For our fourth series of podcasts produced in collaboration with Meant to Be Eaten on Heritage Radio Network, we sit down (virtually) with authors who have contributed to our upcoming first issue of 2021, which continues to feature COVID-19 Dispatches, but also original research articles around the themes of the relationship between food, power and politics, cultivating relationships, and sustaining memories.
For this episode, Editorial Collective member Jaclyn Rohel is joined by Alyshia Gálvez, who explores the work of transnational food couriers known as paqueteros and paqueteras in her forthcoming article, “Paqueteros and Paqueteras: Humanizing a Dehumanized Food System.” These informal grassroots entrepreneurs connect people and places across international borders through the delivery of goods, care packages, and specialty and traditional foods. Drawing on ethnographic research of micro-local foodways in Mexico (Puebla) and the United States (New York) and the connections between them, Gálvez discusses how informal food couriers humanize an increasingly industrialized food system in the post-NAFTA landscape.
*Please note that around the 10-min mark, Professor Gálvez mentions having been asked by federal attorneys to serve as an expert witness, while she meant to say that she had been approached by public defenders in that capacity.
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.
Retro food stands invoking 1950s and 1960s Moscow offer hot corn on the cob, drinks, and ice cream to passersby enjoying Moscow’s City Day along Tverskaya ulitsa.
I am writing this letter from Moscow, where I am spending a few days visiting friends. I was eager to return after a year away, not simply to catch up with loved ones but also to find out what was happening with Russia’s food scene following the bans on foreign food products that were instituted last summer and the recent reports about fake foods and the destruction of contraband food imports.
I arrived on the eve of Moscow’s City Day celebrations, and discovered that the anniversary themes focused on the city’s history as told through cultural, artistic, and technological innovations. For a city celebrating its 868th year, that is a lot of history and innovations, and much of that lengthy span was held together by placing a special emphasis on food in Russia’s capital city: the “Capital City Gastronomic Festival.” Neighborhoods all around Moscow were organized around subthemes that evoke the historical contexts of those particular regions: “National Supper” in the region closest to the federal and city government buildings; “Soviet Dinner” just outside Red Square and the Kremlin; “Farmers’ Dinner” in a square that was once a farmers’ market; “Theater Buffet” in one of the oldest neighborhoods with numerous theaters and the celebrated theater university; and “Literary Dinner” in the square ringed by the major newspaper and book publishing houses. At the center of each designated neighborhood was a cluster of food stalls, each decorated to look like peasant cottages and promoting regional food specialties, stages for musical performances, and organized activities reflecting the neighborhood’s assigned subthemes. In the “Literary Dinner” neighborhood, for instance, visitors sampled local food treats while receiving free issues and other goodies from the many Moscow-based newspapers and publishers. The focus was on both Eating Locally and Reading Locally. Along Tverskaya Ulitsa, the main boulevard that leads to Red Square and the Kremlin, visitors walked through the centuries of Moscow’s past and not only saw but had the opportunity to taste foods from “the past”—including cafeteria-style foods sold from a Soviet-era stolovaya (cafeteria).
Moscow’s focus on food, and on local food, whether rendered as regional, historic, or national, is apparent elsewhere in the city, most notably in an explicit aesthetic of nostalgia. Ice cream carts and beverage vending machines from the 1950s and 1960s have taken up residence in food courts and along busy city streets. Food shop clerks are dressed in the blue-and-white aprons and hats that were more common during the socialist and early postsocialist eras in state-run stores. And noticeable among the Russian food products on store shelves is a return to Soviet-era packaging styles.
What are we to make of this? On the one hand, this effort can be seen as a glorification of food patriotism and food nationalism, a topic that is near and dear to my heart and that I have discussed before. On the other hand, it is important to remember that what seems to be very political can also be quite personal. It is equally possible that these food events are as much about familiarity and comfort, or even irony, as they are about making an international political statement. Foods contain and convey messages at multiple levels and to multiple audiences, and those messages may change according to the historical and cultural context or even with regard to how a particular audience receives and decodes them. For me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of food studies: food makes us think and makes us question. Food is knowledge, and knowledge can be food. As one of Moscow’s bookstores put it in an advertisement in their window this week: “Books are pizza for the brain.” Perhaps by extension, pizza—or any other food—can be a book for the stomach.
