Editor’s Letter, Spring 2021

From Gastronomica 21.1

On the cover of this issue, the dinner table, the place of conviviality, is also shown as a space of power and exclusion, of seated White male corporate officers attended by Black waiters standing in the background. In the opening article, we read a quote from US senator Elizabeth Warren: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu.” Regardless of where one stood in the political storms of late 2020, it was clear that many people in the world had not yet had a chance to sit down at this proverbial table, while quite a few others were deeply worried about losing their places at it. Whether one was left sitting or standing, it was an anxious time for both groups: those who have enjoyed the fruits of economic well-being and political influence, and those who have yet to get a taste. Ultimately, everyone wants and needs a place at the table, perhaps not the sort of corporate high table that signals exclusivity and privilege, but certainly the sort that represents security, nutrition, and belonging.

At the time of writing this letter, shortly after the US elections of 2020, it looks as if a few more people just might get a seat at the political table in the United States. Maybe there will only be a shuffling of political seating arrangements, but possibly there will be more places at real tables where people actually get fed. And with a vaccine against COVID-19 on the horizon, people might be able again to share those tables with many others. With that in view, there is occasion for celebrating the dinner table again, but also for reflecting on what it represents in terms of social inclusion. As Mackensie Griffin writes in the opening article, “A dining table represents the zeitgeist, a space for inclusion and advancement, an invitation to come together, and an opportunity for communication waiting to be seized” (p.5). Let’s just hope that is so.

Other articles also delve deeply into culinary politics, starting with those grouped into the opening section on “Food and Power.” For older Americans at least, Amy Bentley’s account of the scandalous labeling of ketchup as a vegetable during the early Reagan administration will recall political battles that heralded the arrival of our own bitterly partisan age. In Efrat Gilad’s piece on the promotion of milk in Israel, we see how food became the focus of Zionist nation-building in Israel, again with children at the center of food politics. Apropos of the recent racial turmoil in the United States, several book and film reviews in this issue deal directly with race, inequality, and resistance, including accounts of food activismin New York, Black food geographies in Washington, D.C., banana imperialism in Central America and the Caribbean, the marketing of sugary drinks in Mexico, and food politics in Puerto Rico.

While food is always served up with power and wrapped in politics, this issue also explores how food is a means for cultivating relationships and sustaining memories. And in some cases this type of care work is a way of circumventing the effects of power, as we see in Alyshia Gálvez’s account of the paqueteros and paqueteras, the couriers who transport comfort foods, among many other goods, from Mexico to the United States. They represent alternative transnational pathways formed by grassroots entrepreneurs evading corporate and state domination, and they also show how these activities sustain alternative foodways for migrants on both sides of the border, both as producers and consumers. The maintenance of food memories and the sustenance of family members are also the subjects of Erin Thomason’s focus on the Chinese shaoguo as a regional foodway in rural Henan and Matthew Meduri’s examination of American oyster dressing as a somewhat mysterious and untraceable family tradition. The latter piece reminds us how poorly we understand our own families, even as we attempt to hold onto family histories and memories through food. Culinary memory is shown to be more a product of people cooking and caring for each other in the present than something we can easily pin down in the past.

Chefs are spotlighted in this issue, and that spotlight brings some heat. From Andrea Oskis, we learn how chefs cope with the combat of celebrity cooking shows, reflecting our anxious desire to be a “good cook” back at us. Questioning this aura of individual creativity and charisma, Rasmus Simonsen’s piece dissects the multiple influences on a celebrity chef’s signature dish, revealing the creative process as but a node in much larger social and natural processes. John Broadway further problematizes a global culinary star system in which elite chefs in remote areas serve expensive and hyperlocal fare to hypermobile gourmets soaked with cash. Reading Broadway’s contribution in this era of immobility and COVID-19, we can’t help but wonder who those chefs are serving now. It is a difficult time to be a chef, whether a global star or a local line cook. Stunned by COVID-19, the restaurant industry will likely look very different in 2021, but professional cooks will remain on our collective minds. As Oskis writes about television chefs, “Cooking is a drive-thru straight to our fundamental need to belong, both off and on screen.” We still will want chefs to guide us back to social belonging after COVID-19, perhaps with fewer velvet ropes and more conviviality (and hopefully a return to steady paychecks for those serving the meals).

