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My Food Studies Students Designed Dietary Guidelines, Here’s What Happened

For the past two weeks, my students in Food in American Society and Culture at Brown University have been diving into critical nutrition studies, an emerging field that approaches nutrition science as a cultural construct, a product of history, and inextricably linked to notions of morality. I wondered how students might view food advice differently after learning the basics of this field of thought. Beyond that, how might they reimagine dietary guidelines?

Critical Nutrition Studies

Critical nutrition studies questions the assumptions that form the empirical truth and presumed objective authority of science, as well as the connections between science and food, the body, and human health. To varying degrees, critical nutrition scholars examine, critique, and reject the primary role of nutrition science in how eaters (and stages throughout food systems) relate to food and eating. They endorse moves to decenter nutrition and destabilize its hierarchical position within food knowledge production. This creates space for aspects like food production quality, degree of processing, and truth in marketing, as well as heritage, tradition, culture, identities, gastronomy, taste, and pleasure—to name but a few. [For a far more complete definition of critical nutrition studies, read Charlotte Biltekoff’s “Critical Nutrition Studies” in the The Oxford Handbook of Food History, published by Oxford University Press in 2012.]

In my work, I’ve taken a rather unexpected path toward critical nutrition studies. As an undergraduate, I studied the liberal arts, but also took the prerequisites to become a registered dietitian. I ended up studying Public Health Nutrition, and as I completed my graduate course work, I taught Introduction to Nutrition six times as a Graduate Student Instructor, believing myself—and quite literally indoctrinating hundreds and hundreds of students—in a perspective that I now readily question, unpack, and deconstruct. It was in my years working in worksite wellness that I began to seriously question whether we in public health should be telling people what to eat at all. Finally, pursuing an MLA in Gastronomy, hearing a roundtable discussion on critical nutrition studies at the 2012 ASFS conference, and attending the Critical Nutrition Symposium at UC Santa Cruz in 2013 each drew me into a critical nutrition studies perspective.

Furthermore, my current research not only engages food studies and critical nutrition studies, but also how they both intersect, inform, and contradict another emerging field—the history of nutrition science, a fascinating subfield of the history of medicine, that grapples with the histories of this “young” science. [If you’re interested in these histories too, join our new H-Nutrition network.]

Learning with My Students

As is often the case, working through these difficult concepts and questions with my students has been wholly satisfying. Over the course of two weeks, we read selections from several influential critical nutrition studies texts:

We were very lucky to have Charlotte Biltekoff in class with us to answer questions about her work. Using her comments and these texts, we also critically read primary sources offering dietary advice:

Students also contributed their own primary sources that answered the prompt:

Many sources within our foodscape tell us what we should eat—and as we’ve discussed through the aphorism “You are what you eat,” in effect tell us who we ought to be as well. Find an example of a source offering dietary advice and analyze it in 100-250 words, using Charlotte Biltekoff’s Eating Right in America as a point of reference. Consider: What dietary advice does your source offer? What and/or how does it say we should eat? How does the dietary advice and its author establish authority and expertise?

A few possible sources to get you thinking: family food advice, food advertisements, nutrition facts, food packaging, government dietary guidelines, magazine/newspaper articles, blogs, etc.

Students unpacked how sources as diverse as government dietary guidelines and food guides, BuzzFeed articles, Coca-Cola campaigns, Spoon University, fitness bloggers, diet books, and advocacy organizations each communicate dietary advice and expertise in ways that illuminate the complicated cultural politics of food and health.

Students’ Dietary Guidelines

Next, students accepted the challenge of designing dietary guidelines, informed by critical nutrition studies and aiming to make their dietary advice as inclusive, factual, and balanced as possible. Admittedly, this required accepting a set of assumptions, including the idea that we should tell people what to eat and that guidelines are a worthwhile tool, even if they can be moralizing and paternalistic. It was an experiment. We might fail, but we were going to try it out.

In groups of three or four, students titled their guides, set dietary goals, and drafted a set of recommendations, using a PowerPoint template I designed, so all design flaws and shortsightedness are mine.

Here’s what they came up with, shared with their permission:

As a class, we noted common themes that each set of guidelines endorsed and areas where they diverged, as well as the challenges inherent to designing guidelines in the first place:

Populations and Personalization

Students cared deeply about the challenge of making population level dietary guidelines that still made space for individuals: personal identities; ways of eating; bodies of various shapes, sizes, and abilities; levels of access and capital; and senses of self. They thought it was important for individuals to consider dietary information, but to make it meaningful to their own selves and circumstances, emphasizing themes of education, adjustment, and customization. Students cared about listening to one’s own body and learning what felt good on an individual level without judgement. At the same time, students struggled to create recommendations that were specific enough to be clear and meaningful without being exclusionary in at least some way. Furthermore, students acknowledged that writing pithy and concise goals and recommendations is a difficult task. In the end, many students felt like their recommendations ended up too vague to create an impact, developing a newfound respect for nutrition communication.

Joy, Pleasure, and Social Connection

Most groups endorsed the idea that food was a source of enjoyment, pleasure, and social connection, aspects worth emphasizing just as much as variety and portion control. At the same time, they struggled with identifying language that wasn’t moralizing. For example, even the recommendation, “Allow indulgences,” grew complicated. Students intended for it to endorse moderation in a positive way, but the very word indulgence incited debate, as it invoked a framework of good/bad and even redemption/sin that we didn’t want to support, but, at the same time, struggled to leave behind entirely.

Transparency and Inclusiveness

Students cared about what is in food, as well as where food comes from and about easily accessible and understandable information about food production and provenance. Charlotte Biltekoff’s message of “dietary literacy” resonated with them deeply—as did her clear claim that dietary advice embodies social ideals and by its very nature marginalizes and creates “unhealthy others.” More than anything else, students wanted their dietary guidelines to limit not certain foods or nutrients, but to limit paternalistic judgement and the moralization of foods, eaters, and bodies.

In the end, we might have ended up exactly where Charlotte Biltekoff in Eating Right in America said we would: that in questioning dietary advice, we end up in “a place of disorientation about what dietary advice is”—a first step to redefining and reimagining it. Here’s what we accomplished in two weeks. I’d love to find out where we might end up if we spent an entire term on these topics…


Have you engaged critical nutrition studies with your students or in your work? I’d love to hear about and learn from your experiences!


