Thursday, February 14, 2013

Always bringing it back to food... (The Journey Part 5)

I started my final year in the MACS program in September 2012 with a core/required class revisiting the work of Stuart Hall and diving deeper into the layers of cultural studies.  Every chapter of the book we read, Representation, I attempted to find ties to my research within food activism and food spaces.  For some of the assignments it was nearly impossible to find pieces of cultural criticism where someone (or some people) is (are) questioning the politics of representation in the way that the authors do in the Hall book.  It was extremely easy to find data to critique, but the reverse was much more difficult.

I have included here the assignments I was able to relate to food with some critiques of my own work.

Potato or Tomato?
Seacrest, R., Oliver, J., Norris, R., Smith, B., Fresh One Productions., Ryan Seacrest Productions.,
      Channel Ten (Television station), ... American Broadcasting Company. (2010). Jamie Oliver's food 

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is a reality TV show that was created to help bring awareness of the obesity ‘epidemic’ and the involvement of the USDA in the US’s food policies, specifically in the public school system. Jamie Oliver is a celebrity chef from the UK who with his charming British accent, no-nonsense methods and tough love approach sweeps into town with his message of cooking real food, healthily and changing the lives of town members of all ages.

 Due to his celebrity status Oliver has a freedom of
 movement that others may not have and is able to
 challenge the supposed qualifications of USDA health
 officials. He appeals to the universality concept that
 everyone needs to eat, everyone deserves to eat
 healthy food and that food is a highly emotionally
 charged subject. He appeals to the parent who only
 wants the best for their child and draws on empathy
 and commonality to show where change needs to

 However, the show Food Revolution has had a
 profound impact and is changing people’s views of
food and helping to educate people on how to eat healthier, garden and demand policy change for their children and themselves. However, it still appeals to the drama of a reality TV show and to the elitist view of showing the ‘marginal people’ in a voyeuristic manner.portrays ‘marginal characters’ in the same way that Hamilton talks about the clochards. Hamilton states, “Clochards both define the limits of normality and are represented as an integral element of the city’s populace. But even more remarkably, they are represented as a microcosmic community” (Hall, et al., 1997, 129). Jamie Oliver’s show portrays small town Americans in lower socioeconomic status who are significantly overweight/obese and then calls this the ‘new normative’ and states that we have an obesity crises/epidemic in this country. While obese, small town Americans are not necessarily an ‘exotic’, they are a marginalized population and are portrayed as such. Often in southern/southeastern states, speaking with heavy accents and portrayed as not knowing any better and needing to be educated.

This piece on Jamie Oliver makes for great data but is less of a cultural criticism. He is, of course, challenging societal values. 

The American Way of Eating

The American Way of Eating
Tracie McMillan started off by stating that she did not try to offer any actions or changes to the food system through her book, but rather wanted to start a conversation about food and class because everyone want to eat 'good food'. I add the quotes because using the terms 'good food' implies that we have a definition of good food; however, one person's definition of 'good food' may (and most likely DOES) differ from another person's. I had to ask myself after these words were stated, "what is good food"? Our culture has a misconception that the lower socioeconomic bracket population do not think or care about food, yet the reality is that most care more AND spend more on food than those of higher socioeconomic statuses.

There is also the image that a foodie is of an upper class level and snobby about their food; when in reality, it is the woman driving 26 miles round trip for $20 of produce through the Double-up Food Bucks food stamp program in Detroit, Michigan.

One of the slogans of the slow food movement is "vote with your fork", but we fail to recognize that this slogan implies that you vote with your money and those with more money vote more often.

Good food should be like water; we do not question that everyone should have potable drinking water in their home and we should not question this when it comes to food as well. Food decisions are not made solely based on money, but are made based on time, energy and knowledge in mind. Therefore, we need to return to a model of education and recognizing that everyone deserves to have access to good food, eat good food and know what to do with that food.

The goal of this exercise was to have us attend a public lecture of our choosing and interest and tie it back to Stuart Hall principles.  This was one of the first food events I have attended and the lecture was very informative; however, I feel many authors, such as McMillan, are barely scratching the surface of the food issues in our country.  McMillan offers the pieces of the puzzle but does not necessarily pull them together and make the vital connections necessary to see how intertwined and corrupt the food system is.

What the World Eats

What the World Eats
 When you first walked into the exhibit, all you saw were giant pictures of families surrounding piles of food. Next to each larger-than-life photo there was a small tag that broke down the photo – a short bio on the family in the portrait, the country they lived in and how much they spent per week on food. If you cared to stand in front of the picture for a length of time you began to see the small details and the tag told you how much the family spent on each category of food (i.e. meat, dairy, alcohol, etc.). We made a game of finding a Coke product in each photo and were shocked to see that only a few countries did not have a coke product in them.

The photographs displayed were chosen from several of the largest countries and there were many from the book that were not displayed. I am not certain of why some countries were chosen over others.

At the back of the exhibit was a ‘play’ area for kids, where they could ‘shop’ for plastic food items, fill their basket and choose different foods to take to the kitchen set-up within the exhibit for play. Lastly to the side of the primary photographic exhibit was a display of native Washington foods, cooking utensils and hunting/fishing gear. This portion of the exhibit covered the Native Americans living in the Seattle area all the way through the creation of canned goods and current day food culture.

