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Journal of No. 118

June 18th, 2011

Adventures in Eating, ed. Haines and Sammells @ 11:38 am

Adventures in Eating: Anthropological Experiences in Dining from Around the World.
This is a well-varied anthology of professional anthropologists relating their research in foodways as well as more incidental stories of their encounters with unique foods in different cultures. Interesting topic, but a couple circumstances conspired to make this a must-buy. Number one, the upcoming trip to Peru suggests the possibility of cuy on the menu, and I wanted some tips. Second, one of the co-editor/contributors is Dr. Mrs. Dr. Larva.

The writing style is interesting; the focus on anthropology brings in a certainly scholarly air, particularly for the first few paragraphs of the individual essays, which are often laden with important anthropological insights properly footnoted... 'Anthropologists generally consider the correlation of food and human society to trace back centuries, if not longer (Morlock 1992), though a minority view considers much of the evidence underlying this association to be anecdotal or collected before the advent of modern anthropological practice (Mangrove 2002).' A few of the writers doggedly stick to this mode throughout, but most of them slowly ease into a more enjoyable and more readable voice. More like sitting around the campfire with the anthropologists as they swap stories about the time I ate a rat, or the time I was offered whale.

Goldstein let me down a little with his story of cuy... I learned only to go after the skin on the ribcage first, not to let it cool down, getting tough and leathery. Still not sure I can face a complete sagittal section of cuy. But Sammells' story of chuño in Bolivia made me eager to give it a try, and it will possibly be on the menu in Peru as well. It was also nice to see a mention of Dr. Mr. Dr. Sammells.

The one essay that sticks out like a sore thumb -- and yet still worthy of inclusion due to accidental anthropological interest -- is Lidia Marte's "MSG and Sugar", recounting the trials of studying her native Dominican foods as prepared by Dominican immigrants in the US. Dr. Marte claims a sensitivity to MSG; consumption makes her "eyes cross, and my muscles grow weak. I feel overwhelmingly sleepy, and I am completely unable to think clearly." Enough so to miss a trainstop.

And here I betray my status as a non-anthropologist, since "[a]s the core principle of our discipline, anthropologists embrace the concept of cultural relativism" (Chaiken, op. cit.). Instead, I call bullshit on Dr. Marte. Though she does acknowledge the "disputed effects" of MSG and the "problematic and controversial" nature of the relevant research, she clearly is a 'believer' in her own experiences and the existence of 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'. From the safety of my armchair, I cannot authoritatively state that she is not sensitive to MSG, but double-blinded studies of people who claim this sensitivity show that there is no difference in their responses to MSG vs. placebo.

In any event, Dr. Marte is clearly highly fixated on MSG and is seriously considering a more activist program on this front, carrying out "intervention ... debate, reeducation, and discussion about MSG" with her Dominican collaborators. If she is indeed sensitive, she could do far more good by participating in a double-blind study of these effects, to demonstrate them unambiguously and remove the controversy. But as her story continues, more interesting to me is how she does make a convert out of her sister, who had previously used MSG widely in cooking (as is apparently common for Dominican cooking as it is practiced in the US). Although Dr. Marte speaks of teaching her sister to notice previously unnoticed reactions, I read it more as an act of mental contagion -- a psychosomatic illness transmitted from person to person not through germs, but through ideas and example. So I find her contribution fascinating, not for what it says on its face, but for its unwitting illumination of how things like the antivaxx movement or other alternative beliefs come to be spread. End rant.

All in all, very enjoyable, and I can imagine an anthropologist gaining even more out of the discussions, particularly some passages about the interactions between (outside) observer and observed, which are not necessarily peculiar to food. Should the observer accept everything with gusto, or can certain boundaries be maintained without jeopardizing the research? (Several contributors make a strong case that maintaining boundaries offers additional opportunities for conversation.) When the observed prepares a meal (exhibits some behavior) for the benefit of the observer, will it be a typical example? Or an atypical example meant to be more familiar to the outsider? Or an atypical example meant to be more exotic (since perhaps that is what the observer has come to observe)? How would the observer know which of those is the case?
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Date:June 20th, 2011 07:05 pm (UTC)
I know from my own experience that distinguishing a food allergy reaction from a panic attack is almost impossible without clinical tests. Except that one doesn't (so far) actually stop breathing and die from a panic attack.

Journal of No. 118