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.
Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies and Editor Melissa L. Caldwell are pleased to announce a new collaboration with the University of London’s SOAS Food Studies Centre. Through this partnership, the Distinguished Lecture Series will serve up a recurring forum for leading scholars, students, journalists, practitioners, and members of the public to engage in critical conversations about the nature of food, the interconnectivity of contemporary food systems, the role of food in daily life, emerging trends in food studies, and contemporary food concerns.
As Melissa Caldwell notes, “the Food Studies Centre at SOAS is an international leader in the kind of cutting-edge scholarship on food that challenges and inspires scholars, practitioners, and enthusiasts alike to rethink what they know about food and its significance in the world both past and present. This partnership is an extraordinary opportunity to highlight the most innovative, rigorous, and fascinating research on food and bring it to the Gastronomica readership.”
Included among the first Lectures under this new partnership are “From Arak to Za’atar: Jerusalem and its many culinary traditions,” from famed chef and cookbook writer Yotam Ottolenghi, and “How Grains Domesticated Us,” from James C. Scott, Co-Director of Yale University’s Agrarian Studies Program.
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.
The past few months since the last issue of Gastronomica went to press have been exciting ones in the world of food. In London the first in vitro meat hamburger was served, an event that is significant not just for what it reveals about advances in science and technology, but also for how it has forced uneasy but necessary conversations about animal welfare, strategies for solving the world’s food shortages, and the limits of what counts as “food,” “taste,” and even “pleasure.” In the Northern Hemisphere, fall harvests and harvest festivals have begun, enticing eaters and drinkers around the world to enjoy the delights of Oktoberfest, wine festivals, pumpkins, apple picking, and freshly juiced pomegranates, to name but a few. And in multiple international settings, food scholars and practitioners have gathered at conferences to share their work and push the field of food studies in new directions.
I have been privileged to attend two of these recent conferences. At the end of September, the University of Graz (Austria) hosted “Foodscapes: Access to Food, Excess of Food,” which was held at Seggau Castle in the Styrian countryside, Austria’s beautiful wine region. At the beginning of October, the Social Sciences Research Council hosted the workshop “Rescuing Taste from the Nation: Oceans, Borders, and Culinary Flows,” which was part of a larger conference on “Inter-Asian Connections IV: Istanbul,” held at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. Both conferences brought together an impressive international contingent of food scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to address critical issues in food studies. Many important questions and themes emerged at these conferences, and I want to single out a few for special note.
In her keynote address to participants in the “Foodscapes” conference, Julie Guthman from the University of California, Santa Cruz (and a member of the Gastronomica editorial board), introduced a series of provocations about the field of critical food studies and its possible future. One of Professor Guthman’s questions to the audience was whether critical food studies is really about the food or whether it is about “something else.” As became clear, both in Professor Guthman’s remarks and in the papers and conversations that followed, while food may be a starting point, critical food studies is really about the “something else” that becomes revealed through food.
Taking up this provocation, participants discussed and debated such important issues as the role of alternative food movements in shaping new forms of civic engagement and sustainability projects, the ways in which certification regimes influence cultural understandings of locale and taste, and how taste preferences are not simply physiological responses to sensory stimuli but may also be cultivated by social, political, and economic relationships. Offering different perspectives in their own keynote addresses, David Evans from the University of Manchester and Valentin Thurn, a documentary filmmaker from Germany, challenged participants to think critically about food waste, how it is produced, where it goes, and whether consumers are complicit in the production of excess food. As both speakers noted, such questions have profound implications for how consumers make choices about the foods they buy and how they consume them, how concerns with practical matters such as storage and transportation affect food choice, and even how cultures of blame (directed at both producers and consumers) emerge and become politically salient. With regard to questions about the materiality inherent in critical food studies, colleagues from the world of food and design introduced new ways of thinking about the intersection of form and function with the emotional and symbolic qualities of food. Collectively, discussions between participants highlighted important conversations and debates about the moral and ethical dimensions of food practices and food systems, the limits and nuances of assumptions about “pleasure” and “taste” associated with food, and the necessity of unpacking and even rethinking analytical and methodological approaches in order to move beyond a neoliberal, global capitalist framework in order to understand the significance and impact of other political economies.
The SSRC workshop “Rescuing Taste from the Nation” raised equally important questions for food scholarship. Drawing on the larger conference’s focus on rethinking “Asia” as a geographically, politically, and culturally constructed entity, participants in the food workshop examined the regional and global networks that have encouraged foods and food cultures to travel into, out of, and through “Asia” and other spaces, the role of imperialist and state-making projects in the creation of distinct (and not so distinct) culinary cultures, and the biosocial limits of “taste.” Workshop organizers Jaclyn Rohel, Cecilia Leong-Salobir, and Krishnendu Ray (also a Gastronomica editorial board member) challenged participants to think about how worlds of taste and pathways of trade comestibles open up new spaces beyond and between conventional boundaries of nation-states and institutional regimes. Taking up this charge, workshop participants from the fields of law, sociology, anthropology, history, and cultural studies examined not just how taste preferences and culinary cultures are formed, but how they traverse and upend expected political and cultural borders, so that taste as a circulating commodity itself becomes dislocated from a particular place, people, or value system.