More about my food studies teaching:

What Is Food Studies?

In my editor’s note in the fifth issue of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies, which launched online today, I considered how to define food studies, inspired by definitions put forth by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik in Food and Culture: A Reader and by Jeff Miller and Jonathan Deutsch in Food Studies: An Introduction to Research Methods. What follows is a selection from that piece. You can read the entire essay here, and we hope you’ll enjoy the complete issue, here.


When tasked this semester to define food studies for my students, I proposed the following:

Food studies is a burgeoning, interdisciplinary, inherently politicized field of scholarship, practice, and art that examines the relationship between food and all aspects of the human experience, including culture and biology, individuals and society, global pathways and local contexts.

I explained that our discipline is young, pointing to the emergence in the 1980s of texts now considered nearly canonical, such as Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power and Warren Belasco’s Appetite for Change, as well as the pioneering work of Mary Douglas and Carole Counihan. I declared food studies an interdisciplinary pursuit, one that is thrilling and innovative, if sometimes nebulous. I further clarified food studies’ scope as an academic field of research, writing, and teaching, but just as importantly, a field dedicated to building bridges between scholarship, practice, and art. Food studies is a field built on the connections between researchers and communities, addressing resources, assets, dilemmas, and solutions. I attempted to summarize the vast inclusiveness of our object of study, pointing to dynamics between culture and biology, individuals and society, global and local processes.

And I felt called to emphasize that our field is inherently politicized. Food studies scholars often assert that food—food culture, food access, and food sovereignty—is a human right. Food studies examines how food constructs identities. And food studies analyzes how governments shape and control food through food systems regulation, food labor policies, food and feeding programs, and support (or lack thereof) for food-related research and artistic expression.

As a result, food studies matters, now more than ever. I hope that this issue of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies incites critical thought, inclusiveness, and hope as we define and enact food studies in our current political climate.

Healthy Food Blogs: Creating New Nutrition Knowledge at the Crossroads of Science, Foodie Lifestyle & Gender Identities

I’m delighted to share that my article, “Healthy Food Blogs: Creating New Nutrition Knowledge at the Crossroads of Science, Foodie Lifestyle, and Gender Identities,”* was recently published in the thirty-sixth edition of Yearbook of Women’s Historya special issue titled, “Gendered Food Practices from Seed to Waste,” edited by Bettina Bock and Jessica Duncan, available for purchase here.

My article explores the intersection of nutritional and foodie discourses within a selection of popular “healthy food blogs” in the United States. This subgenre of food blogs combines health-conscious recipes, nutrition education, and the theme of “clean living” with the stylized preparation, plating, photography, personal narrative, and consumptive lifestyle that typically characterize food blogs.

Through content analysis and close reading, I analyzed twelve blogs that were featured in Shape Magazine’s online list, “Our Favorite Healthy Food Blogs,” published in summer 2014. Google searches for “healthy food blogs” confirmed these blogs’ relative popularity among readers, and several blog authors have published cookbooks based on their blogs, placing them among a select group of well-known and financially successful food bloggers. This list of blogs also makes a useful sample because the Shape feature included interviews with the bloggers, which provide additional pertinent data of a nearly ethnographic quality. For example, these interviews summarize how each blogger conceptualizes “healthy food” and “good nutrition,” as well as how they position their own food blogging in relation to nutrition science.

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Thumbnail images from the healthy food blogs Shape featured.

These blogs create new knowledge about food, eating, and health. Principally engaging Gyorgy Scrinis’ concept of “nutritionism,” I examine how nutrition knowledge on these blogs—positioned at the crossroads of competing paradigms—is constructed, disseminated, and consumed, as well as how it might be renegotiated. I demonstrate how these healthy food bloggers construct authority and expertise through variable combinations of professional credentialing (for example, as registered dietitians or certified health coaches) and life experience growing, cooking, and eating food, as well as experience following a particular diet, losing a significant amount of weight, or mothering. I also explore how blog content aligns, contradicts, and/or renegotiates conventional dietary advice, such as government dietary guidelines that until recently promoted lower fat diets. This comparative analysis reveals the ongoing contest for the authority to speak for our bodies and to define a “healthy” diet and identities.

In the case of healthy food blogs, this authority is intertwined with the construction of a hyper-feminine domesticity that is distinctly white, middle class, and heteronormative, which potentially limits the transgressive potential of these media forms. I build upon past analyses of “food porn” to apply the concept of food pornography to the representation of bloggers themselves.

I investigate the role food porn plays in producing and sustaining food inequalities and the social politics of inclusion and exclusion. I thus consider not only spectacular representations of food, but also the highly curated aesthetics of food bloggers’ appearances, bodies, and social relationships. Just as food blogs display food porn through photography and presentations of unrealistic and remarkable food lives, these blogs also depict fantasies of hyper-femininity through Hollywood-esque friendships and courtships, dream weddings, blissful marriages, slim and “healthy” bodies, and perfect motherhood. Just as food porn renders food and cooking seemingly out of reach for many consumers, these representations of healthy food bloggers similarly limit “successful” performances of femininity, containing it within hyper-feminine, heterosexual, white, and relatively affluent bounds.

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Thumbnail images from the healthy food blogs that Shape featured.

Although these healthy food bloggers resist, negotiate, and transform conventional nutrition education and dietary advice, these representations of hyper-feminine domesticity are inherently part of the food, nutrition, and health knowledge that they produce. It remains to be seen if the highly curated pages of food blogs may also be a space for postfeminist action. This sample of food blogs reveals significant tensions between progressive and regressive representations of femininities, which curtail the socially transformative potential of these new food knowledges, even as they effectively decenter nutrition science’s dietary hegemony.


Acknowledgements

For their most helpful feedback, comments, and support of this article, I thank the organizers and participants of the 2015 Southern Foodways Alliance graduate student conference and the Graduate Association for Food Studies‘ Future of Food Studies Conference, as well as Fabio Parasecoli, Suzanne Enzerink, Lukas Rieppel, the reviewers, and the editors, particularly Jessica Duncan.


About Gendered Food Practices from Seed to Waste

This fascinating issue dedicated to the topic of food and gender contains ten articles and one showcase interview with Johanna Maria Van Winter, author of Food and Nourishment in Medieval Europe and Spices and Comfits: Collected Papers on Medieval Food, among many others. As mentioned in the special issue’s title—from seed to waste—editors organized the articles within the structure of the everyday food cycle starting with food growing before processing, selling, and serving; buying and cooking; and eating; then concluding with cleaning and disposing.