Writing this letter, I am looking optimistically to an imagined 2021 when it will appear in print, perhaps even at the dawn of postpandemic life. But in the fall of 2020, we are still living deep within the crisis, with rising numbers of cases in much of the world and increasingly devastating consequences, including for the restaurants mentioned above. The special section “COVID-19 Dispatches” covers the impact of the pandemic across a wide range of regions and issues, from a panel discussion on how Chinese food habits and food systems have been stigmatized and misrepresented in the Anglophone media to a discussion of how food suppliers and consumers are coping with disruptions in supply and demand in Japan, the country where I live. Here in Tokyo, we have been spared the worst of the global COVID-19 crisis so far. Perhaps it’s the mask-wearing, we say. Perhaps it’s the ingrained habit of social distancing, we speculate. We don’t shake hands, and we don’t usually hug people we don’t actually like. But we all do need and want to sit down and take a meal together. I miss the easy inebriated conviviality with strangers in the packed eateries of neighborhood Tokyo. Let’s hope we all find ourselves a place at a shared, inclusive, and lively table during this coming year.

—James Farrer, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Tokyo, Japan, November 2020

Editor’s Letter, Winter 2020

From Gastronomica 20.4

Our last issue focused entirely on the impact of COVID-19 on food, and with this one we still cover the pandemic although we return to our regular format. The Gastronomica Editorial Collective decided to continue to offer a forum for authors to share their experiences, observations, and initial research in a dedicated section titled “COVID-19 Dispatches.” Several of these contributions examine the impact of COVID-19 on teaching. Others provide narratives of everyday life. Together, they offer new insights into the ways the pandemic has changed lives and how people have responded to it.

When my own anxiety over the effects of the pandemic and other global problems seem too much to cope with, I turn off the news and look to nature for its current events. I live in the Kansas countryside with gravel roads that turn my car into the dirtiest one in town. But in this last year especially I have come to appreciate how these roads force me to slow down. When I run—slowly—on them week by week, I can watch the transition in the life of the plants by the roadside, allowing me to mark the passage of time in the arrival and disappearance of dandelions and daisies. Trumpet vine and bindweed thrive on the roadside despite the efforts of some of my neighbors to eradicate them. Zen Master Dōgen (1200–1253) observed, “in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread” (Tanahashi 1985: 69).

One of my best decisions in recent years was to stop cutting my lawn, and the yard is now so much more interesting. Frogs have a place to hide and fireflies lay their eggs on the native plants that have overgrown the grass. Mother Nature has not only returned, she has taken over both my property and home.

Someday I may regret the squirrels living in my attic, but I have stopped worrying about the band of groundhogs under the porch who ravage the garden, gnawing my broccoli down to the bone. In light of climate change and so many other environmental problems, I find comfort in nature claiming these small victories. I did draw a line when the raccoon matriarch started teaching her kits how to use the cat door. But I only watch now as she regularly overturns the birdfeeder to dump out the sunflower seeds and raids the compost for the melon rinds. After all, we are all sheltering in place together.

Another recent pleasure of mine has been working on this issue with my Gastronomica colleagues. I am grateful to them and particularly the Managing Editor, Jessica Carbone, for the effort and advice she provided in putting this issue together (and the ones that preceded it). And I thank the contributing authors (and the reviewers) for sharing their work with us.

An often-used expression in Japanese is that the best cooking “gives life to the taste of ingredients” (aji o ikasu), meaning that a chef should try to bring out natural flavors as opposed to disguising their cooking with a cloying sauce. The section “Working with Ingredients” showcases three authors who breathe new intellectual life into what might otherwise be prosaic foodstuffs from salmon to chicken to wine.

While many of us are still staying at home due to COVID-19, John Gifford’s description of hopping on a boat off the coast of Vancouver Island is an even more welcome escape. When Gifford points out the huge Japanese-owned aquaculture endeavors farming salmon, we realize that this is more than a pleasure trip: we discover how an international company is firmly entrenched in what we thought was a pristine setting. While aquaculture is growing to meet the global demands for fish, it is not without its own environmental effects, as Gifford delineates. He ends by offering an alternative model of fishing that is both sustainable and in harmony with indigenous culture.

Sarah Kollnig provides a detailed examination of the reasons for and the implications of Bolivia’s high rate of chicken consumption. Bolivians eat more chicken than beef, and more poultry per capita than the United States. Industrially produced poultry may be less expensive, but cheap chicken does not mean the end of social inequities. On the contrary, Kollnig documents how this source of protein actually facilitates the economic exploitation of the poor. If the chickens themselves could speak they would report how before the 1980s they lived in backyards and received the care of families until they were needed for a holiday; since then, chickens have become a “genetically improved” but disease-prone factory commodity produced by big poultry industries owned by the privileged white elite. Although chicken consumption unites Bolivians, the poor often have to make due with necks and feet.

Famous for her ability to coax out the natural flavor in her grapes, award-winning winemaker Sandrine Caloz also reveals great sensitivity in her interaction with her Eritrean coworkers and the environment, as Scott Haas’s portrait of her shows. Haas indicates that consumers in North America may soon be able to taste the Swiss varietals that Caloz transforms into organic wine. When they do, Haas’s article should be remembered for disclosing the labors and love that went into each bottle.

