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.
This issue of Gastronomica presents a diverse collection of pieces that are meant to enlighten, provoke, and inspire. Above all, these are pieces that start with conventional wisdom about food, food studies, and food scholars, and then present alternatives that challenge how we think about food and practice food research.
We begin with Harry West and Celia Plender’s interview with Professor James C. Scott. This interview resulted from Professor Scott’s meeting with food studies graduate students during his December 2014 visit to SOAS’s Food Studies Centre, where he delivered the SOAS/Gastronomica Distinguished Lecture. In this interview, Professor Scott discusses his own intellectual history and sheds light on the evolution of certain of his ideas that have been most formative for scholars, including food scholars.
The theme of backstories and alternative histories continues in the articles by Kyle Bladow and Cindy Ott. By delving into California’s dairying history, Bladow considers the other “milk” industry—that of almonds and almond milk—and its place within the symbolic imaginaries associated with milk in American culture. Turning our attention to the American Midwest, Ott carefully examines the phenomenon of urban gardens and why the mythology associated with urban gardens has not necessarily played out in reality for those who are expected to inhabit the spaces colonized by those gardens. Both of these articles challenge us to rethink conventional wisdom about fundamental American food cultures.
This provocation to rethink expectations is intrinsic to the special conversation on “Commercial Collaboration” that is featured in this issue. Initiated by Professor Peter Jackson, this collection of articles focuses on the proverbial elephant in the room for food studies scholarship: How do scholars conduct research on, in, and even with commercial partners? This conversation emerged from a panel at the 2014 Association for the Study of Food and Society meetings, held at the University of Vermont. The panel attracted a sizable audience, many of whom were interested, for both personal and professional reasons, in bridging the academic/commercial divide. One of the most revealing and troubling insights that emerged from the discussion during the panel was a prevailing sense that these were two separate worlds and that the academic world had done little to prepare scholars to “cross over,” either to work with or to understand the “foreign land” of the corporate institution.
That conversation and the enthusiasm for continued discussion led to the special series of articles featured here. Peter Jackson, David Evans, Polly Russell, and Monica Truninger are social scientists who have worked with commercial partners in various guises, and they reflect here on the different dimensions of what an industry-facing academic world might look like, including some of its challenges and opportunities. These articles are followed by a series of critical commentaries from scholars and professionals who work in different positions within the academic/commercial configuration.
This conversation is not meant to provide all of the answers and preemptively end what requires a much larger, more expansive discussion. Rather, these pieces are meant to start a longer conversation that is not just timely and necessary, but also surprisingly overdue.
In my own experience as a scholar of food, one of the things that I have found both most fascinating and most frustrating about food research is the prevailing perception that there are two distinct camps of people: those who work in the commercial sector and those who work in the academic sector. When scholars have engaged the commercial world, it has most often been to criticize it as a corrupt sector that privileges profit over health, safety, taste, and ethical principles and practices. Academics who venture into the commercial world somehow become suspect and even tainted by accusations that their objectivity has been compromised and that they are selling out their research subjects and intellectual integrity by colluding with big business. Meanwhile, when practitioners in the commercial world have engaged academics, such interactions have prompted questions about why scholars focus so heavily on minutiae without relating it to the real world of consumer concerns, demands, and realities. Of particular concern is the reliance of scholars on arcane jargon that does little to explain, more to obscure, and even more to distance the scholarly world from the real world of actual consumers.
Of course these are gross simplifications, but they are persistently pervasive and have profoundly shaped food studies research within and across the academic and commercial sectors. When I first began ethnographic research in Russia in the early 1990s, I found corporate institutions like McDonald’s to be a fascinating ethnographic lens through which to understand the profound political and economic changes that were taking place across the country and affecting the most intimate spaces of people’s everyday lives. Yet I, like many other anthropologists who were studying global corporations at that time, found myself criticized for not doing “pure” anthropological research. This was surprising, since the study of institutions, and of economic and cultural institutions in particular, has been a long-standing tradition within anthropology and social sciences more generally. Why would a global corporation be any different from any other corporate entity as an ethnographic object, except perhaps in scale? Certainly, any corporate entity was composed of particular social structures, ideologies, rituals, and cultural objects. And more to the point, if my Russian friends and acquaintances were going to McDonald’s, was it not incumbent on me, as a good ethnographer, to follow them and try to find out what was going on? In other words, I treated McDonald’s like a village and sought to discover and understand the rituals and beliefs of its inhabitants, a classic anthropological move for field research.
