Dr. David Sutton returns to AOTS, this time to talk about his long career’s work on the anthropology of food. Dr. Sutton explores the politics of food and commensality, or eating together, on the Greek island of Kalymnos at a time when international debt has increased outside pressures on Greece to transform their economics and culture to better suit neoliberal capitalism. For folks in Kalymnos, food and cooking are ways to connect the present to the past, whether it’s through telling stories of food eaten 40 years ago, eating foods today to evoke memories, or cooking using specific techniques and tool choices that emphasize cultural and kinship connections.
As people eat together, Dr. Sutton explains, there is an intimacy and materiality to food that correlates to social relations, the senses, and the political. Food becomes a metaphor for criticizing some of the more abstract elements of neoliberalism, such as the conscious use of food in discourse that opposes concreteness and intimacy of eating with abstract coldness of money and rational economics.
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Information on Dr. David Sutton:
Dr. Sutton’s faculty page: http://cola.siu.edu/anthro/facultyandstaff/faculty/sociocultural/sutton.php
Dr. Sutton’s academia webpage: https://siu.academia.edu/DavidSutton
Episode 18 Language, Time, and the Anthropology of Arrival with Dr. David Sutton
Books and articles by Dr. Sutton:
Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples
Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island (California Studies in Food and Culture)
Memories Cast in Stone: The Relevance of the Past in Everyday Life (Mediterranea Series)
An introduction to Dr. David Sutton’s work at SIU:
Dr. Sutton discussing his new book, Bigger Fish to Fry:
Other books and articles referenced in the episode:
“Deciphering a Meal” by Mary Douglas
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Sidney Mintz’s (considered to be the father of the anthropology of food) website: https://sidneymintz.net/food.php
“The Gun, the Pen, and the Cannoli: Orality and Writing in The Godfather, Part 1” by Sutton & Wogan
“Acoustemology” by Stephen Feld
“Cooking Up a Revolution: Food as a Democratic Tactic at Occupy Wall Street” by Maggie Dickinson
“The Sensorial Production of the Social” by Adam Chau
“From Immigrant to Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration” by Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch and Cristina Szanton Blanc
More information on the material discussed in this episode:
Commensality and the #EatTogether campaign:
University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo (official name of the university where David Sutton teaches as a visiting professor): https://www.unisg.it/en/
Slow Food Movement: https://www.slowfood.com/
Editorial about neoliberalism being imposed in Greece via SAPs: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/07/greece-financial-elite-democracy-liassez-faire-neoliberalism
Food Anthro blog post about throwing yogurt as protest: https://foodanthro.com/2011/10/12/strained-yogurt-and-people-in-greece/
The Other Human official blog: http://oallosanthropos.blogspot.com/p/social-kitchen-other-human.html
Carie: In this episode we welcome back Dr. David Sutton, this time to talk about his long career’s work on the anthropology of food. Dr. Sutton explores the politics of food and commensality, or eating together, on the Greek island of Kalymnos at a time when Greece’s international debt has increased outside pressures on the country to transform their economics and culture to better suit neoliberal capitalism goals. For folks in Kalymnos, food and cooking are ways to connect the present to the past, whether it’s through telling stories of food eaten 40 years ago, eating foods today to evoke memories, or cooking using specific techniques and tool choices that emphasize cultural and kinship connections.
As people eat together, Dr. Sutton explains, there is an intimacy and materiality to food that correlates to social relations, the senses, and the political. Food becomes a source of resistance, a metaphor for criticizing some of the more abstract elements of neoliberalism. The conscious use of food in discourse, or the choice to stick with traditional, low-tech forms of cooking, pit the tangible intimacy of eating against the abstract coldness of money and rational economics.
Carie: Welcome again David, it is so great to talk to you, and this time we get to talk about your main passion and research interest – food.
David: It’s so nice to be back on the podcast, Carie.
Carie: You spent a little bit of time this summer in Italy, teaching about food, is that right?
David: That’s right.
Carie: You were at the Italy Gastronomical Institute, which sounds very intimidating. What were you teaching there?
David: I was teaching a course, like a week long course, just called the anthropology of food. It’s a master’s program that draws students from all around the world, which is really nice. And it’s a university that was established by Carlo Petrini who’s also the founder of the slow food movement. And so, it’s a great place for students who are interested in becoming part of the food world and affecting the food world in one way or another, and they have many courses throughout the year, and my job is just to teach them about the value of anthropology to their understanding of food. It’s quite the opposite of when I teach at my home University, Southern Illinois University, because there I’m mostly convincing anthropology students that food is interesting to them and here I’m convincing people who already know that they care about food that anthropology has something to say to that.
Carie: So that’s a great segue into the question of, like, what is the anthropology of food? I mean, we clearly all know that food is emblematic of culture in the sense that, you know, different cultures have different cuisines. But how would you describe the anthropology of food as an academic or personal endeavor?
