Editor’s Letter, Fall 2021

From Gastronomica 21.3

Gastropolitics: Speaking in Tongues

This issue of Gastronomica brings together new and exciting empirical material and conceptual contributions from elsewhere under the rubric of gastropolitics. By “elsewhere” I mean places, cases, palates, and languages not dominated by what can best be characterized as North Atlantic theoretical orientations (NATO). The latter are perspectives that have emerged from modern universities, built over the last century-and-a-half on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily in English, French, and German and secondarily in Italian and Spanish (see Santos 2018). This is not the first transregional, language-based cosmopolis in history: those built around Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Mandarin played similar roles in other regions during other eras (e.g., see Pollock 2006; Eaton 2019; Kia 2020). Today, North Atlantic languages and locations are the prime ecology of modern theorizations in the social sciences and the humanities. As a result, predictably, the field of food studies exhibits the richest repertoire of Euro-American food practices and conceptual frameworks derived from those instances. We at Gastronomica are trying to shift that attention a little bit away from NATO—such as our recent initiative to introduce a new section on translations of key culinary texts not currently available in English—and this issue is an illustration of that tendency.

This volume opens with a case about the peculiar entanglement of tomatoes and cookbooks in India. According to Sucharita Kanjilal, they were born together. Kanjilal implies that the butter chicken is the ur form of chicken tikka masala, transformed first by a refugee Kundan Lal Gujral from a nation-making process in South Asia, and transformed again in the hands of transnational Sylheti working-class lascars in London. In making sense of this story, the author brings together and presses on the limits of Pierre Bourdieu’s perspective. She illustrates the process of theoretical reconfiguration most forcefully by referencing Ashanté M. Reese’s work in Black food geographies and in narrating the pursuit of murderous distaste for meat-eating Muslims by Parvis Ghasem-Fachandi in Gujarat. Disgust and disdain stand out as primal affective responses to difference.

Concepts of cultural omnivorousness dominate North Atlantic theoretical orientations that cannot explain those worlds: the unfathomable tastes in Washington, DC, the desolate mining towns of Western Pennsylvania, the deadly disgust in Gujarat. Disgust shows up differently in Andrew Simmons’s piece on lobster framed in a matrix of privilege, desire, despair, and care-giving during the pandemic. Trapped at home, but bequeathed a 1909 edition of a cookbook, the artist Carolyn Tillie cuts and cuts and cuts to soothe her viral anxieties, reconstituting those chopped pieces intoglorious artefacts. Tomatoes return in Teresa Politano’s reflections as funeral foods, speaking about “lard and molasses and dead people,” along with Costco chickens and buckets of Shop-Rite rice puddings in the bleak American landscape of the “consumer and the consumed.” Understandably, death, despair, and disgust haunt several pieces in this issue.

A number of articles insist on connecting consumption to production and distribution; we are in fact in the middle of a boom in books on the logistical middle of the system—transportation, refrigeration, storage, packaging, wholesale, and retail (e.g., see Deener 2020; Metcalfe 2019; Hamilton 2018; Cwiertka and Machotka 2016). Over the last generation, with the turn to cultures of consumption, that link has frayed as scholars reacted to the productivism and developmentalism of the previous ones. It is time to reconnect those severed domains. You can see the power of that reconnection in Jean Lavigne’s look at artisanal foie gras in the southwest of France; Aya H. Kimura’s exploration of tsukemono and Benjamin Schrager’s jidori chicken in Japan; and Debal Deb’s commentary on rice cultures of Bengal.

With tsukemono (preserved vegetables), we find two mutually affirming elements— fermented sour tastes and tepid temperatures—that have come roaring back over the waves of cold, industrial, sweetness of what was the American century. Kimura puts another nail in the coffin of the old divide perpetuated in NATO between humans, other species, nature, and culture. The stunning visual material presents different ratios of necessity and excess; beauty and ritual; sacred and mundane, making it difficult to distinguish between the taste of luxury and the taste of necessity. L. Stephen Velasquez’s powerful collection from the Calendario de Comida underlines this connection between social justice and aesthetic labor from below. Modeling itself on illustrated calendar giveaways in local Mexican stores and restaurants, a group of artists in the 1960s and 1970s produced the Calendario as a tool of alignment with a far-ranging network of organizations such as the United Farm Workers and Breakfast for Niños. Despite the gendered limitation of their project, their ambition—to decolonize the Chicano imagination—was compelling.

