Entries Tagged 'Food Studies' ↓

Scratching for an argument

I recently hit up the Clouston & Hall store in Canberra. They’re an academic remainders store and they often have excellent cookery books hugely reduced. The book I was really excited about in the latest catalogue was independent UK researcher Dr Frances Short’s Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in everyday life. It promised that it would explore

the thoughts, values and opinions of home cooks, their practices and experiences, and the skills and knowledge they use to prepare and provide food. It provides new and challenging ways of thinking about cooking, examining and often contesting commonly-held beliefs and theories about the role of practical cookery lessons, dinner parties as showcases for culinary flair and the negative effect of convenience foods on home cooking and kitchen skills.

It was a very unsatisfying book, but as we all know that’s the next best thing to a really good one, right? For an overview of Short’s arguments, check out this journal article from 2003 (pdf), and you can also read extracts on Google Book. Her writing is clear and unfussy and there were some parts I found very interesting, such as her careful dissection of the “family meal” as an unquestioned and unassailable good and her findings about which types of home cooking parents were more likely to involve their children in.

Kitchen Secrets was developed from Short’s PhD thesis in sociology and her exploration of claims that domestic cookery is becoming deskilled has been significantly influenced by food historian Rachel Laudan’s 2001 polemic A plea for culinary modernism.

It will help to briefly look at Laudan first. The full text is here (pdf), but to give a potted version of her argument, “culinary luddites” have conflated the terms “natural” and “unprocessed” with “good food” and in doing so they display ignorance of the history of food. In the past survival has demanded that all but the richest perform endless backbreaking work to make highly monotonous diets safe let alone palatable. Laudan says that historically wherever people have an opportunity to eat more processed food that requires less work to prepare, they have taken it.

My problem with Laudan’s argument is that I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds. In saying so, I don’t underestimate the hours and expertise that making raw agricultural ingredients into food takes (for a very entertaining example in relation to the journey from corn to tortilla, read Dave Arnold at Cooking Issues).

It frustrates me that Laudan builds an air of legitimacy by footnoting research arguing that European peasants were stupefied by adulterated food for 500 years or essentially hibernated through a bad winter, but she doesn’t name and shame any “culinary luddites”. She does give the them credit for foregrounding that we “need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos”, but she’s very upset with the ethos of nostalgic agrarian utopianism she insists they are demanding we adopt. I could find you a back-to-the-land hippie who believed the crap that Laudan is arguing against but what persuasive or political power do they have anyway? The exercise would be a pointless waste of everyone’s time – at it’s heart Laudan’s argument is posturing against a strawfoodie.

Her provocative stance certainly has managed to generate attention for her ideas a long time; when a snippet of Laudan’s piece was published in the New York Times last year, she blogged that she was “just relishing the thought of responding to the flood of hostile comments. I love controversy.” More recently in Australia, her spittle-flecked food-politics troll mantle has been adopted by the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg, in this recent piece for Fairfax “Dig in, don’t wait. Our slow food nostalgia is misplaced.”

Right, so that was a little less brief than I intended, but I jeez I feel better. As I was saying, Short has applied Laudan’s scepticism to claims that none of us can cook anymore. It certainly not an argument that I’ve ever supported, and it something I’m active about both personally and professionally.

Short points out that many terms in this discussion have remained undefined, terms such as “pre-prepared”, “convenience”, “raw” and “natural” and she agrees with Laudan’s view questioning whether food really can be divided into “two nice, neat groups”. (link) It’s disappointing that the only response to rejecting “two nice, neat groups” is to throw your hands up in the air and stick to one meaningless group.

None of her interview subjects express a view that prepared foods are unacceptable, although for different types of meals they might rely more or less on processed or packaged ingredients. Short asserts that “Kitchen technologies and their offspring, the trimmed, par-boiled, floreted, deboned and ready-to-steam, are regularly proclaimed as the scourge of home cooking” (link) or, even more alarmingly, “the scourge of good diet and family health and unity”. (link) Her subjects’ universal lack of anxiety about using processed ingredients makes me think that the prevalence and vehemence of these “proclamations” is being overstated.

