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What is Polish cuisine?

What is Polish cuisine? One year ago I traveled to Poland for my first exploration of its food and culinary traditions. I was both surprised and intrigued by the vitality of the whole sector, the quality of ingredients, the works of producers, and the creativity of chefs. I was so captivated by what I saw that I kept going back, most recently in a culinary trip to Warsaw and the Western cities of Poznań and Wrocław organized by the Polish Cultural Institute in NYC and Polish Plate.

A few visits later, and with a better (although not extensive enough) knowledge of the culinary scene in the country, I realized how unusually urgent the question about what is Polish cuisine seems to have become. I have had the opportunity to sit on panels, participate in public and private debates, and serve as a judge in competitions focusing on specialties ranging from nalewki (the local spirits made by steeping fruits, wild berries, and other ingredients in alcohol) to czernina (a soup that features duck blood) and stuffed goose. The conversations often veered towards the very nature Polish cuisine and what makes it unique and distinctive.

It is ingredients? Dishes? Specific habits and traditions? Or it is rather a question of who produces and prepares what is eaten? Is it necessary to dig back into the near and remote past to identify specific customs and flavors profiles, or should one stick to contemporary practices? The answers to these questions run the gamut from the desire to find essential (and unchanging) characteristics to a more nuanced appreciation for the recent resurgence of food in Poland in terms of quality, visibility, and relevance in public discourse.

As a scholar in food studies, participating in these conversations has prompted other, maybe more reflexive (more “meta,” as we like to say when we use jargon), questions: why are all sorts of stakeholders in the food system discussing what is Polish food? Why now? What are the motivations and the goals of such discussions? Are these topics of interest to large segments of Poles, or are they rather the exclusive domain of producers and other actors on the culinary scene, from chefs to media and tourist operators?

There is definitely a widespread interest about reconnecting (“rediscovering” is often the preferred expression) with local and traditional ingredients and dishes that are at times perceived as threatened by globalization and the growing popularity of foreign foods, at times experienced as unfortunately left aside because considered too rustic, or backward, or plain. Sitting in fine-dining restaurants such as Dom Wódki Elixir in Warsaw, Toga and A Nóż Widelec in Poznań, or Jadka in Wrocław you have the impression that traditional elements are already successfully integrated in modern, current culinary styles that can definitely hold their own on the international stage. Enterprises such as Pszczelarium and Nalewki Staropolskie (arguably the most recognizable nalewka production in Poland) in Warsaw, or Folwark Wąsowo and the carp ponds of Stawy Milickie in Lower Silesia, all appear to seamlessly connect past and present, merging old techniques and know-how with modern distribution and marketing savvy.

It is not easy to pinpoint the origins of this renewed interest in defining Polish food and in appreciating local and traditional ingredients and dishes. In part, Poland is reflecting a global trend among the rising middle-classes in post-industrial societies, for whom food has emerged as an important area in the formation, negotiation, and performance of individual and collective identities. As Poland transitions out of its post-communist phase and into a more mature – although not less troubled – political landscape, and consumerism in embraced as the standard lifestyle, food plays an increasingly relevant role in defining the cultural outlook, social status, and political worldviews of citizens from all walks of life.

This growing importance and visibility of food manifests itself in the success of culinary shows and media, also among the large majority of Poles that otherwise may go to restaurants only rarely and think twice before purchasing an expensive product. Among the middle-class, especially in urban environments and the younger generations, such relevance reveals the characteristics of what we could call “global foodie cosmopolitanism,” which expresses itself – in Warsaw as in Brooklyn, Rio de Janeiro or Bangalore – through specific sensory aesthetics in terms of flavors, dish presentation, environments (bar, restaurants, cafes), packaging, performance of preparation, service, and consumption. Heavily tinged in hipster undertones, this cosmopolitanism also supports the appreciation for local and traditional culinary elements that are globally hailed as a form of resistance to globalization, transnational corporations, and environmental disaster.

At the same time, Poland is inevitably dealing with the complexities deriving the presence along its history of various communities in the territory that now falls under Poland: Germans, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians just to mention a few. Such intricate past – which will come to the forefront in 2018 on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the formation of contemporary Poland as an independent nation-state – is also heightened by the presence of different religions (Catholic, Protestants, Jews) at different points in time. Moreover, some culinary traditions, while felt as quintessentially Polish, are similar to those in neighboring countries. As a consequence of all this, should we speak of Polish cuisine, or rather of the cuisines (in the plural) in Poland? And how would these two different approaches to thinking about Polish food fly in the present cultural and political climate?

