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.
Retro food stands invoking 1950s and 1960s Moscow offer hot corn on the cob, drinks, and ice cream to passersby enjoying Moscow’s City Day along Tverskaya ulitsa.
I am writing this letter from Moscow, where I am spending a few days visiting friends. I was eager to return after a year away, not simply to catch up with loved ones but also to find out what was happening with Russia’s food scene following the bans on foreign food products that were instituted last summer and the recent reports about fake foods and the destruction of contraband food imports.
I arrived on the eve of Moscow’s City Day celebrations, and discovered that the anniversary themes focused on the city’s history as told through cultural, artistic, and technological innovations. For a city celebrating its 868th year, that is a lot of history and innovations, and much of that lengthy span was held together by placing a special emphasis on food in Russia’s capital city: the “Capital City Gastronomic Festival.” Neighborhoods all around Moscow were organized around subthemes that evoke the historical contexts of those particular regions: “National Supper” in the region closest to the federal and city government buildings; “Soviet Dinner” just outside Red Square and the Kremlin; “Farmers’ Dinner” in a square that was once a farmers’ market; “Theater Buffet” in one of the oldest neighborhoods with numerous theaters and the celebrated theater university; and “Literary Dinner” in the square ringed by the major newspaper and book publishing houses. At the center of each designated neighborhood was a cluster of food stalls, each decorated to look like peasant cottages and promoting regional food specialties, stages for musical performances, and organized activities reflecting the neighborhood’s assigned subthemes. In the “Literary Dinner” neighborhood, for instance, visitors sampled local food treats while receiving free issues and other goodies from the many Moscow-based newspapers and publishers. The focus was on both Eating Locally and Reading Locally. Along Tverskaya Ulitsa, the main boulevard that leads to Red Square and the Kremlin, visitors walked through the centuries of Moscow’s past and not only saw but had the opportunity to taste foods from “the past”—including cafeteria-style foods sold from a Soviet-era stolovaya (cafeteria).
Moscow’s focus on food, and on local food, whether rendered as regional, historic, or national, is apparent elsewhere in the city, most notably in an explicit aesthetic of nostalgia. Ice cream carts and beverage vending machines from the 1950s and 1960s have taken up residence in food courts and along busy city streets. Food shop clerks are dressed in the blue-and-white aprons and hats that were more common during the socialist and early postsocialist eras in state-run stores. And noticeable among the Russian food products on store shelves is a return to Soviet-era packaging styles.
What are we to make of this? On the one hand, this effort can be seen as a glorification of food patriotism and food nationalism, a topic that is near and dear to my heart and that I have discussed before. On the other hand, it is important to remember that what seems to be very political can also be quite personal. It is equally possible that these food events are as much about familiarity and comfort, or even irony, as they are about making an international political statement. Foods contain and convey messages at multiple levels and to multiple audiences, and those messages may change according to the historical and cultural context or even with regard to how a particular audience receives and decodes them. For me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of food studies: food makes us think and makes us question. Food is knowledge, and knowledge can be food. As one of Moscow’s bookstores put it in an advertisement in their window this week: “Books are pizza for the brain.” Perhaps by extension, pizza—or any other food—can be a book for the stomach.
Moscow residents celebrate Moscow’s City Day at the “Literary Dinner” square located at Tverskaya metro station, right in the center of the central media and publishing house district.
A 1950s/1960s–themed beverage cart offering flavored waters sits nestled alongside a hot food stand offering fajitas (fakhitas) and American-style barbeque.
It is this power of food to provoke, to inspire, to communicate, and to satiate that runs through the contributions to this issue of Gastronomica. These are, in many ways, eclectic pieces that touch on very diverse topics. As editor, I hope that every issue’s contributions are meaty and stimulating, but there is something about this particular issue and the diversity of topics and viewpoints that I have found especially thought-provoking. In various ways, each of the contributions has raised critical issues and questions that have challenged me to think differently. It is truly a literary feast.
Hungry Moscow residents grab a quick bite to eat in a Soviet-style cafeteria. Traditional cafeterias like these have quietly disappeared in Moscow as they have been replaced by sit-down restaurants and cafés.
