Editor’s Letter, Winter 2016

from Gastronomica 16:4

As I write this letter in August, here in the United States where I live and work, we are gearing up for our national elections, which will be held in early November. By the time this issue is published, the elections will be over and we will know the outcome. As I reflect on this election season, I am struck by the fact that food themes have been curiously absent. In the U.S., presidential candidates and other political leaders have long been connected to particular foods and food issues, as if those foods conveyed a particular set of qualities or values associated with those individuals. In the 1928 presidential elections, a local chapter of the Republican Party published an advertisement in The New York Times endorsing Herbert Hoover, promising that a Hoover presidency would ensure not just “a chicken in every pot,” but “a car in every backyard, to boot.” After Hoover won the presidency, rival campaigns during the 1932 presidential campaign held him accountable for not following through on this promise. Promises of food as a path to prosperity and social justice continued to color American presidential campaigns, with John F. Kennedy promoting a food stamp program that he then initiated after he was elected. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, subsequently pushed the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that made the food stamp program permanent. Johnson has since been credited with introducing measures to expand governmental programs to provide food assistance to low-income families, especially children.

Personal food preferences have also been part of presidential campaigns, as candidates have been associated with individual foods and observers have sought to link those foods to ideas about the character and personality of the candidates. President Jimmy Carter’s Southern heritage was associated with peanuts, whereas President Ronald Reagan was often remembered for his preference for jelly beans, a candy. President George H.W. Bush was remembered more for the food he disliked—broccoli—a dislike with which many Americans identified, particularly in a moment when debates about legislating health and healthy eating represented larger concerns with personal choice versus the intrusion of the “nanny state” in citizens’ ordinary lives.

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Consumer Citizenship: A Preview of the Gastronomica/SOAS Distinguished Lecture | Amita Baviskar

Since 2014, Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies has partnered with University of London’s SOAS Food Studies Centre to co-sponsor a Distinguished Lecture Series 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, and emerging trends in food studies.


Maggi_masala_noodles (1)Across northern India, roadside stalls and restaurants announce themselves as ‘Maggi Point’ and ‘Maggi Corner.’ Maggi, a brand of instant noodles introduced in the late 1980s, is now not only a popular snack, but the favorite comfort food of an entire generation of young urban Indians. What is the secret of Maggi’s success? And what does it tell us about taste and desire in the heart of a consumer economy in a deeply unequal society?

I began noticing products like Maggi noodles when they first appeared in village shops. Surely the novelty of splurging on these brightly packaged bits of junk must be limited to the well-off few, I wondered. However, such products were soon crowding each other on grocery shelves. What I was witnessing was part of an explosion in the consumption of industrial foods, as Jack Goody called mass-manufactured edible commodities produced and distributed by corporate firms.

256px-Maggi_GorengMy growing interest in the life of industrial foods has led me to students and migrant squatter settlements, street vendors and supermarkets, advertising companies and processing plants, television studios and government offices as I follow the threads of how instant noodles are produced, distributed and consumed. At first glance, this seemed to be a familiar story about the commodification of diets in an era of economic liberalization. Soon, however, I came to realize that it was also about citizenship, about poor and low-caste people who continue to be denied social and economic rights striving for respect and dignity. The success of instant noodles is partly sparked by their aspiration to belong to a nation increasingly defined by the consumption of fetishized commodities.

Instant noodles also compel us to look more closely at youth and how their tastes dictate food practices within households, overturning the standard narrative about Indian families, age, and patriarchal power. This simmering broth of social relations which industrial foods add to and transform is a critical part of India’s cultural landscape. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to a subject that concerns public policy on nutrition and health.

 

IMG_1419Amita Baviskar is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.  She studies the cultural politics of environment and development in rural and urban India. Her current research looks at food practices and the transformation of agrarian environments in western India. Baviskar has taught at the University of Delhi, and has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, Cornell, Yale, SciencesPo and the University of California at Berkeley. She was awarded the 2005 Malcolm Adiseshiah Award for Distinguished Contributions to Development Studies, the 2008 VKRV Rao Prize for Social Science Research, and the 2010 Infosys Prize for Social Sciences.

 

 


The SOAS Food Studies Centre is an interdisciplinary centre dedicated to the study of the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of food, historically and in the contemporary moment, from production, to exchange, to preparation, to consumption. The Centre’s primary purposes are to promote research and teaching in the field of food studies at SOAS and to facilitate links between SOAS and other individuals and institutions with an academic interest in food studies.


Image credits: Maggi Masala noodles by Sixth6sense – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40729391; Magi Goreng noodles, as served at Restoran Khaleel, Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia By amrufm [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: An interview with Seth Holmes | Julie Guthman

from Gastronomica 14:1

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States describes the physical pain and emotional suffering that Triqui migrant workers routinely face during their work in the West Coast berry fields – suffering that is made endemic by racialized work hierarchies and often dismissed by medical professionals. Holmes’s deep ethnographic account is vivid and lucid in its telling, and leaves the reader with a strong emotional impression.

***

First, let me congratulate you for writing a very engaging and informative book. How did you first come to this project, and what compelled you to write this book in the way you did?

Fresh FruitSeveral of my long-standing interests came together in this project. First, I have been interested in the relationship between the United States and Latin America in terms of economics, culture, poverty, development, and immigration. Second, I have been interested in understanding the place of indigenous or native people in our world. Third, I have been interested in our food system and our relationship to the land, what goes into the production and harvesting of our food, especially the fresh fruit and vegetables celebrated by the contemporary food movement and our health system. Fourth, I wanted to better explore the ways in which physicians and nurses understand health, illness, and social difference.