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Cover image of Yearbook of Women’s History 36.

The editors write, “The collection of papers contained in this Yearbook showcase that food practices have important implications for gender identities, social norms, socio-economic positions, relations of power, and bodies” and form “a curious, complex, and compelling picture.” It is available for purchase here.


* Yes, I’ve learned my lesson about giving articles titles that are way too long. I’ll never do it again. Learn from my mistake.

Featured image: Shape.

7 Things Food Studies Can Learn from Food Design

Food studies can learn from a similarly burgeoning and interdisciplinary field: food design. Last week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the 3rd International Conference on Food Design, organized and led at every step by Francesca Zampollo. The conference consisted of ten research and practice presentations and four keynote addresses, which were all shared online in a virtual environment. As my first virtual conference and my first food design event, I’m now reflecting on seven key things.

1. The ongoing definition of a field is a good thing.

Just as food studies continually immerses itself in processes of interdisciplinary self-definition, so too does food design. In an editorial in the first issue of the International Journal of Food DesignFrancesca summarized multiple definitions for the field, excerpted here. And Francesca further clarified the field of food design, identifying key categories:

  • food product design
  • design for food
  • design with food
  • food space design
  • eating design
  • food service design
  • critical food design
  • food system design

In their conference presentation, Ludovico Pensato and Alessandra Ivul of Panem et Circenses conceded their discomfort with having their work categorized as food design, which in Italy refers nearly exclusively to industrial design, invoking commerce and architecture more so than art and performance. In the end, such wrestling with a field’s definition, boundaries, and meaning ensures innovation and invention, commitment and care.

2. Play possesses enduring value.

Food designers incorporate a sense of play, which illuminates their work and passion for food. Even when discussing food dilemmas—like the tension between health and indulgence—Deger Ozkaramanli, of the Delft Institute of Positive Design, asserted that food solutions can be inspired, creative, and playful, like chocolate to-do lists to maximize motivation, productivity, and pleasure, all at once. In their CHIL-DISH project, Kristos Mavrostomos and Anna van der Lei capitalized upon children’s sense of play and fun, as they created fully functional, kid-designed tableware with items like a house-shaped teapot and a bolt-shaped mug. And Léa Bougeault and Aude Laznowski of Miit Studios endorsed playfulness as a business strategy, arguing that positive childhood food memories make for natural points of connection, communication, and conviviality between people and companies. Somewhat similarly, Júlia Nasa argued that creativity is as important to consider as nutrition, sustainability, or safety, as a sense of curious creativity can enliven these other aspects of food and food systems.

3. Food and the senses remain central.

Food design foregrounds sensory experiences. Beatrice Lerma, Doriana Dal Palu’, and Eleonora Bugatti shared how the sounds made by food packaging—for example glass, clay, and plastic containers for yogurt—shaped how consumers perceived flavor, as well as characteristics like quality, craftsmanship, and genuineness. In her presentation, Slow Tofu, Weiwei Wang highlighted tofu not as a high-protein meat substitute with mutable flavor, as it is so often characterized in the West, but as a delicious and complex food unto itself, eaten in various ways and possible to prepare on one’s own with simple tools: a plate, a handmade basket, and a bowl. Ivana Carmen Mottle further explored how sensory tasting events can merge the experiences of eating and tasting, performance and art, entertainment and learning, conviviality and identity.

4. Food space can be transformative.

Food design often engages a strong sense of place and space. In her presentation on the rise of solo dining in urban areas, Emily Cheng posited ways for restauranteurs to spatially consider the needs of diners who eat alone in public, an activity that often carries social stigma. And Alexandra dos Santos presented the results of her work with a local market opening its doors after hours in an effort to engage customers and create a greater sense of community. Centered around the market’s space and building, the evening event incorporated not only locally produced goods and sellers, but also conversation, music, photography, drawing, and design.

5. Food experiences traverse the life course.

Projects shared at the conference engaged food at moments across the life course, from childhood to adulthood and into older age. In their CHIL-DISH project, Kristos Mavrostomos and Anna van der Lei engaged children as young as five in the processes of food design, cooking, and reflecting on food culture. Liza Murphy from The Big Picture research firm shared results from a study of one hundred Millennial and “Generation Z” consumers, revealing how young eaters are shaping the future of eating, snacking, and thinking about health. Additional projects at the conference navigated food in later stages of life. Annet Hoek shared the results of her study which incorporated the principles of molecular gastronomy to improve the culinary experience and nutritional status of elderly patients with swallowing difficulties. Jonas Pariente shared Grandma’s Project, a collaborative web series of recipes and stories, featuring grandmas from around the world.

6. Virtual conferences can be effective, fun, and meaningful.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how this virtual conference promoted the exchange of ideas and provided opportunities for social networking, collaboration, debate, and intellectual growth. All of the presentations were streamed with Google Hangouts, live on air, and then immediately available on YouTube for further viewing and sharing.  Presenters shared their interests and contact information with digital business cards:

Throughout the conference, presenters and attendees interacted  in the chat rooms, through direct messaging, and on Twitter. And even now that the conference is over, its entire structure still exists online with presentation abstracts, the conference proceedings, and recordings of all the presentations and Q&A ready and waiting, forever, to be further discovered and explored.

7. Aesthetics make an impact.

Lastly and perhaps unsurprisingly, designers produce beautiful things—including their presentation slides, videos, and materials. (Check out Emily Cheng’s lovely slides here.) Food studies academics could certainly learn a trick or two from the visually stunning ways that designers present, represent, and summarize their ideas!


As for my presentation at the conference, I shared “Designing Gender: Masculinity and Food Packaging.” You can read the abstract here and watch the presentation below, starting at approximately 4:00.

As Francesca would say, Happy Food Design!

Food-Themed Protest Posters as Resistance

Our current political moment has incited numerous protests and with them a new cohort of protest posters, including ones that engage food as resistance in ways literal and metaphorical, scathing and humorous. Megan Elias has begun a public history project to archive these political ephemera—Dishing it Out: Food-Themed Protest PostersMegan is a historian who writes about food in the US. Her new book, Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture (Penn Press) will be out in June 2017. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about Dishing It Out:


Emily: What inspired you to start gathering these images of food-themed protest posters?