David: It’s an interesting question because in some ways you can trace food back to the origins of anthropology and, you know, every major figure that we think of in our anthropological genealogy at least said – written something about food. And yet, as a kind of field of study, it really didn’t take off until the 1980s, 1990s with the kind of renewal of food studies and the academy, or the birth of food studies and the academy. There was always this, kind of, idea that food is not really something that you should pay much intellectual attention to, I think that’s part of the Western tradition and attitudes towards food and the so-called lower senses, more generally. And so, I think there was a long period when food anthropology was associated maybe only with figures like Mary Douglas and Sydney Mintz. But over this last 25 or 30 years there’s just been a real explosion of food studies and I think it’s absolutely essential to anthropology in the same way that we are – well I like to think about anthropology as starting from a base of topics like kinship, ritual exchange, gender, and power, and political economy, and food really has something to say about all of those. I think food is a really busy intersection, where basically every topic that anthropologists are interested in is reflected in some way in food, so I feel like food should be, like, one of those founding areas of anthropology that every student should know something about. And that is also very much cutting edge and, you know, in terms of things like studies of materiality and the senses, well food is right there as well.
Carie: Yeah, so your predominant field of study is in Greece, and I know you have been working there for quite a long time, but your recent work has been on the kind of economic shifts in Greece, right, working on food and neoliberalism?
David: Yes. I mean, I never thought I would be doing something about dealing with economics, I feel like I took up anthropology so I wouldn’t have to study economics.
Carie: This is, in fact, the reason I joined anthropology as well. And you can’t escape it. Because the influence of economic systems, clearly, is as central as food to all of us. So, by looking at food you somehow ended up with this backdoor insight into the economic system, so maybe could you explain a little bit about what’s happening in Greece and how food connects to it?
David: Yeah, absolutely. It really came out of watching the effects of the so-called crisis, whether they call it financial crisis or economic crisis, or subsequent crises, the refugee crisis, that that was being experienced in Greece in a particular way, that I found that food was very much part of the discourse of protest to so-called neoliberal reforms.
Carie: These were reforms that were mostly being imposed by countries that were lending money, is that right? So Germany, for example, lending money to Greece and then insisting that they transform the way they spend their money nationally.
David: Yeah, the European Union, which Germany certainly dominates, and the sovereign debt crisis that arose after 2008, 2009, where Greece owed all of this money that it couldn’t repay easily and had to receive a number of bailouts, bailouts which of course didn’t go to the people, or even in many ways to the government but to the banks themselves, and that were being used as a way to transform Greece into more neoliberal good children. There were kind of ways that the European Union always thought of Greece, and also other southern European countries, as marginal, and not conforming to the kind of putative rationality of the European Union institutions. And so I was interested in, kind of, how people in Greece responded to that and how food kind of took a central role both in a symbolic level in the discourses about what was going on, as well as in practices as people adjusted their lives to this new reality in which, you know, at certain points, Greece had 50 to 60% youth unemployment and so children, or children in their 20s, 30s, 40s, were moving back in with their families, because they couldn’t survive. I first became aware of this, because there were so many protests going on in the early days after the financial crisis, protests about some of the reforms that were being proposed that would, in the eyes of many Greeks, take away the possibility of living what they called a dignified life, a life where you’re not simply surviving, but you’re living with some dignity which involves things like being able to socialize at a coffee shop, for example. And this was a point of tension, because, particularly the German media, I think, showed pictures of Greeks in coffee shops as some kind of supposed proof of the laziness of Greeks, that was very much a kind of psychological discourse that we see the same aimed at minorities in the United States, to say that the Greeks were somehow responsible for their economic plights because of their laziness. In fact, Greeks work more hours than any European according to the statistical data that they collect on that. So, there were lots of people in the streets protesting some of the laws being put into place and one of the forms of protests that was, let’s say eye catching, was what was called in Greek yogurting, which was that they were hurling yogurt at politicians and other figures of authority. And it really made me think about, you know, the question that came to my mind which was why yogurt, did there just happen to be a lot of yogurt handy that people were using? And I thought about, well, what was the symbolism of yogurt? I mean there were some practical reasons that yogurt might be a good projectile. They weren’t going to the store and buying the kind of commercial brands of yogurt for the most part, from what I was seeing. I was working on this, by the way, with former student and colleague of mine Leonidas Vournelis. And we found that the yogurt that people were throwing was yogurt that’s produced by, kind of, local cooperatives in Greece and has a familiar form throughout Greece, which is these very small flimsy white plastic cups that can fit in the palm of your hand quite well, and you could have that cup closed with a lid on and you could hurl it and it would very easily kind of burst open and have the desired effect on people.
Carie: So much thought has gotten into the symbolism of just chucking an iconic food stuff onto politicians.
