Category Archives: Mains

Theorizing the (Food) Web

Theorizing the Web, an interdisciplinary gathering of both academics and non-academics interested in the digital that took place over the course of two sunny, late-April days, seemingly had nothing to do with food. After all, the writers, graduate students, artists, tech enthusiasts, and professors who gathered in a repurposed Brooklyn warehouse were there to engage in an intellectual discussion about virtual spaces, big data, and online worlds, not to leisurely dine or rethink our foodways. But they did both.

It’s around 2pm, and I’m sitting in the dark, icy cold Studio C – it’s easy to overlook the importance of physical spaces when you’re so focused on virtual ones – listening to presenters discuss thanatechnology, virality, and algorithms. This is the second session for the day, it’s around lunch time, and the food break isn’t scheduled for another few hours. I see a woman sitting in the row in front of me hand her colleague an energy bar, and I discern the words “nut crunch” printed on the pink wrapper. Carefully, not to disturb the presentation, the friend attempts to silently unwrap it. At the same time as she succeeds and bites into the treat, the man sitting next to me is less lucky: we hear a loud pop when he opens his can of soda. He tries to make up for it by releasing the pressure from it very slowly, but that only prolongs the sound. Both of these actions speak to the taken-for-granted conventions of social interaction we don’t pay much attention to; they show the result of a civilizing process, as Elias terms it, disciplining us in how we go about feeding ourselves (at semi-academic conferences). We must minimize noise, noise from chewing, noise from unwrapping, and we must draw as little attention as possible to satisfying something as lowly as a physiological urge. But the session was far from over, and brain fuel was necessary. What’s better than the immediate alertness from the sugar rush of an energy bar or soda? (Yes, there was free coffee.)

Source: Theorizing the Web 2014

Source: Theorizing the Web 2014

Later, after the session was over, I noticed a woman with a giant box of donuts glazed in pastel colors sitting on the couch behind. I don’t know what happened to the donuts. She couldn’t have eaten them all by herself, but I also haven’t seen them shared. Many other meals during the conference, however, were shared. The Friday 4:45 to 6pm food break gave old colleagues and new acquaintances an opportunity to discuss more in-depth the day’s events and ideas (and the neat conference program gave them a handy list of nearby eating establishments in which to do so). After the conference was over, there was mingling over pizza, the lowest common food denominator, an unifier. It says something participants weren’t invited to a canapé party: pizza is a quintessential signifier of New York, but also of everything simple, undemanding, and universally accessible. This is in line with the philosophy of the conference, which, as the program states, “consider/s/ insights from academics, non-academics, and non-“tech theorists” alike to be equally valuable in conceptualizing the Web and its relation to the world”. Its call for papers explicitly invited abstracts that would reach a general audience, and presentations that won’t require expertise in the field to keep up with the argument. So pizza was consumed, and not with forks and knives. Take that, the civilizing process.

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But web theorizers didn’t just break social conventions and eat, they theorized about food on the web too. Two presentations dealt with the ways in which eating, and drinking now have an online presence and interact with the physical reality of food consumption.

Wesley Shumar, Nora Madison, and Tyson Mitman grew an ethnographic project out of Shumar’s habit of getting a glass of beer in one of Philadelphia’s bars after class (he’s a professor, so he’s allowed to do that). Noticing the beer menus were becoming more and more locally- and craft-oriented, Shumar with his coauthors decided to dig deeper into why that’s happening, and ended up attending beer festivals and interviewing brewers offline, and perusing beer reviews and beer appreciation websites online. The team is interested in the ways real world and online beer experiences interact for craft beer consumers (you won’t get to taste the really good malt unless you keep up with tweets leading you to the right bar after a festival), how affinity spaces are created (share your offline interest with a virtual community), how new forms of social capital arise (show off your expertise by rating beer on online portals), and how a new kind of production logic is ultimately shaped (for “prosumers”, craft trumps profit). While they used no academic jargon in their presentation, Bourdieu’s habitus and the cultivation of taste, and Campbell’s craft consumer immediately come to mind for those of us more academically inclined.

