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The Cultural Politics of Eating, Food, and the Body

The Cultural Politics of Eating, Food, and the Body
by Emma-Jayne Abbots

Emma-Jayne Abbots is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781474208802.0008

  • Publisher:
    Bloomsbury Publishing
  • Identifier:
    b-9781474208802-08
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Introduction

This unit explores the cultural politics of eating and examines the interplays between food, eating, and the body. It focuses on the ways in which a range of cultural actors and institutions—such as the media, restaurants, communities, food activists, and public health officials—influence the eating practices and food choices of consumers and unpacks how these political dynamics play out through the individual bodies of eaters. It thus encourages students to understand the ways in which different foods and eating preferences, which appear at first glance as embodied personal choices, are culturally constructed as desirable or abject by a myriad of cultural agencies, as well as interrogate the social relationships and knowledges that inform such constructions.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this unit, students should be able to:

  1. Understand and explain the relationship between food, the body, and power dynamics from a range of theoretical perspectives.

  2. Problematize oft-assumed notions of “good” and “bad” and “proper” and “improper” food—and by association “good” and “bad” eaters—by demonstrating the ways such definitions are socially and culturally constructed.

  3. Demonstrate an understanding of how a focus on the body and eating as an embodied process can further illuminate our understanding of the cultural politics of food.

  4. Theorize eating as both an embodied and a cultural practice and provide case study examples across to illustrate their theoretical perspective.

Unit Outline

This ten-module lesson plan is intended to run throughout a full semester. The content is aimed toward mid- to upper-level undergraduates or graduate students in food studies, social and cultural anthropology, medical anthropology and sociology, and cultural studies.

Lesson 1

Food, Eating, and the Body

Texts to be read before the lesson

Abbots, Emma-Jayne. 2017. “Eating Bodies and Bodies of Eating: Theoretical Foundations.” In The Agency of Eating: Mediation, Food and the Body, edited by Emma-Jayne Abbots. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: 10.5040/9781474205283.0006

Discussion questions

  • Define “eating.” How can we think of eating as more than just putting food in our mouth and digesting it?

  • What is the relationship between food, the body, and power relations?

  • How can we think of eating as a political act?

Homework

Research different ways that eating can be defined. Does eating take place inside or outside the body? Does it have to involve the body at all? How does eating, in the broadest sense, invoke all the senses?

Lesson 2

Food, the Senses, and Memory

Texts to be read before the lesson

Sutton, David E. 2001. “Sensory Memory and the Construction of Worlds.” In Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory, edited by David E. Sutton. Oxford: Berg. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350044883-ch-003

Discussion questions

  • How do foods transport people to a certain place or time?

  • How can food “ground” individuals to a certain place or people?

  • How can we research the subjective, deeply personal and multisensory experience of eating?

Homework

Think about—or even better eat—a food that triggers memories for you and note the multisensory and embodied experience of eating it. Where does this food transport you to and for what reasons? Make observations about the place of this food in your own personal and community history.

Lesson 3

Eating for Health: Nutritionism and “Healthy Food” Narratives

Texts to be read before the lesson

Paxson, Heather. 2016. “Rethinking Food and Its Eaters: Opening the Black Boxes of Safety and Nutrition.” In The Handbook of Food and Anthropology, edited by Jakob A. Klein and James L. Watson. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474298407.0021

Mudry, Jessica. 2017. “Nutrition, Health, and Food: What Should I Eat?” In The Handbook of Food and Popular Culture, edited by Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: 10.5040/9781474296250.0029

Discussion questions

  • Define “healthy eating.”

  • What are healthy foods? And unhealthy foods?

  • How are foods classified in this way? Who produces these knowledges?

  • Define a healthy body. How do we measure a healthy body? And on what knowledge—(re)produced by whom—are these judgments made?

Homework

Select a food that you deem healthy and examine the aspects and knowledges that would lead to the classification. Do the same for a food you deem as unhealthy. Can these positions be reversed? What are the broader social relations underpinning your judgments?

