by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-culture

Aug 14 2020

Weekend reading: Jessica Harris’s Vintage Postcards

Jessica Harris. Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play.  University of Mississippi Press, 2020.

Amazon.com: Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of  Their Work and the Joy of Their Play (Atlantic Migrations and the African  Diaspora) eBook: Harris, Jessica B.: Kindle Store

I reviewed this book for Food, Culture, and Society, which published my review online on July 23, 2020.  It won’t appear in print until November 2021.  Emily Contois, the fabulous book review editor, is way ahead.

Here’s what I said about it.

Some years ago, I was in Woods Hole and hopped on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard to visit Jessica Harris at her cottage in the historic African-American community at Oak Bluffs. I knew her as the distinguished culinary historian, cookbook author, and scholar of the African food diaspora. In the early years of NYU’s food studies program, she taught brilliant courses on food and culture that I sat in on whenever I could. She is now retired from a long teaching career at Queens College.

During that Oak Bluffs visit, Harris showed me boxes packed with old postcards depicting Africans – and their descendants throughout the world – growing, carrying, preparing, and eating food. I couldn’t stop looking at them, and I’ve never stopped wondering what happened to them. This book is the answer, and a perfect fit with the University of Mississippi’s series on Atlantic Migration and the African Diaspora, which Harris edits.

In addition to her other accomplishments, Harris is a passionate deltiologist, a term new to my vocabulary meaning one who collects – and sometimes studies – postcards, which Harris had been doing for fifty years. She begins the book with three short essays – a description of when, how, and where she amassed her collection; a discussion of what can be learned from postcards and the kinds of questions that need to be asked about them (illustrated with about 25 examples); and a history of the introduction and use of postcards from the 1870s on. She also includes guidelines on how to estimate a postcard’s date (not easy).

But most of the book is devoted to 168 color illustrations of postcards from her collection, almost all from the early 1900s. These illustrate people at work and play from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States in three categories: farm, garden, and sea; marketplace, venders, cooks; and leisure, entertainments, and festivities. Their captions repeat information printed on the front, state whatever is printed or written on the back, and, if the card is stamped, give the date it was mailed. For example, a photograph of a Caribbean sugar warehouse (which reminded me of Kara Walker’s magnificent 2014 “sugar baby” sculpture in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory), is captioned: “Stacking Bags of Raw Sugar. Back: Post Card British Manufacture. Printed for the Imperial Institute by McCorquodale & Co. Ltd. London. A Red Bromide Photograph. (Divided Back.)” (84).

That’s it. Unless the card has this information, the captions say nothing about who took the picture, where, and in what year, who is depicted, its context, its purpose, or whether it was taken in a studio. In her introductory essay, “”Interrogating the Images,” Harris says “I am not a postcard scholar” (19). She collected and selected the cards for their illustration of culinary or cultural history and colonial exploitation, but also for their beauty, curiosity, or inscrutability. If you want to know more, it’s up to you to find that out and develop your own interpretation.

Despite that protestation, Harris cannot avoid taking a scholar’s approach. She points out the colonial attitudes expressed in the images or their titles–“elegant banana seller” (30), or the bare-breasted women selling foods at a “native” market in Dakar that looks like something out of the early years of National Geographic. This market could not possibly be in Dakar, Harris notes, Senegal is a Muslim country, where women did not appear in public unclothed.

In this era of #BlackLivesMatter, it is uncomfortable to look at images of picturesque poverty or colonial exploitation: “Blacks in a Moorish café” (68), “Zulus at Mealtime” (69), or even “Water coconut vendor” (97) are depicted as exotics. Given its racist history, the United States postcards are particularly problematic: “Polly in the Peanut Patch” (110), “Negro Vegetable Vendor” (123), “Old/Southern Kitchen and Negro Manny” (130) should and do make us squirm. It’s hard to view “Food for contention” (135) as just a charming photograph of a little girl reaching for her brother’s watermelon slice if such images weren’t so fraught with racist meanings.

Each of these images has a story behind it that calls for analysis by food studies scholars. Harris’s Vintage Postcards should inspire all of us to become avid deltiologists.

Aug 13 2020

Annals of marketing: Lithuanian ice cream flavors

I am indebted to DairyReporter.com for this item, which especially interested me because one set of my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in the very early 1900s.  Perhaps this explains why I like ice cream so much.

The item:”12 bizarre ice cream flavors from Lithuania.

It seems plain vanilla ice cream might soon be out of fashion in Lithuania, where chefs are experimenting with natural flavors, including plenty not normally associated with ice cream.”

He’s not kidding.  Try these:

    • Pine needle
    • Peony
    • Carrot
    • Rhubarb
    • Beetroot
    • Lavender
    • Quark and nettle ice cream (I had to look up quark.  No, not a subatomic particle: a curd-type cheese).
    • Linden honey and dill
    • Seaweed and caviar
    • Spinach and tarragon
    • Beer
  • Smoked mackerel
Chacun à son goût seems appropriate here.  
Personally, I’ll take vanilla.
Apr 8 2020

Passover during the 11th plague: Celebrate!

This comes from ©Bill Wurtzel’s “Food For Thought about COVID-19.”

