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.
An old Buddhist saying goes: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon in spring, what appeared was a hankering for pie. And, though I did not realize it at the time, the recipe I baked to satisfy my craving would teach me so much about where I came from, and where I was headed.
To be more accurate, it was a place I was craving before a pie. Italy, specifically, and the longing to be there struck me suddenly like a pang of hunger after a long run. The day was unseasonably warm for early spring, and when I felt heat stream through my Brooklyn windows and up from the kitchen tiles beneath my feet, I thought of the old kitchens from a recent vacation I had taken to Sicily. It was different from other parts of Italy I had seen—not touristy or fashionable in the least. I had loved the quaintness of it all, the fish salesmen on the street, citruses in the trees, women in housecoats spotted through windows. I remembered the strong ties I—American-born but southern-Italian on both sides—had felt to the brown-skinned locals and the dusty brown roads. And almost immediately, as we cooks do, I sought to transport myself there by way of a meal.
I could have made a number of southern Italian dishes at that moment—a braised fennel pasta like the one we had had in Palermo, traditional whole fish stuffed with lemon, a minty spring minestrone. But, for whatever reason, I felt like baking a pie.
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.