Western Folklore

Vol. 80 No. 1 – Winter, 2021


Introduction: Culinary Nationalism
Lucy M. Long

Fast Food at the White House: Performing Foodways, Class, and American Identity
Sheila Bock

ABSTRACT: In January 2019, President Donald Trump invited the 2019 College Football Playoff National Champions, the Clemson Tigers, to the White House and served them fast food. This article examines how, in the context of this political spectacle, different meanings attached to the category of fast food were deployed in relation to discourses of class and “American-ness.” Attending both to how fast food was performed by the president and how this performance was evaluated on Twitter, this article demonstrates that approaching foodways through the lens of performance can help us understand the ways in which differing ideas about core American values are envisioned, articulated, and negotiated. KEYWORDS: culinary nationalism, fast food, foodways, social class, United States

Constructing an Imagined Dinner Table: Culinary Nationalism and the “Ethnic American Cooking” Cookbook.
Lucy M. Long

ABSTRACT: This essay examines a cookbook on ethnic American food as an example of a collaborative construction of culinary nationalism. The editor of the book, a folklorist, acted as mediator between contributors (community representatives, home and professional cooks, scholars) and the publisher. Issues of cultural politics arose around the representation of cultural traditions, issues that frequently confront scholars working in public folklore and public humanities. A number of strategies for selecting and presenting recipes emerged, and those strategies illustrate the complexity of ethnicity in a multicultural nation as well as the need for collaboration in creating representations. The resulting cookbook suggests a potluck metaphor for American food culture, highlighting the dynamic nature and individuality of ethnic foodways. KEYWORDS: Food, Ethnicity, Nationalism, Cookbook, Public Folklore, Public Humanities

Do the [White] Thing: What Oppositional Gaze Narratives Reveal about Culinary Nationalism and Whiteness
LuAnne Roth

ABSTRACT: During the racial slur montage of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), simmering racial tensions explode into a barrage of deep stereotypes (Abrahams 1984) expressing culinary racism. Notably, white people evade insult even though they participate in the game, violating the rule of reciprocity and creating an absent referent that compels this study. Seeking to expose the invisible center of whiteness, this article extends bell hooks’s term “oppositional gaze” (2000) to explore what culinary stereotypes might have manifested had white people been included among those insulted in the montage. A survey of texts from television/film scenes to online discussion forums reveals stereotypical depictions of white American foodways, some of which were historically promoted in nationalistic and continue to be employed this way today. By interrogating these culinary stereotypes, this essay exposes a nationalistic pattern (of reacting to, appropriating, and assimilating immigrant food traditions) with the hope of removing the ideological filter that prevents many from seeing whiteness even when it is in plain view. KEYWORDS: foodways, United States, culinary nationalism, stereotypes, ethnic slurs, racism, whiteness, Do the Right Thing, film, television, popular culture, oppositional gaze, critical race theory

Reviews (full text)

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health. Edited by Devon A. Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. Pp. ix + 370, foreword, introduction, photographs, tables, notes, bibliography, index, study questions, list of contributors. $29.95 paper.)

Food sovereignty is a worldwide movement defined in this edited collection as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems” (7). The fourteen chapters cover food sovereignty issues and projects in a wide geographic and cultural spread of U.S. native homelands, with the goals “both to identify the challenges of Indigenous communities in revitalizing and maintaining traditional food systems and also to highlight inspiring and successful food and health initiatives in Indian country” (13).

The excellent introduction presents both a summary of each chapter and commentary on the way the authors address important common issues. While sharing a collective history of oppression and harmful government policies and contemporary challenges of poverty and health disparities, Indigenous groups come from many different climates, geographic regions, and systems of self-government. From the deserts of New Mexico to the forests of northern New York State, and from the lush tropical Hawaiian Islands to the stark landscapes of Alaska, we are reminded of the incredible diversity of Indigenous peoples in the U.S.

The editors of the volume are unapologetic about the subjectivity of the authors, who are overwhelmingly members of the communities they write about and have been active participants in the projects described. “We are not on the outside looking in at what many non-Natives refer to as a fascinating food trend….On the contrary, cultivating, hunting, and gathering our traditional food, and respecting the land that sustains the flora and fauna we depend on, in large measure make us who we are” (19). The majority of the chapters are well researched and grounded in historical fact and accurate portrayals of cultural practices. As the editors explain, “The chapters of this book seek to strike [a] balance between the documentation of history and the creation of policy versus the on-the-ground work and needs of indigenous communities” (xiv).

