A taste of the next Gastronomica/SOAS Lecture: “Let Them Eat Stuffed Peppers” | David E. Sutton

Since 2014, Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies has partnered with University of London’s SOAS Food Studies Centre to co-sponsor a Distinguished Lecture Series for leading scholars, students, journalists, practitioners and members of the public to engage in critical conversations about the nature of food.

In advance of the next event on March 16th, UC Press author and distinguished anthropologist David E. Sutton gives readers a taste of his upcoming lecture, “‘Let Them Eat Stuffed Peppers’: An Argument of Images on the role of Food in Understanding Neoliberal Austerity in Greece.” 


9780520280557 “We all ate it together,” was the claim of Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos as he tried to explain the origins of the so-called Greek Crisis to an angry crowd of protestors back in 2011. This phrasing struck me at the time because it extends eating together, or “commensality,” into the domain of national politics. Such food imagery fit with my long study on the island of Kalymnos in the Eastern Aegean, where I had been filming people’s everyday cooking practices and writing about the sensory engagement of ordinary Kalymnians with their ingredients and with their kitchen environments, some of the themes that I explore in my book Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island. I use my video ethnography of everyday cooking practices to open up questions of memory and transmission of cooking knowledge, tool use and the body, and the potential changes brought about by the advent of cooking shows in Greece. But most importantly in Secrets I try and give a sense of the ways that Kalymnian food culture shapes people’s larger attitudes, and how through their everyday discussions they create a shared food-based worldview, a “gustemology.”

In my talk at SOAS, “Let Them Eat Stuffed Peppers,” I will be continuing this exploration through a look at some of the ways food discourses and practices have developed over the past six years of the Greek Crisis. From debates over the relationship of eating, debt and responsibility, to the growth of solidarity practices such as the “Social Kitchen” movement and the “Potato movement,” to attempts by ordinary Kalymnians to return to past cooking and eating practices as a way of surviving the crisis, food has shaped understandings and responses to new conditions throughout Greece. I look at how certain foods have been associated with protest because of their connection to notions of Greekness, or because of their obvious foreign derivation. I also examine how Kalymnians are dusting off old recipes, and old foraging practices, to cope with times in which sources of livelihood that had been taken for granted for a generation are suddenly under threat.

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Searching for Thanksgiving | Andrew Simmons

For most of the past eight or nine years, Thanksgiving has happened at my partner’s parents’ house in Palo Alto, California, where dinner revolves around the frantic preparation of a Julia Child recipe for braised goose. Featuring an overprivileged bird, a sausage stuffing of veal, pork, and chestnuts, and a flavorful bath birthed from the union of goose fat, onions, carrots, stock, and a bottle of white vermouth, the goose is the perennial centerpiece, an opulent showstopper. Usually largely my responsibility, the sides vary. I start planning in September, never repeating a dish, trying to creatively complement the goose, hoping to play faithfully with the Thanksgiving ethos—one that traditionally begs for a symphony of oranges and tans, deep savory notes, and casseroles upon casseroles. One year, we made enoki mushrooms, butter, and black vinegar in parchment pouches, Brussels sprouts with kimchi and bacon, honey-glazed potatoes, and watercress-ginger soup. Another year, we did macaroni and cheese with kabocha squash and porcini powder, whipped sunchokes, and a pickled green bean salad with fried shallots and country ham.

The goose is my father-in-law’s domain. The shock of white hair undulating on his head, he ties on an apron, drinks a little Sapporo, and assaults the goose, skewering the vent, browning the neck, gizzard, and wing tips in a wide pan sizzling with rendered fat. Despite his years of goose-braising experience, he never feels confident taking the goose out of the oven himself. The murky braising liquid sloshes dangerously close to the edge of the pan. He’s always unsure of the goose’s doneness. His mise en place is a disaster. He never remembers to slice the onion and carrot before he needs them. Wrestling with half a dozen other dishes in the small kitchen, I always look up to see him desperately waving me over. “Onion,” he says, uncharacteristically curt in the midst of an emergency. I slice an onion. “Can you?” he suddenly yells an hour later, pointing at the oven door. I’m elbows-deep in sweet potatoes. I dash over to prod the goose. “Where is the vermouth?” he shouts. I stare blankly. The preparation is always a messy whirlwind, and I am caught in its eye. My mother-in-law laughs and slips downstairs to nap or play cello. Their daughters escape to take walks. Despite his self-doubt, the goose is done when he suspects it is. When it hits the table, it is glossy and crisp-skinned. Having exchanged its flavors with the bird’s, the stuffing tumbles out of the cavity in crumbly hunks, rich, slightly sweet, and addictive. The reduced sauce pools luxuriously under fanned goose breast slices. Absurdly satisfying in conclusion, satisfyingly absurd in preparation, the goose sums up the family’s approach to the holiday.

We may not eat it again.

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Gastronomica to collaborate with University of London’s SOAS

Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies and Editor Melissa L. Caldwell are pleased to announce a new collaboration with the University of London’s SOAS Food Studies Centre. Through this partnership, the Distinguished Lecture Series will serve up a recurring forum for leading scholars, students, journalists, practitioners, and members of the public to engage in critical conversations about the nature of food, the interconnectivity of contemporary food systems, the role of food in daily life, emerging trends in food studies, and contemporary food concerns.