David: Well that was actually just the practical side of things. In terms of the symbolism, I was thinking about kind of what people throw at politicians in general and I thought, you know, in the US, there’s this whole tradition of throwing pies at politicians, and then this was happening not too long after this famous incident when George Bush went to Iraq and a journalist threw his shoe at the former President. I thought, well that’s a pretty clear kind of symbolic statement to, kind of, associate the high with the low. But in terms of the yogurt, I thought it was interesting because yogurt is of course one of these foods that is iconic, it’s a Greek product, and we of course now have Greek yogurt that we buy in the store in the US, and in the same way, yogurt is like olive oil and feta cheese as one of these several products that really seems to represent Greekness. So what was it saying to hurl yogurt at politicians? What my colleague and I argued was that it was a way of insulting the politicians by reminding them of their Greekness, to say that people in Greece saw neoliberalism as essentially un-Greek, for the very reason that it replaces kind of social concerns with economic concerns, it puts numbers over people, and it doesn’t allow for people to, once again, not only survive but to reproduce a human way of life. And so, by throwing yogurt, people were basically saying to the politicians, you have shamed us by promoting this non-Greek ideology and we’re going to remind you of your Greekness by covering you in Greekness. And it was really interesting because there was a kind of tolerance for yogurting at the time, I would imagine this happening in the US and a lot of people going to jail, but not too many people were arrested and carted off to jail because it was seen as a kind of acceptable safety valve for social protests in Greece, at least at the time.
Carie: I mean, it could be a lot worse, right?
David: That’s right .
Carie Yeah, there’s so many options worse than being hit with Greek yogurt.
Carie: So you have this thing, as you’re describing this, where food is central as an, I don’t know, an iconic representation of the country but clearly there are so many layers to how food both creates culture and reproduces important elements of it and so if you’re talking about this as a point of resistance, how else is food central to Greek identity in a way that contrasts with the, kind of, rigid capitalistic neoliberal forces that are pressing against them?
David: I think at a symbolic level, of course, we’re always dealing in stereotypes where food might represent something that in practice is more complicated. And as we know symbols always work in oppositions of one kind or another. And so I’ve been trying to trace for a while in popular culture in Greece, but also in the US, the kind of ways that food represents a kind of intimacy and sociability in symbolic terms, that’s either sometimes contrasted to various things that represent abstraction, whether that be writing – My colleague Peter Wogan and I wrote about the movie The Godfather, and we were very interested in the representation of food in the Godfather, but not by itself, specifically in contrast to the representations of writing in The Godfather, whether in the form of contracts, the contracts that had to be signed, the offers you couldn’t refuse, and other forms of state associated abstraction. In the same way, food can be contrasted to numbers. There’s a saying in Greece, when the numbers prosper the people suffer, that kind of sums up the attitudes towards so-called economic good news. And finally, I think you can look at food in contrast to social media. In all of these cases, food represents a kind of intimacy whereas these other things are often put in this symbolic position of distance. And, of course, the prototypical example of this, as your question referred to, is commodity fetishism, the treating of any object, but certainly food, as an abstract commodity that is meant specifically for exchange rather than as something with particular material properties that you know something about. So you can trade pork bellies on the stock exchange and have very little idea of what a pork belly tastes like or smells like, I don’t really know what you do in the abstract with pork bellies. But, you know, I found in my research on the island of Kalymnos which is an island, a Greek island, off of Turkey, that people treated food very differently from other products like, I don’t know, sneakers, which you might be quite happy to buy sneakers from halfway around the world and not know anything about their origins, but it was very important to know where your food was from and to know something about how it was produced, and this wasn’t just something for what we call foodies in in the US or people who are obsessed with food and tastes and go to farmers markets and we see this as part of class distinction, in Greece I found that ordinary people were as interested in comparing the tastes of different olive oils as anyone else in Greece, and men were as interested in this as women. I’ve kind of been working on this idea to capture this notion that Greece is a culture that gives such importance to food. And not just food in general, but the taste of food. And so I’ve been trying out the term gustemology to talk about this. I know it’s an ugly combination of Greek and Latin but I couldn’t come up with something better. And it’s kind of playing with Steven Feld’s acoustemology, to talk about a sound-based worldview. I think of Greece and Kalymnos as a taste-based worldview, in which the taste of food is shared across the community as a matter of ongoing urgent concern and conversation and so when I say that it’s something that crosses any class boundaries and crosses any gender boundaries, in the sense that both men and women care deeply about the taste of food, and the knowledge that is involved in producing food that tastes good is socially valued knowledge in the community. And this really hit home to me. I was talking with an older man, a Kalymnian man, for some reason he started telling me about how to make octopus stew. And he said, well you can soak the octopus and you can remove the salt water, and then you can add salt later in the stew, and that’s quite different than just leaving the salt water in it and using that as the salt for the stew and so you have to really think about that when you’re making your octopus stew. And I said to him, that’s interesting, so when did you make octopus stew last and he said, oh I never make it. And it’s just something that you know because it’s a matter for concern. And this really struck me that it’s what we might think of as an aesthetic discourse. But I think throughout Greece, that aesthetics doesn’t have the kind of association with femininity, that it often does in the US, of course these things are very much in flux in the US but I think at least the, kind of, anti-aesthetics is associated with masculinity, that men are not supposed to care about these things, like the smell of flowers or the taste of – you know, is thyme or oregano the seasoning you want in this, you know, they’re supposed to kind of get to the point of things but in Kalymnos – I always kind of run Kalymnos and Greece together because most of the things that I’ve seen in Kalymnos are also pertinent to Greece at large, although there are some differences. I mean I would find, you know, a 50 year old man telling a nine year old boy how to add feta cheese to his green bean and tomato dish while it’s still hot so that the feta starts to melt a little into the dish and you’ll really enjoy that, and I just can’t imagine that kind of conversation happening in the US in that same way, so this is what I’ve been trying to get at with the idea of gustemology, that taste matters on a cultural level.
