Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Eating Identity: Nourishment and the Cultural Contexts of Food

from Exeter/WHO Centre for Culture and Health:

We eat for nourishment, but food is about much more than nutrition. What we eat is meaningful, and food is an especially intimate area of daily life, tightly linked to our conceptions of self. Think about your own food preferences: a nostalgic meal from your childhood, a treat you indulge yourself with on special occasions, a religious sanction against certain foods. In these ways, food is not only at the heart of our material subsistence, it is at the core of our identity as well, deeply associated with family, hearth, home, and community. We are what we eat, conceptually as well as biologically.

Understanding this becomes especially important when we look at nutrition from a public health perspective. In a situation that would have been unimaginable for most of human history, over-nutrition has become one of the biggest problems for health and chronic diseases in many parts of Europe and the U.S., eclipsing smoking as public health enemy #1. The chronic and non-communicable diseases that are the big burden these days (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke) are often connected to diet.

The WHO’s Health 2020 report advocates people-centered approaches to public health, looking at both the whole person and the whole society. This is especially relevant for nutrition because it is so connected to different aspects of life, from our cultural and idiosyncratic preferences to state subsidies and agricultural policy.

Poor nutrition is not just an over-abundance of macro-nutrients or a deficiency of micro-nutrients: it is based on cultural traditions and personal histories; the natural environment and geographies of inclusion and exclusion; about large food corporations and grocery store marketing as well public policy and regulations. This is to say that both structural conditions and cultural practices affect nutritional choices.

Thinking of food and identity, what comes to mind first might be kosher or halal cuisines, or perhaps vegetarian or vegan preferences. These are certainly important aspects of religious and social identity, but the link works at a much more mundane levels as well. Our quotidian food choices reflect our preferences and values, and identity: eating organic (or not), eating fast food (or not), liking broccoli (or not), and so on.

Since food is so integral to identity, it is tricky to tinker with. And food choices not only reflect identity, but identities can become literally embodied through eating. For example, many Maya people in Guatemala claim not feel full unless they eat corn tortillas (often a dozen or more with every meal); I have heard Germans claim the same feeling and physical craving for black bread.
Eating is also usually a group activity, and as such a primary site for socialization, family binding, and group identity reinforcement. Yet nutritional recommendations often focus just on the individual. And since individual choices affect others, change cannot happen with just the individual, it would involve the whole family.

And just as eating is a group activity, also provisioning is often an expression of love and caring. Anthropologist Daniel Miller has show how food treats are especially important in this regard: choosing for significant others what they might want. Miller shows that grocery shopping, far from the hedonistic indulgence that the term “consumerism” invokes, is more about provisioning for one’s family, expressing one’s concerns for loved ones.

Packaged and processed foods are a big contributor to poor nutrition, and so are deservedly the target of ire among nutritionists and public health advocates. A number of efforts to impose a “soda tax” have been tried around the world; in Mexico it has had a dramatic and measurably impact in just a few years. All the same, we should also recognize that such foods are one of the few affordable luxuries for poor families, a way to demonstrate their love for their children when they cannot give them much else. It is well and good to try to curb snack food consumption, but keep in mind that it may be more than a snack that has to be changed.

Finally, when we talk about the health impacts of nutrition, we often reduce eating down to certain numbers. My colleague Emily Yates-Doerr, in her book the Weight of Obesity, calls this the metrification of diets: the number of calories and grams of fat, the percentages of daily allowances for vitamins and minerals. This metrification reduces the richness of eating and the sociality around it to these metrics of macro- and micro-nutrients. Many of us have become accustomed to this way of thinking about food, reading labels on the fly in the supermarket. Food and eating is about love and identity as much as calories, but how do we translate “love” into grams or ounces?

Just because something is supposed to be “good for you” is often not enough to change behavior. Diet and food choices need to be looked at holistically, as part of broader lifeways and family and social networks. Labeling regimes can inform consumer decisions and move the market, and soda taxes and other nudges can make a difference, but ultimately public health programs working on nutrition need to engage people through their customs and beliefs rather than work at odds with them.

In an innovative approach, Brazil has adopted what they call “food-based” dietary guidelines that seek to build on cultural norms and preferences rather than fight them. Rather than giving percentages recommended for different foodstuffs (as with the traditional food pyramid), Brazil adopted 10 broad principles and illustrate them in public service ads in terms of a plate prepared for a typical meal.

