Gastropolitics: Speaking in Tongues
This issue of Gastronomica brings together new and exciting empirical material and conceptual contributions from elsewhere under the rubric of gastropolitics. By “elsewhere” I mean places, cases, palates, and languages not dominated by what can best be characterized as North Atlantic theoretical orientations (NATO). The latter are perspectives that have emerged from modern universities, built over the last century-and-a-half on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily in English, French, and German and secondarily in Italian and Spanish (see Santos 2018). This is not the first transregional, language-based cosmopolis in history: those built around Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Mandarin played similar roles in other regions during other eras (e.g., see Pollock 2006; Eaton 2019; Kia 2020). Today, North Atlantic languages and locations are the prime ecology of modern theorizations in the social sciences and the humanities. As a result, predictably, the field of food studies exhibits the richest repertoire of Euro-American food practices and conceptual frameworks derived from those instances. We at Gastronomica are trying to shift that attention a little bit away from NATO—such as our recent initiative to introduce a new section on translations of key culinary texts not currently available in English—and this issue is an illustration of that tendency.
This volume opens with a case about the peculiar entanglement of tomatoes and cookbooks in India. According to Sucharita Kanjilal, they were born together. Kanjilal implies that the butter chicken is the ur form of chicken tikka masala, transformed first by a refugee Kundan Lal Gujral from a nation-making process in South Asia, and transformed again in the hands of transnational Sylheti working-class lascars in London. In making sense of this story, the author brings together and presses on the limits of Pierre Bourdieu’s perspective. She illustrates the process of theoretical reconfiguration most forcefully by referencing Ashanté M. Reese’s work in Black food geographies and in narrating the pursuit of murderous distaste for meat-eating Muslims by Parvis Ghasem-Fachandi in Gujarat. Disgust and disdain stand out as primal affective responses to difference.
Concepts of cultural omnivorousness dominate North Atlantic theoretical orientations that cannot explain those worlds: the unfathomable tastes in Washington, DC, the desolate mining towns of Western Pennsylvania, the deadly disgust in Gujarat. Disgust shows up differently in Andrew Simmons’s piece on lobster framed in a matrix of privilege, desire, despair, and care-giving during the pandemic. Trapped at home, but bequeathed a 1909 edition of a cookbook, the artist Carolyn Tillie cuts and cuts and cuts to soothe her viral anxieties, reconstituting those chopped pieces intoglorious artefacts. Tomatoes return in Teresa Politano’s reflections as funeral foods, speaking about “lard and molasses and dead people,” along with Costco chickens and buckets of Shop-Rite rice puddings in the bleak American landscape of the “consumer and the consumed.” Understandably, death, despair, and disgust haunt several pieces in this issue.
A number of articles insist on connecting consumption to production and distribution; we are in fact in the middle of a boom in books on the logistical middle of the system—transportation, refrigeration, storage, packaging, wholesale, and retail (e.g., see Deener 2020; Metcalfe 2019; Hamilton 2018; Cwiertka and Machotka 2016). Over the last generation, with the turn to cultures of consumption, that link has frayed as scholars reacted to the productivism and developmentalism of the previous ones. It is time to reconnect those severed domains. You can see the power of that reconnection in Jean Lavigne’s look at artisanal foie gras in the southwest of France; Aya H. Kimura’s exploration of tsukemono and Benjamin Schrager’s jidori chicken in Japan; and Debal Deb’s commentary on rice cultures of Bengal.
With tsukemono (preserved vegetables), we find two mutually affirming elements— fermented sour tastes and tepid temperatures—that have come roaring back over the waves of cold, industrial, sweetness of what was the American century. Kimura puts another nail in the coffin of the old divide perpetuated in NATO between humans, other species, nature, and culture. The stunning visual material presents different ratios of necessity and excess; beauty and ritual; sacred and mundane, making it difficult to distinguish between the taste of luxury and the taste of necessity. L. Stephen Velasquez’s powerful collection from the Calendario de Comida underlines this connection between social justice and aesthetic labor from below. Modeling itself on illustrated calendar giveaways in local Mexican stores and restaurants, a group of artists in the 1960s and 1970s produced the Calendario as a tool of alignment with a far-ranging network of organizations such as the United Farm Workers and Breakfast for Niños. Despite the gendered limitation of their project, their ambition—to decolonize the Chicano imagination—was compelling.