Carie: It sounds even beyond just taste, it’s the experience of food, like melting feta is gonna give you a different texture and it’s going to give, you know, a kind of blending of things that are more kinetic in some ways.
David: That’s absolutely true and I don’t want to abstract taste from the other senses. I think, you know, that’s another thing that research on Kalymnos really taught me, to rethink the boundaries that we set between discrete senses, that we think of the senses as limited to five and discrete, and this is not a helpful ethnographic starting point, that there’s much more of a synesthetic approach to sensory experience, as you are saying, you know, taste is certainly about all the senses. And, in fact, there’s a common saying on Kalymnos, when food is cooking and people will take a long whiff of whatever’s on the stove and they’ll say, listen to the smell of that.
Carie: Yeah, that’s fantastic
David: Yeah. The first time I heard that I was like, wait, wait, what did you say, and I think my friend was like, oh, oh yeah, I guess it’s strange to say it like that but that’s just how we think about it.
Carie: Well it’s such an active and engaged – It’s like a whole bodied sensation of the food or appreciation for the food.
Carie: But I love too, that, you know – and you sort of touched upon this – but this idea that it’s not just the immediacy of the experience of food, this is deeply resonant and recreative, maybe, of the past, and not just a connection like, oh grandma used to do it this way, but an entire identity of how food played such a central role in connecting the past to the present.
David: Absolutely. And that’s actually kind of where I started thinking about food in my research because my original research in Kalymnos was not at all about food, it was actually about historical consciousness and kind of how people think about the past and the present and how the past is part of people’s perceptions of the present. And it was only because food kept creeping into my field notes that I started to think, you know, this is a topic that really deserves attention. It was not only people’s stories that they would tell me, I mean, this was research I was doing in the early late 1980s, early 1990s, and I would ask people about, kind of, what they remembered from the world war two or something, some period from 40 or 50 years ago, and they would start telling me a story and they would throw in some little detail like oh I was eating some peaches and my friend came up and said let’s go explore this abandoned something or other, and I just started to think about, you know, what are the peaches doing in that story? You know, do people really remember the peaches from 40 years ago?
Carie: I mean, I still remember perfectly cooked halibut from a cafe in Victoria, in Vancouver Island. I mean, like, it is amazing how you can have these sensory memories of this perfect vacation moment, or this perfect family get together or something, so in this case when you’re talking about the peaches, is this just, you know, an amazing peach or something else happening here that’s connecting this?
David: Well, I think there’s a little bit of both, but in some ways, it seems actually the opposite of that kind of thing because, of course, I have those experiences too and I grew up in New York City and so my memory was all about kind of, you know, special restaurants that we went to or, you know, amazing meals at somebody’s house and, in fact, my parents would often kind of comment on how they would ask me, oh do you remember so and so, we had dinner with them like three years ago, and I would say, what did we have for dinner? And that would be my starting point and I think that, kind of, idea that you remember the unusual the distinctive or even the perfect kind of word that I’ve been thinking a lot about – there was a little bit of that in Kalymnos in that people would, especially when I was, like, leaving the island that at various moments -obviously I had more than one departure since I came back and did research repeatedly – but when I was getting ready to leave, people would preface offering me a meal by saying eat so that you remember Kalymnos. And I thought that was a very interesting recognition of the embodied nature of memory. But what was striking to me at the same time was how the peaches didn’t really have to be perfect, that there was something about remembering the ordinary in food consumption that seemed very different on Kalymnos. People who do studies of memory will tell you that we can’t remember the ordinary, we can’t remember every time we’ve eaten, I don’t know, a croissant or something, because we’ve done it so many times that maybe we’ll remember the first time and will remember the last time, but everything in between gets telescoped in some way. But I became interested in how Kalymnians at least seem to claim to remember the ordinary consumption of food and it didn’t have to be unusual, or their definition of unusual was different from mine, that it was more about slight variations that made each consumption memorable, so that maybe it was a variation in the ingredients of a dish, or a variation in who was present at the meal, or any variation in terms of where you got the food, you happen to run into somebody who gave this to you or you happen to find it, because they do do foraging on this island. So there was just one little thing that made it distinctive from other times, but that it was important to at least try to remember all of the familiar examples and that this was a way of remembering that was distinct from the way that I think we might remember, like the best Chinese meal that I’ve ever had.
Carie: Right. This sounds much more like mom’s lasagna, kind of thing.
David: That’s right. That’s right.
Carie: So it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just unique to that place and kinship and everything.