The trio of articles about “Technology and Taste in East Asia” began as papers at a workshop at the University of Hong Kong in 2019. When it came time to think about revising the papers for publication, the conference organizers and the authors agreed that Gastronomica would be an ideal home for these three essays. After more than a year of revising in response to external reviews, the articles became ready for publication at the same time that I took my turn as issue editor. As editor, I find it awkward to be including my own work here. I do so at the insistence of the other members of the editorial collective. As an author, however, I am honored for my article to be published alongside two provocative essays on the history of flavorings representative of East Asia: soy sauce and prickly ash (sanshō). These three articles have a separate introduction that precedes them.

The next section, “Excursions,” encompasses food-focused journeys as well as
transgressions against the barriers supporting systems of discrimination and economic
inequality. Coline Ferrant and Gary Alan Fine help us navigate the food scene for
Mexican residents in Chicago. The authors observe that the terms “food oasis” and
“food desert” are too static to explain the dynamic ways that Mexicans drive around
the city to dine out and in quest of cumin, the pastry concha, fish, chilis, and other

Daniel E. Bender narrates an earlier tale of travelers Lucile and Bill Mann, whose 1937 search in Asia for animals for the Washington National Zoo led them to culinary discoveries that Lucile carefully scrapbooked. Lucile’s record of “colonial indulgence and Eastern exoticism” speaks to the privileges that she, a middle-class housewife, not only relished but also never questioned. Lucile illustrates how someone can travel, face challenges, and meet new people but never once be fundamentally changed by these experiences. In her entitlement she remained as trapped as the animals her husband purchased abroad.

Our “Dolce” section highlights sweets that deserve respect. Andrea Chase asks us to consider the sublime geometry of the donut, which she calls the “sum of existence.” Had there been donuts in ancient China, the Daoist philosophers would have pondered these confections encircling emptiness. “It is the center hole that makes it useful,” to cite the Daodejing attributed to the sixth-century B.C.E. sage Laozi (Feng and English 1972: verse 9). But Chase also illuminates the sensuality of doughnuts that makes them taste so good.

At our first editorial meeting, I recall members of the Gastronomica editorial collective (myself included) vowing that we would never ever publish another poem, but Jennifer Certo’s “Limoncello” made us eat (drink?) those words. Who could refuse verse that tempts with just “one sweet note”? Certo changed my mind about poetry and food, and I raise a glass of “sweetness and light” to her.

I encourage you to visit the Gastronomica website (gastronomica.org) where the conversation continues in our social media posts and podcasts in conjunction with Meant to be Eaten and Heritage Radio Network. I could write more about what I have learned from the essays in this issue, but instead I offer another passage from the Daodejing:

Better stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade and the edges will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.
(Feng and English 1972: verse 9)

—Eric C. Rath, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Jefferson County, Kansas, August 2020

Feng, Gia-fu, and Jane English. 1972. Lao Tsu: Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.
Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed. 1985. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen. Berkeley:
North Point Press

Editor’s Letter, Fall 2020

From Gastronomica 20.3

I am not one to rely on recipes. Most of what I have learned about food and cooking has instead occurred through observation, trial and error, and most importantly, collaborations with others whose impact cannot be reduced to a simple formula. Recipes, nonetheless, have a certain power: they speak for those who cannot be present and offer guidance when the path forward is uncertain.

The idea for this issue arose in the wake of the WHO’s declaration on March 11, 2020, that COVID-19 was a pandemic. The Editorial Collective of Gastronomica, as a matter of course, was already conducting its regular meetings via Zoom, and each of us was experiencing the pandemic in different ways, on different timelines, and with differing degrees of intensity in Italy, Japan, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. As scholars and members of our local and global communities, we believed that it was important to respond to this moment and to find some order in the chaos—throughmutual support, storytelling, and analysis.We were searching for a recipe to guide our efforts and provide some measure of certainty.

As stay-at-home orders multiplied in the wake of the spreading pandemic, recipes were having a moment. Again. A fascination with recipes is not new in times of infectious disease. Recipes were viral sensations long before social media. Recipes might even be the original meme. Through replication, transformation, and diversification over time, they coevolve with their hosts—benefitting from their strengths and exploiting their weaknesses. The rapid spread of recipes for tangy sourdough loaves and frothy dalgona coffees, for hand sanitizer and presidential Clorox cocktails, reveals the same latent pathologies of past pandemics. Much like Plague Water and the various “sweat potions” that promised relief during outbreaks of the plague in seventeenth-century Europe, the proliferation of recipes in the time of COVID-19 offers scant immunity from fear, inequality, scapegoating, and xenophobia.1 Recipes, once synonymous with cures, seem to function merely as placebos.