Source: Personal archive

Source: Personal archive

Next, Laura Noren (whose talk I actually missed because there were no hints to food in the title of her presentation! Luckily, you can expect videos of all presentations to be promptly put online after a conference like this) borrowed from Sara Ahmed the term affective economies and explored the ways in which they are built through linking, commenting, and posting appetite-inducing content on personal food blogs. Like Shumar and his team, she was interested in the intersection between the on- and off-line (a successful food blog might eventually get you a book deal), but paid more explicit attention to the reward structure and socioeconomic inequality that comes with food blogging. She argues for a winner-take-all effect, also known as Matthew’s effect, in which those who play the game right – and who are more likely to have the means to do so in the first place – reap both its economic and affective rewards.

Like craft beer brewers, food bloggers form vibrant virtual networks, and a comparison might be in order. Shumar and colleagues didn’t mention this, but craft beer brewers lead successful food blogs too. Sometimes, they’re even married to successful food bloggers (I know, I’m guilty of following plenty myself). How gendered are these spaces? (At some point during the conference, the line for the men’s bathroom was longer than that for women’s. But only for a little while.) Do their authors transition between online and offline spaces, and interact with their audiences similarly? Are there differences in the way they translate something so physical – our daily nourishment – into ones and zeros? Are their translations successful, and where do they fail?

This year, the tech-data-online-oriented Theorizing the Web gave us plenty of food for thought. Even about food.

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(Approximately) One Hundred Years of the Fridge

Kelvinator Foodarama Ad

Source: flickr.com/photos/miehana/3300111148/

Since their invention in 1913, and since this Kelvinator ad first ran in 1955, refrigerators became bigger, better, and went from a luxury to a necessity. It’s nearly impossible to imagine life today without having somewhere to store your vegetables and a place to keep your leftovers: in the one hundred years it’s been around, the fridge altered our grocery shopping habits and our attitudes towards food.

Appliance companies and advertisers worked hard to transform refrigerators from “a brand new concept in luxurious living” to an everyday household object. They succeeded in the 1960s, after years of fine-tuning its features to appeal to the middle-class housewife, writes historian Shelley Nickles in a 2002 article published in Technology and Society. Besides ensuring the fridges were spacious, easy to clean, and had adjustable shelving, designers even took care of minutiae such as including warmer compartments – so that the butter kept in them would be easier to spread. Having attracted the housewives’ attention and become affordable with ideas such as government-sponsored fridges floating around, the appliances made their way into middle-class homes.

Buying too many perishable items suddenly became a minor concern. Buy one, get one free! Get more value for your money – purchase a bigger container! As the number of fridge compartments increased, so did the number of refrigeration-dependent foods and “supersize” deals offered in stores (or the other way around). Ultimately, grocery shoppers – mainly women – returned home with more food than they otherwise would have. Fridges enabled families to stock up, and the major weekend grocery haul was born.

Stocked fridge

Source: tasteandtellblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/cooking-classy-fridge.jpg

But while having a fridge to store all the groceries made it possible to save more on “deals” at the supermarket, it also enabled us to waste more later on. That is because the fridge operates much like a time machine, but not without its limits. Sociologists Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton, writing in the Journal of Material Culture in 2000, described freezers as appliances that allow us to manage time: in addition to no longer having to shop multiple times per week, we can now prepare our meals in advance. The same holds for refrigerators.

Food has its own rhythm, however, and a fridge can only delay the inevitable for so long. Leftovers simultaneously get pushed down in the hierarchy of what we’d like to eat, and pushed back on refrigerator shelf, only to be forgotten and perhaps rediscovered when it’s already too late. An exotic fruit rots in the produce compartment after its exciting novelty wore off, and we were no longer sure what to do with it. And so they all end up in the trash. Domestic food waste only represents part of all the food thrown away in the US today – about a third of all that is produced – but the way fridges altered out food purchasing and consumption habits is partly to blame.

Not all is bad, however. Fridges not only allow us to eat a greater variety of foods and be more efficient in our everyday lives, we use them as centers of communication and managing household life. And as they become smarter, more energy-efficient, and with some individuals refusing to use them altogether, these cultural objects will doubtless have more stories to tell in the next hundred years.

References:

  1. Nickles, Shelley. 2002. Preserving women: Refrigerator design as social process in the 1930s. Technology and Culture 43 (4): 693-727.
  2. Shove, Elizabeth and Dale Southerton. 2000. Defrosting the Freezer: From Novelty to Convenience. Journal of Material Culture 5 (3): 301-19.

This post was reblogged at Sociological Images, Jezebel, and The Pacific Standard.