An argument for linking consumption back to production and processing is also made by Debal Deb as he pursues vanishing landraces of rice, under threat from international and national developmental models on the Bengal Delta. He links these varieties to the sustenance of local rituals and tastes in a small corner of the Odisha- Bengal-Bangladesh region that he currently occupies; species rarely respect our investment in national borders. Deb links the quality of rice-powder paintings, the durability of thatching on peasant huts, the crunch of artisanal breakfast moori, and the aroma of steamed rice to the varieties of rice that are grown. The problem is highlighted by the fact that his defense of the commons depends on publication in journals like Gastronomica and Scientific American because American courts are attuned only to anglophone evidence of “common use” employed against American companies trying to pirate varietals. Thus, the mere publication of this piece becomes a stake in the ground to defend the commons against private corporate intellectual property claims.
In Jean Lavigne’s work on the French-American difference on foie gras, we find her literally laboring in geese farms across the Atlantic to explain the divergence in gastro-nationalist perspective that I will return to below (see DeSoucey 2016). That hard work makes all the difference to a story that has been told before. “During the 11 to 14 days of gavage, the liver, which starts out at approximately the size of a woman’s fist, grows to six times its normal size.” There is no way to avert our mind’s eye fromthat intimate interspecies analogy. She posits that if we cannot comprehend a Thanksgiving without turkey, we may begin to understand the celebratory investment in a canard `a foie gras du Sud-Ouest at Christmas. Benjamin Schrager suggests an opposite operation, on raw chicken from the Saga and Miyazaki Prefectures, where the mundane moves in the direction of exotic risk, anxiety, and intimacy. The latter provides a view of Western foods through Japanese eyes in the seventeenth century and highlights both the invention of jidori chicken and its transformation into an industrial brand, which, the author argues, underestimates the threat to public health, undermining the erroneously easy association of safety with tradition. Frank Dax’s still life in Korea collates a triptych of practices from elsewhere, catching glints of the quotidian as exemplars of the marvelous. In his dream catcher of an essay, Dax ruminates on the vanishing stingray eater, the rice cake hawker, the scallion pancake maker on a sunny day, and the garlic seller from the countryside. From the celebratory foie gras to the ordinary scallion pancake, these articles stitch a tapestry of the temporal range of modern life.
Much of the literature on gastro-nationalism asserts its ambit externally against other nations, with less attention to the differences it seeks to erase internally. Such instances of gastropolitics are less attuned to the threat the nation-state poses to internal cultural differences. That is where the real destructive power of gastronationalism lies, especially in its majoritarian turn to white nationalism in many European and American nations or Hindu nationalism in India. We need a more pointed concept such as gastro-nativism to underline the undemocratic and illiberal politics of gastro-nationalism. I see two major threats to variety and multiplicity in the world: cultural imperialism of the Euro-American variety and cultural nationalism of states expunging their diverse populations. Those two systems of consecrating culture are in fatal combat with real variety and multiplicity in the world today, be it in the domain of language use, literature, music, dance, architecture, attire, or culinary culture.
Ethnocentric gastropolitics is not only the tool of the powerful at this contemporary moment. It has also emerged as a currency of the weak-but-emerging ethnoracial classes, which take the form of assertions of cultural appropriation in places such as the United States and Canada, particularly among racially self-conscious Black and Brown peoples, pushing back against the long-established Eurocentric hierarchy of taste. This is what my World-System professors, Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi, used to call antisystemic movements, nothing innately lovable about them, but a legitimate response to a toxic system that returns some of the venom to the structure as critique. Ra´ ul Matta and Padma Panchapakesan show the conditions precipitating Francophilia’s decline in evaluations of global haute cuisine in their article on the deflation of Michelin. New social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Yelp, and Vblogs, as well as new systems of consecration such as Netflix’s Chef’s Table, are weakening the role of traditional gatekeepers such as restaurant critics and print journalists, mostly white men until the last decade (Rousseau 2012). This allows opportunities for the professional classes of color to talk back to dominant notions of good taste. That retort to dominant Euro-American culture is coming from a younger generation (often second generation or later in terms of immigrants) of mostly Anglophone professionals. There is in fact a slow simmering civil war going on right now. Yet, the battle lines are never clear. So the question of taste is much more contested than a narrow reading of Bourdieu’s notions of cultural domination allows, driving some scholars toward reinvigorating notions of hegemony and counterhegemony in the works of Antonio Gramsci (2011), often interpreted via Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2014) and Stuart Hall (2018).