The first piece is, naturally enough, pizza-related. Zachary Nowak presents a lively and detailed interview with Antonio Mattozzi about his recent book, Inventing the Pizzeria. Their conversation is not so much about a book as it is a history of a family and a culinary tradition that invites us to reconsider what we believe we know about pizza and family businesses. This interview is followed by a series of research briefs that raise new questions and offer new directions of research for food. Chika Watanabe’s essay on waste and philosophies of circulation forces us to think seriously about what a truly sustainable system of local agriculture might look like and whether consumers would be comfortable with their personal roles in sustainability initiatives. Watanabe also opens up possibilities for rethinking terroir and taste of place: when we take waste seriously, can we also talk about a “taste of person”? Anna Harris continues this thread of productive discomfort by suggesting that there are sensory deficits in approaching food through taste, smell, touch, and vision; and she asks what happens if we consider the sounds of food and food work. While sound has been important for food manufacturers in terms of how they design products, it has so far evaded critical inquiry among scholars and even ordinary consumers. Harris provides an entry point for thinking about a fuller sensory spectrum and the implications of paying attention to the sounds our food makes.
In their essays, Levi Van Sant and Ernesto Hernández-López tackle the political dimensions of the sensory qualities of food. For Hernández-López, it is about the legal, social, and cultural implications of the problems faced by the California-based company that makes Sriracha, the popular hot sauce, when local residents complained about the fumes believed to emanate from the factory, and by extension presented a political critique of the people associated with those sensory experiences. Van Sant takes on an equally charged topic by considering the racial politics contained within a culinary tradition constructed as part of a unique heritage culture: that of Lowcountry cuisine in South Carolina. By looking at constructions of heritage, taste, race, and class across popular cookbooks, Van Sant critically examines how tastes are deeply embedded in experiences of race and class. What makes this piece especially powerful is that the setting at the heart of Van Sant’s essay is Charleston, the site of recent horrific events that have laid bare some of the very issues that Van Sant explores.
The research essays continue this emphasis on provoking challenging and even difficult conversations. In the first research essay, Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón curates a conversation among a group of women chefs and food researchers about the experience and value of food work by Black women. From different perspectives and vantage points—some as scholars and some as professional chefs—the contributors to this conversation discuss important issues about how labor, expertise, authority, and voice in the food world are directly shaped by political systems of race and gender. This is an inspiring essay that nonetheless reminds us of the pervasive inequalities that continue to shape professional food work both inside and outside the academy.
In her essay, Tracy Bilsing brings a different perspective on gender and politics by introducing previously little-known work by Katherine Mansfield in which she reflects on the Great War. Bilsing not only provides a critical historical service by uncovering Mansfield’s less familiar work, but she also challenges us to reconsider the relationship between food and war and how these relationships are presented in different literary mediums.
Resituating history and heritage is also central to Gina Hunter’s essay on galeterias in Brazil. By discussing the resurgence of Italian-Brazilian culinary heritage as both a contemporary reworking of Italian immigration to Brazil and an outgrowth of culinary tourism, Hunter opens up new directions for thinking about how ethnic identities and histories are mobilized at different moments and for different cultural and economic purposes.
Moscow pedestrians enjoy the “Capital Breakfast” themed square, decorated with carts filled with pumpkins for autumn.
Emma McDonell asks the provocative question of how certain foods become “miracle foods”—or those foods that are valorized for their potential to save a community, a heritage, a society. In this case, McDonell considers how particular foods have, at different moments, been promoted through global development initiatives to prevent hunger or malnutrition but have ultimately failed. She focuses specifically on the development politics of quinoa and the tensions that play out between global development actors (both scientists and politicians) and local farmers and consumers.
Lastly, the creative reflections in this issue engage thoughtfully with questions and issues raised in the essays by turning more personal and contemplative, but in ways that are more attuned to the bodily and the sensory. Fa-Tai Shieh muses on how and what we think about the foods that we put into our mouths and bodies. Taking this question about ingestion further, Kiran Bhushi describes the experience of spending time at an Ayurveda Hospital in India and a personal realignment with the sensory attributes of food. Daniel Press takes issue with the perceptions implicit and explicit in the wine industry and shows how the power of suggestion and presentation directly influence sensory experiences and evaluations.
I invite you to come join me in this movable feast by journeying through time, space, and multiple sensory registers.