Moscow residents celebrate Moscow’s City Day at the “Literary Dinner” square located at Tverskaya metro station, right in the center of the central media and publishing house district.
A 1950s/1960s–themed beverage cart offering flavored waters sits nestled alongside a hot food stand offering fajitas (fakhitas) and American-style barbeque.
It is this power of food to provoke, to inspire, to communicate, and to satiate that runs through the contributions to this issue of Gastronomica. These are, in many ways, eclectic pieces that touch on very diverse topics. As editor, I hope that every issue’s contributions are meaty and stimulating, but there is something about this particular issue and the diversity of topics and viewpoints that I have found especially thought-provoking. In various ways, each of the contributions has raised critical issues and questions that have challenged me to think differently. It is truly a literary feast.
Hungry Moscow residents grab a quick bite to eat in a Soviet-style cafeteria. Traditional cafeterias like these have quietly disappeared in Moscow as they have been replaced by sit-down restaurants and cafés.
The first piece is, naturally enough, pizza-related. Zachary Nowak presents a lively and detailed interview with Antonio Mattozzi about his recent book, Inventing the Pizzeria. Their conversation is not so much about a book as it is a history of a family and a culinary tradition that invites us to reconsider what we believe we know about pizza and family businesses. This interview is followed by a series of research briefs that raise new questions and offer new directions of research for food. Chika Watanabe’s essay on waste and philosophies of circulation forces us to think seriously about what a truly sustainable system of local agriculture might look like and whether consumers would be comfortable with their personal roles in sustainability initiatives. Watanabe also opens up possibilities for rethinking terroir and taste of place: when we take waste seriously, can we also talk about a “taste of person”? Anna Harris continues this thread of productive discomfort by suggesting that there are sensory deficits in approaching food through taste, smell, touch, and vision; and she asks what happens if we consider the sounds of food and food work. While sound has been important for food manufacturers in terms of how they design products, it has so far evaded critical inquiry among scholars and even ordinary consumers. Harris provides an entry point for thinking about a fuller sensory spectrum and the implications of paying attention to the sounds our food makes.
In their essays, Levi Van Sant and Ernesto Hernández-López tackle the political dimensions of the sensory qualities of food. For Hernández-López, it is about the legal, social, and cultural implications of the problems faced by the California-based company that makes Sriracha, the popular hot sauce, when local residents complained about the fumes believed to emanate from the factory, and by extension presented a political critique of the people associated with those sensory experiences. Van Sant takes on an equally charged topic by considering the racial politics contained within a culinary tradition constructed as part of a unique heritage culture: that of Lowcountry cuisine in South Carolina. By looking at constructions of heritage, taste, race, and class across popular cookbooks, Van Sant critically examines how tastes are deeply embedded in experiences of race and class. What makes this piece especially powerful is that the setting at the heart of Van Sant’s essay is Charleston, the site of recent horrific events that have laid bare some of the very issues that Van Sant explores.
The research essays continue this emphasis on provoking challenging and even difficult conversations. In the first research essay, Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón curates a conversation among a group of women chefs and food researchers about the experience and value of food work by Black women. From different perspectives and vantage points—some as scholars and some as professional chefs—the contributors to this conversation discuss important issues about how labor, expertise, authority, and voice in the food world are directly shaped by political systems of race and gender. This is an inspiring essay that nonetheless reminds us of the pervasive inequalities that continue to shape professional food work both inside and outside the academy.
In her essay, Tracy Bilsing brings a different perspective on gender and politics by introducing previously little-known work by Katherine Mansfield in which she reflects on the Great War. Bilsing not only provides a critical historical service by uncovering Mansfield’s less familiar work, but she also challenges us to reconsider the relationship between food and war and how these relationships are presented in different literary mediums.
Resituating history and heritage is also central to Gina Hunter’s essay on galeterias in Brazil. By discussing the resurgence of Italian-Brazilian culinary heritage as both a contemporary reworking of Italian immigration to Brazil and an outgrowth of culinary tourism, Hunter opens up new directions for thinking about how ethnic identities and histories are mobilized at different moments and for different cultural and economic purposes.
Moscow pedestrians enjoy the “Capital Breakfast” themed square, decorated with carts filled with pumpkins for autumn.
