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FOOD: Nature and Culture / Vol. 66, No. 1 (Spring 1999)

Arien Mack, Editor

This issue comprises papers presented at a Social Research conference at the New School University in November 1998.

This article explores the relationship between food and culture. According to French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, people spend most of their time in almost every culture turning nature into culture, the raw into the cooked. But even when they value culture over nature, they frequently break their own rules, defying their own categories. Cultures may favor cooked food over raw and still prize delicacies that are uncooked. Meanwhile, Mary Douglas tried to make order out of the dietary practices of Jews in her study of kashrut. In it, she concluded that what passes for Jewish food today is a fascinating mixture of tastes and styles, reflecting the influences of many cultures and traditions...

This article explores the theme that food is fundamental, fun, frightening and far-reaching. In doing so, it talks about the cultural evolution of the trajectory of food in human life as described by Leon Kass in his book The Hungry Soul. Next, it discusses how taxonomic categories carry clues to the diet and eating habits of species as well as their life patterns and capabilities. Then, it proceeds to describe how the act of eating becomes a pleasurable experience. The article also considers how events in the middle to late 20th century created a frightening image of food. These events included the production of excess food, advances in microbiology and nutrition and epidemiological revolution.

This articles explores the relationship between culture and obesity. There has always been a conflict over defining the good diet in every society. In the modern U.S. society, weight reduction through manipulation of diet is a national preoccupation. Weight gain, on the other hand, is an accelerating national trend. At the heart of this conflict is the concept of diet itself. In this sense, diet is defined as that radical departure from normal eating to achieve a medical or, usually, a cosmetic result. True, some people were able to maintain their diet for life. But most people who dabble in diets end up discarding them and returning to their old eating habits.

People naturally take their customary foods with them when they migrate, even for long distances. But in varying degrees, they are also open to experimenting with and incorporating much of what they newly discover. Over the long-run, foods become mirrors of many-layered cultural encounters and an index of contemporary cosmopolitanism.

This article explores the historical and cultural background with which maize was transformed into corn. It begins by discussing the basic differences between wheat and corn. Next, it traces the emergence of maize in six sites in the Americas and the start of its cultivation in the US. Then, it gives a historical account by which maize became corn. Here it argues the corn came about mainly because of mis-translations. Then, the article proceeds to discuss the commodification of corn. Finally, the article explores the cultural symbolism of maize.

This article discusses how the potato changed the world's history. Today, potatoes are a valued and important crop in China as well as in Europe and North America, and remain the staple food of Andean farmers in the South American altiplano. But only twice can one say that potatoes made a critical difference for world history: initially in the altiplano, where potatoes provided the principal energy source for the Inca Empire, its predecessors and its Spanish successor; and then subsequently in northern Europe, where potatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950. These two instances helped established...

This article traces the history of sugar and its rise to prominence as a staple commodity. In terms of consumption, the most important source of sweetness for humanity during the past dozen millennia has been the sugar cane, which is a grass. From its humble beginnings in New Guinea, to its cultivation in Asia, the sugar cane reached the West by two main routes: through the Maghreb and then Spain, with the Moorish conquest; and through Venice, Amalfi, and other Italian trading states, a couple of centuries later. The demand for sugar gave rise to the establishment of the plantation system, creating slaves out of Africans taken from their country.

This article explores the issue of agriculture and food security. The world population increases at an average rate of three persons per second, every second of the day. Comprehending and preparing for such rates of growth globally is the first part of the challenge. The second part of the challenge is to ensure that this population has access to food in adequate quantities at adequate prices, everywhere, at all times, and to produce this food in a way that does not destroy the environment on which we all depend. We cannot meet this challenge by producing less to keep the environment unaffected by agriculture. This means that we have to produce differently, not less, while rethinking resource use.

This article talks about the relationship of food and culture. Food is closely interwoven with culture--change the diet and you will change the culture, and vice versa. Change in itself, of course, is neither good nor bad--it is simply change. But one must ask oneself: What is the direction of change and what is being replaced? Who stands to benefit? And who loses? It is entirely possible for a change in culture, a change of diet, to be manipulated for the short-term benefit of a few, and the long-term deprivation of everybody--even, in the end, of those who thought to benefit from it. Margarine was invented in 1869.

This article discusses the social aspect of food. In all societies, sharing food is a way of establishing closeness, while, conversely, the refusal to share is one of the clearest marks of distance and enmity. The reason is that the sharing of food is, and is always seen to be, in some way or another, the sharing of that which will cause, or at least maintain, a common substance among those who commune together. If the theme of eating in common is universally an indication and a creator of bodily propinquity, this does not mean that we should forget the great differences that exist between cultures. This article explores the social significance of food sharing.

This article discusses myths about food in South Asian culture. Food and eating function in South Asia define the person more than anything else, even sex. Yet the precise nature of that definition has been debated, often to the death, for over two millennia. This article will outline the main parameters of that debate and argue that these myths simply develop in details unfamiliar to us, many of the deeply submerged assumptions built into our own mythologies of food. Some of the myths considered here include the food taboos outlined in India's Laws of Manu.

