from Gastronomica 18:3
As I write this letter, it is the beginning of June. Over the past few weeks I have found myself thinking even more than usual about the meals that I prepare for my family. Like many parents, I have been counting down the days as my daughter nears the end of her school year—and as I near the end of my daily morning routine of packing her lunch for school. I have chuckled over social media posts comparing a “first day of school lunch,” complete with nutritious and elegantly packaged lunch items, to a “last day of school lunch,” marked by random odds and ends pulled from a refrigerator or pantry. Our dinnertimes also have been under siege, as a never-ending cycle of end-of-school-year festivities for both my daughter and me entails careful coordination and preparation of dishes that can be taken to special events or eaten quickly at home beforehand. Added to these dinner deliberations is the reality that the four-legged members of our family each has a special dietary regimen that often conflicts with and complicates the human-focused feeding rituals of our home.
Feeding others entails more than simply preparing and serving food. It also requires attention to the needs and desires of the eater, as well as issues such as seating arrangements, sharing protocols, and whether whining about the foods served—or barking and meowing, as the case may be—should be tolerated. Reflecting on the specific mealtime dynamics within my own home prompted me to recognize that creating, sharing, and consuming food draws us into a tangle of multiple and complicated social dynamics with human and nonhuman beings. That, in turn, prompted me to wonder why it is that nonhuman beings are so often absent in accounts of food and eating and then to contemplate what a more-than-human, multispecies perspective might offer food studies. Specifically, I began questioning how the more-than-human reality of food might help us think about the “more-than” qualities of food and food experiences more generally. What happens when food and food practices become “more than” what we think they are?
In terms of thinking about the more-than-human dimensions of food within the specific context of my own family’s feeding rituals, I realized that when food studies pays attention to animals, it is primarily concerned with farming, animal welfare, or butchery. Animals are pre-food objects, either as laborers or as the sources of what becomes food. Marion Nestle’s book Pet Food Politics was innovative precisely because it expanded conversations about food safety and feeding beyond human consumption to consider nonhuman consumption. Yet despite Nestle’s effort to shift the frame of food studies beyond the human, animals are still relatively marginal in food studies—even if they are rarely marginal in real life. In fact, for many of us, they are right at the center of our daily lives. The human members of my family share our home with a number of nonhuman living beings, beginning with our cat, our dog, and the occasional foster dog that visits until placed by the dog rescue organization with which we volunteer. We also have a worm farm, as well as two bacterial colonies (i.e., sourdough starters) that in their uniquely lively way are members of the family, as evidenced by the fact that they have names. Over the years, our animals have joined us at mealtimes, shared our food (sometimes with permission, most often without), and made their own unique taste preferences known—whether it was the cat that loved corn and learned how to open the trash can and fish out discarded cobs, the dog that turned up his nose at everything except chocolate truffles, which he could quietly and delicately unwrap from their foil wrappers (note: although dogs should not eat chocolate, many dogs tend to ignore those rules, even if the chocolate is otherwise securely stored out of reach, as was the case with our dog), or the foster dog that loved raw sweet potatoes and could find them no matter where we hid them in our house.
Figures 1 and 2: In a more-than-human world, food remainders and leftovers become pleasures of the palate.
Photographs by Andrew G. Baker © 2010 and Clifford W. Baker © 2003
I know that my family is not alone in the ways in which family meals and other food rituals include more than just the human members. Concerns about expenses or the quality of pet foods prompt many people to prepare pet meals from scratch, often from high-quality, human-grade ingredients. Food stores offer special treats to the animal companions of their human customers. In our neighborhood, most local businesses have a bowl of fresh water to refresh thirsty pooches, while many of the restaurants offer special menus for pet companions. Perhaps the favorite destination is the local ice creamery that gives out free cups of soft-serve ice cream to doggie customers. On occasion, other nonhuman family members show up with their human owners to sit at the local cafés – cats, parrots, lizards, and even snakes (admittedly, some of these nonhumans are not common café sightings!).
Social norms about the food-related dynamics between humans and nonhumans vary widely around the world, even within the same community or the same family. Whether animals are allowed to join their human companions in restaurants and cafés depends on cultural ideals and legal codes. In Germany, dogs are ever-present in restaurants and cafés, while elsewhere they are forbidden and chased off. Whether animals can sit at—or on—spaces for the preparation, serving, and consumption of food can be highly contested. My students always debate not simply whether it is acceptable to share food with animals but the conditions under which sharing might occur: Does it matter whether it is one’s own animal companion or a strange animal? Is the type of food significant? Is there a proper sequence of person and then animal? Should the food be broken off or can a person and animal eat from the same utensil? And so forth and so on. Ice cream always comes up: Do you share your ice cream with your dog or your cat? Do you share a spoon or the cone? How many licks are too many? What do you do if you find a fleck of fur in your food?
Recognition of those moments when animals are key and indispensable members of families and communities also reorients how we think about central food justice issues around access, equality, and entitlement. In Moscow, where I have been doing research among poverty and welfare programs for many years, I have frequently observed recipients in food aid communities sharing their meals not just with their pets at home but also with stray dogs and cats on the streets, a reality that reveals the intersection of a strong cultural emphasis on food sharing with an equally strong ethics of care. Such sensibilities are not unique to Russia, but appear in many other places, such as in the United States, where homeless shelters and food banks are increasingly expanding their food relief programs to include food for the nonhuman companions that accompany human clients.
