Editor’s Letter, Summer 2015

from Gastronomica 15:2

It has become commonplace to think of food in terms of rights, including the right to access basic sustenance, the right to healthy food, and the right to culturally appropriate food. This idea that access to food is a right has been enshrined in the policies of many governments and organizations, ranging from the Constitution of the USSR and US-based programs such as federal food stamps and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) to the European Union’s Agricultural Policy and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) and its Millennium Development Goals. In each case, the focus on rights to food illuminates ideals about the proper and necessary relationships between states and individuals. In some cases, the emphasis is on the proper actions of states to ensure the health and well-being of individuals, while in others, the emphasis is on the proper behavior of individuals as a condition of accessing food.

This emphasis on proper behavior and proper relationships illuminates another aspect of food: rites. Food and food practices are never neutral but always shaped by rules, values, and cultural logics. Thus to turn food into a right requires following particular rules for what kinds of food are possible, how they are distributed and consumed, and how different actors in the relationship behave. It is by following these rules that food is transformed into something more: a marker of humanity, a facet of citizenship, an incentive or barrier to foreign policy negotiations, or even a solution to global problems. In many ways, this shift from rights to rites reminds us that all food-related activities are performative.

In different ways, the contributors to this issue of Gastronomica are exploring rites and rituals to think through the cultural systems of rules that shape food use. In some cases, the rites and rituals are explicit, such as in the essay by Gary Fine and Christine Simonian Bean on the significance of banquets in American political activity, most notably the partisan nature of food and meals for political campaigns. In his essay on Japanese gastronomy, Scott Haas describes how Japanese chefs seek to educate diners about the uniquely Japanese qualities of this cuisine by illuminating culinary rules and the rationale—the cultural logic—behind these rules. In both essays, national identities become politicized through specific rules and rituals governing food.

Yet food rituals are never static, but always dynamic and in formation, as the essays by Joe Weintraub and Maryann Tebben demonstrate. Focusing on how French culinary practices have come into existence over time, Joe Weintraub uses the writings of nineteenth-century French food critic Eugène-Vincent Briffault to consider the invention of dinner as a social and culinary event. Taking on an even narrower category within the French culinary repertoire, Maryann Tebben examines how the French dessert course was transformed from being a fully edible entity in the seventeenth century to an aesthetic object in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then to its current form as an object that conveys multiple symbolic messages.

A subtheme running through all of the essays is the tension between practice and discourse: what people do versus what they say or write. In some cases, the rules of rituals are more apparent in discourse because there is a form of documentation. Yet the rules embodied by nonverbal practices are no less real or legible. Legibility in different registers is at the heart of Dylan Gottlieb’s essay on a very contemporary, dynamic, and mobile form of food criticism: the use of Yelp and other forms of social media to evaluate and communicate food experiences. Although the social media format of consumers’ personal accounts of their food and dining encounters suggests a more democratic, even anarchic, form of communication, Yelp reviews are public performances that are highly scripted in the types of information that are presented, the audiences that are anticipated, and the qualities that are evaluated. Social media simply creates a new stage for the enactment of food rituals.

These themes of rites, rules, and performance are critically examined, unmade, and remade in the essay on food hacking by Denisa Kera, Zack Denfeld, and Cat Kramer. Employing a strategy that is part ethnographic case study, part manifesto for alternative ways to view and engage with the underlying structures and rules governing food—from the molecular to the social—Kera, Denfeld, and Kramer not only persuasively challenge prevailing assumptions about the proper ways to engage and think about food, but also offer new approaches for reimagining food.

The contributors to the creative reflections section of this issue also examine topics that remind us of the performative, ritual, rule-bound nature of food. James Nolan presents a profound conundrum familiar to anyone who has ever eaten alone in a restaurant: when is solo dining a publicly shared social experience, and when does it violate cultural norms about who is allowed to eat in a public setting. Similarly playing with questions about appropriate forms of social interaction, Brett Busang uses the case of Southern barbecue to link the micropolitics of family food rituals with larger American socioeconomic events. Through a whimsical account of finding and cooking with weeds in Australia, Tom Celebrezze asks us to think about how recipes are made, unmade, and remade through associational connections among remembered flavors, places, and people.