The course of this history is baked into the very structure of the recipe, whose form and imperative voice originate in medical prescriptions or “receipts” from the sixteenth century. The popularization of these scripts—Hieronymous Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis (1500) is noteworthy above all for its attempt to render the technical language of medicinal plague cures into the German vernacular—suggests a persistent epistemological problem at the heart of any public health crisis: how to disseminate curative knowledge to those who are in the best position to deliver care? In subsequent centuries, the spread of recipe collections and cookbooks reflected a similar dichotomy: those who were literate and could afford such texts nonetheless relied upon those whose skills and station placed them in the kitchen rather than at the dinner table.

M. F. K. Fisher’s essay “The Anatomy of a Recipe” notes how the writing and transmitting of recipes later evolved to match the “changing tempo of reading, preparing, producing,” even though cooking, for the most part, remained unchanged. The fundamentals of bread making, fermentation, roasting, and grilling have undergone only superficial modifications during the past century; and yet, Fisher’s praise for the modern recipe notwithstanding, the global food system’s radical transformations in magnitude and interdependence reveal how pervasive and insidious the anatomy of the modern recipe has become.

This familiar structure of the modern recipe—a detailed list of ingredients supported with a set of ordered procedures—is both a catalog of the dish’s components and a technical guide for its production. And yet a recipe does not include what is sufficient for its success: the art of cooking is not the outcome of the recipe but rather its underlying premise. Cooking challenges any distinction between theory and practice. But there is a different logic at work in the modern recipe: a distinction not between head-work and hand-work, but between having and doing, between the possession of resources and the labor that transforms and delivers those resources. The structural logic of the modern recipe is no longer curative but instead reveals the deeper pathologies of capital: the quantification of all goods, the exploitation of essential labor, the devaluation of care work.

This special issue offers no alternative therapy; it records the stories and reflections of those whose experiences are inscribed within this same formula—those who, through an abundance of desire, angst, anger, or hope, have rallied their voices to reflect on food in the time of COVID-19 and to document its complex symptomology. The Editorial Collective’s response to the pandemic’s impact was rapid but also cognizant of its limitations. Our decision on March 19, 2020, to produce this special issue would give us less than two months to request submissions and then to collect, read, edit, and submit the volume to our publisher.We issued a call for papers—or more properly, dispatches from the field—with rolling deadlines of April 10 and April 25. We received 185 submissions from nineteen different countries. Fifty-nine of those submissions appear in this issue to document, however imperfectly, the early stages of the pandemic.

These pages contain potential cures and welcome placebos: impassioned storytelling, pointed analyses, and testaments tomutual aid. But this issue is not a recipe to heal or even distract us during this crisis. At best, it is an incomplete list of ingredients— elements of a more salutary recipe yet to be written. They are provisions for a recipe that is, like all recipes, provisional and never definitive. If it resists the framework of having and doing, such a gesture relies on an interpretation of the recipe that is constantly under revision: definitely not a cure, but perhaps a path toward recovery; not a silver bullet, but a strategy for management and some level of immunity—a resistance recovered from the very pathogen itself.

A careful reading of recipes reveals that, despite their current ubiquity, they speak primarily through absence—what their fundamental structure obscures and reduces to a formula. The written text of a recipe gestures away from itself: to the actual dish one intends to prepare, to its origins in the author not present to instruct us, to the knowledge and skill required to complete the dish, and to the aspirations and anticipation of those who will make or enjoy it. Through these fundamental forms of absence, recipes unite communities, recovering and relaying the bonds of kinship and friendship among those in proximity and to those who remain at a distance. Recipes cannot replace what is lost, but their ritual performance, through cooking and the pleasure it brings, recalls the origin of all placebos: the vespers of the Office of the Dead, a solemn remembrance for those who have gone before us.

There is no simple recipe for this moment. This issue, and the many voices contained within it, cannot speak for the essential individuals on the front lines of the pandemic who could not share their stories, or the many lives already taken by COVID-19. Our hope is that this issue, through its collective force, will resonate despite these and more widespread absences the pandemic will inevitably expose: in our healthcare and support systems, in our political leadership, and in the institutions that have for too long ignored and even erased those who will suffer the most. No prescription can completely undo the pre-existing social conditions that have exacerbated the pandemic’s impact, and as with any attempted recipe, our aspirations must reckon with the realities that will determine its outcome: some of them unforeseen, but many more the product of longstanding indifference, neglect, and willed ignorance. Beyond our most carefully orchestrated plans, there is perhaps greater wisdom in care, openness, and even the ability to improvise when the path forward is uncertain. This moment requires the courage to imagine a different reality and to transform the available ingredients into something new.

—Robert T. Valgenti, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Lebanon, PA, May 2020

Fisher, M.F.K. 2010. “The Anatomy of a Recipe,” in With Bold Knife and Fork. New York: Counterpoint.

Fransen, Sietske. “How to Translate a Recipe,” The Recipes Project (blog), https://recipes.hypotheses.org/4565 (accessed May 14, 2020).

