Summary and Keywords
Understanding the procurement, preparation, and consumption of food as a form of communication, critical/cultural scholars approach food and food related activities as texts, asking questions about power, identity, political economy, and culture. The emergent field of critical food studies represents a growing interdisciplinary interest in taking food seriously. Approaching cultural practices as the site of resistance to and incorporation into hegemonic social structures, cultural studies orients us towards questions regarding the politics of food practices with an eye towards social justice. Framed by an awareness of the performativity of cultural practices, both food studies and critical cultural studies engage questions of subjectivity, symbolic meaning, institutional power, identity, and consumption.
Broadly speaking, critical cultural studies scholars examine foodways—the cultural, social, and economic aspects of the production and consumption of food—as (a) symbolic repertoires for the production of social identity; (b) a site of cultural performance; and (c) a metaphor for race, class, gender, and sexuality within popular culture. These areas overlap, reinforce, and problematize each other, and are not intended to provide an exhaustive account of the approaches critical cultural scholars take when integrating food studies into their research.
As symbolic repertoires, food, foodways, and cuisine are often understood as integral to articulating identity around nationhood, race and ethnicity, class, and gender. Food, foodways, and cuisine provide potent examples of how symbols construct knowledge and meaning. As a site of cultural performance, foodways are understood as part of a cultural system embedded within a matrix of rituals, values, and practices that comprise the rhythm of daily life. Paying attention to food as performance reveals the intricacies of our understandings of and negotiations between self and community; nostalgia and the present moment; home and away; family and individual. Finally, cultural studies deconstructs the metonymic functions of food as presented in media texts. Methodologically, this research provides a textual analysis of how particular foodstuffs function rhetorically within media texts. Theoretically, it provides an important addition to our understanding of the workings of hegemony within the context of food as a metaphor for race, ethnicity, and gender, particularly on cable networks, reality TV, and in film.
Food Studies in the Critical Cultural Studies Tradition
The umbrella term food studies coheres a diverse body of scholarship that places the alimentary system as central to human interaction, ritual, labor, and culture. Best described as an inter-discipline, food studies bridges the physical sciences, social sciences, humanities, and liberal arts. Within the social sciences and humanities, food studies scholars research the symbolic importance of eating and cooking, noting that these most basic of human activities are central to the production of meaning and identity. While the study of food has been marginal within communications and cultural studies literature, the consideration of food as symbolic of identity and as a commodity opens up new avenues for understanding identity expression and power dynamics under neoliberalism.
Food is one of our most potent communicators of culture. It carries stories of migration, border crossing, and family history. Within popular culture, food frequently serves as a metaphor for the other, and the explosion of food shows, and culinary tourism—in magazines, on television, and as a mode of travel experience—speaks to its current popularity. Thus, contemporary culture has foregrounded foodways as a central means of organizing social, political, and economic relationships on local, state, and transnational levels. As these items circulate, they carry symbolic meanings and expectations.
The emergent field of critical food studies represents a growing interdisciplinary interest in taking food seriously. Scholars in the field are addressing interstices of food and power, culture, science and technology, (de)colonialism, and knowledge. At the same time, journalistic critiques of our food system, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), and the documentary Food, Inc. (2009) have helped bring politics of the production, marketing, and consumption of our food into public discourse.
Food and foodways have become increasingly prominent motifs in popular culture. Beginning in the 1980s, a film genre—food films—formed, wherein food featured not only as a “primary motif,” but also as “the axis on which they [the films] turn” (Shugart, 2008, p. 69). These films, which include Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Chocolat, and Fried Green Tomatoes, use food a means of engaging with the contemporary cultural politics of difference and represent “strategic renderings of identity and authenticity” (p. 88). Cable television has also contributed to the rise of a food culture as a global media phenomenon, with the Food Network premiering in 1993, featuring non-stop food television. Its success has lead to cookbooks, magazines, and charities that extend the televised food narratives through a celebrity-chef-branded network of consumption.
A critical/cultural studies approach insists that signifying practices are intricately connected to power, and there is productive value in understanding everyday activities as central to politics. Approaching cultural practices as the site of both resistance to and incorporation within hegemonic social structures, cultural studies orients us towards questions regarding the politics of food practices with an eye towards social justice. Framed by an awareness of the performativity of cultural practices, food studies and critical/cultural studies engage questions of subjectivity, symbolic meaning, institutional power, identity, and consumption.
In contemporary discourses, foodstuffs serve to reify national, racial, ethnic, and regional identities. Popular culture has foregrounded foodways as a means of organizing social, political and economic relationships on local, national, and transnational levels. Connected by transnational flows of commerce and people, individual citizens and governments are investing in food identities as a means of seeking representation in the global marketplace. Television networks, such as The Food Network and The Travel Channel, play no small part in this narrative, as do individual “celebrity chefs” such as Rick Bayless, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, and Ming Tsing, who engage in performing expertise and presenting the exotic as quotidian. As neoliberalism has encouraged “the commodification of everything” (Harvey, 2005, p. 165), epicurean products such as wines, cheeses, and spices, enjoy the cultural capital provided by particular forms of legislation, nationalist mythology, and transnational circulation (Ceisel, 2012).
The ramifications of the treatment of foodways as a commodity, as opposed to a commons, include the reification of national, racial, ethnic, and regional identities. Battles over scarce resources and control over images comprise much of the underlying tensions behind the reactionary politics, xenophobia and fundamentalism of the past decades (McCarthy, Durham, Engel, Filmer, Giardina, & Malagreca, 2007). Paradoxically, it is the project of globalization—the “interconnections . . . of ideas, symbols, and commodities,” as well as “the permanent relationships among social agents” (Mato, 1998, pp. 603–604) that have brought about the primordial nationalisms (Appadurai, 1996) evidenced today. As signifiers with open meanings, foodways negotiate these tensions—between the hybridity of global multi-culture and primordial nativism—through their reliance on claims to authenticity and tradition.
