Fabio Parasecoli


Fat Studies: A Panel Discussion

The CDC has identified obesity as a serious public health problem for both children and adults in the U.S. The causes of obesity are myriad and complex. And the more we learn about the science of how our bodies burn fuel, convert excess fuel to fat, and what that fat can contribute to health problems, the more we challenge old ideas. Calories in = energy used is no longer a simple formula.

The more we learn about the connection between obesity and health, the more we understand that it is not food alone that contributes to the problem. The concept of an “obesity epidemics,” prevalent in public debates, is quite complex not only from a public health point of view, but also in terms of cultural and social issues. How did this discourse develop and how does it influence policy decisions at the local and national level? What is the impact of popular and visual culture? What are the implications from a psychological point of view? What initiatives can be effective in helping individuals to establish a healthy and constructive relation to food and their body image?

Moderated by Fabio Parasecoli, Coordinator of Food Studies, will explore new approaches to these issues.

Panelists include:

 – Lisa Rubin, associate professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research

 – Leah Sweet assistant professor of Art History at Parsons The New School for Design

 – Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, assistant professor of History and Co-founder, Healthclass2.0

 – Christine C. Caruso, assistant professor at Touro College of Pharmacy.

Sponsored by the Food Studies Program at the New School for Public Engagement in collaboration with in collaboration with SoFAB Institute as a part of the Culinaria Query and Lecture Series


Fat Studies: Bodies, Culture, Health

by Fabio Parasecoli

from Huffington Post

Why, as a society, do we care so much about the way we look? Why are we often uncomfortable with our reflection in the mirror? Too frequently, what we see does not match what the world around us promotes as acceptable or preferable. It is not only a question of clothing, hairstyles, or accessories. Our body itself frequently bothers us to the point where we end up perceiving it as some external burden imposed on our real self, that inner self that does not succeed in shining through the obtrusive flesh. We try our best to feel in control of our outer image. Enjoying total mastery over the body and its appearance is a powerful fantasy that can influence the way we manage ourselves on a daily basis, with health as our primary goal and often with looks as a secondary but not so irrelevant objective.

The image-obsessed media intensifies the relevance of these concerns, with a barrage of shows, news, books, magazines, and, more recently, even podcasts occupying our waking hours. But who decides what body images are appropriate, successful, and positive? How does mainstream culture adopt these images? Or rather, does mainstream culture actually create them? Why do they have such a strong clutch on our emotional wellbeing?

These elements are frequently not of our making. Popular culture has turned into a powerful repository of pictures, opinions, and customs that influence how we look at ourselves, the way we eat, and the whole economic and social system ensuring that we get the food we need on a daily basis. In fact, visual images at times filter our biological requirements (hunger) and psychological needs (desire). Desires, fantasies, and fears coagulate around us and in our bodies, deeply influencing us as individuals and communities. Moreover, images are never innocent or neutral: They always come entangled in a network of ideas and practices that are provided by our family, by the environment, by the culture in which we are born. The image of our body is never just that: In the eyes of the surrounding beholders, and as a consequence in ours, it is the representation of a man or of a woman, of a cute or of a not-so-cute person, of a strong or a weak individual.

In the U.S. cultural context, being overweight is often interpreted as a sign of lack of will and determination and as the external manifestations of emotional shortcomings. This element has had a profound influence on the way public debates about health and obesity — a contested concept in itself — have been framed, on how research on these issues has been conducted, and often on the policy measures adopted to deal with them. The very use of the expression “obesity epidemics” has been questioned. As I discussed in an earlier post, some critics now point to factors that for political, economic and cultural reasons are often underestimated or outright ignored, such as environmental toxins, pharmaceuticals, and overproduction in contemporary food systems. However, the mainstream discourse overall stigmatizes large bodies as the consequence of misguided personal choices, while interpreting them automatically as unhealthy and undesirable.

