Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, Second Edition

Feast on this! We have just published a gorgeous new edition of Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, with a full-colour interior and a range of new features for students and instructors. In this blog post, the author, Gillian Crowther, provides background on how the book has changed from the first to the second edition and on some of the important issues raised in its pages. We highly recommend this book not only as a textbook but as a fascinating introduction to thinking about food and culture in very different ways!

Over the last few years we have heard a lot about avocados; entertained the consumption of all things charcoal; experimented with chickpea pancakes and aquafaba; worried about palm oil, plastic packaging, weighed-up sugar taxes; warmed to the wonders of fermentation; watched hands-and-pans videos; and have learned (despite IKEA’s claim) that meatballs are actually Turkish! Each day brings a new food story, and the challenge for anyone teaching the anthropology of food is to provide an approach that can accommodate the dynamic nature of our collective food culture. The opportunity, then, to dish up another serving of Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food was enticing. It has allowed me to modify its recipe, mix in some new ingredients, and rearrange the existing core to improve the original textures and tastes, and to keep it relevant.

The book still incorporates an emphasis on listening to public food discourses to understand local food culture—the nutritional, culinary, gastronomic, and sustainable meanings and values surrounding avocados, charcoal, and meatballs, for instance. The basic structure remains the same, moving from our nutrient needs, global patterns of food acquisition, cooking, and commensality, towards contemporary social, economic, and political realities. Ethnographic examples continue to explore the similarities and differences of our relationships with food, to address varied cosmological ideas and the identity-work of gender, age, class, and ethnicity, while considering the dynamics of power and authority manifest in the control of food. The materiality of food, and our embodied experiences of cooking and eating, are also persistent themes extending into the new edition.

Each chapter, however, has been refined, and some substantially re-written, to more clearly address an anthropological framework for making sense of our global food system. More specifically, the discussion of the globalization of food production, distribution, and consumption has been reworked and updated. It now includes the work of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization to explore how top-down global models intersect with grassroots food security, sovereignty, and activism. Consequently, the global gastro-anomie chapter is now organized around specific food challenges—famine, climate change, and non-communicable diseases—and the gastro-politics of varied solutions concerning quantity, quality, and access to food are assessed. These serious realities are balanced by recognition of the satisfaction and pleasure that are gained from food, its creative potential, and its eminently social capacities. Each chapter is accompanied by some suggested further readings drawn from the work of current food scholars, which can be useful as course supplements or student assignments.

The new edition remains structured around the conceptual frame of cuisine as a significant facet of everyday culture, deeply tied to personal and group identity, and memory-making. The book’s case studies, from Britain, Guatemala, France, India, and the United States, among other locales, serve to contextualize cuisines in the wider historical, social, economic, and political processes of everyday life. These model the questions food anthropologists pose and the sources of evidence studied, and serve as comparison points against which the reader’s own cuisine can be brought into focus. To facilitate a process of self-reflection, this edition includes new experiential learning assignments to accentuate the “guide” quality of the text. There are two types of practical exercises, which focus on specific foods and related fieldwork activities. These were designed to make classes interactive and to bring food into the room without the logistics of food safety! Each applies the frame of social anthropology to interrogate the values and meanings that shape everyday food activities, environmental and social relationships, and our sense of identity.

“Pondering a Foodstuff” boxes focus on particular foods, ranging from raw ingredients such as sugar, fat, and meat, to specific cooked dishes like pies and chocolates, for instance. These are served as tastes of the research possibilities that surround any food and illustrate how embedded food is in the social fabric of any cultural context. Toward this end, the book moves Malinowski’s “imponderabilia of actual life” into the twenty-first century, making methodological use of the Instagram-able quality of food and our fondness for smartphone photography. The photographs, now in full colour, model the anthropological lens, framing our everyday food encounters as worthy of study. These practical boxes encourage photographic scavenger hunts, which sharpen observational skills, and prompt anthropological questions based on each chapter’s terms and themes. While images cannot replace the materiality of food, they certainly cut down on classroom messiness and foster productive chat-‘n-chew teachable moments. For instance, the images can facilitate an interrogation of a food’s material substance, allowing its objective, sensorially assessed physical properties to be recalled and considered as cues for handling, processing, cooking, and eating. A picture can easily trigger sensory memories and start the conversation about how meanings and values are assigned to food, transforming its properties into sought after or avoided qualities. Furthermore, the range of food images, from fruit to meat, opens the door to debates about health and ethical choices, the pleasures of gastronomy and commensality, and grave sustainability issues surrounding global food patterns.

“Foodscape Grounded” boxes, on the other hand, provide specific, self-guided, out-and-about activities to bring another practical engagement with the book’s content. Included are an exploration of food labels, supermarket and farmer’s market fieldtrips, an assessment of food security using the four pillars approach, and a guide to restaurant reviews. These cultivate an awareness of the global food system’s reach, bringing home the global ramifications of our eating practices and directly tapping into students’ engagement with public food discourses as part of classroom discussions. Furthermore, the experiential activities are a powerful reminder of the important concept of embodiment, which is particularly relevant to the anthropology of food. For instance, cooking is an embodied skill, calling upon the cook to manipulate foods, to engage with its materiality, and to perform patterned tasks to make something to eat. The “Chaîne Opératoire” exercise asks for a step-by-step account of the bodily and cognitive skills and knowledge required to transform raw ingredients into a cooked dish. It makes apparent how culture is written into physical experiences, including the sensory engagement with food.

As a teaching tool, Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food dishes up an anthropological perspective that invites students to apply its ideas through testing, sampling, and discussion, and to formulate an understanding of their local food culture. It encourages students to regard their recent food experiences as valuable, meaningful, relevant, and worthy—the stuff of anthropological research. It also emphasizes that wherever anthropologists conduct fieldwork, we engage with the everyday lives of ordinary people—just like our students, and their ideas, behaviours, and experiences are what constitute culture, everywhere.

Gillian Crowther is Professor of Anthropology at Capilano University in Vancouver, British Columbia.