Critical/cultural studies interrupts the romantic claims of essentialism that otherwise blind us to the ways in which cultural practices are situated in sociocultural contexts. Rather than being fixed, culture is contingent. This is particularly relevant to discussions of food, where claims to “authentic” cuisines are easily disrupted by historical accounts of the constant interchange between cultures in relation to food consumption (Goody, 1982). Thus the tensions between authenticity claims and hybrid cultural practices are seen clearly through the history of foodways.
For example, in her monograph We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans, Donna Gabaccia (2000) argues that America’s culinary history reflects a multiculturalism often omitted from dominant narratives of US history. America’s food history suggests that food “provided a visceral record of a shared history of meeting and interaction across cultural and social boundaries” (Gabaccia, 2000, p. 34), and a reflection of broader trajectories of migration, technology, agriculture, and consumption. However, this is not to suggest a multicultural utopia. Gabaccia underscored the ways in which the adoption and adaptation of foodstuffs in the colonial era of the United States was a practical choice, one marked by culinary openness, despite the violent interethnic conflict. In doing so, she problematizes claims that culinary exposure and engagement are signs of multicultural harmony.
Elspeth Probyn (2000) further notes that claims to culinary authenticity, in addition to being historically inaccurate, carry xenophobic undertones. In her discussion of “demands for a return to ‘authentic’ cuisine,” she notes, “that potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and chili are all imports from the New World doesn’t stop the food conservatives from demanding a return to ‘authentic’ cuisine” (Probyn, 2000, p. 26). Thus, claims to authenticity often carry reactionary political weight. As signifiers, foodways are rich symbolic resources that can be coded in multiple ways. Here, they are deployed in boundary work, reifying nationalist myths of pure origins. The historical inaccuracy of these claims underscores their utility in serving a nationalist agenda. “The battle against fusion is not as harmless as a quarrel amongst chefs and foodies might appear,” Probyn writes. “In France, for instance, the tirade against anything not ‘traditionally French’ supported Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racist campaign to defend the superiority of the French model of civilization over ‘that of those tribes which are trying to colonize us’” (p. 26).
Such discourses are particularly salient throughout popular culture, which serves as a site of negotiation for cultural and political power. As Frye and Bruner (2012) note, discourses about food “suffuses co-cultures, popular culture, countercultures, global economics, and environmental policies” (Frye & Bruner, 2012, p. 1). Cultural studies’ insistence on the relationship between the popular and the structural links culture to the production of inequality and reads cultural works and projects in terms of the social stratification of society. Within this web, context is a crucial factor, rather than a background phenomenon. Thus, it provokes the question: what are the institutions, practices, and systems of meaning that inform particular practices and interpretations? Neoliberal globalization has led to further questions about the role of food as a signifier of identity and has provided new platforms for resistance to hegemonic assertions of power. For example, concerns about the politics of McWorld, the industrial processing of foodstuffs, and fusion cuisine have led to movements such as slow food, locavores, farmer’s markets, organic consumption, and veganism.
A quotidian experience, food is intricately embedded in the everyday. As a marker of cultural capital, food is a form of distinction. As a central aspect of cultural and religious rituals, food is a performative indicator of membership in a community. As an exploratory experience, the consumption of exotic or “foreign” food is an encounter with the other. The socio-economic and political relevance of food is manifested in legislative and marketing battles over funding, labeling, and advertising. While critical/cultural studies’ concern with the interrelations of social phenomena makes it difficult to mark distinct categories, we can identify three primary areas of inquiry where engagement with food studies has expanded our understanding of the culture as a way of life. Broadly speaking, critical/cultural studies scholars examine foodways—the cultural, social, and economic aspects of the production and consumption of food—as (a) symbolic repertoires for the production of social identity; (b) a site of cultural performance; and (c) as signifiers of race, class, gender, and sexuality within popular culture. These areas overlap, reinforce, and problematize each other, and are not intended to provide an exhaustive account of the approaches critical/cultural scholars take when integrating food studies into their research. They are discussed here as a heuristic method for engaging current scholarship at the intersection of these interdisciplinary fields.
Symbolic Repertoires for the Production of Social Identity
Food, foodways, and cuisine provide potent examples of how symbols construct knowledge and meaning. Food is communicative, already layered with political, social, economic, and ethnic meanings. Marianne Lien (2004) notes “as food and eating are routinized on an everyday basis, food becomes a convenient medium for the expression of social and ceremonial distinctions, and for naturalizing relations of community and identity” (p. 6). Further, food “essentially dissolves most preconceived notions distinctions between nature and culture, production and consumption, morals and markets, family and society, the individual and the collective, body and mind” (p. 9). In the introduction to Remembrance of Repasts, David E. Sutton (2001) reminds us “food can hide powerful meanings and structures under the cloak of the mundane and the quotidian” (Sutton, 2001, p. 3). In particular, food plays an integral role in articulating identity around nationhood, race and ethnicity, class, and gender.
The work of scholars such as Arjun Appadurai and Richard Wilk have demonstrated, much like Benedict Anderson’s (1991) analysis of the role of print in the foundations of the modern nation-state, that foodways are crucial in generating “imagined communities.” Arjun Appadurai (1998) demonstrates the ways in which cookbooks created a middle-class identity that spanned India’s distinct regions, promoting a homogenous national culture in the post-colonial era. The manner in which this was accomplished is complex, as there is interplay between regional and national cuisines. In the case of India, regions associated with urban resources, government and cultural institutions, and national media are over-represented, while “humble neighbors are pushed out of the cosmopolitan view” (Appadurai, 1998, p. 18).
