Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in June 2022.

This is a really fascinating book that takes food and issues of ‘nativism’ and looks at how they work together. It seems kind of obvious once you start thinking about it that food can be a political tool – even a weapon… one need only think of some of the racist insults that people use, which are either specifically or tangentially food related. Or the way politicians are publicised eating particular foods. Or the boycotting of foods…

One of the first things that I appreciated about this book is that Parasecoli is quite open about things needing much more extensive research to fully understand what’s going on, and that “patterns [he identifies] are tentative, unstable, and shifting” (xi). That the book “raises questions rather than offering solutions… proposes one point of view, food and its ideological uses, to read events and and tensions that are obviously much larger” (xii). This sort of intellectual honesty is a delight, and also brings me hope that maybe the ways food is used and discussed in connection to politics may indeed become a greater field of investigation.

Parasecoli’s idea of ‘gastronativism’ is a broad one, and encompasses political positions that are, at least to my mind, both arch-conservative leaning towards fascist, and at the other end much more progressive. The first limits what it means to be in a community (white supremacy, anti immigrant) – what he calls exclusionary gastronativism. On the other hand is what he calls nonexclusionary gastronativism (and I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to give a speech on this topic): it looks at “extending rights, resources, and wellbeing to the disenfranchised and the oppressed” (22). Cross-national issues of worker rights, and such issues. I love that such seemingly different issues can be examined together, using similar thought-tools.

It must be acknowledged that this book challenged me to think about the way that I approach food. In one section, Parasecoli discusses the idea of authenticity – “a Thai restaurant feels more authentically Thai if the cook and staff are recognisably Thai” – and that being able to “distinguish authenticity becomes part of consumers’ cultural capital” (89). And then you get arguments about what IS authentic, and things can get very messy. I don’t think the author is saying that a desire for authenticity is automatically bad; but it did make me start thinking about what constitutes ‘the canon’ when it comes to food, and that sent me down a bit of a spiral, being something of an iconoclast in those issues.

There is a LOT in this book; Parasecoli touches on a broad range of issues and explores exclusionary and nonexclusionary examples from various parts of the world. As he says in the intro, he doesn’t always go into huge detail about all of them – that’s not really the point of the book. Instead he’s trying to show what the very concept of gastronativism can be, how it might be interrogated, what sort of actions people use and thoughts it stimulates. And I think he is very persuasive in showing that food isn’t always just something that someone like me eats for fuel. It’s always much more than that.

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