Megan: I noticed the shawarma poster at a protest that I went to in NYC and then a friend in Boston posted a picture of a sign about coffee. The connection jumped out at me because I’m always thinking about food’s roles outside the kitchen. I thought that if this was a trend it would be one worth thinking about.

What do you think these images tell us about food history—and about food politics?

I’m hoping to get other people to work this out with me. I think there are lots of different things going on. One thing that is fascinating for me is that some signs foreground the tendency to embrace the foods of another culture while keeping the people associated with those foods at arms length. Another thing I see is that this contemporary collection of protest movements incorporates humor really openly and that food can help people make their jokes. The use of cheetos to identify the president is a great example of this. It’s not just because they’re orange and he wears tanner—no one calls him Mr. Carrot. Cheetos carry some other code that people find useful for mocking Trump.

Which poster resonates with you the most? 

The first poster I saw, “Who the Fuck Hates Shawarma,” still interests me most and is what made me want to start this collection. It’s so insouciant but also a great question: to what extent does our own self identification within the American political system shape what we will and won’t eat? You can take the sign literally: are there people who hate shawarma because it comes from the Middle East?

dishingitout

Travel Ban Protest, Battery Park NYC, January 29, 2017.


If you would like to add an image of a food-themed protest poster to this project, provide an update to any of the image captions, or contribute an interpretive piece based on the image collection, please use the contact form on the Dishing It Out website.

20 Food Studies Books for Black History Month

“For Black History Month, I’m sharing works of African American foodways scholars and cookbook authors that shape my own research.” So tweeted my friend Katherine Hysmith, who is a PhD student in American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, last week. I couldn’t help but jump on her great idea too with this post, dedicated to books on African American food and culture, which ought to be read and discussed all year round. I’ve ordered the list chronologically by year of publication. As the list indicates, this is a rich, important, and growing area of food studies research that is gaining momentum.

These books matter as they address many themes, including: the significant contributions of African and African American foodways to “American” food culture; the knowledge, expertise, and agency of slaves, expressed through agriculture, cooking and domestic labor, botanical medical traditions, and food commerce; the meaning and historical trajectory of soul food; and the intersections of food with the black body, health, medicine, and power.

If you have suggestions for books to add, please let me know in the comments! And find even more academic works, as well as historic and contemporary cookbooks from black chefs and restauranteurs, on Black Culinary History’s fantastic website.


  1. Maurice M. Manring, Slave in A Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (University of Virginia Press, 1998).
  2. Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity (Oxford University Press, 1999)—reissued as Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
  3. Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Harvard University Press, 2002).
  4. Andrew Warnes, Hunger Overcome?: Food and Resistance in Twentieth-Century African American Literature (University of Georgia Press, 2004).
  5. Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
  6. Debra A. Reid, Reaping a Greater Harvest: African Americans, the Extension Service, and Rural Reform in Jim Crow Texas (Texas A&M University Press, 2007).
  7. Anne Bower (editor), African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2008).
  8. Frederick Douglass Opie, Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (Columbia University Press, 2010).
  9. Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  10. Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (University of California Press, 2011).
  11. Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).
  12. Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (The University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
  13. Angela Jill Cooley, To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South (University of Georgia Press, 2015).
  14. Toni Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (University of Texas Press, 2015).
  15. Jennifer Jensen Wallach (editor), Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama (University of Arkansas Press, 2015).
  16. Mark S. Warner, Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity (University Press of Florida, 2015).
  17. Anthony Ryan Hatch, Blood Sugar: Racial Pharmacology and Food Justice in Black America (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
  18. Adrian Miller, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
  19. Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad, August 1, 2017).
  20. John Gennadi, Flavor and Soul: Italian America at Its African American Edge“Chapter 3: Everybody Eats” (University of Chicago Press, March 2017).

Top image credit: Emily Contois, 2017  

Gyorgy Scrinis on How the Food Industry Captured Nutritionism

Gyorgy Scrinis of University of Melbourne presented “Nutritionism, Big Food, and the Corporate Capture of Nutrition” at Harvard University on December 7. The talk provided a fascinatingly concise summary of Scrinis’ work on nutritionism to date and previews his new work, which directly engages how the corporate food industry has captured, appropriated, and co-opted the discourse of nutritionism in food product development and marketing.

The event was sponsored by Harvard-based working groups on the History of Medicine and Modern Science and organized by my friend and colleague, Lisa Haushofer, a PhD candidate in History of Science at Harvard.

I live tweeted during the event and have curated the talk’s main points below. Learn more about Gyorgy Scrinis and Nutritionism here.

Read More

Food Studies at Brown Welcomes John Lang to Speak on Genetically Modified Food

On Friday, December 2, Food Studies at Brown warmly welcomes John Lang, Associate Professor of Sociology at Occidental College, to speak at Brown University on his recently published book, What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Food? All interested parties in the Providence area are warmly invited to attend.

As a sociologist of food who explores the intersection of consumption, culture, and trust, Lang could not have found a more compelling case study. Lang places the debate around genetically modified (GM) food and our current “menu of choice” in social context. He demonstrates how controversies about GM food are but “a proxy debate” that articulates larger issues of social and political power, cultural values, corporate responsibility, intellectual property, democratic practices, science, and technology through concerns regrading risks and benefits, expertise and knowledge, fear and trust.

Lang novelly argues that genetic modification is not only a complex issue, but perhaps one that has misguided our attention and political activism. Going so far as to describe GM food controversies as “largely symbolic in content,” Lang points us to the heart of the issue as he writes:

Time, energy and money have been dedicated to debates about whether GM food has more potential for good or evil, yet these resources might be better spent seeking solutions to known problems in agricultural practices and systems, like contaminated and inadequate water supplies, degraded soil quality, stresses of climate change and persistent distribution problems. That we have become so focused on genetic modification controversies is the biggest problem of all. The scientific tool of genetic modification is not the ultimate problem, but rather a distraction from the persistent problems that plague our international food system.

After spending more than a decade researching this topic, Lang shares, “I hold a relatively neutral position on GM food.” He asserts that rather than narrowly focusing on genetically modified foods or issues like GM labeling, we will be better served by broadly advocating for increased social responsibility and local adaptability throughout the food system. Such a focus seeks to dismantle the links between profit, industry-wide consolidation, scientific hegemony, and intellectual property law—which form the current foundations of genetically modified technology.

