Cristina Grasseni, Utrecht University Heather Paxson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
with Jim Bingen, Michigan State University; Amy J. Cohen, Ohio State University; Susanne Freidberg, Dartmouth College; and Harry G. West, SOAS, University of London
In 1970, Margaret Mead described American popular notions of nutrition as dominated by a dichotomy between “food that was ‘good for you, but not good’” and “food that was ‘good, but not good for you’” (1970: 179). Today, that dichotomy appears increasingly old fashioned. More and more, we see people—and not only in the United States—working to align the various vectors of food’s “goodness” such that it might point the way toward an optimal diet, or to a perfect food. But what, nowadays, makes food good?
Searching beyond taste, even beyond nutrition and health benefits, the eaters who populate the articles in this issue track food’s affordability and accessibility, the authenticity of customary familiarity—even methods of production and provisioning—in evaluating food’s relative “goodness.” Political empowerment, social justice, and environmental resilience are increasingly upheld alongside flavor and skilled culinary preparation as criteria of “quality” foods. While multifaceted and translocal, this surge of popular interest in food—and especially in the ways food is manufactured, distributed, and consumed—calls out for a unified analysis, one we offer through the lens of “the reinvention of food.” Reinvention is meant here both as “rediscovery,” as in the revival of dishes and culinary techniques from generations past, and also as “renewing the foundation of,” or shoring up familiar methods and modes of food production so that they remain viable under new political, regulatory, and market regimes. Reinvention does not create things anew, sui generis; rather, it gives new form and significance to food substances, senses, and practices that may seem reflexively familiar to some, while curiously exotic to others.
In her 2007 book, Cristina Grasseni first proposed “the reinvention of food” to characterize the novel interest in local food that she observed ethnographically in the realm of alpine cheese cultures. For the upland communities of northern Italy in which Grasseni worked, refocusing economic efforts on producing local cheeses meant transforming artisanal traditions that had been tied to local seasonality and transhumance routes and reconfiguring them in light of new technologies and audit cultures. Such transformations were set in motion by recent European Union health and safety legislation, by the intensification of globalized markets and consumer interest in culinary niches, and by accelerating techno-scientific innovation in practices of cattle breeding, dairy farming, and cheesemaking (on the latter, see Grasseni 2009).1
In response to such broader transformations, local dairy producers began to recast their alpine cheeses as distinctive items of local “food heritage.” As we are seeing across the globe, they did so as a self-conscious development strategy, expecting this approach to increase economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs and to boost the economic fortune of rural communities that had been geographically and economically marginalized. In order to attract new customers and tourists, however, the cheesemakers also found they needed to mobilize marketing rhetoric and a poetics of authenticity in ways often incongruous with the actual processes of transformation reshaping their food production practices and the cultural landscapes these practices help to contour (see also West and Domingos 2012). Even so, while artisan producers and family farmers found it personally taxing to balance day-to-day production routines with demands for the performance of authenticity so pleasing to “alternative” consumers, many also found it financially rewarding (Grasseni 2011; see also Paxson 2010, 2013). Similar signs of ambivalence mixed with pragmatism, we find, characterize many local responses to global food systems.
As the parent of a three-year-old, I find myself confronted by issues around proper diet and eating habits on a regular basis. From what I have heard from friends and colleagues who are also parents of small children, picky eating is rampant among the American toddler set. It seems as if for many parents their biggest battle is getting food—of any kind—into their children. We are fortunate that our daughter has a fairly expansive taste palate, but even so, there are nights when she has no interest in eating the dinner we have prepared and tries to convince us that she should have a bowl of pretzels instead (as she has not yet mastered the fine arts of negotiation and persuasion, she always loses that battle).
Beyond our own kitchen, my family has been barraged by a never-ending stream of information and advice about what we should be feeding our daughter, both now and in the future once she begins attending elementary school. One outgrowth of the US’s concerns with childhood obesity has been that information about childhood nutrition is everywhere. Within our own community in the Bay Area of California, there have been local campaigns to ban toys from children’s meals at fast-food restaurants, add taxes to sodas and other “unhealthy” foods, and require schoolchildren to participate in garden activities as part of their educational curriculum. At the same time, there are constant messages from the media and political leaders admonishing California parents to improve our families’ diets and warning us of the dire health, social, and economic consequences of poorly nourished and overweight children and the poorly nourished and overweight adults they will surely become. A recurrent theme is that our children’s intellect and social skills will be stunted if they do not eat the proper foods. More telling is how often this advice is part of a larger cultural practice of fat shaming, which has become a national pastime in the United States, and one that is directed at children even before they can walk.
American preoccupations with diet and nutrition play out in other ways that may be less visible but just as forceful. Shopping at the grocery store might invite disdainful looks from other customers who feel emboldened to peer into your cart and inspect your choices—or even comment directly on them. Health insurance companies monitor subscribers’ medical records and send out recommendations for menus, exercise regimens, and even medications.
Above all, American concerns with diet and nutrition are coupled with a striking public moralism. Food choices are not simply correlated with concerns about health, but are also understood to represent proper forms of behavior and even citizenship. There is also a pervasive sense that it is an acceptable, perhaps even necessary, part of civic life to comment publicly on the food practices and bodies of others. My own students are not immune to this, as they eagerly participate in service projects that seek to educate low-income individuals about “healthy eating” through an indoctrination program that requires program beneficiaries to perform sweat equity in community gardens and community kitchens. What is often explicit, yet unquestioned, in such projects is the assumption that low-income individuals are both ignorant and unhealthy and that it is society’s duty to reform and heal them.