Over the past twenty years, studies of corporate entities have increased within anthropology, but there is still a puzzling reluctance to go “deep” and treat them as authentic ethnographic objects. This holds true not just for anthropology but for food studies as well, where critical but objective studies of food corporations remain woefully lacking.
Divisions between the academic and the commercial have not necessarily been as rigid in other scholarly fields, especially food sciences, where much longer and more flexible histories of scholarly collaborations across the academic/commercial spectrum are evident, and the concern that academics are “selling out” is less prevalent. While there are certainly questions about ethics and objectivity that come up in working relationships between scientists in the academic and commercial sectors, there is nonetheless a stronger, or at least more visible, commitment to scientific inquiry as a shared intellectual value and project.
Perhaps more significantly, from the perspective of the academic world, the commercial world offers different opportunities. For our students, most of whom will not follow the traditional academic pathway to a university professorship, their professional reality will likely entail work for a commercial institution. We should prepare them for the different realities of this world to aid in their future professional and intellectual success. At the same time, commercial institutions can offer different ways of approaching questions, methods, and even field sites. In my own experience doing consulting work for several food corporations, I have learned new techniques for research and analysis that I am now incorporating in my own work. I have also gained terrific new colleagues who provide a different perspective on food, anthropology, and business that has enhanced and complicated my own research and ideas.
But to do this requires listening to one another and engaging one another through respectful conversation and debate. It also requires learning more about one another’s “languages” and reference points, as well as deciphering different ways of doing research. In many respects, the academic and commercial sectors are, in fact, different worlds governed by different logics about scale, tempo, demand, and data. But they are not separate worlds that can never be traversed. In that vein, I hope that you find this conversation and the preliminary points of debate raised here to be a productive step in a new direction for thinking about food research.
Cristina Grasseni, Utrecht University Heather Paxson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
with 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.
What makes food “local”? And why does “the local” matter when we speak of food? These are questions that vex scholars, farmers, activists, commercial food producers, and ordinary people alike. Desires to protect “local” cultures and unique traditions against globalization, to call attention to the particular landscapes and communities in which food production and consumption occur, or to recognize and experience a unique flavor palate believed to emanate from a specific locale are all embedded within concerns that “the local” is a place that exists and that informs the values and qualities attached to food.
Yet questions about “the local” extend beyond merely identifying what and where it might exist, and engage larger issues about the senses, identity, ethics and morality, power, and even performance, as well as fundamental questions about the very nature of food itself. As a result, whether food qualifies as “local” becomes an inquiry into what the project of making food “local” can tell us about how communities organize and define themselves, the ideals they promote, the challenges they face, how they define what counts as “food” or not, and their relationships to the larger geopolitical spheres they inhabit. In many respects, “the local” is not so much a location as it is a lens that reflects and refracts many other topics.
In different ways, the pieces in this issue of Gastronomica coalesce around themes of “localness,” how “the local” is made visible, real, and even tangible in multiple ways and at multiple scales. These conversations illuminate the many different communities and cultures that can achieve status as “local” and come to represent “local” interests. In the opening article, Toni Risson examines the movement of Greek food cultures to Australia and the important contributions of Greek food purveyors and food rituals not just to the Greek diaspora but also to Australian cultural institutions themselves. Tracey Heatherington takes up this theme of foodscapes through a cultural ecology approach that attends to the sensory dimensions of the landscapes that produce particular cultures, foods, and food traditions.
In her article, Joanne Finkelstein continues this critical examination of the role of the senses through a philosophical musing on theories of taste within a cultural context of excess. Taking a slightly different angle, Alison Hope Alkon moves from the philosophical to the explicitly political by exploring how American food justice movements, especially those that are focused on local issues and arise from community-led efforts, shed light on larger political and economic forces such as neoliberal capitalism. Underlying these efforts to transform food practices are modes of performance and enactment, a theme that Kevin Landis discusses in his article on the place of food in theater.
