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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Editor’s Letter, Summer 2016

from Gastronomica 16:2

One of the greatest rewards of my position as editor of Gastronomica is that I have a front-row seat to the many developments taking place in studies of food. From the fascinating submissions and queries about potential submissions that I receive (sadly, there are always far more worthy and intriguing pieces than I can publish) to the new books that arrive in our book reviews office (again, far too many than we can feature or occasionally even fit on our shelves), and from the conversations that I have with established and emerging scholars, writers, and editors in the field to the many press releases I receive about all things food-related (innovative dinners, art exhibits, musical performances, among many, many events), it is clear that this is an ever-expanding field. This is especially gratifying given that when I first began my graduate work in social anthropology in the 1990s, food was largely considered an insignificant, even trivial topic. I still remember receiving reviews of grant proposals and early manuscripts in which reviewers suggested that I would be better served studying something more meaningful and weighty than food. Implicit—and sometimes explicit—in these comments was the message that food was too popular and too mundane to be a “real” scholarly topic.

At the same time, embedded within this criticism was what I understood to be a genuine concern that an overly focused orientation on food might be analytically limiting. For the case of the discipline of anthropology in the 1990s, there was recognition that simply collecting or describing cultural objects, recipes, and stories (i.e., what is often described as salvage anthropology) was not enough. Instead anthropologists argued for the need to think critically about the political, economic, and social systems in which those cultural artifacts existed and were made meaningful. In other words, food was intellectually meaningful not simply because of what it was but because of it what it might reveal.

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Editor’s Letter, Spring 2016

from Gastronomica 16:1
Photographs by Melissa L. Caldwell

How do we make sense of foods on the move?

Mobile foods have proved to be intriguing points of departure for food scholars and food enthusiasts alike. Mobile foods are at the core of concerns about the impact of global processes, especially when multinational food corporations appear to resemble neo-imperial political and economic forces that are bent on invading and conquering new markets around the world. Mobile foods also offer sensory, emotional, and symbolic comfort for diasporic communities who are searching for a familiar sense of home. For health and environmental activists, meanwhile, traveling foods can represent the dangers of the global food system on individual bodies and landscapes. At the same time, foods and food cultures that are firmly rooted in place are just as provocative. Both local traditions and national economies are made possible by foods that are firmly embedded within ecosystems that are simultaneously cultural and environmental. Foods from particular locations provide the structuring parameters for identities and experiences. And for persons who travel—both actual and virtual tourists—foods offer a taste of other places, cultures, and times. Both the movement and emplacement of foods and food cultures open up possibilities for thinking about the nature of circulation, the conditions under which circulation does or does not happen, and the values and meanings attached to circulation.


What happens to “local” and “authentic” when Russian borscht travels to Asia as an American industrial food?

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