“The Larger Implications of What We Eat
And How We Eat it”
A Review of
The Gastronomica Reader.
Darra Goldstein, ed.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
The Gastronomica Reader.
Darra Goldstein, ed.
Hardback: University of California Press, 2010.
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Most mainstream reflection on food today (writing, television, etc.) works within the highly individualized constructs of taste and entertainment, and as such quickly becomes irrelevant for those of us who believe food to be the lifeblood of cultures. Thus, I was thrilled to learn recently of Gastronomica, a “Journal of Food and Culture” that intentionally aims to understand the social dimensions of food. Gastronomica is not a new publication, and indeed I stumbled upon it because I happened upon the brand new book THE GASTRONOMICA READER, a retrospective “best of” book published this year on the occasion their tenth anniversary. Darra Goldstein introduces the mission of Gastronomica in the book’s introduction:
Unlike the popular [food] magazines that lure readers with images of beautiful food eaten by beautiful people, Gastronomica aims to be edgy, hoping to make its readers think about what lies behind the meal, which often includes guts and gore and the exploitation of others, both human and animal. For better and for worse, most of the food we eat these days is manipulated, so it is important to consider the larger implications of what we eat and how we eat it, whether they are political, social, or just plain grotesque. Although the journal celebrates food, as a source of comfort and pleasure, conviviality and beauty, we want to push against the conventions that define our eating habits and the ways in which we think about them.
Furthermore, although Gastronomica defines itself in contrast to the mainstream of popular food writing, it also strives to resist being relegated to the largely ignored pathways of academic conversation, but intends to be a sort of bridge over the “divide between academic inquiry and popular writing about food.” Although there is fair amount of provocation and the shockingly grotesque here, I found in The Gastronomica Reader a deep resonance with their rich cultural explorations of food and with the pointed questions raised within about food-related justice that would mostly be ignored in mainstream food publications.
Looking back through the journal’s archive on their website, it seems that the selections in The Gastronomica Reader are a good representation of its work over the last decade. Included here are a decpiction of the competitive eating scene, offered through a written portrait of a monstrous competitor by the name of Badlands, a biographical sketch of Otto Horcher — “Caterer to the Third Reich” — and Robert Pincus’ fabulous piece “Wine, Place and Identity in a Changing Climate” (Read this essay online). There also is plenty of striking food-related art and poetry sprinkled throughout including Beat Poet Charles Bukowski’s piece “dinner, 1933,” which begins:
when my father ate
his lips became
and when he ate
he talked about how
the food was
most other people
Perhaps the quintessential piece in this volume, however, is Andrew Chan’s essay “La grande bouffe: Cooking Shows as Pornography.” Chan explores this theme through examination of a number of cooking shows from “Two Fat Ladies” to “Nigella Bites” to “The Iron Chef,” observing an analogous relationship to that of pornography and sex: “Contemporary TV cooking shows create a gap that separates the viewer from the reality of actual cookery.” After reviewing porn-like elements of contemporary cooking shows, Chan observes that “The popularity of the cooking show as fantasy is paralleled by the real-world decline of culinary culture in America.” Another key essay here for our readers is Marie Griffith’s study of food-related abstinence in American Christianity. Griffith seeks to understand here the “relation between Christianity and the modern American diet obsession,” and this quest leads her through a historical (albeit mostly twentieth century) tour of Christian dieting programs up through Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Diet. As she concludes the essay, she notes that: “Although the material rewards of slenderness offered by the secular world have been repeatedly decried in this literature as superficial, Christian diet writers appeal to them unremittingly.” She goes on to say — rightly — that such appeals would be foreign to the monastics and other ascetics of earlier eras of Christianity. These theological complexities, as she describes them in this essay, should spur some much needed reflection for those of us in the Church, on how we eat, or abstain from eating, and why. One final essay that will likely be of interest to many of out readers — Christopher Annear’s “GM or Death: Food And Choice in Zambia” (Read this essay online.) GM here, is of course, not the heralded American car-maker but rather a reference to Genetically Modified foods. Annear reflects on the 2002 ban on imports of GM foods initiated by Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, which in essence denied much needed food to the people of that nation, thus stirring up a host of questions about “cultural, economic and religious values.” He concludes that at the root of this ban is an anger at Western nations for the “percevied international inequality and the apparent Western unwillingness to treat African countries as anything more than “dumping grounds” for their unwanted and/or unused resources.”
The Gastronomica Reader is an important book that raises an almost overwhelming number of questions about the food we eat, where it comes from and our practices related to eating it. For those of us who long to see more dialogue in the Church about eating practices, especially in the United States and the Western world, this book (and the Gastronomica journal in general) offer an abundance of entryways into these sort of conversations. May God lead us and sustain us through this wilderness of our own creation, toward shared eating practices that are more faithful to the nature of our Just and Loving Creator.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com