In the end, Lang finds inspiration in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel; that we can make good use of “the continuing tension between restless idealism and an impending sense of doom” to fuel our search and activism for more just and culturally appropriate solutions within our global food system.


Please Join Food Studies at Brown for:

The Tension Between Idealism and Doom: Our Future with Genetically Modified Food

John Lang | Associate Professor of Sociology, Occidental College

December 2, 2016 | 3:30 pm | Smith-Buonanno 106, 95 Cushing Street (Map)

Warmly open to the public

Co-Sponsored by Brown University American Studies, Science and Society, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Anthropology, and BIOL 0190U: Plant Development, Structure and Function


About Food Studies at Brown

Food Studies at Brown began in spring 2016 and currently involves dozens of faculty members across disciplines such as American Studies, Anthropology, Biology, English, Environmental Studies, Medicine, and Public Health. Courses offered by Food Studies at Brown affiliated faculty explore food, culture, and identity; food systems, agriculture, and sustainability; food policy and issues; nutrition, health, disease, and medicine; and food writing and media; among other topics as well.

Food Studies at Brown approaches food from a broad and interdisciplinary perspective. We examine the relationship between food and all aspects of the human experience, including culture and biology, individuals and society, global pathways and local contexts. Across our campus, faculty, students, and staff engage with food in myriad meaningful ways. Food Studies at Brown endeavors to bring food-related research, teaching, projects, activities, and events together in one place so that we can synthesize our efforts across campus and the community.

For more information regarding Food Studies at Brown, contact Emily Contois at emily_contois [AT] brown.edu.


Top image credit: Emily Contois, 2016  

Why My Dude Food Research Matters

I’m thrilled to share a recording of my talk, “Dude Food: Gender and Health in U.S. Popular Culture,” which is based on my dissertation and was presented on November 5 at the Brown University Graduate School event “Research Matters!” You can also watch the other nine fascinating talks here.

This event challenged me to distill my dissertation into a crisp 5-minute talk intended for an informed, but interdisciplinary audience. It also made me grapple with the question of why my research matters.

This can feel like a loaded question in food studies.

As a younger discipline within the academy and one focused on a seemingly quotidian aspect of the human experience, food studies has been in the past dismissed as frivolous and unserious. This dismissal pointedly invokes notions of gender. For example, in Food: The Key Concepts, Warren Belasco proposes that such judgement rests in the tradition of classical dualism between the glorious (masculine) mind and the “gross” (feminine) body. He also argues food studies’ reputation has “been hindered by another Victorian relic,” the “separate spheres” that delineate a set of inter-related binary constructions: masculine/feminine, public/private, production/consumption (p. 3). Belasco further contends that the food industry has “obscured and mystified” the links from farm to fork, rendering them too “vague” and “ephemeral” to seem worthy of study (p. 5). To this list, Jeff Miller and Jonathan Deutsch in Food Studies: An Introduction to Research Methods add that food studies research is fun. A field rooted in such levity may incite “a certain amount of corresponding resentment” among our colleagues in other disciplines (p. 7).

The question of why something as seemingly trivial as “dude food” matters invokes similar intellectual debates. As a scholar of contemporary popular culture, I accept the challenge to interpret, historicize, and theorize our current moment, as it transpires all around us. Like Kathleen Franz and Susan Smulyan argue in Major Problems in American Popular Culture, I maintain that popular culture affords rich evidence that is meaningful, multifaceted, and political, as it articulates identity negotiation, the growing pains of social and cultural change, and the tensions between resistance and containment. Or as Fabio Parasecoli puts it in Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture, “Pop culture constitutes a major repository of visual elements, ideas, practices, and discourses that influence our relationship with the body, with food consumption, and, of course, with the whole system ensuring that we get what we need on a daily basis, with all its social and political ramifications” (p. 3).

I study dude food to discover how our society defines and redefines what gender is, as a dynamic process rather than set of stagnant characteristics. For all the reasons that food studies has been historically denigrated as a field, food makes for meaningful evidence to understand gender performativity and how power operates in society. As Alice Julier and Laura Lindenfeld argued in “Mapping Men Onto the Menu: Masculinities and Food” in a 2005 special issue of Food and Foodways, “The control of food production and consumption is inextricably tied up with issues of power and position.” In this way,  I study dude food to understand the broader and deeper social anxieties of our times: ongoing contests for the authority to define our identities and our selves, our borders and our boundaries—and to maintain specific crystallizations of power.

So yes, food studies research matters, now more than ever.


He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich:’ Advertising Australia’s National Food in the United States, 1968-1988

I’m pleased to announce that my article, “‘He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich:’ Advertising Australia’s National Food in the United States, 1968-1988” was published last week in a special issue of the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing on Australian Marketing History, edited by Robert Crawford. Examining the local and the global, the issue’s eight articles are organized around three of the traditional four Ps of the marketing mix: products, places, and promotions.

My own article examined a particular product: Vegemite. Chocolate-like in appearance but with a flavor like nothing else on earth, Vegemite is a yeast extract spread that is essentially synonymous with Australia. I’ve written about Vegemite before here, here, and here.

In this most recent publication, I examine how Vegemite was not an instant success when first marketed to Australian consumers in the 1920s. It was culturally resonant advertising campaigns in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, designed by the US ad giant J. Walter Thompson, that played a key role in securing Vegemite’s place in a significant share of Australia’s kitchens. These efforts included the now iconic “Happy Little Vegemites” campaign, developed for radio in 1954 and television in 1956. In rotation ever since, it is a campaign that comprises what Douglas B. Holt calls a brand’s “masterful, breakthrough performance”—an advertisement so extraordinary that it is incorporated into the culture itself.

Given Vegemite’s sales success and burgeoning cultural icon status in Australia, Kraft attempted a transnational feat in the late 1960s—to create a US market for the salty spread. J. Walter Thompson developed at least three distinct campaigns, which ran in newspapers and magazines across the USA between 1968 and 1970. Introduced to a nation only peripherally aware of Australia itself, these campaigns failed. Despite this, Vegemite and its US advertising tell us an intriguing story.

vegusads

Sample advertisements from the U.S. Vegemite campaigns. J. Walter Thompson (1968-1970), “Kraft, 1968-1970, Vegemite”, Domestic Advertisements Collection, Box KR36, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham.