Corollary themes of heritage, community, and politics emerge in the other articles in this issue, which all raise thoughtful questions about the origin myths that are associated with foods and food practices. Collectively, these articles demonstrate that “local” is a relative location, as “local” foods may originate from nature, particular regional landscapes, historical artisanal practices, small-scale family and community networks, or even highly scientific and technological laboratories and inventions. In her essay about the recent turn to home butchery in the United States, Jessica Martell considers the intersection of performance, ethics, and the desire to return to a natural state of human-animal existence. Isobel Grad also probes the relationship between culinary heritage, regional landscapes, and animals in her essay on the significance of sheep in Icelandic foodways. Picking up on the underlying themes of nostalgia in these pieces, Stacy Adimando provocatively considers what, precisely, gets lost as food traditions change over time.
In contrast, both Cara Eisenpress and Andrew Simmons explore how new traditions are made and how they contribute to idealized forms of local community. For Simmons, the issue is how teenagers at a California high school created an alternative informal food system and capitalist economy that subverted and bypassed the formal food economy of their school. At a much larger scale, Eisenpress’s essay on the military food industry that feeds American soldiers, and eventually American citizens, presents a detailed inside glimpse into the scientific laboratories and government meeting rooms that produce and nourish an idealized citizen. Finally, Omar Lopez presents a provocative thought-piece on how new technologies challenge not just how we understand the origins of food but also the very nature of what counts as “food.”
In the end, questions about the nature of “the local” challenge us to rethink the spaces, scales, and temporalities associated with food and food traditions. From its origins through its uses and on to its disposal, food is always on the move, both as an object and an ideal. And perhaps it is that dynamic, mobile, malleable quality of food – its ability to move across and transcend boundaries and expectations – that makes it so valuable for understanding the nature of the “local” itself.
Welcome to 2014 and the first issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. As I announced in the previous issue (13.4), the journal’s core emphasis will be innovative and thought-provoking scholarship and debates within the worlds of food and food studies, a refocusing that is reflected in the journal’s new subtitle. At the same time that our contributors push the boundaries of food scholarship in terms of the topics they cover, they will also invite us to consider the formats in which we engage these topics and conversations. While we will continue to rely on conventional text-based formats, we also will experiment with new types of scholarly communication, including graphic arts and multimedia approaches, both in the pages of the journal and on our website. This is an exciting moment for the journal and for food scholarship, as researchers, writers, artists, and enthusiasts play with innovative content and formats. I am very much looking forward to the creative possibilities and scholarly innovations that will emerge as Gastronomica’s contributors and readers interact at the very forefront of critical food scholarship.
More generally, this is a timely moment for critical engagement with food in all of its forms. As this issue goes to press, California governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state and requested that residents voluntarily reduce their water use by twenty percent, with the possibility of mandatory water restrictions coming soon. Both the drought, which is California’s worst in 100 years, and the water restrictions are already having significant effects on America’s food practices and will have repercussions for a long time to come. Most immediately, with lakes and reservoirs at or near empty and wells running dry, California farmers are making decisions about whether they will plant, what they will plant, whether they should sell off or slaughter their livestock, and whether they will even have jobs for the laborers who work in their fields and on their farms. Vintners are uncertain about whether they will have grapes later this year, as the lack of water now will likely affect whether their vines will bud this spring. Even fisheries are suffering as scarce water resources are being diverted for more critical needs.
These developments will have profound consequences for national and global food supplies. California produces approximately one-half of the US’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts and is the country’s leading dairy supplier. Its number-one food export is almonds, which is also one of the most water-intensive crops because it requires year-round watering. No one knows precisely what will happen if California’s drought continues, but it is clear that any reduction in California’s food production capabilities will resonate across the food chain, with prices rising and availability and diversity shrinking, farmworkers losing their jobs, and farmers wrestling with hard choices about whether to wait it out, change their focus, or get out altogether. Such critical themes as labor, health, choice, access, environment, sustainability, and tradition, among many others, will increasingly come to the fore as points of debate and discussion in scholarly research, public policy, and dinnertime conversations.
Above all, these developments highlight the fact that food never exists in isolation from larger trends and dynamics; rather, it is always deeply embedded within and buffeted by shifting political, economic, cultural, and environmental forces. Food is not merely something pleasurable or tasty, but something that is crucially significant to all parts of our daily lives. Food matters. Thus as the journal moves forward this year, expect to see contributors focus careful attention and debate on the weighty, thorny, and consequential aspects of food in all of its manifestations.