In Belize, the development of a national cuisine after gaining independence in 1981 was a purposeful and integral part of development of a national culture in the post-colonial era. Richard Wilk (1999) argues that a national cuisine was seen as a way to solidify an “identity to flesh out the bare institutional bones of nationhood provided by the British” (Wilk, 1999, p. 244) in an environment punctuated by media imports, tourism, and migration.
The expansion of the global economy in the 1990s worked to destabilize understandings of national foodways. While the United States had long been referred to as a melting pot, a metaphor that implies the blending of different elements into an indistinct whole, the New York Times announced that salsa had outsold ketchup as America’s number one condiment (O’Neill, 1992). Salsa was quickly embraced as a sign of racial harmony. As the “President’s Page” of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association wrote in 2001: “Today we celebrate the uniqueness of cultures from which immigrants, the majority of us, come . . . And now, our favorite national condiment is salsa—a blend of flavors whose components are clearly recognizable and appreciated for the contributions each make to the whole” (White & Bronner, 2001, p. 396). This was not, however, indicative of an increase in political acceptance, as the heated immigration and language debates of the 1990s demonstrated (Ceisel, 2012).
Similar dynamics were at play in the history of Indian food in Britain. In 2001, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook invoked chicken tikka masala as “a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences” in a speech in support of immigration (Marshall, 2001). Indeed, calling Indian food “Britain’s national cuisine,” as is often done, raises interesting issues about the connection between food, immigration, nationalism, and multi-cultural societies—not the least of which is the disconnect between symbolic and political representation and engagement. The backlash against the prominence of ethnic foodstuffs clearly smacked of xenophobia.
Neoliberalism has destabilized national identities and cultures. This requires researchers to take a dialectical approach to cultural processes that focus on how the “local” is produced and shaped by the global, as well as how identity has been redefined and resituated in contemporary social contexts. Dissanayke (2006) argues “The culture that is coming to being as a consequence of globalization gives pride of place to multiplicity, transgression of boundaries, and hybridity. It is evident that cultures cannot be contained within bounded spaces and that through the flow of people, ideas, and images across boundaries a new volatility has come to characterize the experience of culture” (Dissanayke, 2006, p. 38).
In this context, fusion cuisine—the remixing of elements from various culinary traditions—becomes an important site of inquiry. Emerging as a trend in the 1990s, fusion became a site for the articulation of a celebration of globalization and hybridity. Cultural fusion and hybridity are central to cultural studies’ assessment of the force fields of human interaction, and the prevalence of mediated discourse regarding fusion cuisine drew scholarly attention.
Darra Goldstein (2005) wrote about her visit to a recently opened Judeo-Latino restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side. Rather than the foods of pre-inquisition Spain, the menu featured “Cuban Reubens (the sandwiches) and Manischevitinis—martinis made with Manischewitz wine.” Unimpressed, Goldstein argued against cosmetic multiculturalism: “fusion becomes meaningless unless the cultures underlying it are understood” (Goldstein, 2005, p. iv). Zilkia Janer (2007) noted that as long as European culinary traditions (particularly the French) structure the culinary values, other cuisines are relegated to ingredients that are used to add a touch of the exotic, “rarely as a solid foundation of culinary technique and knowledge” (Janer, 2007, p. 393). She concluded noting “the practice of fusion is not free from power relations as it establishes hierarchies between the different traditions that it merges.” (p. 396).
Race and Ethnicity
Debates over fusion cuisine highlight how power works through ethnic and racialized foodways. While nationalist discourses privilege particular types of foodways linked to essentialist claims of authenticity, racialized and ethnic foodways are situated cultural practices that create transnational links among diasporic communities, thus demonstrating culture’s fluidity. Ethnic foodways maintain identities that are coded as other, and can be mobilized for various purposes—economic, political, and social. Scholars engage the consumption of racialized and ethnic foods from both insider and outsider perspectives, examining foodways as a process of identity (re)production, and as a site of cultural voyeurism.
There is a mainstream food culture in any given locality—as stories of immigrants having the “weird lunch” in grade school, or searching for their traditional ingredients in a new city attest to. There are boundaries that ethnic foodstuffs must cross over—an on-going process, a myth of discovery with every “new” flavor—sun-dried tomatoes, wasabi, curry. There also is a similar “whitening” effect, such as the addition of Campbell’s tomato soup to chicken tikka, making it more palatable to a British eater, and a thousand other acquiescences to the hegemonic taste ideal, either in the interest of acceptance or marketing. This brings into focus the power of representation in the mainstream and the workings of hegemony in securing the power dynamics of the body politic.
While immigrant groups have maintained strong culinary traditions, they are also marked and marginalized identities, making ethnic foodways a site of resistance and incorporation. Exploring the flexibility of consumption practices as markers of self and identity in the British context, Allison James (2005) describes how the concept of “foreign food” relies on the marking of difference for meaning, and ultimately how “food consumption practices provide confirmation of wider differences between cultural orders” (James, 2005, p. 374). Keeping this in mind, we must conclude that, “the abundant referencing of identity through food consumption practices contains excluding, and often contradictory, statements about cultural identity” (p. 375).
Michael Owen Jones (2007) sees these identities not so much as contradictory, but as multiple and fluid: “Food choice and meanings are influenced by numerous factors, including culture, . . . while ethnic identity often has a bearing on symbols and consumption patterns, it exists in conjunction with other identities, some of which predominate in one or another context” (Jones, 2007, p. 162). So while food choices always articulate an identity, this must be contextualized to decipher what precisely is being articulated.
