from Gastronomica 18:2
“Local foods” have become something of a cliché in the food world. In the grocery stores where I do my shopping here in California, “local foods” are now the default, unmarked category for nonpackaged foods (fresh produce, dairy, meat, and bread primarily), and it is foods from “elsewhere” that are designated by labels indicating their geographic place of origin or the names and pictures of the people who grew or produced them. Of course the fact that I live in California is significant, as foods from “elsewhere” typically are stocked only when they are out of season here or if they are specialties not grown or produced here. This does not mean that “local” products are not obvious, but the features by which their localness is identified are more often indicated by claims to farming technique, cultural heritage, authenticity, aesthetic presentation, quality, flavor, and even realness. At the same time, the sheer size of California means that what counts as “local” might be from within the same county or from within the state—distances that can range from a few miles to several hundred miles. The field of Food Studies has seen similar trends. As “local foods” have become preferred themes for authors, activists, and their audiences, scholars have given greater attention to such topics as terroir, appellation labels, family farms, and artisanal food producers, with the presumption that these are the features that best encapsulate and express localness. Certainly these are topics that have become ever more common in the submissions and books that arrive at the Gastronomica office.
When the “elsewhere” issue arises in grocery stores, farmers markets, and scholarly and activist conversations, it is often framed in terms of the circulation of people, goods, and cultural practices that move foods and food cultures to new settings. In a departure from theories of localization that have emphasized how foods move from their original habitats to new places where they are remade, integrated, and (re)localized according to the values and practices of those new places, this insistence on a qualitative distinctiveness to local foods from “elsewhere” instantiates both distance and difference. Tellingly, this perspective is often accompanied by a moralizing sensibility that presents the elsewhere as problematic because it ostensibly displaces or oppresses an idealized local. The local from another place carries with it a taint of elsewhere. There seems to be a distinct and meaningful difference between local foods in their original habitats and local foods that have been uprooted and transplanted to new settings. Yet reconfiguring the “elsewhere” not as a nonlocal but rather as an invading “local” on the move reveals intriguing questions about the nature of the presumed associations among particular foods, places, communities, and cultures, whether these associations dissolve when they move, or whether they might move together, intact, to new destinations. Above all, it is the movement that seems to matter in terms of what constitutes localness. As such, the local is not so much an absolute and stable place as it is a fluid movement through multiple spaces, peoples, and experiences.
The provocative realities of localness, multiplicity, and mobility are recurring themes in the pieces in this issue of Gastronomica, beginning with Amita Baviskar’s SOAS Food StudiesCentre Distinguished Lecture. Drawing from her current research on the changing world of manufactured foods in India, Baviskar focuses on the phenomenal popularity of Maggi instant noodles, which have become the go-to comfort food for a generation of young urban Indians. Ubiquitous across the many places where young adults eat—from small food stands to family kitchens—Maggi noodles offer endless possibilities for customization, which in turn enables diners to flex their consumer citizenship muscles in today’s India. Maggi noodles no longer represent a global industrial food but make possible the flow of local—familial, regional, class-based—culinary cultures throughout India. In this way, Maggi noodles carry with them multiple, mobile locals. This idea of the multiple, mobile local also challenges us to think more critically about the origins of the “local” itself, not simply in terms of whether some origins are more authentic or real than others, but also in terms of whether duration of time is significant. In the case of the Maggi noodle cultures described by Baviskar, even as culinary appropriation and reworking have imbued these dishes with a sense of familiarity and comfort, the processes by which these activities have occurred are recent and so the processes by which authenticity and real have been made can be recalled.
Yet what about instances when the processes by which claims on authenticity and reality are either more distant or are linked to cultural features that resist critical questioning? Does length of time matter? How long does it take for foods to become local? Is one generation enough? Do foods have speeds? Do some foods move more slowly or faster than others?
These are issues addressed in different ways in the articles by Nurcan Atalan-Helicke, Neil Oatsvall, and Tomonori Sugimoto. In a fascinating article on einkorn, an ancient variety of wheat in Turkey, Atalan-Helicke examines how production of einkorn has moved from the small, mountainous regions across the Mediterranean where it grows to the tables of urban, middle-class Turkish consumers. When einkorn travels, it brings with it eight thousand years of heritage, so that today’s cosmopolitan diners are engaging with a deep and broad history of regional encounters. At stake is what happens to an ancient grain when it is mobilized for contemporary culinary practice, and by extension, what happens to idealized notions of origins and authenticity. How does our knowledge about foods and food cultures—and local foods in particular — change when we reorient our perspective to the longue durée?
Neil Oatsvall tackles related questions from a very different vantage point: what happens when notions of an original and authentic local are a myth shrouded in a longue durée that stakes its legitimacy in indigeneity, notably the identities and cultures of indigenous people. Through a carefully documented analysis of Mountain Valley Spring Company, an American bottled water company, Oatsvall shows how the company created advertisements that laid claim to an older and original American cultural heritage, but in so doing recreated themes of the conquest and exploitation of indigenous peoples by white Americans. Consequently, when indigeneity becomes a valuable selling point, it also dislocates indigenous people from their own pasts and local communities.
Tomonori Sugimoto similarly explores the theme of indigeneity and its significance within cultural projects of preserving cultural heritage while simultaneously moving it into more contemporary political concerns with community and national well-being. Specifically, Sugimoto pays careful attention to the ways in which the foodways of Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian people have become popularized as a new food trend among Han Chinese consumers. Yet as Sugimoto argues, the popular attention given to these foodways overlooks the realities experienced by the very people whose physical and intellectual labors produce these foods. Specifically, urban Pangcah/Amis people, especially women, must engage in risky labor to provision indigenous foods for nonindigenous consumers. As a result, the trendy preference for “local” foods rests on the exotification and exploitation of indigenous communities and their heritage. At stake here is the increased vulnerability of indigenous communities and their ability to claim authentic localness.
Although themes of indigeneity, multiplicity, and mobility are more oblique in the articles by Jan Dutkiewicz and Albena Shkodrova, these authors similarly raise questions about the civic, public life of mythologies of a distinctive, unique local. In the case of Dutkiewicz, it is the phenomenon of agritourism at a factory farm that invites tourist-consumers to enter the intimate settings of a working farm and personally connect with the animals and farmers who make the food that lands on their plates. Invoking the trope of knowing the farmer and knowing the animal as a means for signaling a “localness” that is different from a presumably generic nonlocal, this agritourism encounter attempts to craft intimate, personal encounters within a tourist experience that is explicitly mobile.
For Shkodrova, the mobile local has more to do with the changing dynamics of global geopolitics. In this account of Coca-Cola’s adventures in Bulgaria, Skhodrova maps out the movements of people, beverages, and politics across political and geographic borders. One of the consequences of these shifting dynamics was a shifting terrain as distinctions between local and global, East andWest were reconstituted. The local was not just on the move, but on the march across a Europe otherwise marked by Cold War landmarks.
When taken together, these articles invite us to rethink the very premise of “the local” itself. It is no longer necessarily a geographic orientation or a claim to a particular form of culture. Rather “the local” becomes a dynamic mode of being, notably a form of motion that travels across and between spaces and times. Sometimes it moves quickly, at other times more slowly. Sometimes it moves subtly, while at other times its movement is overt, even jarring. In all instances, what becomes clear is that “the local”—and all of the qualities associated with it—is never stable but always in emergence.
Melissa L. Caldwell