by Marion Nestle

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Sep 17 2021

Weekend reading: Leonard Barkan’s Hungry Eye

Leonard Barkan.  The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking, and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance.  Princeton University Press, 2021.  

What a treasure.

I still get asked all the time: “What is Food Studies?”

Leonard Barkan, Professor of English and Art, and my esteemed NYU colleague until he was seduced away by Princeton, directly answers that question in this book.

…food and drink can scarcely enter cultural discourse without forming either the center or the outer periphery of an argument.”  (p. 142)

Food, he insists, inserts itself into everything human.  The tension between its material (earthy) and metaphorical (symbolical) meanings makes food impossible to ignore.

Barkan reads for the food.  In doing so, he invents a new term,”fooding” (analagous to “queering” as an analytic technique), to explore and interpret art and literature.

This book does for food in art and literature what Sidney Mintz did for food and global politics in Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.  It should be right up there with Mintz’s book as a foundational text of Food Studies.

Hungry Eye illustrates the concepts with hundreds (literally) of images of mosaics, drawings, and paintings—in full color.

One, to which Barkan often refers, is of a mosaic now in the Vatican, “Unswept Floor,” which depicts the detritus of a sumptuous dinner party.   It’s material meaning?  Garbage.  “…the Unswept Floor is a monument to the possibilities of rendering edibles as art” (p. 33).  Its metaphorical meanings?  Take your pick: wealth; power; disgust; eat or be eaten; here today, gone tomorrow. [And see Digression below at **]

The book’s them is illustrated with an etching from this painting of a bucolic scene titled “Pensent-ils au raisin?”

Barkan explains,

The cigar in this case is not just a cigar; it fact, it’s scarcely a cigar at all.  With this image in front of us and the question, “Are they thinking about the grapes?” having been posed, we know the answer: Hell, no!  Who would think of food at a time like this?

Clearly, I would. (p. 14)

Because he is reading for the food.

In this example, you might not pay attention to the old woman with a basket of eggs to the right of all the action in this painting by Titian.

But Barkan does.

But sometimes—and this will continue to be a recurrent theme of this book—food places a demand on the viewer that it be read as the thing itself.  What is utterly distinctive about Titian’s egg seller is her extraordinary frontal position in the painting…For me, this is not so ambiguous, nor it is merely an implication…What Titian was offering on behalf of his employers was, along with the representation of a sacred scene, some very familiar nourishment.  (p. 93-94)

He reads for food in the Bible,

I would argue that the Bible, and the traditions of representation that follow from it, display an interest in eating and drinking that is more constant than might have been noticed, and furthermore that there are ways in which those instances, taken together, can be seen as systematic rather than merely accidental or marginal.  (p. 95)

Eating and drinking, along with the practices that make them possible, are not exclusively metaphors, of course.  The New Testament never lets us forget that hunger and thirst are real.  Miracles like the filling of the disciples’ nets with fish or the feeding of the five thousand or the four thousand out of a diminutive supply of loaves and fishes, not to mention the rather less solemn instance of producing wine in water jugs when the booze has run out during the wedding at Cana, are significant because the functions of gaining nourishment and experiencing commensality are eminently worthy of the divide efforts undertaken by the Son of God.  (p. 99)

You are interested in botanical science or the Columbian Exchange?  See what he says about depictions of fruit and vegetables  in early 16th Century Italian wall paintings.

The range of species is astonishing: five types of grains, five types of legumes, eight forms of nuts, seven forms of drupes, nineteen forms of berries, six varieties of apple, and four types of aggregate fruits…What is even more remarkable is that we are able to identify each of these species…Up to date, it turns out, in the most radical way, as is clear from the presence of several species from the New World, including multiple types of squash or gourds…and, most astonishing to inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, zea mays…or corn on the cob.  As these representations appeared just over two decades from the date of Columbus’s first voyage, it seems that gastronomic news has traveled quite fast.  (p. 192)

The book shows many different representations of The Last Supper.  What were the artists trying to tell us about the relationship of the food on the table to Christian symbolism?

What kind of relation, then, might we postulate, in regard to food and wine, between the literal and the metaphorical?  There are, after all, seven sacraments, at least in the Catholic church.  None of them has undergone the wars of interpretation that the Eucharist has: that, I believes, is because it involves eating and drinking, because it consists of literal ingestion.  Once again, it’s the sign at the entrance to the gullet that reads, “The metaphor stops here.”  (p. 241.)

As for the literal and metaphorical meanings of the Eucharist itself?

