At the start of pastry week, I considered sweets to be an island unto themselves on the culinary map. However, as the days passed, I began to reconsider my separatist approach to dessert.
Sugar marks moments of celebration, it picks us up when we are down and it offers closure at the end of a meal. Dessert is not all laughter and smiles; as evidenced by Sidney Mintz’s iconic book Sweetness and Power, sugar certainly has a political, social and economic darker side. Many times in my life I have tried to discount sweetness. Perhaps this is because sugar was always underplayed and even sidelined in my childhood. My mother only allowed dessert on special occasions or as an exceptional treat. While doing fieldwork at the Porta Palazzo market, I was disappointed that the first job I landed was selling sweets. To my surprise, this turned out to be the most interesting of all the places I worked at the market: I learned about people’s desires, insecurities and health issues. I began to understand that sweetness can teach us a great deal about our humanity–whether we choose to embrace or reject it.
Saturated with sugar and butter, towards the end of pastry week I started to wonder how people could eat the desserts we were making at the finish of a multi-course meal. I asked the chef instructor if he considered the rest of the meal when imagining and designing a dessert. He looked at me with a strange expression, “No, I have heard that there are people in this healthy movement who try to make lighter desserts but that’s not what pastry chefs do.” He continued on lecturing us about the differences between crème mousseline and crème princesse. In culinary school, pastry is also an island out on its own.
Just as each savory course should consider the next, maybe dessert should also be more closely integrated into the menu. Good meals should have coherence and diners should be encouraged to enjoy the pleasures of sweetness. Wouldn’t it be nice if this pleasurable moment did not leave them feeling guilty and ill? It must be possible to build a bridge between the island that is pastry and the land that is the rest of the meal.
On Saturday, June 23, 11:40-12:55 (Vanderbilt Hall, NYU, Room 206) at the Association for the Study of Food and Society Conference, I will be presenting a paper on one of my recent research projects as part of a panel entitled “Alternative Food Systems: Methods, meanings, and movements.”
For some time now I have been calling for the inclusion of digestion in the realm of food studies and the anthropology of food, in particular. Why are North American’s so squeamish when it comes to discussing how we feel when we eat and drink? What can this aversion to discussing bodily functions tell us about American food culture and perceptions of the body? These are the kinds of questions I wanted to answer when I set out to study digestion in America through what I call gastrointestinal ethnographies. I hope that by sharing my methods and initial findings, I can encourage others to study neglected and taboo topics in food studies. I hope to show how ethnographic methods can offer an original avenue for exploration and theoretical production in food studies.
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.
Mol, Annemarie. (2008). “I Eat an Apple: On Theorizing Subjectivities.” Subjectivity, vol. 22:28-37