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

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.

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Spring 2014, Volume 14, Number 1

Spring 2014, Volume 14, Number 1

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

Meet the Author
Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: An Interview with Seth Holmes | Julie Guthman

Research Articles
Don’t Mono-crop the Movement: Toward a Cultural Ecology of Local Food | B. R Cohen

A Lighthouse for Urban Agriculture: University, Community, and Redefining Expertise in the Food System | Maywa Montenegro de Wit

An Edible Moral Economy in the Motor City: Food Politics and Urban Governance in Detroit | Yuson Jung and Andrew Newman

The Restaurants of Paris: A Translation from Paris à table | J Weintraub

Aromas Emanating from the Driest of Places | Gary Paul Nabhan

Critical Reflections
Foodie Mysteries | Marilyn Stasio

La Cucina Povera | Robert Iulo

Stolen Fruit Tastes Better | Julia Hebaiter

The Story of Tomatoes: How Picking Tomatoes Taught Me the Art and Attitude of Social Change | Laura M Titzer

Creative Works
A Lingering Flavor | Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Cold War Forest: Mushrooming Along the Wall | Ali Fitzgerald

Reviews
Get Jiro! By Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose, reviewed by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Aesthetic Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Women’s Food Writing By Alice L. McLean, reviewed by Susan Derwin

Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms By Greg A. Marley, reviewed by Jim Trappe

Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder in Traditional Europe By A. Lynn Martin, reviewed by Christine Caldwell Ames

Let the Meatballs Rest: And Other Stories About Food and Culture By Massimo Montanari, reviewed by Zachary Nowak

Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics By Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim, reviewed by Heather Hammel

Secrets of the Sommeliers By Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay, reviewed by Dan Berger

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables By Alain Passard, reviewed by Katrina Dodson

Julia Child’s The French Chef By Dana Polan, reviewed by Malena Watrous  83

Du fait de cuisine / On Cookery of Master Chiquart (1420) Edited and translated by Terence Scully, reviewed by Brooke Heidenreich Findley

The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking Edited by César Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik van der Linden, reviewed by Jonathan L. Clark

Just Desserts
The Majority of Rabbits Lead Lives of Quiet Desperation | Shelly Errington

“GM or Death”: Food and Choice in Zambia | Christopher M. Annear

from Gastronomica 13:1 (originally published in Gastronomica 4:2)

Food is complicated nourishment that feeds more than the belly. As recent events in Zambia have shown, it has the capacity to make (or break) relationships before even a morsel is raised to lips. Last year Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa sparked international controversy when he banned genetically modified (GM) foods from entering Zambia, including in the form of famine aid. Since then, contentious debate has ensued that transcends questions regarding the relative virtue of GM foods, both in terms of nutritional safety and geoeconomic prudence. The potency of President Mwanawasa’s words and the strong international, almost exclusively Western, repudiations to his declaration reveal a tenuous relationship between African and Western donor countries over the topics of food aid and food values. What he has shown, in effect, is that food can constitute political poison even when gastronomically edible.

Mwanawasa’s GM food remarks drew—perhaps even courted—criticism from beyond the borders of his midsized south-central African country for his purported insensitivity to the food needs of his own people. Due to the effects of El Niño on the past two growing seasons (2001, 2002), southern Africa has been reported to be a virtual famine zone. Therefore, the posited relationship between food and affected African countries is often discussed as if it were linear and axiomatic: the hungry continent requires food, any food. In this article I discuss the paradox that, on the one hand, debate is encouraged concerning the possible health risks of certain foods for people who can buy it; yet, on the other, donor governments deny the right of choice to those people in countries who receive it at no immediate economic cost. I examine two ideas central to this controversy: one, that the privilege of food choice is present only in prosperous, industrialized countries; and two, that food is conceptualized symbolically, culturally, and ethically in a variety of ways. In sub-Saharan Africa this is no less the case than in Western countries, yet when Africans attempt to exercise choice concerning GM foods they are told: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”1 Such sentiments suggest that Africans are denied the right of free food choice because Western nations, many of which are also aid donors, have already tacitly determined the relationship of food pathways to and for Africa.

The news reports and opinion pieces published in response to President Mwanawasa’s decision have been less refutations of his argument against GM foods than comments on his perceived arrogance and ignorance at denying food to “his own starving people.” While this Western response to African hunger has been seen before, Mwanawasa’s initial declaration, and perhaps even more his stubborn adherence to an anti-GM stance, is rather less orthodox. In order to better analyze Mwanawasa’s political position this article will do what many others have not: it will reserve judgment long enough to examine the social, political, and gastronomic environment in Zambia that helped to generate the president’s antagonistic posture, articulated in one editorial as the choice between “GM or death.”2

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Taberna Ideal: Lisbon, Portugal | Frances Baca

from Gastronomica 11:4

Frances BacaCan you tell us exactly what a taberna is and how it differs from other restaurants?

Tânia Martins: A taberna is a place where people play cards, talk about politics, and sing fado. It’s not a typical restaurant where you come in and someone is only serving food and wine. It has a different atmosphere. Everyone is talking and laughing; you can play chess; you can sit down at a table and talk to someone. It’s like a family restaurant.

FBSusana, you’re the head chef, and Tânia, you’re the sommelier. Do your roles ever overlap?

Susana Felicidade: When I’m cooking, I talk with Tânia about the new things I’m creating, so she always participates in the process. We do the same with the wines.

TM: I don’t know anything about the kitchen. Susana, she’s the alchemist. She doesn’t measure anything. We call her the magician.

SF: Because if I measure, it will be not a mystery to me. I don’t want to control things. Sometimes people come to our restaurant and try the chocolate cake, and they say, “Oh, this is the most delicious chocolate cake!” And next time the chocolate cake will not taste the same. It never tastes the same.

FBSo tell me about yourselves. Where are you from and how did food influence you growing up?

SF: I’m from a place in Algarve called Praia da Arrifana. My grandmother had a taberna on the beach. Every summer I worked at the restaurant for twelve, fourteen hours a day. I loved it because I practiced French and English with the tourists who dined there. Later, I went to Lisbon to study law.

TM: She went through college cooking for everyone.

SF: I rented a house in Lisbon, and my friends always came to visit. They studied while I cooked. When I was thirty I went back to Algarve. My grandmother’s restaurant needed help, so I went there to cook. I stayed for four years, and Tânia joined me there during the final summer.

TM: I’m from Lisbon. I have a degree in publicity and marketing. I was the manager of twenty-three wine brands, but I got fed up with it, so I quit. Then a friend told me that Susana needed help in her restaurant. So I said okay, I’ll go and help organize her wine list. I never thought that it would grow into a partnership because it was only a summer job.

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