Consuming the Nation: Tasting beyond the Palate

Consuming the Nation: Tasting beyond the Palate

Melissa L. Caldwell

What does a nation taste like? This is a question that has long preoccupied me, both in my professional life as a scholar of food and in my personal life as someone who enjoys trying new dishes, especially when I travel. This question has been especially provocative for me this summer as my family and I returned home from a holiday abroad just in time to celebrate the American holiday of Independence Day (Fourth of July). While we were traveling, I found myself explaining to my five-year-old daughter that it was important to try foods from the places we were visiting. As she noticed, everything tasted and looked differently, even the fruits, milk, and noodle dishes that resembled the ones we consume at home. After we arrived back to the United States, we then discussed why we were eating the foods that we were for our Fourth of July picnic. How could a hamburger be a no-no when we were in Thailand but a necessity for a holiday barbecue at home? Why were grilled corn on the cob and potato salad essential accompaniments to our picnic – and to picnics of millions of other Americans?

Beyond talking about the various dishes and their flavours, aromas, colours, and textures, the bigger questions lurking beneath our discussions had to do with the idea that foods convey experiences of place, time, and occasion. Most notably, when comparing the foods we ate when we were abroad and when we were at home, we were considering the many ways in which foods were vessels for containing and expressing national experiences and identities, both cultural and political. As my daughter was learning, food was not simply a utilitarian object and we were not simply taking nutrients into our bodies. Rather, we were consuming and interacting with deep histories and values and then situating those histories and values within particular geopolitical orders.

These are not merely intellectual issues, however, but are central to the very practical choices made every day by eaters throughout the world. When wine and cheese aficionados make their selections deliberately in order to experience the terroir of particular landscapes – Italian, French, South African, Australian, Chilean, among others – they are engaging directly with culinary and environmental histories of specific settings that are typically presented in national terms. For homesick emigrants and travellers far from their families and native cultures, familiar foods offer possibilities for experiencing, even if only momentarily, one’s national origins.

What is it about food that makes nations and national cultures come alive in immediate and tangible ways?

As anthropologist David Sutton has described in his research on food cultures in Greece (2001), it is food’s capacity to evoke sensory experiences, often in overlapping ways that makes food such a powerful trigger for cultural experiences. As a result, the combination of the multiple sensory registers of taste, sight, smell, touch, and sound evoked by food makes possible forms of place-making that are viscerally created and experienced.

Yet it is more than the sensory aesthetics of food that enables eaters’ interactions and experiences with national cultures. In even more visceral and profound ways, the nation becomes inscribed and embedded in the most intimate spaces of people’s bodies far beneath the skin and further along the alimentary system beyond the palate.

Nations have long paid careful attention to the foods that their citizens consume. In Russia, where I have conducting research since the early 1990s, nation-state-citizen relations have long played out through food practices (Caldwell 2002). During the pre-Soviet Imperial period, state policies for both demarcating the boundaries of the nation and fostering multicultural diversity were promoted through the values and roles assigned to foods. Foods from across the Russian Empire’s vast territory and reflecting incredibly diverse ethnic and religious communities were officially incorporated into the “national” cuisine as a way of celebrating the nation’s internal resources, bounties, and treasures. Dumplings, teas, butter, garlic, walnuts, and rhubarb, among many other foods, moved through the country’s trade networks, binding citizens together both economically and gastronomically (Mack and Surina 2005; Smith 2008; Toomre 1992). Some foods even found their way into museums as heritage objects to be preserved and protected or were transformed into state gifts given by royal leaders and government officials to high-ranking visitors.

Through such practices, foods and food experiences were formally turned into official markers of national distinctiveness, thereby symbolising and expressing national communities and qualities for both domestic and foreign audiences.

As the example of Imperial Russia shows, food was foundational to the creation of the Russian nation. More importantly, food was what nurtured and strengthened the distinctively Russian bodies that built the Russian nation. For leaders and ordinary people alike in the Russian Empire and later in the Soviet-era Russian state, the physical bodies of individual people – and most notably their stomachs – were themselves the repositories and boundaries of the nation and its interests and values.

