What Is American Cuisine?

waiting-by-melissa-b
Mundane Ethnography is a site I enjoy, an interdisciplinary mix of anthropology, food, and everyday life. Melissa recently sent me a post that she cherishes with pride and frustration: Cuisine vs. Food: What Is American Cuisine?

As she wrote to me, “I think this post sums up what anthropology should be: deep critical analysis leading to more, pretty much, unanswerable questions. That is the beauty of the discipline.”

In asking What is American Cuisine?, Melissa writes “the term “cuisine” means more than just food, but rather means the big picture around food–the form of expression through food and cooking and how people use food and cooking and eating as a way of expressing identity, even if it is an unconscious or understated form of affiliation and identity.”
apple-pie-by-melissa-b
By way of answering, I will use some photos from Melissa’s own Flickr site (with a whole range of photos, not just food) – the old cliche of American pie and our signature holiday, Thanksgiving.

So go enjoy more of What is American Cuisine?

Supersized Sweet Secular Search Engine

The latest economic downturn is giving us plenty of business losers, as well as a few winners. It’s the winners that have been catching my eye recently. McDonalds is doing well. Hersheys too. Netflix and Nintendo. Hamburgers, chocolate, movies, and video games. Things we consume, that we experience – not manufactured goods, not services, but activities that mix goods and services together in ways that promote demand, a desire to return and do or have or experience it again.

Let’s take a more mixed example. Mattel the toy company. Its popular 99 cent Hot Wheel toy cars weren’t so popular last year. But American Girl, dolls built around an experience and an identity, is doing well. John Sherry, the anthropologist who heads up Notre Dame’s Marketing department, recently wrote, “The staging ground for the brand’s performance and enactment, American Girl Place, has become a commercial Mecca, a secular pilgrimage site to which female believers throng.”

In my recent piece on what one day at Kotaku the gaming site shows us about our modern world, I wrote:

On this particular day, January 12th, a range of pieces captured why the video game phenomenon has so much to tell us about our modern obsessions, from sex to shopping, drugs to drinking. These eight stories show us the powerful convergence of people looking for fun and industries looking for profit. From pleasure to despair, this convergence is the story of our post-modern lives. It’s not commodities anymore, it’s activities.

We are seeing the emergence of a new type of economy amidst a new type of globalization, and it’s going to produce its own winners and losers, both on the economic side and on the people side.

Want to know how the world is changing? Just look at this Coke avatar ad from the Super Bowl, where the online world meets the iconic brand. It gives us a walk through a modern urban life and ends with romantic tension. Coke is right there in the middle of our enjoyments and our desires, and its enhanced sweetness and pitch-perfect iconic value part-and-parcel of how we live now.

Last April in Cellphones Save the World, I wrote the following:

Continue reading

Paleofantasies of the perfect diet – Marlene Zuk in NYTimes

Prof. Marlene Zuk (University of California Riverside), author of Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are (Amazon, Google books), has a very nice short essay in The New York Times on the recent discussion of whether or not our dietary problems stem from our bodies being ‘out of step’ evolutionarily with things like Mars bars and Big Macs: The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past. We’ve seen these sorts of arguments all over the place, that a ‘Paleolithic diet’ can make you healthy and banish bulges from inopportune places, after all, just look at Raquel Welch in 10,000 BC!

Paleolithic dieter?  Not exactly...

Paleolithic dieter? Not exactly...

When I talk about diet and human evolution in my freshman class, I have to point out that there are a tremendous number of complications, including the fact that the vast majority of us do not have the cultural knowledge to get ANY nutritional resources out of the environment around us (see my earlier post with my slides from that lecture, if you like). It’s all well and good to say, ‘Eat meat, roots and berries,’ but that just means spending our time in the grocery store aisles a bit differently for most of us, not actually transforming the ways that we get food, how we relate to our environment, or even the quality of the meat, roots and berries we’re getting (after all, even the meat we get is from the animal world’s equivalent of couch potatoes, not the wild stuff on the hoof– or for that matter, dead on the ground where we can scavenge it).

Zuk draws on Leslie Aiello’s concept of ‘paleofantasies,’ stories about our past spun from thin evidence, to label the nostalgia some people seem to express for prehistoric conditions that they see as somehow healthier. In my research on sports and masculinity, I frequently see paleofantasies come up around fight sports, the idea that, before civilization hemmed us in and blunted our instincts, we would just punch each other if we got angry, and somehow this was healthier, freer and more natural (the problems with this view being so many that I refuse to even begin to enumerate them). It’s an odd inversion on the usual Myth of Progress, the idea that things always get better and better; instead, paleofantasies are a kind of long range projection of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (‘Things were so much better in MY day…’), spinning fantasies of ‘life before’ everything we have built up around us.