Lesson 4

Eating Safe Food: Food Scares and Anxieties

Texts to be read before the lesson

Jackson, Peter. 2015. “Introduction: The Roots of Contemporary Food Anxieties.” In Anxious Appetites: Food and Consumer Culture, edited by Peter Jackson. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474255240.ch-001

Nestle, Marion. 2003. “ Chapter 1.” In Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, edited by Marion Nestle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Discussion questions

  • Which social groups are most affected by food scares and risks?

  • What measures are put in place to counter the risks?

  • Who is deemed most responsible—the retailers, distributors, producers, or consumers?

  • What assumptions about eating and eaters are underpinning popular discourses on food safety?

  • How do eaters manage and negotiate risk?

Homework

Conduct a piece of mini-research into a selected food scandal—recent examples include horsemeat, BSE, and eggs and salmonella—and consider the discussion questions above in relation to this. What are the wider political and economic relations underpinning the scandal?

Lesson 5

Eating the Food of Home: Community and Migration

Texts to be read before the lesson

Ben-Ze’ev, Efrat. 2004. “The Politics of Taste and Smell: Palestinian Rites of Return.” In The Politics of Food by Marianne Elisabeth. Lien and Brigitte Nerlich. Oxford: Berg. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350044906.ch-008

Abbots, Emma-Jayne. 2016. “Approaches to Food and Migration: Rootedness, Being and Belonging.” In The Handbook of Food and Anthropology, edited by Jakob Klein and James L. Watson. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: 10.5040/9781474298407.0013

Discussion questions

  • What does eating together do?

  • How do people frame “the foods from home” and what role can eating these foods play in creating a sense of belonging?

  • How does eating form social relations and a sense of community?

  • And how can it also create barriers?

Homework

Research a food event or ritual that brings people together and consider how it creates a sense of belonging, which actors are involved, and which are included and excluded.

Lesson 6

Eating Otherness: “Exotic Foods” and Tourism

Texts to be read before the lesson

Ray, Krishnendu. 2016. “Taste, Toil and Ethnicity.” In The Ethnic Restaurateur, edited by Krishnendu Ray. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474269414.ch-001

Heldke, Lisa. 2005. “But Is It Authentic?: Culinary Travel and the Search for the ‘Genuine Article.’” In The Taste Culture Reader, edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer. London: Bloomsbury.

Discussion questions

  • How is otherness constructed and represented in “ethnic” restaurants and food outlets? How is exoticness created and made visible (and also rendered invisible)?

  • Who constructs this otherness (and sameness)? The consumer or the restaurateur/retailer? To what extent can a dynamic of co-creation be discerned?

Homework

Take a research visit around a food market, a restaurant, or a store of an “other.” Observe the ways it feels “exotic” (or not) to you, and the ways its sameness and otherness are presented to the eater.

Lesson 7

Eating Heritage, Craft, and Artisan Foods

Texts to be read before the lesson

West, Harry G. 2013. “Appellations and Indications of Origin, Terroir, and the Social Construction and Contestation of Place-Named Foods.” In The Handbook of Food Research, edited by Anne Murcott, Warren Belasco, and Peter Jackson. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350042261

Discussion questions

  • In what ways can food be heritage?

  • What differs an artisan from a non-artisan food and why?

  • Who determines these designations? Which actors are heard and which ones are silenced?

  • What is the relationship between craft food, the body, and embodied practice?

Homework

Research a food or dietary practice that has a formal designation as cultural heritage. What are the social and political relationships and actors that have led to this designation and can they be problematized in any way?

Lesson 8

Eating Global: The Creolization and Industrialization of Food

Texts to be read before the lesson

Wilk, Richard. 2014. “Global Ingredients and Local Products.” In Food History: Critical and Primary Sources, Volume 3: Global Contact and Early Industrialization, edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474220132-ch-004

Milne, Richard. 2015. “Local-Global.” In Food Words: Essays in Culinary Culture, edited by Peter Jackson and the CONANX Group. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350042278-036

Discussion questions

  • How and why has the global food industry—as epitomized by fast-food chains—grown so rapidly in so many places?

  • What are the effects of this on diet and on the construction of national, local, and ethnic food identities?

  • To what extent can we think of foods as hybrids of local and global cuisines?

