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.
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.
My 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.
Amita 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.
Mobile foods have proved to be intriguing points of departure for food scholars and food enthusiasts alike. Mobile foods are at the core of concerns about the impact of global processes, especially when multinational food corporations appear to resemble neo-imperial political and economic forces that are bent on invading and conquering new markets around the world. Mobile foods also offer sensory, emotional, and symbolic comfort for diasporic communities who are searching for a familiar sense of home. For health and environmental activists, meanwhile, traveling foods can represent the dangers of the global food system on individual bodies and landscapes. At the same time, foods and food cultures that are firmly rooted in place are just as provocative. Both local traditions and national economies are made possible by foods that are firmly embedded within ecosystems that are simultaneously cultural and environmental. Foods from particular locations provide the structuring parameters for identities and experiences. And for persons who travel—both actual and virtual tourists—foods offer a taste of other places, cultures, and times. Both the movement and emplacement of foods and food cultures open up possibilities for thinking about the nature of circulation, the conditions under which circulation does or does not happen, and the values and meanings attached to circulation.
What happens to “local” and “authentic” when Russian borscht travels to Asia as an American industrial food?
Abstract: Crop wild relatives, the progenitors and kin of domesticated crop species, promise breeders a potent weapon against climate change. Having evolved outside the pampered environs of farms, wild relatives tend to be more rugged to survive temperature, salt, floods, and drought—all the extremes characteristic of a warming planet. But who will benefit from re-wilded crops? What kinds of agricultural systems will they tend to support? And can wild relatives be protected before they are lost under pavement, desertification, and expanding industrial farms? In this essay, I explore different visions of conservation and use for crop wild relatives. With CWR valued at an estimated $115–120 billion to the global economy annually, many researchers suggest ancient germplasm can be harnessed to feed billions in a warming world. Others look more closely at ancient customs and farmer knowledge that have long promoted conservation of wild species within and around cultivated landscapes. By intentionally planting crops at field borders, farmers also perform “in vivo” breeding. I conclude that wild relatives hold much potential to reinfuse diversity into eroded crop gene pools, providing greater systemic resilience. But unless we consider who controls seeds, intellectual property, and wild and agricultural lands, CWR innovations will only prop up an agriculture that ultimately undercuts crop and wild relative renewal.
Not long ago, Native Seed Search, a Tucson-based organization dedicated to preserving indigenous crop varieties, was approached by representatives from Monsanto. Did Native Seed have any samples of teosinte they were willing to sell? The wild ancestor from which domesticated corn was bred, teosinte is scarcely recognizable as a kin of modern corn, the latter with its multiple rows of kernels, plump and sweet. Yet it is in the genes of this wild relative – and those of all the world’s major crop species – that modern plant breeders are eager to find a potent weapon against climate change.
Having evolved outside the pampered habitat of a farm, wild relatives are hardier than most domesticated species. Their traits, say researchers, could potentially be bred or engineered into crops to produce climate-hardy varieties. If you have not yet heard that “weeds will feed the world,” you soon will.
But who will benefit from such wild relative improvements? What kinds of agricultural systems will they go to support? And how to stanch the loss of wild relatives due to climate change, urbanization, deforestation, pollution – and industrialized agriculture itself?
With such questions still waiting to be satisfyingly addressed, much wild relative work is already underway. Scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture are looking to red rice, a weedy relative of domesticated rice (genus Oryza), for genes that could make commercially grown varieties more heat-resistant, adapted to saltier soils, and higher yielding even under the driest conditions (Palmer 2014). Other USDA researchers are crossing the countryside in search of wild relatives of sunflower (Helianthus), one of the few domesticated plants native to North America (Harvey 2015). Similar research at CIMMYT in Mexico, the cradle of Green Revolution research, focuses on relatives of wheat (Triticum), with advances in drought- and heat-resistant traits already resulting in edible grain.
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.
On December 11, 2014, James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and founding director of the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University, gave a Distinguished Lecture in the Food Studies Centre at SOAS, University of London (co-organized by the Agrarian Change and Development Research Cluster at SOAS). Lectures in this series are co-sponsored by Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. On the following day, Scott answered questions put to him by Harry G. West, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Food Studies Centre; Celia Plender, doctoral student in anthropology; and other SOAS students.
For decades, Scott has been a key figure in Southeast Asian Studies and in the comparative study of agrarian societies and peasant politics. His best-known works examine the state, hegemony, revolution, resistance, and anarchism, and include The Moral Economy of the Peasant (Yale University Press, 1976), Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1980), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998), and The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2008).
In this session, Scott reflects on his intellectual precursors and his place in the landscape of academic disciplines; the significance of food and agriculture in his work; the tenuous future of peasant agriculture and agrarian societies; globalization and the rise of corporate agriculture and the food industries; poverty and the struggle for justice; and his own experiences with farming and farm land conservation.
JAMES C. SCOTT [JS]
HARRY G. WEST [HW]
CELIA PLENDER [CP]
Jim, what drew you to “agrarian studies”—specifically with a focus on the peasantry and its relationship with the state—and what drew you to Southeast Asia? Is there a backstory that you can share with us that gives us a sense of this emergent intellectual agenda?
I stumbled into Southeast Asia. I had bungled my honors thesis as an undergraduate, my professor dismissed me, and if I wanted an honors degree, I had to find someone who would adopt me. I was an economics major and someone said, well, I think I’d like to understand more about the economic development of Burma and if you do this I will adopt you as an honors student. And I said fine, and then when I closed the door behind his office I said to myself, where’s Burma? I got a Rotary Fellowship to go to Burma and one thing led to another and I became a Southeast Asianist. As far as agrarian studies is concerned, that’s actually a simpler story and maybe typical of my generation. I started to teach as a Southeast Asianist during the middle of the Vietnam War and the expansion of the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin. The university had a long progressive tradition, which was one reason why I took a job there. The fall of 1967 when I arrived to begin teaching there were the so-called “Dow Riots” protesting the war and the manufacture and use of napalm ordnance by Dow as well as the contract research for the Department of Defense conducted on campus. These riots convulsed the campus and coincided with a strike by teaching assistants to secure unionization rights. The police responded badly and a good many students were beaten and arrested. The turmoil led to a series of all-faculty meetings in which I took an active part, speaking against the war and for the rights of the protestors. As a budding Southeast Asianist I spent a good deal of the following two years speaking against the war in Wisconsin and elsewhere. I became interested in peasant rebellion—understanding the Viet Cong and how peasant rebellions happened. I taught a course on peasant rebellion with a China specialist friend, Edward Friedman, and in those days we had 400, 500 students in the class who were fighting for the microphone to denounce us as insufficiently progressive. Finally I decided that since peasants were the largest segment of the world’s population, it would be an honorable and worthy career to devote my life to the study of peasants and agriculture. So when I finally went to Yale, we began something called the Program in Agrarian Studies and it brought together all those people who were interested in rural life generally: land tenure, agriculture, now food and environment. For me it was a wonderful interdisciplinary community in which I learned a tremendous amount. I think of the book Seeing Like a State as the book that agrarian studies helped me write, just by attending all of the seminars that we had—including ones which Harry presented.