We were invited to look at the pictures and engage with other visitors. According to McDonald (2012), in a review of the exhibit held at the Burke Museum, the exhibit was “creating a rare atmosphere where the visitors learned from each other as well as the photos and that adorned the walls” (retrieved from, October 23, 2012).

While I found the exhibit to be incredibly fascinating and intriguing to be allowed an opportunity to stand at a window and peek into a families’ food life I also felt somewhat empty. I was disappointed that the exhibit did not include any of the short essays from the book from multiple food critics, authors, chefs and other proclaimed food activists. While being a conversation starter the exhibit did not bring the ‘meat’ that the book offered. Another noticeably absent piece was the food itself. I understand that fresh food products (i.e. fruits and veggies) would be challenging to keep in a museum atmosphere, I felt that if there had been other actual food items on display it would have added a depth to the exhibit that would have been more tangible. I appreciated the displays and objects that were created for the local and Native portion of the exhibit, but felt that the exhibit could have been deeper.

There was a symbolic power shown through the larger-than-life photos that encouraged the viewer to not only be invited to gaze upon the people in the picture, but their food as well and then create interpretations. There was a definite feeling of it being a ‘colonial spectacle’, in that there was a discursive formation surrounding power and visibility. We were invited to gaze upon the food in the portraits, but one could not forget that there were people – families – in these photos as well. I found it very telling that the family chosen for the United States was a Black family and featured food that was fast food and overly processed.

I thoroughly enjoy the book and it does sit in a prominent place on my coffee table; however, I recognize the challenges that the exhibit did not display and wonder why they chose to not push the envelope further by providing a greater tactile and engaging exhibit.

Menzel, P., & D'Aluisio, F. (2005). Hungry planet: What the world eats. Napa, Calif: Material World Press.

Essence of Cooking Shows

The chapter on Genre and Gender (in Representation) opens with a statement that stuck with me for the entire reading; Gledhill states, “…All social practices – whether reading newspapers and magazines visiting museums, shopping for clothes – take place within representation and are saturated with meanings and values which contribute to our sense of who we are – our culturally constructed identities” (p. 339). It is through our interactions with each other and with our environment that shapes the world we construct for ourselves and how we relate to this world through our identity. One of the profound influences that we construct our identity through and with is through media.

Gledhill’s critique focuses on that of the soap opera and the fictionalized representation of supposed everyday life events. She discusses how central fiction is to everyday life and the way that soap opera applies ‘real’ life events to that of the fictional life of soap opera characters. Another critique is the stereotype of soap operas as being primarily for women and even if men are watching soaps they would be reluctant to admit it. She discusses how Stuart Hall implies “that even the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’…are in fact cultural signifiers which construct rather than reflect gender definitions, meanings and identities” (p. 346).

What about other media forms that portray these fictionalized representations of the everyday life and allow either an escape for people or an idealized lifestyle to attain? There are numerous shows on vast networks that offer a wide variety of daytime, evening, primetime and other shows to multiple ethnicities, genders and ages, but there is one network that offers an interesting dichotomy of portraying ‘reality’ while also offering a fictionalized view and a consumerist agenda: The Food Network.

Ketchum (2005) describes how the Food Network has created a “consumer fantasy world for its viewers” and “creates a sense of pleasurable intimacy through host performances and the use of careful production conventions” – a realization of commodity fantasies through the advertising and programming used (217). She goes on to argue how the Food Network uses fantasy, carefully placed products and artfully constructed advertisements directly related to the products used in the programs to create a system that sustains consumer capitalism. Through this consumption and capitalist space the serious issues surrounding food are left by the wayside and do not enter into the perfectly lit and clean set kitchens.

There is also a gendering of the programs shown on The Food Network – men are the ones primarily leading the cooking shows that are held in front of a live audience with ‘action’ shots (i.e. boiling water, chopping) and a well-lit, but not ‘soft’ glow studio kitchen; they often feature the appliances they are using in more ‘industrial’ ways. The women-led programs tend to be lit softly with more intimate shots, that remind one of sitting at a barstool on the other side of the counter while the woman is cooking; and lastly the consistent use of the term ‘you’. This adds that intimate touch that makes the viewer feel as though Martha Stewart is actually speaking to you.

The Food Network offers programs that invite the viewer to sample foods they might never try by going to their website and printing out the recipes of the chefs who they were watching mere moments before. The Food Network also invites the viewer to travel to the places featured in exotic locations through food travel and connect to the chefs featured in the shows through buying their products, cooking their food and creating the experience portrayed on the show(s).

These food fantasies are limiting to the viewer though as the ability to buy the products featured on the shows is not possible for every viewer and therefore the effort to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality is at risk of collapsing.

Ketchum, C. (January 01, 2005). The Essence of Cooking Shows: How the Food Network Constructs
      Consumer Fantasies. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 29, 3, 217-234.
Essence of Cooking Shows by rtomczek (I apologize you cannot read through the highlighting! If you download the article from Scribd you can read through my highlighted portions)

I would like to work more on how I see the Ketchum article extending or developing the Gledhill chapter. Adding a little more of my own cultural criticism of the cultural criticism! How does the genre of food show work ideologically, for example? What does Ketchum say, even?

This course really challenged me to look more critically at the data presented to the general public and those pieces more academically related, even more so it challenged me to critique the critique and continually push to gain greater understanding versus taking what is being stated at face value.  If the MACS program has taught me anything it is to question everything and everything is problematic!

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