by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Books

Apr 8 2016

Weekend reading: Krishnendu Ray’s The Ethnic Restaurateur (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Full disclosure.  I recruited Krishnendu Ray to NYU (for good reason as you can see from this interview in the Washington Post) and he is now my department chair.

With that said, I greatly admire what he’s done in this book, which is to cast a sociological eye on immigrants to the United States who get their start by using what they know of their own food tastes and traditions to open and run restaurants of the “ethnic” variety in today’s terminology.

Ray argues here (and elsewhere) that the contributions of immigrants to modern food culture are largely ignored by academics and critics who view

discussions of taste as marginal to the real lives of marginal peoples. In this conception, poor, hard-working people can teach us about poverty and suffering, hierarchy and symbolic violence, but never about taste…As a consequence, taste loses its contested and dynamic character, and…even its fundamentally sociological nature. As labor and immigrant historians have shown us repeatedly, good food matters to poor people, perhaps even more than it does to the rich and the powerful.

In his book, Ray draws on his readings, experience teaching at the Culinary Institute of America, and on interviews with cooks from China, India, Italy, and elsewhere to examine their motivations, experiences, and attitudes about the food they prepare and serve.  He says

Nothing devalues a cuisine more than proximity to subordinate others.  That explains not only the rise, fall, and rise again of Italian cuisine in America, but also the difficulty of Chinese, Mexican, and Soul food to break away, in dominant American eyes, from the contamination effect of low-class association.  Poor, mobile people are rarely accorded cultural capital.  The circulation of taste through the social architecture of class and race allows for the creation of a subcultural niche, say for the best taco, genuine dim-sum, or most authentic fried chicken, yet rarely assures a position among elite food cultures. [p. 97]

After reading this book, I find myself paying much more attention to the ethnic restaurants in my neighborhood, and thinking about who owns them, who works in them, and why and how they arrived at their menus.  This book will change the way you think about them too.

Here is Krishnendu Ray on WNYC to explain why some cuisines—French in particular—are more expensive than most “ethnic” cuisines.

Mar 25 2016

Weekend reading: Concentration and Power in the Food System

Philip H. Howard. Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat?  Bloomsbury, 2016.

I don’t know Philip Howard personally but I have long appreciated his graphic visualizations of the extent of concentration—only a few companies owning fast percentages of the market—in various industries:

This brief book summarizes his work in developing these graphics and makes it clear why he thinks industrial concentration is a problem for American democracy.   Without competition, these companies get away with doing whatever they want.  He gives a few examples:

Walmart, which controls 33 percent of US grocery retailing, is challenged for exploiting its suppliers, taking advantage of taxpayer subsidies, and paying extremely low worker wages…Monsanto, which controls 26 percent of the global commercial seed market, is denounced for its influence on government polocies, spying on farmers it suspects of saving and replanting seeds, and the environmental impacts of herbicides tied to these seeds.  These impacts tend to disproportionately affect the disadvantaged—such as women, young children, recent immigrants, members of minority ethnic groups, and those of lower socioeconomic status—and as a result, reinforce existing inequalities…Like ownership relations, the full extent of these consequences may be hidden from public view.

Howard’s solution?  The food movement!

Joining these movements and supporting the alternatives created by others could therefore be essential to maintaining our ability to feed ourselves in the future.

The book is fun to read (“seed-industrial complex”) and, obviously, well illustrated.  If you want to know how current-day food markets really work, this is the place to start.

Mar 16 2016

My latest edited book: Big Food: Critical perspectives

Simon N. WilliamsMarion Nestle (Editors).  Big Food: Critical perspectives on the global growth of the food and beverage industry.  Routledge, 2016.

Mar 5 2016

Three books about eating: 3. A Short History

This is the third book about eating I’ve been posting about.  The first two were here and here.

Graham Dukes & Elisabet Helsing.  A Short History of Eating.  The London Press, 2016.

Dukes and Helsing, married couple, English and Norwegian respectively, and friends of long standing, have produced a light-hearted, entertainingly illustrated romp through the history of the human diet, from breast milk (on which Helsing is expert) to bubble gum, based on their research into a wide range of sources, literary as well as anthropological.   The authors quote poems in appropriate places:

When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman’s food,

It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood.

Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good

Oh! the Roast Beef of old England.

The illustrations display cartoons, ads, portraits, and botanicals.

Here is an excerpt to give you the flavor…

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the Revolution, is often cited—almost certainly wrongly—as having suggested that since during a famine the starving population lacked bread they should eat cake instead…But if Marie Antoinette truly did propose that the populace eat cake, what sort of cake, familiar in her royal circle, might that have been?  Modern reference sources define a brioche today as a light yeast bread with butter and eggs…A better clue…may be that provided by that infamous rascal of the day, the Marquis de Sade.  In July 1783, from his prison cell in Vincennes…he wrote a letter to his patient wife imploring her to send him: “…four dozen meringues; two dozen sponge cakes (large): four dozen chocolate pastille candies with vanilla….”

Feb 27 2016

Three books about eating: 2. The Practice of Eating

This is the second of three books about eating.  The first is here.

Alan Warde.  The Practice of Eating. Polity, 2016.

This is a sociologist’s attempt to establish a theory of food consumption.  Advances in theory, he says, have been limited for three reasons:

First, eating has been looked at as a series of practical problems, as a terrain of crises.  Second, the topic has been dealt with in multidisciplinary contexts where theoretical synthesis has had low priority.  Third, consumption remains subordinated to concern about production.

This book makes up for those deficiencies and will be greatly appreciated by graduate students of sociology, food studies, and other academic disciplines.

Feb 20 2016

Weekend reading: Three books about eating: 1. First Bite

You might think that eating is one of those things that comes naturally, but for the next three weeks I’m going to be posting books telling us how.  Here’s the first:

Bee Wilson.  First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. Basic Books, 2015.

Bee Wilson speaks from experience.  She once was a picky eater bordering on having an eating disorder.  Simply eating when hungry and stopping when full is a challenge for many of us.  Wilson explores how food preferences are acquired or made and how culture and environment turn biological needs into obesity-promoting hazards.  Her advice boils down to aphorisms, for example:

  • No one is too busy to cook.
  • Eat soup.
  • Rethink what counts as a main course.
  • Regular exercise definitely helps.
  • If you want your children to eat better, don’t tell them what to do: eat better yourself.
Feb 13 2016

Weekend Reading: Fed Up

Dale Finley Slongwhite.  Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food.  University Press of Florida, 2014.

Yes, there’s a movie called Fed Up (in which I make a very brief appearance) but this book covers a quite different topic.  It takes a tough look at the impact of widespread pesticide use on farmworkers in the area around Lake Apopka in Central Florida.  Slongwhite tells the individual stories of these workers through oral histories, thereby putting a human face on callous disregard for people and the environment.

Feb 6 2016

Weekend Reading: Forked! (It’s just out)

Saru Jayaraman.  Forked: A New Standard for American Dining.  Oxford University Press, 2016.

I did a blurb for this one, for good reason.  Saru Jayaraman is doing important work on behalf of low-wage restaurant workers, most of them immigrants and women.  This book is her manifesto.

That restaurant workers can be paid as little as $2.13 an hour, and require taxpayer-supported food assistance to survive, is a national scandal.  Forked tells the stories of enlightened restaurant owners who treat and pay workers decently, with immediate returns in employee loyalty, better customer service—and profits.  This book should inspire all restaurant owners to take the “high road,” and all of us restaurant customers to demand that they do.

Read it and join the campaign for decent pay for restaurant workers, farm workers, and everyone else who is excluded from minimum-wage requirements.

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