The first chapter, “Voices from the Indigenous Food Movement,” offers short autobiographical statements that in many ways set the tone for the rest of the book. Here we meet scholars and activists who have a personal stake in the food sovereignty movement, such as Martin Reinhardt, an Anishinaabe Ojibwa citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians from Michigan and a tenured professor of Native American studies of Northern Michigan University. Reinhardt describes his childhood memories of outsmarting the Coast Guard patrol while fishing in waters considered sovereign to his people—but not to the U.S. government. He also confesses his childhood love of “commods”—cheap and dubiously nutritious foodstuffs distributed to many native peoples by the USDA such as processed cheese, white flour, sugar, salt, and “mystery meat.” In later life, Reinhardt led an initiative called the “Decolonizing Diet Project,” committing to eating only Indigenous foods from the Great Lakes Region.

The remainder of the chapters describe an array of projects, from seed-saving in Rowan White’s Mohawk community, to reintroducing wild game and native fruits into the diet of Devon A. Mihesuah’s Comanche region. Many of the chapters stress how Indigenous foods are intertwined with other cultural knowledge, especially language. For instance, the authors of the chapter on a project regarding Hawaiian food sovereignty introduce relevant Hawaiian language chants to emphasize their points.

One of the most surprising and thought-provoking chapters is Gerald Clarke’s “Bringing the Past to the Present: Traditional Indigenous Farming in Southern California.” This study challenges the definition of “farming” as “growing crops and rearing animals” and examines the history of managing the California landscape in more sustainable fashion, drawing on traditional ecological knowledge: pruning oak trees to produce more acorns, burning meadowlands to create grassy pastures, and selective harvesting to encourage plant production. European missionaries and settlers did not recognize this system, seeing only the “Eden-like landscape to claim as their own” (257).

Other chapters are, by turns, disturbing, poignant, inspiring, heartbreaking, hopeful, and sometimes darkly humorous. Denisa Livingston describes how efforts to impose a small but significant tax on “junk food” in the Navajo Nation met with the problem that no one could agree on the definition of the term. Pat Gwin’s chapter on the Cherokee Nation’s attempts to reclaim pre-contact crops reflected the history of forced removal: trying to grow plants native to the Eastern climates of the Appalachian Mountains in Oklahoma presented numerous challenges.

The book includes a seven-page list of “study questions” for each chapter and the collection as a whole. Like the rest of the book, these questions and suggestions for discussion and action are a comingling of the scholarly and the personal. Readers and students are challenged to think about their own relationship with food sovereignty, such as “If you were going to go on a quest to recover your own community’s lost agriculture, and culture, where would you start?” (342). Ideas for projects at the end of this section include such activities as “learn about the wild foods your ancestors foraged” (345). While non-Indigenous people could of course engage in such activities, it seems that the ideal audience for these study questions, and for the entire book, would be students at American Indian tribal colleges throughout the U.S. Indeed, many tribal colleges offer food- and health-related curriculum, and this book would be an excellent textbook for such courses.

Look Who‘s Cooking: The Rhetoric of American Home Cooking Traditions in the Twenty-First Century. Jennifer Rachel Dutch. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. Pp. ix + 183, acknowledgments, works cited, index. $30.00 paper.)

Look Who’s Cooking: The Rhetoric of American Home Cooking Traditions in the Twenty-First Century examines a topic that touches everyone each day: what am I going to eat and how is it being prepared? Author Jennifer Rachel Dutch plunges into this question by analyzing the moral quandaries surrounding meals, namely the cultural idea that meals prepared outside the home or by using prepackaged components are shameful compared to meals created lovingly “from scratch.” Dutch challenges this idea of what we call “traditional home cooking” through her analysis of advertisements, a unique field study of meal preparation services, and YouTube videos, among other sources.

The remaining chapters of the book delve further into discussions of gender norms regarding food preparation and tradition, as well as the fight between Jeremiahs—people who believe that progress is detrimental to society and that a return to the past is imperative to society’s survival—and those who welcome convenience with open arms. For example, a discussion of eminent food author Michael Pollan’s experiment with eating microwave meals with his family revealed that the difference in cooking times resulted in their dinners coming out at staggered times, each family member’s food finishing several minutes after the last. The “convenience” became inconvenient, pulling the family apart since they no longer had dinner as a shared opportunity for interaction. By contrast, the food industry saw it as a way to remove the primary cook from the kitchen and provide them with precious relaxation and quality family time, free of demanding chores.

