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Book reviews 2022

Book review of Fabio Parasecoli’s Gastronativism

Jenny L. Herman

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Gastronativism : Food, Identity, Politics, Fabio Parasecoli; ISBN: 978-0-231-20207-7, Columbia University Press, New York, 2022.

1Released at an extremely timely moment, Fabio Parasecoli’s Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics undertakes the immense challenge of illuminating the intricate, shifting, and often troubling socio-political landscape which gives rise to his coined titular term ‘gastronativism’. Today a professor of Food Studies at New York University, Parasecoli’s earlier background in journalism shows through in the accessible, engaging tone of Gastronativism, written with an intentionally jargon-light style to draw in wider audiences. Beyond this, the skillful blend of storytelling to introduce new sections and the implementation of culinary anecdotes adds a conversational tone which renders this work pleasantly digestible. Nevertheless, the political terminology (thankfully defined for the non-initiated) is heavily present, leading one to believe a more appropriate ordering of the book’s subtitle could be ‘politics, identity, food’ rather than the inverse. Parasecoli’s passion for the political transmits the impression of a genuine concern and eventual call-to-action concerning today’s increasing hostile instrumentalization of culinary practices as tools for inclusion or exclusion.

2Divided into four main parts, Gastronativism first proposes the author’s definition and delineation of two main types of gastronativism in Part 1, moves towards a broad introduction and unpacking of the symbolic uses of food in its connection with identity and power relations in Part 2, arrives to address the more global contexts of food, be it through trade, diplomacy, or nation-building in Part 3, finally examining hyper-contemporary topics in food such as connections with migration and even the Covid-19 pandemic in Part 4. Through a well-justified interdisciplinary approach including media and cultural studies, political theory, food studies and an application of economics, this work attempts to define and draw attention to the polarizing power of food (p.19). Does Gastronativism achieve its goal of presenting a ‘birds- eye view’ of a global phenomenon, and what does it contribute to the still-nascent corpus of a food studies canon?

3To begin, Parasecoli sets the scene with several overt examples linking food and xenophobia, focusing, as elsewhere in the book, on the context in Italy, China, the U.S., India, and Poland: regions where the author has either lived or carried out extensive research. We quickly see one of the primary themes of the book presented, that today’s ‘gastronativism’ is deeply driven by anxieties springing from neoliberal globalization, felt across the globe. Looking to the blending of borders, the pressures of international free trade, and mass displacement of populations, Parasecoli identifies gastronativistic movements as responses, even resistances towards the instability spurred by our social circumstances, and the perceived erasure of culinary traditions by new, blended, ways of life. While the author notes that food has been linked with power dynamics throughout history, such as a call to boycott the consumption of sauerkraut in the U.S. during WWII, or again with the rebranding of French fries as ‘freedom fries’ during the Iraq War (pp 6-7), special attention is placed upon the representative power of food today, and its power to signal “us” vs. “them.” Food studies scholars may question the difference between Parasecoli’s ‘gastronativism’ and the more widely-known term ‘gastronationalism.’ He delineates that while related, gastronationalism is inextricably linked to nation, while defining gastronativism as “the ideological use of food in politics to advance ideas about who belongs in a community...and who doesn’t” (p.9). While the use of the term ‘nativism’ may present a slightly confusing choice of terms, we see that the word mostly implicates the idea of who is considered a rightful member of a group, and who is not. The role of technology, especially digital media, is emphasized in facilitating the functioning of gastronativism, given its ability to join together ideological groups which may or may not be rooted in the same physical location (another difference with gastro-nationalism). This idea of ‘delocalization’ is interestingly attached both to the way that gastronativist initiatives spread (digitally, for instance) and a primary source of tension which spurs them on- the loss of well-defined locality, be it regarding the origins of people or the products they consume. These often invisible social tensions, for Parasecoli, are fundamental drivers for the two types of gastronativism he proposes, which, along with neoliberal capitalism and globalization, are thematic pillars for the arguments in this book.

4Relying on foundational works on nationalism, such as Benedict Anderson’s 1983 volume, Imagined Communities, Parasecoli builds upon the idea of individuals building community (in the sense of a nation) with the type of belonging which is possible today, thanks to digital media. Solidarities built among virtual strangers who nonetheless share a sense of value-based, or location-based or even generation-based community, form groups which may respond to current socio-economic anxieties either in a reactionary or resistant manner. What does this look like? Parasecoli identifies ‘exclusionary’ gastronativism, which he considers the more common varietal, as aiming to defend privileges which are perceived as threatened, and attempting to anchor the present with nostalgia-based calls to protect tradition (much like culinary nationalism). On the other hand, he also acknowledges ‘nonexclusionary’ gastronativism, which, rather than seeking to highlight difference or isolate certain groups, instead relies on grassroots movements that aim to protect biodiversity, support food sovereignty, and foster greater food access. Both forms of gastronativism may engage with or stem from either top-down or bottom-up heritage making, sometimes even forming collaborative paths between the two.

