Editor’s Letter, Spring 2021

From Gastronomica 21.1

On the cover of this issue, the dinner table, the place of conviviality, is also shown as a space of power and exclusion, of seated White male corporate officers attended by Black waiters standing in the background. In the opening article, we read a quote from US senator Elizabeth Warren: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu.” Regardless of where one stood in the political storms of late 2020, it was clear that many people in the world had not yet had a chance to sit down at this proverbial table, while quite a few others were deeply worried about losing their places at it. Whether one was left sitting or standing, it was an anxious time for both groups: those who have enjoyed the fruits of economic well-being and political influence, and those who have yet to get a taste. Ultimately, everyone wants and needs a place at the table, perhaps not the sort of corporate high table that signals exclusivity and privilege, but certainly the sort that represents security, nutrition, and belonging.

At the time of writing this letter, shortly after the US elections of 2020, it looks as if a few more people just might get a seat at the political table in the United States. Maybe there will only be a shuffling of political seating arrangements, but possibly there will be more places at real tables where people actually get fed. And with a vaccine against COVID-19 on the horizon, people might be able again to share those tables with many others. With that in view, there is occasion for celebrating the dinner table again, but also for reflecting on what it represents in terms of social inclusion. As Mackensie Griffin writes in the opening article, “A dining table represents the zeitgeist, a space for inclusion and advancement, an invitation to come together, and an opportunity for communication waiting to be seized” (p.5). Let’s just hope that is so.

Other articles also delve deeply into culinary politics, starting with those grouped into the opening section on “Food and Power.” For older Americans at least, Amy Bentley’s account of the scandalous labeling of ketchup as a vegetable during the early Reagan administration will recall political battles that heralded the arrival of our own bitterly partisan age. In Efrat Gilad’s piece on the promotion of milk in Israel, we see how food became the focus of Zionist nation-building in Israel, again with children at the center of food politics. Apropos of the recent racial turmoil in the United States, several book and film reviews in this issue deal directly with race, inequality, and resistance, including accounts of food activismin New York, Black food geographies in Washington, D.C., banana imperialism in Central America and the Caribbean, the marketing of sugary drinks in Mexico, and food politics in Puerto Rico.

While food is always served up with power and wrapped in politics, this issue also explores how food is a means for cultivating relationships and sustaining memories. And in some cases this type of care work is a way of circumventing the effects of power, as we see in Alyshia Gálvez’s account of the paqueteros and paqueteras, the couriers who transport comfort foods, among many other goods, from Mexico to the United States. They represent alternative transnational pathways formed by grassroots entrepreneurs evading corporate and state domination, and they also show how these activities sustain alternative foodways for migrants on both sides of the border, both as producers and consumers. The maintenance of food memories and the sustenance of family members are also the subjects of Erin Thomason’s focus on the Chinese shaoguo as a regional foodway in rural Henan and Matthew Meduri’s examination of American oyster dressing as a somewhat mysterious and untraceable family tradition. The latter piece reminds us how poorly we understand our own families, even as we attempt to hold onto family histories and memories through food. Culinary memory is shown to be more a product of people cooking and caring for each other in the present than something we can easily pin down in the past.

Chefs are spotlighted in this issue, and that spotlight brings some heat. From Andrea Oskis, we learn how chefs cope with the combat of celebrity cooking shows, reflecting our anxious desire to be a “good cook” back at us. Questioning this aura of individual creativity and charisma, Rasmus Simonsen’s piece dissects the multiple influences on a celebrity chef’s signature dish, revealing the creative process as but a node in much larger social and natural processes. John Broadway further problematizes a global culinary star system in which elite chefs in remote areas serve expensive and hyperlocal fare to hypermobile gourmets soaked with cash. Reading Broadway’s contribution in this era of immobility and COVID-19, we can’t help but wonder who those chefs are serving now. It is a difficult time to be a chef, whether a global star or a local line cook. Stunned by COVID-19, the restaurant industry will likely look very different in 2021, but professional cooks will remain on our collective minds. As Oskis writes about television chefs, “Cooking is a drive-thru straight to our fundamental need to belong, both off and on screen.” We still will want chefs to guide us back to social belonging after COVID-19, perhaps with fewer velvet ropes and more conviviality (and hopefully a return to steady paychecks for those serving the meals).

Writing this letter, I am looking optimistically to an imagined 2021 when it will appear in print, perhaps even at the dawn of postpandemic life. But in the fall of 2020, we are still living deep within the crisis, with rising numbers of cases in much of the world and increasingly devastating consequences, including for the restaurants mentioned above. The special section “COVID-19 Dispatches” covers the impact of the pandemic across a wide range of regions and issues, from a panel discussion on how Chinese food habits and food systems have been stigmatized and misrepresented in the Anglophone media to a discussion of how food suppliers and consumers are coping with disruptions in supply and demand in Japan, the country where I live. Here in Tokyo, we have been spared the worst of the global COVID-19 crisis so far. Perhaps it’s the mask-wearing, we say. Perhaps it’s the ingrained habit of social distancing, we speculate. We don’t shake hands, and we don’t usually hug people we don’t actually like. But we all do need and want to sit down and take a meal together. I miss the easy inebriated conviviality with strangers in the packed eateries of neighborhood Tokyo. Let’s hope we all find ourselves a place at a shared, inclusive, and lively table during this coming year.

—James Farrer, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Tokyo, Japan, November 2020