Sunday, March 31, 2013

Dragon Fruit & National Identity

This past Friday, I found myself at our semi-annual Anthropology Symposium here on campus, where fellow Anthropology students have the opportunity to present both longer research papers and brief, innovative projects or proposals. One of my classmates, Mae, shared a portion of her thesis about the role of dragon fruit in Vietnam, where they are considered to be a staple item of both the local diet and culture, despite having originated in Central America. Through this presentation, I was most struck by her discussion of how this fruit that has become local, though foreign in origin,  has substantial political, economic, historical and symbolic value, all of which contribute to the identity of its Vietnamese consumers. I found Mae's presentation to exemplify the goal of this blog: to illustrate how food and the movements surrounding its production and consumption contribute to both individual and communal senses of identity.

According to Mae's presentation, not only is this precious dragon fruit representative of the contested relations between Vietnam and China, but it also represens both a point of commonality between the two neighboring nations and a symbol of authentic Vietnamese identity. This contradictory yet dually purposeful role of dragon fruit, as highlighted by Mae, is exemplified in grocery store observations, where the color of the inside of dragon fruits (Chinese red or Vietnamese white) is hotly debated and where customers reveal their trust in dragon fruit, for it is surely authentically Vietnamese and undoubtedly free of chemicals that may have been injected in foreign fruits. While Vietnam competes with China in the fruit market, the dragon fruit seems to contribute to the Vietnamese national identity by both straddling the border between these two countries and yet continuing to be labeled as securely Vietnamese.

These roles played by dragon fruit as a symbol of Vietnamese food values with political, economic, social and historical implications not only secure the fruit as a local food, as argued by Mae, but also seem to contribute to a national identity, further solidifying what is perceived to be Vietnamese, and what is not. Mae's presentation of her research reaffirmed in my mind just how crucial a role food can play in the formation and reinforcement of identity on both an individual level, for those grocery store customers reinforcing their nationalism by selecting a fruit they believe to be truly local and therefore safe, and on a national level, as the dragon fruit symbolizes the nation's past and present relations with neighboring China. After listening to Mae's presentation, it seems clearer to me than ever before that we truly are what we eat.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

To Meat or Not To Meat? Vegetarianism in Morocco & Beyond

In light of my recent review of Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and its prevalent appearance in class discussions, I’ve chosen to explore the topic of vegetarianism for this post, but within the context of traveling abroad. Many college students, myself included, choose to spend a semester studying abroad in order to gain cross-cultural experience and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to the physical world. When I left for Morocco last winter, I didn’t anticipate that so many of my peers would a) be vegetarian and b) struggle as much as they did with the beliefs and practices at the core of this life decision. While in our seminar we largely focus on contemporary food activism in a very American setting, it is important to relate these discussions to the world at large, on scales ranging from the state to individual levels.

As a non-vegetarian, I came into this class hoping to be more exposed to the varying arguments as to why different people choose to remove meat from their plates. What I’ve noticed between this experience and my travels to North Africa is that meat eaters like me are just as lacking in knowledge about vegetarianism as some vegetarians seem to be about how meat eating is practiced abroad, specifically in the developing world. While there are hundreds of articles and blogs speaking to the ways in which vegetarianism can save the world like this one or this one, as well as those adamantly against this proposition like this one or this one, there are also those examining how vegetarianism might become a reality given the current nature of global food systems. However, many of these pieces fail to address the specific significance of meat within the cultural context of these developing nations, for meat eating contributes as much to their identities as it does to those of people who choose to avoid it.

In numerous developing countries including Morocco, meat is viewed as a luxury good, and to refuse to consume it may be insulting. For this reason, many of my peers chose to ditch their vegetarian practices while abroad in order to better immerse themselves in the Moroccan culture, in which meat eating is a crucial and symbolic part of daily life. My 40 year-old host sister, for example, told me a story of the last student her family hosted and how she refused to be in the house at the end of Ramadan, which is marked by the slaughter of a goat, let alone consume the grand sacrifice. For this reason, she believed that the girl was strange, disrespectful, and rude. Not only did many Moroccans simply not understand when one of my peers tried to explain that they did not eat meat for reasons aside from allergies, but such a conversation, as I personally witnessed, instantly created a sort of barrier between these Americans and Moroccans.