 

Food, Traditions, Technologies

Gifts of the Wild: Foraging and Hunting in Poland

Honey at the Gruczno Festival

 

It is extraordinary how foraging plays a central role in Polish cuisine. Mushrooms, berries, and wild plants are featured in everyday recipes and practices. Many of the people I have been meeting in my trips to Poland – and not all of them are operating in the field of food – have stories about gathering mushrooms with an uncle, picking berries with a grandmother for desserts and savory dishes, making preserves that sit in a cellar for years, saving flavors together with memories. Even people living in cities, although they may not practice foraging themselves, are familiar with it, and may receive food from friends and relatives in the countryside. Moreover, the market for wild mushrooms is quite active, especially in season.

Foraging is the expression of knowledge, skills, and cultural perspectives that are not transferred through formal education but rather through human interaction and shared experiences. Herbs and wild fruits – nettle, rowan, buckthorn and many others – find their way into soups and all kinds of preparations, from pierogis and sausages to pies. I was invited to the Festival of Taste, which took place on August 19th and 20th in Gruczno, in the Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, to be part of a jury for a nalewki contest. Nalewki(plural of nalewka) are infusions of various ingredients in alcohol, among which a great number of wild berries and fruits. I was amazed by the variety and the unexpected flavors of those spirits, and impressed by the expertise and the passion displayed by the judges in evaluating them. Closely connected to the foraging of products of forests and plains, the manufacture of nalewki is an artisanal activity that operates in the grey area between legality and bootlegging, yet is widely appreciated all over the country.

We cannot forget the enormous production of high quality honey in Poland. Although expert beekeepers and artisans harvest and sell most of it, honey maintains a close connection with the natural environment and the dazzling array of types and aromas derives precisely from wild plants. Furthermore, some wild honey is also gathered, of course available at quite higher prices. Honey is regularly featured in recipes and often constitutes its own category in festivals and culinary contests, as it was the case in Gruczno.

Such attachment to foraged products is visible not only in family traditions and domestic customs, but also in restaurants. The chefs that are exploring the Polish culinary heritage in new and creative ways often include herbs and plants from the forest and other ecosystems in their dishes. While such familiarity is solidly rooted in Polish culture, I suspect that the attention that the New Nordic Cuisine has been paying to foraging may have played a role in making old-school practices hot and current among Polish chefs, who inevitably look at the trends outside of their country.

Last but not least, hunting is widely practiced in Poland. The activity is not without its critics. The protests of environmentalists and animalists, as well as the sense that hunting is an activity for people of means, highlight tensions around hunting. Such frictions have recently increased due to the decision of the Polish government to continue logging in the Białowieża forest, a remnant of the European primeval woods, despite protests and an order to stop from the EU court of justice. Nevertheless, venison and other game are not a rarity on Polish tables. In Gruczno, I had the opportunity to speak with Piotr Beszterda, a specialist for game and hunting in the local division of the National Forests, a government organization. He was at the festival to present products such as smoked wild boar cure fat (a slice of heaven!) and deer ham, which are being sold to raise funds for the activities of the National Forests. Mr. Beszterda explained that hunter clubs pay his organization for the hunting rights in a certain area for a given length of time, with permission for a specific number of animals as a form of fauna control. In that case, what they hunt belongs to them and it is often distributed as gifts to family and friends, more rarely sold.

Foraging, hunting and, of course, fishing, are so ingrained in Polish habits that they are taken for granted not only in rural but also in urban contexts, where the products are widely enjoyed but personal connections with them are less direct. Precisely for their perception as ordinary and informal – at times even as backwards, the cultural value of these activities may not be fully appreciated. A pity, as they contribute enormously to the uniqueness of Polish cuisine and may help us rethink our relations with food production and the environment.

Women and Food: Creating Narratives, Producing Sustenance

Dining on Climate Data: Using Food to Explain Climate Change.

Via Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

 

With Rebeka Ryvola, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

A pizza pie that demonstrates the proportion or clean vs. fossil fuel energy with a perfectly edible and appetizing portion while the remaining two thirds of it are unsavory, burnt? An exquisite dessert with an unexpected garnish of crickets inviting western populations to explore alternative, environmentally-friendly protein sources? A range of salad dressings with increasing proportions of red and spicy Moroccan harissa to show how climate change brings increasing discomfort? These were some of the climate data concepts shared at the Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change (CBA 11) conference in Uganda in June where the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre brought food, climate, and data together in an out-of-the-box session created in collaboration with The New School.