The role of ethnic food in the United States is approached through a focus on the boundary work performed by marginalized communities as they engage with hegemonic (often Western) cultures. In the early 20th century, immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe changed the social and cultural makeup. During this era, the Thanksgiving myth was secularized and nationalized in such a way that “its teaching and practice could embrace the children of migrants for assimilative purposes” (Kohn, 2013, p. 56). Hasia Diner (2003) describes how Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants re-organized their foodways in response to mainstream American culture. While Southern and Eastern European foodways were stigmatized at the beginning of the century, they soon became standardized within the U.S. American context.
Krishendu Ray (2004) examines the case of Bengali Americans, observing that the categorization of “ethnic” and “American” is not a straightforward matter, even for recent immigrants. Yong Chen (2014, p. 2) argues that the mainstream acceptance of Chinese food is “intrinsically connected to larger historical developments that shaped America,” such as mass production and consumerism.
Food and immigration have also been examined in contexts outside the United States. For example, Alan Han (2007) tackles the representation of food in contemporary Australia and its relationship to the political discourse surrounding immigration. He finds that his experience of bringing the salted fish harm yee into Australia seemingly contradicts “the often celebrated statement that ‘multi-cultural’ food in Australia can forge connections between ‘ethnic’ differences and that the proliferation of non-Anglo foods is a positive aspect of Australia’s multi-cultural policies” (Han, 2007, p. 361). He argues that “the consumption of food in Australia is the focus of a mediated discourse that constructs non-white Others as raced and white people as non-raced eaters” (p. 374). Thus, any claims that fusion cuisine represents an escape from ascribed identities overlooks the manner in which the exoticization or the foodstuff marks as other and outside the imagined community of the nation-state.
Work on food and African American identity notes that soul food is a site of creativity, as techniques and ingredients brought from Africa were combined with what was made available. The resulting association of soul food with black identity is simultaneously a place of empowerment (as providers and entrepreneurs) and self-expression (Williams-Forson, 2006; Witt, 1999). However, scholars and activists also problematize reifying the connection between culinary traditions and identity, advocating for adapting traditional recipes that rely on meats, fat, and processed food in favor of self-care through nutrition (Harper, 2010).
Thus, foodways are signifiers of ethnicity that are often deployed as metonyms in larger discourses over belonging in a globalized world. Writing about the explosion of discourse around food in mainstream culture, Elspeth Probyn (2000) notes, “Eating examples and metaphors are often used to cover over other nasty bits: the hearty enthusiasm for ‘foreign food’ that is supposed to hide the taste of racism” (Probyn, 2000, p. 2). The growth of foodie culture has emerged in this racialized context. Naccarato and LeBesco (2013) observe that the appearance of non-white individuals as guests or hosts on the Food Network is a “nod toward cultural and culinary otherness that both acknowledges difference and situates it in relation to normative white culture” (p. 42). They conclude that the absence of racialized discourse indicates that to the network, non-white cuisines “matter relatively little, unless they inform mediated patterns of lowbrow ‘authentic’ or rustic eating, or consumption of the exotic” (p. 42).
Claims to the authentic, though, further animate exclusionary discourses, as food practices associated with foodie-ism, such as veganism and farmers markets, are linked to whiteness. People of color are marginalized within the “Good Food” movement, while nostalgia for white cultural history (the small Midwestern farmer, small town life) ideologically drives the narratives of those who see it as color-blind (Alkon & McCullen, 2011).
Gender, for the critical/cultural studies scholar, is approached as a social construct rather than a set of inherent behaviors and preferences. Among the elements of conventional wisdom that such analyses have challenged has been the division of domestic labor. With the well-worn dictum “A women’s place is in the kitchen” still echoing, food studies scholars examine how foodways are constitutive of gender identity, to what extent contemporary gender politics and consumer culture are changing those dynamics, and how socio-economic institutions and imperatives impact personal identity in relationship to food choices.
Susan Bordo (1993) traces the bourgeois pursuit of slimness to the late Victorian era, assisted by such technologies as diet, exercise, and surgery. The current preoccupation with being slender “may function as one of the most powerful normalizing mechanisms of our century,” producing “docile bodies . . . habituated to self-improvement” in the service of these norms (Bordo, 1993, p. 186). This in turn, is a powerful policing mechanism for the reproduction of gender. Carole M. Counihan (1999) has written extensively on the relationship between food and gender, paying particular attention the ways in which women’s social power is negotiated through the preparation and consumption of food. For example, Counihan notes that women might refuse to cook as a way of exerting power over men (Counihan, 1999, p. 11). Similarly, anorexics starve themselves to achieve “physical and spiritual perfection” (p. 12).
The kitchen itself is a powerful site of gendered instruction; a place where women learn to behave in concert with gendered expectations. Discourse analysis of cookbooks from the 1940s and 1950s demonstrates how explicitly the connection between the happy homemaker who conducts unpaid labor is naturalized through narratives of women as nurturing, selfless, and caring (Neuhaus, 2003). The work of Sherrie Inness (2001) demonstrates how “cooking was gendered in first half of the twentieth century, and how the gendered relationship of people, food and cooking in this period did a great deal to keep women in the kitchen, performing cooking-related duties” (Inness, 2001, p. 1), largely through the popular press’ depiction of kitchen work as rewarding in and of itself.
Media representations often worked to reify these normative constructions. As Rebecca Swenson (2013) demonstrates through her study of programming on the Food Network, female hosts are not portrayed as culinary professionals, but rather as domestic cooks, and the shows “directly address the challenge of efficiently preparing weeknight meals for families” (Swenson, 2013, p. 143).
