For the third episode of our new podcast series, dedicated to dispatches from the food world in reaction to the first months of the pandemic (the focus of our forthcoming 20.3 issue), Shalini Sinha – Country Director for WIEGO, or Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing – joins guest host Krishnendu Ray to discuss the consequences of the pandemic for the “informal” (but vital) economy and culture of street food in Delhi, and India more broadly.
For 30% off single-print issues of “Food in the time of COVID-19” (available from August 19), use promo code GASTROAUG2020 at checkout.
Mobile foods have proved to be intriguing points of departure for food scholars and food enthusiasts alike. Mobile foods are at the core of concerns about the impact of global processes, especially when multinational food corporations appear to resemble neo-imperial political and economic forces that are bent on invading and conquering new markets around the world. Mobile foods also offer sensory, emotional, and symbolic comfort for diasporic communities who are searching for a familiar sense of home. For health and environmental activists, meanwhile, traveling foods can represent the dangers of the global food system on individual bodies and landscapes. At the same time, foods and food cultures that are firmly rooted in place are just as provocative. Both local traditions and national economies are made possible by foods that are firmly embedded within ecosystems that are simultaneously cultural and environmental. Foods from particular locations provide the structuring parameters for identities and experiences. And for persons who travel—both actual and virtual tourists—foods offer a taste of other places, cultures, and times. Both the movement and emplacement of foods and food cultures open up possibilities for thinking about the nature of circulation, the conditions under which circulation does or does not happen, and the values and meanings attached to circulation.
What happens to “local” and “authentic” when Russian borscht travels to Asia as an American industrial food?
On December 11, 2014, James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and founding director of the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University, gave a Distinguished Lecture in the Food Studies Centre at SOAS, University of London (co-organized by the Agrarian Change and Development Research Cluster at SOAS). Lectures in this series are co-sponsored by Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. On the following day, Scott answered questions put to him by Harry G. West, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Food Studies Centre; Celia Plender, doctoral student in anthropology; and other SOAS students.
For decades, Scott has been a key figure in Southeast Asian Studies and in the comparative study of agrarian societies and peasant politics. His best-known works examine the state, hegemony, revolution, resistance, and anarchism, and include The Moral Economy of the Peasant (Yale University Press, 1976), Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1980), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998), and The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2008).
In this session, Scott reflects on his intellectual precursors and his place in the landscape of academic disciplines; the significance of food and agriculture in his work; the tenuous future of peasant agriculture and agrarian societies; globalization and the rise of corporate agriculture and the food industries; poverty and the struggle for justice; and his own experiences with farming and farm land conservation.
JAMES C. SCOTT [JS]
HARRY G. WEST [HW]
CELIA PLENDER [CP]
Jim, what drew you to “agrarian studies”—specifically with a focus on the peasantry and its relationship with the state—and what drew you to Southeast Asia? Is there a backstory that you can share with us that gives us a sense of this emergent intellectual agenda?
I stumbled into Southeast Asia. I had bungled my honors thesis as an undergraduate, my professor dismissed me, and if I wanted an honors degree, I had to find someone who would adopt me. I was an economics major and someone said, well, I think I’d like to understand more about the economic development of Burma and if you do this I will adopt you as an honors student. And I said fine, and then when I closed the door behind his office I said to myself, where’s Burma? I got a Rotary Fellowship to go to Burma and one thing led to another and I became a Southeast Asianist. As far as agrarian studies is concerned, that’s actually a simpler story and maybe typical of my generation. I started to teach as a Southeast Asianist during the middle of the Vietnam War and the expansion of the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin. The university had a long progressive tradition, which was one reason why I took a job there. The fall of 1967 when I arrived to begin teaching there were the so-called “Dow Riots” protesting the war and the manufacture and use of napalm ordnance by Dow as well as the contract research for the Department of Defense conducted on campus. These riots convulsed the campus and coincided with a strike by teaching assistants to secure unionization rights. The police responded badly and a good many students were beaten and arrested. The turmoil led to a series of all-faculty meetings in which I took an active part, speaking against the war and for the rights of the protestors. As a budding Southeast Asianist I spent a good deal of the following two years speaking against the war in Wisconsin and elsewhere. I became interested in peasant rebellion—understanding the Viet Cong and how peasant rebellions happened. I taught a course on peasant rebellion with a China specialist friend, Edward Friedman, and in those days we had 400, 500 students in the class who were fighting for the microphone to denounce us as insufficiently progressive. Finally I decided that since peasants were the largest segment of the world’s population, it would be an honorable and worthy career to devote my life to the study of peasants and agriculture. So when I finally went to Yale, we began something called the Program in Agrarian Studies and it brought together all those people who were interested in rural life generally: land tenure, agriculture, now food and environment. For me it was a wonderful interdisciplinary community in which I learned a tremendous amount. I think of the book Seeing Like a State as the book that agrarian studies helped me write, just by attending all of the seminars that we had—including ones which Harry presented.