Climate cuisine? It’s not just a delicious distraction from the often-abstract subject matter. Multisensory learning makes concepts stick better, and experiential approaches open up the subject matter to a broader audience. CBA session facilitator Roop Singh notes, “combining climate data with food makes esoteric climate concepts approachable for everyone, not just the scientists”. And food-as-communication makes abstract concepts more personal: Colin McQuistan from Practical Action tweeted about the session: “Data cuisine session links between climate, culture & cuisine … stories of how food is central to who we are.”

Development and climate professionals are increasingly called on to integrate climate concepts and data in the work they do in and out of the field. In the Climate Centre’s work, a growing number of the emergencies, famines and other humanitarian crises are connected to extreme weather events, from droughts to floods and hurricanes. To communicate about complex climate dynamics in a way that inspires communities, practitioners, governments, and others to take action, the Climate Centre has been playing educational games with officials, creating collaborative art with residents of poor neighborhoods of the Peruvian capital, Lima, running animations and virtual reality to tell climate data stories – all highly creative approaches central to the Climate Centre’s work.

The invitation to “Taste the Change” was introduced at Paris’s COP 21 (the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference) in 2015. In that first foray into experimenting with using food to communicate about water intensity and livestock production, insect-based morsels, prepared by Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, gave participants a multisensory experience. Throughout 2016, the Climate Centre worked with academics, journalists, chefs, museum curators, and artists to further push the bounds of creative communication approaches of climate data and climate change impacts around the world. At the COP 22 meeting in Marrakech, Morocco from Nov 7 – 18, 2016 the Centre organized two more Taste the Change sessions: a highly interactive one that dealt with the numbers-side of climate, and another that examined the role of storytelling in understand how climate is impacting how me grow, prepare, and consume food.

Mapping out the CBA session, we wondered: how could students from New York join the food system and climate conversation in Uganda and what could they contribute? In the frame of the Zero Waste Food conference on April 28th and 29th, twenty-five students from The New School Food Studies program participated in an afternoon-long workshop focused on designing experiences that could help the participants at CBA and possibly throughout Uganda better understand the consequences of weather pattern changes on the connections between agriculture, climate change, and food waste by using local ingredients, dishes, and practices.

A group worked on the animal sounds that traditionally signaled certain phases in the agricultural production now losing some significance, as animals adapt their behaviors to climate change. Others focused on need for fuel and the excessive exploitation of native plants that can provide edible products; on the use of solar energy to dry fish and the subsequent manufacturing of high protein content fish powders to add to meals; and on a Cutthroat Kitchen-like game in which the absence of necessary ingredients, reflecting the effects of climate change on food availability, would force participants to get creative in cooking.

CBA threaded together the lessons and experiences from Paris, Marrakech, and NYC Taste the Change. The result was 200+ global development practitioners, scientists, humanitarian aid workers, policy makers, and community members slowing down to deliberate adaptation approaches over food. Ideas and stories about food in culture, policy, and tools for resilience grew into an organic, informative, and creative discussion often missed out on with traditional presentations. Food will obviously continue to play critical roles in our cultures, communities, and lives. And we believe it will increasingly feature prominently in our conversations and policy processes around climate change adaptation. Get in touch with Ryvola@climatecentre.org to learn more.

Designing the Future of Food

Via KATJA GUIJTERS
Via KATJA GUIJTERS

 

We can learn something – actually quite a lot – about our culture by looking at how we imagine the future of food. Are we all going to starve, as Malthus prophesied back in the eighteenth century? Or will we find ways to feed the growing humankind? And what kind of resilience will we embrace? Will it be based on science and technology, or will it rather rediscover the ways of our ancestors? As Warren Belasco indicated in his masterly Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, these scenarios are far from objective and neutral. They are rather the expression of ideologies and political negotiations that are solidly rooted in our present and our evaluation of the societies in which we live.

As I have already discussed in this space, a relatively new voice has joined this conversation: food design. Design as a discipline is very much focused on the innovation we can introduce in our daily lives. As designer Todd Johnston observed, “A design marks out a vision for what can be; the act of designing is to move with intent to close the gap between existing conditions and that vision.” Back in 1999, design theorist Tony Fry famously considered design as a weapon against defuturing, that is “the condition of undermining viable human futures through our contemporary modes of habitation.”