Intersectional feminist analysis further problematizes the relationship between food and identity. For example, Arlene Avakian’s (2005) study of Armenian feminists explores how they “conceptualize the construction, deconstruction, and reformulation of their gender and ethnic identities through focusing on the daily material social practice of cooking and eating” (Avakian, 2005, p. 260). Avakian concludes that, despite the fact that food, cooking, and eating carry with them a patriarchal culture, the Armenian women she interviewed “deploy cooking as a way to define themselves ethnically both for themselves and to others outside of an Armenian context” (p. 278). Food and cooking are thus an important component in the process of creating and maintaining a gendered identity, and the negotiations women undertake around the buying, preparing and eating of food are of critical importance in understanding to confluence of race, class, ethnicity and gender in contemporary society.
While traditional femininity is associated with the preparation of food for others as a sign of nurture, and the denial of one’s cravings as a sign of virtue, popular culture associates masculinity with hearty appetites and meat. C. Wesley Burkle (2009) explores beef consumption as a marker of traditional masculinity, a trope that became particularly salient in the post-metrosexual era, which challenged traditional divisions between masculine and feminine behavior. Consuming large quantities of food, especially beef, is expected of men; Burkle argues that men “seem more masculine by merely eating” (Burkle, 2009, p. 80). In commercial culture, beef eating has become a symbol for refusal to become “domesticated,” a way to return to a “retrograde masculinity” as opposed to the more open gender performance of the metrosexual (p. 84). Parasecoli’s (2008) analysis of men’s fitness magazines modifies this, arguing that the discourse in these publications prioritizes eating to ensure muscle gain, posing attainment of a strong, muscular body as the goal, and advising that consumption be restricted to achieve this.
While home cooking has been traditionally associated with women’s work, historically, chefs have been overwhelmingly male. As men have begun to cook at home more frequently, their interactions in the kitchen have had to be negotiated so as not to challenge their masculinity. In her study of content on the Food Network, Rebecca Swenson (2013) noted that in order to attract male viewers, shows hosted by men positioned “cooking as a way to flex professional muscles” and as “leisurely entertainment” (Swenson, 2013, p. 142). Shows aimed at male audiences feature competitive formats; industrial set design, and motifs that reference action films (Naccarato & LeBesco, 2013). Thus, the tedium of domestic work remains the domain of female hosts and home cooks, while male cooks are encouraged to think of cooking as a hobby, a means of self-improvement, or a competitive enterprise.
Class and the Individual
Although food has always been symbolically important to the maintenance of social relations (Douglas, 1984), it has become increasingly central to communicating one’s personal identity. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on the individual, at the expense of the social, extends to the realm of individual choices. Critical/cultural studies scholars examine this shift in the conception of society, and the subsequent policing of bodies. Food studies scholars add to this work by examining how body-shaming and public health policies operate in tandem with the diet and food industries.
As Alice Julier (2012) notes, in the US cultural imagination, thinness is equated with social virtue and obesity is therefore a social ill, as demonstrated by discourse in public policy and the press regarding the “obesity epidemic.” However, the cultural associations of immorality with obesity require a critical perspective—such scholars “try to dismantle the science behind the construction of obesity as a disease state and the vilification of women, poor people, and people of color, who are often seen to epitomize the problem” (Julier, 2012, p. 547). Julier questions the structural assumptions of the natural sciences, instead advocating a complex matrix of industrial production, consumer choices, and economic barriers to healthy food. She notes that the current construction of obesity works to reify normative discourses and hegemonic power structures.
Thus, food practices become intimately tied to articulations of class. As food is a commodity, access to higher standing is accessible in the marketplace. The emergence of foodie-ism occurred within this milieu, as The Official Foodie Handbook first coined the term foodie in 1984. This was the culmination of decades of shifts in media trends relating to food content—the first being the launch of Gourmet magazine in 1941, presenting food as essential to “good living” and a cornerstone of the aspirational life (Rousseau, 2012). Through such mediation, food, a biological necessity, became a site of conspicuous consumption within consumer culture.
Extending Bourdieu’s (2011) notion of “cultural capital,” Naccarato and LeBesco (2013) argue that culinary knowledge has become a way of “socializing individuals.” They use the term culinary capital to describe how a variety of cultural institutions (food festivals, marketing and advertising, cable television, and internet advertising) work together to encourage citizens and consumers to use food as a means of attaining distinction within their communities.
These practices are marked by: “sourcing (the more local, the better), artisanality (the smaller the run, the better), taste (with organic methods favored), sustainability, healthfulness, and mindfulness.” These imperatives “set something of a bar for middle class consumption practices” as food-related discourse has increased (Naccarato & LeBesco, 2013, p. 8). Naccarato and LeBesco also cite omnivorousness as an organizing value within food discourses, where “a mark of distinction is not the exclusiveness of one’s taste or choices, but rather, an individual’s openness to a range of experiences” (p. 9). These two values—attention to locality and openness to new experiences—organize food choices (what to eat, what to be knowledgeable about) as individuals seek to attain culinary capital.
Food as Cultural Performance
Critical/cultural studies scholarship and food studies have both embraced the performative turn in the humanities and social sciences beginning in the 1990s. Performance emphasizes the way meaning is enacted in everyday life, with an aim to emphasize the constructed nature of social life itself (Ceisel, 2013). The performative turn moves “beyond the text” to examine a means of highlighting the lived cultural experience of the “historical present” (Denzin, 1989) through “the power of symbols and imagination in both consolidating and contesting oppression and how cultural creativity and human agency are both inscribed and incited by domination” (Johnson, 2013, p. 7).
