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.

Slow Food Panels at the Society for Applied Anthropology Conference

I will be heading to Santa Fe later this week to participate in the Society for Applied Anthropology Conference. There will be two panels on Slow Food and I will be chairing one:

(TH-101) THURSDAY, March 19, 1:30-3:20 – Lamy

Food and Ethics: Agriculture, Sustainability and the Organic Movement, Part I


ADAMS, Ryan (IUPUI) Environmentally Certified Soybeans in the Amazon: Context and Consequences

WHEELER, Valerie (CSU-Sacramento) and ESAINKO, Peter (Independent Scholar) Global Challenge, Local Action: The Survival of Organic Agriculture during a World-Wide Economic Recession

CHOLLETT, Donna (U Minn-Morris) From Generals to Organic Farmers: Revolutionizing Cuba’s Food Production System

ROSENBERGER, Nancy (Oregon State U) Social Dimensions of Organic Agriculture in Japan

CARUSO, Christine (CUNY Grad Ctr) The Morality of Food: Ethics, Commodification and the Sunnyside CSA

(TH-131) THURSDAY 3:30-5:20 Lamy

Food and Ethics: Slow Food, Local Food and Social Context, Part II

CHAIR: BLACK, Rachel (U Gastronomic Sci)

BLACK, Rachel (U Gastronomic Sci) Slow Wine?: Between Perceptions of Nature, Quality, and Industry

GROSS, Joan (Oregon State U) The Local Food Movement and Its Connections to Other Social Movements

SPRINGER, Alexandra (U Hawai’i-Manoa) Networking for Shared Concerns: Slow Food Movement USA Blogging

STEAGER, Tabitha (UBC-Okanagan) Pleasure and Politics: Unlikely Partners in the Slow Food Movement