Heldke, Lisa. (1992). “Food-Making as a Thoughtful Practice,” in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, ed. Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nicosia, Marissa. “Plague Water,” Cooking in the Archives (blog), https://rarecooking.com/2020/04/02/plague-water/ (accessed May 2, 2020).

Taape, Tillmann. “Recipes against the Plague—in Pharmaceutical Code?” The Recipes Project (blog), https://recipes.hypotheses.org/2240 (accessed May 9, 2020).

Editor’s Letter, Summer 2020

From Gastronomica 20.2

I was fortunate to be able to do most of my reading for this issue in a location not available to many people: a lovely house overlooking a lagoon in South Africa’s West Coast National Park, a 90 (or so)–minute drive from Cape Town, where I live and work. The house is owned by close friends, and we’ve been visiting it long enough for their youngest child to have dubbed it “Signe’s house” because my husband and I always arrived for shared weekends before they did. So, for as long as she can remember, I’d already be busy pottering in the kitchen when they finally arrived after collecting children from after-school sporting events, or birthday parties, or negotiating Friday afternoon traffic (sometimes all of these commitments and more).

The house is technically situated in an area called Stofbergfontein, a local variation of a town name many South Africans will immediately recognize—fontein is Afrikaans (and Dutch) for “fountain” or “spring,” and its iterations are legion in the country, presumably in historical celebration of finding water on barren land (Bloemfontein, Matjiesfontein, Clara Anna Fontein, to name a few). But better known—and searchable on Google Maps—is the closest landmark, known as Churchhaven. (I say landmark with respectful caution: among the sparsely populated fishing community on the West Coast, Churchhaven would almost certainly qualify as a town, legal definitions aside; for those of us who live in cities, village or hamlet would probably be a more accurate description. There is indeed a church, and even a mayor, but no post office and definitely no Uber Eats.)

For a nonreligious person such as myself, our friends’—or “my”—house in Churchhaven is as heavenly as it gets. Given the poor cellphone reception out among the dunes, it is the calmest place I know, and therefore the best place I know to read. But the best place to read can also prove to be the hardest place to do so, because it is one of those rarest of places where all you actually want to do is sit on the stoep (local lingo for balcony or veranda) and gaze at the lagoon with a glass of wine, or, later in the day, stare into the flames of an outside fire as the wood whittles down to the glowing embers required for that evening’s braai (barbecue). With another glass of wine, of course.

Approximately halfway through my reading of the articles that populate this issue, I recall my intermittent gaze at the lagoon being distracted by a francolin (a guinea fowl–like bird common to South Africa’s Western Cape—our friend calls them “Churchhaven chickens”) in the small patch of shrubbery directly in front of the house. He—or she—was pecking furiously at a piece of orange peel left by the previous visitors to the house. I became intrigued by the bird’s persistence, even as the peel was clearly dried out and difficult to manage; its potential nutritional contribution questionable at best.

Persistence is one of the themes that run through the articles in this issue, and indeed frames many of the ways we speak and think about food today, be it in terms of protecting existing foods and traditions, lamenting those that are threatened by new behaviors or cycles of nature, or even in the perpetuation of certain language used to describe what and how we eat and drink. Zachary Nowak, Bradley M. Jones, and Elisa Ascione’s article on “Disciplining Polenta” begins with a spoof of the rules governing Italy’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) system, which is of course no joke, but the piece does encourage important critical reflection on the possibility of such systems operating as a “protective force against the specter of modernity and its flattening impulse” rather than a considered expression of which foods—and food traditions—require “saving,” as we explored in-depth in our special issue on “Saving Food” (19:3). Adam Calo’s research into the trope of the “Beginner Farmer” (portrayed as predominantly white, privileged, Herculean, and self-sacrificing) adds to the persistence of a myth that ignores, the author argues, the actual challenges of twenty-first-century agrarianism.

In Joel Harold Tannenbaum’s recounting of the myth-making “experiment”—there’s some doubt as to whether one such experiment actually took place—involving (dyed) blue steak, red peas, and green fries, we learn about the persistence and metamorphosis of a culinary (and scientific) myth: an excellent example of how the language of both food and science is transmitted, more fascinating with each retelling and embellishment, its origins harder to lock down with each iteration. Susan H. Gordon’s musings (incidentally also inspired by gazing at a wonderful landscape), which interrogate the appropriate word to use for Italian wines and produce rather than the French catch-all terroir, propose a keener, more captive descriptor in the Italian territorio—much less persistent, and more cognizant of geographical and historical fluctuations than its French counterpart.

