Digesting Tensions and Change
It has been way too long since we entered the so-called “new normal” life under a global pandemic. At Gastronomica, our editorial letters have documented the inevitable influence of these transitions, with each new issue chronicling how our worlds continue to be transformed. This editorial letter, alas, maintains what seems to be now a tradition. COVID-19 continues to be an ongoing presence in our lives, even as we seek to return to our “old” normal. Yet, it is not at the top of the news cycle. The War in Ukraine, which began back in February 2022, has been sharing the news spotlight for some time. Yet, more keeps on coming. Writing from the United States, our attention has diverged to concerns over the impending erosion of women’s reproductive rights, painfully in contrast with the inertia in the face of increasingly common mass shootings. We are also being reminded of the fragile state of democracy. Violence, war, and assaults on reproductive rights form part of a growing list of ongoing issues, seemingly expanding the more time I take to finish this letter. Organizing this issue amid this ongoing ambiance of social distress had the potential to serve as a welcome distraction. While some of the pieces contained within did provide a needed pause, conflict was indeed top of mind as I attempted to put together this puzzle.
This issue of Gastronomica brings together contributions that make us think of the tense intersection between permanence and transformation, or tradition against innovation. We are reminded of the discomforts inherent in change, and how food— much like ourselves—is always adapting and changing, despite our wishes or attempts for preservation. The issue organization recreates some of this push and pull, intertwining thematic sections that present forced or intentional changes and adaptation with those that present a place for rest from conflict, of imagined immutability and resistance to change.
We open with Conflict and Transformation, with articles that have tension at their core, discussing change through conflict, innovation, and movement. The article, “The War in Ukraine and Food Security in Eastern Europe” by Eszter Krasznai Kovács, Agata Bachórz, Natasha Bunzl, Diana Mincyte, Fabio Parasecoli, Simone Piras, and Mihai Varga is a timely discussion of the ongoing conflict. The piece resulted from a panel discussion held at New York University in March 2022, when the conflict started to unfold. The authors presented on the potential food security consequences and the refugee crisis we can now see in the region and beyond. The resulting article expands on this discussion by unpacking the regional capacities to address the crisis, the role of the European Union, and the importance of civil society “bottom-up” responses, while also tackling what the authors refer to as a “popular misconception” of Eastern Europe being “backwards” or belonging to “Russia’s sphere of influence.” In doing so, the piece brings a contemporary view of adaptations forced by conflict, while we continue to see how the situation develops in the region, as the full ramifications of the conflict are yet to be known at the time of writing this letter.
In “Designing the Future of Polish Food: How Cosmopolitan Tastemakers Prototype a National Gastronomy,” by Mateusz Halawa and Fabio Parasecoli, we continue our explorations in Eastern Europe. In a serendipitous conversation with the previous article, Halawa and Parasecoli further enrich our perception of the region through an ethnographic study of tastemakers in Poland and the pre-Ukraine conflict identity tensions in the region. The article discusses change as driven by global food culture, leading to tensions between innovation and tradition. Halawa and Parasecoli explore these tensions through innovations in wine, food, and vodka, via the work of tastemakers and the lens of design thinking. While the authors provide us with an afterword on how the situation has changed in response to COVID-19, it will be up to us, the readers, to be on the lookout for the current work of these tastemakers, and if and how this will continue to change, as the conflict in Ukraine and ensuing refugee crisis continues to unfold.
The next two contributions included in this first thematic section move us from the global to the personal. “Eating America” by Joanne Jacobson is a memoir of change, where food choices are presented as an act of rebellion. The story is rooted in conflict, opening with food traditions in Passover—the Jewish holiday that brings remembrance of slavery and liberation, a time of transition. This sense of liberation permeates the article, recounting rebellion against religious food laws and traditions. As Jacobson recounts from childhood memories of feasting in a local buffet, “for our family, the lush displays of shellfish and pork roasts and meat with cream sauces constituted a liberation from inheritance: a ritual feast of transgressiveness.” In this memoir, food is not shown as static or something to be preserved but as a vehicle for liberation and transgression, “a source of welcomed newness—honoring nerve and curiosity, a way into an America whose boundlessness my immigrant grandparents could not bring themselves to embrace.” The sense of rebellion is continued in the closing article for this first thematic section, with the visual piece “Tangled” by Jaina Cipriano. While not explicit in the author’s framing of the images, the themes of conflict and transformation are still salient in this contribution. It presents items we may recognize as food, transformed into inedible objects, either through the use of color or found objects, such as nails. The images evoke a sense of violence but also of unfinished digestion, in line with the author’s brief introductory text for the images, framing the use of food photography as a vehicle to delve into the author’s fear of vomiting.