  1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
  2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts
  3. Limit consumption of processed foods
  4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed foods
  5. Eat regularly, deliberately, and with others
  6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
  7. Develop, exercise and share cooking skills
  8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
  9. Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
  10. Be wary of food advertising and marketing
This post was written by Professor Edward F Fischer, Director, Centre for Latin American Studies, Vanderbilt University, USA.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Third Wave Coffee and the Formation of Taste (and Value)

“Orange blossom, white tea, syrupy”
“Grapefruit, spicy pepper, olive oil”
“Chocolate, red berries, roasted barley”

The language used to talk about new high-end coffee comes straight out of the wine world, with exotic and evocative descriptors and even a 0-100 grading scale (à la Robert Parker). Scores above 80 mark “specialty” coffee (such as would be served at Starbucks) and scores in the high 80s and breaking 90 place beans in the rarefied world of Third Wave coffees that retail for $5, $6, $7 a cup and more than $25 a pound for roasted beans (although usually sold in 12oz, or increasingly 6oz, packages to both stress the limited supply and make the price tag slight less eye-popping).

Virtually all high-end coffees are of the species Arabica; among Arabicas there are a range of different varieties. A growing number of exclusive lots of green coffee have sold for more than $100 a pound, a ceiling first broken in 2007 by the storied Geisha varietal from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama. In 2012, a Mocca (a heirloom varietal originally from Yemen) grown by the Finca El Injerto in Guatemala sold for $500.50 a pound, still a record. (Meanwhile, the commodity price for quality washed Arabica, known as the New York C price, has fluctuated between $1.13 and $1.46 over the first 8 months of 2016)

Are these coffees worth that much? People often ask me this when I talk about Third Wave coffee. If you haven’t tried one yet, it is a different experience than either the office kitchen’s K-cup or even a solid cup of coffee from most neighborhood coffee shops. A whole range of subtle flavors come out in the clean, smooth, balanced cup profile; sugar and milk are, naturally, verboten.

Yes, but are they worth the high price? It depends on how we value them. In high-end markets that move toward singularity (limited edition prints, that particular Bordeaux vintage, the 2012 El Injerto Mocha), normal market forces of supply and demand don’t apply. Which leads us to consider what constitutes value for such non-commodities and how do we put a price on that.

Objective quality (by established tasting standards and conventions) and market scarcity play an important role, but we cannot discount the symbolic values at play: the relative positioning of conspicuous consumption; the imagined, personal relationship with a producer; and underwriting it all, the cultural and market shift among the global affluent toward artisanal and singular products. The language used to talk about Third Wave coffee borrows heavily from fine wine, ideas of terroir, and the artisanal food movement. And this provenance, these narratives, are key to its value.

Three Waves
The first wave of coffee consumption lasted from the late nineteenth century up through the 1960s, marked by the spread of commodity coffee and the rise of Folgers, Maxwell House, and all the other familiar grocery store brands.

The second wave started in the 1960s in the U.S. with Peet’s in San Francisco and Zabar’s in New York, and culminating in the spread of Starbucks to every nook and cranny of the country, and increasingly the world. Anthropologist William Roseberry describes this as a shift from coffee as being the beverage of capitalism (coffee and sugar serving as great proletarian hunger killers, as Sidney Mintz has pointed out) to being a beverage of postmodernity (an outlet for performing identity and difference).

The Third Wave coffees take this to the next, artisanal infused, level. Coming out of coffee shops in Portland, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Nashville, Washington, Philadelphia, and other cities, Third Wave has both hipster and foodie associations; it is sold by online retailers such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Blue Bottle.

Creating Taste and Value
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA, the trade group for specialty and Third Wave coffee) goes to great lengths to bolster the scientific credibility of its classifications and tasting protocols. The more objective they seem, they more they can impart the power of authenticity (discovering something rather than constructing it).

The SCAA-associated Coffee Quality Institute certifies coffee cuppers with its Q Grader certification, with applicants having to pass five “triangulation cuppings” to differentiate a total of 90 distinct coffees. A Roast magazine article on the allure of triangulated cupping, observes that even a novice will quickly learn to distinguish coffees from different world regions, then so after by country. For example, “a Latin American coffee is going to taste different than an African coffee,” and tasting them side by side reveals the differences. “Put an Ethiopia Harrar into two cups and Sumatra Mandheling in one cup, and you will know the difference,” the article claims. Or, at least, you will learn the differences in going through a cupping protocol. One Portland roaster loved “the earthiness of the Sumatra” and another noted that Central American coffees are known for an exceptionally clean acidity (Allen 2010: 58).

In 2015 the SCAA unveiled a new flavor chart for specialty coffee. Working with researchers at UC Davis and Kansas State, the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel offers a lexicon of coffee terms coming from “the frontiers of sensory science methods and analyses.” They described the process using technical language (“an Agglomerative Hierarchical Cluster (AHC) analysis was performed on the results from the sorting exercise to group the flavor attributes into different categories (or clusters) represented visually by a dendrogram”) (Sage 2016).