As food becomes increasingly central in how we imagine ourselves and the world, it is inevitable that design expands its sphere of interest and practical applications to food. Food design, as the founding document of Food Design North America states, “includes any action that can improve our relationship with food individually or collectively. These actions can relate to the design of food products, materials, practices, environments, systems, processes and experiences.” The relevance of the reflection about what’s coming is highlighted in a Kickstarter campaign that is raising funds for MOLD: The First Print Magazine About the Future of Food.

Food Design, the book written by design critic Ed van Hinte on and in collaboration with Katja Gruijters, is a stimulating addition to this conversation. Its subtitle, “Exploring the Future of Food,” excludes nostalgia and luddist perspectives from being considered as effective tools to make our food system better. Technology is not considered an enemy, but rather a possible collaborator, even when it is not necessarily at the center of Gruijters’s work.

The volume follows a well-proven approach: an issue in food systems is identified and discussed, and then Gruijers’s projects dealing with it – directly or indirectly – are presented, illustrated by photographs of events and objects. Among the topics, we read about seaweeds, flowers and insects as underused sources of nutrition, proteins from plants, the need for surplus reduction in Western food production, obesity and health. While the narrative structure is quite effective in introducing many hot topics, the authors do not claim to have any final solution. They are actually quite self-reflective about it, musing: “Another weakness in some of our prophecies is that they themselves can cause changes. They can enhance conditions or hamper them.” Debating the future is, in fact, highly political.

Changing the way people eat, their preferences and their outlook is not supposed to be easy. Food design is not about coming up with quick fixes. Van Hinte and Gruijters underline that “it is important for designers and food providers to be aware that their work is never a one shot deal, certainly not when it comes to ecological interventions. Balance is not a fixed state.” However, looking for viable solutions does not necessarily mean renouncing pleasure. “The new field of food design is emerging as a way to shed light on the development of food values in terms of nutrition, enjoyment, and seductiveness to all the senses.”

Food waste inevitably looms large in the pages of the book. It has emerged as one of the most glaring problems in post-industrial societies, becoming increasingly unacceptable in terms of food justice, environmental impact, and long-term sustainability. For that reason, at The New School we decided to partner with the Institute of Culinary Education to organize Zero Waste Food, a two-day conference that will take place on April 28 and 29 in New York City. Aspiring to bridge the separation between theory and practice, the conference will connect academics with practitioners, designers, chefs, and the business sector through panels and hands-on application. We are particularly looking forward to the keynote address by Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, reached the no. 1 position on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and whose non-profit Food for Soul aims to empower communities to fight food waste through social inclusion.

Japan’s National Cuisine: History And Invention

Japan Monthly Web Magazine
Japan Monthly Web Magazine

Growing numbers of consumers – especially among those with higher buying power, who enjoy the privilege of choosing what to eat – have shown interest for foods that are connected with traditions, specific places, and particular individuals. As a response to globalization and the industrialization of food production, the myth of authenticity has acquired market value and cultural currency in the culinary sphere. This trend includes national cuisines, embraced as important elements of collective identity and, not insignificantly, as tools to attract tourists and boost exports.

In recent years, following the requests from various countries that wanted their culinary customs recognized and highlighted, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has expanded an already existing category, the “intangible cultural heritage,” to include agricultural practices, food production, and traditions that are place-specific and derive their value from the unique connections between communities, their material lives, and their environments.

This push does not grow out of activism and associative networks in civil society, like Slow Food Presidia, nor does it have the same legal strength and immediate efficacy as Geographical Indications, based on enforceable national and international intellectual property regulations. As it relies on the involvement of national authorities, the registration on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage is often a top-down initiative, embodying negotiations and decisions at the level of international institutions. For this reason, it is particularly important to gauge the modes of operation and the effectiveness of the category, although data are still limited due to its relatively short history.

Eric C. Rath’s book, Japan Cuisines: Food, Place and Identity, ( ) offers a well-informed and lucid critique of the government-led addition of the “traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese (washoku)” to the UNESCO list. Rath very frankly states: “the vague definition […] from Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture and other official agencies […] does not at all resemble either what most people once ate or what they consume today. Washoku is instead an idealized dietary lifestyle, focusing on food popularized from the 1960s onwards meant to impress audiences outside Japan and guide domestic eating habits.”