As part of a cultural system, food is embedded within a matrix of rituals, values, and practices that comprise the rhythm of daily life. The table is a microcosm of daily performances of class, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. The foods we eat are recollections of our hybridity and our subjectivity. They recall the journeys of our ancestors—the border and boundary crossing, such as the slave ships from Africa that brought the plantain to Cuba, or the Tartars invading Central Europe with sauerkraut stowed in their saddle bags, the bitter herbs that the traditionally remind Jews of slavery in Egypt. Unlike other commodities, food becomes internalized, a part of us. Food is fundamental—a biological necessity. Paying attention to food as performance reveals the intricacies of our understandings of and negotiations between self and community; nostalgia and the present moment; home and away; family and individual.
Describing the modalities of food’s performativity, Sidney Mintz (1996) noted that food is never “simply eaten; its consumption is always conditioned by meaning. These meanings are symbolic, and communicated symbolically; they also have histories” (Mintz, 1996, p. 7). Food consumption is a site of resistance, both personally and as a means of building community—a form of affirmation of group alliances (Flannery & Mincyte, 2010). Critical/cultural studies scholars writing at this intersection produce work that “takes as both its subject matter and method the experiencing body situated in time, place and history. The performance paradigm insists on face-to-face encounters instead of abstractions and reductions” (in Baptista, 2009, p. 63).
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1999) writes about three senses in which food is performative: doing, behaving, and showing. These elements, she argues, capture the ritual elements of food consumption—cultivation, procurement, production; knowing the proper etiquette and behavior when confronted with particular foodstuffs and dining scenarios; and the demonstration of the ability to discern, evaluate, and appreciate foodstuffs: “when doing and behaving are displayed . . . food events move towards the theatrical and, more specifically to the theatrical” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1999, pp. 1–2). This triangulation of the performative nature of food and eating touches on the social construction of belonging implicit and explicit in all food and eating rituals.
Cooking can be a conduit for participating in family rituals and traditions. Lori Danielle Barcliff Baptista (2009) examines how bacalhau (salt cod) is used by some members of the Portuguese-American community in Newark’s Ironbound district to perform their identities, concluding, “Bachalhau relies upon mythic, heroic, and nostalgic associations to achieve what Michael Schudson terms its ‘rhetorical force’” (Baptista, 2009, p. 144) within Newark’s Portuguese American community” (p. 73). This rhetorical force make bacalhau a performative trope for the Portuguese American community to enact their culture, even as the signification has sifted over the generations and waves of immigration. Central to her account is how the preservation of Portuguese identity relies upon particular use and preparation of bacalhau; her own engagement with the procurement, preparation, and consumption of bacalhau became a bridge, connecting her husband’s Portuguese American family with family and friends in Portugal, and by participating in the rituals, she too becomes a part of the performance: “Through my own coeval participant observation practices of buying, making, eating, reading, learning, and talking about bacalhau with a Portuguese American family in rural Portugal and Luso-Newark, I highlight some of the ways in which the performative acts of remembering, witnessing, preparing, teaching, eating, and featuring bacalhau function to preserve a sense of Portuguese-ness and ward off future threats” (Baptista, p. 63).
Performance also plays a role in restaurant-goers expectations. Restaurants are places where an experience has been cultivated for the customer. In ethnic restaurants, this may be an attempt to create an authentic experience, presenting a romanticized version of a particular culture. A performance has been promised, and diners evaluate their experience based not only on the food, but also on other aesthetic and experiential factors. In her study of Thai restaurants, Jennie Germann Molz (2004) noted, “Thai restaurants bend their own representation of authenticity to meet the expectations of their diners and remain commercially viable” (Molz, 2004, p. 62).
In addition to restaurants, food festivals are of interest to scholars working at the intersection of food and critical/cultural studies, as sites for promoting and preserving community and culture. Cultural performances surrounding foodstuffs celebrate and honor the labor invested in their procurement and preparation, and demonstrate their centrality to the local culture. The discursive use of food as a symbol of community demonstrates the ways in which communities look to present themselves to one another and to outsiders (Haynes, 2015). Ceisel (2013) writes about food festivals in Galicia, Spain as sites where Galician heritage is performed through their foodstuffs. The festivals distinguish themselves from the Spanish state through an emphasis on traditional Galician food, drink, and music. Foodways are linked to the nation of Galicia through performances that provide a way to reinforce local culture for citizens, constructing a sense place. Another aspect of the performance invites outsiders (those who travel to the festival or region) to experience the community—the celebrated foodstuffs are chosen to be familiar to the local crowd, but also to present part of a public identity. Food festivals perform a locality’s identity for an international audience, often with an interest in exporting to markets abroad (Ceisel, 2013).
Food as Signifier of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Within Popular Culture
Cultural studies’ orientation towards media and popular culture emphasizes questions regarding the “circulation between various media and other spaces and times of social life,” yielding a “critical investigation of media as a force that not only acts upon existing social conflicts, desires, and power relations, but continuously helps to produce them and sometimes to change them” (Frow & Morris, 2000, p. 327). As producers of popular culture, media industries play an important role in shaping ideology under late capitalism, infusing food with meaning, reifying links in the cultural imaginary between food practices and identity markers.
Methodologically, this research provides a textual analysis of how particular foodstuffs function rhetorically within media texts. Theoretically, it provides an important addition to our understanding of the workings of hegemony within the context of food as a metaphor for race, ethnicity, and gender. Its work begins to deconstruct the metonymic functions of food as presented in media texts. This is evidenced in the increased presence of food in the media—whether in the narrative of film and television shows, or as the subject of shows (i.e., the Food Network), or through celebrity chefs and the commodity culture they represent. These cultural texts challenge and set the limits of our acceptance, and provide an example of the food as a means of “othering.” The limits of culinary multiculturalism are exposed through the orientalizing gaze of television shows, such as the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, which find the intrepid hosts scouring the globe (and occasionally places as “local” as New York City or Minneapolis) looking to “go native” at the dinner table. The voyeuristic gaze of the camera sets up the spectator for the “gross-out” shot of a host eating grasshoppers, brain, or fermented shark.