These are promising directions to rethink the relationship between power and culture as illustrated in this volume. A number of book reviews presented here echo those openings in the field: Jennifer R. Shutek’s review asks why a gay man like James Beard was so central to twentieth-century American gastronomy, and to what extent his queerness informed his particular sense of gustatory pleasure. Jennifer L. Holm queries what might ensue if we read cookbooks in light of Jacques Rancière’s Proletarian Nights, which relocated nineteenth-century socialism in the utopian visions of working-class poets, rather than crediting all aesthetic labor to capital. In analyzing the film Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, Joe Karisny asks: is the past sensorially another country that we can never visit? How does one represent innovations in a tradition? This leads to the filmmaker’s provocative hypothesis: that it was not the Revolution that killed courtly cuisine, but changes in fashion preceding it. Coming from another direction, Noah Allison’s book review explores a richly detailed ethnography that valorizes the great Mexicano Fruteros of Los Angeles against the gentrification of the street. In the critical review of Food Routes, Deborah Cowen shreds our sentimentalism about the New York City consumer haven Chelsea Market by merely shedding light on the much more important but bleak postindustrial Hunts Point distribution center that really feeds the city. Samantha King, in her review of Shifting Food Facts, raises two central challenges for critical nutrition studies scholars: how to distinguish their critique of experts and nutritional science from a Trump-style assault on facts, and what to recommend beyond the pleasures of critique. The issue closes with Limor Yungman’s review of a translation of The Sultan’s Feast, a fifteenth-century Egyptian cookbook, which reenlightens us to the dominance of Arabic in terms of dietetics and good taste in the Medieval world, returning us to other places and other tongues with which I began this invitation.
This issue of Gastronomica widens the geographic frame, bringing in a different set of actors, contexts, and languages, trying hard to avoid the parochialisms of Europe and North America (as much as that can be done in English). This volume also brings together a range of pieces on cultural domination, counterhegemonic thrusts, democratic openings, and other hegemonies in other times and places. I hope you enjoy some of it and quarrel with other parts to deepen our understanding of the changing world of taste, power, and agrobiocultural diversity.
—Krishnendu Ray, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, New York, May 2021
This essay has been improved in terms of grammar, language, and sentence formation with
editorial assistance from Stephanie Jolly.
Cwiertka, Katarzyna J., and Ewa Machotka. Too Pretty to Throw Away: Packaging Design from Japan. Leiden: Museum of Japanese Art and Technology Press, 2016. Available for download from her website at http://www.cwiertka.com.
Deener, Andrew. The Problem with Feeding Cities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.
DeSoucey, Michaela. Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
Eaton, Richard. India in the Persianate Age. 1000–1765. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. “Culinary Nationalism.” Gastronomica 10, no. 1 (2010): 102–109.
Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Hamilton, Shane. Supermarket USA. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.
Kia, Mana. Persianate Selves. Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020.
Hall, Stuart. “The whites of their eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media.” In Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader, 5th Ed., edited by G. Dines, J. Humez, B. Yousman, and L. Bindig. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2018. 89–93.
Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso, 2014.
Parasecoli, Fabio. Knowing Where it Comes From. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017.
Pollock, Sheldon. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.
Rancière, Jacques. Proletarian Nights. The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. London: Verso, 2012.
Rousseau, Signe. Food Media. Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Santos, de Sousa Bonaventura. The End of the Cognitive Empire. The Coming of Age of
Epistemologies of the South. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.