Editor’s Letter, Fall 2017

from Gastronomica 17:3

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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

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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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Editor’s Letter, Winter 2016

from Gastronomica 16:4

As I write this letter in August, here in the United States where I live and work, we are gearing up for our national elections, which will be held in early November. By the time this issue is published, the elections will be over and we will know the outcome. As I reflect on this election season, I am struck by the fact that food themes have been curiously absent. In the U.S., presidential candidates and other political leaders have long been connected to particular foods and food issues, as if those foods conveyed a particular set of qualities or values associated with those individuals. In the 1928 presidential elections, a local chapter of the Republican Party published an advertisement in The New York Times endorsing Herbert Hoover, promising that a Hoover presidency would ensure not just “a chicken in every pot,” but “a car in every backyard, to boot.” After Hoover won the presidency, rival campaigns during the 1932 presidential campaign held him accountable for not following through on this promise. Promises of food as a path to prosperity and social justice continued to color American presidential campaigns, with John F. Kennedy promoting a food stamp program that he then initiated after he was elected. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, subsequently pushed the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that made the food stamp program permanent. Johnson has since been credited with introducing measures to expand governmental programs to provide food assistance to low-income families, especially children.

Personal food preferences have also been part of presidential campaigns, as candidates have been associated with individual foods and observers have sought to link those foods to ideas about the character and personality of the candidates. President Jimmy Carter’s Southern heritage was associated with peanuts, whereas President Ronald Reagan was often remembered for his preference for jelly beans, a candy. President George H.W. Bush was remembered more for the food he disliked—broccoli—a dislike with which many Americans identified, particularly in a moment when debates about legislating health and healthy eating represented larger concerns with personal choice versus the intrusion of the “nanny state” in citizens’ ordinary lives.

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Editor’s Letter, Fall 2016

from Gastronomica 16:3

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All hands in for a make-it-yourself pizza party. Photos by Andrew G. Baker © 2016

My daughter recently attended a birthday party at a local “teaching kitchen” that offers cooking classes for all ages. In a brightly lit, fully stocked presentation kitchen, fifteen five-year-olds were taken through the steps of making their own pizzas from scratch: making the dough and sauce, rolling the dough out into individual-sized portions, and personalizing them with sauce and toppings. The instructor emphasized hands-on engagement with the food. Each child was invited to touch, smell, and taste the ingredients as they went through the steps of measuring, mixing, rolling, chopping, and spreading. Parents helped as needed, but that help was minimal and most often directed at ensuring that the children were taking turns and sharing utensils or ingredients. Children and parents alike seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Beyond the obvious enjoyment, the children were very much focused on the materiality of the foods at hand, whether it was playing with the toppings they put on their pizzas or sampling all of the potential toppings for the cupcakes they decorated later. I watched as my daughter and her friends experimented with shapes, textures, colors, smells, tastes, and even sounds. Which toppings could stack easily, and which ones rolled off the frosting? Which ones bounced, and which ones squished? Which ones bled colors as they got wet from sweaty fingers, and which ones squirted liquid or chunks when they were squeezed? The children were not concerned with nutrients, calories, price, or ethics. Nor did they care about how their pizzas or cupcakes were plated or whether their creations were nutritionally appropriate. Instead, the children seemed to be focused on the materiality of the foods in front of them and the visceral experience of those foods. For them, food was more than fuel for their bodies; it was a material object to be explored, experienced, and enjoyed in multiple ways.

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