The investment in food television has proven lucrative—according to some reports, the Food Network draws an average of one million household viewers a night, as well as a valuable advertising demographic (Alva, 2012). The Food Network and Cooking Channel’s celebrity chefs also exist as brands beyond their shows—they have restaurant chains in various US cities (and Mario Batali has restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore); lines of cookware; cookbooks, and daytime talk shows, as in the case of Rachael Ray and Batali. They participate in political projects, often related to nutrition, obesity, and troubled youth employment (Jamie Oliver and Ray are particularly salient examples).
Above all, celebrity chefs serve as cultural ambassadors. Shows such as The Barefoot Contessa and Giada at Home portray an upper-middle class cosmopolitan sensibility, while The Pioneer Woman, based on a popular blog about a do-it-yourself Oklahoma mom celebrates a rural, ranching, back-to-the land sensibility. Meanwhile, Diners, Dine-ins, and Dives and Man vs. Food celebrate the United States’ tradition of greasy spoons, hot dogs, and big burgers. As Rachel Ray travels through US cities on $40 day, and Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern globetrot, snacking on exotic delicacies, viewers are introduced to worlds (via mediascapes) beyond their immediate purview. In these cases, food television presents an escape from everyday anxieties (Rousseau, 2012). Paradoxically, though, the trends of food culture reveal the underlying anxieties regarding a loss of authentic culture in the face of a globalized world. As food cultures are celebrated, they are venerated for their authenticity and traditional natures in the face of an increasingly transnational and multicultural modernity.
Reality television operates in cooperation within neoliberal frameworks to produce audiences that are desired consumers and also willing subjects as television instructs us in the constitution of everyday life (Ouellette & Hay, 2008). Thus, the celebrity chef interventions in policy and health initiatives dovetail with neoliberalism’s focus on individual empowerment over policy-based solutions, expert-based knowledge, or “science.” Rachel Ray’s Yum-O.org program “empowers kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking.” The website promises to be a “24/7” source of support while families “gain confidence in the kitchen” and move towards making healthier choices. Ray is not a professional chef, much less a nutritionist. Her cooking shows do not provide so-called healthy recipes, and nutritional information. Yet as Laura Lindenfeld (2010) notes, it is the structural nature of commercial television—a medium devoted to the promotion of consumption—rather than critiques of individual celebrities and programs that frame the larger questions of how such a medium can be usefully engaged to reduce consumption. As a vehicle designed to encourage audience consumption of advertised goods, it seems unlikely that commercial televisions would promote the healthiest consumption choice—a reduction of caloric intake and consumer expenditure. Thus, these “lifestyle programs” represent the nexus of aspiration, education, and authority that have come to characterize celebrity culture under neoliberalism. Starting in the 1970s, discourses about food in the media became as much about teaching taste—offering “instruction on enjoyment rather than production” (Miller, 2007, p. 119).
This echoes Laurie Ouellette and James Hay’s (2008) approach to studying television as a “cultural technology,” which focuses our attention on television’s power to turn audiences towards the tasks of everyday life and provides a “way of shaping the civil society upon which liberal government depends and acts” (Ouellette & Hay, 2008, p. 14). On the Food Network, this cultivation takes the form of presenting advertising content within television programming and priming audiences to “personalize and customize televisual instruction” as consumers (p. 31). Tourism enters this synergistic platform, as one of the many commodities featured in conjunction with the lifestyles depicted on the varied programs offered. Food and its preparation are showcased as a means of selling restaurants and locations as tourism destinations. The Food Network, Cooking Channel, and Travel Channel all function to alert audiences to the possibilities of other foodways, but also to the representations of other potential travel destinations—restaurants in one’s city or in exotic locales abroad.
These televisual representations position the local as a repository for authenticity; a desired trait in contemporary consumer culture. Furthermore, these productions locate foodways as a site for the celebration of both tradition and difference, positioning culinary tourism as a means of resolving the tensions between authenticity (linked to tradition) and hybridity (associated with modernity). The convergence of new media and cable television’s production model, which re-airs television content into perpetuity provides viewers with multiple entry points into these discourses. Such programming as a form of culinary tourism, in and of itself, works to re-package and circulate local production and traditions within transnational markets (Ceisel, 2012). Lucy Long (2004) emphasizes that culinary tourism does not necessarily involve travel: “Perusing cookbooks and cooking magazines and watching cooking shows or films with food scenes offer mental and emotional journeys to other food worlds” (Long, 2004, p. 23). In recognizing food as a source for experiencing difference, culinary tourism places food as central to the engagement with novel experiences. Thus, scholars examine the ways in which culinary tourism amplifies everyday activities such as food procurement, preparation, and eating with the promise of the unexpected, or different, while converging with cultural studies’ understanding of reality television as a form of neoliberal education.
The use of food in film reveals similar dynamics. Most often it is used to signal race, ethnicity, gender, or class, but it often performs a pedagogical function as well. In 1950s Malaysia, food was incorporated into films as a trope of modernity. “Modern food is cooked using new devices, such as stoves . . . the importance of women in their traditional role as cook or supervisor of the proper Malay meal, as long as it is modern, was also reinforced” (Barnard, 2004, p. 79). Helene Shugart (2008) noted that the prominence of food in mainstream media has led to the “food film” becoming a bona fide genre. Writing “the consumption of otherness is a—if not the—hallmark of contemporary consuming practices” (Shugart, 2008, p. 86), she found that food functions rhetorically to rationalize and reconcile the desire for the other that the films seek to satiate. In her study of the film Tortilla Soup, Laura Lindenfeld (2007) argued that the commercialization of food culture seen through the film’s narrative reflected the tendency of hegemony to market and consume ethnicity. Thus, despite the film’s attempt to subvert homogenizing representations of Latinidad, the film ultimately privileges whiteness and contains ethnic otherness. She concludes, “representations of ethnic foodways provide an especially comfortable way to contain ‘otherness’” (Lindenfeld, 2007, p. 315).