These are some the themes that will be examined in a public panel at The New School on Fat Studies, a new field that, in the words of scholars Sondra Solovay and Esther Rothblum, “questions the very questions that surround fatness and fat people.” How are notions of shame and disgust constructed and maintained? What power relations hide behind the very idea that people are expected to diet, even when they are healthy? What dynamics of exclusions are generated? Are there institutions, groups, or industries that gain from this state of affairs?

Whether we realize it or not, we learn discipline about food intakes by participating in a cultural system that gives our bodies meaning and makes them acceptable. They become part of practices and social arrangements that range from public health to nutrition, from visual culture to psychotherapy. Much more than can be covered in a panel discussion, but it is a start…

The Bangalore Foodie Club: Eating Adventures in a Cosmopolitan City

by Fabio Parasecoli

from Huffington Post

Living in New York and working in food — previously as a journalist and currently as a professor — I often find myself talking about restaurants, products, and trends. A growing number of people identify themselves as “foodies,” passionate about all things culinary, ready to improve their expertise, and always willing to discuss their last discovery.

This kind of approach to food and eating is no longer exclusive to post-industrial societies like the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan. Foodies are a cosmopolitan tribe that has emerged in urban centers where upward economies, burgeoning middle classes, and global flows of people, ideas, and technology allow for growing numbers of people to express their identity — and their social distinction — through the consumption of food.

India’s largest cities are examples of this worldwide phenomenon. I was reminded of that by reading an article by food journalist Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi. Its title, Why We Need A Time-Out From Foodie Culture, says it all. The author observes: “We feel like we’re experts on food because we all eat. We follow international chefs on Twitter, we watch aspiring ones make detailed, complex dishes on MasterChef — preparations that take hours are edited down to minutes. We’re now not only experts, we’re now instant experts. Because we saw someone chiffonade herbs on TV, we saw the Wikipedia entry for sous-vide, we tweeted about the best biryani in town, we feel we can now talk about food with some authority.”

When I was doing research in Bangalore, I joined the Facebook Bangalore Foodies Club, which now boasts more than 13,000 members. As I was new to the city, I was looking for tips and advice. I ended up meeting very interesting and warm people who generously showed me around and introduced me to the local food culture. After I made it back to NYC, I asked the members of the group what a “foodie” was for them. Interestingly, very few people responded to my query, and not because of lack of participation in the group. Other threads about specific restaurants or dishes routinely receive much more attention. It seemed that most participants were not so interested in reflections, but rather in sharing experiences, impressions, and often complaints. Those who answered agreed that the word “foodie” was somewhat abused, but that at the same time it indicated a desire to experiment, break barriers, and try new things.

Who are these “foodies”? Based on shared dinners, conversations, and more formal interviews, they definitely do not constitute a homogenous group, which would be impossible in India and especially in a metropolis like Bangalore. Many point to the impact of MasterChef Australia, which started broadcasting about 3 years ago, as the beginning of the trend. Now there is a MasterChef India, and its popularity is so pervasive that male kids now think that being a chef is a legitimate career.

In general, locals are proud of their food traditions and expertise. Many argue that their city is at the same level as Mumbai or Delhi. They enjoy the availability of so many cuisines from the south and elsewhere: vegetarian and non-vegetarian, fish, Brahmin, and Muslim. The traditional elites who speak kannada, the local language, frequently enjoy patronizing establishments featuring traditional fare. English speaking elites native from Bangalore tend to be more cosmopolitan, but at times resent the growing numbers of strangers moving to the city following the IT boom. Newcomers are both married and not married, an important factor in Indian society in terms of interaction and leisure dynamics. As a consequence, eating out becomes particularly important for singles, and many among those employed in IT have some disposable income to spend on good food.

