Snapshots from the field



I am grinning at the camera but my body is awkward in my big winter coat. I look out of place and foreign. I am much taller than Luigi and Rosella. There is something generally uncomfortable about the photo. Despite its forced nature, I cherish this image. It is one of the few photos I have of myself in the field.

The photographer is a prominent Czech anthropologist who came to speak at my department at the Università degli Studi di Torino. Paolo, my dissertation advisor, suggested that I take Peter to Porta Palazzo, my field. This honor fell to me because I was one of the few doctoral students doing research in the city.

Taking an outsider into the field is always a bit of a sticky situation for an anthropologist. I had spent months building my rapport with the various vendors, clients, barmen, and illegal immigrants with whom I was working. I was trying to gain an insider’s view of the market. What would they think of me bringing a foreigner into our world? Would it break the trust I had worked so hard to develop?

Bundled up in winter coats and scarves, Peter and I walked down via Milano toward the Porta Palazzo market. We chatted about anthropology and the challenges of doing fieldwork. I was trying hard to relax but I felt nervous talking to such an important scholar. What would he think of my ideas, my research? I felt even tenser when I pondered what people at the market would think of my new role as tour guide.

When we reached the market square, Peter raised his camera (like a good anthropologist) and snapped a shot of the market. He continued to take photos all throughout our visit. I tried not to pay this photographic shooting spree any attention. I say this because I have always been very sensitive about taking photos of people I did not know well. Not all anthropologists feel this way: to them documentation is more important than anything else.

One of our first stops was at a candy stand where I had been working for several months. We stopped and I said hello to Luigi and Rosella, a son and mother team, and I introduced them to Peter. I explained that he was visiting from Germany, where he was a professor of anthropology. It had been hard to get to know Luigi and Rosella very well. They were very Piedmontese about their relationships. Some people say that the Piedmontese “Sono falsi e cortesi” (Are false and courteous). I saw this guarded attitude more as a cautious distance to newcomers—it just took time to get to know people. It had taken me hours of sweat and hard work at this stand to get to know these two people. I really hoped I was not undoing it all at this very moment.

Peter asked me if he could take a photo of me with Luigi and Rosella. They ushered me behind the stand, and we crowded together in the space between the table and their car. In this photo we are grinning like tourists for the camera.

A Summer in the Field

Silvio reached up and pulled down a curled up leaf from one of his vines. He unfurled the leaf to reveal the larva of a leafroller (Platynota  stultana). Pests like this, he explained, could do serious damage to a vineyard. He named off the various fungal diseases he regularly has to combat as the grape growing season progresses. Winegrowing was starting to seem more like chemical warfare than some bucolic agricultural activity. Walking through the steep vineyards of Donnas on a warm June day, I learned a great deal about vineyard management, changing traditions, and one man’s reality as he worked amongst the vines—all things that are difficult to learn from only reading books …

Read more on the Gastronomy at BU blog.

Gastrointestinal ethnographies: eating as bodily practice

Today I started fieldwork on a new anthropology of food project here in Boston. It is going to be an adventure as I explore the rumbling beast that is my GI tract through an Ayurvedic cleanse. Later, I will be listening to hear what my fellow cleanse participants have to say about their experiences in this process. For now, here is a synopsis of my research:

The act of eating and incorporating food (symbolically and physically) is one of the most important transformations in the everyday experience of nearly all humans. Through the digestion process the outside world is embodied and even transubstantiated. This paper will explore the possibility of considering the act of eating as a cultural process that does not end at cooking or at the point when food passes the lips. What about digestion? Anthropological research has paid little attention to the ways in which humans conceive of and experience digestion. Marked by cultural taboos, digestion and defecation are muffled rumblings of food consumption which go largely unmentioned and unstudied.

Once food enters the body it is no longer under the conscious control of the eater: the body takes over an internal, physical process that is obscured and largely uncontrolled (Mol, 2008). A physical process of inclusion and exclusion takes place as nutrients are absorbed and waste products are expelled. Based on participant observations and interviews of an Ayurvedic cleansing session in Boston, this research will consider how internal biological processes are culturally mediated and framed. First, ways of talking or not talking about digestion tell us a great deal about how cultures conceive and shape these hidden bodily processes. Second, the medicalization of certain foods and in particular Ayurvedic medical practices can be seen as cultural interventions on the interior process of digestion. This paper seeks to explore the inner and outer understandings of digestion and the cross-cultural interpretations of ways in which this process can be mediated.

