Disruptive Foods and Unsettled Stomachs

By Melissa L. Caldwell, Editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies.

This guest post is published on the occasion of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.

A trainee moves pig excrement to the back of the stall. From “Waste, Incorporated,” Gastronomica 15:4, Winter 2015. Photograph by Chika Watanabe © 2010

When it comes to food, “making the familiar strange” is not necessarily an idea that sits well with many people. More commonly it is food’s familiarity that is privileged. Comfort food, heritage food, food safety, food justice—these are all ways of thinking about the comforting and stabilizing qualities of food. Food is meant to sustain communities, neighborhoods, families, and traditions. But yet part of food’s power is precisely its capacity to be disruptive—to upend our expectations, whether that is through novel combinations of ingredients, changes in forms of production and presentation, or even the reworking of sensory perceptions.

I have been thinking a lot about the disruptive potential of food recently. Certainly in Silicon Valley where I live, new technologies are changing how food is produced, distributed, and consumed. Digital technologies are radically transforming the social experience of shopping and dining, so that consumers can use apps to shop for food and meals that get delivered to their homes or tables without a single moment of human contact. Alternatively social networking platforms allow solo diners to eat communally in real-time with family and friends around the world. I regularly see my students find a quiet place in the cafeteria where they can Skype their loved ones while eating their lunches. These new technologies are even changing the nature of food itself, with experimental techniques breaking down the conventional structures of foods and creating new synthetic and natural food products: we have moved beyond food in a pill and Tofurkey to in vitro meat and many other alternative forms of protein.

But more intriguing are other types of disruption made possible by food. One question that I have found especially provocative is how to rethink terroir, or the taste of place. A recent project at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy created egg foams that captured the unique smog configurations in particular locations. In so doing, they challenged tasters to think about whether one could taste place beyond the soil and things that grow in the soil—in this case, a taste of place in the air.

From a different angle, anthropologist Chika Watanabe has raised the provocative question about what happens with a truly sustainable form of agriculture in which farmers recycle their own waste and use it as the fertilizer in which their food is grown. In this case, terroir becomes a taste of the person in a particular place, as well as a taste of place as rendered through a particular person.

Thus even as food can be familiar and comforting, it can also unsettle our expectations and prompt us to rethink fundamental questions and experiences, which in turn push us in new directions and explorations.


Melissa L. Caldwell is Professor or Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz, Editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies and Ethical Eating in the Postsocialist and Socialist World, and author of Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside and Not by Bread Alone: Social Support in the New Russia.