Outsiders often observe — and the locals tend to agree — that the Bangalore upper crust is relatively price conscious: they want value for their buck. They are not so much about seeing and being seen, or hanging out with celebrities. Restaurants that invest just on looks, and where food is not good or too expensive shut down fast. Many establishments, trying to ride the tide, have opened and closed really fast. Food has certainly moved from the private sphere to more public conversations, allowing up-and-coming individuals and group to display refinement, knowledge, and connoisseurship through their culinary choices. Inevitably the numbers of those who fancy themselves as experts has grown exponentially. However, there are some who write about food, travel, culture, and tradition seriously and accurately. Among my favorites, Aliyeh Rizvi on A Turquoise Cloud, Suman Bolar on the FTB Blog. and Suresh Hinduja on GourmetIndia. More to come about restaurants in Bangalore…

Italian Cuisine and Its Intricacies

by Fabio Parasecoli

from Huffington Post

Italy maintains a dazzling variety of products, now an important component of local identities. As a child, I distinctly remember that I was not aware of many fantastic products that I now love. Only later, was I exposed to the squash tortelli from Mantova, the smoked pork speck from Alto Adige, or the luscious burrata cheese from Apulia, as these specialties became readily available all over the country. At the same time, the friends I grew up with in Rome had no clue about the arrosticini (tiny grilled skewers of mutton) or the ventricina (ground pork and pork fat with spices, encased in a pig bladder) that I appreciated during my summer vacations in Abruzzo, just 100 miles away.

As I discuss in my new book Al Dente: A History of Food in Italy, culinary diversity has roots so deep in Italian culture that many wonder how to define Italian cuisine as a whole, or if it is even possible to do so. In his book Italy and its Invaders, historian Girolamo Arnaldi quotes poet Mario Luzi, saying, “Italy is an illusion, indeed, a mirage, the stuff of wishes” with a “terribly fragile” national identity. It is not easy to identify a set of ingredients, dishes, cultural attitudes and practices as generally Italian, although some items like pasta, pizza, parmigiano reggiano, and extra virgin olive oil have surpassed their geographical origins to be embraced all over the country. Rather than coherent and clearly codified, the Italian culinary repertoire is still — for the most part — a collection of interconnected but independent local traditions.

All around the world, as growing scores of food lovers are in search of novelty to express and expand their culinary knowledge and cultural capital, an establishment advertised as simply ‘Italian’ risks being perceived as passe or lacking in ‘authenticity.’ Savvy restaurant-goers, who have access to expert information and are likely to have traveled to Italy, have become acutely aware of the complexity of its local food traditions. The very existence of a national Italian cuisine is frequently called into question. In the United States, for instance, many restaurants started defining their food as ‘northern Italian’ as early as the late 1970s, distinguishing their cuisine from the seemingly old-school and immigrant-owned plain ‘Italian’ cooking, widely classified as southern Italian. In the 1980s, the craze for everything Tuscan exploded, fueled by media, travel agencies and marketing. Recently, the focus has shifted to once lesser-known culinary specialties from regions such as Apulia, Sardinia and Val D’Aosta, with renewed interest in local traditions of cities, towns and rural areas. This trend has been strengthened by the Italians’ own renewed interest in their local culinary identities, a phenomenon that since the end of the 1980s has deeply changed food preferences and practices in Italy.

The Italian-born cookbook author Marcella Hazan played a crucial role in changing the perceptions of English-speaking food enthusiasts about Italian food. When she moved to the U.S. in the mid-1950s, she found herself cooking for her husband, trying to recreate the flavors she had grown up with in her native Romagna. A biologist by training, she had never spent too much time at the family stove learning recipes from her mother or other female relatives. However, in her new environment, she rediscovered her passion for food. After The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne noticed her work, she published The Classic Italian Cook Book in 1973 and More Classic Italian Cooking in 1978. The two books, collected in one volume in 1992 under the title Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, are still considered by many as groundbreaking.

We will discuss the work and influence of Marcella Hazan in a panel discussion at The New School on June 4, part of the Culinary Luminaries series. Panelists include Victor Hazan, Marcella’s husband and professional collaborator, Susan Friedland, former Director of Cookbook Publishing and Marcella’s editor at HarperCollins, cookbook author Michele Scicolone and the Italian chef Cesare Casella.