The Culinary Sphere as a Political Arena

by Nir Avieli, author of Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

In a recent talk on my book Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel during a visit to the US, I was asked whether my findings were not in contradiction with Jewish morality, and whether my text would not make for ammunition in the hands of anti-Semitic critics of Israel. For example, wasn’t my definition of the Israeli cuisine characterized by large, cheap portions of low quality resonating with the classic anti-Semitic perceptions of “the Jew” as stingy and greedy? And wasn’t my argument that the accusations by Israelis of Thai migrant workers for systematically hunting and eating Israeli pet dogs implying that Israelis were racists?

Food and Power is indeed a political project. It deals with the misuse and abuse of power in modern-day Israel, and exposes antidemocratic, xenophobic, and racist tendencies that taint the political and public arenas. In this sense, it is a stern critique of contemporary Israeli society. It is not, however, a post-Zionist or anti-Israeli project. Rather, it is a critical analysis of an extremely important cultural realm: The Israeli culinary sphere, which has not been approached thus far as a political sphere, enmeshed in power relations.

Do my findings contradict Jewish morality? While I could have argued that academics were not an authority when it comes to moral standards, I responded that there is no monolithic or agreed upon Jewish morality but, rather, multiple interpretations of what Jewish morality was, some of which can only be described as contradictory. And oddly enough, this is exactly what my findings indicate; that different people in different contexts understand and enact Jewish morality in very different ways: Eating as much as you can no matter the quality may be understood as a manifestation of greed, but also as an expression of vulnerability and fear. Accusing the Thais of eating Israeli dogs may be pure racism, but my findings suggest that this myth has emerged as a partial solution for the shame many Israelis feel regarding the employment of foreign workers in a country that cherished “Jewish labor”.

So while Food and Power approaches some of the negative features of Israeli society, including gluttony, greed, ethnocentrism, racism, patriarchal machismo, and other forms of power abuse, I have dedicated this book to my children,  hoping that the prevailing ethno-messianic and neo-liberal ideologies which have been increasingly dominant since the mid 1990’s will eventually collapse due to their essential immorality, internal contradictions, and lack of practical solutions for the problems and difficulties Israel faces.

Nir Avieli is a Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University, Israel.

Making The “Meat and Two Veg” for Sunday Dinner and Why it Matters

by Amy B. Trubek, author of Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Making Modern Meals cooking book coverThe discipline of anthropology has always paid close attention to everyday life, relying on ethnography as the method par excellence. Observations of how we live work like a microscope of the social. Anthropologists take notes on the small and telling details because each one means something, revealing our values, our perceptions, our social selves. Everyday life certainly matters. In this telling, food, for anthropologists, should be a matter par excellence: everybody eats. And to a certain extent this is true. Anthropology, of all the social science disciplines, probably contains the broadest and deepest set of fine grained studies of the complex and contradictory relationship humans have with food. Over the past ten years, a number of ethnographies have looked at the significance of special ritual meals, the meanings of an artisan product, food ways as means for social distinction and social power, the global journeys of ingredients, and more, all resulting in fascinating analyses.

But we have yet to give food its due, especially given the commitment of anthropologists to everyday life and everyday experience. What about all the processes involved in answering that mundane and necessary question addressed fifty years ago by Mary Douglas: What should we have for dinner? As David Sutton, a committed ethnographer of cooking points out, even in Douglas’s famous consideration of the British meal, in this brilliant analysis of the structure of her meal why was “no concern expressed about how the ingredients might be assembled, processed and cooked to create these dishes (“Cooking in Theory” in Anthropological Theory, 2017)?” It is tempting to focus on the finished product, the object of consumption as what matters most. But there is more to put under the microscope. There is eating Sunday dinner but there is also making it. What items must she purchase in order to create the two veg on the side? Where did she get her ingredients? How did she learn how to make that roast? Over the course of my research on everyday cooking in the United States, I realized that so much tacit knowledge stays just below the surface, buried, rarely the focus of attention. What is known but not understood is the next journey anthropologists of food should take. The tiny, the trivial, the barely conscious are in fact grand, powerful and significant. As I witnessed, while dinner gets made – and planned, and eaten, and cleaned up – so to do our social lives and social selves.

