Is there such a thing as a perfect food? A perfect meal? A perfect dining experience? And if so, what would it be like? Would it be a dream come true, would it exceed expectations, or would it be a disappointment because the reality could not match the desire?
For something that ultimately satisfies the most basic of biological needs, food has a curious relationship to notions of perfection, most notably beliefs about what constitutes an ideal or even perfect world. For far too many people around the world struggling with food insecurity, it is basic access to food and water that would be the ideal. For those with stable access to foods, however, often ideals of perfection are expressed through differential values associated with particular foods or the ways in which foods are produced, presented, and consumed.
Food’s place within utopian visions was the theme of the 21st Symposium of Australian Gastronomy, which was held in Melbourne in early December 2016. Food scholars, writers, practitioners, and gastronomes of all sorts gathered from around the world to discuss and experiment with different visions of what might constitute a food utopia. Inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia, published five hundred years ago, symposium participants drew connections between More’s idealistic visions with those of other utopian thinkers and activists, such as Charles Fourier’s ideas about gastrosophy, Soviet-era socialist planners who imagined possibilities for liberation through communal dining, NASA scientists who dreamed of what farms and gardens might look like in space colonies of the future, and even contemporary scientists working in the fields of synthetic biology and hospitality management to create new technologically perfect foods and food experiences. Yet despite the prevailing sentiment of progress and improvement embedded in many utopian dreams, the realities are often far from ideal, and may, in fact, introduce new problems—a reminder compellingly presented by Darra Goldstein, the founder and previous editor of Gastronomica, in her brilliant keynote lecture about the myths of abundance promised by early Soviet politicians and socialist activists.
It has become commonplace to think of food in terms of rights, including the right to access basic sustenance, the right to healthy food, and the right to culturally appropriate food. This idea that access to food is a right has been enshrined in the policies of many governments and organizations, ranging from the Constitution of the USSR and US-based programs such as federal food stamps and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) to the European Union’s Agricultural Policy and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) and its Millennium Development Goals. In each case, the focus on rights to food illuminates ideals about the proper and necessary relationships between states and individuals. In some cases, the emphasis is on the proper actions of states to ensure the health and well-being of individuals, while in others, the emphasis is on the proper behavior of individuals as a condition of accessing food.
This emphasis on proper behavior and proper relationships illuminates another aspect of food: rites. Food and food practices are never neutral but always shaped by rules, values, and cultural logics. Thus to turn food into a right requires following particular rules for what kinds of food are possible, how they are distributed and consumed, and how different actors in the relationship behave. It is by following these rules that food is transformed into something more: a marker of humanity, a facet of citizenship, an incentive or barrier to foreign policy negotiations, or even a solution to global problems. In many ways, this shift from rights to rites reminds us that all food-related activities are performative.
In different ways, the contributors to this issue of Gastronomica are exploring rites and rituals to think through the cultural systems of rules that shape food use. In some cases, the rites and rituals are explicit, such as in the essay by Gary Fine and Christine Simonian Bean on the significance of banquets in American political activity, most notably the partisan nature of food and meals for political campaigns. In his essay on Japanese gastronomy, Scott Haas describes how Japanese chefs seek to educate diners about the uniquely Japanese qualities of this cuisine by illuminating culinary rules and the rationale—the cultural logic—behind these rules. In both essays, national identities become politicized through specific rules and rituals governing food.
Yet food rituals are never static, but always dynamic and in formation, as the essays by Joe Weintraub and Maryann Tebben demonstrate. Focusing on how French culinary practices have come into existence over time, Joe Weintraub uses the writings of nineteenth-century French food critic Eugène-Vincent Briffault to consider the invention of dinner as a social and culinary event. Taking on an even narrower category within the French culinary repertoire, Maryann Tebben examines how the French dessert course was transformed from being a fully edible entity in the seventeenth century to an aesthetic object in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then to its current form as an object that conveys multiple symbolic messages.
A subtheme running through all of the essays is the tension between practice and discourse: what people do versus what they say or write. In some cases, the rules of rituals are more apparent in discourse because there is a form of documentation. Yet the rules embodied by nonverbal practices are no less real or legible. Legibility in different registers is at the heart of Dylan Gottlieb’s essay on a very contemporary, dynamic, and mobile form of food criticism: the use of Yelp and other forms of social media to evaluate and communicate food experiences. Although the social media format of consumers’ personal accounts of their food and dining encounters suggests a more democratic, even anarchic, form of communication, Yelp reviews are public performances that are highly scripted in the types of information that are presented, the audiences that are anticipated, and the qualities that are evaluated. Social media simply creates a new stage for the enactment of food rituals.
These themes of rites, rules, and performance are critically examined, unmade, and remade in the essay on food hacking by Denisa Kera, Zack Denfeld, and Cat Kramer. Employing a strategy that is part ethnographic case study, part manifesto for alternative ways to view and engage with the underlying structures and rules governing food—from the molecular to the social—Kera, Denfeld, and Kramer not only persuasively challenge prevailing assumptions about the proper ways to engage and think about food, but also offer new approaches for reimagining food.
The contributors to the creative reflections section of this issue also examine topics that remind us of the performative, ritual, rule-bound nature of food. James Nolan presents a profound conundrum familiar to anyone who has ever eaten alone in a restaurant: when is solo dining a publicly shared social experience, and when does it violate cultural norms about who is allowed to eat in a public setting. Similarly playing with questions about appropriate forms of social interaction, Brett Busang uses the case of Southern barbecue to link the micropolitics of family food rituals with larger American socioeconomic events. Through a whimsical account of finding and cooking with weeds in Australia, Tom Celebrezze asks us to think about how recipes are made, unmade, and remade through associational connections among remembered flavors, places, and people.
Finally, both Heather Richie and Corina Zappia reflect on the rules that are embedded in performative rites of identity. In Richie’s case, Cracker Barrel offers a lens for fundamental questions about what it means to be not just a Southerner or an American, but a member of a family. In Zappia’s case, the question is about how authenticity is performed and reified through food rules: namely, how does one demonstrate being authentically Filipino or even authentically Filipino-American when there is a conflict between knowing the cultural norms about the foods one should eat to demonstrate an authentic identity and the personal enjoyment of those foods. By describing an alternative set of food rules, Zappia presents a compelling case for multiple performances of authentic identity.
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.
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.