An argument for linking consumption back to production and processing is also made by Debal Deb as he pursues vanishing landraces of rice, under threat from international and national developmental models on the Bengal Delta. He links these varieties to the sustenance of local rituals and tastes in a small corner of the Odisha- Bengal-Bangladesh region that he currently occupies; species rarely respect our investment in national borders. Deb links the quality of rice-powder paintings, the durability of thatching on peasant huts, the crunch of artisanal breakfast moori, and the aroma of steamed rice to the varieties of rice that are grown. The problem is highlighted by the fact that his defense of the commons depends on publication in journals like Gastronomica and Scientific American because American courts are attuned only to anglophone evidence of “common use” employed against American companies trying to pirate varietals. Thus, the mere publication of this piece becomes a stake in the ground to defend the commons against private corporate intellectual property claims.

In Jean Lavigne’s work on the French-American difference on foie gras, we find her literally laboring in geese farms across the Atlantic to explain the divergence in gastro-nationalist perspective that I will return to below (see DeSoucey 2016). That hard work makes all the difference to a story that has been told before. “During the 11 to 14 days of gavage, the liver, which starts out at approximately the size of a woman’s fist, grows to six times its normal size.” There is no way to avert our mind’s eye fromthat intimate interspecies analogy. She posits that if we cannot comprehend a Thanksgiving without turkey, we may begin to understand the celebratory investment in a canard `a foie gras du Sud-Ouest at Christmas. Benjamin Schrager suggests an opposite operation, on raw chicken from the Saga and Miyazaki Prefectures, where the mundane moves in the direction of exotic risk, anxiety, and intimacy. The latter provides a view of Western foods through Japanese eyes in the seventeenth century and highlights both the invention of jidori chicken and its transformation into an industrial brand, which, the author argues, underestimates the threat to public health, undermining the erroneously easy association of safety with tradition. Frank Dax’s still life in Korea collates a triptych of practices from elsewhere, catching glints of the quotidian as exemplars of the marvelous. In his dream catcher of an essay, Dax ruminates on the vanishing stingray eater, the rice cake hawker, the scallion pancake maker on a sunny day, and the garlic seller from the countryside. From the celebratory foie gras to the ordinary scallion pancake, these articles stitch a tapestry of the temporal range of modern life.

Much of the literature on gastro-nationalism asserts its ambit externally against other nations, with less attention to the differences it seeks to erase internally. Such instances of gastropolitics are less attuned to the threat the nation-state poses to internal cultural differences. That is where the real destructive power of gastronationalism lies, especially in its majoritarian turn to white nationalism in many European and American nations or Hindu nationalism in India. We need a more pointed concept such as gastro-nativism to underline the undemocratic and illiberal politics of gastro-nationalism. I see two major threats to variety and multiplicity in the world: cultural imperialism of the Euro-American variety and cultural nationalism of states expunging their diverse populations. Those two systems of consecrating culture are in fatal combat with real variety and multiplicity in the world today, be it in the domain of language use, literature, music, dance, architecture, attire, or culinary culture.

Ethnocentric gastropolitics is not only the tool of the powerful at this contemporary moment. It has also emerged as a currency of the weak-but-emerging ethnoracial classes, which take the form of assertions of cultural appropriation in places such as the United States and Canada, particularly among racially self-conscious Black and Brown peoples, pushing back against the long-established Eurocentric hierarchy of taste. This is what my World-System professors, Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi, used to call antisystemic movements, nothing innately lovable about them, but a legitimate response to a toxic system that returns some of the venom to the structure as critique. Ra´ ul Matta and Padma Panchapakesan show the conditions precipitating Francophilia’s decline in evaluations of global haute cuisine in their article on the deflation of Michelin. New social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Yelp, and Vblogs, as well as new systems of consecration such as Netflix’s Chef’s Table, are weakening the role of traditional gatekeepers such as restaurant critics and print journalists, mostly white men until the last decade (Rousseau 2012). This allows opportunities for the professional classes of color to talk back to dominant notions of good taste. That retort to dominant Euro-American culture is coming from a younger generation (often second generation or later in terms of immigrants) of mostly Anglophone professionals. There is in fact a slow simmering civil war going on right now. Yet, the battle lines are never clear. So the question of taste is much more contested than a narrow reading of Bourdieu’s notions of cultural domination allows, driving some scholars toward reinvigorating notions of hegemony and counterhegemony in the works of Antonio Gramsci (2011), often interpreted via Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2014) and Stuart Hall (2018).