I’d rather buy bottled passata with an ingredients list that said “tomatoes, tomato juice” and avoid the BPA lining in canned tomatoes, but I certainly don’t think anyone credible is pointing at canned tomatoes as a scourge of home cookery. What’s the point of clinging to the inclusion of items such as canned tomatoes and rice in the “processed” category if it’s only you and Rachel Laudan putting them there?

Short’s argument is much stronger when she points out that there is no consensus in ordinary life or academic practice of what is meant by “cooking” and “cooking skills”. In addition to concrete skills such as “baking” or “chopping”, she describes a range of tacit skills that are built from experience and learned knowledge, extending from the ability to open the oven and inspect a dish and know at what stage of cooking it’s at all the way to the organisation, planning and emotional work it can take to cook every day for fussy children.

To me the ability to look in the fridge, garden and pantry and whip up something delicious is the mark of a good domestic cook. My definition also includes an element of domestic economy, which would amuse my friend Chris who was astonished that I don’t have a budget for food shopping. What I mean is that there is no food waste in this house. Every usable morsel is eaten by us, the chickens or the worms. There’s a hint of class-based distaste for that kind of frugality in some of Short’s subjects, who don’t want meals to appear as if you’d “bunged your leftovers in” (link)

My parents both worked and eventually my mother got sick of cooking as well as doing all the rest. I was brought up with Deb instant mashed potato and frozen vegetables that were favoured because they didn’t go off in the crisper. I don’t know why I struck out against that way of eating so vehemently. I still try and do all the cooking at my parents’ house rather than eat that way.

My list of “acceptable” processed food will differ from yours (unless you’re Tammi :) I do make some things “from scratch” that are almost exclusively used in bought versions. By Short’s and Laudan’s arguments, is the hoi sin sauce I make using miso and malted barley from the Co-op and Megachef oyster sauce just another assembly of processed foods?

My list of “unacceptable” processed foods will differ from yours too – I find chilled packaged “fresh” pasta a ridiculous invention and will either make fresh pasta or, more commonly, used dried pasta. I’m under no delusions – I am what’s described in the book as a “food hobbyist” and I’m clearly more than a couple of standard deviations past the bell curve of processed food eating – to the extent that my use and consumption of processed food surprises people sometimes. For instance the lovely @charlotteshucks responded when I tweeted that I was making the kids chicken drumsticks with lemongrass and Maggi seasoning sauce for dinner recently “wow, never thought I’d hear you singing the praises of Packet Food … #worldupsidedown”. Fortunately she wasn’t on twitter when I posted a couple of days later “I think y’all will realise how crook I’m feeling if I tell you we’re having Crust pizza for dinner”.

I think what I ultimately found most disappointing about the book was that although Short was a chef for 15 years before becoming a scholar there is nowhere detectable in the book a passion for food beyond that academic fascination. Particularly where a book has begun as a formal qualification-directed research project we can’t judge it for what it’s not about. But how can you talk about cookery skills and how people cook without talking about how it tastes?

Treading the Olive Line

The Italian town of Bellagio sits at the tip of a peninsula that perfectly bisects the south part of Lake Como into two picturesque arms. I had the privilege in September of spending a fortnight staying there and living la vita Como. When I stood on the tip of the peninsula at la punta di spartiventi (“the place where the winds separate”) I noticed an olive tree a couple of metres out from the shore, its feet entirely submerged in the waters of Lake Como. Surely, I thought, this must be the northernmost olive tree in the world. After all, the Swiss border was only ten or so kilometres to the north and west.

But strictly speaking, I wasn’t correct. When I visited the town of Varenna on the eastern shore of the Lake and a kilometre or so further to the north, I found olive trees growing on the mountain side facing the Lake, even while alpine vegetation dominated the north side of the slopes.

The “olive line” is something to conjure with. That point north of which the olive tree won’t prosper serves, ideally, as the boundary of Mediterranean cuisine: beyond which, the cooking becomes butter-dominated.

Recently, UNESCO announced that the Mediterranean diet is going to be given world heritage status, joining a list of “intangible” cultural heritage that already includes the tango and Croatian lace-making.

