Working with Food
On its cover, this issue features an image of freshly baked loaves leaning in the windowsill of a small bakery. The viewer is met by the distant gaze of a woman from behind the pane of glass. Two bright signs threaten to overwhelm the loaves: “BREAD 5¢ A LOAF.” The picture was shot eighty-six years ago by photographer Berenice Abbott and is part of her broader portfolio on modernizing New York (more on that below). “Bread Store. 259 Bleecker” captures a provisioning shop just a couple of months before the American economy fell into deep turmoil during the 1937–1938 recession. Taken on its own, the photo resonates with our current moment when the cost of food is top of mind. The context is, of course, different; global supply chains are emerging from the pandemic shock of the past three years, their efficiency further hobbled by geopolitical conflict and weather-induced crop failures (Stanford 2023). In Canada, where I am, the news cycle covering inflationary pressures on household spending and soaring food prices has in the past few months focused its attention on the outsized profits of large grocery chains. A government probe of food price inflation led grocery executives to Canada’s House of Commons, to testify before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food amidst calls for more transparency in food provisioning systems (Charlebois and Music 2023; Stanford 2023). In many casual conversations over the past couple of months I found myself being asked—when people learned that I work in food studies—some variation of the question: “Is it true? Are we being squeezed by the supermarkets?” It’s not a question I could easily answer, but I welcomed the growing curiosity about producers, workers, retailers, global supply chains, shorter supply chains, and alternative forms of food distribution.
This issue of Gastronomica broadly considers the politics of provisioning, and the varied forms of labor that sustain individuals and communities. The first section, Urban Transformations, opens with a photo essay of fourteen historical black-andwhite images documenting the creep of modernity in 1930s New York. In featuring the work of the late Berenice Abbott, historian Rick Halpern draws attention to the visibility of labor throughout the city’s culinary infrastructure, from street markets to small family-run retail shops. The photo essay closes with a poignant comment about bodies and space in the modernizing city: the laborious rhythms of the Fulton fish market on the edge of lower Manhattan are juxtaposed with the invisible labor of a midtown automat that proffers a selection of pies. Stuart Freedman’s sensory ethnography of London’s eel, pie, and mash shops extends the exploration of modernity, labor, and the changing spaces of the city. Describing the shops as “a historical reverberation of a cheap re-fuelling stop for London’s cockney working class,” Freedman puts their rise and their subsequent marginalization in dialogue with contemporary practices of nostalgic remembrance that unfold in the postindustrial city.
The next two pieces spotlight how particular foods change amidst urban transitions. Thiago Braga tracks the recent rise and popularization of tea art in China. Highlighting the connection between the individual body and the body politic through affect, Braga shows how tea art is both an aesthetic practice and an ethical practice that promises to reconfigure the individual’s relationship to self, other, and nature in a period of rapid economic and urban development. “Tasting the ‘Future of Food’ on a Bay-Area Cellular Agriculture Tour” transports readers to San Francisco to learn about alternative protein technologies. In an opening note, readers encounter a research and development lab housed within an old industrial building in a gentrifying part of the city, where resonances of the district’s working-class roots mingle with increasing concentrations of capital and technological expertise. In a conversation oriented toward sustainable and socially just food futures, this multidisciplinary team of food scholars reflects on their tour of an emerging cellular agriculture ecosystem. They meet with scientists and industry experts, experience the flavors and textures of cell-cultured salmon, and share multiple perspectives on the social and environmental implications of this new food technology.
Cristina Fernández Recasens offers a different view of fish, taking readers to home kitchens in coastal Catalonia to open the next section, on Work and Play. Here, their research on fish consumption and reproductive labor in Catalonia leads them to an important recipe that in fact does not include any fish at all. The recipe is for truita de pedres—pebbles omelet—shared with them by a woman named Montserrat who collects and archives recipes from women in the region in a bid to preserve their culinary knowledge and showcase local foods. The first time Montserrat made this particular omelet she sourced stones from a nearby beach, later recalling her son’s surprise when she served it to him for dinner one day. Truita de pedres, Fernández Recasens writes, renders visible the largely invisible reproductive labor—unpaid cooking and care work—that supports the formal economy. For Fernández Recasens, the dish finds its reflection in the local fishing industry, where women support the supply chain in largely unwaged roles, selling fish at market and cooking fish at home but rarely engaging in the activity of professional fishing. Truita de pedres, Montserrat’s play on the story of stone soup and the collective sharing of resources, is a recipe of resistance.