Yet what counts as “healthy” in these contexts is not necessarily an absolute, as the information regarding what types of foods are “good” changes frequently. I still remember the panic that erupted among my peers during our middle school years when a study came out claiming that peanut butter caused cancer. For us, peanut butter was a right of our American heritage, and we all swore never to relinquish that right. We were relieved to discover later that those claims had been discredited.
Concerns with nutrition and health are certainly not unique to the United States, especially in today’s world where fads and information spread quickly through social media and Internet-based news. What is curious, however, is that information about nutrition, diet, and health tends to be accepted (or discredited and ignored), with little attention given to how that information was created and promoted in the first place. In many cases, if we look more carefully at nutritional information, we find fascinating behind-the-scenes stories of scientific experiments and discoveries. In other cases, there are equally fascinating stories of moral evangelists and government officials realizing that diet and nutrition can be effective channels for cultivating particular moral, religious, and political values. In still other cases, the popularity of particular dietary and nutritional rules and practices provides revealing and sometimes unsettling insights into the values and beliefs held by the people who practice these rules, enforce them, or reject them. Above all, dietary and nutritional information matter, not simply because they provide guidelines for health and behavior, but because this information can serve as a proxy for critically important social, political, economic, and scientific debates about civic rights, responsibilities, and entitlements, personal freedoms such as free will and privacy, and legal protections and accountability, among many other issues. Clearly, nutritional and dietary information matter.
The articles in this special issue of Gastronomica take up this provocation of “what is nutrition and why does it matter?” through a series of research essays about “critical nutrition.” Representing a range of disciplinary backgrounds from the humanities, social sciences, and science and technology studies, the contributors to this special issue unpack nutritional discourses and practices in order to consider and explain these intriguing backstories. Working collaboratively at the intersections of their respective fields, the contributors investigate such topics as the historical roots of nutritional sciences in the United States, the cultural contexts in which certain scientific findings and popular knowledge about diet, nutrition, and health have been accepted and discredited, the moral valences embedded in dietary knowledge and proscriptions, and the implications of nutritional paradigms for global health projects beyond the United States. Through their respective research projects and their thoughtful debates with one another, the contributors persuasively call attention to the power of nutritionism as an ideological system itself. Ultimately, they suggest possibilities for rethinking both nutritional information and the power of nutritionist thinking.
This invitation to revisit and reconsider what we know about food and food culture is continued in the creative pieces in this issue. Sandra Gilbert and Leo Racicot offer fascinating glimpses into the personal and professional lives of two important figures in the food world: M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, respectively. With their essays, Gilbert and Racicot provide further insight into the significance of these two legends, their friendship with one another, and their contributions to food artistry. Edra Bayefsky takes us on a similar backstage journey in her illustrated essay about Toronto’s Kensington Market, as imagined and experienced through the work of artist Aba Bayefsky. Each of these three contributors provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at how these gifted artists used aesthetics to make their food worlds come alive in unexpected ways.
Ultimately, the contributions to this issue remind us that we should not always take for granted conventional wisdom about the world of food and food-related experiences. There are always other stories to be told and other possibilities to consider.
The Pig River Carries with It Two Lines from Du Fu | Peter Marcus
A Compendium of Cheeses | Reviewed by Matthew J. Rippon Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization, by Paul S. Kindstedt Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History, by Tami Parr
Reviews Roman Restaurant Rhythms (film) Directed by Michael Herzfeld, reviewed by Rachel E. Black
The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South By James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin, reviewed by Teagan Lehrmann
Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the th Century By Kyla Wazana Tompkins, reviewed by Melanie DuPuis
Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food By Allison Carruth, reviewed by Carrie Tippen
Wine and Culture: Vineyard to Glass Edited by Rachel Black and Robert C. Ulin, reviewed by Zachary Nowak
Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present Edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, reviewed by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft
The Origins and Current Legal Status of “Natural” and “Organic” Food Labels
The cook plays an important part in the nourishability of food. Meals which are lovingly prepared with a profound desire for the welfare of the eater always benefit the body and mind more than do meals which are commercially prepared, or which have been prepared by someone who is indifferent to or dislikes the proposed eater. No one should cook when in a state of indifference, agitation, sorrow or anger.
From The Hidden Secret of Ayurveda, by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda
The most famous gastronome of them all, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (1826): “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.”: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” For some, such as Adelle Davis — Time magazine characterized her as “the high priestess of a new nutrition religion” in December 1972 — the consequences of our food choices are stark: “As I see it, every day you do one of two things: build health or produce disease.”
How do we know if we are supposedly building health, rather than unwittingly producing disease by what we consume? We resolve what economists call “informational asymmetry” by relying on food labels, brands and trademarks to confirm the authenticity and quality of our foodstuffs. But making “correct” food choices can be daunting and baffling. In her groundbreaking book, What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle estimates that there are around 320,000 food and beverage products available in the United States; and that the average supermarket stocks about 30,000 to 40,000 of them. While we may not understand the true origins or makeup of what we put on our tables, most baby-boomers can tell you in a heartbeat that Rice Krispies go “snap, crackle and pop,” Lucky Charms are “magically delicious,” and Wonder Bread helps “build strong bodies in 8 ways.”
Two of the most symbolic words in food promotion nowadays are “organic” and “natural.” Generally defined, “natural” means “present in or produced by nature” and is not something “altered, treated or disguised,” but rather “faithfully represents nature or life.” “Organic,” in its most abstract sense, means “simple, healthful, and close to nature.” Both words hearken back to a pre-industrial age and share Edenic, utopian connotations. They imply a general distrust of chemical engineering and manufacturing processes. If we are what we eat, are we not closer to “nature” if we incorporate natural and organic foods into our diet? That is the compelling allure and implicit bargain of consuming organic and natural foods.