This book is appropriate not only for foodways academics but also for laypeople with an eye toward food scholarship. It is filled with moments of thought-provoking insight and references to other folklore texts. Among these is a moment that reminded me of a notable section in the book All that is Native and Fine by David Whisnant, where outsider women come into Appalachia to convince the people living there that white flour bread is a better health choice than cornbread. Overall, the book demonstrates that it is not the method by which food is made that is important, but it is in fact that people enjoy their lives and how they spend them, freed from needless work if it is not necessary nor delightful.

Global Jewish Foodways, A History. Edited by Hasia R. Diner and Simone Cinotto (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018, illustrations, foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, index, $50.00, hardbound.)

The twelve essays assembled in this volume represent an important and interesting collection that covers almost as many issues related to Jewish food traditions as there are Jewish communities around the globe. Several concepts at the heart of the corpus are repeated, including discussions of identity and the power of food in relation to memory and memories. In her article about Jewish food in Eastern Europe, Rakefet Zalashik writes, “Food is central to our sense of identity” (161). Gennady Estraikh writes about butchers who specially killed pigs to be kosher in the former Soviet Union. Negotiation with nonkosher food, pork in particular, is another theme that runs through several of the chapters. German Jews in the diaspora, as reported by Marion Kaplan, avoided pork, but adopted shrimp as it gained popularity in general culinary repertoires. Migration, another aspect of Jewish life and Jewish food, is also repeated in many of the articles.

An informative introductory essay written by editors Simone Cinotto and Hasia Diner provides a concise, general historical survey of food studies written primarily by anthropologists. Their more targeted consideration of Jewish food history concludes with a challenge to explore the history and relationship of food traditions of the Jews in the Caribbean, in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, as well as widespread Jewish communities, such as migrants who settled in the Amazon.

The essays are divided into four sections. The three chapters in Part I take on several topics in different regions. Flora Casen writes about how food both established relationships and led to conflict between Jews and their Christian neighbors in Renaissance Italy. The ubiquitous 19th-century Jewish peddler in Europe and the American West, and other areas where Jews migrated, is presented by Hasia Diner, who reports on how food became an issue because the Jewish peddlers usually relied on the hospitality of their non-Jewish customers for meals. Finally, Jewish food traditions in Egypt and Iraq are explored by Nancy E. Berg.

Part II starts with an essay by Ari Ariel about how food in the Middle East was remade in an Israeli mold. The conflicts exemplified by intersections of food are detailed. This includes both Arab ownership of foods (which were transformed to represent the Israeli nation) and erasure of Middle Eastern Jewish origins. Next is a critical examination by Gennady Estraikh of Jewish food traditions in the Soviet Union, where Jewish foodways always stood out distinctly. Joelle Bahloul writes about the traditions of the French Sephardic culture, from the point of view of “their colonial [North African] background,” (143) and about the issues of public and private life from an ethnohistorical perspective.

The first chapter in Part III, by Rakefet Salashik, looks at how food concerns were represented in the Yiddish press in the interwar period. Coverage reflected the rise of food science and the expansion of nutritional knowledge. Adriana Brodsky considers Jewish cookbooks in Argentina, emphasizing the multicultural Sephardic community, composed of immigrants from Morocco, Syria, and the Ottoman Empire, who made their homes there and wanted to remain distinct from their Ashkenazi neighbors. She also found a distinct social focus in collections in which recipes were paired with guidelines for keeping a kosher home.

I found Yael Raviv’s chapter, the last in Part III, to be the most intriguing, as it addresses the use in contemporary art of actual food or visual representations of food (by Jewish Israeli and Palestinian visual and performance artists) as a means of expressing identity in Israel

Three articles in Part IV examine Jewish food in the diaspora (as do many of the previous articles). Readers are taken from Germany to early twentieth-century America, to the American South. Chapter 10, by Marion Kaplan, describes how German Jews carried their foodways into exile. Jewish cookbooks popular in early twentieth-century American urban areas are the subject of the next essay by Annie Polland. Like the Argentine cookbooks, these included guides on keeping a Jewish home for young immigrant women without the support of a family network. The book closes with Marcie Cohen Ferris”s chapter chronicling the evolution of Jewish food traditions in the American South.

