geometry of the donut, which she calls the “sum of existence.” Had there been donuts in ancient China, the Daoist philosophers would have pondered these confections encircling emptiness. “It is the center hole that makes it useful,” to cite the Daodejing attributed to the sixth-century B.C.E. sage Laozi (Feng and English 1972: verse 9). But Chase also illuminates the sensuality of doughnuts that makes them taste so good.

At our first editorial meeting, I recall members of the Gastronomica editorial collective (myself included) vowing that we would never ever publish another poem, but Jennifer Certo’s “Limoncello” made us eat (drink?) those words. Who could refuse verse that tempts with just “one sweet note”? Certo changed my mind about poetry and food, and I raise a glass of “sweetness and light” to her.

I encourage you to visit the Gastronomica website (gastronomica.org) where the conversation continues in our social media posts and podcasts in conjunction with Meant to be Eaten and Heritage Radio Network. I could write more about what I have learned from the essays in this issue, but instead I offer another passage from the Daodejing:

Better stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade and the edges will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.
(Feng and English 1972: verse 9)

—Eric C. Rath, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Jefferson County, Kansas, August 2020

REFERENCES
Feng, Gia-fu, and Jane English. 1972. Lao Tsu: Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.
Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed. 1985. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen. Berkeley:
North Point Press