These are promising directions to rethink the relationship between power and culture as illustrated in this volume. A number of book reviews presented here echo those openings in the field: Jennifer R. Shutek’s review asks why a gay man like James Beard was so central to twentieth-century American gastronomy, and to what extent his queerness informed his particular sense of gustatory pleasure. Jennifer L. Holm queries what might ensue if we read cookbooks in light of Jacques Rancière’s Proletarian Nights, which relocated nineteenth-century socialism in the utopian visions of working-class poets, rather than crediting all aesthetic labor to capital. In analyzing the film Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, Joe Karisny asks: is the past sensorially another country that we can never visit? How does one represent innovations in a tradition? This leads to the filmmaker’s provocative hypothesis: that it was not the Revolution that killed courtly cuisine, but changes in fashion preceding it. Coming from another direction, Noah Allison’s book review explores a richly detailed ethnography that valorizes the great Mexicano Fruteros of Los Angeles against the gentrification of the street. In the critical review of Food Routes, Deborah Cowen shreds our sentimentalism about the New York City consumer haven Chelsea Market by merely shedding light on the much more important but bleak postindustrial Hunts Point distribution center that really feeds the city. Samantha King, in her review of Shifting Food Facts, raises two central challenges for critical nutrition studies scholars: how to distinguish their critique of experts and nutritional science from a Trump-style assault on facts, and what to recommend beyond the pleasures of critique. The issue closes with Limor Yungman’s review of a translation of The Sultan’s Feast, a fifteenth-century Egyptian cookbook, which reenlightens us to the dominance of Arabic in terms of dietetics and good taste in the Medieval world, returning us to other places and other tongues with which I began this invitation.

This issue of Gastronomica widens the geographic frame, bringing in a different set of actors, contexts, and languages, trying hard to avoid the parochialisms of Europe and North America (as much as that can be done in English). This volume also brings together a range of pieces on cultural domination, counterhegemonic thrusts, democratic openings, and other hegemonies in other times and places. I hope you enjoy some of it and quarrel with other parts to deepen our understanding of the changing world of taste, power, and agrobiocultural diversity.

—Krishnendu Ray, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, New York, May 2021

This essay has been improved in terms of grammar, language, and sentence formation with
editorial assistance from Stephanie Jolly.

Cwiertka, Katarzyna J., and Ewa Machotka. Too Pretty to Throw Away: Packaging Design from Japan. Leiden: Museum of Japanese Art and Technology Press, 2016. Available for download from her website at http://www.cwiertka.com.

Deener, Andrew. The Problem with Feeding Cities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.

DeSoucey, Michaela. Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Eaton, Richard. India in the Persianate Age. 1000–1765. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2019.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. “Culinary Nationalism.” Gastronomica 10, no. 1 (2010): 102–109.

Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Hamilton, Shane. Supermarket USA. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.

Kia, Mana. Persianate Selves. Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020.

Hall, Stuart. “The whites of their eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media.” In Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader, 5th Ed., edited by G. Dines, J. Humez, B. Yousman, and L. Bindig. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2018. 89–93.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso, 2014.

Parasecoli, Fabio. Knowing Where it Comes From. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017.

Pollock, Sheldon. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.

Rancière, Jacques. Proletarian Nights. The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. London: Verso, 2012.

Rousseau, Signe. Food Media. Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Santos, de Sousa Bonaventura. The End of the Cognitive Empire. The Coming of Age of
Epistemologies of the South
. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

Editor’s Letter, Summer 2021

From Gastronomica 21.2

In the dark, difficult, and volatile days of January 2021, I was grateful to have a task that required laser-focused attention: reading through the essays, research articles, and reviews that have come together in this issue of Gastronomica. For several hours a day, I was (mostly) able to block out the searing stream of screeching headlines on the ever-expanding devastations taking place around the globe and close to home: the rapidly escalating impacts of COVID-19; the glaring needs and demands for too-long-denied racial and social justice; the shocking economic upheavals and political rampages. As barbed wire, security fencing, and armed troops transformed my city, Washington, DC, after the January 6 siege on the US Capitol, I found inspiration, and so much more, in the material herein.

This issue of the journal is all over the place. Its authors take us to six continents and many nations, including India, Taiwan, the Philippines, Senegal, Brazil, Peru, France, Italy, Australia, Canada, and the United States. However, it would be a mistake to think of this issue as an escape. Many of the articles explore the very issues that underlie our current global turmoil, starting with the three pieces clustered around the theme, “Portraying the ‘Other.'” These articles examine how food media, with varying degrees of intention, have effectively marginalized communities in the public sphere. Alison Hope Alkon and Rafi Grosglik explore representations of race in food television, focusing on programs that, via a celebrity chef host, bring viewers into cultural spaces and culinary traditions that are not typically known or understood to mainstream audiences. They argue that such programs, in commodifying the cuisines of marginalized communities for the vicarious delight of viewers, often ignore the larger inequalities that have shaped the lived experiences of those communities. Donica Belisle provides a close reading of the visual elements of archival documents, focusing on one company’s advertising campaigns. Playing on negative stereotypes of Black laborers, the ads functioned to reinforce a sense of superiority among white consumers in western Canada. And what about “othering” through words? Members of the Gastronomica Editorial Collective turned the lens on themselves to ask: What is the meaning and purpose of italicizing non-English words in the journal? What are we communicating by setting “foreign” words apart? Are we (unwittingly) calling out “other people’s food” in a way that can be perceived negatively? And who decides when a word like taco is understood widely enough to not need italicization? Finally, how can we, as editors and members of the food studies community, move forward in a way that does not marginalize people and their food? To discover the decision the Collective made about italicization, please take a look at the essay and the articles in this issue.

