Editor’s Letter, Fall 2023

From Gastronomica 23.3

Food in Place

I love making lists. Recently, I sat down and made a list of all the times I’ve moved to a new place (an occupational hazard for precarious academics). I counted nineteen. Some of those moves required just shifting my possessions to a different habitat within a city; others involved changing continents, social insurance, health care, pension plan, and life stage. Some were for longer, some for shorter, and some for very short stays (in my mid-thirties, I moved seven times in as many years). During those periods of vagabondism, I learned to appreciate food as a means of connecting to new places and a constant that could outlast relocating.

The pieces in this issue explore food’s various relationships to place. Place is central to the academic study of food as well as to lived personal, professional, and political engagements with food. Global food chains, local food movements, national cuisines, migrant marketplaces, urban environments, fields, vineyards, restaurants, kitchens, and waste disposal facilities have all bounded historical, anthropological, geographic, and sociological inquiries of food, while at the same time forming focal points of food activism and debate in the present.

The essays in the first section tell stories of lost places: of death, decay, and departure, captured by experiences of butchering, cooking, and tasting. In Kelly Donati’s piece “Lessons from a Kangaroo,” notions of country and Country collide. The fenced territories of Australian colonial production, grounded in imperial notions of erasure and extractivism, overlay the sentient landscapes of First Nations people. The relationship between Country and country determines ecologies of edibility and extermination: who gets to be food and who gets to be eater, who counts as a pest and who as a rightful inhabitant of shared spaces, worthy of consideration in the stewardship of place. Witnessing the death of a kangaroo prompts Donati to reflect on the limits of existing notions of sustainability, and to call for a “multispecies gastronomy” that recognizes nonhuman animals as not just food but as “ancestors, kin, totems, and gastronomic subjects in their own right.” Daniel E. Bender’s captivating history and ethnography of the Alto Piemonte peels back the layers of industrial decay, natural disaster, and social transformation that have shaped the region’s rare wines. “Wine is good for thinking ruins,” he reminds us. Stages of ruination, accumulating in the region’s vines, flavor the wine of the present. To focus on wreckage rather than heritage means drawing attention to capitalism’s ability to produce ruins rather than returns. In piercing prose and haunting metaphors, this piece asks us to rethink familiar notions of terroir and taste. The section concludes with Nancy Sommers’ attempts at relocating her mother, disappeared through the cruel unraveling of dementia, in the physical remains of her family home. Rummaging through her mother’s cupboards, drawers, keepsakes, and recipes, Sommers encounters a careful curator of the past, a chronicler who “built a life around forgetting” and faded behind the remnants of her life. It is a story of food as a failed mnemonic device: no amount of apple kuchen can restore her mother’s lost memories or recover the tacit knowledge forever trapped within the pages of her mother’s recipes. But if dementia remains “a country without an exit,” it is also, in Sommers’ search, a site of recovery: a reunion with a new mother, freed from the entrapments of the past.

The seesaw of past and present also runs through Sean Wyer’s “Gourmet and the Ghetto: The ‘Foodification’ of Rome’s Historic Jewish Quarter,” which rings in the issue’s next section on food’s interplay with locality. Wyer asks how food businesses became central to Rome’s former Ghetto, and resists generalizing explanations framed around shortcuts such as touristification or gentrification. Instead, the “foodification” of Rome’s former Ghetto was a hyperlocal process, according to Wyer, and nothing about it was straightforward. The unity of place, culture, religion, ingredients, and ways of cooking, which a locale like the former Ghetto implies, is a myth: the most prominent former Ghetto restaurants are neither Jewish nor kosher, the boundary between Roman and Jewish-Roman cuisine is fluid, and even the physical spaces of the former Ghetto have changed significantly. Instead, Wyer credits a complex interplay among heritage tourism, a general expansion of kosher food across Rome, shifts within Judaism, and the simultaneous rise of gastronativism, cosmopolitanism, and hyperlocal cuisine for the former Ghetto’s foodification. Rather than a mere monument to local food heritage, however, Wyer suggests the former Ghetto is a site of culinary innovation and adaptation.

Place and time also interplay in Chelsea Fisher and Clara Albacete’s article “Ancient Greenwashing: On Food Justice and Civilizations in the Supermarket.” The authors belong to a growing group of scholars who contend that the logics of production in a particular place—the plantation—at a particular time—during colonialism— had such a profound impact on our contemporary system of food production and consumption and the environmental justice conflicts it engendered that it ought to be recognized as its own “cene”—the Plantationocene. The Plantationocene is one of the historical contexts within which Fisher and Albacete situate the marketing tool of “ancient greenwashing,” a promotional appeal to imagined pasts that obscures the legacies of colonial extractivism. The paper also connects ancient greenwashing to development initiatives in global health that seek to promote sustainability.

How chefs use notions of sustainability to craft their own identity and position themselves against new pressures within the restaurant industry is the topic of Jed Hilton’s ethnography of elite chefs in Britain, which concludes this section. Hilton discovers a range of interpretations of sustainability—from locally sourced and seasonal food to good quality ingredients and certifications. Sustainability is far from a straightforward commitment for many chefs. It can conflict with other ethical principles, such as multiculturalism or affordable fare. Claims to sustainability are underregulated, while credentialing systems, such as the Michelin Green Star, lack a clear protocol and are inadequately enforced. And while notions of place have rightly played an important role in definitions of sustainability, this has come at the expense of other considerations, such as the labor conditions under which local ingredients are produced. As a result, many chefs increasingly distrust claims of sustainability. Perhaps, Hilton concludes, the concept of sustainability might even be structurally incompatible with the fine dining industry, with its inherent wastefulness and pursuit of perfection.

The third section considers concrete spaces—the kitchen, the dining table, the banquet hall—and the gendered, classed, and temporal divisions such spaces sustain. Gendered divisions of labor and spatial hierarchies mark the elite warrior households in medieval Japan, which Eric C. Rath describes in his analysis of a Japanese picture scroll showing a rat warlord’s wedding banquet. A subtle commentary on elite Japanese society (the rat bride is revealed to be human), the scroll also provides clues of the goings-on in a medieval kitchen. The separation of tasks and spaces occurred along strictly gendered lines: named male servants cooked while unnamed female servants processed and served ingredients; carving and flavoring were the province of men; female servants were relegated to outside spaces while male servants operated inside. In the rat world, as in that of humans, divisions of power and status organized elite food preparation and extended the power and status of mighty military leaders.

We conclude the issue with two pieces by Jo Podvin. “Not Just Any Drupe” is an exercise in lyrical replacement: fruity antihimerias meet literary paradoxes, creating a pandemonium of sensations and unmet associations. Peaches are plummy, nectarines peachy, and the roundy plums are cherry. Human body parts “cradle” and are “stuffed with” produce, while human mouths, chins, and fingers bear the traces of indulgent fruit consumption. Place is elusive in the poem: the lines evoke an impossible larder or a surrealist market in a single vertiginous verse. Podvin’s “Being Butter,” finally, is an ode to “the resident cubes” tucked away in the butter compartment in the refrigerator door of a family kitchen. Butter “came out of Africa (like the rest of us),” but Podvin traces the “unbridled unctuous delight” across countries, time, religions, and species. Part memoir, part encyclopedia, part stream of consciousness, this collection of aphorisms, anecdotes, diary entries, and dairy appreciation is reminiscent of an ancient commonplace book, a collection of quotes, ideas, and information interspersed with the compiler’s own reflections—not unlike an editorial letter.

As I prepare for what will hopefully be my last move, I take solace in the commonplace book of my own culinary life, a stockpile of sensorial recollections I have carefully cultivated over time and across places. In the past, this repertoire has simultaneously soothed and aggravated a loss of place. Against sunk costs and lost tastes stands the continuity of the familiar, facilitated by a growing repertoire of welcome ingredients and the flattening impact of global consumerism. Life in different places confuses and diversifies the palate and makes it both easier and more impossible to live anywhere.

Still, I can’t wait to make a list of all the food places I will explore in my new home.

—Lisa Haushofer, on behalf of the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Amsterdam, July 2023