Combining the approaches of advertising history, food studies, and transnational studies of popular culture, this article presents Vegemite —as both a food and cultural product—as a case study through which three interrelated themes can be explored.

First, Vegemite in the USA demonstrates the progression of American perceptions of Australia during the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite failing to capture the American market in the late 1960s, Vegemite—and Australia—captured American interest in the 1980s when a pop culture wave of Australian films, music, and sport triggered several years of success stateside.

Most notable among these was Men at Work’s 1982 hit song, “Down Under.”

The song’s second verse ignited an American fascination with Vegemite and all things Australiana:

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscle
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

(Hay and Strykert, 1981)

Second, Vegemite’s failures and successes in the USA articulate the complexity of the transnational flow, adoption, and rejection of ideas, people, and products. Appadurai (1990, 1996, 2010) has theorized extensively on the politics of ever shifting, but always connected transcultural flows and exchanges, as they challenge traditional notions of the nation-state. Indeed, scholars debate whether transnationalism represents cultural imperialism and homogenization or processes of localization and generative hybridity.

Globalization’s effects upon local food cultures and “national cuisines” are also central to these debates (Inglis and Gimlin, 2010). While scholars have explored the hegemonic potential of global food brands, such as McDonald’s (Ritzer, 2004; Watson, 1997), Coca-Cola (Foster, 2008), and Starbucks (Harrison et al., 2005; Plog, 2005), I ask what is to be made of Vegemite, as a failed cultural exchange between two nations, both former English colonies.

While efforts to tap an American taste for Vegemite ultimately failed, my analysis of US newspaper articles mentioning Vegemite between 1982 and 1988 finds that American perceptions of Vegemite fall into three main categories: excited exoticism, pleasantly bemused derision, and elitist disdain. No matter the reaction, Vegemite press coverage throughout the decade demonstrated the ambivalent and non-linear progression of American perceptions of Australia, as Americans’ at times derisive views of Australian culture comingled with enthusiastic mania for Australiana.

Third and finally, these transnational exchanges provide the opportunity to examine the cultural contexts in which advertising fails and triumphs, as well as the marketing process by which brands become icons, or not. Although J. Walter Thompson was able to transform Vegemite in Australia from an unpopular spread to a national symbol, the agency was unable to create even a modest market in the USA. Lacking significant points of cultural connection or relevance, advertising alone failed to make Vegemite meaningful to American consumers. Conversely, an influx of Australia-made popular culture in the 1980s successfully captured American appetites for the salty spread, notably without a national advertising campaign. Comparing these two moments and using Holt’s (2004) principles of cultural branding as a framework, this case study demonstrates the pivotal role of culture and environment in advertising’s functionality and effectiveness.

If you have access to the Journal, I hope you’ll read the entire piece, as well as the other fascinating articles working to chronicle the history of marketing in Australia.

Works Cited

Appadurai, A. (1990), “Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy”, Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 295-310, doi: 10.1177/026327690007002017.

Appadurai, A. (1996), Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Appadurai, A. (2010), “How histories make geographies”, Transcultural Studies, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 4-13.

Foster, R.J. (2008), Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.

Harrison, J.S., Chang, E.Y., Gauthier, C., Joerchel, T., Nevarez, J. and Wang, M. (2005), “Exporting a North American concept to Asia: starbucks in China”, Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 275-283, doi: 10.1177/0010880404273893.

Holt, D.B. (2004), How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, Harvard Business Review PressBoston, MA.

Inglis, D. and Gimlin, D. (2010), The Globalization of Food, Bloomsbury Academic, New York, NY.

Plog, S.C. (2005), “Starbucks more than a cup of coffee”, Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 284-287, doi: 10.1177/0010880405275535.

Ritzer, G. (2004), The McDonaldization of Society, Revised New Century Edition, Pine Forge Press (Sage), Thousand Oaks.

Watson, J.L. (Ed.) (1997), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Graduate Journal of Food Studies Seeks Book Reviews Editor

UPDATE | November 3, 2016

I’m  thrilled to welcome Edwige Crucifix as our new book reviews editor at the Graduate Journal of Food Studies. Learn more about her and the rest of our editorial board here. If you’re interested to be involved with the Journal, we have other opportunities, like serving as a peer reviewer; contributing your own article, Food-Stuff piece, or book review; or serving as a GAFS liaison at your institution. If you are interested to learn more about any of these other roles, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


As Editor-in-Chief at the Graduate Journal of Food Studies, I’m pleased to share that we’re seeking a new associate editor of book reviews. If you’re a current graduate student at the masters or doctoral level working in food studies, this could be the editorial role for you. We’re looking for a polished and professional colleague who is passionate about and well-versed in food studies scholarship, an avid reader (and even better) experienced writer of book reviews, and someone who meets deadlines with extreme regularity and good humor.  The ideal candidate will be organized, self-motivated, responsive, and downright fun to work with.

The primary role of the book reviews editor is to provide guidance and feedback to book review contributors. Candidates should be familiar with major theories, authors, and areas of focus within the field of food studies. Candidates should also be familiar with the structure and objective of academic book reviews, and should be able to provide constructive feedback to authors about how to fit the form in terms of content, style, clarity, and grammar.

Other job responsibilities include contacting academic presses for books, maintaining a log of current and past reviews, maintaining a record of recent academic food studies books, responding to e-mails, and communicating with me, the Editor-in-Chief. The hours required per week varies. Expect 5-15 hours per week during the busiest months when we band together to publish our two fabulous issues per year, in the spring and fall.

If you’re interested to apply for this position, please email me, Emily Contois, at GJFSeditor [AT] gmail.com with a full CV and cover letter stating your interest and experience. Interviews will begin immediately.

About the Graduate Journal of Food Studies:

The Graduate Journal of Food Studies (GJFS) is an international student-run and refereed journal dedicated to encouraging and promoting interdisciplinary food scholarship at the graduate level. Published bi-yearly in digital form, the journal is a space for promising scholars to showcase their exceptional academic research. The GJFS is published open-access online and is the official journal of the Graduate Association for Food Studies.