But what is this thing called the Mediterranean diet? Most of us foodies would easily recognise the distinctions between, say, Moroccan cooking and Greek cooking and Italian cooking. There are parts of the Mediterranean coast where fresh and cured pork dominate the diet, and other areas of the coast where its consumption is nearly non-existent. Wine will be served in just about any Spanish café, but will rarely make an appearance across the Straits of Gibraltar in a Moroccan counterpart. What is it that could possibly link these cuisines?

It was Elizabeth David, I think, who was the first to popularise the idea of Mediterranean food as an ensemble, although the first edition of her A Book of Mediterranean Food was overwhelmingly a collection of French recipes, with a few Levantine ones thrown in from her wartime sojourns in the Greek Isles and Cairo. Other Mediterranean cuisines didn’t fair too well; she introduced paella with the observation that “it is the Spanish version of risotto”, which suggests a certain thoughtlessness as regards either Spanish cuisine or Italian cuisine, or both.

The origins of the “Mediterranean Diet” as some nutritional shibboleth lie in a study of the island of Crete after the Second World War by epidemiologist Lelan Allbaugh. But whilst his survey of the Cretan diet showed that vegetables and pulses were overwhelmingly eaten over meat and fish, most of those Cretans surveyed indicated this was more a matter of necessity than choice and that their favourite food was meat — particularly pork products — and they couldn’t get enough of it. Yet what we today evoke as the “Mediterranean Diet” probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. As I observed in an earlier post, up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine. Much of the Mediterranean makes for poor farming and the sea itself is comparatively poor in fish. Remember that a staple of the historical “Mediterranean diet” was air dried cod, imported from Norway.

Historically, as Clifford Wright observes, there were many Mediterraneans – at least two: east and west, Turkish and Spanish, Islamic and Christian. As he says, there is the Mediterranean defined by climate, another defined by sea, another defined by history. And there is the human Mediterranean defined by the movements of its people, which counters any static picture of the Mediterranean, including its diet. Since the fifth century the Mediterranean has seen the rise of Islamic civilisation, has shifted from feudalism to capitalism, and embarked on an age of exploration and conquest. Each transition has fundamentally altered the diet of those around the Mediterranean, especially the introduction of foods we now think of as quintessentially Mediterranean, such as oranges, lemons, eggplants and spinach by Arab agriculturalists, and tomatoes, capsicums and squash after Columbus’s footfall in America, with tomatoes making a particular late appearance in southern Italian cuisine.

But today a platonic “Mediterranean Diet” is ubiquitous, not just in cookery books but also in health promotion. It is merely one example of how, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz has observed in the North American context, every localised taste opportunity is taken by commercial enterprise and turned into some new national fad, made available without regard to place or season.

In 1993, Oldways Preservation Trust and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to introduce the Mediterranean diet to an American audience. They organized a conference to present the science, and unveiled a graphic – the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid – to make this approach easy to understand.

Oldways is a non-profit education organization. It founded the Mediterranean Food Alliance (MFA) to “improve public health by raising consumer awareness about the health benefits of following the Mediterranean Diet”. The Oldways website goes on to explain, “companies that manufacture, import, and sell healthy Mediterranean products underwrite some of the MFA’s educational programs. A number of these companies also apply to use the easily-recognizable Oldways Med Mark on their qualifying products…The MFA benefits a company’s bottom line while it also benefits consumer health. Dues are low and on a sliding scale, so companies of all sizes can participate”.

And to convince MFA members and other Oldways financial supporters — which include the International Olive Council — that they’re getting value for money, Oldways points to “increased sales of Mediterranean foods” as its first KPI, noting that since its Mediterranean Diet campaign took off in the mid-1990s, U.S. olive oil imports rose more than 137%.

And let’s face it, the one thing that could possibly link the disparate, diverse and ever changing worlds of Mediterranean cuisine I referred to earlier is olive oil. So perhaps promoting the “olive line” is important in ways I hadn’t begun to imagine.