This is an excellent collection of essays covering a wide range of topics related to the very scattered nature of Jewish food traditions. Many of its authors used a variety of published and unpublished sources. Because of the personal nature of food traditions, memoirs are among the sources used, along with cookbooks and family recipe collections, personal recollections, and fictional representations of the communities. However, I noticed a lack of attention to cookbooks generated by Sephardic immigrant women. Because of the broad geographic reach represented by the writers in this volume and the variety of approaches they take, this book would serve students of Jewish food history in particular, and food history in general.

Conversations in Food Studies. Edited by Colin R. Anderson, Jennifer Brady, and Charles Z. Levkoe. (Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 2016. Pp. ix + 358, forward, introduction, figures, notes, references, acknowledgments, list of contributors. $35 paperback.)

This collection of thirteen essays speaks to the practices, meaning, and impact of the food we eat. Recognizing that “food is implicated in many of the societal challenges that we face today, including climate change, hunger, malnutrition, rural decline, and social inequality,” the editors sought contributions to the volume that took critical and interdisciplinary approaches to food studies (3), touching on food as objects, methods for representing and discussing food, food systems, the intersection of food and governance, the assumed narratives that we hold of food, and the role that food education can play as an agent of social change.

Part one, “Re-presenting Disciplinary Praxis,” comprises four chapters that examine how food and food practices are represented and that specifically challenge the privilege given to textual representation. Chapter 1, “Visual Methods for Collaborative Food System Work” presents the advantages of using visual representations of food. Whereas text is static and one-dimensional, visualizations “enable meaning to be conveyed across a number of accessible channels,” such as color, shape, and material (46). In Chapter 2, “Stirring the Pot: The Performatives of Making Food Texts,” authors David Szanto, Carmen Wong, and Jennifer Brady explore how food performance can be differently enacted and differently perceived by various actors (69). The third chapter, “Problematizing Milk: Considering Production Beyond the Food System,” challenges our notion of milk as a common and mundane food product. Instead, Jennifer Brady, Victoria Millious, and Matt Ventresca argue that “Each milk product carries with it a genealogy, an inheritance comprising of [sic] decades of agricultural practices and organized labor, of scientific studies, dietic destiny, and marketing savvy” (75). The authors outline the covert values and judgments embedded in dialogs about milk as protective food, sports recovery drink, and infant food. “Food Talk: Composing the Agricultural Land Reserve,” discusses how food talk, particularly the rights-based language of food security and food sovereignty, has been adopted by the public as a persuasive tool to shape local policy.

Part two, “Who, What, and How: Governing Food Systems,” focuses on the processes, actors, and discourses that shape both informal and formal governance of food and its systems. The first chapter in this section, “Governance Challenges for Local Food Systems: Emerging Lessons from Agriculture and Fisheries,” addresses how issues of scale, values, and power affect the governance of local food systems. “The Bottle at the Centre of a Changing Foodscape” outlines the history of the bring-your-own wine practice in Plateau-Mont-Royal, Montreal, its transition from an unregulated to a regulated practice, and the ways in which the ability of clients to bring their own bottle influences the atmosphere of and food provided by restaurants. “Finding Balance: Food Safety, Food Security, and Public Health” provides a strategy to reconcile the competing priorities of professionals responsible for food security and maintaining public health. The three case studies explore a need for “an outcomes-based approach that recognizes the value of creative problem solving and the importance of relationship building across sectors” (183).

Part three, “‘ Un-doing’ Food Studies: A Case for Flexible Fencing,” confronts the disciplinary silos that often direct food studies scholarship and keep conclusions from being fully challenged. The four chapters in this section—“Evaluating the Cultural Politics of Alternative Food Movements: The Limitations of Cultivating Awareness,” “Sustenance: Contested Definitions of the Sustainable Diet,” “From ‘Farm to Table’ to ‘Farm to Dump’ : Emerging Research on Urban Household Food Waste in the Global South,” and “A Meta-Analysis on the Constitution and Configuration of Alternative Food Networks”— use cross-disciplinary tools to provide new insights in food studies. For example, in the “Sustenance” chapter, Mark Bomford and Samara Brock confront the different interpretations that scholars employ when discussing what makes a sustainable diet and provide two empirical metrics to help quantify the term—the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Healthy Eating Index (HEI)—while challenging the measurability of the totality of a complex system.

Part four, “Scaling Learning in Agri-food systems,” includes two articles that address food pedagogy. The chapter “Transitioning toward Sustainable Food and Farming Interactions between Learning and Practice in Community Spaces,” challenges the ABC model (attitude, behavior, change) that names the individual as responsible for and the driver of social change. Instead, Jennifer Braun and Eva Bogdan investigate social practice theory and communities of practices as the true platforms for transformative learning. Transformative learning is considered further in the final chapter of the book, “Pedagogical Encounters: Critical Food Pedagogy and Transformative Learning in the School and Community,” that explores opportunities for food learning to occur both in schools and in the broader community.