Let us bring this discourse radically down to earth, from theology to experience and from medieval debate to twenty-first-century cyberspace,  One has only to google the question “Should I chew the host? To discover that hundreds, possibly thousands of Christians—mostly Catholics, it seems—have spent their time at the altar rail in a desperate state of uncertainty, not about the transcendental meaning of the sacrament or the precise reality of the real presence but about what they should be doing with their teeth and tongue.  The answer to this question (spoiler alert) is that   is to raise the question whether I am eating Jesus or eating dinner.  And the church is silent on this point.  (p. 246).

I could go on and on but everyone interested in Food Studies as a discipline, food in art, and anything having to do with food and culture will want to read this book—for its ideas, its gorgeousness, and for sheer pleasure.

I will never again ignore depictions of food in paintings or look at them in the same way.

Thanks Leonard.

**And here’s the digression: When I saw the photos of Unswept Floor, I thought immediately of the bronzed garbage embedded in the road at the site of Boston’s old Haymarket, which I just loved and went to admire  every time I went to Boston.  But the last time I looked for the pieces, they were gone.  I just looked it up—they will be resinstalled at some point—but the best part is that the entire installation was inspired by Unswept Floor, as described here.

Aug 27 2021

Weekend reading: The demise of the Ogallala Aquifer

Lucas Bessire.  Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains.  Princeton University Press, 2021.

The website blurb for this book says it is “An intimate reckoning with aquifer depletion in America’s heartland.”

Yes, but it’s more than that.  It’s a deeply personal account of the author’s attempt to make sense of and come to terms with his family’s history on land on the plains of Western Kansas.  This land was once occupied—and not all that long ago—by Native American tribes since murdered or driven out by white settlers.  This same land was once watered by rivers from an ancient underground source, but now so depleted by irrigation that it—like the Indians—is threatened by extinction.

The author, an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma, grapples with his family’s role in this depletion and his own complicity while coming to terms with his relationship with his long estranged father.  I read this book as a history of the great plains viewed through a personal and familial memoir that reads like a novel.

If you are even remotely interested in why farmers on the great plains are not doing more to preserve this essential water source, start here.  It’s revelatory.

…corporate profits are a key part of the aquifer depletion puzzle.  It should have come as no surprise.  The scale of industrial farming is staggering.  Southwest Kansas is home to some of the nation’s largest corporate feeders, beef- and poultry-packing plants, slaughterhouses, dairies, milk-drying plants and hog farms.  More than 2.5 million beef cattle live there in feedlots that handle tens of thousands of animals.  Just across the Oklahoma line, one company processes 5.6 million hogs per year in its plant…Multinational meat-packing companies operhoe slaughterhouses that process several thousand cattle each day.  All are billion-dollar businesses.  They drive farmers’ choices to produce corn, silage, sorghum, or alfalfa.  Their profits depend on aquifer depletion.  In other words, there is a multbillion-dollar corporate interest to prevent regulation and to pump the water until its gone [p. 78].

He documents goverment collusion with absentee corporate landowners who could care less about what happens to real farming communities.  Near his family’s home, “at least 60 percent of the farmland is owned by nonresidents’ [p. 80].

In the 1940s, the supply of water seemed endless and the opportunity to preserve the aquifer was lost.  “Faith in the abundance of these waters put an end to the more sustainable farming techniques tht were beginning to be adopted by the end of the 1930s, as well as the progressive policies that accompanied them.  One historic opening was lost with them” [p. 89]

Nobody talked about what settlers did to the Indians.

We confined the horrors of eradication [of the Indians] to a cartoonish lost world; one that we thought was entirely disconnected from our own.  We did not relate past events to the banal activities of irrigation farming or the way we grew up or the pumping of the subterranean aquifers.  Like the extermination of buffalo and the toxid fogs and the torturous confinement of defiant voices, these events were not openly discussed and their remnants were never tied to the present.  Cordoning them off from conversation meant that their significance was largely blocked from our memories, too [p. 130].

He struggles with these questions:

So where can a true reckoning with depletion begin and where does it end?  With a strategy to update management practices through more precise forms of modeling and expertise?  With the innovation of more-efficient irrigation technology and crop varieties that require more water?  With a sociology that details how agrarian capitalism drains water and wealth from the Plains to enrich investors elsewhere?  With a diagnosis of how this case illustrates White supremacy, toxic masculinity, or the sentiments and logics of settler colonialism?  With a chart of the ways aquifer losss combines with climate chage to make ours an era of planetary ends?  With an optimism that things aren’t really as bad as they seem? [p. 168].

