Editor’s Letter, Winter 2015

from Gastronomica 15:4

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.

Melissa L. Caldwell
September 2015

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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Sahadi’s: A Family Affair | Jason Leahey

from Gastronomica 12:2

Brooklyn has changed a lot over the past few years. The abandoned East River waterfront in Williamsburg is now filled with fifteen-story condos that are almost entirely glass. The old train yards dividing Park Slope from Fort Greene have been razed to build a stadium for the Nets basketball team. The block of Atlantic Avenue between Court and Clinton, long the home of Middle Eastern hole-in-the-walls, a Chinese fruit market, and a Key Food supermarket, now sports a Trader Joe’s on one corner and a Barney’s of New York next to it. The most famous store on that block, however, isn’t new, nor is it a national name. It’s the Sahadi Importing Company’s retail store, and it’s been on the north side of the street since 1948. It’s old school Downtown Brooklyn. Ask any Brooklynite about Sahadi’s, and if they’ve been there they’ll almost certainly proclaim, “That place is great.” If they don’t know it and you do, you’ll almost certainly proclaim, “You have to go there.” It’s an institution. Its story is a story of love and plenty.

Sahadi’s is a specialty foods outfit, and it’s most famous for its bulk section—a throwback to the America in which your shopkeeper scooped your flour or oats from a fat wooden barrel to weigh on a scale. Sahadi’s switched from barrels to clear plastic bins a few years back, but the aesthetics and customer service remain. In need of, let’s say, bulgur wheat? They have it cut to four different coarsenesses. Dates? Sourced from nine regions of the world, from Pakistan to Jordan to California. Olives? Thirty-two kinds, plus pickled baby red eggplant and excellent giardiniera (and far cheaper than at Whole Foods, by the way). Dried fruit? Every one you can think of, plus kiwis and pears, sulfured or non. Almonds? Twelve kinds, from blanched to cinnamon roasted. Almond flour? Check. Chestnut flour? Check. Pomegranate molasses? Check. This is the kind of place where pistachios are imported from half a dozen countries and exhibit the broad spectrum of color and flavor worthy of the same attention gourmands pay to cheese. Pluck a numbered ticket from the red deli dispenser and wait to be called. While you’re waiting, browse. Don’t know what that herb mloukia, imported from Syria, is used for? Wait for one of the men in blue aprons to call your number: he’ll answer your questions and measure everything you want out for you. Ask for a taste, and he’ll help with that too. Sahadi’s, in short, is paradise.

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A Family Affair: Naha, Chicago, Illinois | Carrie Nahabedian

from Gastronomica 3:1

To open a restaurant takes a strong desire and the willingness to put everything you have on the line—everything. Naha, the restaurant owned by my cousin Michael Nahabedian and me, is the culmination of years of being in the only business I have ever known. The idea of owning a restaurant had crossed my mind many times, but for some time it was just a passing thought. Over the years the thought evolved, until there was no mistaking restaurant ownership as the inevitable, natural progression of a career that had started while I was still in high school.

Michael Nahabedian was a kinesiology major at the University of Illinois when the course of his life suddenly changed. Needing to take some time off after an accident, he spent a few months in Europe. He returned to Chicago healed, refreshed, and definitely not wanting to pursue the career that he had studied so hard for. In a short time, Michael found himself behind the bar at a restaurant whose main clientele were chefs and restaurateurs, and he quickly found his place in the industry. Michael and I spent a lot of time together; my passion for food soon became his.

I had been working in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara as an executive chef for Four Seasons Hotels, but the desire to be involved in a family project and to return to my hometown, Chicago, kept growing. Our large, predominantly Armenian family supported our new venture from the start. It was agreed that the restaurant would be designed by Michael’s brother, architect Tom Nahabedian. Everyone knew my style of cooking and Michael’s expertise in handling the dining room and wine service, but we were all excited to see what Tom would create. Tom left Los Angeles, his job, and his new bride (temporarily), and set about creating our dream.

Michael and I shared the same vision for Naha, and in only one sitting Tom was able to visualize the design and style of the restaurant. We commissioned our good friend and Chicago artist Lora Fosberg to create art especially for Naha. Like Tom, she left all her other projects behind and devoted herself to the restaurant. The focus of Naha would be on the food and on giving our guests excellent service in a great atmosphere. We took over a well-known restaurant site and began the seven-month construction of Naha.

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