The Journal hopes to foster dialogue and engender debate among students across the academic community. It features food-centric original research articles from diverse disciplines including, but not limited to: anthropology, history, sociology, cultural studies, gender studies, economics, art, politics, pedagogy, nutrition, philosophy, and religion. It also features engaging book reviews of groundbreaking scholarship in the field. In addition, the Food-Stuff section features shorter pieces of food studies writing not subject to peer review, such as field notes, archival reports, commentaries, interviews, and photo essays.

7 Reads for National Cookbook Month

October is National Cookbook Month. I’ve written about cookbooks with some regularity, thinking through their many roles and meanings as: texts, technical guides, objects, ephemera, historical evidence, collector’s items, keepsakes, family heirlooms, art, and symbols. I’m celebrating this month with a round up of some of my past posts, which examine cookbooks from these various perspectives.


Teaching Food Studies, Cookbooks & Writing

How do cookbooks speak? What stories do they tell—and whose? What do cookbooks reveal about power and how it operates? How do cookbooks communicate and construct gender? These are some of the questions my students and I pondered in our course “Food and Gender in U.S. Popular Culture” at Brown University during a cookbook workshop.

Read here


The Woman Suffrage Cookbook of 1886: Culinary Evidence of Women Finding a New Voice

The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (1886), edited by Mrs. Hattie A. Burr, was created as a fundraising tool for Massachusetts suffragists, but it also provided a powerful new voice. It communicated with women of all classes in the common language of the cookbook about not only food and domesticity, but also the radical cause of women’s right to vote.

Read here


Nika Hazelton’s 1963 Rules for Judging Cookbooks

The author of thirty cookbooks and innumerable articles on food for major newspapers and magazines, Nika Hazelton had little patience for those who purchased cookbooks as “escapist literature.” Instead, in a 1963 article in the New York Times, she laid out in black and white exactly how one ought to judge if a cookbook was up to snuff.

Read here


Ann Seranne: America’s #1 Expert on Blender Cookery

The author of dozens of cookbooks, Ann Seranne published with Eileen Gaden The Blender Cookbook in 1961 to rave reviews. Not at all gimmicky, the cookbook was heralded by Craig Claiborne as an inspired, functional, and welcome resource, penned by “probably the world’s leading authorities on what a blender will and will not do.”

Read here


Chicken Fricasee Face-Off: 18th Century Haute Cuisine versus 1950s Can-Opener Cooking

This essay compares two recipes for Chicken Fricassee: Francois Massialot’s recipe, “Poulets en Fricasée au Vin de Champagn” from Le Nouveau Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois (1748) and Poppy Cannon’s “Chicken with White Wine and White Grapes” from The Can-Opener Cookbook (1953). While it may appear at first glance that Massialot pens a culinarily superior recipe, I argue Cannon’s is just as intriguing, as it reveals the struggles and desires of the 1950s American housewife.

Read here


Defining American Food in ‘The Saturday Evening Post All-American Cookbook’

This post considers the contentious question, “What is American food?” as it analyzes the answers provided by the Saturday Evening Post All-Amerian Cookbook, published in 1976. The cookbook features five hundred recipes, considerable discussion of “American” ingredients, dishes, values, and freedoms—as well as reproductions of Norman Rockwell’s covers and food advertisements included in the Post over the years.

Read here


Cooking Up a Storm at the 2013 Cookbook Conference

This post summarizes the various panels I attended at the 2013 Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, including presentations on cookbooks as status symbols, wartime cookbooks, cookbooks and social class, children’s cookbooks, exoticism in cookbooks, and White House cooking.

Read here


Top image credit: Emily Contois, 2016  

Cooper’s Cask Puts Whiskey Twist on Third Wave Coffee

Artisanal coffee, sometimes called “third wave,” continues to rock the coffee scene across the country. Rhode Island is no exception. But here at Cooper’s Cask Coffee you can find carefully selected single-origin beans paired with the subtle, sweet notes of award winning whiskeys from Sons of Liberty Spirits, another Rhode Island specialty.

Named for coopers—the craftsmen who for centuries have built wooden, barrel-shaped casks—Cooper’s Cask Coffee ages unroasted beans in barrels previously used for producing whiskey and rum. Master roasters, Jason Maranhao and John Speights, then roast the beans in small, boutique batches, packaging them in pouches specially designed to exude the alluring aromas.

You can learn more about Cooper’s Cask Coffee and the men behind it in my most recent story for Zester. And no matter where you are, you can have Cooper’s shipped to your door with Amazon Prime.

As you sip, you might find yourself wanting to learn more about “third wave” coffee. At least that’s what happened to me.

Trish Rothgeb of the Coffee Quality Institute and Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters christened artisan brews “third wave” coffee in 2002 in an article in The Flamekeeper, the newsletter of the Roaster’s Guild. Food writers and coffee connoisseurs alike have adopted the category, but often in reductive terms. They typically equate first wave coffee to Folgers, second wave to Starbucks, and third wave coffee to something like Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

But this linear evolution and set of characteristics are not what Rothgeb (formerly Speie) described. Like any good scholar of culture would, she argued, “The waves overlap; and one inevitably spills over to influence the next.” The “waves” are both additive and reactionary. For example, Rothegeb asserts that artisanal coffee is beholden to first wave coffee’s innovations in packaging and marketing, as well as the considerable coffee-consuming population they ensured. At the same time, “The Third Wave is a reaction to those who want to automate and homogenize Specialty Coffee.” These developments in production, packaging, distribution, marketing, and consumption all define each wave and its philosophy, rather than just a coffee “type.”

Rothgeb was inspired to codify coffee waves based on innovations in the early 2000s coffee scene in Oslo, Norway, where she was living at the time. Her readings in third wave feminism also shaped her thinking, what she called “the concept … that you could be whatever you want to be—that we can build on what we had learned from feminism of the past few decades, and then shed some of the ideas that no longer worked.” It’s from such a revolutionary foundation that Rothgeb defines “third wave.” It’s coffee that eschews hierarchy. It’s coffee that rigorously resists the standards set by mass production methods. It’s coffee that aspires to quality, expertise, service, sustainability, individuality, and a complex, even quirky taste experience.

While the debate rages on whether coffee waves are useful for thinking about cups of joe (like here, here, and here), there should be no debate about Cooper’s Cask Coffee. I hope you’ll enjoy reading the full story and will try a taste sometime soon.