As Melissa Caldwell notes, “the Food Studies Centre at SOAS is an international leader in the kind of cutting-edge scholarship on food that challenges and inspires scholars, practitioners, and enthusiasts alike to rethink what they know about food and its significance in the world both past and present. This partnership is an extraordinary opportunity to highlight the most innovative, rigorous, and fascinating research on food and bring it to the Gastronomica readership.”

Included among the first Lectures under this new partnership are “From Arak to Za’atar: Jerusalem and its many culinary traditions,” from famed chef and cookbook writer Yotam Ottolenghi, and “How Grains Domesticated Us,” from James C. Scott, Co-Director of Yale University’s Agrarian Studies Program.

The Lectures are free and open to the public. For more details, please see our SOAS_Gastronomica_Release and the Distinguished Lectures homepage.

We Are What We Eat | Paul D. Swanson

The Origins and Current Legal Status of “Natural” and “Organic” Food Labels

The cook plays an important part in the nourishability of food. Meals which are lovingly prepared with a profound desire for the welfare of the eater always benefit the body and mind more than do meals which are commercially prepared, or which have been prepared by someone who is indifferent to or dislikes the proposed eater. No one should cook when in a state of indifference, agitation, sorrow or anger.

From The Hidden Secret of Ayurveda, by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda

The most famous gastronome of them all, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (1826): “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.”: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” For some, such as Adelle Davis — Time magazine characterized her as “the high priestess of a new nutrition religion” in December 1972 — the consequences of our food choices are stark: “As I see it, every day you do one of two things: build health or produce disease.”

How do we know if we are supposedly building health, rather than unwittingly producing disease by what we consume? We resolve what economists call “informational asymmetry” by relying on food labels, brands and trademarks to confirm the authenticity and quality of our foodstuffs. But making “correct” food choices can be daunting and baffling. In her groundbreaking book, What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle estimates that there are around 320,000 food and beverage products available in the United States; and that the average supermarket stocks about 30,000 to 40,000 of them.[1] While we may not understand the true origins or makeup of what we put on our tables, most baby-boomers can tell you in a heartbeat that Rice Krispies go “snap, crackle and pop,” Lucky Charms are “magically delicious,” and Wonder Bread helps “build strong bodies in 8 ways.”

Two of the most symbolic words in food promotion nowadays are “organic” and “natural.” Generally defined, “natural” means “present in or produced by nature” and is not something “altered, treated or disguised,” but rather “faithfully represents nature or life.”[2] “Organic,” in its most abstract sense, means “simple, healthful, and close to nature.”[3] Both words hearken back to a pre-industrial age and share Edenic, utopian connotations. They imply a general distrust of chemical engineering and manufacturing processes. If we are what we eat, are we not closer to “nature” if we incorporate natural and organic foods into our diet? That is the compelling allure and implicit bargain of consuming organic and natural foods.

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Comeback Caramel | Samira Kawash

There’s a bucket of caramels next to the register at my local CVS. At three for 99 cents, who wouldn’t try one? And they are good: fresh and buttery, soft, with just the right chew. They’re not exactly homemade, but they’re not exactly “mass produced” either. The company that makes them, L. Frances, is a small specialty factory in Appleton, Wisconsin. Their candies are obviously formed and wrapped by machine, but they are produced in small batches and shipped fresh, unlike most of the sweets at the checkout.

I find it pretty amazing that stores like CVS can make room for a caramel made by a company that has no more than 20 employees and operates out of a little town in the north woods. I can only conclude that people are hungry for candy that is just a little better than what’s on offer from the global food conglomerates, and small producers are inciting a renaissance.

For generations raised on Kraft cubes, the superiority of a fresh, small-batch caramel is largely unknown. In fact, the mediocrity of the overprocessed caramel helped chocolate bars rise to dominance in the candy aisle. While Kraft has been the most prominent caramel of the last half century, the company wasn’t even in the candy business when their cube took its place among confections. Kraft specialized in dairy processing—their first product was ice cream. Later, Kraft made its fortune in cheese. Caramels were just a sideline, another way to transform fresh milk into a shelf-stable product. Nevertheless, Kraft’s “dairy fresh” caramel cubes, with their particular milky flavor and fudgy texture, became the standard for American caramel—a stark departure from the sophisticated continental confection they once were.

Caramels first appeared on the American candy scene in the 1880s. The lineage of the first American caramel is obscure, and mired in ancient Anglo-Gallic rivalries. In flavor and character, what we know today as caramel candy is closely related to British toffee and butterscotch, which appeared in the early 1800s.  British candy historian Laura Mason suggests that caramels might have evolved in the spirit of dental charity—a softer counterpart to the hard-on-the-teeth British toffee. Stephen Schmidt, author of Dessert in America and an expert in the history of American desserts, looks to the other side of the Channel for caramel origins: “The inspiration behind American caramels were French caramels, which came to this country during the vogue for French cooking of the Gilded Age.”

photo by Julie Frost (Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnnystiletto)

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