What makes food “local”? And why does “the local” matter when we speak of food? These are questions that vex scholars, farmers, activists, commercial food producers, and ordinary people alike. Desires to protect “local” cultures and unique traditions against globalization, to call attention to the particular landscapes and communities in which food production and consumption occur, or to recognize and experience a unique flavor palate believed to emanate from a specific locale are all embedded within concerns that “the local” is a place that exists and that informs the values and qualities attached to food.
Yet questions about “the local” extend beyond merely identifying what and where it might exist, and engage larger issues about the senses, identity, ethics and morality, power, and even performance, as well as fundamental questions about the very nature of food itself. As a result, whether food qualifies as “local” becomes an inquiry into what the project of making food “local” can tell us about how communities organize and define themselves, the ideals they promote, the challenges they face, how they define what counts as “food” or not, and their relationships to the larger geopolitical spheres they inhabit. In many respects, “the local” is not so much a location as it is a lens that reflects and refracts many other topics.
In different ways, the pieces in this issue of Gastronomica coalesce around themes of “localness,” how “the local” is made visible, real, and even tangible in multiple ways and at multiple scales. These conversations illuminate the many different communities and cultures that can achieve status as “local” and come to represent “local” interests. In the opening article, Toni Risson examines the movement of Greek food cultures to Australia and the important contributions of Greek food purveyors and food rituals not just to the Greek diaspora but also to Australian cultural institutions themselves. Tracey Heatherington takes up this theme of foodscapes through a cultural ecology approach that attends to the sensory dimensions of the landscapes that produce particular cultures, foods, and food traditions.
In her article, Joanne Finkelstein continues this critical examination of the role of the senses through a philosophical musing on theories of taste within a cultural context of excess. Taking a slightly different angle, Alison Hope Alkon moves from the philosophical to the explicitly political by exploring how American food justice movements, especially those that are focused on local issues and arise from community-led efforts, shed light on larger political and economic forces such as neoliberal capitalism. Underlying these efforts to transform food practices are modes of performance and enactment, a theme that Kevin Landis discusses in his article on the place of food in theater.
Corollary themes of heritage, community, and politics emerge in the other articles in this issue, which all raise thoughtful questions about the origin myths that are associated with foods and food practices. Collectively, these articles demonstrate that “local” is a relative location, as “local” foods may originate from nature, particular regional landscapes, historical artisanal practices, small-scale family and community networks, or even highly scientific and technological laboratories and inventions. In her essay about the recent turn to home butchery in the United States, Jessica Martell considers the intersection of performance, ethics, and the desire to return to a natural state of human-animal existence. Isobel Grad also probes the relationship between culinary heritage, regional landscapes, and animals in her essay on the significance of sheep in Icelandic foodways. Picking up on the underlying themes of nostalgia in these pieces, Stacy Adimando provocatively considers what, precisely, gets lost as food traditions change over time.
In contrast, both Cara Eisenpress and Andrew Simmons explore how new traditions are made and how they contribute to idealized forms of local community. For Simmons, the issue is how teenagers at a California high school created an alternative informal food system and capitalist economy that subverted and bypassed the formal food economy of their school. At a much larger scale, Eisenpress’s essay on the military food industry that feeds American soldiers, and eventually American citizens, presents a detailed inside glimpse into the scientific laboratories and government meeting rooms that produce and nourish an idealized citizen. Finally, Omar Lopez presents a provocative thought-piece on how new technologies challenge not just how we understand the origins of food but also the very nature of what counts as “food.”
In the end, questions about the nature of “the local” challenge us to rethink the spaces, scales, and temporalities associated with food and food traditions. From its origins through its uses and on to its disposal, food is always on the move, both as an object and an ideal. And perhaps it is that dynamic, mobile, malleable quality of food – its ability to move across and transcend boundaries and expectations – that makes it so valuable for understanding the nature of the “local” itself.