I wrote the book in such a way as to invite the reader into the narrative and the experiences. I wanted the reader to be able to imagine being alongside me during the border crossing so that they might be more interested in thinking through the inputs into that dangerous experience and the implications of it for so many people. I wanted to counteract the way in which most media coverage and policy debates around immigration focus on blanket statements about “immigrants do this” or “immigrants deserve or don’t deserve that.” I hoped I could convey enough about individual human beings who are migrating that the reader might become invested in understanding their realities and no longer take for granted the general stereotypes we often hear.

People have referred to you as the “new” Paul Farmer. Has he been an inspiration for you and why? Who else has inspired your work?

During my sophomore and junior years of college in the mid-1990s, I did a handful of “informational interviews” of people with interesting careers as I decided what to pursue next. Paul spoke with me over the phone one night after he took care of patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. That night and over the years of interacting at conferences and even team teaching a course together, I have been impressed with the ways he seeks to bring together a strong appetite for reading, an interest in thinking critically about health and economics, a commitment to a structural vision of social justice, and a desire and ability to work toward improved medical care on individual and systems levels. In the end, I decided to pursue an MD and a PhD in anthropology and, later, a relatively public engagement with social and health inequalities.

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The High Cost of Food | Darra Goldstein

from Gastronomica 8:1

Lately I’ve been hearing dire economic forecasts about a slide into recession, with the sharp rise in us food and oil prices of special concern. I understand economic misery and am not going to suggest that we would all be better off paying more for our oil and for our food—or am I? The more we pay for oil, the less we’ll use. Or is that logic too simplistic, given our ingrained driving habits and desires? I’ll leave that determination to the energy pundits, but I do want to raise my voice in favor of higher food prices.

Like many others, I worry about the accessibility of food to all who are struggling. But I worry just as much about a nation that feeds itself so poorly that the population ends up malnourished. The low cost of non-nutritious food in the United States is ultimately hurting people, particularly the disadvantaged, more than it is helping them.

Whenever I go to Europe, I’m struck by the radical differences in our attitudes towards food. There, people pay for food that is good. Quality is important to them. They recognize and value the labor that goes into farming and gathering and producing; they understand that they get what they pay for in terms of both taste and nutritional value. The problem is not that we can’t find excellent food here in the us, but that as a nation we have been schooled to believe that food should not cost very much. Cheap is good. Fast and cheap is even better. Thus the wholesome, more nutritious stuff ends up in fancy stores beyond the pocketbooks of most consumers, who are left to buy ever more highly processed foods—now often labeled as “organic” or containing added nutrients as “functional foods” to make up for their lack of natural goodness (see Gyorgy Scrinis’s article on “nutritionism” inside this issue).

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Weighing In | Darra Goldstein

from Gastronomica 5:2

The dentist’s office is always a good place to keep up with popular culture. On a recent visit I found myself caught up in a magazine article offering readers nineteen secrets for staying slim and trim. Eggs are back on the list of healthy foods, no longer the anathema they were in the not-too-distant past. Indeed, the diet pundit advised that “if it ain’t yolk, don’t fix it”—choose eggs over bagels for a protein punch that will carry you through the day without noshing. Sensible enough, I thought, if you don’t overdo the cholesterol later on. But the next piece of advice really alarmed me. Apparently “familiarity breeds content” (as in satisfaction), and if we want to overcome the urge to indulge we must eat the same plain thing for lunch every day. Now that, to me, is a grim prospect, worthy of Cotton Mather. The article states, “Too much variety in meals can lead you to keep eating to experience the taste, not to satisfy the hunger.” But isn’t that the point, to taste our food? Once our basic needs are met, the quest for flavor is what it’s all about, which is why a single dark chocolate truffle will do more to satisfy hunger than a boxful of artificially flavored dessert cakes. Flavor is also the secret behind the “French paradox”—the French don’t feel the need to eat as much because what they do eat tastes so good.

Everywhere we turn these days we see conflicting advice about how to stay healthy and get slimmer. The usda has just weighed in with its own revised dietary recommendations in a new food pyramid that is squatter than ever and that makes a healthy lifestyle seem even more elusive. Last August in these pages Amy Bentley looked at the Atkins Diet. Two essays in this issue of Gastronomica continue to explore the way Americans eat. Rebecca Epstein examines contemporary American fast-food culture as seen through the cinematic lens in Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me and Jessica Eisner’s Muffin Man. But, as Nancy Pick’s essay on Edward Hitchcock shows, our national obsession with food is nothing new. Pick offers a charming look at the dyspepsia that plagued many nineteenth-century eaters, and how Edward Hitchcock, one of America’s leading naturalists, railed against immoderate eating and drinking, the cause of “the premature prostration and early decay of students and professional men.” As an indication of just how much times (and food fashions) have changed, Hitchcock considered green tea a poison, an unnaturally stimulating beverage. Today, of course, green tea is seen as just the opposite, a drink that not only calms but contains cancer-preventing antioxidants. Food fads, in other words, come and go. Other nineteenth-century dietary proselytizers included John Harvey Kellogg, who advocated for a vegetarian diet, and James Salisbury, who preached the opposite. (Unfortunately, cafeteria-style Salisbury Steak is still with us today.)



Subsequent generations generally view the dietary prescriptions of the past with tolerant humor. Just imagine how society will view our embrace of Atkins and other low-carb diets in a hundred years. Woody Allen was on to something in his 1973 film Sleeper when he created Miles Monroe, the cryogenically frozen owner of the Happy Carrot Health Food Store, who wakes up two hundred years in the future to find everyone happily eating fast food, smoking cigarettes, and drinking plenty of booze. These denizens of the future laugh at what they consider the primitive twentieth-century notion of “health food”; they are so much more knowledgeable now! Allen’s wonderful send-up reminds us that even good, healthy food fads have limitations. In the end, the real secret formula for a healthy life is most likely contained in one simple prescription. It’s called moderation.