Collectively, such incidents reveal intriguing cultural values about social hierarchies between humans and nonhumans, the nature of sociality and commensality, dietary and social health, and values of caretaking, among many other topics. More importantly, such incidents remind us that humans constantly share their food worlds with other eaters, and attending to that fact productively shifts and expands how we think about food. Eating and sharing food are not exclusively human activities. They are more-than-human.
Figure 3: When ice creameries offer doggie ice creams, they change assumptions about customers and how ideas about desire are reconstituted in a more-than-human economy.
Photograph by Melissa L. Caldwell © 2018
Figure 4: On the sidewalk outside a food relief program in central Moscow, a program recipient shares her lunch with one of the stray cats in the neighborhood.
Photograph by Melissa L. Caldwell © 2009
Scholarship from emerging fields of multispecies studies and more-than-human studies offers intriguing possibilities for grappling with these provocations and pushing critical food studies in new directions. For instance, Anna Tsing’s work on matsutake mushrooms reminds us that mushrooms are not simply foodstuffs and the target of foragers but are, in fact, living beings with their own ecologies and socialities. Notably, as Tsing illuminates, the more-than qualities of mushrooms reveal the extent to which they are coexistent partners within—and even caretakers of—humans’ social worlds. At a different scale, Hannah Landecker’s work on metabolism redirects attention to the living beings that inhabit our own bodies. As Landecker points out, when we feed ourselves, we feed the beings coexistent within us, which have their own needs and preferences to be satisfied.
More-than-human approaches that pay attention to the microbiome, whether it is already inside of us or existent in the foods that we ingest—yogurts, raw milk cheeses, other nonpasteurized cultured dairy products, kombucha, kimchee, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods—provide new vantage points for understanding and theorizing not simply diet, digestion, and health, but also the nature and dimensions of social worlds, cultural practices, and historical processes. For instance, recent research has shown that the living beings that inhabit the same home share the same microbiome, a fact that can link people, their pets, and other roommates in more intimate and biologically homogenous relations than other kin or legal bonds. And when we consider food safety and sociality, we must also revisit questions around intentional and unintentional communities, whether they exist outside or inside our bodies.
Ultimately, bringing multispecies and more-than-human approaches to critical food studies opens up pathways to new conversations, new questions, and new parameters for understanding and interpreting food and the social worlds it animates. Multispecies and more-than-human approaches offer insights into the broader social, cultural, political, and even culinary ecologies that emerge through food-related experiences.
Figure 5: A behind-the-scenes look at a photo shoot for a Gastronomica cover image reveals that food props and hopeful dogs go together.
Photograph by Melissa L. Caldwell © 2017
The possibilities afforded by considerations of the broader social and political ecologies that exist between the human and the nonhuman is one of the themes running through this issue of Gastronomica, even if the authors themselves are not explicitly engaged with multispecies and more-than-human debates. Natalie Doonan’s article about wild foods and provisioning practices in Canada repositions nature as a social force and agent, thereby revealing how nature becomes revalued and relocated as wilderness. One of the consequences of this move from nature to wilderness is the re-situation of Canada’s Anglophone, Francophone, and indigenous Innu communities within the greater Canadian nation that they constitute. Sacha Cody extends this re-centering approach in his article on the commodification of food in rural China. By comparing the various ways in which farm labor is made visible to consumers, Cody investigates intimacy and alienation as simultaneously economic, material, and social relationalities. The limits and possibilities of intimacy and alienation also shape Sarah Fouts’s article on food trucks in New Orleans. Through a careful ethnography of the experiences of Latinx food vendors as they navigate endless bureaucratic hurdles to launch their small food businesses, Fouts challenges us to think about how food systems and food experiences dehumanize certain kinds of people. Recognition of the dehumanizing dimensions of the food world is perhaps not surprising, but Fouts helps us to see how bureaucratic processes dehumanize and rehumanize differently. Bureaucracies are, as anthropologist Mary Douglas and others have reminded us, always the products of human activity, even as they may appear to act as human agents.
A related theme of reorientation that emerges in this issue addresses the forms by which aesthetic presentations and experiences of food take shape and become real. Irina Mihalache’s article on the focus on food in an art exhibition in a Canadian museum examines how food knowledge and experiences were captured and communicated to visitors. Recipes become a particular communication form through which particular food experiences and desires are expressed. From a different vantage point, the article on wine labeling in Australia by Moya Costello, Robert Smith, and Leonie Lane considers how the aesthetics of visual representations of terroir may or may not match up with the sensory or even cultural expectations of wine drinking. The experience of the label comes to stand in for the experience of ingestion, and the biological liveliness that exists within wine is reduced merely to the paper on the outside of the bottle that contains the wine. In both instances—that of the museum exhibition and that of the wine label—where does the dynamic, sensual experience of consumption exist? Or, as Nancy Gagliardi’s article prompts us to consider, what are the consequences of these aesthetic forms for creating the subjects that consume these experiences? Taking up the topic of American dieting practices in the 1960s, Gagliardi shows how attention to the marketing of diet products sheds light on how consumers—in this case, women—were challenged to reconstitute and reexperience their own bodies, a phenomenon that has had profound effects on the ways in which such critical issues as agency, bodily autonomy, and subjectivity are understood and theorized today. Lastly, Mark D’Alessandro brings us back to the larger social ecologies that encompass the human and nonhuman in his reflections on how he as a student learned about butchery and then began teaching it to his own students.
As you read through this issue, I invite you not simply to think about the limits, boundaries, and new horizons that become possible when we decenter and move beyond the human, but also perhaps to find ways to include the nonhuman and the more-than-human in your own reflections and analyses.
Melissa L. Caldwell