From doing some informal searches around the internet, it seems as though many budding travelers may not grasp the concept that vegetarianism is not a universally held lifestyle, evidenced by forum posts like this one. That being said, enough travelers have recognized that traveling abroad with the baggage of a vegetarian identity in tow is enough of a defining characteristic to specifically plan around when traveling. There are dozens of tips for traveling as a vegetarian like this one circling around the web, providing non-meat eating travelers like my Morocco-bound peers with tips on how to handle new environments with different perceptions of meat eating. While some of my friends chose to abandon this lifestyle as a way to better comprehend Moroccan dietary and social habits, others stuck to their guns and saw discussions surrounding meat eating as opportunities to expose Moroccans to a different way of approaching food. Ultimately, instances of vegetarian travelers in largely meat-eating developing countries illuminates a broader concept of how we have to consciously think about our own identities as consumers before traveling abroad, where our choices of what's on our plates might be brought into question.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Seeking: Man who enjoys long walks on the beach and driving a tractor

In thinking of Dodge's now famous Superbowl advertisement connecting simple (and notably white, male, Christian) farmers with the need for a practical truck, I attempted in a former post to unpack the idealized identity of farmers as classic and necessary American workers. I was reminded of this captivating, eyebrow-raising commercial and the identity it so blatantly sought to make appealing to all viewers today when a commercial for a farmers-only dating site, transparently known as, popped onto the television screen as also caught my eye.

The trademark of the site is "City folks just don't get it!," which illuminates the idea that these people have created a firm sense of identity that is strong enough to allow them to 'other' those not working with the land. This is confirmed by the citation below, appearing in small text beneath dozens of images of farmers, putting faces to the identity they advertise:

We exist because, the way we see it, there are basically two groups in America. Group one revolves around four dollar cups of coffee, taxi cabs, blue suits, and getting ahead at all costs in the corporate world. If you fall into this group then FarmersOnly is not where you want to be dating online. There are plenty of hard to trust dating sites out there for ya though! Group two enjoys blue skies, living free and at peace in wide open spaces, raising animals, and appreciating nature. We understand the meaning of Southern hospitality, even if we don't all live in the South. This group makes up America's Heartland – the slice of America with good old fashioned traditional values, values that were never lost by the farmers of our country. These values have also been preserved by the cowboys and cowgirls who still live on the edge, nature lovers who don’t take the outdoors for granted even though it is free, and horse lovers, ag students, and other animal lovers

In the original commercial appearing six years ago, advertisers used farm animals with speaking parts and the imagery of a pretty woman and handsome man on separate farms to attract those with similar lifestyles and priorities. The commercial that struck me as being highly similar to the Dodge commercial, however, was only released one month ago and features the same simplistic format and voiceover style as its muse. The site and its unique commercials have also prompted interviews, both with participants who have found love and outsiders questioning the site's approach.

So what does this commercial mean? What does it have to do with new food activism? For one thing, this ad and the site in general, especially with the attention it has been given not only by users but also by curious outsiders, reinforces the idea that a career and lifestyle as a farmer is becoming increasingly desirable alongside the 'back to the land' movement sweeping across the country. There are so many young people across the nation who love the land enough to quit big corporate jobs and turn to farming despite their impressive college degrees, so why not find love on the basis of loving the land? Both the Dodge commercial and FarmersOnly are clearly trying to capitalize on the idealization and romanticism of becoming closer to the land and the source of one's food that plays a large part in contemporary food activism.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Buying the 'Local'

For the past few weeks, many of our class discussions have found their way back to the central topic of the strong contemporary desire to consume locally, as a means of pushing back against corporate agriculture and environmentally unfriendly consumption of products being imported or shipped across the country. We've spoken to representatives from our dining services here at Tufts and from a local farm, all of whom mentioned the importance of consciously seeking out local produce and facilitating the connection between producer and consumer as best as possible.

This morning, a certain television commercial caught my attention and invoked a sense of 'local' again in my mind, but from a different angle. This ad was sponsored by Miracle-Gro, showcasing its new "Groables" product. As the commercial states, these easy-to-use pods are perfect for those who are either too inexperienced or, to be frank, too lazy to grow plants the traditional way; they make planting as least labor-intensive as possible.

 So what does a product like this indicate about the current state of food activism? For starters, as mentioned in a previous post, the last decade or so has been dominated by a "back to the land" movement in which many consumers are trading in their canned or imported foods for fresh, local products, especially those whose labels read "organic." The decision and ability to consume locally becomes part of an individual's identity as someone demonstrating his/her personal awareness of choices made pertaining to food, accompanied by the joining of a growing (pun intended) community of self-proclaimed "foodies."

The epitome of consuming locally comes in the form of gardening, because it allows a consumer to be as close to the food to be consumed as physically possible. This sense of 'local,' accompanied by the desire to distance oneself from the capitalist corporations behind agribusiness, has unfortunately been captured by companies like Miracle-Gro. In transforming the idea of growing locally into an industry, evidenced by the sales of products like "Groables," major companies like Miracle-Gro are capitalizing on the desire of many Americans to identify with the consumption of local food. There are upscale "Grow Your Own" shops, expensive workshops focused on how to create a sustainable home garden, and dozens of highly-grossing gardening magazines that have turned the 'local' into a national industry. Ultimately, the corporate, capitalist-driven industry that has given way to disgruntled consumers seeking to go back to the land themselves has managed to exploit the very consumers seeking to avoid them at all costs.