Amy Trubek author cooking Making Modern MealsAmy B. Trubek is Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession and The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir.

Holiday Research Roundup

As the holidays approach, we wanted to unwrap notable holiday-themed articles published across UC Press Journals. From the history of Christmas dinner to Chrismukkah multiculturalism, Dickensian literature to Russian holiday foods (and recipes!), we wish you happy holidays from UC Press Journals!

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Harper’s Weekly, December 1860. Source: cathy kaufman (for Gastronomica)

Chrismukkah: Millennial Multiculturalism
Samira K. Mehta
Religion and American Culture (Vol. 25 No. 1, Winter 2015)

The Ideal Christmas Dinner
cathy kaufman
Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies (Vol. 4 No. 4, Fall 2004)

Dickens and Christmas: His Framed-Tale Themes
Ruth F. Glancy
Nineteenth Century Literature (Vol. 35 No. 1, Summer 1980)

First edition frontispiece and title page (1843). Source: Heritage Auctions





Borscht – A Love Story  (Bonus: recipe included!)
Bryan Demchinsky
Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies (Vol. 15 No. 3, Fall 2015)

Believing in the Black Messiah: The Legio Maria Church in an African Christian Landscape
Matthew Kustenbauder
Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions (Vol. 13 No. 1, August 2009)

Award-Winning UC Press Authors at the AFHVS/ASFS Annual Meeting

Last month, two UC Press authors received major prizes at the annual joint meeting of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS). (Learn more about this year’s ASFS/AFHVS Conference on the official website.)

Julie Guthman (right) receives the AFHVS Excellence in Research Award.
Julie Guthman (right) receives the AFHVS Excellence in Research Award.

Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism and Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, received the 2015 Excellence in Research Award from AFHVS.

This prize recognizes members of the AFHVS who have made outstanding contributions to research in the fields of agriculture, food, and human values. Guthman’s work, analyzing of both the American “obesity epidemic” and the realities of organic farming, is groundbreaking: truly deserving of this honor.

Amy Bentley with husband Brett Gary at the James Beard Awards.
Amy Bentley with husband Brett Gary at the James Beard Awards.
Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet
Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet

Amy Bentley’s Inventing Baby Food also received the 2015 ASFS Book Award. This award recognizes exemplary research, insightful theory, and the most significant and novel contributions to food scholarship, particularly books which suggest new questions and avenues of research for the scholarship of food.

Bentley joins other UC Press authors in this honor: since 2010, five UC Press titles have received the award, including Margaret Gray’s Labor and the Locavore in 2014. Bentley’s book is certainly worthy of this recognition: her history of baby food and American consumption is fresh, innovative, and informative. Inventing Baby Food was also a 2015 James Beard Award finalist in the scholarship and reference category.

It’s a pleasure to share this wonderful news, and we are proud to have published with both authors! Congratulations!

Gary Paul Nabhan Talks about His “Spice Odyssey”

Gary Paul Nabhan takes us on a vivid and far-ranging journey across time and space in his new book, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans. In this conversation with editor Blake Edgar, Nabhan discusses the historical convergences that inspired him to write the book, his thoughts on the locavore movement, and the spices that remind him of home.

Gary Paul Nabhan
Gary Paul Nabhan

Blake Edgar: There have been several culinary histories published about spices and about trade along the Silk Road. What inspired you to write about this subject?
Gary Paul Nabhan: A colleague of mine, ethnobotanist and food historian Gene Anderson, found a remarkable coincidence: an Arab/Persian lamb and garbanzo bean stew recipe that he and colleagues recorded in their Mongolian medicinal cookbook, Soup for the Qan, also made its way half way around the world to Hispanic communities in Northern New Mexico. Only one ingredient, mastic (which was unavailable in New Mexico at the time), was different. Was it independent invention or cultural diffusion? It turns out that Crypto-Muslims and Crypto-Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition could have been responsible for its transmission to New Mexico. That one coincidence set me on this “spice odyssey.”

