Talking with Warren Belasco

 

See below for my conversation with Warren Belasco.   Check out for sure, what he says in conclusion.  This is definitely something for else to talk about, and something that Striffler talks about in Chicken.

1. We have been using the quote from Levi Strauss that “food is good to think with” as an organizing principle for the course. Why do you think food is so good to think with?

W: Did he say good to think WITH? If so I’ll need to rethink how I’ve always used the term, i.e. “good to think,” which suggests that so much of our attitudes towards food has to do with ideas, image, and values, that is, culture. The phrase becomes a good way to get into the ideological meanings of food for different societies. The downside of treating food as intellectual history is that we may overlook the material side. Food historians have had very little to say about actual techniques, processes, and tastes.

2. Playing off the first question a little more – over the last three weeks, we have read books, including your book, about politics – broadly construed – and food. Why do you think food is a good way into thinking about politics?

W: Politics is the exercise of power. Food is all about power. So food is political.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. What contributions to the historiography of the counterculture and of consumer culture to do see your book making? How do these look different when you at them through food?

W: The book started out as a chapter in a larger opus, “Retailing Revolt,” which was my attempt to apply cultural hegemony theory to artifacts of US popular culture, e.g., blue jeans, natural foods, rock ‘n’ roll, ethnic foods. So, in other words, influenced by scholars such as Stuart Ewen and Stuart Hall, I believed that capitalist consumer culture is a subtle instrument of soft control. It was a popular idea among lefty intellectuals of the 1980s, many of whom were being published by Pantheon, the radical imprint of Random House until the owner, Sy Newhouse, cleared the whole bunch of us out in 1990, just when Appetite for Change appeared. Perhaps I was the last straw? Newhouse’s power play actually disproved some of hegemony theory, as he showed that the power elite does not need to be subtle to have its way. See also Rupert Murdoch.

4. I think of your book in some ways as a companion to Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool. In many ways, what you are looking at is how the mainstream deals with dissent, right? What does your book, then, tell us about hegemony and consumption? Do you see the counter-cuisine as largely co-opted? If so, what does this say about pursing politics through consumption, something I was, of course, interesting in in my Starbucks book. Is this limit to the power of political expression through eating?

W: I’ve addressed the tie to hegemony theory in #3. I reviewed Frank’s ms as a dissertation and thought it was too reductionist, as it didn’t leave much room for ambiguity and contradiction. “Mad Men” is probably a more accurate depiction of the ad industry in the early 60s. “Commodify Your Dissent” is better.

As for whether the countercuisine has been coopted, it depends on the day and my mood. As the ending of the book suggests, I’m rather ambivalent about judging success. I do think I’ve learned a few things since the 1980s, mainly that the political aims of the original cc have not been coopted, but the use of food as a medium did leave us open to the product proliferation that we see all around us. If the goal of the “movement” was to produce “better food,” then that has generally happened without reforming the power structure. (Indeed Nixon looks so good today!!) Capitalism won that battle. Julie Guthman has written about this in “Agrarian Dreams” and “Weighing In.” But I don’t think that “better food” was the original goal of the counterculture; after all we were already pretty well fed. Better food was a means, not the end. The end was political reform, the end of the war, social justice, etc. In retrospect it was a rather naive choice of means, as it seems pretty clear to me that consumption is not the route to the revolution. Indeed Sidney MIntz said as much to me in 1990, but I was too nostalgic for the 60s to listen to him then. Sid comes from the Older Left, who never really bought into cultural radicalism as a viable political strategy. I think he was right for the most part.

5. I really like this line from the book – “The upper middle class went slumming in Squaresville, but they wore hip sunglasses. . . . Despite the cult of plainness, neo-square consumers did not really want to be stuck in Lake Wobegon.” Is this then a story of class and performance?

W: Absolutely, and it’s why I have little love left for hip irony, which seems to be the main stance of contemporary Hipsterism, the main cultural contribution of which seems to be the $15 burger. as well as the gentrification of Brooklyn (where I was born), the Lower East Side (where my parents were born), and Tribeca (where my Dad worked in textiles). My kids and recent students despise hipsters, too, so there’s hope for the younguns.

6. I really liked the stuff in your book about the color of foods and what they mean. Do you want to say more about this?

W: I was really stretching myself there. I do think we need to look more closely at food technology and marketing. See below.

7. Where do you think food studies needs to go? What are the areas ripe for new research and thinking?

W: Enough with the identity already! Let’s put Brillat-Savarin on sabbatical for awhile. No, we’re not what we eat, mainly because we don’t know what we eat (or ate). As a skeptical old guy who’s read too many food books and articles dealing with food-as-representation, I’m dying for more facts about what people actually do and did with food. We really need to confront the sanctimonious nostalgia of those who bemoan the loss of the family dinner, cooking skills, “real food,” family farming, and so on. If there are two things I’ve learned since I wrote Appetite for Change (which was written before I’d done much food research), it’s that a) American food has been “industrial” for a very long time, and b) Grandma burned dinner too, sometimes on purpose….

 

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2 Comments

  1. Warning: Being derisive of hipsters is a top trait of hipsters, a group to which no person has ever claimed he belongs to. Yet they seem to roam wild.

    Reply
  2. But here is the interesting point about Belasco’s last remark and it relates to Striffler’s Chicken book. So perhaps we don’t know what we eat anymore, but what does that say? Why do we make the food choices we make? What can that tell us? Why is notional cheese alright? What is this about? How do consumer participate in this obscuring? How could they get agency and what would they choose? Would they choose, like the kids in the Jamie Oliver video, to eat food that they think is made in an utterly disgusting way? If so, what does that tell us?

    Reply

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