2010 Australian Women’s History Month celebrates some female pioneers of agricultural food production

Women's History MonthEvery year the Australian Women’s History Forum runs a themed “Women’s History Month” in March. This year’s theme is music to the ears of a pointy-headed food nerd:

Demeter’s daughters: women’s harvest history
The history of food farming in Australia is much more than the record of agricultural production. When the focus is on women, the story starts with Indigenous food harvesting and includes the pioneering cultivation of familiar crops in unfamiliar soil by colonial women.

It also involves meat producers, dairy and poultry farmers, and market gardeners of Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese and many other nationalities. Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture, also symbolises women growing food in the Depression and those of the wartime Women’s Land Army; women in wartime ‘victory gardens’ when food was still rationed, those who pioneered viticulture and those whose hand was on the plough of agricultural education and research.

The poster shows a portrait of Lu Moo (‘Granny Lum Loy’) by Sydney artist Karolina Venter. Chinese-born, she arrived in Darwin in 1894 and became a very successful market gardener, so beloved that her funeral in 1980 was “one of the biggest and longest in Darwin’s history” – which given the Territorian’s propensity to party on must have been something to see.

Other featured women include Yvonne Aitken, an agricultural scholar and scientist and the pioneering winemaker Mary Penfold.

There’s a growing list of relevant resources, and a calendar of events searchable by area, and a blog, where they’re seeking community input. They’ve already attracted the interest of the Gooloogong Historical Society who are searching for Women’s Land Army members and their descendants, so if you know someone who dug for victory, they’d love to hear from you.

My only sadness is that they have kept the theme to food production, rather than to other forms of women’s economic activity around food – there’s some very interesting work to be done on the Australian female chefs of the late 1970s and 1980s. (And if anyone’s doing that work, I happen to have a really awesome collection of old food mags and forgotten volumes on the subject …)

tor notes that Culinary Success! is best measured in units of husband-approval

So, cooking – it’s not really my thing.

Some people get really into cookery and use seasonal ingredients and make their own gnocchi and everything. I would like to be one of those people. But sadly, I can muster up very little enthusiasm for cooking. But I still cook a little. After all, one must eat!

Since my cookery repertoire is so meagre I often find myself browsing big recipe sites to get spinach ideas and the like.

And I read the comments.

Comments are the scourge of the non-feminist internet. The more general and mainstream the site, the more bigoted and venomous the comments, and usually I avoid reading them unless I’m feeling very masochistic.

But I always read comments on recipe sites because they are 1) informative, and 2) quite low on bigotry (I suppose it is difficult to inject a lot of racist / sexist bile when you’re commenting on something as apolitical as spinach and potato soup).

But recipe comments suffer from their own pollution.

It seems every second or third comment makes reference to the commenter’s husband. Like:

I thought this recipe was okay, but my husband thought it was way too spicy!

Or:

My husband usually hates vegetables, but he thought this was nice. Will make again!

In fact, it seems that maximum husband-approval is the greatest compliment one can pay a recipe:

Wow! 5 stars!!! My husband loved this! He went back for seconds! And thirds! Thanks so much for this!!!

It is incredibly annoying!

It makes me feel like I have teleported into 1950s suburbia (a magical 1950s suburbia, with consumer net access).

It is a reminder of how little things have changed, at least on the domestic front.

I am waiting for the day when I come across a recipe comment along the lines of:

Zomg! My wife loved this. Will make again and again! Thanks!

On that day, I will make my own gnocchi. With a sauce made from seasonal ingredients!

This post is crossposted from Tor’s blog Adrift and Awake. See the comments on the original post here.

Anthony asks how can we Dig For Victory if the Council Inspectors get fussy?

The Australian Conservation Foundation has just released its From Paddock to Plate: Rethinking Food and Farming report. Along with lots of recommendations about how we should do food production in rural and peri-urban areas, it also contains a number of recommendations about food production in urban areas. For instance, it talks about food sensitive urban design, which includes how we might design new housing estates, but also, where urban planning calls for consolidation and medium-density housing, it might be useful to factor in community gardens, roof gardens and so on.

dig!

But this would surely require a change in the current approach of local councils and planning authorities. For example, a vibrant urban food production system directed at household self-provisioning would require some relaxation of current water restrictions. Here in Melbourne, water restrictions serve as a restriction on water use, rather than a restriction on water consumption, and water use for household provisioning rather than commercial profit is severely restricted.

