Editor’s Letter, Summer 2021

From Gastronomica 21.2

In the dark, difficult, and volatile days of January 2021, I was grateful to have a task that required laser-focused attention: reading through the essays, research articles, and reviews that have come together in this issue of Gastronomica. For several hours a day, I was (mostly) able to block out the searing stream of screeching headlines on the ever-expanding devastations taking place around the globe and close to home: the rapidly escalating impacts of COVID-19; the glaring needs and demands for too-long-denied racial and social justice; the shocking economic upheavals and political rampages. As barbed wire, security fencing, and armed troops transformed my city, Washington, DC, after the January 6 siege on the US Capitol, I found inspiration, and so much more, in the material herein.

This issue of the journal is all over the place. Its authors take us to six continents and many nations, including India, Taiwan, the Philippines, Senegal, Brazil, Peru, France, Italy, Australia, Canada, and the United States. However, it would be a mistake to think of this issue as an escape. Many of the articles explore the very issues that underlie our current global turmoil, starting with the three pieces clustered around the theme, “Portraying the ‘Other.'” These articles examine how food media, with varying degrees of intention, have effectively marginalized communities in the public sphere. Alison Hope Alkon and Rafi Grosglik explore representations of race in food television, focusing on programs that, via a celebrity chef host, bring viewers into cultural spaces and culinary traditions that are not typically known or understood to mainstream audiences. They argue that such programs, in commodifying the cuisines of marginalized communities for the vicarious delight of viewers, often ignore the larger inequalities that have shaped the lived experiences of those communities. Donica Belisle provides a close reading of the visual elements of archival documents, focusing on one company’s advertising campaigns. Playing on negative stereotypes of Black laborers, the ads functioned to reinforce a sense of superiority among white consumers in western Canada. And what about “othering” through words? Members of the Gastronomica Editorial Collective turned the lens on themselves to ask: What is the meaning and purpose of italicizing non-English words in the journal? What are we communicating by setting “foreign” words apart? Are we (unwittingly) calling out “other people’s food” in a way that can be perceived negatively? And who decides when a word like taco is understood widely enough to not need italicization? Finally, how can we, as editors and members of the food studies community, move forward in a way that does not marginalize people and their food? To discover the decision the Collective made about italicization, please take a look at the essay and the articles in this issue.

Two articles under the theme “The Politics of Scale” reveal the methods, models, and meanings of changes to the food system in different parts of the world. Michaël Bruckert dives into the complexities of competing values in southern India as industrially processed chicken was introduced into a culture with long-standing perspectives and traditions associated with eating meat, health, and valuing the local. The need to change the current food system has been recognized as one of the critical lessons of COVID-19, and authors Halie Kampman, Shun-Nan Chiang, and Salam Sawadogo examine two different models for the future of household and community gardens in the Philippines and Senegal. In the Philippines individuals are encouraged to create and tend their own gardens, thereby ensuring a measure of power over their access to food, while in Senegal the state is continuing to support large-scale, commercially oriented efforts and modernization strategies. Communities the world over are asking similar questions and we will welcome related articles that might examine other models and analyze their success as people take stock of their roles, individually and collectively, in feeding themselves and others in the post-pandemic future.

Feelings of displacement, powerlessness, and rootlessness, and the role of food and commensality in mitigating those feelings, underlie the three essays in “Imaginations and Identities.” Eric Funabashi’s article on Japanese immigrants in Brazil in the early twentieth century explores the power of cuisine and identity among migrants and reveals the historical circumstances that finally permitted the adoption of ingredients and techniques into new forms. Shang-Huei Liang focuses on one ingredient, the sweet potato, that has the power to transport her and other Taiwanese migrants back home. Nourishing and delicious yet associated with struggle in his family’s history and with modern populations in need, the memory of sweet potatoes evokes sustenance, pleasure, and the wisdom of past generations. For Gema Charmaine Gonzales the move from the Philippines to Paris was tinged with sorrow and a deep longing that could only be assuaged with rice, cooked in the pot her father had packed for her and that she now uses to make meals with other Filipinos finding community through food in the land of croissant and chocolat.

The push-pull that chefs experience as they negotiate between traditional and modern approaches to cuisine is played out in the essays grouped under “Place, Knowledge, and Cuisine.” Amy Cox Hall takes us into the world of Chef Erik Ramirez, an American son of migrants from Peru, whose creative energy is directed toward engaging the palates of the urban, influential clientele in his New York restaurants. With aspirations for global recognition, his ideas about how place, ingredients, and flavors from his ancestral home continue to inform and infuse, but not define, his distinctive cuisine. Daniel E. Bender’s interview with Chef Rob Connoley, whose restaurant in the Ozark region of Missouri, in the United States, provides a marvelous counterpoint. Connoley’s dedication to traditional knowledge, including ingredients and techniques, has driven him to create collaborations with scholars, archivists, and local experts, including members of the Osage Nation, in creating dishes, menus, and dining experiences. Returning to Peru, an evocative essay by V. Constanza Ocampo-Raeder introduces us to the deep knowledge of place and the natural cycles of crawfish that are used by los camaroneros, the men who harvest crawfish, one by one, as they migrate from the ocean up cold and treacherous mountain streams. The wild harvest, highly valued for local consumption, is imperiled as forces of modernity—increased tourism, regulations, and aquaculture facilities— threaten to diminish the specialized knowledge and environmental understandings possessed by los camaroneros.

Our final grouping revolves around dichotomies of feeding oneself and feeding others; chaos and creation; meditation and memory; with love as a common ingredient. Anne Finger’s brilliant essay on three distinct phases of Antonio Gramsci’s life examines how his disability intersected with moments when the questions of who will feed whom and what will be fed shine a light on the fundamental nature of food, “before everything else.” Sam Browett’s thoughtful piece considers the unavoidable degeneration of food, the chaos of cooking, and the power of memory to restore a dish from the past. Finally, to close out the issue, Maria Finn has written a personal account of discovering how the sensory experience of wine can inspire deep and perhaps lasting transformations.

History warns us against making predictions, but I feel a sense of hope that when this issue reaches the light of day, some of the darkness that has enveloped us throughout this long January will have faded. The issues discussed here, of representation and identity, longing and loss, food politics and change, caregiving and memory, will continue to inspire researchers, writers, and scholars who must continue to document and discuss their meanings. I am grateful to this issue’s authors, including the scholars who provided insightful reviews of some excellent new works in food history, for providing such engaging, provocative, intelligent, and lyrical pieces. And I am ever grateful to my colleagues on the Editorial Collective for keeping the collaborative spirit alive.

—Paula J. Johnson, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Washington, DC, January 2021