The articles presented in the next grouping, Uprooted and Transformed, focus on changed foods, after having gone through a process of transformation. The section opens with “Across Time, Space, and Matter: A Panel Discussion on Food in the Hispanic World,” a contribution I co-authored with H. Rosi Song, Rebecca Earle, Lara Anderson, and Jordana Mendelson, coming from a roundtable organized in commemoration of the New York University King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center’s twenty-fifth anniversary in February 2022. The roundtable contextualizes change through movement and conflict, presenting how food is transformed using the Spanish-speaking world as a case study. Song moderated the discussion, where I had the pleasure of being in conversation with two outstanding food historians, Anderson and Earle, linking together my present-focused work in the Hispanic Caribbean with the past, through the movement of food, covering Spain and the New World, Latin America, and the space in between. This contribution reflects our commitment, in Gastronomica, to read across geographic boundaries and disciplines. It also serves to contextualize the theme of transformation and uprooting exemplified through three foods—yogurt, pineapple, and chicken—in the articles that follow.
In “Who Owns Bogurar Doi? An Ethnography of Placemaking and Craftsmanship in Bangladesh,” Ishita Dey presents an in-depth, qualitative examination of a yogurt (doi) named after Bogura, a city in northern Bangladesh. Continuing the theme of our roundtable opening this section, Dey traces placemaking of this food through its production cycle, proposing a “decolonial reading of placemaking” to “challenge the romantic notions of linking food to place,” as implied in the concept of terroir. Dey does this by examining the ecological and historic shifts resulting in this yogurt’s transformation as Bogurar doi, including the movement of the cows, preparation techniques, and the “triad of soil-water-air.”
We see the transformation of pineapple in Sebastian Ocklenburg’s meditation on “Toast Hawaii,” a German staple, much like the Hawaiian pizza in the United States, although, according to the author, less debated. Through this simple dish, a toast topped with ham, cheese, and pineapple, we are invited to think about food and movement and how such movements result in foods being transformed in our imaginations. That is, the pineapple, a fruit originally from the Americas, has been transformed into one associated with the lushness of the Pacific, in Hawaii. Ocklenburg recounts the origin of this dish and how it spurred a “Hawaii food trend” in 1950s Germany, along with an updated view of the dish today, incorporated into the national culinary imaginary. This theme of incorporation and transformation is continued in the next contribution. We move from Germany to the United States, where Matthew Meduri addresses the transformation of chicken in his essay “Immigrant Birds,” recounting the story of how Serbian fried chicken came to become part of a US-based experience in Ohio. The transformation is facilitated by movement and entrepreneurship, where a globally eaten staple, chicken, gets transformed into pohovana piletina, breaded chicken fried in lard—a Serbian staple—that then becomes the base of the Barberton chicken houses and part of the town’s identity.
From food in community and global spaces, the next section, Adapting for Others, moves us to the inter-relational and domestic. In this third thematic section, we return to the feeling of tension, through articles that address this sensation, as one driven by the need to adjust for the sake of others. Some of this is done reluctantly and some adaptations are out of love. This section opens with “The Language of Spoons” by Kristin King Gilbert, a whimsical contribution that invites us to meditate on the theme of adapting through serving others, via a server’s rationales behind gelato spoon color selections. The tension in adaptation becomes evident as Gilbert shares her reactions to the occasional “philistine” request for a bigger, “American” spoon— perhaps not unlike the one displayed in the patent drawing gracing this issue’s cover. In the end, she begrudgingly obliges, despite this choice being described as “all wrong for eating gelato.”
