E400/600 Food & Culture

Section 23942          04:00P-05:15P   TR     BH 015

Dr. Richard Wilk2003 Spring      T-TH  2:30-3:45   SB138     Section 0375/0367

Wilk's Office: 242 Student Building, 855-3901, email: WILKR

Office Hours: Wednesday 2-5 PM or by appointment



Individual Assignments will be posted on Oncourse



Course Description


I love food! I love cooking, eating, and shopping for food. Most of my early memories are about food – and a major part of my travels around the world have been marked by memorable meals and food experiences. I usually travel these days with an extra suitcase so I can grocery shop wherever I go. And there are several languages where the only words I know involve ordering a meal and asking for the check afterwards. In all my ethnographic work I have found that everyone becomes friendly when you eat and appreciate people’s food, and they are always willing to talk about it. Over the last ten years, a good deal of my research has approached topics like globalization, gender, culture change, development, and the history of colonialism through the topic of food. The anthropology of food is a rapidly growing field, and scholarly research and writing on food-related topics is growing by leaps and bounds.


I am a member of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, which offers a student paper prize every year, and multidisciplinary academic meetings every June. I am on the editorial board of the ASFS journal Food, Culture and Society, and I am the editor of a forthcoming book called Fast Food/Slow Food. I have access to many of the scholars working in this field if you would like to contact any of them.


All of these developments have led to a cornucopia of options for a class on the anthropology of food. We could spend the whole semester on the anthropology of nutrition, or the slow food movement, or African food systems, and still we would still be able to cover just a small amount of the literature that is now available. So, where are we to start?


My major objective for the semester is to provoke your interest and enthusiasm for understanding culture and history through food. I will try to do this in four ways.


Discuss my own research and experience. My long standing research interest in food is the way foods are creolized, the way they change, adapt, and blend in particular times and places. I have been studying food in Belize for the last ten years, and I am in the midst of a book project right now, dealing with food and masculinity in colonial history. I have been working with a lot of fascinating material that I will discuss in class.


Read, read, and read some more. We are going to be reading a lot in this class. After the first three weeks of the class we will be discussing these readings in each class meeting. You will be responsible for short write-ups on each reading, and you will be called upon several times to lead class discussion on books and articles. You will also review a recent book, and your review will be published on the web and circulated on the ASFS list server, so thousands of people will read it. Exceptionally good reviews may be published in Food, Culture & Society.

Individual Research Project. One of the most interesting trends in food studies is the large number of new books which trace the history, politics, and cultural contexts of a single food item or ingredient. We will read a sample of these books during the semester. For your research project you will do a scaled-down version, tracing the food you choose through space and/or time. Below, as an example of how we can start an intellectual voyage through a single kind of food, I append the introduction to my new book, Home Cooking in the Global Village.  By February 7 you will choose your food item and turn in a one-page description of your project and how you are going to go about it, and we will discuss these projects in class. As part of your project you will develop a recipe for the final exam banquet.

I have put together a list of some of the current books available on single foods, for your entertainment, and so you don’t end up doing a project which has already been done! Click here to go to that link.

 This bottle has NO grapefruit juice in it!

            As I write this I have on my desk a colorful bottle of a new ‘healthy infusion’ drink sold in supermarkets in the USA, called FUZE. The flavor is Mojo Mango, and the 11% juice includes orange, mango, and passion fruit, and it contains 100 milligrams each of guarana and ginseng extract.

            I find it fascinating that this bottle is so cosmopolitan, a true multicultural brew, but it is so quiet about it. It does not flaunt its ancestry. Instead of telling us where these exotic juices and essences come from, the writing on the bottle is all about the powers of the ingredients to ‘increase energy levels’ and ‘relieve stress and nervous tension.’ Instead of telling us who made the ingredients, the bottle uses their foreign names to send a more general message that they are powerful because they come from far away places. Distance and mystery are part of the magic trapped in the bottle.

            But I wanted to know the details. Getting them wasn’t simple. Tracking down where all the ingredients came from took me several hours of research on the web, and dozens of Google searches, and I was only partly successful. It was impossible to figure out where the crystalline fructose sweetener came from; it is made from high-fructose corn syrup, which is like any other industrial chemical. The corn may have been grown in the USA, but it could also have come from Canada, Mexico or Europe, before going through a factory owned by Cargill or one of the other four companies that control corn refining in the USA.

            The orange juice could have come from Florida, but Brazil is now the world’s biggest producer.  Peru, India and Ecuador make the most mango puree, though Mexico, Thailand and the Philippines also have ship this sweet syrup. The people at Fuze may not have known where it came from either. Passion fruit juice is a big export from Ecuador, though they have had harvest problems lately, so it’s possible that these few drops came from Brazil or Colombia. Uganda also exports the stuff, but mostly to Europe.  Guarana is a caffeine-rich berry that grows in the Amazon, a favorite soft drink flavoring in Brazil. That is probably where the 100 mg of extract in the bottle of Fuze came from.

            I go back to the bottle itself, but it tells us only that the whole concoction was put together in Englewood, New Jersey, and suggests the ginseng came from Siberia. The ginseng might really have come from Siberia, but China and Korea are the big exporters, and the vast majority of the ginseng consumed in this country is grown in Wisconsin. Perhaps ‘Siberian ginseng’ is the name of a variety grown there?  We are left with a puzzle, while the sense of exotic power lingers.