Emma McDonell asks the provocative question of how certain foods become “miracle foods”—or those foods that are valorized for their potential to save a community, a heritage, a society. In this case, McDonell considers how particular foods have, at different moments, been promoted through global development initiatives to prevent hunger or malnutrition but have ultimately failed. She focuses specifically on the development politics of quinoa and the tensions that play out between global development actors (both scientists and politicians) and local farmers and consumers.
Lastly, the creative reflections in this issue engage thoughtfully with questions and issues raised in the essays by turning more personal and contemplative, but in ways that are more attuned to the bodily and the sensory. Fa-Tai Shieh muses on how and what we think about the foods that we put into our mouths and bodies. Taking this question about ingestion further, Kiran Bhushi describes the experience of spending time at an Ayurveda Hospital in India and a personal realignment with the sensory attributes of food. Daniel Press takes issue with the perceptions implicit and explicit in the wine industry and shows how the power of suggestion and presentation directly influence sensory experiences and evaluations.
I invite you to come join me in this movable feast by journeying through time, space, and multiple sensory registers.
Happy 2015. We at Gastronomica hope that your new year has gotten off to a good start and that you are ready for another series of insightful articles and inspiring images about the world of food. I am especially pleased that this first issue of 2015 features the inaugural Distinguished Lecture sponsored by our partnership with the University of London’s SOAS Food Studies Centre. In November 2014, famed chef Yotam Ottolenghi delivered a riveting lecture on tradition and identity in Jerusalem. The lecture was accompanied by a delicious goodie-box dinner made in one of his London kitchens—and that I enjoyed in Heathrow, while waiting for the plane back to San Francisco, blissfully indulging in the treats while my fellow passengers were forced to make do with airport food. As we experienced during his lecture and through the goodie box, Chef Ottolenghi’s style is inspired both by his Middle Eastern upbringing and by creative influences from around the world. Through words and images, and the flavors of his food, Chef Ottolenghi invited his audience to travel with him to Jerusalem and experience a city of richly diverse cultures and histories. It was a thought-provoking lecture that upended stereotypes and encouraged respectful discussion and debate about the nature of heritage, tradition, and identity in contested spaces. It also served as the illustrious launching of the SOAS/Gastronomica Distinguished Lecture series, and I hope that you find his essay here as engrossing and thoughtful as we did.
Chef Ottolenghi’s call for more nuanced and complex understandings of food, tradition, and identity nicely leads into the other articles in this issue, beginning with careful studies by India Mandelkern and A.R. Ruis on the role of food in therapeutic practices. In her deep history of therapeutic gustation, Mandelkern documents how beliefs about health relate to long-standing concerns over the curative properties of certain tastes. Taking a different but equally revealing approach, Ruis shows how cultural beliefs about the pomegranate have informed medicinal recommendations and uses. Lara Anderson, Heather Merle Benbow, and Naa Ako-Adjei, meanwhile, present intriguing accounts of how identity and heritage can be reified and commodified, often in ways that disassociate foods from their actual origins and uses. In their article on Australian food cultures, Anderson and Benbow critically examine how the contradictions between Australia’s cultural ethos of multiculturalism and a striking culinary xenophobia in public discourse provide insights into domestic debates about immigration. Ako-Adjei also turns her attention to public and media representations of culinary heritage and shows how Americans misunderstand and misrecognize African foods and culinary traditions. Particularly intriguing are the limits of gastronomic journalism and the complicity of food writers in obscuring the richness and diversity of African cuisines.
Finally, the photoessay by David Bacon and creative reflections by Zachary Nowak, John Grossmann, Grace M. Cho, Rebecca Dimyan, and Jeff DeBellis each encourage thoughtful discussions about the pleasures and displeasures of food and food work, whether it is the physical labor of planting, tilling, fishing, picking, and preparing food, the emotional and psychological labors that food work provokes or alleviates, or even the politically charged inspirations and consequences of food work. In each case, these contributors shed light on the multiple and shifting layers of the activities that bring food to the table.
In closing, I want to remember Sheila Levine, former Editorial Director for the University of California Press, who passed away in September. Sheila was instrumental in working with former Gastronomica editor Darra Goldstein to create and shape both Gastronomica and the Food Studies list at the University of California Press. Sheila’s influence is clearly everywhere in the field of Food Studies. More personally, Sheila was my editor and mentor, as well as a dear friend. I will miss her greatly, and I hope that the journal will continue to honor her memory.
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?
Several 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.