5This volume tends to essentialize the two types of proposed gastronativism, somewhat problematically, along the familiar binary of conservativism and progressivism, thus overlooking important facets of middle ground which could also provide much-needed terrain for compromise. Aligning exclusionary gastronativism with the likes of Trump serving fast food at the white house, Italians handing out free polenta while decrying supposedly-migrant couscous, and Japanese citizens avoiding untrusted gyoza imports from China, this book somewhat overlooks the reactionary tendencies also running through the political left. Likewise, this work associates nonexclusionary gastronativism with farm-to-fork organizations like Slow Food and well-meaning “upwardly mobile cosmopolitan foodies” (p. 18) who interest themselves in the foodways of other cultures, all while decrying the ills of globalization. Consider the locavore movement, which reached record levels during the Covid-19 pandemic (Rapport Ministère de l’agriculture et de l’alimentation 2021) due to both failures in the global food system (p.149) and cautionary sentiments stemming from increased concern about origin, which rendered ‘buying local’ a political act. Consumers favoring organic lifestyles and short supply chains may unwittingly exclude non-local market merchants or perceived-outsiders, by favoring what they see as more ‘pure,’ ‘local’ or ‘authentic’ products, which hold higher ethical and cultural value. Among these seemingly left-leaning consumers, however, a wide socio-political gray zone also exists. On the other hand, Parasecoli does highlight the perplexing support that financially-struggling farmers, for example, might foster for conservative politicians whose narratives encompass themes of tradition and pastoralism, all while further marginalizing this demographic. In reproducing a polarized binary between exclusionary and nonexclusionary gastronativism this work in some ways, contributes to a widening political rift along which many of these tensions can be traced. These somewhat paradoxical elements of food and identity are highlighted in this text’s discussions on topics like culinary tourism, culinary heritagization (i.e. through UNESCO), and the intricacies of navigating between culinary appreciation and (often racialized) culinary appropriation (p.123; p.50). Significantly, however, Parasecoli also leaves dualism behind by questioning the concept of national foods, instead emphasizing the importance of deconstructing selective historical narratives, embracing hybridizations, and encouraging shared valorization (pp.114-115).

  • 1 Illaria Porciani, editor. Food Heritage and Nationalism in Europe. Routledge, 2019.
  • 2 Chiara Bortolotto. “Commercialization without over-commercialization : normative conundrums across (...)
  • 3 Parasecoli, Fabio. Knowing Where it Comes From: Labeling Traditional Foods to Compete in a Global M (...)
  • 4 Clause Fischler. "Food, Self and Identity", Social Science Information 27(2):275-292. 1988.

6Through the breadth of this polymathic study, Parasecoli impressively illustrates to readers the importance of considering the phenomenon of gastronativism holistically. While some of the issues raised in Gastronativism parallel those presented in the 2019 publication Food Heritage and Nationalism in Europe, for which Parasecoli was also a contributing author1, and while more specific analyses exist on food heritage in relation to organizations such as UNESCO,2 or further address questions related to products of origin,3 Gastronativism occupies a unique niche and offers a fresh contribution to the growing field of food studies. Concepts drawn from social scientist Claude Fischler’s ‘omnivore’s paradox’ 4resonate throughout this work, to make sense of our human drives for both gustatory novelty and of repulsion. These drives can both be linked to the community-building element which is central to gastronativism, but could also perhaps be wielded positively to build cross-cultural understanding and tolerance. While the intention of Gastronativism seems to be more one of raising awareness than of proposing solutions, Parasecoli’s final message seems to be one of hope, to be carried out by education, deconstruction, and exploration. This volume provides great resources, both through its content and its rich bibliography encompassing trade, food studies, political journalism, and heritage studies, and will provide an enlightening read for food studies students, scholars, and even those “cosmopolitan gastronomes” (p.87) among whom many of us likely figure.

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Bibliography

BORTOLOTTO C. 2020. “Commercialization without over-commercialization: normative conundrums across heritage rationalities”, International Journal of Heritage Studies.

FISCHLER C. 1988. "Food, Self and Identity", Social Science Information 27(2):275-292.

PAPA C. 2021. “Les Produits de terroir et politiques de la différence.”Anthropology of Food. S16. DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.11818

PARASECOLI F. 2017. Knowing Where It Comes From: Labeling Traditional Foods to Compete in a Global Market. Iowa city: University of Iowa Press.

PORCIANI I. (ed.) 2019. Food Heritage and Nationalism in Europe. London: Routledge.

Rapport n° 20074, “Les Produits Locaux”, Ministère de l’agriculture et de l’alimentation, Janvier 2021.

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Notes

1 Illaria Porciani, editor. Food Heritage and Nationalism in Europe. Routledge, 2019.

2 Chiara Bortolotto. “Commercialization without over-commercialization : normative conundrums across heritage rationalities”, International Journal of Heritage Studies. 2020.

3 Parasecoli, Fabio. Knowing Where it Comes From: Labeling Traditional Foods to Compete in a Global Market (University of Iowa Press, 2017). ; Christina Papa. “Les Produits de terroir et politiques de la différence.”Anthropology of Food. S16, 2021. DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.11818

4 Clause Fischler. "Food, Self and Identity", Social Science Information 27(2):275-292. 1988.

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References

Electronic reference

Jenny L. Herman, Book review of Fabio Parasecoli’s GastronativismAnthropology of food [Online], Book reviews, Online since 02 October 2022, connection on 06 December 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/aof/13844; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.13844

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About the author

Jenny L. Herman

FWO Doctoral Fellow in Fundamental Research, Literary Theory & Cultural Studies- KU LeuvenEn22 September 2022

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Copyright

CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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