In a nod to the nonpersistence of some traditions, Samuel H. Yamashita guides readers through the rise and influence of Japanese tasting menus, first in France in the 1970s, in Los Angeles and New York in the 1980s, and then across the general San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s and 2000s, while Carl Ipsen details the uncertain future of the centuries-old olive oil industry in Italy’s Puglia region thanks to a devastating scourge of the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium. In their piece on “worry-nostalgia,” Sarah Trainer, Jessica Hardin, Cindi SturtzSreetharan, and Alexandra Brewis examine the anxiety around individual and community health as traditional ways of eating are increasingly replaced by “globalized foodscapes” in three distinct—but evidently not so different—locations: Osaka, Japan; Atlanta, Georgia in the United States; and Apia, Samoa. Tackling the making and breaking of tradition from a somewhat different angle, Sabine Parrish lifts the lid, so to speak, on how gender affects the experiences of female baristas at US specialty coffee competitions, concluding that the construct of the “ideal barista” remains reserved for cisgendered males, where any deviation from that outcome is likely to be called out as irregular.

In our final section on “Saving, Fermenting, Remembering Food,” Frances Cannon goes in search of fermentation expert Sandor Katz, hoping for some clues on using fermented foods as alternative medicine, only to be cautioned not to expect too much from food alone. Corey S. Pressman’s reminiscences of three burgers that punctuated memorable moments in his life remind us of the visceral—and persistent—connection between food and lived experiences, and David Bacon’s photo essay on the public markets of Vigan in the Philippines provides a stunning series of snapshots of the everyday moments that add vitality to the necessary transactions of living.

As diverse in focus and approach as the pieces that make up this issue are, they all speak to something I saw in that Churchhaven chicken pecking away at an unyielding orange peel: a wonderful stubbornness; a refusal to let go. And while we cannot guarantee that traditions, myths, and ways of being will not change—sometimes for the better, sometimes quite clearly for the worse—having them recorded in these pages is one way they will persist, or at least be remembered. I hope you will enjoy this issue as much as I savored the privilege of editing it.

Editor’s Letter, Spring 2020

From Gastronomica 20.1

It’s 1969. April. It’s 3 a.m. At that time, it was quite cold in Turin, Northern Italy, in the wee hours of the morning, a reality not even the fascist propaganda of “Italy, Garden of Europe” had been able to change. And I’m wearing shorts, sandals, and a striped T-shirt as, with sticky eyes and dazed by the short sleep, I run down the five stories of stairs of the walk-up where I spent a good part of my childhood at my maternal grandmother’s house.

My grandma Mariuccia, like her sister Anna, who is quietly waiting for us downstairs, is a street vendor at the local open market, rain, snow, or sunshine. My grandma specializes in fruit, my aunt sells vegetables. The sisters immigrated from rural Southern Italy to the industrial city as young children in the late 1920s—before the mass internal migration of the 1950s and 1960s—in the wake of the peasant uprising in the durum wheat latifundia of Puglia. Half the rural town of Cerignola relocated to the Barriera di Milano neighborhood of Turin, creating an urban village in the city and two twin communities, one North and one South, sending people, food, things, and information back and forth in flows. Nonna Mariuccia married a man from a large Torinese artisan family, Nonno Beppe, creating serious controversy in both families—coming from separate anthropological universes, and gastronomies.

Nonna Mariuccia, Zia Anna, and I wade into the dark as we silently walk across the deserted square of the open market—in just a matter of a few hours, with the light, a confusion of voices, colors, faces, and odors will reign over the naked pavement—to get to the stop of streetcar number 9, which, in a symphony of shrieks and clangs, takes us to a very different neighborhood, to the city’s wholesale produce market. The market is overwhelming with noises and movement. The truck drivers, who drove all day and night from as far as Sicily or Naples, park their trucks so the backs are open, like enormous mouths, toward the buying bystanders, a very mixed crowd. The truck drivers munch on sausage or tomato sandwiches and drink beer at four in the morning while the middlemen scream in all Italian dialects, tossing around crates of apricots and sacks of potatoes onto the biggest scales I have ever thought existed. Upon my first visit I had been confused about my grandma asking for “ten yellow peaches” and been given ten crates of the fruit, not ten fruits. But now I know. Rolls of cash, big brown bills, are displayed upfront and my grandma hands some of the money to a guy with a van, a familiare car, as it was then called, that she trusts to deliver in a couple of hours the fruit she just bought right to her stall, marked by only four little white corners painted on the ground.

Dawn is approaching. On our way back to Barriera di Milano and the street market where my grandmother and aunt soon need to be at work, we see, on the opposite track, advancing streetcars fully packed with factory workers en route to the Mirafiori automobile plant to begin their six o’clock morning shift. Many of the women, older people, and occasional children shopping at my grandma’s fruit stand are their families. Everyone’s a migrant at the market: everyone is from somewhere else and has feelings toward the many others they see, hear, smell, and bump into. Food is also from somewhere else, from places imagined through that food name, and shows up at the market only in season, that is, two weeks every year. In June, my grandma sells Duroni di Vignola, dark, firm, and sweet cherries, which to me have the great advantage of being safe from containing the fleshy little worms the native Torinese call Giuanin (Johnny), so often present in the smaller and softer varieties when they’re fully ripe. In July, she sells the White Peach from Naples which, when I bite into it, releases a bout of sugary, sticky juice that drips down my forearm; in August, ramasin—small bittersweet plums, vaguely tasting like tobacco, you can’t stop eating and pit spitting—from Saluzzo.