Finally, both Heather Richie and Corina Zappia reflect on the rules that are embedded in performative rites of identity. In Richie’s case, Cracker Barrel offers a lens for fundamental questions about what it means to be not just a Southerner or an American, but a member of a family. In Zappia’s case, the question is about how authenticity is performed and reified through food rules: namely, how does one demonstrate being authentically Filipino or even authentically Filipino-American when there is a conflict between knowing the cultural norms about the foods one should eat to demonstrate an authentic identity and the personal enjoyment of those foods. By describing an alternative set of food rules, Zappia presents a compelling case for multiple performances of authentic identity.

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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Spring 2015, Volume 15, Number 1

Editor’s Letter | Melissa L. Caldwell

Jerusalem on a Plate: Identity, Tradition, and Ownership | Yotam Ottolenghi

Taste-Based Medicine | India Mandelkern

Pomegranate and the Mediation of Balance in Early Medicine | A.R. Ruis

Cultural Indigestion in Multicultural Australia: Fear of “Foreign” Foods in Australian Media | Lara Anderson and Heather Merle Benbow

How Not to Write About Africa: African Cuisines in Food Writing | Naa Baako Ako-Adjei

Hard Labor in the Organic Potato Field | David Bacon

The Thorniest Catch | John Grossmann

The Men Who Planted Trees: How the Truffle Saved Provence | Zachary Nowak

Madame Mushroom | Grace M. Cho

Picking Tomatoes at Midnight | Rebecca Dimyan

Shoot First, Make Breakfast Later | Jeff DeBellis

Distinction and Dining | Gary Alan Fine

San Francisco: A Food Biography By Erica J. Peters, Reviewed by Sarah Bakker Kellogg

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing By Anya von Bremzen, Reviewed by Anton Masterovoy

Rice Talks: Food and Community in a Vietnamese Town By Nir Avieli, Reviewed by Sarah G. Grant

The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India By Sarah Besky, Reviewed by Alexandra Hatzakis

Semiotics of Drink and Drinking By Paul Manning, Reviewed by Sierra Burnett Clark

Food and the Self: Consumption, Production and Material Culture By Isabelle de Solier, Reviewed by Kelila Jaffe

Food, Farms, and Solidarity: French Farmers Challenge Industrial Agriculture and Genetically Modified Crops By Chaia Heller, Reviewed by Hélène B. Ducros

Food Co-ops in America: Communities, Consumption, and Economic Democracy By Anne Meis Knupfer, Reviewed by Alison Hope Alkon

The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating By Anthony Winson, Reviewed by Robert Paarlberg


Introducing a Special Issue on the Reinvention of Food | Cristina Grasseni and Heather Paxson

from Gastronomica 14:4

Cristina Grasseni, Utrecht University
Heather Paxson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jim Bingen, Michigan State University; Amy J. Cohen, Ohio State University; Susanne Freidberg, Dartmouth College; and Harry G. West, SOAS, University of London

In 1970, Margaret Mead described American popular notions of nutrition as dominated by a dichotomy between “food that was ‘good for you, but not good’” and “food that was ‘good, but not good for you’” (1970: 179). Today, that dichotomy appears increasingly old fashioned. More and more, we see people—and not only in the United States—working to align the various vectors of food’s “goodness” such that it might point the way toward an optimal diet, or to a perfect food. But what, nowadays, makes food good?