Continue reading →

Andra ponders the demise of the food fetish in children’s books

five

Kids these days just aren’t hungry enough. Wedges of fruitcake, ginger beer, fresh butter and eggs, jam sandwiches, sausages – none of these stir the reader the way they used to in the heyday of The Famous Five.

I think one of the successes of Harry Potter is the nostalgic updating of boarding school type food treats.

My children are cooking these holidays. They’ve been told that if they want to eat something, they’re going to have to cook it themselves. I used to cook sweets and puddings and pies and slices. As a child, I made jam and toffee and fudge and ices.

We’ve had a couple of experiments, some choc chip cookies, sorbet and shepherds’ pie and they’re bored. They can buy better and they’re prepared to wait me out.

I believe this trend has been reflected in modern children’s literature. Harry Potter is the only series I’ve read recently that gave me a full feeling in my stomach. Where are the endless dishes of mushrooms and cider from The Hobbit? The picnics and fry-ups from The Wind in the Willows? The tea parties of Alice and Wonderland?

potter feast


This post originally appeared at andragy.

Zoe, she’s here to help

So my women’s group tries to have one session each term run by one of the members because this is cheap called “capacity building” and helps the government justify giving us money.

I put my hand up to do a “demystifying what is in the Asian supermarket” kind of session, and I need your help, because it’s on next Wednesday and I’ve just remembered. For many years now I have been wandering home with random bags of things from the Asian grocery and I’ve lost track of what might freak out your average whitegirl. I don’ t know it all by any means, but I know where to find out and I’ve quite a few Asian cooking reference books. I’ll be concentrating on Chinese and Vietnamese foods, as they’re the cuisines I know best.

I should be able to get whatever groceries we need, and I’ll take a rice cooker, gas ring and wok. I’ll also set up a table with the reference books. Ideally, I’d like it to be part demonstration, part chatting, part Q&A.

When I think about what would be the most useful things to show someone who was starting to learn about cooking Asian-style food, this is what comes to mind for me:

  • why you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on a wok and how to season one properly
  • light soy sauce and dark soy sauce, which are very nearly the same shade of black although that’s not the point
  • what “hot” means (hint: fucking hot)
  • that stir fries are much better if they have one or two ingredients (not counting oils or seasoning)
  • bottled sauces that are worth it (eg toban djian, aka broad bean chilli sauce) and those that are not worth anything at all (black bean, plum, lemon, etc, etc, etc)
  • how to make aromatic oils to dress veggies, etc, with
  • the logistics of cooking a Chinese/Vietnamese dinner

I might pre-cook a red-braised dish, take the rice cooker, and do a veggie stir fry and maybe another dish – perhaps the insanely good steamed chicken from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. Enough for the 15 or so people to have a taste of a few different styles

I’m also wondering what “novel” ingredients it might be most useful to spend some time on – maybe fresh rice noodle sheets, jicama (aka Mexican yam bean, often used as a water chestnut substitute). dried black beans, kang kong (aka water spinach, aka water convolvulus), frozen edamame and ….

I’d be interested to hear any good or bad experiences you’ve had with Asian supermarket shopping, and what you think it would be useful to teach some noobs. If you and I were wandering through the Asian grocery, what foodstuffs would you be asking about? Would you just be so excited to use the word “foodstuffs” that nothing else mattered?

[Disclaimer: I am 5'11" and of frecklishly obvious Irish heritage]

The Renaissance Kitchen at BibliOdyssey

BiliOdyssey is one of those blogs that makes you think “that’s what the internet is for!” A chap called peacay hunts and gathers historical images of interesting and wonderful things all over the interwebs and presents them for our enjoyment and education. It is one of Australia’s most beautiful blogs.

Today’s post is called “The Renaissance Kitchen” and features illustrations (like this one) from the 1570 Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi, a highly influential work by a wildly famous chef.

from BibliOdyssey

Go and enjoy the images and links to more medieval and renaissance culinary history, and check out too peacay’s flickr stream. Be careful, you can get lost there for hours.


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