Why care about the Ogallala Aquifer?  “…depletion comes back into focus as one of the wider movements that erode democracy, divide us from one another, and threaten to make exiles of us all” [p. 173].

Bessire points out that everyone knows what could be done, and right now, to reverse the depletion and conserve what remains.  “Examples of success can be found across the Ogallala region, whree farmers from Nebraska to Texas are organizing and leading related efforts to slow decline” [p. 174].

His book is a call for citizen action.  It would be good to take him up on it.

Aug 6 2021

Weekend reading: Technically Food

Larissa Zimberoff.  Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.  Abrams Press, 2021.

This is Zimberoff’s account of her personal conversations, meetings, visits, and observations of the people and venture capitalists behind today’s versions of techno-foods constructed from algae, fungi, peas, plants, and cell cultures.

She comes at these foods from a skeptical standpoint, but gamely tastes everything, judging some of the products delicious despite concerns about their greater meaning for health, the environment, and humanity.

Almost everyone she meets in this business is mission-driven, convinced that their products will help feed the world’s growing population at less cost to health and the environment.

But, as she puts it, “The tension of my health being tied to capitalistic companies that want to make a profit is growing” (p. 3).  Mine too, even after reading her book.

One concern is lack of transparency.  Nobody she met wanted to tell her what’s in the products they are producing or give details on how they are made.

Zimberoff likes some of what she sees, but not all.  She finishes up her discussion with a call for continued skepticism: “Like me, think before you eat.  Don’t believe the hype” (p. 190).

She ends the book in an odd way.  She asked a bunch of people to speculate on what we will all be eating in 20 years.  I was one of the people who commented, and I wish I had been given the opportunity to read my section before it got printed: some of it seems incoherent and I would have appreciated the chance to edit it.  [I just checked, which I should have done earlier.  I was given that opportunity and OK’d it.  My bad.  Culpa mea].

More careful editing would have helped throughout.  For example, I was startled to read this statement about the effects of climate change on algae:

This increase in CO2 leads to a rise in pH levels called ocean acidification, which can harm many creatures in the water.  Algae, on the other hand, may benefit from increased levels, and there are studies looking into whether growing seaweed can slow this rise in pH levels  (p. 10).

Oops.  Rising CO2 levels reduce pH.   Lower pH levels are acidic.  Algae do better at neutral or lower pH levels.

Jul 30 2021

Weekend reading: Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?

Jessica Fanzo.  Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

This is a small book, 4′ x 6″ format, 214 pages.  I did a blurb for its back cover:

Jessica Fanzo argues that dinner not only can fix the planet, but must.  The cutting edge of nutrition policy today is to promote diets that simultaneously achieve three goals–reduce hunger, prevent chronic disease, and protect the environment—and this means those lower in meat and higher in vegetables and other plant foods.  Read Fanzo’s book.  It is beautifully written, authoritative, and utterly convincing—essential reading for anyone interested in food system approaches to world food problems.

A couple of excerpts:

The foods we eat are much more than just a source of sustenance.  They have direct and substantial impacts on the nutrition and health of individuals and populations, the planet’s natural resources and climate change, and structural equity and social justice challenges of societies.  Food connects us to the world.  It also dictates (to a degree most people don’t realize) the kind of world we live in today and the kind of world we will occupy in the future (p. 3)

Do animal-source foods support or harm sustainability and health outcomes?  In reality, they do a bit of both.  Climate change is not the only measure of sustainability.  Sustainability also describes human and animal health outcomes and well-being, equity, and security.  Often, discussion about the sustainability of animal-source foods neglect to include the effect that low consumption of animal-source foods has on the lives and futures of nutritionally vulnerable populations, women, and children.  Moving forward, we’ll have to combine more sustainable livestock production practices with increased access and moderate consumption (p. 108).

Jul 2 2021

Weekend reading: Michael Pollan’s “Your Mind on Plants”

Michael Pollan.  This is Your Mind on Plants.  Penguin, 2021.

This book is a great read: informative, smart, hilariously funny on occasion, and wonderfully written, as is only to be expected from anything Pollan produces.

The book is about three plants that are sources of mind-altering drugs, poppies (opium), tea and coffee (caffeine), and peyote cactus (mescaline).

The tea and coffee bring it into the realm of food politics, and I’ll stick to them for the moment (but the poppies chapter is particularly riveting, tough, and timely).