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The State of the Dinner

This February, president Obama sat down for dinner with his visiting French colleague, François Hollande. In the company of the first lady, other government officials, and some celebrities, the men enjoyed an appetizer of Illinois caviar, Pennsylvania quail eggs, and 12 US varieties of potatoes. The main dish was a Colorado beef steak with mushrooms, Vermont cheese, and salad, followed by a dessert of Hawaiian chocolate cake, Florida tangerines, and Pennsylvania vanilla ice-cream. Three types of wine accompanied the meal. Not just any types of wine: they were American wines made by French-born winemakers. Like the food, nothing in this meal was left to chance. But why was the encounter so carefully planned? Would it make a difference if, to celebrate the French-American friendship, the presidents raised a glass of Italian wine instead?

Food provides us with much more than physical sustenance: it is a symbol of relationships among individuals and groups. What was at stake at the February state dinner was not just pleasing the presidents’ palates, but nurturing ties within and between entire nations.

Photo: Dominic Episcopo

Imagine, first, that the diners were served tortillas or spaghetti as a main course instead of the dry-aged, family-owned-farm-raised rib eye beef steak they had. The former quickly evoke images of Mexico and Italy, while the latter tells a distinctly American story. Serving dishes associated with particular countries is one way of fostering an imagined community – a nation state – which Benedict Anderson describes as being too great to be maintained by personal relationships, and one that must be continuously symbolized in order to persist. Especially on celebratory occasions, food takes part in producing and communicating national identities. State dinners aren’t the only such example: another is the festive food used in New Year’s meals. The Vietnamese will eat a tet cake, the Belgians will have smoutebollen, and Slovenians will always have potica. In a melting pot nation, sending a message of a coherent community is even more important. France used banquets in it post-revolutionary times to bring together citizens in defiance of regionally specific gastronomies, writes Julia Csergo in her 2000 paper in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. Similarly, during the state dinner, a steak symbolizing quintessential America amidst its diversity was the star of the presidents’ meal.

And imagine, second, what would happen if president Hollande refused any part of the meal. If he skipped the cheese, we might think he is suspicious of the way the US regulates its dairy industry. If he only finished half his potatoes, does that mean American produce does not taste good enough for the French? And if he rejected the dinner invitation to begin with, does this indicate the French dislike the US altogether? Such presidential gestures would transcend his individual palate. Two political representatives sharing a meal are not only communicating their own food preferences, they are shaping a relationship between two communities. Using commensality as a political instrument is as old as the feasts of ancient Greeks and Romans, writes Richard Ascough in his 2008 paper published in The Classical World: the banquets that took place on special occasions served to maintain connections with gods as much as to foster connections between citizens and forming a political identity. Those who partook in the meal were considered part of a tight group, while those who were not invited, or worse yet, refused the invitation, cast themselves as outsiders. The American and the French presidents enjoying a meal together, then, symbolizes the nations’ peaceful coexistence and firm diplomatic ties.

Photo: WHYBIN/TBWA

Offering a bottle of Italian wine instead of a French-American one during the state dinner would not be a disaster, but it would certainly convey a different message, one perhaps of a somewhat colder relationship. But if we are to believe Mary Douglas’ classical 1972 text, Deciphering a Meal, just the fact the presidents were sharing more than drinks is promising: we are almost never reluctant to share a drink with strangers, while sharing meals tends to be reserved for those to whom we wish to signal intimacy. The state dinner, conveniently held right before Valentine’s day, was a political sign of affection.

This post was originally published on EverydaySociologyBlog and reblogged at Sociological Images and The Pacific Standard.

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No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch: Part II

Read Part I of “No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch”.

Health is not the only currency exchanged for a free lunch. There is a social cost, too. ‘Charity food’ may isolate and stigmatize children in a number of ways, some of which sociologist Janet Poppendieck explains in her 2011 book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. Again, the program’s history has a lot to do with it: originally, the NSLP targeted all children, regardless of need. During the war on poverty, as the program expanded and became more akin to welfare, the need for straightforward eligibility thresholds arose. Policymakers finally drew clear lines between those who qualify for free lunches, those who may receive them at reduced price, and those who can pay in full (although this designation is misleading – even those eating full price lunches are in fact getting a small subsidy).