The author also points out that during World War II the Japanese government tried to establish a “national people’s cuisine (kokuminshoku) to standardize the diet, rationalize the use of scarce nutritional resources and put a positive spin on wartime rationing.” Such attempts were also taking place in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, for the same reasons and with the same goals. Although the recent additions to the UNESCO list derive from very different motivations, Rath observes that “national people’s cuisines are not objective descriptions of diets but are instead ideological, in that they present an idealized version of food to serve the interest of political and social institutions.”

These are relevant dynamics that, despite having emerged all around the world (and not necessarily in connection with the UNESCO list), do not receive the attention they deserve, tightly wrapped in the trappings of foodism, the fascination with traditions, as well as the appreciation for local and artisanal productions. For this reason in my upcoming book Knowing Where It Comes From: Labeling Traditional Foods to Compete in a Global Market (University of Iowa Press, August 2017), I go back to the first three registrations in 2010 (“Traditional Mexican cuisine—ancestral, ongoing community culture, the Michoacán paradigm,” “The gastronomic meal of the French,” and “The Mediterranean diet”) to assess the dynamics – both internal and international – that supported them and made them into examples that were soon followed by other countries.

Although rice plays a central role in the mystique of Japanese cuisine, historically it has been far from being the only, or even the most important grain, all over the country. Rath demonstrates that “rather than serving as a means to reinforce national identity, variations in rice consumption expressed inequalities of wealth and differences in status and gender, and differentiated rural from urban population, exposing some people to discrimination based on the quality, amount or absence of rice in their diets.”

If you are interested in rice and its global history, you should also pick up a copy of Rice: Global Networks and New Histories. Its editors Francesca Bray, Peter Coclanis, Edda Fields-Black and Dagmar Schäfer, have brought together specialists on Asia, Africa, and the Americas to question well-established narratives on how rice became one of the most important crops in the world both from the commercial and the cultural points of view. Rice’s complex entanglements with power struggles, trade, and the environment are unraveled and made clear. Although the book is not a light read, it constitutes an important contribution to food history, both in terms of content and dialogue among experts.

Eataly World: Bringing Production to Consumers

Eataly World
Eataly World

There is little doubt that increasing numbers of consumers around the world are showing enthusiastic interest for Italian food. Ingredients and dishes are featured in stores and restaurants, while home cooks familiarize themselves with regional traditions and culinary techniques. The 2015 Milano Expo reinforced the prominence of Italian gastronomy, stimulating producers, exporters, chefs, and even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote the whole agrofood sector. One of the issues all the stakeholders agree on is the need to safeguard Italian products from what they denounce as counterfeits, which often are absolutely legal due to the variety of commercial and intellectual property systems worldwide.

A player that has definitely acquired a special status in the business of Italian food is Eataly. A few years after the opening of its first store in Turin, Italy, now the brand has become visible all over the world, with openings in Chicago, Seoul, Istanbul and São Paulo, among others. Inevitably, such a massive organization has also attracted a healthy amount of criticism, ranging from the prices paid to the producers to the carbon footprint that comes with the transportation of food around the globe, the freshness of the produce in some stores, and the curatorial choices regarding the items on sale.

Eataly is now getting ready for the next step in its expansion, but one that will put it on a potentially different trajectory. In the new park FICO Eataly World (FICO is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Contadina, that is Italian Farming Factory), opening near Bologna, Italy, in October 2017, the organization is bringing production to the forefront. The core idea is to make supply chains visible to consumers, educating them about food systems and biodiversity. Instead of just selling pasta, for example, the 20-acre park will include a small field where wheat will be grown, an artisanal mill and an industrial one, an industrial pasta factory and artisanal pasta makers. Different crops will be grown on the premises and live cattle, sheep, as well as other farms animals will enliven the outer rims of the park.

The focus will not only be on small, artisanal producers, which are central in the mystique of Italian food as an expression of culture and tradition. Eataly World will also showcase industrial production, as it plays a crucial role in the Italian economy. Forty of the more noticeable Italian companies have been selected by Eataly based on their engagement with the park theme, their willingness to share the risk of the financial investment, their capacity to sustain the effort in the long run and, of course, the quality of their output. Other smaller companies, supported by Eataly, will manufacture and sell their products, to make sure that the park offers a comprehensive presentation of Italian food in all its aspects.

