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Book reviews

Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, Gillian Crowther, University of Toronto Press, 2013, 324 p.

  • Alicia Crowther

Corps de l’article

Gillian Crowther’s Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food is a great introductory read for students (or anyone) interested in thinking about how and why we “do food” in modern societies. Crowther, a Social Anthropologist at Capilano University in British Columbia, weaves a combination of history, academic studies and personal stories to illuminate the many aspects of food that go unnoticed in our daily lives. Eating Culture broadly focuses on the nutritional role of food, the social and environmental sustainability of food production, culinary knowledge and using food to mark tastes and distinctions.

The book is well organized into sections highlighting various aspects of these themes, including determining what we decide to eat, how we gather and prepare food, the significance of recipes, patterns of both eating in and eating out, ethnic cuisines and the complex industrial and political forces often behind the choices we put into the everyday meal. Food descriptions and references are used humorously throughout, and Crowther describes the book itself as “rather like a recipe” encompassing as it does the work of not just anthropologists, but also sociologists, historians and more. Crowther shares many personal experiences, including her own memories of joining a friend’s parents for dinner at a “fancy” restaurant, where her “cover was blown, an interloper at the table” (XVII). The materials demonstrate how food activities are presented as “natural”, yet they are both value-laden and culturally constructed, defining individuals and their relationships to the world around them. As the title suggests, the book focuses most heavily on the preparation and consumption aspects of food, although food production, from hunting and gathering to contemporary relationships with industrialism and sustainability, are discussed.

An in-depth discussion and analysis of the varied topics related to food anthropology in one volume would be nearly impossible. Instead, Crowther’s “overview guided by the principles of social anthropology” make it a useful text for introductory anthropology of food courses (XIX). The book’s presentation is inviting for students. Each chapter begins with a list of Learning Objectives to help keep the reader on track. The book provides many food studies, from Indian markets in San Francisco, to the pastoralist lifestyle of the Nuer of Sudan, to the associations of gender with backyard barbecuing, written in a narrative fashion that is easy to follow. Crowther also includes a brief introduction to many major food theorists, from Pierre Bourdieu to Bronislaw Malinowski to David Sutton, by imagining them at a dinner party together. The addition of a glossary is helpful for those unfamiliar with some of the terminology used.

A concise summary of social anthropological research methods encourages the reader to start thinking of how to approach food studies. Apparent throughout the book is the sense that the study of food is an embodied practice, not to be left to speaking and writing alone, but perhaps best explored through doing. The “everyday tasks, such as helping with food getting, preparing ingredients, cooking, cleaning…..are essential for learning a culinary tradition, and call upon the fieldworker’s senses to truly try and share and understand its outcome” (XXI). This description of conducting research as a sensual practice is also seen in the works of Sarah Pink (Doing Sensory Ethnography, 2009) and David Sutton (Food and the Senses, 2010) in which attempting to understand the everyday, lived experiences of people should include the smells, tastes, textures and sounds of food. The book’s use of both illustrations and photographs highlight the simplistic beauty, yet striking ability of food cultures to be interpreted though visual research methods.

The book is published by one of the largest university presses in North America, the University of Toronto Press (UTP). UTP also offers an online resource, the Teaching Culture blog. To coincide with the release of the book in 2013, the blog published an interview with Crowther along with some sample assignments that she has used in conjunction with anthropology of food courses. You can see the sample assignments on the Teaching Culture blog itself.

In closing, Crowther reminds us that food is made by the old and the new, tradition and creativity. History, class, politics, gender, religion, ethnicity and location shape, change and reinforce these meanings and actions. Crowther encourages readers to recognize and question the larger discourses surrounding food presented through the media, cookbooks, blogs, government nutrition guidelines and countless other sources offering food knowledge, “in light of their cultural and social and cultural context” (112). Overall, the book is a recommended read and deserves consideration of addition to course reading lists, where it may help to create an interest in learning more for those who are new to the study of the anthropology of food.

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