The intertwining of gendered power relations, provisioning practices, and eating behaviors carries over as a thematic echo in the next article. Annie Koempel, an applied anthropologist and registered dietician, documents her research on the sociality of eating behaviors and the ripple effects of disordered eating. By situating disordered eating within the context of community, Koempel shifts the frame of analysis from the individual to the collective, showing how disordered eating moves across bodies and relationships amongst family, friends, and colleagues. For some of the study’s participants in rural Appalachia, the work of feeding the family might include the pleasurable activities of gardening, cooking, and baking, but it also consists in the adaptations required to accommodate the diets and diagnoses of others in the home. Such adaptations are material, as well as social and emotional, throwing into relief the gendered, classed, and affective nature of eating behaviors.
Two pieces on culinary innovation in the home kitchen round out this section on Work and Play, providing a foil to common narratives of domestic drudgery. In “Cooking Up a Distinctly Singaporean Tamil Cuisine,” Indira Arumugam explores the intimacies of homecooked food through the stories of her family’s migration, highlighting the creative contributions of diasporic women. Citing the resourcefulness and the recipes of her grandmother—who had moved from rural Tamil Nadu to Singapore where she raised and fed her family of eight—Arumugam traces threads of remembrance and experimentation through newfound culinary techniques, tastes, and textures. She recalls her grandmother’s many hybrid creations—such as coconut milk raita, biryani crafted with lemongrass and pandan leaves, and curried squid and prawn dishes—and reflects on her grandmother’s playful incorporation of Malay condiments into traditional Tamil dishes. Such adaptations were made not just as a way of survival in a new home, Arumugam writes, but also as an act of flourishing. With a focus on ornamental cookery, Julia Segal also takes up the question of labor and playfulness in the home kitchen. “Breaking the Mold: How Jell-O Helped Women Get Creative in the Kitchen” asks, who has license to get creative with food? The piece combines written narrative with a curated photographic project to explore gendered food work in dialogue with jelly cakes, capturing a nostalgic resurgence of Jell-O in contemporary popular culture in tandem with an emergent artistic phenomenon that is mediated by digital platforms. These stories of provisioning extend from the home kitchen into the public sphere, making forms of care work visible by exploring the subversive possibilities of play.
Ajamu Amiri Dillahunt-Holloway’s interview spotlight on a Black-led food cooperative opens this issue’s final section, Market Values. The Raleigh-based Fertile Ground Food Cooperative got its start more than a decade ago following the closure of a local supermarket; the cooperative took its initial form as a farmers’ market, featuring Black vendors and growers and, crucially, providing fresh, healthy, affordable, and delicious foods in a neighborhood that has lacked access due to systemic marginalization. Dillahunt-Holloway speaks with Erin Dale, a founding member of Fertile Ground, about the ways in which social justice and economic justice are guiding the cooperative’s plans for a community-owned grocery store and its vision for building a new food economy.
The final two articles take readers into open-air markets, each probing sets of meanings, values, and politics striking to the heart of market operations. Focusing on a case study in the American Midwest, “Nostalgia and the Protection of White Supremacy at a Public Farmers’ Market” examines how a particular public discourse took shape in the face of controversy surrounding a vendor’s place at the market and ensuing protests by antiracist activists. The authors argue that “nostalgia for a community market free of conflict and complexity,” built on the flawed foundation of an agrarian imaginary, motivated a public discourse that ultimately excluded antiracist protestors and social justice activists from a common vision of the market’s community. Ellen Meiser’s photo essay on Taiwan’s caishichang offers a different view of market politics. Meiser tells the story of how vendors at the ubiquitous daytime markets grew into political pillars for the community, a marked shift in status away from the social margins compared to decades prior. Amongst the local population, these decentralized street markets are broadly valued for their contributions to the economy, their provisioning of affordable, fresh, and locally produced foods, and their amplification of campaigns and grassroots networks in the democratic political system.
Readers will find that the following pages are rich not only in research and stories but also in art and curation. The images, when taken together, render visible some of the many ways in which people feed communities. Some of the photos are archival, while some document fleeting and quotidian moments in contemporary food systems; others, still, are creative projects that put subversion at their center. In closing, then, I will echo Cristina Fernández Recasens’s call to dream up and craft one’s own version of a pebbles omelet.
—Jaclyn Rohel, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Toronto, March 2023
Charlebois, Sylvain and Janet Music. 2023. “Grocer Distrust: New Survey Suggests Majority of Canadians Distrust Grocers But Do Blame Other Factors For Higher Food Prices.” Agri- Food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University. Last modified April 4, 2023. https://www.dal.ca/ sites/agri-food/research/grocer-distrust.html.
Stanford, Jim. 2023. “Statistics Canada Aggregate Data on Food Retail and Food Processing Profits.” Submission to House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri- Food, Study of Food Price Inflation. Centre for Future Work. Last modified February 2023. https://centreforfuturework.ca/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Stanford-for-Agriculure- Committee-on-Food-Prices-and-Profits.pdf.