Thanks for agreeing to participate in our blog and for taking time to answer a few questions! I understand you are under a time crunch, so I’ll only ask a few questions. All of them are, I think, related directly to your book, although a couple of them are larger questions that we are grappling with in class as we ponder food studies.
- You write in your conclusion that, “Current systems of food distribution emerged from historically contingent power relations and can, therefore, be changed by politics—both everyday and institutional.” Are we perpetuating the systems of food distribution you detail in your book today, or do you see signs of change (for better or worse)?
I think the current food system in the US is under more scrutiny than at almost any other moment. In that way, I’m hopeful that the system itself is changing.
But I also see the faith in market relations and in consumer sovereignty—ideologies that emerge from the same historical moment as supermarkets—as drags on any real change.
Indeed, I worry a good deal that the increasing fractional nature of the food system—with real malnutrition and food insecurity increasing for some, while others spend enormous sums on high-end foods—will lead to profoundly destructive effects on both health and social justice.
2. In many ways, your book is about politics. I wonder if you could give us a definition of politics, and how using food as a focus helps us to understand how political power operates and gets articulated in everyday life?
As you noticed, I use politics in a very broad way to mean the formal policies of governments, the laws administered by and for governments, and the power relations of public and private spaces. Food proved to be incredibly helpful in revealing the intersections among those systems. Indeed, writing this book made me re-appreciate the famous Levi-Strauss (mis) quote that food is good to think with.
3. We began the semester with Professor Simon asking us to think about food studies as inherently subversive. How has writing this book allowed you to think across disciplines or otherwise break out of conventions of the historical profession (either methodologically, theoretically, or in thinking about sources for writing the book)?
Certainly writing about food encouraged me to think across lines of discipline and method but this was a welcome challenge. I, and I think a lot of food studies scholars, gravitate towards a mixed methods or holistic perspective.
This is true for many reasons but I suspect it reflects a fundamental belief in the importance of our subject. I just don’t know how anyone would understand the significance of grocery stores (or of anything else) if one didn’t look at all the systems that intersect in them. Another way of saying this is that understanding systems like capitalism and gender and food systems is simply too important and too complicated to decide to simply ignore a whole methodology or a whole set of literature. It is a risk to not use all the tools at one’s disposal. Even if that means traveling outside of your (or your audience’s) comfort zone.
I should also add that to the extent that the book is interdisciplinary, it also owes a lot to the generosity of food studies scholars who welcomed me into their conversations at Minnesota and beyond. My own intellectual commitments and my thinking about this project owes a lot to the literature and ideas they shared and their encouragement to think ambitiously.
4. In thinking about gender and grocery shopping, could you talk about what impact changing definitions of fatherhood had on the historical processes you discuss in the book? Either in the early twentieth-century (a period Ralph LaRossa talks about in The Modernization of Fatherhood), or more recently in regards to the broader (and often contradictory) “men’s movement”?
I should be clear that in some families, and in many communities (especially working-class and immigrant) some men had always overseen food, meals or provisioning. But of course over time men were encouraged to become a larger presence in the home and to take over at least certain aspects of cooking (for instance, grilling, or cooking special dishes for celebrations). My speculation is that men’s presence encouraged grocers and retailers to introduce specialty goods and special services into stores; it is no accident that the most gourmet, personalized-service stores are also those that often see themselves as selling to a mixed-sex audience.
That said, what is striking to me, and a bit uncomfortable given my own proclivities as an historians, is the constance of the allusions to women and “housewives” in the rhetoric of virtually all grocers. It is hard to know how much food work actually changed over time in terms of the division of labor and also hard to know how that affected store structure. What’s really clear however is the ongoing commitment to a rhetoric of female demand.
5. As you (perhaps) continue to think about gender and food, what new questions did you discover while researching and writing this book? In other words, what are you planning to work on next, or, what do you wish more people would write about?
My next project is tentatively entitled “The Julia Child Project.” It’s a loose biography of Child, that frames her career as an intentional project, one that is rooted in Cold War politics, ongoing tensions over domestic labors, and changes in both publishing and television. At its broadest, it asks how and why food became so important to a litany of late 20th century movements and projects.
It came out of my interest in the more recent politics around food—and then my self-consciousness about that interest. Why, I wondered, do I and everyone else suddenly want to talk so much about food, in particular? And how did we get to a place where gourmet food became so important to a certain class of people?
Writing about Julia Child doesn’t, however, address all of the questions raised for me by my earlier work. I very much wish there were more work on the complicated systems through which families provisioned themselves. This book convinced me of the significance of grocery stores, but it also made me realize that lots of people got (and probably continue to get) food from all kinds of places –gardens, neighbors, stealing, peddlers, etc. I think we still really don’t know about how people get their food and therefore what systems are important to their “food system.”
Relatedly, I wish there were more historical work on food, food policy, and food provisioning. Many of the prescriptions for what’s wrong now assume there’s been a dramatic change from the past—for instance that people liked to cook more, or that fresh vegetables were more available, or that somehow “our” diets were healthier. I think we don’t always know these things to be true nor that there is a careful articulation of how inequality or isolation functioned in the past to make some people’s diets healthier than others or to force people to cook, or eat more fresh foods, when in reality they might have wanted something else. So I have a general wish for more historical work that allows for smarter discussions of the root causes of contemporary problems.