A collection of essays spanning the nineteenth century into the modern era, each attempting to trace the origins of some food or food-related cultural practice. Most are unsuccessful. There are two problems with this book. One, it's poorly edited. Aside from "food" and "culture," the essays chosen have nothing in common; reading one will not help the reader understand any of the others. They're each very specifically focused: avocado marketing techniques in twentieth century USA are right next to colonialist struggles for authenticity in Belize, which butt up against a discourse on how much value food industries actually add by preparing foods. They come from a variety of very different fields, with different rhetorical styles and underpinning assumptions. They don't connect to each other at all. Two, the essays themselves are pretty lackluster. The topics are generally interesting, thescholarship is ok, but the writing is, by-and-large, substandard.
The two that stuck in my mind as readable were Richard R Wilk's "Food and Nationalism: The Origins of 'Belizean Food'" and Tracey Deutsch's "Untangling Alliances: Social Tensions Surrounding Independent Grocery Stores and the Rise of Mass Retailing." Wilk argues, "The indigenous Mayan culture of Belize was largely exterminated before the colony was established, so there was no existing tradition to refer back to, and the slaves did not have provision grounds on which to base a reconstructed African diet...From the time of its first settlement, Belize has also been a multiethnic polyglot place, which poses particular problems for the emergence of national culture...Also, Belize has legally been a nation only since independence in 1981, an event followed quickly by the arrival of satellite television, offshore banking, and hundreds of foreign tourists. How could there ever be a national cuisine when there was no national culture?" Wilk then proceeds to lay out the process of adaptations and combinations that created a shared, Creolized food practices. It's complicated by issues of class and race, naturally, and driven strongly by colonialism, and it is utterly fascinating. I've never been to Belize or eaten Belizean food, however, so I can't swear to accuracy.
Deutsch's essay also deals with race, class, and immigration, with a bunch of gender dynamics thrown in as well. Her argument is that grocery store chains were able to successfully wipe out small, locally owned stores in much of Chicago because shopping in the small stores was complicated, politicized, and fraught with tension. Members of minority groups were exhorted to buy from members of their group, even when it was less convenient or cheap to do so, while differences in race, ethnicity or religion between shop-keepers and their customers were a spark-point for a lot of expressions of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The shopkeepers knew every customer, and what each customer bought, and so there was very little privacy--people would instantly and easily know what a new bride served her in-laws, for example. Chain stores de-personalized these interactions, defusing them, and this, Deutsch says, is an important component of their success.
I'm glad I read this book, but it was very much a mixed-bag.