Everything and every move you make is personalized at the market: it makes a big difference who you are buying your food from, who s/he is to you. The food actually tastes different because of the purveyor—maybe it’s the sweat—so the escarole from Uncle Vito or the ricotta cheese from comare Antonietta tastes like them, and has a biography. When, in the middle of the morning, I’m sent out to buy from some relative, even if that means walking all the way to the other end of the market, I’m stopped by three women, all dressed in black, with heart-shaped pendants with the photo of the deceased, who ask each other (they aren’t really talking to me) if I’m the grandson of Mariuccia, the nephew of Anna, the daughters of mastro Vincenzo, may he Rest In Peace, and resolve to lift me and press my face into their warm and soft breasts.

The boundaries between real, material everyday life and the extraterrestrial, the magical, and the holy are so permeable at the market; and foods and plants are thought to have medical, even salvific effects. I fear that there might be horsemeat, which has a weird sweet taste I hate, for dinner tonight, because I’m anemic. Later in her life, grandma—who refuses to use the newly introduced plastic pasta colander because she thinks it poisons food—would routinely go to doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies, but today, and she’s taking me with her, she’s going to her favorite erboristeria, a shop selling a variety of curative herbs, objects, and talismans. The secularization of Zia Anna happened only when, after having devotedly prayed and sacrificed to Saint Anthony for years, the saint failed her and let Nonno Vincenzo die. In a famous bout of rage, Zia Anna threw all her St. Anthony paraphernalia into the street, onto the market, from the window of her first-floor flat. Among the vendors, or the helpers, many have physical or intellectual disabilities, reflecting the general lack of trust in the medicalization of the issues somebody in the family may have. But it’s past one in the afternoon and it’s time to load the unsold crates and sacks onto the pushcart, fold the stall, and pull the cart toward the storage. Until tomorrow.

In retrospect, even back then, some thirty years before I became a Food Studies scholar, the market, and by extension the whole world of food, looked all about mobility and diversity to me. Not only because of my life story, but as one of the few members of the Editorial Collective of Gastronomica based outside North America and the only one based in (Southern) Europe, the themes of mobility and diversity in food are especially close and dear to me. In my role as part of the so-called “acquisitions cluster” of our collective, I aim to promote variety in the topics and approaches taken by our contents; to extend our diversity of voices in the journal by encouraging authors across class, racial, gender, sexual orientation, language, and geographical divides to contribute to the journal; and to help expand the readership of Gastronomica outside and beyond the more frequented grounds of North America and Western Europe. I therefore could not be luckier for and more excited about having the opportunity of being the editor of an issue—this one in your hands—widely dedicated to mobility and diversity in food provision, highlighting marketplaces as intriguing and revealing sites of observation and experience.

The first section, “Street Markets, Street Food,” opens with Krishnendu Ray’s “Rethinking Street Vending,” a piece that originated as his address at the annual Gastronomica Distinguished Lecture at the SOAS Food Studies Centre. Ray discusses street food as a form of food provisioning that, in the West, has been significantly curtailed by modernity, food industrialization, and the capitalist rationalization of urban space, with wide-ranging consequences on consumer taste, health, and sociability. Drawing on classic and recent sociological theory and historical literature, and examples from India and South Africa, Ray shows how street food and street markets transcend their capitalist and exchange functions to bring “liveliness” to cities, offering vendors, shoppers, and strollers the experience of other cultures and other worlds, including interclass relations. So the answer to the question “could good food be made congruent with good livelihoods for poor people and a lively city?” seems to be a resounding yes. In her response to Ray’s address, Sandra C. Mendiola García describes the open markets of Puebla, Mexico, in images evoking the pulsating space and rhythm of consumption of the street and insisting upon street food vendor activism (mobilization). Threatened by state policing and intense capitalist exploitation of the urban space, global city street vendors like Puebla’s increasingly have to self-organize and fight for their right to make a living and contribute to urban food systems and vitality. The second response, penned by Jane Battersby, similarly suggests that in the colonial and postcolonial city, state power has most decidedly construed street food vending as residual, irrational, and dangerous. Battersby recommends that African street vendor activists look at history to identify the best strategies to navigate between the pressures of state control and the needs of civil society. A closing epilogue offered by Noah Allison and Jaclyn Rohel asks food scholars to consider adopting an expansive definition of the notion of “street food” that can encompass an extended range of food provisioning and social interactions in shared urban spaces.