Access to the park will be free, but visitors will have to pay to take advantage of the multimedia exhibitions, tastings, courses, and special events that will fill the calendar, also thanks to a conference center that can fit up to 1,000 guests. Of course, visitors will have plenty opportunities to buy products in 97,000 square feet of retail space, and to taste them in the 25 restaurants and street food stalls located within the park. The park is so large that three-wheeled bikes with baskets will be available to visitors, allowing them to shop around and then bring products back to their cars.

Eataly World, developed in collaboration with city and regional authorities, Slow Food, and Coop (a network of Italian cooperatives that operates one the largest supermarket chains in the country), is located in the wholesale market facilities that were built in the 1970s and immediately turned out to be too big for the city and for a distribution system in which big buyers such as supermarkets and institutions were already establishing their own purveying arrangements. The Agricultural School of the Bologna University moved into some buildings, while the rest is being gutted and renovated to contain the new park. A smaller wholesale market for the city has been built nearby.

Such a huge enterprise has ruffled many feathers in the town of Bologna. Demonstrators have protested the presence of such a behemoth, which some fear will affect small businesses and restaurants negatively. Eataly World argues instead that its presence will attract tourists – both Italians and foreigners – to the city. Although the mayor’s office fully endorses the effort, the locals still seem puzzled about what’s going on. Talking with restaurant and shop owners, cab drivers, students, and consumers in Bologna, it was clear that they had very fuzzy ideas of what the park will be, how many jobs it will create, and what its overall impact will be on the social dynamics of the town. As the construction proceeds, better local PR may be a long-term investment that could provide wider support to such a massive and innovative initiative.

African Americans, food, and the White House: the value of diversity

HTTP://WWW.KENTUCKY.COM/NEWS/LOCAL/NEWS-COLUMNS-BLOGS/TOM-EBLEN/ARTICLE57966958.HTML Dollie Johnson in the White House kitchen (circa 1890)
HTTP://WWW.KENTUCKY.COM/NEWS/LOCAL/NEWS-COLUMNS-BLOGS/TOM-EBLEN/ARTICLE57966958.HTML
Dollie Johnson in the White House kitchen (circa 1890)

We have just witnessed the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. Not knowing what the political future of the country holds, we are trying to make sense of the signals that the new president gave during the campaign and the transition. Based on his cabinet choices, his impromptu pronouncements on twitter, and a bizarre press conference, there is a lot to worry about – including in terms of the future of our food system. The scant commitment to sustainability and the determination to cut the budget at all costs does not bode well for all those who need forms of support to feed their families. These often include the less protected sectors of society, such as citizens with disabilities, women, immigrants, and minorities.

Many also may wonder what will happen to the vegetable garden that Michelle Obama launched, who will be cooking for the first family and what they will eat. In this context, I found particularly refreshing to read The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, a book that looks at the contributions of a specific minority – African Americans – to the food culture of past presidents and the White House. As its author Adrian Miller observes, “Life in a bubble can be very good, but a good story could be richer if more voices were added to give perspective.” As Miller points out, many of the culinary professionals he introduces are likely to be virtually unknown to most readers, because “much of the venerable presidential history we consume omits these people primarily due to a mix of condescension and contempt toward African Americans on the part of white historians who wrote the stories.” Although information is now more readily available, Miller still notices a form of laziness that prevents writers from acknowledging that “there are more cooks in the kitchen than the executive chef and the pastry chef.”

The President’s Kitchen Cabinet delves into the personal histories, the tribulations, and the achievements of the most relevant – and those for whom documents exist – among the numerous black men and women that found employment as stewards, maître d’s, chefs, cooks, and even mixologists in the White House, but not only. In fact, a chapter is dedicated to those who worked on trains, yachts, and planes that transported the US presidents across the country and around the world. George Washington’s cook Hercules, Thomas Jefferson French-trained chef James Hemings, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s family cook Zephyr Wright and many other come to life, indicating how deep the influence of African Americans has been on the culinary arts of the United States, long before a juggernaut like Edna Lewis made her presence felt on the national scene. In the early decades of the republic, many of these professionals worked as slaves, and Miller does not hesitate to point out what their legal status meant for their personal lives and in terms of their relationship with the man in power, which ranged from benign paternalism to callous insensitivity and outright exploitation. Miller’s book responds to the same desire to acknowledge the oft-ignored past history of black culinary professionals that inspires the pages of Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code. However, while the latter emphasizes cookbooks, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet focuses on material culture, cultural issues, political dynamics, and labor relations, contributing to the study of the development of the culinary professions in the US.