Separate checkout lines for those who pay and those who don’t were long banned, but school cafeteria personnel must still identify the students’ meal plans. While they’re not allowed to ask children within earshot of others what kind of lunch they’re having, their trays often make the difference visible. Children getting free meals may not be able to afford the cool candy everyone else is getting from the vending machines cafeterias must often install to help cover rising costs. And in schools with open campuses, those who can afford to purchase their own food may leave the premises, leaving behind those who can’t do the same.

What peers think matters more during school years, and when the prevailing opinion is that only the poor kids eat at the cafeteria, students risk their reputation when they do so. Scholars Rajiv Bhatia and colleagues, writing in the American Journal of Public Health, found stigma was an important barrier to NSLP participation in the San Francisco schools they studied.

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis (AP Photo)

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis (AP Photo)

The introduction of swipe cards, PIN numbers, and biometrics to pay for meals only addressed the situation partially. If the student’s card has insufficient funds, they must often return their trays and receive a different meal instead. The elimination of vending machines doesn’t seem to be an option for most budget-conscious school lunch officials. And closed campuses are not as helpful either: depending on the cafeteria layout, students may only be able to get free meals in certain sections and end up sitting separately from their paying peers. This is another way children ultimately pay for their free lunch: not in dollars, but in friends and opportunities to bond with their peers.

The problem with free lunch, then, is that it’s not really free. Not even in school cafeterias claiming to serve it. But on the fourth anniversary of her Let’s Move! initiative, first lady Michelle Obama announced new efforts to tackle both hidden costs, the social and the health one, by expanding nutritional assistance programs and limiting food marketing in schools. Perhaps the US is on its way to such a thing as a free (school) lunch after all.

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No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch: Part I

On any given workday, over 31 million lunches are served to children in school cafeterias. Part of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutritional assistance efforts, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) aims to deliver affordable and nutritious meals to the nation’s schoolchildren. After all, food plays a key part in helping them learn, grow, and thrive. To reach those who need it most, the federal and local governments work together to offer free lunch to children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it. But money is just one way a meal can be compensated for: the ‘free’ school lunch comes at other costs.

First, there are the health costs. At its inception, the NSLP was not designed as a social program. Instead, it was a response to agricultural overproduction and a surplus of farm produce, writes historian Susan Levine in her 2008 book, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. The policymakers’ goal was to get rid of excess foods while supporting domestic production. As a result, nutrition was of secondary concern to them: one year, eggs would be on the menu daily; another, they would hardly make an appearance. It wasn’t until the war, when politicians grew concerned about the ability of the nation’s men to fight, and until it became apparent hungry children don’t do well in classrooms they were newly required to sit in, that anyone took a serious look at what kids at school were actually eating.

Photo: Gary Tramontina (New York Times)

Photo: Gary Tramontina (New York Times)

By that time, it was too late. The program was already run like a business, and not even the introduction of nutritional standards helped. Today, these normatives are outdated – children snack rather than eat three square meals, and are less physically active, requiring fewer calories – and almost impossible to follow with the budget restrictions school lunch planners face. The private industry was quick to offer solutions, but is more interested in profits than schoolchildren’s waistlines. Enriched and fortified chips and candies of otherwise dubious nutritional value appear in school cafeterias and vending machines, often a more popular choice with kids than apples. Frozen and convenience foods are replacing fresh meals cooked on premises. And the labyrinthine regulations of meal calorie contents coupled with cafeteria financial realities often mean adding more sugar to students’ plates is the only thing that can bring down its fat content, for example.

The food itself is not the only factor contributing to children’s undesirable health outcomes. Economist Rachana Bhatt, in a paper published in the Southern Economic Journal in 2014, finds the amount of time students have to enjoy lunch also matters. Students tight on time – they must squeeze all getting to the cafeteria, standing in line, eating their food, and cleaning up into their lunch break – might choose to skip the meal, leading them to overeat later, or eat quicker, leading them to consume more due to the delay in feeling full. Even if all school lunches offered healthy options, time would complicate their relationship with health outcomes: Bhatt found students who had less time for lunch were more likely to be overweight.

The lunch may be free when children choose their meal and sit down to eat it, then. But it may come at a substantial cost several years down the line, when a young adult is paying for diabetes medication and visits to the doctor to monitor their blood pressure.

Read Part II of “No Such Thing as s Free School Lunch”.

This post was republished at Sociological Images and The Pacific Standard.

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