Top image credit: Emily Contois, 2016

 

Announcing the Graduate Journal of Food Studies 3.1

We at the Graduate Journal of Food Studies are delighted to present our fourth issue (volume 3, no. 1), which features five original research articles that were first presented at the GAFS Future of Food Studies Conference in October 2015 at Harvard University. Our next conference will be hosted at Washington University in St. Louis in October 2017. Till then, savor the fruits of our first conference with articles from Darcy Mullen, Meaghan Elliott, John Jones, Samantha Desroches, and Francesca Grazioli.

This new issue also includes five must-read book reviews from Anastasia Day, Ruth Dike, Julieta Flores Jurado, Jesse Dart, and Hailey Grohman—and Leah LaFera’s penetrating photo essay of ten unforgettable images.

This is my first issue as managing editor alongside Editor-in-Chief, Carla Cevasco, who has fearlessly and fiercely led these last three issues of the Journal. Though I’ll have big shoes to fill, I’m thrilled to be starting my term as Editor-in-Chief and can’t wait to share our next issue with you in the spring.

Till then, happy reading.

 

10 Points to Highlight in “Taste as Experience” by Nicola Perullo

How do we experience taste when we eat a Michelin-starred dinner, an all-star diner breakfast, or a can of chicken and stars soupNicola Perullo nimbly endeavors to answer this question in Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food, published in April 2016 by Columbia University Press. Presenting not a philosophy of food, but rather a philosophy with food, Perullo examines food from the inside out, privileging the eater’s perceptions over the critic’s observations as he dismantles the hierarchy of the senses.

While his text flows smoothly as a single essay over 135 pages, Perullo also willingly condenses his thesis into a “short and somewhat arcane formula:”

taste = situation + circumstance + ecological experience

As I read Taste as Experience, these are ten points that I highlighted and stopped to ponder:


1. “A philosophy of food, to the extent that it is a philosophy with food, depends on a transformational interrogation and not only on a descriptive one” (p. viii). Throughout his analysis of taste, Perullo emphasizes the phenomenological experiences of those doing the tasting over observers. This move destabilizes the hierarchy of the senses, which traditionally subordinates all senses to intellect and marginalizes taste as an inferior sense.

2. “Because the specifics of our daily relationship with food happen through processes, ordinary gestures, and incorporated memories, identifying ‘experts,’ in the most complete sense of the word, becomes extremely problematic.” (p. x). Perullo defends the study of food as far more than a quotidian material required for sustenance and survival. At the same time, he purposefully studies taste from below and emphasizes what he calls “naked pleasure”—a nearly instantaneous sensation that is distinct from the trained palate of the expert and the esteemed context of haute cuisine. In this way, a fine dining restaurant and a roadside diner both provide pleasure. Even a sandwich that doesn’t taste particularly delicious is pleasurable if it assuages one’s hunger.

3. “One needs to understand taste as an ecological system” (p. xi). Perullo asserts that taste—as a concept that depends upon an individual’s perception, pleasure, and knowledge—emerged within the specific historical context of modernity. He seeks to place taste within a context that is wider, perhaps older, and “systematically holistic,” which he calls an ecological relationship.

4. “Taste as an experience of pleasure, knowledge, and indifference espouses a dynamic conception of aesthetics” (p. 8). Perullo organizes his text into sections that address these three modes of experience, each an approach to understand and theorize taste. Interpreting and experiencing how pleasure, knowledge, and indifference “intertwine, overlap, and reshape themselves” sets the path toward gustatory wisdom.

5. “In the present age, technology can also allow for a fulfilling and intense quality in the aesthetic relationship between human beings and food” (p. 23). Arguing that industrial food is “neither good nor bad in itself,” Perullo asserts that a deeper and more systemic understanding of taste provides a path forward for thinking about the connections between production and consumption, perhaps alluding to potentially more beneficial relationships within the food system. This is an underdeveloped but quite intriguing proposition.

6. “Changing the signs on the marginality of taste perception means accepting its paradoxically parasitic nature; taste is the paradigm of embodied knowledge, which originates and develops in and through the body, and which is not conceivable otherwise” (p. 25). Perullo both accepts and refutes the binaries and hierarchies that typically organize taste. He examines how gastronomy and taste are always at once intellectual and corporeal, serious and light, high and low, exceptional and mundane, memorable and perishable, cultural and natural.

7. “The pleasure of food is always ambivalent” (p. 40). Throughout history, food has been considered laudable and suspect—even dangerous or pathological—for its ability to incite desire. While classist constructions of “good taste” attenuate this ambivalence and render it acceptable in particular contexts, Perullo argues instead for a democratization of taste. This strategy still endorses taste cultivation, but also emphasizes an instinctual and intuitive response to pleasure.

8. “Taste is a multimodal device, embedded, relational, flexible, and potentially skilled at sorting out very different and even opposite situations” (p. 74). Again proposing a more populist understanding of gastronomy, Perullo says taste reflects “both a deeper and more open, amateur, inclusive, and aware look.” He summarizes the fluid dynamic between pleasure and knowledge with a visual metaphor: “nude pleasure gets dressed.”

9. “The mindful comprehension of eating experiences comes by way of understanding their entire ranges and processes” (p. 89). While Perullo analyzes pleasure and knowledge as unsurprisingly intertwined concepts within perceptions of taste, he concedes that indifference may seem a bizarre addition. This is perhaps his most novel contribution, however, as he analyzes indifference as an essential component of the “experiential blueprint” that constructs taste. Perullo writes that indifference is not emblematic of lack, whether lack of thoughtfulness, attention, or ability. Instead, indifference is required for creating gustatory wisdom.

10. “Conviviality can therefore represent a gym for refining the wisdom of taste” (p. 131). The wisdom of taste, as Perullo defines it, is not static or rigid; not guided by rules, canon, or standardized expertise alone. Hospitable exchange is what creates the situations and circumstances in which taste can thrive and transform. The openness of these interactions ensures the dynamism of the system and the connectedness of its ecology.

* * * * *

Perullo concludes that the wisdom of taste requires a specific attitude and set of behaviors. We would all do well to embrace Perullo’s advice from the end of his first chapter to “start observing and perceiving our daily food with open-mindedness, patience, and confidence” (p. 26).


I was fortunate to receive a review copy of Nicola Perullo’s Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food from Columbia University Press. Taste as Experience is part of Columbia’s series “Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History,” which features dozens of must-read titles. Perullo is a professor of aesthetics at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy.

Photo credit: Emily Contois, 2016