Anthropology Bite Club

Anthropology Bite Club


Image result for brad pitt eating

The first rule of Bite Club is that we’re going to talk about cookbooks.

The second rule of Bite Club is I need some of ya’ll to help me out talking about cookbooks.

Do you read cookbooks and think they are, in fact, practical ethnography??

When you look at a recipe do you see history and memory? Evolution and ecology? Technology? Gift exchange? Social roles? Current events? Is there a favorite cookbook that would be of interest to your fellow anthropologists?

Do you have enough time this summer to try some of the recipes and tell us about them??

Let’s do this together, it’ll be fun. No pressure! Also, there’ll be food. You decide whether there’ll be guests.

To join:

  1. leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @MattThompsonSPL, I will reply to you
  2. chose a cookbook that invites you to read it as a cultural document or object of folklore
  3. try to complete at least two recipes from the cookbook
  4. write a short and light-hearted piece for me to post on Anthrodendum that tells other anthros why the cookbook is culturally interesting, and what happened when you followed the recipes

This’ll be fun!

When I began my career as a professional anthropologist, teaching undergrad courses on an adjunct basis, one of the first jobs handed to me was Food and Culture. To be frank, I had to hide my disappointment. I had high hopes about all the brilliant courses I could teach and, to my mind, food didn’t fit into any of that.

Over the course of several semesters I discovered that, actually, food touches on every aspect of anthropology. Perhaps moreso than any other topic.

Besides being my baptism into professional teaching, that Food and Culture class was also my introduction to reading cookbooks as cultural documents. This is when I discovered a genre of cookbooks that, unlike the tried and true Joy of Cooking (great wedding gift for a young couple, btw), presented themselves as a kind of folkloric object.

That first eye-opening experience came courtesy of Sweets: Soul Food Desserts and Memories by Patty Pinner. Here I found not just recipes for cookies and cakes, but stories about the women associated with each dessert, the relationships among those women, the histories of those family as they moved from Mississippi to Michigan, and the larger economic forces at work in the Great Migration.

My students, relatively privileged and white, were a little skeptical. A cookbook in place of a textbook? At least the price tag was cheaper!

But look, I pointed out to them, whose knowledge gets to count as authoritative? Who writes cookbooks and who are their audiences? What is the epistemological difference between the practical and contextualized knowledge embodied in a cookbook and the disembodied knowledge of a textbook? And do these differences explain why we afford less status to certain knowledges over others?

Then I baked them a cantaloupe pie.

This summer I am diving into Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots and thought there might be some like minded anthros out there who also want to cook and tell stories. If so, hit me up!

Image result for brad pitt eating


18 Replies to “Anthropology Bite Club”

  1. Um, hell yeah, I am in, if you’re willing to accept an anthro-adjacent participant. (Poli-sci ethnographer who studies everyday politics and transnationalism.) I collective vintage and antique cookbooks, and the pride of my collection is a cookbook produced by the Bangkok YWCA, undated but probably 1950s-era based on the recipes, which is this odd combination of cultural sharing, paternalistic colonialism, and post-war kitsch. It’s so ready for a bit of close reading and close cooking…

  2. Hell yeah I wanna hear about a poli-sci ethnographer reading a YWCA cookbook from Bangkok

  3. Heck yeah! Good preparation for my new anthro of food class for spring 2019!

  4. Individual cookbooks are interesting. What about collections of cookbooks and what they tell us about the lives of those who assembled them? Which cookbooks stand out in memory? And which are most frequently used? In our family collection, I think of The Joy of Cooking, to which both Ruth and I were pointed by our mothers, Pei Mei’s Chinese Cookbook, whose first edition was published in 196 9, the year we started fieldworking in Taiwan; The Gourmet Cookbook, first acquired in a pirated edition while we were in Taiwan; The Bakery Lane Soup Bowl Cookbook and The Vegetarian Epicure, both acquired in the Middlebury years; and the William-Sonoma Slow Cooker Cookbook, in which we found some of our favorite recipes (for Afghan Squash and Summer Coq au Vin). The most meaningful of all, however, is Ma Tai-Tai’s Book of Cookery and Housewifery, a handmade collection of favorite family recipes handed down to our daughter.

  5. Amazing; I wrote my M.Phil thesis on cookbooks and I unapologetically give the answer “cookbook” to the question “favourite genre of literature.” While my focus has been on foodways in the Middle East, I have wanted to do this type of project with a cookbook from home for me, picking up an old but amazing cookbook from the Rebar restaurant (in Victoria, British Columbia)!

  6. Thanks everybody for being awesome! I hope this turns into something!!

  7. Hi! Yes! Sara Franklin here, PhD in Food studies from NYU, with a focus on feminist oral history and 20th and 21st century cookbooks and food writers. Matt, I want to join AND I’ll be in VA at the Monticello Harvest Festival in September moderating a panel about my new book, Edna Lewis: At The Table with an American Original. Send me an email, let’s connect!!

  8. Matt, has anyone ever done a seafarers’ or wardroom cookbook? I could imagine this turning into an exhibition at the Mariners Museum.