  • How do the offerings of fast-food chains change as they move across cultural and geographical contexts? What can this mean in relation to the robustness of local food practices?

  • Is there any such thing as a “local” or “global” food?

Homework

Research a food that you consider “local” and one that is represented as “global.” Can you identify the “global” in the local and vice versa? Can you argue your chosen foods are hybrids?

Lesson 9

Ethical Eating and Alternative Foods

Texts to be read before the lesson

Grasseni, Christina. 2013. “Alternative Provisioning Networks.” In Beyond Alternative Food Networks: Italy’s Solidarity Purchase Groups, edited by Christina Grasseni. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350042117.ch-001

Discussion questions

  • Are “alternative” food movements elitist? Do they exclude certain consumers and, if so, in what ways?

  • What is the relationship between alternative foods, class, and race/ethnicity?

  • What is “alternative” about alternative foods? Is it the same as mainstream consumption, but just dressed up in a more palatable way? Or, do alternative food networks and activities represent a true alternative to the mainstream?

  • In what ways is the responsibility for an ethical food system shifted onto the consumer?

  • What types of food identities do ethical consumption and alternative foods offer the consumer?

Homework

Research an alternative food movement and note how it is represented, who its audience is, and what issues it raises.

Lesson 10

Food Media

Texts to be read before the lesson

Rousseau, Signe. 2012. “The Celebrity (Professional) Chef: Jamie Oliver.” In Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference, edited by Signe Rousseau. London: Berg. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350042193.ch-003

Dickinson, Roger. 2013. “Food and the Media: Production, Representation and Consumption.” In The Handbook of Food Research, edited by Anne Murcott, Warren Belasco, and Peter Jackson. London: Bloomsbury. DOI: 10.5040/9781350042261-ch-0026

Discussion questions

  • In what ways do people acquire food and cooking knowledge? How is this changing?

  • To what extent can social media democratize food knowledge? In what ways?

Homework

Browse your kitchen cupboards, cookbooks, newspapers, and supermarket shelves and identify the presence of food media figures. Note to what extent have your purchases been influenced by food media and from what sources.

Assessment Options

  • A written commentary on a specific food-related issue

  • A research assignment on a particular food deemed as heritage, healthy, ethical, local, or global that examines the social relations and political dynamics that have led to this designation

  • A presentation on a food issue, a dietary practice, or a particular food that has been problematized during the module

  • An auto-ethnographic account on the embodied experience of eating

  • A research assessment on a particular element of eating or a course week, based on primary data collection

  • A critical review of a food blog or a piece of food media, for example a cookery TV show

  • A written review of one of the key readings for class.

Most of the homework assessments can also be expanded into a formal assessment.

Further Reading

E-books in the Bloomsbury Food Library

de Solier, Isabelle. 2013. Food and the Self: Consumption, Production and Material Culture . London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350042179

Forth, Christopher and Alison Leitch. 2014. Fat: Culture and Materiality . London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474214063

Klein, Jakob and James L. Watson. 2016. The Handbook of Food and Anthropology . London: Bloomsbury. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474298407

Nüetzenadel, Alexander and Frank Trentmann. 2008. Food and Globalization . Oxford: Berg. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350047655

Parasecoli, Fabio. 2008. Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture . Oxford: Berg. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350044616

Books (not available in the Bloomsbury Food Library)

Counihan, C. M. 1999. The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning and Power . New York and London: Routledge.

Guthman, Julie. 2011. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism . Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lupton, Deborah. 1996. Food, The Body and the Self . London: Sage.

Enrichment Materials

Websites

Food First: http://www.foodfirst.org/

GRAIN: www.grain.org

Jamie Oliver Food: www.jme-food.com

Mother Jones magazine: www.MotherJones.com

Slow Food: http://www.slowfood.com/

Documentaries and TV programs

A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt, First Run Features, 2011

Chef’s Table, A Netflix Documentary Series, 2015–16

Food, Inc. Magnolia Pictures, 2009

Food on the Brain, BBC Documentary Series, 2016

Somm, Forgotten Man Films, 2013

Soul Food Junkies, God Bless the Child Productions, 2012

The Search for General Tso, Wicked Delicate Films, 2014