Critical Perspectives in Food Studies intervenes in the burgeoning field of food studies, arguing that this “interdiscipline” needs a critical perspective, which the editors define as “developing a deeply inquiring attitude, analytic capacity, and research skills” (xiii). To that end, leading scholars from throughout Canada have contributed essays with the goal of creating an introductory textbook for faculty and students. The reader consists of 22 essays, which are organized around five themes: the changing meaning of food and food studies, analytical perspectives on food studies, crises and challenges in the food system, challenging food governance, and, finally, food for the future. The topics and approaches range across traditional disciplinary boundaries, and the authors provide descriptive, interpretive, and critical perspectives from the humanities and social sciences.
The decision to use a “big tent” to provide a critical perspective on an emerging field and a textbook creates both strengths and weaknesses. Many important topics, such as food consumption and social relations, the nutrition transition, global governance, and localized agriculture production, are covered. As promised by the editors, key concepts and controversies of the contemporary food system are addressed. The authors’ use of original research to illustrate broader topics allows each essay to provide a glimpse of the innovative food scholarship being produced in Canada. Each essay concludes with annotated suggestions for further reading. The authors clearly followed a general template for their essays, but disciplinary conventions lead to wide variations in both form and content, including research strategies, forms of argumentation and interpretation, and writing styles. In a sense, Critical Perspectives in Food Studies accurately reflects this particular moment in the emergence of a scholarly field: this offering is a true potluck, with dishes of all types, served in vessels large and small, made using a family recipe or an invented tradition, with no unifying set of rules or conventions.
For an advanced scholar or teacher interested in developing a broad, interdisciplinary introductory course in food studies or food systems, Critical Perspectives in Food Studies brings together excellent overviews that can provide a map of the territory for course development. The perspectives of a variety of disciplines on topics that intersect with food, especially gender, hunger, industrialization, and capitalism, will help broaden understandings of the food system. Important new research and publications will be readily accessible. The concern of most of the authors revolves around inequity or injustice in the systems and structures that shape Canadians’ everyday experience of food – from the farm to the plate. These concerns will help identify important topics requiring critical thinking in both teaching and scholarship.
Critical Perspectives in Food Studies is also a textbook for students. But could a student use this as a basic introductory text? This is harder to imagine, at least at the introductory undergraduate level. Each essay concludes with a set of discussion questions. Due to the wide-ranging nature of the information, and the different perspectives of the authors, the questions tend to require additional disciplinary knowledge. What is missing is an overarching synthesis, a way to navigate the complexities of the food system. Here is the challenge of the book but also a challenge to the field of food studies. What are the major concepts and themes? Who decides? How do they get clearly defined and articulated? And can students learn about the empirical realities of the Canadian food system without also making some commitments to certain ways of knowing? Critical Perspectives in Food Studies will inspire future conversations about the best ways to teach and learn about food systems and food studies, both inside and outside the classroom.
Amy Trubek is an Associate Professor in the Nutrition and Food Science department at the University of Vermont. Trained as an anthropologist and a chef, she is the author of The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir and Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession as well as many articles and essays.
Amy Trubek est professeure agrégée au Département de sciences des aliments et de nutrition à l’Université du Vermont. À la fois anthropologue et chef cuisinière, elle est l’auteure des livres The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir et Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession, ainsi que de plusieurs articles et essais.