Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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Richard Wilk
Richard Wilk
Photo © Tyagan Miller

cowfoot soup vendor
Photo courtesy Richard Wilk

Consuming 'Round the World

by Jennifer Piurek and Ryan Piurek

When Richard Wilk first traveled to a small village in Belize in the 1970s, he was fully prepared to leave the trappings of Western society behind. He planned to embrace the simple habits of the native people, who he imagined were steeped in traditional lifestyles, living an isolated existence.

When he arrived, the scene told a different story.

There were kerosene lamps. Rubber boots. Radios. Flashlights. Wrist watches. Polyester clothes (it was the '70s, after all). Everywhere, Wilk saw goods that one would expect to find in the aisles of Target rather than the jungles of Central America.

And as Wilk, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington, talked to the locals, he heard about their desire to buy more "stuff."

What gave these people the idea that these things were worth having? And once they had what seemed like enough, why the urge to keep grasping for more? When Wilk looked into other anthropological studies for insight, he couldn't find a satisfying answer.

"American scholars," he says, "tend to treat it as kind of natural, like, anybody would want rubber boots because they're better than going barefoot. Anybody would want modern medicine because it's better than traditional medicine. Anybody would want Coke because it's better than corn drink. But if you don't assume it's obviously better, and [you can see] it has costs, then you've got a puzzle--and that's the puzzle I've been trying to solve ever since."

Home Cooking in the Global Village

In his 2006 book Home Cooking in the Global Village, Wilk uses Belize, a country that for more than three centuries has had an economy based entirely on imports and exports, as the backdrop to tell a complex story about the costs and benefits associated with the development of globalized and industrialized foods. He says the process of food globalization dates back to the early 1700s, when shipping allowed people to import many foods, and exotic goods became a fashionable and desirable commodity. By 1800 the things people were eating in one part of the world affected people thousands of miles away, and those people in turn were eating and consuming things that affected yet more people farther and farther away.

By the late 19th century, Wilk says, "it became normal for people to sit down to a meal where all of the ingredients came from places across the ocean."

When he arrived in Belize in the 1970s, Wilk was anxious to try some real Belizean cuisine. Everywhere he went, though, he found hamburgers and bad Chinese food. His requests for real Belizean food were met with nervous laughter; no one thought that what local people were eating really qualified as "cuisine."When Wilk finally got a dinner invitation to a Belizean home, the family offered him the best they had: canned corned beef, imported white bread, and warm 7-Up.

"The things Belizeans normally ate had such low status, they could not be served to a visitor, and they never appeared on a restaurant menu,"Wilk recalls.

Over the next 20 years, Wilk watched as Belize re-evaluated its cultural identity. Its tourist industry blossomed, immigrants from surrounding Central American countries flooded the area, and satellite and cable TV arrived, all during intense national elections. People became interested in Belizean culture, and food slowly became an acknowledged part of Belize's identity.

"Now they have cook-off contests. Cooks come from all over the country, and there's a prize of $1,000 for the person with the best cow-foot soup,"says Wilk. "This is a complete change in consciousness. It's turned around to the point that the Belizean people are proud of their own food."

Local vs. Global

The arguments against food globalization are many. Shipping food around the country uses excessive fuel and other resources, robs cultures of their identity by popularizing bland, homogenized foods, and pads the pockets of multinational companies while shutting out local businesses and small farmers. Plus, imported and exported food--whether it's grapes from Chile or corn from Indiana--must be bred to withstand travel and is often sprayed with chemicals, dyes, and waxes to create a brighter appearance on the grocery store shelf.

Americans are slowly becoming aware of these downsides. Community supported agriculture co-ops, in which participants buy a share and receive a helping of local, usually organic food every week from local farmers, are springing up throughout the country. There's even a new line of vitamin supplements from Food for Health International, marketed as "China Free,"that is aimed at people who are leery of foreign ingredients from countries with lax inspection standards.

But Wilk points out that while food globalization is pervasive, the practice isn't always evil, just as buying organic is not the solution to problems of waste and environmentally harmful consumption.

"It's hard to see how buying more of the right kind of stuff is going to solve the fundamental problem,"says Wilk. "What if you stop buying Mexican coffee--will it hurt peasants in Mexico? We're never going to have American bananas. Does that mean we should stop eating bananas and stop drinking coffee?" While acknowledging that we can make improvements, he points out that some existing channels of food distribution are necessary and shouldn't be eradicated.

Likewise, going to the organic shelf at the grocery store will cut down on the chemicals and food additives ingested, but it doesn't address globalization; organic foods at supermarkets go through the same kind of distribution channels that standard foods do. Wilk cites a recent scholarly article in which the author argued strongly against "ethical shopping," saying "the whole idea that Americans can shop our way out of the consumer problem by buying the right foods, going to the right restaurants, etc., is insane."

When it comes to health issues related to food, Wilk notes that Europeans are much more aware and concerned than Americans. "Here, we've had a lot of deaths from E. coli, but people don't seem very concerned. They seem to feel that the government is taking care of it. I have to admit I don't really understand that kind of passive attitude."