By the late nineteenth century, the need for the Russian Empire to firm up and protect its national borders was increasingly promoted through state concern with the fortification of its citizens’ bodies, with particular attention to their digestive systems. Collectively, government agents, biomedical scientists, social hygienists, physicians, and other health authorities focused on reforming Russian digestive hygiene through information and proscriptions of proper diets. French foods were often targeted as especially problematic for inflaming Russian stomachs, while more traditional Russian foods, such as cabbage and yogurt were promoted as soothing and protective.

More than one hundred years later, these same ideas about the nationally unique predilections and sensitivities of digestive systems were evident in a series of travel articles that were geared toward Russian tourists traveling abroad, both to help them find foods that were comforting to their jetlagged bodies and to facilitate their efforts to experience the local culture through adventurous – but safe – culinary explorations.

At home, Russian consumers express preferences for foods that they colloquially call “Nash” or “Ours.” These are foods that are grown and produced within Russia, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables that are grown in Russian soil and meats and dairy products that come from animals raised on Russian soil. For Russian consumers, terroir, or the taste of the region, is not simply a sensory aesthetic but a biological reality as the nation’s soil, water, and air impart distinctive values of nutrition, healthfulness, purity, and safety to their consumers. Discerning eaters claim that they can recognize an authentically Russian-made product not just with their taste buds but also with the responses of their digestive tracts. Parents and grandparents advise feeding children fresh produce still laden with dirt in order to strengthen their bodies with ecologically and culturally appropriate foods.

Just like in Russia, today throughout the world, national concerns with strong bodies and strong citizens play out through nutritional policies that advocate particular foods and discourage – or prohibit – others. A quintessential American piece of nutritional knowledge is the Food Pyramid; with it’s ranking of recommended servings of different food groups sorted among grains, meats, dairy, fruits and vegetables. Drawing on this arrangement of nutrients, the federal government advocates eating particular combinations of foods to build strong, healthy bodies that will support the national labour force and economy. Americans with a rebellious streak – also a quintessential national characteristic – rework the food pyramid in creative ways to emphasize more desirable foods – chocolate, wine, cheese, among other more pleasurable items – for different bodily aesthetics and experiences.

American First Lady Michelle Obama’s push for a garden on the White House lawn and in schools around the country is part of another civic emphasis on using particular foods and food philosophies to cultivate distinctively national bodies. In a different register, local governments across the U.S. have implemented limits on particular foods and food experiences – for instance, sodium, trans-fats, and non-food fillers, among other “undesirable” elements – in order to reshape the external and internal qualities of its citizens’ bodies. When local and federal governments ban soda sales and the inclusion of toys in children’s fast food meals, while simultaneously implementing policies to include more fruits and vegetables in school lunches, they are also actively cultivating new civic values deep in the bodies of their citizens.

When national entities cast their gaze and extend their reach beyond factory floors, farm stalls, and store shelves to the digestive and metabolic systems of consumers, then they are also inserting themselves directly into the micro-biomes and micro-bio-politics of their citizens. The micro-flora that live inside our guts are then both the products of national heritage and the entities that enable our bodies to engage with that national heritage. When we move our gaze away from foods on plates to the inner workings of our stomachs, it becomes clear that how we experience a food at its most visceral level – whether we can digest it and enjoy it, or not – is a form of national engagement, or disengagement.

If we consider how eaters interact with food beyond the shelf and the palate and instead ponder questions of digestibility, the question of “what does a nation taste like” becomes more profound and provocative. What nations taste like and whether that taste is “good” or “bad” is in fact a matter not of palatability but of digestibility and location, both geographical and corporeal.

 

References
Caldwell, Melissa L. 2002. “The Taste of Nationalism: Food Politics in Post socialist Moscow.” Ethnos 67(3): 295-319.
Mack, Glenn R., and Asele Surina. 2005. Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Smith, Alison K. 2008. Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
Sutton, David E. 2001. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
Toomre, Joyce. 1992. “Introduction.” In Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives, trans. Joyce Toomre, Pp. 3-89. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

Melissa L. Caldwell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (USA) and editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies.

Photo credit: Copyright Andrew G. Baker, 2010

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