Two articles under the theme “The Politics of Scale” reveal the methods, models, and meanings of changes to the food system in different parts of the world. Michaël Bruckert dives into the complexities of competing values in southern India as industrially processed chicken was introduced into a culture with long-standing perspectives and traditions associated with eating meat, health, and valuing the local. The need to change the current food system has been recognized as one of the critical lessons of COVID-19, and authors Halie Kampman, Shun-Nan Chiang, and Salam Sawadogo examine two different models for the future of household and community gardens in the Philippines and Senegal. In the Philippines individuals are encouraged to create and tend their own gardens, thereby ensuring a measure of power over their access to food, while in Senegal the state is continuing to support large-scale, commercially oriented efforts and modernization strategies. Communities the world over are asking similar questions and we will welcome related articles that might examine other models and analyze their success as people take stock of their roles, individually and collectively, in feeding themselves and others in the post-pandemic future.

Feelings of displacement, powerlessness, and rootlessness, and the role of food and commensality in mitigating those feelings, underlie the three essays in “Imaginations and Identities.” Eric Funabashi’s article on Japanese immigrants in Brazil in the early twentieth century explores the power of cuisine and identity among migrants and reveals the historical circumstances that finally permitted the adoption of ingredients and techniques into new forms. Shang-Huei Liang focuses on one ingredient, the sweet potato, that has the power to transport her and other Taiwanese migrants back home. Nourishing and delicious yet associated with struggle in his family’s history and with modern populations in need, the memory of sweet potatoes evokes sustenance, pleasure, and the wisdom of past generations. For Gema Charmaine Gonzales the move from the Philippines to Paris was tinged with sorrow and a deep longing that could only be assuaged with rice, cooked in the pot her father had packed for her and that she now uses to make meals with other Filipinos finding community through food in the land of croissant and chocolat.

The push-pull that chefs experience as they negotiate between traditional and modern approaches to cuisine is played out in the essays grouped under “Place, Knowledge, and Cuisine.” Amy Cox Hall takes us into the world of Chef Erik Ramirez, an American son of migrants from Peru, whose creative energy is directed toward engaging the palates of the urban, influential clientele in his New York restaurants. With aspirations for global recognition, his ideas about how place, ingredients, and flavors from his ancestral home continue to inform and infuse, but not define, his distinctive cuisine. Daniel E. Bender’s interview with Chef Rob Connoley, whose restaurant in the Ozark region of Missouri, in the United States, provides a marvelous counterpoint. Connoley’s dedication to traditional knowledge, including ingredients and techniques, has driven him to create collaborations with scholars, archivists, and local experts, including members of the Osage Nation, in creating dishes, menus, and dining experiences. Returning to Peru, an evocative essay by V. Constanza Ocampo-Raeder introduces us to the deep knowledge of place and the natural cycles of crawfish that are used by los camaroneros, the men who harvest crawfish, one by one, as they migrate from the ocean up cold and treacherous mountain streams. The wild harvest, highly valued for local consumption, is imperiled as forces of modernity—increased tourism, regulations, and aquaculture facilities— threaten to diminish the specialized knowledge and environmental understandings possessed by los camaroneros.

Our final grouping revolves around dichotomies of feeding oneself and feeding others; chaos and creation; meditation and memory; with love as a common ingredient. Anne Finger’s brilliant essay on three distinct phases of Antonio Gramsci’s life examines how his disability intersected with moments when the questions of who will feed whom and what will be fed shine a light on the fundamental nature of food, “before everything else.” Sam Browett’s thoughtful piece considers the unavoidable degeneration of food, the chaos of cooking, and the power of memory to restore a dish from the past. Finally, to close out the issue, Maria Finn has written a personal account of discovering how the sensory experience of wine can inspire deep and perhaps lasting transformations.

History warns us against making predictions, but I feel a sense of hope that when this issue reaches the light of day, some of the darkness that has enveloped us throughout this long January will have faded. The issues discussed here, of representation and identity, longing and loss, food politics and change, caregiving and memory, will continue to inspire researchers, writers, and scholars who must continue to document and discuss their meanings. I am grateful to this issue’s authors, including the scholars who provided insightful reviews of some excellent new works in food history, for providing such engaging, provocative, intelligent, and lyrical pieces. And I am ever grateful to my colleagues on the Editorial Collective for keeping the collaborative spirit alive.

—Paula J. Johnson, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Washington, DC, January 2021

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).