Searching beyond taste, even beyond nutrition and health benefits, the eaters who populate the articles in this issue track food’s affordability and accessibility, the authenticity of customary familiarity—even methods of production and provisioning—in evaluating food’s relative “goodness.” Political empowerment, social justice, and environmental resilience are increasingly upheld alongside flavor and skilled culinary preparation as criteria of “quality” foods. While multifaceted and translocal, this surge of popular interest in food—and especially in the ways food is manufactured, distributed, and consumed—calls out for a unified analysis, one we offer through the lens of “the reinvention of food.” Reinvention is meant here both as “rediscovery,” as in the revival of dishes and culinary techniques from generations past, and also as “renewing the foundation of,” or shoring up familiar methods and modes of food production so that they remain viable under new political, regulatory, and market regimes. Reinvention does not create things anew, sui generis; rather, it gives new form and significance to food substances, senses, and practices that may seem reflexively familiar to some, while curiously exotic to others.

In her 2007 book, Cristina Grasseni first proposed “the reinvention of food” to characterize the novel interest in local food that she observed ethnographically in the realm of alpine cheese cultures. For the upland communities of northern Italy in which Grasseni worked, refocusing economic efforts on producing local cheeses meant transforming artisanal traditions that had been tied to local seasonality and transhumance routes and reconfiguring them in light of new technologies and audit cultures. Such transformations were set in motion by recent European Union health and safety legislation, by the intensification of globalized markets and consumer interest in culinary niches, and by accelerating techno-scientific innovation in practices of cattle breeding, dairy farming, and cheesemaking (on the latter, see Grasseni 2009).1

In response to such broader transformations, local dairy producers began to recast their alpine cheeses as distinctive items of local “food heritage.” As we are seeing across the globe, they did so as a self-conscious development strategy, expecting this approach to increase economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs and to boost the economic fortune of rural communities that had been geographically and economically marginalized. In order to attract new customers and tourists, however, the cheesemakers also found they needed to mobilize marketing rhetoric and a poetics of authenticity in ways often incongruous with the actual processes of transformation reshaping their food production practices and the cultural landscapes these practices help to contour (see also West and Domingos 2012). Even so, while artisan producers and family farmers found it personally taxing to balance day-to-day production routines with demands for the performance of authenticity so pleasing to “alternative” consumers, many also found it financially rewarding (Grasseni 2011; see also Paxson 2010, 2013). Similar signs of ambivalence mixed with pragmatism, we find, characterize many local responses to global food systems.

Read more

Winter 2014, Volume 14, Number 4

From the Editor
Editor’s Letter | Melissa L. Caldwell

Guest Editors Cristina Grasseni and Heather Paxson

Introducing a Special Issue on the Reinvention of Food: Connections and Mediations | Cristina Grasseni and Heather Paxson, with Jim Bingen, Amy J. Cohen, Susanne Freidberg, and Harry G. West

Authentic Anachronisms | Guntra A. Aistara

Eating Ursula | Brad Weiss

Defining Mexico’s Spirit | Sarah Bowen and Danny Hamrick

Re-localizing Milk and Cheese | Cristina Grasseni

Raw Milk, Raw Power: States of (Mis)Trust | Diana Mincyte

(Re)establishing the Normal | Yuson Jung

The GoodGuide to “Good” Coffee | Sarah Lyon

Resistance Is Fertile! | Anne Meneley

“Reinvention” Revisited | Peter Jackson


Comfort Food | Mary Morris

Think I’ll Go Eat a Worm | Amy Wright


Food and Social Media: You Are What You Tweet By Signe Rousseau, reviewed by Ryan S. Eanes

Waste Matters: New Perspectives on Food and Society Edited by David Evans, Hugh Campbell, and Anne Murcott, reviewed by David Boarder Giles

Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health By Charlotte Biltekoff, reviewed by Helen Zoe Veit

The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking Edited by César Vega, Job Ubbnik, and Erik van der Linden, reviewed by Denisa Kera

The Philosophy of Food Edited by David M. Kaplan, reviewed by Kai Chen

Wines and Spirits, Foods of the World series By Alec Waugh, reviewed by Theresa Heacock

The Ethical Butcher: How Thoughtful Eating Can Change Your World By Berlin Reed, reviewed by Garrett M. Broad

The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City By Simone Cinotto, reviewed by Fabio Parasecoli