The issue’s second section, “Food, Culture, and Nation,” focuses on the power of food and its memory to generate and nurture multiple collective identities, and opens with Rose Wellman’s social and cultural history of jello in Iran. Wellman shows that food represents a “biomoral, physio-sacred substance” for the Basiji community of Iran. Halal (meaning safe, good, healthy) food is created multidimensionally: it’s a matter of ingredients, of processing techniques and practices, and of shopping choices—of where and from whom the food is purchased. In the religious and state-sanctioned halal geography of consumption, food needs to be bought in a Muslim market, and for it to be pure the vendor also needs to be pure. All this is shown through the colored semitransparent lens of jello, an industrial food that complicatedly floats in and out the sphere of the halal.

Next, Eric C. Rath’s piece examines funazushi, a Japanese food made with fermented carp and rice and widely supposed to be the most ancient form of sushi. The exploration of funazushi‘s claims of originality is largely a history of taste. At the turn of the nineteenth century, sushi became less a method to preserve fish through fermentation and more a way to serve fish with flavored rice, thus marginalizing the characteristically sour taste of funazushi from its sensory palette and making it “ancient.” Rath narrates his travels across Japan in search of funazushi, emphasizing once more that who makes a food and where that food is eaten make it taste differently, and suggesting that—because of its preparation and its taste—funazushi may be not only sushi’s past but also its future, in a reconfiguration of taste in new social, cultural, and technological contexts.

Paul Lewis rounds out the section with an account of his visit to China as an ambassador for Irish artisanal high-quality food and restaurants. Traveling means comparing, and self-reflecting on one’s own (food) identity; as Lewis notes, the mobility of food juxtaposes tastes, cultures, and visions of the world, producing more diversity. “Oysters on the Half Shell” by Courtney Nzeribe provides a fleshy and sizzling evidence of life and food in art.

The issue’s third section, on “Politics and Ethics of Taste,” opens with the question, “What Is a Superfood Anyway?” Here Melinda Butterworth, Georgia Davis, Kristina Bishop, Luz Reyna, and Alyssa Rhodes dissect this hotly debated category of edibles by exploring the nutritional, economic, political, and ethical meanings that such a label entails. The definition of “superfood” appears to have become grounds for a power struggle among many self-identifying authorities in the field, arguing over who decides which food deserves the hyperbole rather than defining and agreeing upon a set of objective features and definitions. What all superfood experts have in common is their insistence on promoting a version of ethical eating that enforces a “duty to do well” on the part of the consumer. The entire idea of “superfood,” then, ensnares the consumer in a discourse about personal responsibility in managing health and reducing the risk of disease.

The article that follows, “Confronting Whiteness in Kansas City’s Local Food Movement” by Chhaya Kolavalli, tackles directly the issue of diversity in local food markets, and interrogates the powerful notions of “local food” and “food sovereignty” as rooted in exclusion as well as inclusion. Drawing on interviews with local food advocates in Kansas City, Kolavalli identifies a problematic discourse generically celebrating diversity in the stalls via the phenotypical appearance of vendors, yet still leaving the structures of unequal relations of power and racial inequalities in the local food system largely, if not utterly, untouched and unquestioned.

Victoria Dickenson’s piece completes the section, illustrating, in a vocabulary of names, colors, and tastes, the varied foodscape of Newfoundland in the summer, which includes baccalà alla livornese (cod simmered in tomato and onions) and Turin’s specialty food bagna cauda (a hot dip made of melted anchovies and garlic). Images of “Fresh” in the food photography by Jaina Cipriano articulate the consuming experience in an architecture of colors and shapes.

This issue’s exploration of food mobility and diversity ends with two more stories from Canada in the section “Migrant Food Memories.” First, we present Anelyse M. Weiler’s interview with Kim Thúy, a migrant restaurateur to Montreal, and a published, highly regarded novelist, with a new cookbook from her Vietnamese kitchen, and then close with “A Literary History of the Mandarin Orange in Canada,” by Shelley Boyd, Nathalie Cooke, and Alexia Moyer, which describes Japanese mandarin oranges’ evocative power in Canadian literature, representing the diversity of food in the face of challenging climatic circumstances.

I began this letter with memories of my grandma and aunt, migrant women workers who made a living selling food on the street, in sunshine, rain, and snow, and I have come to realize how much food, the mobility and exchange of food, the diversity of food and of those who give it to us, is such a big part of our socialization and understanding of the world, for all of us. I hope you will enjoy the following pages, making up the fourth issue published since the inception of the new editorial collective of Gastronomica. A diverse group ourselves, we look forward to continuing to deliver stories of food mobility and diversity, from different places and from many different voices.

Simone Cinotto for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, February 2020