David: Exactly. And that kind of led me to think about cooking on Kalymnos because that was after I had gotten interested in memory and I kind of looked around and saw that there wasn’t really much about food and memory in the anthropological literature, at least there was, of course, Marcel Proust’s famous eating the Madeleine cookie and having 3000 pages of memory pour out of him as a result, but I wanted to kind of go beyond just saying that our childhood memories are important to us and that includes food. And so I tried to embed this idea of food and memory into all kinds of social practices, such as their memorial ceremonies for the dead that take place in Greece repeatedly, about, I think, seven times in the first year after you’re dead and then every year after that. And one of the important aspects of these memorials is that you make this special food, food which, by the way, can be traced back over 2000 years, a kind of combination of wheat berries and nuts and other things that obviously symbolically represent rebirth. And that takes a long time to make, it takes, you know, if you make it exactly right, a couple of days, and that needs to be eaten at these memorial ceremonies, not just in the way that we might have a meal after a funeral or a wake in the US, but that actually represents the generosity of the person who has died in a community in which generosity is the most important feature of social identity. You can’t rely on your acts of generosity in life as being enough, you have to have ways of extending your generosity after death even. And so there are not only these kind of formalized rituals, but people are still associated with the trees that they owned in life, the fig trees or other fruit trees, and so you can offer fruit to people passing by in memory of your dead parent or other relative. Food is constantly being used in formal and informal contexts as a way of extending your memory both in life and after death and so it was these kinds of cultural practices that I really wanted to think about, as what made this connection between food and memory both a universal thing that you could no doubt find anywhere, but also something very culturally distinctive.
Carie: You had mentioned cooking as cultural practice as related to food but not food itself and I find that that’s a really interesting place that reveals cultural differences that we wouldn’t even think about and I know you have talked about the technical aspects of cooking as being deeply cultural. Do you have some examples of things that you saw on Kalymnos that would, kind of, highlight that?
David: Yeah. The ones that I was most, kind of, struck by were, on the one hand, rolling pins, which are very important for making phyllo dough to make various pies, like we usually associate Greek spinach pie or cheese pie. And, you know, if people make that in the states they just go to the supermarket and buy some machine made phyllo dough which is super thin but in Greece, it’s still not really the done thing.
Carie: Yeah, I imagine not.
David: And so here there’s a lot of regional differences and in fact in Northern Greece, for example, they’re really known for their pies, as they’re called – pies don’t have to be sweet in Greece, they can be spinach pies or mushroom pies or various things. And so they have this real amazing expertise in rolling out this dough by hand to a level of thinness that is just kind of like – I guess maybe the people who can do like hand rolled or hand thrown pizza crust as we see that in a pizza shop. But, in order to do this, you have to really be in touch with your rolling pin. And it’s kind of – the premise is almost the opposite of the kind of rolling pins that I grew up with, maybe you grew up with, with these handles that are attached to a metal rod that’s running through the middle of the rolling pin and ball bearings all making it as easy and smooth as possible. In Greece you would never have use a rolling pin like that, you would use basically a dowel of varying degrees of thinness and the thinner dowels really allow you a sense of contact with the dough where I’m not exaggerating to say there’s a, kind of, sense that it’s not clear where your body ends and where the rolling pin and the dough begin. And there’s a real sense of contact between yourself and the dough, the rolling pin just becomes an extension of your body. And I remember this student I mentioned early, Leo Vournelis, when his mother came to visit him, he was studying in Carbondale where I teach, and she wanted to make a spinach pie and obviously she hadn’t brought her rolling pin from Greece and the American ones were completely unacceptable and she kind of looked around his apartment and eyed his broom and said, you know, can I cut off the broom handle. He said no! So that was a case where there’s a real kind of connection between yourself and the cooking tool, but the other example that I explored in great detail was how, when it comes to knives, people in Greece didn’t have this sense, like, of you had to have the perfect knife and you had to have it perfectly sharp and you had to have a kind of whole raft of technical ability to use your knife properly, as we often kind of get in foodie discourse in the US. And one of the reasons for this is because the way that they cut things, is that they cut everything not using a cutting board or any kind of hard surface, but rather holding the item in one hand and using the knife, as a kind of way of scoring and then kind of pulling along the grain that you’ve scored to cut, whether it be an onion or a potato, but basically anything that you can hold in your hand. I took videos of all of this, not very high-quality videos, but I did put them up on a website. You can see people cutting zucchini, there’s a beautiful image of a woman cutting a really big eggplant, holding it in one hand and cutting it with the other hand and it’s quite an impressive sight and also when it when it comes to bread, which they, you know, eat these long loaves of, I guess what we would call typically Italian bread, basically with every meal, and they’ll just kind of take the loaf and lean it against their chest and saw toward their bodies to make cuts. And so I spent some time thinking about this, partly because my foodie friends were so shocked by this idea, it seemed so strange and inefficient way of cutting to them, and yet it was the way that every Greek person learned to cut and so I spent a lot of time thinking about kitchens and kitchen spaces and how are they laid out and, you know, is it something in the design of kitchens, that people don’t have counter space, and there were interesting details along the way but it ended up being a dead end – not exactly a dead end but it wasn’t really the key thing, which was that the important thing about cutting holding something in your hand, is that you don’t have to turn away from what’s going on around you and lean over and devote yourself to that task.
Carie: Right. You don’t have to turn your back to people, which is interesting when you think about the centrality of islands and bars in kitchen designs today. You know, the way that it’s so popular to have a open design with a bar that you can be prepping food at, but you never have to turn away from your company.
David: That’s right. It definitely has a different kind of social matrix than the, kind of, imagined 1950s kitchen where all of the preparation went on, out of sight and then it appears in the dining room.
Carie: Exactly, with a perfectly coiffed and aproned mother putting it on the table.