From spoons, we move to food adaptations, with “The ‘Worst Dinner Guest Ever’: On ‘Gut Issues’ and Epistemic Injustice at the Dinner Table” by Megan A. Dean. The piece was inspired by a Venn diagram from a 2012 post in the popular recipe blog, The Kitchn, where multiple dietary restrictions, allergies, and intolerances overlap to showcase what was called the “worst dinner guest ever.” Dean examines adaptations as part of the host–guest relationship when it comes to food allergies, intolerances, or what Dean calls “gut issues,” inviting us to think about how we view the request for accommodations, as hosts, and what influences whether we are believed, as guests with “gut issues.” Most of us have been on one or both sides of this equation. This shared experience led to extended conversations within our Editorial Collective, inspiring us to extend this article into a fuller forum within this issue. We invited a triad of responses, traversing across disciplines. First, Robert T. Valgenti extends Dean’s philosophical take with a response titled, “When Knowledge Is Not Enough.” Valgenti examines our duties as hosts “to believe in the implicit veracity of a guest’s claims about food allergies and intolerances despite the various obstacles to empirical proof.” This is followed by a response from Matthew Smith, who in “Doubtful Guests, Harassed Hosts, and the Golden Rule” adds a perspective from the realm of health history. Smith underscores hosts’ adaptations as a response to being empathetic, “thinking a little bit about what it is like navigating the world where food is not only a form of sustenance but also a threat” resulting in adapting ingredients or overall menus. And lastly, Jacques Rousseau chimes in with “Epistemic Exuberance at the Dinner Table: A Response to Megan A. Dean.” Coming from studies of ethics and logical reasoning, Rousseau provides a counterargument, asking whether Dean brings up a “non-problem,” in light of data that shows that dietary concerns are overstated and reminding us of our agency in choosing dinner companions and whether to accept invitations from hosts that would not accommodate “gut issues.” While I tend to fall into Rousseau’s camp, I appreciate how Dean’s contribution, and its responses, got me to think at a deeper level about this “non-problem,” including my own food avoidances and whether they fall within the domain of “gut issues.”
The last contribution in this section comes from Noha Fikry with “Short Breaks Are for Hot Chocolate, Long Breaks Are for Salads, Weekends Are for Baking: On Being a Graduate Student during COVID-19.” The article continues our ongoing documentation of food in the times of COVID-19. Fikry recounts her food routines, planned around a challenging, back-to-back course schedule, after the pandemic led her to starting her Canada-based doctoral degree from Egypt, in the times when teaching moved fully online. Her story reminded me of my own students at that time, some joining class and research team meetings from across the globe, at ridiculous hours of the day. I also identified, sharing the experience of having too many meetings in one day, and forgetting to schedule breakfast and/or lunch in any given day. But the piece is more than that. In Fikry’s story, while not the focus, we see a mother adapting her routine to ensure the well-being of her adult daughter, facilitating meals to be eaten within short and long breaks. Fikry eventually leaves for Canada, reminding us of the growing pain of leaving our childhood home—a pain amplified by the long distance from a move that spans across the globe. But I see something more, as an article that recounts adapting for others out of love, in the changing of an unnamed mother’s daily routine to ensure the well-being of her adult child. The feeling of nostalgia and longing carries into the last thematic section in this issue, Remembering and Preserving. Jay DiBiasio’s “Embodied Knowledge” gifts us with a beautiful moment of generational culinary knowledge transmission, ensuring the enjoyment of a famous thick pizza crust for generations to come. The moment is preserved in a photo, where a family elder is shown transmitting culinary knowledge not through written recipes, but through practice. The second contribution in this section, “Eva’s Bowl,” by Barb Webb speaks to the theme of remembering and preserving through a thrifted Pyrex bowl. The piece is a letter to Eva, the presumed previous owner of the bowl, and explores imagined memories forged with the bowl, alongside Webb’s own memories of her mother’s bowls, lost upon her death. These last two articles allow me to end this letter and issue with a feeling of nostalgia. In contrast with the violence, tension, and uncertainty conveyed in my opening, I want to end with stillness—the quietness afforded by memories preserved in a photograph and those dreamed through a bowl. In closing, I now invite you to take this journey from beginning to end. As you do, my hope is for you to appreciate the wide range of emotions evoked by the contributions making up this issue, prompting a greater appreciation of the power of food in conveying and assuaging tensions, and the role of tension, change, and adaptation in helping us explore the contexts in which foods are grown, distributed, served, and consumed.
—Melissa Fuster, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, New Orleans, June 2022