Continue reading

Food, Obesity and Eating Posts

So I am back teaching. This semester I have an intensive qualitative methods course after teaching medical anthropology in the spring. I am planning to have several assignments revolve around the issue of food, health and eating. So the list below is meant first for my methods students. But I also thought some of you other folks might like a refresher on what got posted last spring. Hopefully the categories will help you find what interests you most…

My Main Pieces

Ethnography and the Everyday: Knapp’s Appetites

Comfort Food and Social Stress

Successful Weight Loss

Culture

Culture and Inequality in the Obesity Debate

The Family Dinner Deconstructed

Interactions

On the Causes of Obesity: Common Sense or Interacting Systems

Diet, Weight and Health Round Up

Live Healthy, Turn On Your Genes

“Willpower” and Effort

Tightening Your Belt on Your Mind

The Sugar Made Me Do It

Laura’s Weight Loss

Experiments and Effort

Glucose, Self Control and Evolution

General Biology

Genetics and Obesity

Human Biology and Models for Obesity

Obesity: Mortality, Activity and More

Obesity and Some Behavioral Biology

Red Meat, Neandertals Were Meant to Eat It

Biological Mechanisms

Dopamine and Eating

Sleep, Eat, Sex – Orexin Has Something to Say

Fat Cells Die

Laura’s Weight Loss

Laura over at her psychology blog discusses her own successful weight loss (plus a big on-going study). She also linked back to an April post on successful weight loss I had when my med anthro class and I were examining obesity (for more posts, check our food and eating category). She highlights one of my main points with that essay, the American fixation on self-control and will-power as both pragmatically and philosophically problematic for going about weight loss.

As I put it, “So ‘willpower’ is not the answer, at least as conceived as an intrinsic and internal property of the individual.”

But obviously behavior does matter, linking internal and external dynamics together: “our behavior takes place within specific contexts, relationships, and symbolic meanings. It is also linked to subjective experience, available opportunities, bodily function, and the ongoing interpretation of our memories.”

Laura gives a great example of this (and congratulations too, on what you’ve accomplished): “What I have found useful is to take the decision-making out of my hands. I follow the Jenny Craig maintenance program, and that’s it. No variations, except for special occasions, like Mr. F’s chocolate cheesecake, and that happens no more than once a week.”

We humans are cultural creatures, much more than we are free will creatures. We are also emotional creatures, so major life events can provoke major change (a major health problem is frequently a main factor in successful weight loss, in reframing everyday life so doing “what it takes” suddenly makes sense). And of course we are decision making creatures, with conscious awareness and all that.

But I wonder, if our society put as much effort into developing our cultural and emotional ways of being, and not just our conscious and technological ways of being, would we have so many behavioral health problems in the first place?

Diet, Weight and Health Round Up

Nikhil Swaminathan, The Skinny of Fat: You’re Not Always What You Eat
Serotonin and the regulation of energy metabolism. See Laura’s nice psychology take here.

Science Daily, Psychological Stress Linked to Overeating, Monkey Study Shows
Stressed out monkeys like calorie-rich foods

Science Daily, Hunger Hormone Increases During Stress, May Have Antidepressant Effect
Ghrelin, being hungry, and not getting anxious about what you’ve got to do (at least in mice)

Jonah Lehrer, Caloric Rewards (Or Why Diet Soda Isn’t Good for Diets)
Sweet soda without calories confuses energy tracking; but real sugar can also make dopamine spike

Dr. X, Sugar and ADHD
Is sugar getting a bad wrap for getting kids wired? Plus the power of belief

Continue reading

Live healthy, turn on your genes

For all those out there who still think that ‘it’s all in the genes,’ here’s a recent news story on the way that changes in lifestyle can affect genetic activity. Will Dunham at ABC News brings us, Healthy Lifestyle Triggers Genetic Changes: Study (I also pulled it off the Reuters feed). The study was small, and I doubt that it was nearly as rigorous as really necessary, but the findings are interesting.

In a small study, the researchers tracked 30 men with low-risk prostate cancer who decided against conventional medical treatment such as surgery and radiation or hormone therapy.

The men underwent three months of major lifestyle changes, including eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy products, moderate exercise such as walking for half an hour a day, and an hour of daily stress management methods such as meditation.

As expected, they lost weight, lowered their blood pressure and saw other health improvements. But the researchers found more profound changes when they compared prostate biopsies taken before and after the lifestyle changes.

After the three months, the men had changes in activity in about 500 genes — including 48 that were turned on and 453 genes that were turned off.

Continue reading