David: That’s right, that’s right, and, you know, my experience growing up was that my parents were academics and they always had colleagues coming over for dinner, but all the socializing, unless it was a super formal occasion, went on in the kitchen around this round table. And so we didn’t have an island, we had a big butcher block, but we had this kind of kitchen space that lent itself to socializing while you were cooking, and then to this, kind of, image of egalitarianism social relations represented by the round table that we ate at, so there was no head of the table or anything like that, and that was reflected in the kind of discussion or argument style, everybody had the right to an opinion and things like that, so I think I was sensitized to the importance of that as a child. But in the case of Kalymnos, the only difference was that the preparation of ingredients is going on potentially over several hour period in the morning for the main meal which happens in the early afternoon and it was often being done not indoors, but in some kind of outdoor space. And so, to be able to sit in a chair, cutting potatoes, while you’re talking to neighbors or simply being able to watch people as they’re passing by and seeing what they’re doing was a very important part of being part of the community, that was facilitated by this cutting style. And so that really kind of made me think about, what do we mean by the idea of perfection in cooking, this idea that there is a perfect way to fry potatoes or a perfect way to chop onions. And I think that we kind of think about cooking as a technical skill, so that you can be either more or less skilled, we don’t think about it as also a social skill, that it’s not just the food itself that’s the social part, it’s the actual process of cooking that is obviously also very social and so it really makes no sense to think about a technically perfect way to do anything. It seems highly socially inefficient, let’s say, to go back to that image of chopping vegetables on the cutting board, while you turn your back away, maybe if you’re working very long, you’re putting pressure on your back, all kinds of ways that that’s actually very inefficient, from a from a larger socially embedded point of view.
Carie: Yeah, I mean, it seems very deeply ethnocentric to think of there being a proper way to cook something, or prepare, or anything as you’re describing, because I mean, not only is it sort of silly in some way – why can’t there, you know, five equally good ways to cut something, why do we always have to rank things, you know. That seems like a very, I don’t want to say American because I think it’s kind of everywhere now, but it’s kind of global culture of capitalism where every reality show, whether it’s Lego building or cooking, you have to have a clear winner, right, I mean how absurd is that? But we’re sort of obsessed with this notion that there’s one right way to do something.
David: And of course, you probably hear this phrase in your university that makes me cringe now, of best practices.
Carie: Ugh, yes. Well, it’s one of many things that makes me cringe.
David: Yeah, right.
Carie: Like, the ability to put into numbers how much a journal article is worth versus a book review versus whatever.
David: Well, that’s exactly the kind of abstracting idea that I think is very much what my Greek research kind of sensitized me to, the kind of distrust of disembedded numerical evaluations. I mean maybe I always have had that distrust of educational testing and things like that, but it seems to have spread so much in our society, even over the last 25 years.
Carie: Yeah. Well, we’re embedded in a qualitative field and we’re surrounded by constant quantitative methods.
David: That’s right. And, yeah, I think there’s always that kind of quantitative aspect of modernity. But, as you have been pointing to that, kind of, neoliberal capitalism just adds a whole ‘nother dimension to that.
Carie: But what is fascinating, I think about anthropology in general, and you have such a great case study here, is that you are extensively learning about how somebody else does something, or how somebody else thinks or loves or learns or whatever. But what really that casts light on to is the deeply embedded cultural systems that we find ourselves in that we don’t even see, right, it’s that whole statement of getting the fish to see the water. So we might be going someplace else to learn about their differences but really we come back home and we’re like, wow we are so weird, like our whole system is so strange, I can’t believe we use a cutting board to cut and we turn our back on our guests, right? Like I can’t believe we go to this work that’s all about learning and insight and teaching people how to think differently and then we have to put into numbers everything we do and then we rank each other. Oh, you have 72 points this year, I only got 63. What? Like, this doesn’t make any sense. And speaking of neoliberalism, because what you’re describing, the centrality of food to so many aspects of life, the phenomenology of eating but also of cooking, that embodied sense of doing something and then how that connects to social relations, how that embodies kinship relations, even those kin members who are dead, or passed on. And you talk about this kind of materiality of culture. And the, I don’t know, geography or architecture of social relations and physical workstations and spaces and things like that all, coming together and so it is interesting, the more we parse out these examples, how, then, food became central in Greece to protests against the imposition of neoliberalism as an economic system but also has this big kind of cultural system as well because, as you described, it’s not just about like, you need to open your markets and pay off your debts, it’s also you have to open your markets to William Sonoma, you have to open your markets to processed food that comes packaged, to phyllo dough. So, you know you talked a bit at times about the idea of single use tools. So, how does that become kind of, like, an iconic form of neoliberalism and something that people in your field study would be very opposed to?