On the whole, Conversations in Food Studies succeeds in taking a critical and interdisciplinary approach to food studies. Contributors to the volume draw on a range of concepts, theories, and techniques, including representation, performance, gender studies, practice theory, and transformative learning theory. Each chapter includes an impressively extensive and diverse works cited to guide future research and scholarship.

Crusaders, Gangsters, and Whiskey: Prohibition in Memphis. Patrick O’Daniel (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. Pp. xi + 299, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00 hardcover.)

In 1909, after years of pressure from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, the Tennessee state legislature banned the use of alcohol anywhere within four miles of a school—which in effect meant the entire state. This made Tennessee an early adopter of Prohibition, which lasted nationally from 1920 to 1933, and an early example of the criminality and corruption that the purification project ironically exacerbated. Patrick O’Daniel examines how that well-known national story played out in the state’s most rambunctious city, Memphis, during the three decades (1909-1939) in which it was officially dry. While reflecting the standard image of the Roaring Twenties—bootleggers, “flaming youth,” and gangster killings—the book also convincingly undoes the fiction that the roaring happened most colorfully in New York and Chicago.

O’Daniel, who has written extensively on Memphis history, draws effectively on archival records and local newspapers, including the city’s flagship paper Commercial Appeal, to tell a story brimming with outsize personalities. Dismissing the conventional view that Memphis crime was protected by Mayor Edward Crump’s political machine, he paints a picture of accommodation and resistance in which the interests of the law and of the underworld were complexly entwined. Recalling the “rogues’ gallery” that composed the city’s underworld, he gives us pithy vignettes of, among many others, saloon owner Jim Kinnane, who catered to African-American customers and paid their poll taxes; the much-feared gangster “Wild Bill” Latura; Neil Pumphrey, the model for the character Popeye in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary; and Joe Sailors, whose dominance of moonshining on a notorious Mississippi River island earned him the nickname, “King of President’s Island.” O’Daniel also devotes a fascinating chapter to Tyree Taylor, head of the Taylor Liquor Ring, who earned a $1,500 annual salary as a federal marshal while banking $75,000 in bootleggers ’bribes.

In a world where immunity could be bought, Prohibition inevitably affected poor people and rich people differently. The ironically entitled chapter, “Equality before the Law,” addresses this fact, showing how class favoritism shielded wealthy drinkers from prosecution, while working folks were fined. For African-Americans in particular, enforcing the Volstead Act became “no more than a thinly veiled attempt to victimize those already suffering under institutionalized racism” (93).

Prohibition is commonly associated with the hard-liquor expedients of bootleg whiskey and bathtub gin. In a chapter entitled “Loopholes,” O’Daniel shows that other alcoholic beverages were also in play, and that they sometimes served as stratagems to work around the law. Pharmacists could dispense whiskey by prescription, turning “medicinal alcohol” into a major business. Department of Agriculture brochures explaining how to avoid fermentation in grape juice served as instruction sheets for home winemakers. Wine sold for “sacramental” purposes to Jewish rabbis—permitted under the Volstead Act—didn’t always end up on seder tables. And there was considerable circulation of moonshine, industrial alcohol, and Jamaica Ginger (“Jack”), which was 80 percent ethanol and sometimes toxic. O’Daniel ends this chapter sensibly with a rhetorical question: “How could anyone enforce a law that people were willing to risk not only their liberty but injury and death to break?” (106).

In a book about drinkers and drinking, I would have welcomed a little more detail on the boozing milieus. The gangsters (if not the crusaders) lived in a world of brothels and dives, and some idea of what they listened to, how they dressed, and what they ate in those locales would have fleshed out their personalities. Although W.C. Handy is mentioned in passing, for example, there’s no information on Memphis Minnie or other local performers. But this is more a folklorist’s quibble than a substantive critique. O’Daniel’s account of the war between wets and drys is meticulously researched, agreeably written, and well illustrated; the inclusion of several Commercial Appeal cartoons by Pulitzer Prize winner J.P. Alley helps to reveal the issues of the time. For those interested in jazz-age America in general, or in the Southern expression of its inner contradictions, Crusaders, Gangsters, and Whiskey is an accessible and useful example of a local history that enhances our understanding of a national phenomenon.