This article addresses the issue of cannibalism. according to Sigmund Freud, cannibalism is one of the three great prohibited acts along with homicide and incest. The latter two occur in Western cities frequently, while cannibalism has almost been eradicated. Still, every year there emerges a case of cannibalism, the latest of which involved Jeffrey Dahmer. True, human flesh is not of our staple foods but it is a food which, in one way and another, has had a lot to do with nature, and even more with culture, and it has certainly functioned throughout history as a marker of identity.

This article focuses on the representation of food in art and literature. The archaeology of represented food might extend as far back as paleolithic cave-painting--of meat on the hoof, as it were--or to those early possible candidates, at the dawn of writing, for icons on boxes that may label the foodstuffs contained therein. A lot of food is depicted in Hellenistic and Roman still-life painting. Aside from actual food that is manifestly or latently construed as symbolic in rituals, Western tradition at least presents instance of what might be called transcendental food: ambrosia.

This article discusses the importance of food packaging in winning customer loyalty. Food packaging is as common as food itself and, therefore, is usually accepted without question or controversy. With the exception of the current concern about recycling solid waste and the food industry's attempt to address these issues, food packaging is viewed as a natural outgrowth of our natural consumables. But food packaging is not natural. In fact, the mother of this invention is war. Although a package is undeniably utilitarian, modern packaging is a function of a war that is fought daily. A war that many of us do not even realize is being waged, and yet it effects both our pocketbooks and consuming habits.

This article talks about food in art and food as art. When viewed in the shadow of world hunger, the bio-chemistry of nutrition, and the eating habits that identify distinct immigrant populations, the conjunction of food and art runs the risk of seeming both vague and frivolous: vague because it might cover both food in art and food as art, and frivolous because each of these terms seems to bring out the trivial side of the other. The esthetics of food looks unimportant in comparison to the biological and social imperatives that surround the subject, while, within the realm of art, the edible can hardly count as constituting the loftiest of media.

This section contains a very interesting and diverse set of papers. The previous papers have covered a wide range of cultural, artistic, and historical aspects of foods. Now we switch to a slightly different approach to the subject. The first paper looks at availability and access. The second paper talks about hunger in the U.S. and access to food. The third paper addresses the topic: “What is Food?”

The article talks about hunger in the United States and access to food. It covers the evolution in our understanding of hunger in the United States, some of the difficulties associated with trying to measure or quantify the extent of hunger in the US, and some of the policies that have been undertaken to address the problem of hunger. It discusses some of the difficulties in dealing with what has turned out be a very persistent problem, although it is a problem whose nature has changed over time.

This article explores the issue of food distribution from a number of perspectives. In doing so, it will attempt to answer the following questions: How has the level and distribution of food changed during the last third of this century? How much redistribution would be required to eradicate under-nutrition? Is the protein-rich diet of those with higher incomes an important cause of calorie deprivation among the poor? Is income really the driving force in reducing the incidence and degree of under-nutrition? Is it correct to think of food poverty as a demand problem, not strongly related to the magnitude and structural characteristics of food supply?

This article attempts to establish the definition of food. Without wanting to lose sight of the maldistribution of food, the discussion to follow centers on the distinction between food and non-food. This is a distinction that is a matter of social context and of the attribution of meaning; what is to count as food is cultural, both in its material and its abstract aspects. in brief, the article will discuss the following: why societies consider certain things to be food that others do not; how people's understanding of what food is changes over time; and what some of the consideration are that go into those changing perceptions of food.

This article focuses on efforts to improve food production to meet increasing population. Increases in population in South Asia posed a deep concern for demographers and agriculturists that the twin blades of the food-population scissors would close, and famine would, again, be the painful fate of many millions of earth's inhabitants. At first, the answer seemed simple: send agriculturists and, even, farmers from the U.S. to teach others the technologies of high yield cropping. This was done, but to the surprise of those who went, and the consternation of those who sent them, yields of food per hectare did not move significantly higher.

This article talks about the social problems of hunger and poverty. Today, there are more than three-quarters of a billion people who live in a world where food is plentiful yet it is denied to them. Many of the hungry are women and children. Paradoxically, hunger is common despite 20 years of rapidly declining world food prices. In many developing countries, there is enough food to meet demand, yet large numbers of people still go hungry. As Amartya Sen points out, hunger occurs because, in one way or another, people are not entitled to the wherewithal to obtain food.

This article explores the multiple connections between food insecurity and armed conflict, estimates agricultural and other costs of conflict, and examines policy options aimed at reducing conflict, improving food security, and breaking the links between hunger and conflict. In doing so, it considers the extent and nature of contemporary armed conflict. It also considers how hunger leads to conflict and violence in both rural and urban areas as in the case of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sudan. Next, the article deals with how conflict exacerbates environmental resource scarcities and crises.

This article looks at the links between population growth, environmental resources and the global availability of food. Based on current rates of increase, the world population is projected to double to more than 12 billion in less than 50 years. As the world population continues to expand at a rate of 1.5 percent per year--adding more than a quarter million people daily--the task of providing adequate food becomes an increasingly difficult problem. Because the world population continues to expand, more pressure than ever before is being placed on the basic resources that are essential for food production.


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