David: I think I saw this on two different levels that really struck me on Kalymnos. During the height of the crisis, I was interested in how some of the, what we might call tacit knowledge or traditional knowledge, came into play as people thought about how to survive these difficult times with this notion of dignity that I was referring to, that meant, you know, still eating well, and not depriving oneself of good taste. And so I have many friends who drew on their ideas about – or not ideas, but practices of foraging for food, and how to prepare that food without incurring the cost of going to the supermarket as a supplement to their eating practices And these were things that people had done in the past, and that people had always kind of looked on as in some way superior to other ways of getting food. I mean, it’s an island so people are always fishing on the small scale or, you know, if you’re near the water, you can always just kind of take a little plastic bag and walk into the water and kind of fearlessly pluck a dozen sea urchins from the seabed and kind of just dump them out on your on your table and use a fork to start to open them up and eat them, you know, fresh out of the water right there and things like that. And I always was analyzing these as a kind of – people would talk about them as kind of pre capitalist pleasure, that people would say, you know, we can eat all summer without money. And once again that kind of symbolic opposition of food and money. And then, so when the crisis came around people were, kind of, trying to think about how they might access some of that traditional knowledge to help them make it through, whether that was collecting snails after a good rain and trying to get the older person in the family to remind them how you cook the snails, or rather than going to the bakery to get your sweets as people been doing for the last 30 years or so and spending 10 euro, some people were going back to making what’s called in Greece spoon sweets, that you make out of any kind of fruit or vegetable – well not any vegetable, some vegetables – any fruit, some vegetables, preserved in sugar water that you would eat with your tea, with your coffee. And, or even this food that was associated with sponge diving on the island called Kavourmas, which was a kind of heavily salted meat that was like a pork that was cooked in the pork fat and with enough salt so that it could last for weeks or more, was very useful when people were on the sponge boats, gone for months at a time, they would prepare this big vat of it before they left the island. But I hadn’t seen anyone eating it in the early 1990s and I saw some people preparing it in the midst of the crisis and I kind of said, you know, what’s going on here and is this, like, just the nostalgia for tradition that we see in lots of different cultural contexts, and maybe there was some of that in it, but what was also really striking was one woman said to me, well, you never know when maybe we’re not going to be able to pay for electricity and so we won’t have our refrigerator, so it’s good to have that knowledge at our fingertips of how to preserve food in the absence of these so-called modern amenities. And so this was, kind of, one example of using food on a local level to make life livable amidst this economic turmoil. On a kind of larger scale, in Greece as a whole, I was particularly interested in some of the ways that people were drawing on local customs of sharing food and building that into a national movement to feed people who were hungry. And while there were certainly very top down initiatives by the Greek church, and by some of the Greek charitable organizations to provide food for people, that they would simply come and have distributed to them and go off on their own and eat, the whole point of these initiatives that I was interested in, in particular, was that they were meant to be horizontal, that is, not charity being dispensed from on high, but practices being done on the same social level and shared in public, which meant that not only was the food shared but the cooking was shared and the eating was shared. And the most well known example of this is one called the other human and this is a organization that was started by one guy who was in trouble himself, he had lost his job, he had moved back in with his parents, he was in his late 40s when this happened. And he just decided to start cooking meals on the streets of Athens. And he said, you know, don’t just, like, give things out and that can create resentment, you have to, like, sit together and treat each other as human. The whole idea of the phrase the other human was that he said that beneath the veneer of selfishness that has developed in our society, there’s still this other human who recognizes the need for human interaction and human contact across any particular lines of difference. And, you know, this effort by this one guy just blossomed into this movement and they’ve served, you know, literally millions of meals at this point, and they’ve been going for about 10 years and it’s a way of creating a sense of social relationship through commensality that I think is really rewarding to an anthropological analysis of the role of eating and sociability and the sensuality of it, and in connecting people, and so they not only do it on the streets of various cities in Greece, they’ve done it at some of the refugee camps in Greece, they’ve had initiatives now where they meet with similar groups in Turkey. So it’s a real, kind of, food diplomacy built simply on the idea of eating together in a nonhierarchical manner. And in some ways it’s not explicitly political, but it’s clearly political in the sense of challenging what you were calling the culture of neoliberalism that puts individualism and all of those related abstractions at the center of its worldview. And so it’s been really rewarding to, kind of, take some of those examples and show how, I think, that neoliberalism has never become fully hegemonic in Greece because of these efforts to imagine a different kind of sociability. And once again I think it’s really important that it’s rooted in local food practices, so that the fact that people are always sharing food on the local level in Greece, for example, because, you know, anytime somebody dies, you’re still, like I said, you’re not only offering fruit from the tree, maybe they don’t have a tree so you make a meal, and you give it to your neighbor and you say, here, this is in memory of my mother Maria, and this is constantly happening. So there’s a kind of cultural grounding for this idea of shared food being the basis for shared sociability that makes it much easier to make sense of this as a larger scale social practice.
Carie: That’s an incredibly powerful statement. I think in some ways, it’s so heartwarming to think of food as being central to these ways of connection and forms of resistance. It’s also kind of sad for those of us who are immersed in, you know, an inescapably neoliberal society, to think that those kinds of initiatives are counter to the kind of world we would like to build, the kind of worlds that are possible. And, you know, I mean this is one of the reasons why it’s so impossible to talk about culture as if it were uniform, or as you said, hegemonic, you know, all encompassing, because there are so many subcultures and points of resistance everywhere.