The focus on food as a site to experience difference often assumes whiteness, it is through the display and experience of “exotic” foodstuffs that Western and particularly Anglo cultural practices are determined and normalized. In her seminal essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” bell hooks writes “the commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other, but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization’” (hooks, 2006, p. 373). In media discourse and commodity culture, Cook notes, “essentialized versions of (culinary) culture that might be criticized by mainstream critics can be seen as created (and policed) by mainstream consumers, retailers, food writers, etc., rather than simply being ‘ethnic’ entrepreneurs’ misguided, backward, introverted ways of thinking” (Cook, 2008, p. 823). Casey Ryan Kelley (2017) notes the neocolonialism embedded within television shows such as Bizarre Foods, arguing that such texts reinforce boundaries between whiteness and other. In this manner, commodity culture and media texts reify whiteness, presenting difference as something to be domesticated through the tolerance and curiosity of the eater.
The field of food studies engages work produced throughout the humanities and social sciences. This section proposes an outline of texts that have influenced food studies scholarship. Organized along the rough categories of inquiries into food and the human experience and food and social life. Like critical/cultural studies, the development of food studies draws from innovations in all fields of intellectual inquiry. This list is not exhaustive, but intended to delineate the broad contours of the field relevant to critical cultural scholars.
Food and the Human Experience
The work in this area emphasizes philosophical understandings of food as integral to the human experience. French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin has been a formative figure, particularly his essay “On Taste” (2005), a detailed description of the senses and their role in gastronomical enjoyment. He also authored the dictum “tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Similarly, Marcel Proust’s description of the madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, with its detailed description of the relationship between food and memory, is often used as a launching point for food studies scholars writing about the ephemerality of food and its relationship to memory. One of the earliest US-based food writers, M. F. K. Fisher (e.g., 1989, 2004, took up this vein of inquiry in her writings, celebrating food as one of life’s arts. These works are foundational to investigations of food and social identity.
Elaborating on the food’s symbolic importance to human relationships, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 1996 structuralist analysis of food as a cultural language, “The Raw and the Cooked,” set the stage for an understanding of the meaning and taboos that underlie distinct foodways, an ability to read food practices into larger cultural systems. Mary Douglas’ (1984) work positioned food a means to reconcile the contradictory experiences of everyday life (p. 3), and also revelatory of the system of family relationships (Douglas, 1972). In Purity and Danger (1966/1984), Douglas explored the cultural foundations of dietary taboos, such as kosher laws in the context of ritual. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes (1972) used food as a device to develop his semiotic analysis, noting how food advertising communicates broader social values (“Operation Margarine”) and the relationship between masculinity, nation, and food consumption (“Wine and Milk”). This work is foundational to the analyses of food and cultural performance as well as the symbolic uses of food in popular culture.
Food and Social Life
The work in this area explores the impact of external structural pressures—economic policies, technology, and migration on food systems and cultures. Pierre Bourdeiu’s (2005) “Taste of Luxury, Taste of Necessity” extends Lévi-Strauss’ and Douglas’ analyses to note the complex interaction between economic capital and cultural capital, emphasizing that taste cannot be uncoupled from a whole life-style. For Bourdieu, the taste for an elaborate dish reveals a traditional understanding of a woman’s role in the household; while working-class households, where women’s labor is more economically valuable, save time and labor when preparing food by opting for grilled meats and fish (p. 74).
Anthropologist Jack Goody brought a comparative analysis to the study of culinary systems. His work Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (1982) provides a survey of culinary practices in Eurasian societies, relating differences in foodways to the varied socio-economic structures present in each society. Correspondingly, Sidney Mintz’s (1986) seminal Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History argues that the increase in sugar production in the Americas during the colonial era reordered the symbolic meaning of sweetness itself—what was once a taste only the rich could afford, became a widespread taste preference, one Mintz argues had to be cultivated, and was imbued with social meaning: “sugar penetrated social behavior and, in being put to new uses and taking on new meanings, was transformed from curiosity and luxury into commonplace and necessity” (Mintz, 1986, p. xxix). Through the examination of sugar as a commodity, Mintz’s work demonstrated the relationship between the productive capabilities of the colonial Americas and emerging formations of world capitalism. Several later works take up this thread of inquiry, such as Marianne Lien’s (2015) work on the domestication of salmon, Carolyn De La Peña’s (2013) work on the development and marketing of artificial sweeteners, and John Soluri’s (2006) study of the banana.
Scholarship on food and the environment has been greatly influenced by Wendell Berry’s critique of agricultural policy, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977), which rejected the accepted policy of promoting technological solutions at the expense of humanistic values, arguing that such policies served to increase corporate power at the expense of individual farmers. Deborah Barndt (1999) continued the examination of how policy impacts our foodways, in this instance investigating women’s labor in the agrifood system. Julie Guthman (2004) challenged the popular discourse that positions organic labeling policies as a viable pathway to a sustainable future. Warren Belasco (2014) examined the cooptation of counterculture foodways, such a brown rice and whole wheat bread, into mass-produced commodities, neutralizing their previous politicization as oppositional to capitalism.
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