One area of concern that emerged from workshop presentations addressed the value of food traditions in maintaining distinctive identities, a sense of personal dignity, and connections to a homeland and shared history, such as with papers on the culturally appropriate diets provided to indentured workers from North India while on boats taking them to the plantation islands where they would work and on the ways in which survivors of the Armenian genocide who fled to Bulgaria have used family recipes and memories of “traditional” foods to forge new lives and remember their pasts. A second set of conversations considered how the simultaneous movement and emplacement of foods and taste preferences produce new symbolic and physical geographies and relationships, with papers on the simultaneous “mixing” of cuisines and families in Malaysian communities that has created rich Peranakan and Eurasian culinary traditions; the flow of food technology and food technology experts, such as the brewers who have influenced the emergence of beer cultures in China, Japan, Korea, and India; and how colonial and postcolonial elites in Turkey, Israel, and Jordan have strategically used foods in their political negotiations. A third theme that emerged probed the body politics of food and taste with papers on how the emerging global market for olive oil is creating new consumers and producers in places like India and China, as well as new regulatory regimes that are in turn influencing taste preferences; the political dimensions of public hygiene as evoked through cultural practices and public policies governing betel quid chewing within the British Empire; the way in which the circulation of a taste for turtle soup and mock turtle soup from the Caribbean to Europe and on to China illuminates how tastes for particular dishes move not just among geographic regions but among classes and cultures; and finally the changing nature of culinary professions, particularly that of chefs, in Istanbul under the influence of global flows of food-related fashions, fads, and people.
Together, the discussions and debates raised at these two conferences illustrate the power of food as simultaneously an object and an experience that merges the personal, the political, the social, the historical, and the geographic. Just as significant is that through such fascinating topics as these and the many others presented at these workshops, food scholars and practitioners are making important contributions to our understandings of how the world works. This is an exciting time in critical food studies, and I am very pleased that Gastronomica, because of its position at the forefront of this ever-evolving field, will be presenting the cutting-edge work that emerges from these and other events.
Going forward, the journal will be focusing more directly on critical studies of food. I look forward to bringing you the very best of the most thought-provoking, empirically rich, and theoretically innovative scholarship in the field. Look for an exciting lineup beginning in the February 2014 (14.1) issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies.
The contributors to this issue of Gastronomica initiate these conversations by taking us directly to the heart of the provocation “what is food” by enlarging its scope to ask who decides what counts as food, how food can be wielded as both political gift or political weapon in state-level negotiations over tradition, immigration, and human dignity, and how ideals of health are infused with spiritual practices, among many other questions In articles that celebrate the vibrancy of longstanding cultural traditions, Carolyn Phillips traces the origins and mythology of China’s Kitchen God as a protector of the home, while Jenny Holm recalls how the simple pleasures of a New Year’s feast in Northern Ossetia refract deep family, cultural, and regional histories. Describing her first experience with maté during field research in Paraguay, Heather Millman explores the significance of this beverage in terms of its cultural traditions and medicinal properties, thereby showing the centrality of beverages within food studies and furthering our understanding of the relationships between food and medicine. Elizabeth Chatellier continues this interest in the healthful dimensions of tradition, and the spiritual qualities of food, in her account of the culinary traditions cultivated and presented by Monk Epiphanius of Mylopotamos of Mount Athos. Other pieces focus more directly on the political facets of food and the relationships of expectation, obligation, and despair that emerge between states and their subjects. Through an account of the traditional presentation of salmon caught by Maine anglers to American presidents, Catherine Schmitt explores how salmon and salmon fishing have been influenced by national policies regarding energy and water use. In a sobering account of the feeding practices for unauthorized migrants in American detention centers, Megan Carney critically examines how the provisioning and withholding of food frames an American biopolitics in which the bodies and appetites of detained subjects are manipulated for the extraction of political value by state authorities and economic value by the food industries that are contracted to provide meals to detention centers. Carney’s article offers keen insight into the unpleasant realities of the militarization of food and the eating experience.
Finally, in keeping with the festivities of the season and the fall and winter holidays that are at hand, other contributors invite us to ponder the ritualized qualities of food and food experiences in our kitchens, pantries, workplaces, and family get-togethers. Selections range from Will McGrath’s recounting of the slaughter of a pig for a special occasion in Lesotho, Diane Gleason’s narrative of Mediterranean cuisine, and Matthew Gavin Frank’s philosophically inspired musing on the symbolic nature of the bagel to Chris Wiewiora’s chronicling of the inner rhythms and harmonies within a pizza joint and Eric D. Lehman’s allegory about the unintended consequences of hard work, success, and the limits of class mobility as told through the narrator’s quest for the perfect soup.
In closing, I would also like to thank publicly Allison Carruth, who has served as Gastronomica’s Book Review editor for the past several years. Professor Carruth has done yeoman’s service by identifying books to be reviewed in the journal, soliciting reviewers, and working closely with reviewers and potential reviewers to ensure that the reviews published in this journal are of the highest caliber of critical evaluation. Professor Carruth is stepping down to join the Gastronomica editorial board and to focus on her own research and writing. I also want to congratulate her on the recent publication of her book, Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food. Look for a review of it in an upcoming issue of the journal.