Works cited:

Mol, Annemarie. (2008). “I Eat an Apple: On Theorizing Subjectivities.” Subjectivity, vol. 22:28-37

Standing in line

This morning I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Table for 2? Get Ready to Wait in Line” and it got me thinking about the social aspects of waiting for food (something this article missed entirely).

Sure, I can understand the inconvenience of having to wait to be fed but I can also see a positive side–the social side of the ordeal. It seems to me that Americans have forgotten how to socialize in public spaces and why spontaneous sociability is important. Hey, it can even be pleasant! Waiting in line is an opportunity to meet new people, exchange a few words and maybe even some ideas. Have we forgotten that it can be a good thing to check in with the world around us? This mundane activity can also build solidarity!

On my first shopping trip to Eataly in Turin, Italy, I was fascinated by two very socially different worlds of the deli counter and the refrigerated self-serve cases. One goes to the deli counter partially out of a desire to socialize and communicate. First there is the waiting in line that necessitates cooperation and a certain ability to follow unspoken social rules and codes. One mustn’t jump the line. One must speak politely to the counter person and others waiting. One must state clearly what they would like and ask for help when they are unsure of this. Then there is the exchange with the counter person. We have the opportunity to ask questions, learn and exchange ideas. In contrast, those who prefer anonymity choose the self-serve case. To me this is an expression of independence and a desire for speed. Who has time anymore to wait to be served? Why would I waste my time talking to other people I don’t know from Adam? Spending a few moments observing the shopping behaviour at the deli case and the counter taught me a great deal about the changing social habits of Italians. Increasing social ineptitude is not unique to North America.

Well, whether waiting in line at a restaurant in New York or a deli counter in Italy, we come in contact with our fellow eaters. A priori we have something in common–our humanness.

Restaurant Reviews-I can hear something rumbling

Why do restaurant reviews never talk about how food makes you feel after you eat it? This was a question I was left pondering as I stared at the ceiling with my stomach rumbling last night.

The first food writers were extremely preoccupied with digestion and how food altered the humours (bile and mood, equally). In Physiologie du goût (1825), Brillat-Savarin devotes an entire chapter to digestion and realises its central importance in the act of eating. How did we loose touch with our stomachs in the act of eating? Why does taste only refer to our mouths and less frequently our noses?

Isn’t a large part of how food makes us feel about what happens after it enters our bodies? The instance of incorporation (in the true sense of the word) does not really occur in our mouths. Why then does modern food writing lack a language and vocabulary to address how food makes us feel, or at least something beyond romantic and poetic notions of how we feel when we see, taste and smell food. What about the culinary contentment of sated hunger or the lovely feeling of  a full belly? What about the wretched physical feelings after eating a rotten oyster or the regretful pains of over indulging in a second helping? Dare I go so far as to mention the unmentionable? Yes, we all know the primal pleasures of defecation, the ultimate output of all eating experiences.

Strong cultural taboos now keep us from associating eating with pooping. However, this was not always the case. It is interesting to note that North American culture is deeply obsessed with the pleasure and healthfulness of eating but we dare not speak about its physiological functioning. What happens in our bodies has been covered over, sanitized and banished from popular discourse. During the eighteenth century, the term restaurant was used to describe the dishes that were given to the ill and weak–often a rich meat dish to restore health and energy to the convalescent eater. Eventually, venues opened in Paris where pale and weak patrons could come and restore their health. Restaurants were initially all about how food made you feel, in a very physiological sense.

Surely, I have pushed this discussion to an extreme, but I am still left wondering how we ended up so disconnected from the act of eating. Perhaps its time to overcome our prudishness and really talk about how food makes us feel.

Further reading:

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste.

Spang, Rebecca. The Invention of the Restaurant. Harvard UP, 2001.