Since the independence, African American personnel in the White House have found themselves interacting more or less smoothly with the First Ladies, who – as Miller underlines – play a crucial role in determining what is prepared and consumed, and particularly influence the president’s diet. Join us on Monday, January 30th at The New School for a Culinary Celebration of America’s Founding Mothers, a conversation with culinary experts Joanna Pruess and Kelsey Brow about three of America’s First Ladies, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison. The event, which will include a tasting of some recipes, will help us further our understanding of the role food plays in determining the public image of presidents and the perception of their politics in general.

Feasting Our Eyes through Food Films

2016-11-21-1479728750-8407245-tampopo1-thumb

Food is not only good to eat; it is also increasingly enjoyed through media that range from one’s smartphone to cinema. In today’s popular culture, food’s visual representations play a role as relevant as its actual consumption, allowing for new forms of sharing and circulation. A specific contemporary way of looking at food is easily identified in communication forms as diverse as cookbooks, advertisement posters, reality TV, and commercials. Both critics and scholars have used the expression “food porn” to refer to this visual language in which food is always glistening and luscious, with lights playing on it to heighten its sensuality.
This style employs recognizable shots, from the ingredient detail to highlight its material qualities to the hand shots that glorify a cook’s dexterity and skills, moving to larger shots that include table, tools, and dishes, as well as the face of the cooking protagonists, all the way to wide shots that reveal the environment and the interaction with other characters. When food porn is applied to film, editing can vary from meditative, slow takes to frantic rhythm, depending on the filmography. Amplified sounds of simmering water or sizzling meat, much louder than ever experienced in reality, contribute to draw viewers into what they see and cannot, obviously, taste or smell.
These elements are constitutive in what is often called the “food film” genre, the main topic of the new book I wrote with Laura Lindenfeld called Feasting Our Eyes: Food Film and Cultural Identity in the United States. Both avid consumers of the genre, Lindenfeld and I question it to uncover how it participates in the formation and the diffusion of ideas and values about important aspects of our identity such as gender and sexuality, class, age, as well as race and ethnicity. We discovered that as fun as they can be and as apparently progressive they may seem in their celebration of difference, originality, and creativity, food films tend to reveal a quite traditional – at times conservative – outlook on society.
Of course, that is not always the case. Recently, two great works that propose an alternative approach to food in film, albeit in different ways, have been re-released: Tampopo and Daugthers of the Dust, which had a huge impact on how I look not only at the genre, but also at movies in general. For different reasons, both refuse the voyeuristic attitude that allows spectators to revel in the more sensual, aesthetics aspects of culinary cultures that are not their own, without actually engaging with them neither symbolically nor materially. Films like Woman on Top or the Mistress of Spices are two clear examples of this approach, which excludes whole groups from full cultural citizenship and does not contribute to establish real dialogue and intercultural communication.
Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s 1985 wild romp through the Japanese gastronomic landscape, has been restored and presented in 4K, giving new brilliance and depths to the images. Tampopo is often hailed as the first true food film, due to the central role cuisine and eating play in the plot and in the characters’ development. The story of the motley crew that follows a ramen shop owner in her quest to discover the best recipe for her specialty allows the filmmaker to uncover many quirks and downfalls of Japanese society in the 1980s, torn between unbridled consumerism, pretention, and conformism. As an insider, Itami is not at all attracted to the aspects that most Western viewers would find intriguing and exotic. His tone is ironic, at times surreal; as frequently as it appears on the screen, food never presents the “porn” undertones that would become a mainstay of the genre in the years to come.
Also Julie Nash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust has been restored to mark its 25th anniversary. Set in the early 1900s in a Gullah village on one of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, the film places food front and center in the lives of the community it represents. Although Nash’s work cannot be considered a food film, food production and preparation, a daily occupation for the female protagonists, are featured frequently but discretely, central to their lives as its consumption. Daughters of the Dusk is not so much interested in allowing strangers to peep in the Gullah culture as to understand the profound changes that were assailing it at the time. Needless to say, no food porn is to be enjoyed.
The two films indicate that representing cooking and eating on the silver screen outside of the “food porn” canon is possible, effectively disrupting the limitations of the genre. If you are interested in these topics, join us for a public conversation on food and film at The New School on November 28.