“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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To Unite or Divide? | Darra Goldstein

Back in 2002 I began working on a project with the Council of Europe to explore whether food can be used as a tool to promote tolerance. The volume on Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue grew out of this project, but I was eager to move beyond the printed page, to see if some of our ideas about shared culinary identities could be put into practice. So last summer I traveled to a site of fierce, continuing conflict to discover whether food could possibly help to instill trust in an atmosphere of increasing hatred. What I found in Israel and Palestine left me feeling both optimistic and full of despair.

The sources for my despair are both obvious and subtle. After a visit to the occupied territories I felt devastated. Current governmental policies attempt to erase Palestinians from the historical narrative. I saw ancient olive trees being bulldozed to make room for illegal Jewish settlements. Their loss threatens not only the Palestinians’ livelihood but also their core identity. The fact is, the less Palestinians have to be proud of, the less investment they will have in anything good, and the more likely they will be to act in anger and desperation (their horrific use of bulldozers as a weapon in Jerusalem is an irony that generally escapes American commentators). The Palestinians need to be bolstered in order to become equal partners in peace. Their sense of cultural erasure could be mitigated by recognizing their food and their deep connection to the soil. Palestinian food represents a cuisine of poverty, but it is rich in its use of such simple products as tehina, olive oil, and labane, a kind of yogurt cheese—not to mention the nutritious and aromatic wild greens that are gathered throughout the winter. Israelis enjoy these foods, too, and those in the know seek out artisanal products of Palestinian origin. Food can thereby open dialogue by helping to build a common cultural identity between Israelis and Palestinians.

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Survival Cuisine | Darra Goldstein

Last November, as the days grew increasingly short, I flew to Tromsø, Norway, then boarded a ship and sailed far above the Arctic Circle to Kirkenes. The occasion was the annual conference of the Norwegian Arts Council, which this year focused on the Barents Sea and its imminent transformation from a region of pristine beauty to a site of multinational oil extraction. Arts practitioners and administrators from all over Norway convened to discuss ways in which to celebrate local culture in the four countries comprising the region: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. I went along to see whether food traditions, or (dare I say) cuisine, could be a useful part of this discussion.

At nearly every meal we ate reindeer and fish, and as we sailed through the wintry half-light of the Arctic, I kept thinking about what constitutes a cuisine. For centuries, reindeer have sustained the indigenous Sami, the nomadic people who once survived by herding them. The Sami supplemented the reindeer meat with elk and fish, devising labor-intensive methods to dry and smoke them for long keeping. Coastal Norwegians relied largely on cod, which they processed in many ways. For everyone in the far north, food meant subsistence, not fine dining. That’s not to say that people lacked a sense of taste, only that in such a harsh climate food’s primary purpose had more urgency: calories = body heat = survival.

Now, in affluent twenty-first-century Norway, the foods of the Barents region are being very differently construed. In the hands of a new generation of talented chefs, traditional dishes become exquisite and refined. At Vin og Vilt in Kirkenes, reindeer tongue is smoked and thinly sliced, then served with a garnet beet sauce and wild mushrooms on the side. Saddle of reindeer is roasted and offered up with a rich brown sauce and lingonberries stirred lightly with sugar. At Tromsø’s Store Norske Fiskekompani, boknafisk, once the food of survival, became the stuff of my dreams: semi-dried cod gently boiled and served with creamed carrots and an entire bowl of bacon fat. I also savored reindeer bresaola with blueberry vinaigrette and wild mushroom fricassee, all washed down with icy aquavit. Saithe, a large, meaty cod, complemented the saltiness of westjfordschinke, the “ham of the western fjords,” which turned out to be none other than whale.