And a reader, Harvey Carroll, forwards this (original source unknown):

One of my favorite chefs, Mark Strausman, has posted instructions for a virtual passover.  Here, for example, is his video for do-it-yourself matzo.

Dayenu!

Feb 3 2017

Weekend reading: Food Sociology

John Germov & Lauren Williams, eds. A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: The Social Appetite, 4th ed.  Oxford University Press, 2017.


I know about this book mainly because my NYU colleague Marie Bragg and I have a chapter in it, “The politics of government dietary advice: the influence of Big Food.”

The book is meant to introduce readers to the field of food sociology through themes.  It divides chapters by various authors into three sections: the social appetite, the food system, and food culture.

Its aim is

to make the sociological study of food relevant to a multidisciplinary readership, particularly those across health, nutrition, and social science disciplines.  Our further aim is to reach a broad readership so that those interested in food, nutrition, and wider issues of food production, distribution, and consumption can discover the relevance of studying the social context of food.

The chapters plunge into the controversies and come with summaries of the main points, sociological reflections, discussion questions, and ideas for further investigation.

The sociological reflection on Marie’s and my chapter says:

Dietary guidelines and food guides, although apparently “science-based,” are created by individuals who serve on government committees and are subject to the same kinds of influences as any other members of society.  Because the food industry is the sector of society with the strongest stake in the outcome of dietary guidance, government agencies and committee members are strongly lobbied by industry.  Controversy over dietary advice derives from the contradiction between the health-promoting goals of public health and the profit-making goals of food companies.

If you are looking for a quick introduction to food sociology, here’s a place to begin.  The editors are Australian academics so there are plenty of Australian examples.

Sep 20 2016

Theater for New York foodies: Aubergine (don’t miss)

If you are in New York or can get to it, go see Julia Cho’s play, Aubergine (“Eggplant”) at Playwrights Horizons.

Ignore the tepid review in the New York Times.  The reviewer, Charles Isherwood, doesn’t seem to be either a foodie or a food studies scholar.

If you are either or both, or just open to the deeper meanings of food in society, you will get the point of this play right away: the emotional significance of remembrance of meals past.

The acting is terrific (even Isherwood says so).  The characters are warm, funny, foodie, and deeply touching.  And you don’t even have to speak Korean to understand them.

It’s only playing until October 2.  Aubergine deserves an appreciative audience.

And while you are there, keep your eye on that turtle.  No spoiler here: you will need to see the play to understand its role (it should get acting credit).

Jan 26 2016

Celebration food, Australia Day style

Here in Australia, yesterday was Australia Day (somewhat equivalent to the American Fourth of July) although many prefer to call it Invasion Day, Survival Day, or Day of Mourning and to make it an occasion for protest.  Hence: the fuss over the what Google Australia posted as the day’s Google Doodle.

Newcomer that I am, I celebrated with some Glebe Street gelato:IMG_20160126_1952109

Can’t read the sign?

“Celebrate Australia Day with Vegemite Gelato on toast!”

Yum.

Nov 14 2014

Weekend reading: food history!

Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin, and Ken Albala.  Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History.  University of California Press, 2014.

I was happy to be asked to do a blurb for this one:

This book is a treasure.  Its clear and lively chapters on global food history instantly explain why food has become an essential entry point into the most intellectually challenging problems of our time.  Any reader interested in the role of food in history, culture, or politics, its production or consumption, or the teaching of critical thinking will find this book hard to put down. 

Sep 16 2014

Trade negotiations continued: the meaning of “culturally appropriate food”

While I’m thinking about trade negotiations, I came across this example of why trade negotiators fight over every word.

NPR’s The Salt reports that member nations of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are in the process of developing guidelines for responsible investment in agriculture and food systems.

Responsible investment, they say,

is essential for enhancing food security and nutrition and supporting the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security. Responsible investment is a significant contribution to enhancing sustainable livelihoods, in particular for smallholders, and members of marginalized and vulnerable groups, creating decent work for all agricultural and food workers eradicating poverty, fostering social and gender equality, eliminating the worst forms of child labour, promoting social participation and inclusiveness, increasing economic growth, and therefore achieving sustainable development.

The guidelines are responding to concerns over “land grabs” — the term used to describe how corporations and governments are taking advantage of unclear land ownership in developing countries to buy up large tracts, regardless of consequences for previous users of the land.

Land grabs displace small farmers and have become the focus of advocacy by Oxfam.

In contrast, says FAO, responsible investment contributes to food security and nutrition through:

Increasing sustainable production and productivity of safe, nutritious, diverse, and culturally acceptable food and reducing food loss and waste.

At issue is the meaning of “culturally acceptable.”

The US delegation demanded a definition, objecting that the lack of one could lead to trade barriers against, for example, genetically modified foods.

It suggested this:

For the purposes of this document, consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable.

In other words, says The Salt, “as long as somebody wants to buy it, it’s fine.”

The African delegations forged a compromise.

In the current version of the document, “culturally appropriate food” enables

consumer choice by promoting the availability of and access to food that is safe, nutritious, diverse and culturally acceptable, which in the context of this document is understood as food that corresponds to individual and collective consumer demand and preferences, in line with national and international law as applicable.

Aren’t you glad they got that settled?