            North Americans have a long history of believing in the mysterious powers of tropical plants. Our ancestors made tonics from things like sarsaparilla root from Central America, chinchona (quinine) bark from Peru, and Kola nuts from West Africa. Even sugar, coffee, tea, and cocoa started out like FUZE, as foods with medicinal powers, and they only gradually lost that magic. But this bottle offers a lot more than just health and vitality. It also tells us something essential about the power of place, the way the world food system is built like a giant funnel, with our mouths underneath the hole at the center.

            Here in the  USA at the center of the world economy, we have the rest of the world at our fingertips, at our lips, in our stomachs. Only from our position of power can we afford to ignore where things really come from, because we know that all things drain, like syrup through a pipeline, from the edges of the world into the center. What we want will appear, as if by magic, on the shelves of our supermarkets and Walmarts because we have the money to pay for it.  We don’t have to know – other people grow it and process it, and buy it and sell it until all we see is the brand, in a language we understand without effort. All those strange substances are fuzed together for our convenience, our health, and our pleasure.


Course Structure


I am dividing up the semester into four sections which are of unequal length. The first two will be short, and the bulk of the semester will be devoted to the other two.


Food and Culture

Food in History

The Politics of Slow and Fast Foods

Following foods through culture, history and politics.


You will get a separate class reading schedule which will give precise dates for all assignments.


Class Requirements


One thing you can expect from this course is a LOT of reading. Class lectures and discussions have the goal of helping you digest and assimilate those readings. There is simply no other way to get into the richness of the topic of food. You have to keep up with the reading to make this class work. You will also have to participate in the classes when we summarize and critique the readings. You must demonstrate that you are keeping up with the reading. Don't be intimidated by other students!


If you have questions about an assignment or the schedule, you can call me, talk to me after class, or send me email.


I encourage you to form reading groups, and work cooperatively in handling the reading load of the course, but I do not approve of using reading groups to split up the work so you only read a portion of what is assigned. Every student is responsible for every reading!



The grading scale is simple. One third of your grade will be based on the written summaries of readings and your book report. One third will be based on your class presentations and the quality of your participation in class discussions. And one third of your grade will be from your individual research project.


Undergraduates will be expected to turn in a final paper of 12-15 pages, while I will expect 20-30 pages from graduate students. Undergraduates will do three reading summaries and three class presentations, while graduate students will do six of each.


I will make every effort to give easier reading assignments to undergraduates, and I will expect less depth and complexity in undergraduate written assignments. But in most respects you will find that I treat grads and undergrads in the same way.




TEXTS - all are required and available in the IU bookstore and/or TIS


Lien Marianne and Brigitte Nerlich, 2004, The Politics of Food. Berg.

Visser, Margaret, 1999, Much Depends on Dinner. Grove Press.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko, 1993, Rice as Self. Princeton.

Schlosser, Eric, 2002, Fast Food Nation. Harper.

Kurlansky, Mark, 1997, Cod. Penguin.

Rosenblum, Mort, 1998, Olives : The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit. Horth Point.

Bonanno, Alessandro, 1994, From Columbus to Conagra. Kansas.

Dixon, Jane, 2002, The Changing Chicken: Chooks, Cooks and Culinary Culture.         University of New South Wales.



There will also be online articles available through the website of the geography library at http://ereserves.indiana.edu/eres/courseindex.aspx?error=&page=dept

Disclaimers, stylistic guidelines, legal advisories, etc:


You are responsible for keeping up with the readings and for attending class regularly. Late assignments will be accepted, but grades will be reduced. Incompletes are only given with good reason, and if I am notified two weeks before the final exam date.  Please let me know if you will be absent from class for any length of time, and arrange to make up the work.


You are not allowed to copyright any of my class handouts or other materials, nor can you publish them or use them in public presentations without my permission.


You are encouraged to discuss with classmates and colleagues, and to collaborate in studying, reading, digesting, and synthesizing class materials. I encourage you to form study groups and/or reading discussion circles. BUT, all written work you turn in must be your own individual work, unless you make arrangements with me in advance for a co-authorship. Co-authored work gets one grade which is shared by all authors.


Plagiarism is a serious breach of academic ethics. Use full footnotes and references for all quoted or attributed materials. Since we will be publishing class work on the web, we need to pay careful attention to copyright restrictions on fair use. We also need to use a uniform style for text and references:


American Anthropologist reference and bibliography style is required for all class materials. This means in-line citations. Check out the AA style guide at http://www.aaanet.org/pubs/style_guide.htm

All printed materials should be in Times New Roman font, 12 point type with 1-inch margins all around.


I am always available for consultation and discussion in my office – even though my door is closed to keep my vicious dog from attacking innocent people in the hall. Please don't wait until the last minute to discuss problems, readings, or issues with me! I am always very busy, but I will always make time to talk about something important, except during the last three weeks of the semester when I have very little time available.


Email is often the best way to ask me brief questions, to check on assignments, or make short comments. If you miss class, contact me by email to find out if you have been assigned some discussion for the next week. But don’t expect me to write you an essay in response to a complex emailed question!


I will use Oncourse to send you messages about current events, bibliographies, assignments, and course readings.