In advance of the next event on March 16th, UC Press author and distinguished anthropologist David E. Sutton gives readers a taste of his upcoming lecture, “‘Let Them Eat Stuffed Peppers’: An Argument of Images on the role of Food in Understanding Neoliberal Austerity in Greece.”
“We all ate it together,” was the claim of Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos as he tried to explain the origins of the so-called Greek Crisis to an angry crowd of protestors back in 2011. This phrasing struck me at the time because it extends eating together, or “commensality,” into the domain of national politics. Such food imagery fit with my long study on the island of Kalymnos in the Eastern Aegean, where I had been filming people’s everyday cooking practices and writing about the sensory engagement of ordinary Kalymnians with their ingredients and with their kitchen environments, some of the themes that I explore in my book Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island. I use my video ethnography of everyday cooking practices to open up questions of memory and transmission of cooking knowledge, tool use and the body, and the potential changes brought about by the advent of cooking shows in Greece. But most importantly in Secrets I try and give a sense of the ways that Kalymnian food culture shapes people’s larger attitudes, and how through their everyday discussions they create a shared food-based worldview, a “gustemology.”
In my talk at SOAS, “Let Them Eat Stuffed Peppers,” I will be continuing this exploration through a look at some of the ways food discourses and practices have developed over the past six years of the Greek Crisis. From debates over the relationship of eating, debt and responsibility, to the growth of solidarity practices such as the “Social Kitchen” movement and the “Potato movement,” to attempts by ordinary Kalymnians to return to past cooking and eating practices as a way of surviving the crisis, food has shaped understandings and responses to new conditions throughout Greece. I look at how certain foods have been associated with protest because of their connection to notions of Greekness, or because of their obvious foreign derivation. I also examine how Kalymnians are dusting off old recipes, and old foraging practices, to cope with times in which sources of livelihood that had been taken for granted for a generation are suddenly under threat.
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.
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.