The flavor wheel ranges from Chamomile, Rose and Jasmine to Vegetative and Herblike to Petroleum, Skunk, and Pipe Tobacco. 

In order to calibrate such flavors, the accompaning guide gives references to ground a 0-15 scale of intensity. For example, one entry reads:
BLACKBERRY: The sweet, dark, fruity, floral, slightly sour, somewhat woody aromatic associated with blackberries
REFERENCE: Smucker’s Blackberry Jam
PREPARATION: Serve jam in a 1-ounce cup. Cover with a plastic lid.

Recently, among trendsetters there has been a shift in preference away from the more traditional deep, creamy chocolate flavors (and maple syrup, caramel, red wine) toward more floral and citrus notes.

The Cup of Excellence program has taken cupping standardization to the next level, as my colleague Bradley Wilson has observed. In Cup of Excellence competitions, each coffee will be blindly evaluated 5 times by different cuppers.  Only coffees that get consistently high scores advance in the competition, and out of hundreds of entrants each country will have 25-35 ranking winning coffees that are sold at a live internet auction.

Guatemala is ground zero for Third Wave coffee. This is due in part to its unique geographic and climatic endowments. High altitude coffees tend to command higher premiums, and Guatemala’s volcanic slopes and varied microclimates create a range of subtle flavors. But it was also visionaries such as Bill Hempstead, who as president and a director of the Guatemalan Coffee Association (Anacafé), promoted the branding of regional cup profiles which has led to the flourishing of single estate and micro-lot coffees.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Broccoli, Anthropology, and the Humanities

Broccoli, Anthropology, and the Humanities: Caitlin Patton discusses how the work of Ted Fischer, an anthropologist focused on food culture, specifically the cultivation of broccoli in Guatemala, inspired her choice to study at Vanderbilt University.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Imagining the Future & Economic Fictions

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Marx remarked in The Eighteenth Brumaire, and although we may all make our own futures, we do not make them just as we please. For such reasons, we social scientists tend to look to the past to explain the present, to show the particular historical trajectory that led things to be the way the are. All the same, privileging the past can allow us to forget that people in the present are not trying to (just) recreate yesterday, but have an eye toward tomorrow and next year and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Unlike Marx’s vivid prose, today the dismal science (qua science) often forgets about the human passions behind their numbers. In the sterile statistical world of GDP and interest rates, it is easy to loose sight of the hopes and dreams, the aspirations and fears—what Keynes termed our “animal spirits”—and the individual lives behind all economic transactions.

In a remarkable new volume, Jens Beckert (Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics) moves us toward conceptually linking the passions and animal spirits of lived experience with a macro-understanding of the workings of capitalism. He does this by focusing on the future, and the fictive qualities of imagining the future that underwrite capitalist dynamics.

In this meticulously researched and engagingly written volume, Beckert uncovers the role of imagined futures as a fundamental driver of capitalism. It is the sort of observation that makes complete sense when you hear it, but that has gone largely unremarked upon until now. He shows that the future orientation of capitalism is based on competition and credit, fundamental elements at the very core of the financial system. (I would add, also the construction of desires, especially in late capitalist formations.) The financial system is built on credit, and demands continual expansion and continual returns. We are all in bad shape if growth stops, as our retirement and much of our insurance depends on markets continuing to expand—not to mention our subjective hopes and dreams. 

Beckert makes the provocative point that a lot of what we consider to be risk (and thus manageable, knowable, predictable) is actually uncertainty. We make up stories about the future, and convince ourselves and others that these are more or less likely (in a statistically predictable manner). For example, investment in innovation requires collectively deciding to believe in a fictional future. And, as with innovation, imaginaries can create structures that make real the fictional expectations (186).

In the realm of consumption, Beckert identifies two key types of symbolic value: (1) positional and (2) imaginative. Positional values (first observed by Veblen) derive from the scarcity of a good and how many others have it; rather than absolute material utility, the positional value of a good is only given by its relation to other goods. With imaginative value, “a good functions as a link between subject and her desired but intangible ideals” (195). Imaginative value gets at what it means to the person herself, more than just positional/status importance. With imaginative value, a good embodies something transcendent.

Berkert’s new book is exhilarating, opening up new possibilities for thinking about (and acting on) the market. It gives us a way to insert the social and the cultural back into the fundamental mechanics of capitalism, from wince it has long been banished.

Jens Beckert’s Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.  2016, Harvard U Press.