The contributors to this first issue of 2014 take us directly into critical food conversations with an impressive and fascinating collection of essays that revolve around themes of morality, knowledge, and power. In different ways, the contributors inspire us to think about how particular food traditions have evolved, what types of information and perspectives they provide, how they are situated within systems of power and control, and why these food practices matter in today’s world.
Seth Holmes starts this conversation in the opening interview about his recently published book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, a riveting ethnographic account of the hidden world of migrant farmworkers as they cross the border into the United States and make their way to the West Coast farms that stock American pantries. With an eye to the scholarly and ethical dimensions of his project, Holmes describes and analyzes the physical and emotional suffering of Triqui migrant workers who are entangled in racialized work hierarchies and medical systems.
The questions that Holmes raises about the nature and impact of power and value are pursued in different ways by the other contributors to this issue. In his essay on local food movements in the United States, B. R. Cohen examines the political terrain staked out by these movements as they make claims on such issues as health, food safety, food security, and food sovereignty. By illuminating the interconnections and points of convergence and divergence among these movements, Cohen argues against a one-size-fits-all homogenizing orientation to food reform efforts and instead suggests that a greater potential for innovation and alliance lies within an ecological approach that recognizes their plurality. Maywa Montenegro de Wit extends this theme of the plurality of politics and ideas within food movements in her essay on urban agroecology trends in the United States, with particular attention to the ways in which agroecology scholars, proponents, and activists have interacted in their efforts to educate the public about new approaches. Taking a slightly different angle, Yuson Jung and Andrew Newman critically interrogate the moral economy of food, labor, and consumer choice in Detroit as local residents and activists debate the arrival of Whole Foods in their midst. Jung and Newman provoke important, but also uncomfortable, questions about the role of class, race, and taste in a setting where low-income residents who have struggled to survive in a food desert now have access to a premium grocery store that promotes a particular health-oriented lifestyle.
Value, change, and tradition continue as themes in essays by J. Weintraub and Gary Paul Nabhan. In his translation of a chapter from Eugène-Vincent Briffault’s Paris à table, Weintraub introduces us to Briffault’s critical perspective on Parisian gastronomy, replete with both serious and humorous observations of the highs and lows of the cuisine, restaurant settings, manners, sensibilities, and even diners of nineteenth-century Paris. Far removed from the metropolitan tumult of Paris, Nabhan situates the Arabian Peninsula’s spice trade in a compelling history that weaves the past with the present, the cultural with the agricultural.
Moving beyond the serious to the more whimsical, but no less intellectually provocative, Marilyn Stasio, Robert Iulo, and Julia Hebaiter invite us to consider the mysteries of food. Stasio takes us into the world of the “foodie mystery” and offers insight into how food works as a plot device and what ultimately makes for a satisfying food-oriented thriller. Iulo details the intimate and mysterious powers of food as recipes, traditions, and shared memories hold families together through time. Hebaiter provokes us to consider the value of secretive, even illicit behaviors for enhancing the pleasures of food, with her cheekily rendered musing on purloined fruit from neighbors’ gardens.
In their contributions to this larger discussion of the intersection of values, morals, and food, Laura Titzer and Margaret Sessa-Hawkins explore from different angles the productive, generative nature of food work. In a reflection on the hard work that takes place on an organic farm, Titzer considers how the physicality of planting and harvesting tomatoes offers insight into the complexities of alternative food systems and the ideals of the inclusivity they promote. Sessa-Hawkins explores how a simple food like the apple can simultaneously include and exclude, as she learns to make homemade apple pie and new friends over a fire in Malawi, far from her family and home in Virginia.
Finally, in their contributions, Ali Fitzgerald and Shelly Errington push the boundaries of food studies formats by moving away from text-based analyses to more artistic forms of critical commentary. Through graphic arts, Fitzgerald and Errington illuminate the political dimensions of food, with Fitzgerald’s rendering of mushrooming in a post–Cold War Berlin and Errington’s musing on what capitalist consumption might mean for the Easter Bunny.
In closing, I invite you to dig into these pieces and allow them to inspire your own critical reflections on food and its role in our daily lives and the world around us.