  9. The answer is historical society cookbooks, and I choose date (the fruit) cookbooks from the Coachella Valley. Orientalism, agriculture, and historical societies. What’s not to love?

  10. Your Club might consider an interesting wrinkle in the ongoing history of cookbooks and the preparation of food from recipes: like most everything today, those are fast becoming postmodern or, terms I much prefer, part of a hyperreality or fabulary. At least in the U.S., supermarkets have become emporia of variety and exotica that overwhelm the individual’s effort to select a few simple items for a meal:

    From “Why there are more consumer products than ever,” WSJ April 25, 2016:
    “The average grocery store carries roughly 50 times as many products as 80 years ago, says economist James Bessen. Market researcher Mintel says the number of new packaged goods introduced each year—everything from food to cosmetics—has grown more than 30-fold over the past 50 years.”

    Once-exotic items like balsamic vinaigrette and French cheeses found only in gourmet shops are now staples at your friendly neighborhood market. Perhaps more significant for cookbook aficionados is the fact that many newly introduced supermarket food items are restaurant-style (if not restaurant-quality) meals, ready to unwrap and nuke. No cookbook required. Classic Swanson’s TV dinners have been all but crowded out of precious freezer space by offerings from upscale restaurant chains like Wolfgang Puck’s, California Pizza Kitchen, P.F. Chang’s, Panera, and others. Now you can eat like a (sort of) gourmet without all that messy business of shopping and cooking.
    With the bit in its teeth, the juggernaut of American consumer capitalism has now taken all this to a new level. Suppose you’re a foodie who wants to do right, wants to prepare exciting dishes from scratch, perhaps using one of the classic cookbooks in your collection. But your workaday job never really stops. The end of the 9 to 5 working day comes around, but your smartphone keeps emitting ring tones – important ring tones – from your boss, your important client, even, God forbid, your spouse or kid in domestic distress. You have to respond to them, but when the dust settles you can’t face those endless supermarket aisles and select just the right ingredients for a truly foodie repast. Whatever can you do? As it turns out, in today’s world, no problem! Skip the frozen P.F. Chang’s Hokkien Street Noodles and Wolfgang Puck’s Hand Cut Fettucine Pasta and head home, where, waiting for you on your doorstep, is the box from Blue Apron, Home Chef, Hello Fresh, or other delivery services that bring to you all the ingredients necessary to create truly exotic cuisine. You could never assemble those ingredients in just the right quantities to follow the recipe (in the form of an indestructible plastic card) provided by Blue Apron, etc. So the question must be posed: Will 22nd century Bite Clubbers collect and display these plastic recipe sheets as authentic historical documents for future clubbers to cherish?
    Let’s see – tonight I think I’ll chow down on Blue Apron’s Piri-Piri Chicken with Coconut Smashed Plantains and Stewed Collard Green. Yum! Just like Grandma used to make!

  11. Drummond Delights. I can see a new brand in the making. That said, another interesting question may be how many of us eschew the pre-packaged options and, instead, focus on surprisingly easy to prepare dishes. When our slow cooker pot developed a crack and before we discovered liners that allow continued use of a cracked pot, we discovered slow cooking with Shuttle Chef, a product/process in which a steel pot in which dishes have been started is inserted in an insulated Thermos container. A few hours later, your soup, stew or whatever is ready to eat. Variations are easy. Start with basic chicken and rice. Add sausage and the right combination of herbs and, voila!, you have jambalaya. Skip the rice, add seasonal vegetables and wine, and, voila!, you have coq au vin. Winter squash and a basic tomato sauce becomes a classic Afghan dish. This approach may be particularly appealing to older foodies with memories of homecooked meals, who now lack the time and energy to deal with the information overload that modern supermarkets have become. Lots of classic anthropological issues to be explored here: culinary preferences sorted by age, life stage and generation as well as the endless varieties of ethnicity.

  12. You might check out the classic article by Arjun Appadurai: 1988 “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1, January): 3-24.

  13. Another step (lurch) in the rapidly evolving fabulary of food in the U S of A: Four MIT grads have just opened a restaurant, Spyce, that features a fully robotic kitchen (see article in appropriately titled journal, Digital Trends). Gourmet dishes for $7.50 a pop, and untouched by human hands except for a last-minute garnis of, what else, cilantro or goat cheese. So, the newly established Bite Club must examine its diversity policy: Will it accept robot chefs as members?

  14. hehe not sure if it is relevant, but I am still using a cookbook of my grandma, published in 1934 I believe – everyone agreed through the years, it was the most sensible one, from all published in Lithuania. 🙂 It is also interesting, since it was one of the very few possessions my grandma had from before WWII – a cookbook, a couple of post cards and photos… all could fit in a box. It was also funny to read it in the soviet era – the cleaning advices seemed bizarre, but also a lot of it was so exotic, because those common food items were just not available… 🙂

    Also interesting… we did not have many cookbooks at home (perhaps because my mother is hopeless in cooking … ), but there were some passed-on recipes, from friends and family. written on the scraps of paper and placed in those books, so you know, they do not get lost. 🙂