Editor’s Letter, Spring 2018

from Gastronomica 18:1

“What is the relationship between food and value?” This succinct but complex question stimulates many debates and discussions within critical food studies. Is the relationship dictated by the type of food or ingredients used? A particular recipe or the background of the person who picked, prepared, served, or consumed the food? Is it the way in which foods flow through personal, regional, or global networks? Does value arise through combinations of aesthetic, sensory, and cultural qualities? Is it a blend of some or all of these qualities? Or is something else at play?

In this issue of Gastronomica, Micah Trapp takes this question in new and fascinating directions by exploring the world of American grocery auctions. Through a detailed ethnographic case study of what actually happens during grocery auctions in Mississippi and Maryland, Trapp examines how the spoils and excesses of an industrialized food system are transformed into valued foods. In so doing, Trapp complicates our understandings of market capitalism in a world where scarcity, excess, desire, and need are remade. Themes of value also emerge in Jake Young’s provocation on offal. Once commonplace in American food cultures but now increasingly rare, offal’s presence and absence challenges Americans to grapple with their feelings about animal flesh. Which pieces of animal flesh are desirable and for whom? How do American consumers think about waste and wastefulness, as well as desire and enjoyment, when animal bodies are at stake? Read more

Editor’s Letter, Winter 2017

from Gastronomica 17:4

The Soviet world was a land of striking contrasts, contradictions, and paradoxes, where citizens recognized that even though everything was forbidden, everything was possible. These paradoxes also characterize the post-Soviet era, such as this amusing scene in the center of Prague, where the Museum of Communism shares a courtyard with McDonald’s.
Photograph by Andrew G. Baker © 2009

One hundred years ago was a momentous time in many places around the world. While the catastrophe of World War I continued to grind on, adding to already unimaginable levels of casualties, it was not as though the rest of the world stopped and waited for the war to end. In 1917, the United States Supreme Court upheld an eight-hour working day for railroad employees, contributing to the idea that workers were people who were entitled to personal time and promoting the nascent concept of work-life balance. Suffragettes in Great Britain and the United States marched and protested for the right for (white, elite) women to vote. Puerto Rico was officially created as a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship. Although in Africa there were only two independent countries—Liberia and what is now Ethiopia (then Abyssinia)—and it would be nearly another half century before independence movements swept the continent, a series of major revolutions elsewhere led to the formation of new nation-states. In China, Sun Yat Sen’s efforts to lead a separatist regime eventually resulted in what has come to be described as the modern Chinese state, with Sen recognized as its de facto “father.” Finland declared its independence from Russia, setting it on the path to full autonomy. At the same time, ongoing political struggles in Russia culminated in the October Revolution, which paved the way for the formation of the Soviet Union. In short, the events of 1917 and their lasting effects proved upheaving for those who lived through them and continue to fascinate those who are drawn to studying them.

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Editor’s Letter, Fall 2017

from Gastronomica 17:3

Lunches at my daughter’s school might include fried rice, dumplings, and noodles in addition to fruit, water, milk, and juice.
Photograph by Melissa L. Caldwell © 2017

As I write this editor’s letter at the beginning of June, I am in the home stretch of packing daily lunches for my daughter to take to school. As you read this in late August, I, like many parents, will already be back to the grind of trying to plan lunches that will both nourish my daughter and excite her enough that she actually eats what I pack. School lunches, as we all know, are a simultaneously fascinating and disturbing microcosm of the various power dynamics that exist among children, parents, schools, and other social observers and critics.

Most often, critical commentaries on school lunches have focused on the nutritional aspects of what children are eating: Are children eating “healthy” foods? Are they getting enough to eat? Are their meals prepared at home from fresh ingredients or in an institutional setting from mass-produced ingredients? A prevalent secondary concern has been whether children are knowledgeable about the foods they are eating: Do children know where their foods come from? Do they have personal experiences with planting, picking, or preparing the foods they eat? Collectively, such concerns with school lunches have pushed health to the top of the list as the most important aspect of children’s midday meal.

But what else might school lunches tell us?
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Editor’s Letter, Summer 2017

from Gastronomica 17:2

Milk that comes straight from the source at a dairy farm near Manchester, England.
Photograph by Andrew G. Baker © 2015

Authenticity is one of those qualities that have proved especially vexing to those of us who are concerned with food matters. It is not simply the question of what makes something authentic, but also the question of what “authentic” means. Most often, what counts as “authentic” is imagined as an absolute state that can be quantified in some way, whether through aesthetic presentation, a specific combination of ingredients, sensory experiences, or the particular origin story attached to a dish or meal. Yet as Arjun Appadurai noted many years ago, authenticity is less an absolute state of existence than it is a relative category. More significantly, it is a relative category that is inherently and explicitly moral. As Appadurai wrote in his essay “On Culinary Authenticity”: “authenticity measures the degree to which something is more or less what it ought to be. It is thus a norm of some sort.” Appadurai then queried the nature of this norm: “But is it an immanent norm, emerging somehow from the cuisine itself? Or is it an external norm, reflecting some imposed gastronomic standard? If it is an immanent norm, who is its authoritative voice…? If it is an imposed norm, who is its privileged voice?” (Appadurai 1986: 25).

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Editor’s Letter, Spring 2017

from Gastronomica 17:1

Is there such a thing as a perfect food? A perfect meal? A perfect dining experience? And if so, what would it be like? Would it be a dream come true, would it exceed expectations, or would it be a disappointment because the reality could not match the desire?

For something that ultimately satisfies the most basic of biological needs, food has a curious relationship to notions of perfection, most notably beliefs about what constitutes an ideal or even perfect world. For far too many people around the world struggling with food insecurity, it is basic access to food and water that would be the ideal. For those with stable access to foods, however, often ideals of perfection are expressed through differential values associated with particular foods or the ways in which foods are produced, presented, and consumed.

Food’s place within utopian visions was the theme of the 21st Symposium of Australian Gastronomy, which was held in Melbourne in early December 2016. Food scholars, writers, practitioners, and gastronomes of all sorts gathered from around the world to discuss and experiment with different visions of what might constitute a food utopia. Inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia, published five hundred years ago, symposium participants drew connections between More’s idealistic visions with those of other utopian thinkers and activists, such as Charles Fourier’s ideas about gastrosophy, Soviet-era socialist planners who imagined possibilities for liberation through communal dining, NASA scientists who dreamed of what farms and gardens might look like in space colonies of the future, and even contemporary scientists working in the fields of synthetic biology and hospitality management to create new technologically perfect foods and food experiences. Yet despite the prevailing sentiment of progress and improvement embedded in many utopian dreams, the realities are often far from ideal, and may, in fact, introduce new problems—a reminder compellingly presented by Darra Goldstein, the founder and previous editor of Gastronomica, in her brilliant keynote lecture about the myths of abundance promised by early Soviet politicians and socialist activists.

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