Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen is an Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University. She teaches classes and conduct research related to health, food, inequality, and development.

Her new book is Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production.

Recently I asked Bowen about what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I am reading Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods, by Jennifer Jordan. Jordan tells a story of how certain foods become “heirlooms” and the meanings and memories that people attach to those foods. She traces the history of specific foods: for example, tomatoes, the food most closely associated with the heirloom craze, as well as “nearly forgotten” fruits and vegetables like plums and turnips, which rarely appear in popular food writing. But she also notes that the connections between food and memory are not just the province of old-fashioned tomatoes or antique apples, but can attach to the vast range of foods that people eat. (She gives an example of a boxed cake mix that her great-great-aunt used to make). I think this is such an important point, especially in a context in which food choices are increasingly imbued with moral undertones.

One of the books that I read recently with my students (in my graduate seminar on Sociology of Food) was Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, by Seth Holmes. It is an ethnography of the everyday lives of Mexican migrant farmworkers. Holmes crosses the border from Mexico into Arizona with a group of migrants and is jailed with them. He lives and works alongside farmworkers on a strawberry farm in the United States, and he also travels to the rural Oaxacan region where many of the farmworkers are from. With his clear and evocative writing, Holmes dramatically illustrates the emotional and physical suffering experienced by migrant farmworkers and how their suffering embodies multiple forms of structural violence. It is the kind of book that keeps churning around in your head long after you finish reading it, and my students continued to talk about it even after the class had ended.

I also love to read fiction. I joke that my favorite genre is “agricultural fiction” or “food fiction,” which isn’t really a genre, but I love novels that integrate themes about farming or the food system, like Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, which is still one of my favorites. I recently read The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. In it, 9-year-old Rose discovers that she has a unique gift. She can taste the emotions that people feel while making foods; for example, she tastes the despair her mother experiences (but later denies) as she bakes a lemon cake. The book explores Rose’s family life as she grows up in Los Angeles. I was particularly intrigued by the twist that the novel puts on the notion of terroir. Essentially, terroir is the idea that place has a taste, and in Rose’s case, taste also has an emotion. Rose is eventually able to discern both the place where a particular ingredient comes from, as well as the emotions of the person who prepared the food.

Also in the category of “food fiction,” I just finished Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel, by J. Ryan Stradal. It tells the story of Eva Thorvald, who has a “once-in-a-generation” palate. We meet Eva at different points in her life; each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character and centered around one dish (and includes recipes!). I adored this book. The story itself is a great one: about parents and children, love and loss, dreams and identity. But what I loved most of all was how Stradal juxtaposes Midwestern food traditions with the rise of foodie culture: from bar cookies and state fairs to heirloom tomatoes and pop-up restaurants. Again, he shows how the foods that people gather around and use to create a sense of community are more alike than different, whether we’re talking about chicken and wild rice casserole (featured in the first chapter) or dry-cured pork shoulder (featured in the last chapter). I was reading this book and Edible Memory at the same time, and it was a great pairing.
Visit Sarah Bowen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue