I was having a little pity party last week. I was the host and only guest.
Minor surgery left me laid up. So I spent another Spring Break having a staycation; plans for a road trip got nixed at the 11th hour when it was clear that the recovery was going to take a little longer than expected.
(You know when you’re on a hiking trail and the sign says: Allow four hours for this walk. And you think: “I’ll do it in two hours tops.” That was my mind-set on post-op healing estimates. Turns out, where incisions and anesthesia are concerned, such an approach isn’t recommended. You only set yourself up for disappointment.)
How to get myself out of misery mode? A lecture at the University of California, Berkeley by Gastronomica editor in chief Darra Goldstein was just the ticket I needed to transport me away from my aches and pains and into the world of food and ideas.
Goldstein, in town to attend a couple of Gastronomica-related events timed for the publication’s 10th anniversary, was new to me, as was the journal she founded.
Published quarterly by UC Press, the elegant (and exxy, at $13 a pop) magazine melds food and culture in an eclectic mix of scholarly essays, fiction, poetry, and arresting visuals.
This latest issue includes a provocative piece on the dearth of great women chefs, a forum on food porn, photos of pristine Portuguese pastries, a discussion of chocolate and terroir, a story on Sudenese cuisine, a moving memoir about one man’s mother and her white diet, and an essay on poet Sylvia Plath’s passion for food. And there’s still more.
Gastronomica is a place, says Goldstein, to examine both the deeper and darker sides of food, and use food for thought to provoke readers to seriously contemplate what goes on their plate. But it’s not heavy handed: Goldstein knows how to play and have fun with her food too.
In the past the journal has covered parrot-eating in the Renaissance, the cultural ramifications of the Atkins diet, genetically modified foods in Zambia, the ethics of eating apes, and the eating habits of hefty sumo wrestlers in Japan. Quirky, even eccentric, stuff.
When Goldstein isn’t polishing manuscripts she teaches Russian history at Williams College in Massachusetts. She’s lived in Russia, studied in Helsinki, and traveled all over the globe pursuing her professorial and personal inquiry into food. Oh, and she’s written four cookbooks, won awards, and researched the culinary origins of cutlery, too.
My colleague Dianne Jacob, who first brought this discussion to my attention, says she wants to BE Darra Goldstein. (You can find her take on the talk here, pink bathrobe and all. Pink? Not what I would have pictured.)
I’d settle with having Darra as a brilliant best friend. Over the course of a couple of hours she covered a lot of ground, geographically and intellectually, regarding food, culture, and identity, in conversation with sociology professor Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.
What I loved most, and helped me see beyond my own front door, was Goldstein’s take on topics where I felt sure I knew what she was going to say and yet, each and every time, she surprised me.
A half-dozen highlights:
- Eating at the table, something both vital and universal to all of us regardless of color, creed, or religion, would seem a simple way to forge friendly ties among uneasy ethnic communities. Right? Not necessarily so, given Goldstein’s experience editing Culinary Cultures of Europe, which features writers from 45 countries weighing in on how food might encourage tolerance and diversity, coupled with her hands-on involvement in Israel on a meal-making project designed to promote tolerance between Israelis and Palestinians. Who knew that the origins of the falafel — a delicious fast food sold the world over — could be so complex and foment so much distrust? Is this chickpea patty an Arab or Israeli creation? As Goldstein tells it, what one person may see as culinary adoption or assimilation another may view as cultural appropriation.
- Watching McDonald’s set up shop in developing nations is always bad, yes? Hold that preconceived notion, cautions Goldstein. In Russia before Macca’s showed up restaurant culture was dirty, dismal, virtually non-existent, and the service was surly. The much-maligned American conglomerate created farms to supply their Soviet burger joints. It was good for the economy. Russians flocked to the Golden Arches for decent food, served in a friendly, clean, and efficient fashion. Not long after, national pride saw Russia spawn some fast food shacks of their own.
- Everyone should jump on the locavore bandwagon, natch? Local food sourcing is a fine flag for Californians to fly, given our super long growing season, but Goldstein lives in the New England Berkshires. If she chose the close-to-home-only route she’d be living on rutabagas and turnips all winter long.
- Globally, the locavore movement can have a devastating impact on economies dependent on agricultural exports. Take Georgia, a nation the food scholar knows well, since she lived there for several years. When Russia placed a ban on Georgian food imports the Georgian GNP dropped a devastating 75 percent, Goldstein says. Further, she argues, locavorism can be seen as an extreme form of fear-driven reverse NIMBYism, and speaks to Americans’ compulsion for safety and security around what they eat, along with other aspects of life.
- The famous French saying, tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are, penned by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825, may sound trite today, but there’s truth to it as well. Choosing vegetarianism is often an individual’s first significant assertion of independence, offers Goldstein by way of example. (So my mum was right. But what will my son do come adolescence: Start eating steak?)
- In terms of cultural connections, language is lost long before the last vestiges of food ways are forgotten in an ethnic group, so closely is eating tied to identity.
There was talk, too, of Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on the French phenomenon Le Fooding, which Gopnik didn’t seem to understand so it was a bit lost on me (I read the article post event). Still, it was a fascinating peek into the French food world’s psyche nonetheless.
Also a nod to Corby Kummer’s story in The Atlantic, The Great Grocery Smackdown, which asks whether — gasp! — Walmart and not Whole Foods can save the small farm and make Americans healthy. Can you guess what conclusions he comes to?
Quite a lot to digest during a scant two hours, over lunch, no less.
I left the event with a full belly and brain, grateful to live in this Gown Town, and thankful to Goldstein for taking me on an international, educational, epicurean tour, just five minutes from home.
Photo of Darra Goldstein by Kevin Kennefick
This post also appears on Civil Eats.