Wilk suggests that this mentality is fueled by an unquestioning trust in technology. Americans have become inherently skeptical of anything that hasn't been processed by machinery, which might explain some people's lingering doubts about the safety of organic foods.

"I think from about the 19th century onward, we became convinced that if stuff went through machines, it was healthy,"Wilk says. "If it was making us sick, we just had to adjust the mix, or fix the machinery. Europeans don't have the same faith in technology that we do. Americans feel that organic is kind of dirty, that you've got to do something to it to make it O.K."

The debate over genetically modified foods (those that have had their genetic makeup altered to result in more desirable traits) is an excellent example of "food politics,"says Wilk.

"Some people say that genetically modified foods are the answer to the world's hunger problems, that they're a technological miracle that will replace foreign oil. To others, they're a kind of Frankenstein monster. That's food politics."

With a Side of High Fructose Corn Syrup

Speaking of food politics, it's no accident that those lengthy ingredient lists on the back of heavily preserved, prepackaged foods almost always contain some form of soy or corn, says Wilk.

"A couple of recent analyses show that most farm subsidies and agricultural research in this country go into a few major crops--chiefly corn and soybeans,"says Wilk. "That's why processed corn products and soybean products are in everything, because government subsidies make them incredibly cheap. Very little goes into vegetables, or quinoa, or alternative food products."

Agricultural policy in America also creates a system that makes processed foods much cheaper to produce than fresh foods. If the zucchini subsidy for farmers was suddenly as big as the corn subsidy and federal zucchini research was getting as much funding as federal corn research, you'd see the price of zucchini come down dramatically, Wilk says. "Suddenly there would be laboratories all over America coming up with a thousand uses for zucchini that you never knew existed. But that's not the way it happens."

Still, consumer demand for organic foods is increasing, and the U.S. government's 2007 Farm Bill is expected to result in increased production of safe, affordable organic ingredients. Current undersupply of organic foods has caused some companies to look to supplement supply needs internationally.

"I may not be cynical enough about the political process in Washington, but I think the food lobby is starting to respond,"Wilk says. "I think eventually, if people demand a change in food policy, there may be change."

Food Studies at IU

IU's new Ph.D. program in food studies, for which Wilk serves as director, is scheduled to begin classes in the fall of 2008. Until now, no Ph.D. program in food studies existed anywhere in the world. The program originated when each department in IU's College of Arts and Sciences was asked to prepare a plan for future development. Wilk, then chair of the anthropology department, asked his colleagues to submit lists of their interest areas. He was surprised to find how many anthropology faculty listed food.

"It was one of those things people were interested in, but it had never really come out because it's not a traditional, conventional area or subdiscipline,"he says. "Food anthropology didn't have a name."

When the program is underway, Wilk and his colleagues hope to train a new crop of food anthropologists who can use their research to make improvements to our food distribution system. Bloomington is an ideal place for the program, Wilk notes, because of its ethnically diverse restaurant scene, an emphasis on local foods, and the many food activists who live in the community.

"We have all kinds of great potential to work with local partners, especially given the ethnic and cultural diversity of Bloomington's foodways. There are all kinds of ways we can help the university and the community. Food brings a lot of different interests together."

Wilk plans to send students into the Bloomington community to learn the importance of food in people's daily lives and to examine the meanings people attach to their food through family, religious, and community traditions.

In the past, he says, "the approach has been to read food like a text, as a reflection of its times. There isn't anything particularly wrong with that approach, but I think it's more interesting and more powerful to think of it the other way around. What meanings do people put into their food, and why? Understanding that is not a simple thing."

Sustainability and the Future of Food

Wilk's ties to Belize have deepened over the past 30 years. He and his wife (Ann Pyburn, a professor of archaeology at IU Bloomington) are in the process of building a second home there, where he can begin work on some projects to bring economic benefits to the area.

Over the next five years, Wilk will begin taking undergraduate and graduate students to Belize in the summer. He hopes to get enough support to run a field school there. Students placed in restaurants and farms would learn about all the stages involved in food production, consumption, and cooking.

Despite Belizeans rediscovery of their long-lost traditions and food identity, Wilk says most Belizean restaurant owners have a hard time finding local foods, so they import or buy from farmers who can produce on a large scale. One of his current projects is to develop links between rural Belizeans and local restaurants, bringing to the table delicacies such as river crayfish, seasonal land crabs, and varieties of palm fruits that "any gourmet would be delighted to see on the plate,"he says. Another project is to create a guide that shows the fruits, vegetables, and edibles of Belize to help attract culinary tourists.

Wilk believes that through research, programs such as the new food anthropology Ph.D. at IU, and grassroots sustainability efforts, a new kind of focus on the global food system, and on food here at home, is emerging.

"Thinking about sustainability and about the future of food is a kind of social theory,"says Wilk. "In our food program, I hope people will be involved in the struggle of thinking about what our food system should look like in this country. What kind of food is healthy not just for your body, but for society, and for your mind and your soul?"

Jennifer Piurek is a content specialist in IU's Office of Creative Services. Ryan Piurek is an assistant director of communications at IU in Bloomington.

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