An excerpt beginning on page 99:

Most of the various plant chemicals, or alkaloids, that people have used to alter the textures of consciousness are chemicals originally selected for defense. Yet even in the insect world, the dose makes the poison, and if the dose is low enough, a chemical made for defense can serve a very different purpose: to attract, and secure the enduring loyalty of pollinators.  This appears to be what’s going on between bees and certain caffeine-producing plants, in a symbiotic relationship that may have something important to tell us about our own relationship to caffeine…[in an experiment] even at concentrations too small for the bees to taste, the presence of caffeine helped them to quickly learn and recall a particular scent and to favor it…Actually we don’t know whethe the bees feel anything when they ingest caffeine, only that the chemical helps them to remembe–which, as we will see, caffeine appears to do for us, too.

Another from page 145:

Would people have ever discovered coffee or tea, let alone continued to drink them for hundreds of years, if not for caffeine?  There are countless other seeds and leaves that can be steeped in hot water to make a beverage, and some number of them surely taste better than coffee or tea, but where are the shrines to those plants in our homes and offices and shops?  Let’s face it: The rococo structures of meaning we’ve erected atop those psychoactive molecules are just culture’s way of dressing up our desire to change consciousness in the finery of metaphor and association.  Indeed, what really commends these beverages to us is their association not with wood smoke or stone fruit or biscuits, but with the experience of well-being—of euphoria—they reliably give us.

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Jun 18 2021

Weekend reading: Peter Hoffman’s food memoir (“foodoir”)

Peter Hoffman.  What’s Good: A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients.  Abrams Press, 2021.

Peter Hoffman, the chef-owned of the much loved and late-lamented Savoy restaurant in Manhattan’s SoHo has written an account of its rise and fall along with a close examination of what went into it, foods, ingredients, and emotions.

As I read it, this is two separate books joined together.  One is his version of how he got interested in food, learned about it, trained to cook, and started, ran, and eventually closed the Savoy.  This is a compelling narrative, despite its sad ending.  Full disclosure: I loved the Savoy.  The food was always interesting, the ambiance lovely, and the service warm and welcoming.

The second book is an almost academic discussion of specific ingredients and how Peter used them in his cooking.  These are fascinating and I learned something about every one of the ingredient chapters.  These are followed by a recipe using that ingredient.

The book’s overall structure joins them together in sequence: memoir chapter, ingredient chapter, recipe.  Repeat.

In the midst of writing a memoir myself, I wanted more of the memoir and a faster moving narrative, but also greatly enjoyed the ingredient chapters.  These cover such things as maple syrup, garlic scapes, rosemary, and ice.  I particularly loved the chapter on garlic scapes because there is a large patch of wild garlic growing near my house upstate in Ithaca.  Now I know what to do with the scapes when they appear.

Peter writes well.  Here are a couple of excerpts.

From a memoir chapter: My Spring Awakening:

With Bocuse as a beacon to steer towards, I devised a plan of escape from the tyrannical narrowness of high school.  I’d test the culinary waters by taking a year off—now called a gap year—and get a cooking job.  My parents were supportive, some of their friends mortified.  I remember fighting back tears of fury at my dad’s best friend;s insistence that I’d never go to college if they let me take a uear off, a slippery slope into hell, implying that my parents’ permissiveness was a grave mistake.  I persisted with my plan, doubling up on core requirements, taking English literature in summer school, and graduated a year early.  I moved to Vermont, worked construction in a hotel renovation, and parlayed that into my first kitchen job in the hotel’s kitchen as a dishwasher and prep guy, at a place called Topnotch, where the food was anything but.   (p. 49)

From the ingredient chapter, Garlic:

Keith’s garlic was different.  At the cutting board I immediately noticed that there was less surrounding leaf paper; the cloveswere generally all the same size, a single row circulating around a hard inner stem, the hard-neck; and easy to peel, maybe even pleasurably so, especially after countless instances of having my fingers gummed up with garlic oil and lots of thin clove paper confetti.  Roasted, the flesh was creamy and sweet; rubbed raw on some toasted bread for bruscchetta it was delightfully pungent, not at all acrid; and tossed into a mushroom sauté with chopped parsley and oive oil, Italy’s culinary holy trinity, it rounded out the perfect balance of earthy, herbal, and fruity flavors.  This wan’t just well-seasoned food, this food sang.  (p. 137)

I enjoyed reading this, but it made me hungry.

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Jun 11 2021

Weekend reading: Alice Waters on Fast vs. Slow Food Culture

 

Note to email recipients: I am still having technical difficulties with getting posts mailed out on a regular schedule.  I meant this one to go out today, not yesterday.  Apologies for the duplication.

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Alice Waters with Bob Carrau and Cristina Mueller.  We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto.  Penguin Press, 2021.

This book is about the harm caused by fast food culture, and why it needs to be replaced by slow food.

I particularly like the way this book is organized.

The first section has chapters about the characteristics of fast food culture that get us into trouble: convenience, uniformity, ubiquity, more is better, speed, cheapness.

Chapters in the second section explain why the values of slow food culture are so much better for us and the planet: beauty, biodiversity, seasonality, stewardship, simplicity, interconnectedness.

If you have been paying attention to food issues, none of this will be new.  But it is well said, and from the heart.

It is also from Alice Waters’ experience running Chez Panisse for—can this be possible?—fifty years.  Its anniversary is this year, and well worth celebrating.

The academic in me wishes this book had included references and an index, particularly because there were a few things I wanted to follow up on.

Otherwise, it’s a well written delight and people new to these issues will finding it eye-opening and convincing.

A sample from the chapter on convenience:

The fast food industry certainly wants us to believe that all the laborious work of cooking is drudgery—indeed, that cooking is just that, work—so they can sell us their labor-saving products.  And they’ve been very successful at convincing us.  We have become more and more impatient when we choose what to cook—we want it as easy and simple as it can possibly be, if we’re going to try to cook something at all.  To relieve of of the “work” of cooking, enterprising companies have produced countless gadgets and packaged foods over the past sixty years to streamline the process of cooking at home.  When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s, we didn’t have too many labor-saving “convenience” appliances, except the electric blender we used for making banana milkshakes.  But there were definitely convenience foods in our house: Jell-O, Junket, frozen fish sticks.  And my mother absolutely used them for convenience’s sake; she had six people to cook for, and she was pretty overwhelmed with the washing the drying, the ironing, the housecleaning.  Crucially, she had never learned how to cook when she was young. (p. 19-20)

From the simplicity chapter:

I use the phrase “less is more” all the time.  I don’t like to be served more than I can eat, and when I’m at Chez Panisse I often ask for half-size portions because I don’t want to waste food.  At the Edible Schoolyard, we do serve dishes family style, but our objective is to teach students a lesson in portion size and consideration for others.  That one bowl has to be enough to feed the whole table.  When students serve themselves from the bowl, it is also a lesson in conservation; they are learning that resources are not unlimited, and it helps them appreciate what is on their plate.  I’m sure they take that lesson home with them. (p. 168)

Jun 4 2021

Weekend reading: How palm oil ended up in everything we eat

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman.  Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World.  The New Press, 2021.  mfavreau@thenewpress.com

Here’s my blurb for this book:

I’ve always thought of palm oil as just another best-to-avoid food ingredient for its high level of saturated fat, but can never look at it the same way again after reading Planet Fat.  I now understand that oil palms represent the darkest underside of late-stage capitalism, responsible as they are for land grabs, forest devastation, peat burning, greenhouse gases, loss of biodiversity and orangutan habitat, junk food, chronic illness, and food insecurity, all accompanied by unthinkable levels of corruption, criminality, and violence: accidents, thievery, arson, and murders.  This is an ugly story, compellingly told.  It needs to be read. 

And here are a few short excerpts.

The first:

In 2019, the World Health Organization compared the tactics used by the palm oil industry to tose employed by the tobacco and alcohol lobbies, no slouches when it comes to playing dirty…Across the globe, those who’ve dared to speak out against the industry, whether laborers, peasant farmers environmental activists, or investigative journalists, often ave been met with violence [p. 17]

With reference to a “technically safeguarded” national park in Indonesia:

The past decade and a half have seen roughly five thousand acres of its park converted to oil-palm plantations.  Today, only 4.5 million acres of the ecosystem remain forested.  Here as elsewhere in Indonesia, palm oil companies have secured permits through backroom deals with local officials or have simply pad others to clear the land illegally [p. 116]

One reason for concern:

While it’s true that many of the world’s people could use more calories…the global glut of palm oil is in fact diminishing food security, in a fairly drastic way.  It’s common to blame sugar for the world’s weight problems, but in the last half-century, refined vegetable oils have added far more calories to the global diet than has any other food group.  Between 1961 and 2009, for example, the availability of palm oil worldwide went up a staggering 206 percent [p. 162]