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Winter 2007, Volume 7, Number 1

from the editor
Survival Cuisine | Darra Goldstein

Rumblings from the World of Food

Obesity: “The Sixth Deadly Sin” | Ellen J. Fried and Elizabeth Williams

orts and scantlings
Cockeram’s Cookery | Mark Morton

feast for the eye
Monumentalizing Wheat: Soviet Dreams of Abundance | Diana Kurkovsky

From “Cellar Notes” | Edward Ragg

the media
Making Food History | Michele Field

Alkermes: “A Liqueur of Prodigious Strength” | Amy Butler Greenfield

Otto Horcher, Caterer to the Third Reich | Giles MacDonogh

Licking the Platter Clean | Reeni Fischer

Arctic Foodways and Contemporary Cuisine | Zona Spray Starks
Domesticating Cuisine: Food and Aesthetics on American Television | Krishnendu Ray

Foie Gras: As Seen from Southwest France | Jeanne Strang

Reflections on the Stuffed Cabbage | Allen S. Weiss

Roosevelt Roasters | Harley Spiller

In Grandma’s Fus Steps: The Jellied Calf’s Feet of My Youth | Michael Frishman

the global market
Waiting for a Cappuccino: A Brief Layover along the Spice Trail | Carolyn Thériault

local fare
A Time to Gather: Foraging with the Bedouins of Galilee | Abbie Rosner

chef’s page
An Interview with Catherine de Zagon Louy | Yng-Ru Chen

review essays
Gusto all’Inglese | Fred Plotkin
The Industry of Bees | J.H. Galloway
Three Perspectives on the French Culinary Scene | Beatrice Fink

the bookshelf
Books in Review

Crochet Stout | Rachael Matthews

Cover: Sardines in a tin, colored X-ray. The key (black) at center is used to open the tin. Sardines are a good source of vitamin A, protein and healthy fish oils. Gusto/ Photo Researchers, Inc. Photo Researchers Picture Number: SF4840

Chunky Soup: The Sumotori Diet | Jonathan Deutsch

from Gastronomica 4:1

When faced with the image of a sumotori (a sumo wrestler or rikishi),1 most food-minded people are likely to ask, “What do they eat to look like that?” I asked this question as a high-school exchange student in Japan a decade ago and have been exploring it ever since. The simple answer is that sumotori eat chankonabe, a chunky meat or fish and vegetable stew that they cook for their main meal of the day. But this first, seemingly simple, question invites many more. What is the significance of chankonabe, and what are its origins? What does food mean in sumo culture, and how does its use compare to that in other sports? What about food in Japanese culture in general? How can the Japanese people, whom we think of as health-conscious, and with such a minimalist aesthetic, so value obesity? And how can a society fearful of the health implications of McDonaldization accept sumo—a quasi-national sport requiring the consumption of up to eight thousand calories a day—as part of its religious and cultural framework?

The Rituals of Sumo

The origins of sumo are buried in legend dating back two thousand years. Most sources agree that the idea of sumo, like many important facets of Japanese culture (the cultivation of rice, the written language, Buddhism), probably came from the Asian mainland. The first written record of sumo dates to a.d. 712; it appears in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the earliest extant piece of Japanese writing.2 The first known sumo bout occurred in the year 642, when the Empress Kogyoku had the imperial guards perform sumo to entertain dignitaries visiting from Korea.3 It is likely that sumo was originally performed as a rice-harvest ritual; the early Shinto influence is still evident in many aspects of the sport. Early sumo incorporated elements from other martial arts, and the rikishi were considered an important source of paramilitary knowledge.4 By the late eighteenth century, sumo had been institutionalized as a sport. It was nationalized in 1927 with the merger of regional factions and the establishment of official tournaments, and at this point sumo began to be considered the unofficial national sport of Japan. Whether sumo should be treated as a sport, a martial art, a religious ritual, a cultural institution, entertainment, or some combination of the above is a matter fiercely debated among contemporary sumo writers. At the heart of this debate, though, is the Western need to categorize complex Eastern do, or “ways.” Just as a martial art is at once religion, meditation, self-defense, exercise, art, history, culture, and philosophy; and the tea ceremony comprises a social gathering, ritual, spirituality, nourishment, hospitality, and aesthetics—so is sumo complex and multifaceted.

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