What is most novel and distinctive about Cumin, Camels, and Caravans compared to other books about spices?
I cannot serve as the final judge of its distinctiveness, but I have two hunches: it is the first spice book that sees spice trade from the perspective of Semitic people’s global contributions. These people include not only Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews but also Arabs, Phoenicians, Nabateans, and others from Yemen and Oman. Second, it follows their historic influences across what I call the “draw bridge” to the New World after 1492, where descendants of Semitic peoples rapidly captured control of trade in chiles, chocolate, vanilla, allspice, and achiote back to the Old World.

You told me that this was the hardest book that you’ve undertaken. What made it more challenging?
Well, I traveled to fourteen countries, many of them in extremely hot, dry deserts, where I had to find a way to obtain and contextualize information from perhaps thirty language groups. I also had to integrate ethnobotany, culinary history, political economy, linguistics, phytochemistry and historical geography. No small task for a graying old geezer from the stinkin’ hot deserts of the Southwest.

Is there a single spice that best represents the story you tell of cultural collaboration or culinary imperialism?
Cumin made it into the title for its ubiquity in ethnic cuisines, but chile peppers were perhaps the most traceable. I’ve been part of a larger team of scholars working on their origins and diffusions across the world using linguistic, ecological, genetic, and archaeological evidence. We have recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that pioneers a methodology that gets the most parsimonious fit out of data from so many disciplines and sources.

You propose in this book that globalization has a much deeper pre-Columbian history than conventionally believed. What kinds of evidence did you find in your research to support this conclusion?
The origins and diffusion of the very economic and social processes we identify as fundamental to globalization were all put into place well before Columbus. Although many Europeans did not reach the New World before 1492, the culinary colonialism of the Americas were simply a belated extension of what had followed the same patterns as Semitic peoples influenced the cuisines and market structures of sub-Sahara Africa, China, the East Indies, Western Europe, and elsewhere.

Your research took you to the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and the Americas following different spice routes. Was there a particular encounter or experience that illustrates how your personal journey intersects with the historical and cultural panorama you describe?
Oh, the most remarkable moment for me was meeting frankincense traders in Oman of the Nabhan clan (Banu Nebhani), and finding an heirloom variety of date named after my family near the World Heritage Site at Bahla Fort in Oman. My kin have been involved in spice trade in many places, over many centuries, even on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn!

You are known for being a proponent of eating locally and of restoring unique traditional foodways. So it’s interesting that you’ve written a book about the globalization of key ingredients and their cosmopolitan journey into cuisines around the world. Has that experience altered your understanding of cuisine?
We will never understand the true value of sourcing much of our food from local farming and foraging sources unless we deeply understand the perils and consequences of culinary imperialism and globalization. If I had simply stayed in the same frame of reference I had felt comfortable with over the last two decades—as many locavores choose to do—I would never have really fathomed what is at stake when we increasingly “outsource” more of our foods from other lands and cultures with no sense of how it impacts them on the ground. In any case, stepping outside the box is the dance I most like to do—to throw myself off balance, and my readers as well. That may be the only way most of us grow.

Do you have a favorite recipe among the thirteen included in the text?
I give project editor Dore Brown and my step-daughter Deja Walker most of the credit for shoring up the recipes, but the most fascinating one for me is the transformation of Old World zoolbia fritters in an orange and saffron sauce into the stripped down buñuelos and sopapillas of the U.S. Southwest. That hits home.

What spices in your cabinet do you reach for most frequently?
When I want to call up and divine messages from my ancestors, I reach for the zaatar, ras al hanout and baharat spice mixtures of the Levant. They taste like home. When I want to remember my grandfathers, I splash my face with rosewater from the Damascus rose.