David: Well, that’s why I tried to relay that to – I have a colleague, Maggie Dickinson, who wrote about the meal practices of Occupy Wall Street, and the way that, you know, when that was going on, feeding people became obviously very essential, but it was also imagined in a way that was trying to challenge some of the same things that the movement itself was trying to challenge, while at the same time, you know, food can be used in this other way to try and undermine these ideas, by some of the New York newspapers, kind of, making fun of the – they’re trying to show that these are just rich disaffected young people, they’re eating all this good food, things like that, whatever. So, I think that, you know, being aware that food can be this domain of political practice, I mean, is obviously a point as, you know, there’s all this work now in the wake of Black Lives Matter, talking about how black foods matter and the ways that that’s been an ongoing struggle for decent access to food in the US. So, I’m not saying anything surprising, that food is also very political, but I think that, kind of, analyzing some of these social and sensory dimensions of eating together, I think is really interesting, that’s where we use this word commensality. But when I actually went to see, you know, what do anthropologists mean when they talk about commensality, I found there wasn’t a huge literature on it in anthropology, surprisingly I found more references in archaeology, because it just, like, gave them a category to put stuff into I think. But you would think that there was all this anthropological analysis of what is commensality and how it works and there’s, there’s some.
Carie: Can you define commensality?
David: Commensality is eating together at the same table, that’s the Latin translation, mensa is table, and so commensality is the idea of eating at the same table, and it’s interesting that some of the few analyses of commensality that I found in the anthropological literature – Well there’s a famous writing by Robertson Smith in the 19th century where he actually kind of ties eating together to the formation of kinship, which I think was a really interesting idea. And then of course, we kind of turned it around and made it so that what he was saying was that you make kinship by eating together, and we turned that around in functionalist analysis to say that people who are kin eat together, which is not as interesting. So, I think that if we kind of go back to that idea about what does commensality create and what does the sensory nature of eating together create, I think we have the potential for looking at how political change, political identity, can at least in part be built on this idea, and it relates to a kind of anthropology of the senses, where the senses – once again coming back to this topic of the senses – it’s not simply things that we use to kind of record the world, but we produce senses as part of our social life, so we produce sensory experiences as part of our social lives, we make noise, we make spectacle, we make tastes and smells. We make all of these sensory experiences, this is an idea that I’m taking from the anthropologist Adam Chau, who talks about the sensory production of the social. And so I’ve been really interested in thinking about commensality in terms of this idea of producing the social, producing sociability, through the senses, and this idea of sociability as often cutting across those traditional categories of identity, so that, once again, it’s not reproducing kinship or something like that, it’s actually producing something new. This is something that – I am drawing partly on Nina Glick Schiller’s work on transnational migration, and her attempt to get away from the, what she calls methodological nationalism, that says that we study migration in terms of, well there’s this group and this is their customs and this is their practices, to actually see how in these conditions of contemporary capitalism and warfare, that people are often kind of finding ways to connect with each other across any traditional lines of so-called ethnic or national identity. And I would just add to that, that food is one of the ways that we make sensory connections with other people.
Carie: I’m in Massachusetts and some of my family is from Southern Massachusetts, a big Portuguese immigrant community, and so when you were describing, you know, Greek folks going out and foraging, we still do that, we all get together and we’ll go crawling on the rocks and collect periwinkles and mussels, and then go home and have a big clam boil.
David: Right. Well, you know, there was this conference on Portuguese food that was organized at University of Mass – What was it, Dartmouth? – and they invited me to speak, and I was kind of like why do you want me to speak, but I went and you know, we spent the whole time kind of saying how many connections there are between Greece and Portugal in relation to food.
Carie: That’s so funny. Yeah I can totally see that, I mean my mom’s stories of her childhood, because it was her father who was Portuguese, are going to her grandparents’ house, and her grandmother would be punching giant bowls of dough, you know, to make sweet bread or, you know, making rice pudding and chouriço and potato clam boils and, yeah, Portuguese donuts, and everything. So we have this whole branch of the family down there, when we get together it’s all about food.
David: That sounds amazing.
David: Yeah. I’m also rereading Ray Bradbury’s book Dandelion Wine?
Carie: Oh yeah?
David: I don’t know if you know it.
Carie: I’ve never read that one.
David: It’s about him growing up in a small town in Illinois in the 1920s, and he talks about his grandfather, and all of the grandfathers in the community, kind of getting them to collect dandelions so they could make their Dandelion Wine as the kind of harbinger of summer.
Carie: Oh wow.
David: It’s really sweet.
Carie: It does sound very sweet. This has been absolutely fabulous talking to you, I mean I think everything you’re describing is so pertinent to daily life and it’s such a window into everything from economics to international conflict to heritage and politics, everything that you’re describing. This really has been a fascinating conversation, and thank you so much for joining me today to talk about food.
David: It’s been my pleasure Carie, I always enjoy your podcast, and I’m just really glad to have the chance to be a part of it, again.
Carie: Well, thank you so much.
Carie: Join us next time as we talk with Chris Reeder Young, an applied anthropologist at Habitat for Humanity. Her background in urban and medical anthropology equips her with the research skills to assist elders in Memphis, Tennessee who wish to age in place at home and with the holistic problem-solving skills to actively engage in public policy and advocacy at a federal level in the US.