The Place of the Humanities

EAT, PRAY, PUKE: WACKY ATTEMPTS AT COOKING UP POLITICS AMIDST AMERICA’S FOOD TRAVEL MANIA

Martin F. Manalansan IV

In the past twenty years, a massive tidal wave of food travel spectacles such as books, television shows and movies have hit the American market and the popular imagination with a tsunami-like force. From bestselling books like I loved, I lost, I made Spaghetti to the Julia Roberts movie potboiler Eat, Pray, Love, we have witnessed a relentless menu of culinary wanderlust afforded by racial and class privilege. How do we make sense of all these alimentary commodities and their concomitant affective baggage? How do we “cook up” a progressive politics amidst this dietary morass?

Perhaps I am asking too many questions I cannot answer. Perhaps I am conjuring meals I cannot or will not be able to place on the table at the end of this blog essay. However, I conceived this blog essay as a flight of fancy – a quick improvisation – a mad test- kitchen recipe if you will. I want to put forward a very preliminary set of propositions or to put it another way, some very rough tastes, distasteful images, and uncomfortable tactile ideas that might contain some kernel of political and cultural nourishment. Those who read this might go away feeling dissatisfied or at least with a stomach or cerebral upset. If that is so, then part of my goals has been accomplished. In this case, failure is also an option.

The introspective reveries contained below are part of my long-term concerns to establish a progressive politics around current consumptive practices and to champion more itinerant and queer activist agendas – to look to the banal, the disgusting, and the lackluster and produce a more progressive alimentary politics that is mindful of the value of margins, failures and negative emotions. Such a politics goes beyond the locavore, farmer’s market and community garden variety of complacent elitist food activism but instead starts at the heart of this so-called cultural concoction – in the body and its affective and emotional energies. To begin, let us examine the core of this cultural phenomenon which is bolstered by two important notions, mobility and authenticity.

Mobility: Food enables people to travel without moving thousands of miles. Food with sensory triggers for other places and times, allows people to imagine sinking their cushy behinds into plush seats and experiencing first class trips to gustatory Timbuktus – all without the unwanted distractions of Third World sensorial chaos such as poverty and lack of sophistication. Food, as represented in food travel discourses, distills life into an unadulterated fantasy of spiritualism, introspection and indulgence with all the dregs and scum of material life removed, skimmed off or sieved away. Food has always fueled the touristic imagination to run wild and selectively indulge in sensorial pleasures by escaping everyday drudgeries. Notice that in Eat, Pray, Love, despite the momentary glimpse of India’s poverty, any unpalatable images and ideas are shunted away from Julia Robert’s eyes as she focuses her attention on what is pretty, sexy, serene, triumphant and normative.

Authenticity: Authenticity is bestowed not so much on the cuisine but on the personhood of consumers. That is, people consume in order to acquire and attain a genuineness and legitimacy for their lives as men or as women. Twenty-first century popular culture has virtually depleted the “nutritional” edge or radical potential of gender and sexual rights. For example, gay men have joined the ranks of the normal carriage-pushing and suburban-driving hoi polloi to the extent that they fuel urban revitalization and gentrification. Authenticity is much like commodity branding. It provides an illusion of bodily and moral integrity amidst the disintegration of true material, ethical and political engagements.

Movies and books like Eat, Pray, Love and Julie and Julia demonstrate how people both literally and figuratively escape their troubles or at least drown their sorrows through culinary adventures. In Julie and Julia, the protagonist publicizes through a blog her year-long adventure cooking all the recipes from a Julia Child cookbook. The blog provides as a flight from a humdrum marriage (which dissolves after the book’s end), a rather sad job dealing with victims of the 9/11 bombing, and life in a working class outer borough neighborhood. In his duo of culinary adventure books, erstwhile chef/bad-boy Anthony Bourdain “without reservations” documents his manly jaunts through exciting, romantic, touristic, and gastronomic escapades as exploits to “move” himself out of the banal disappointments of employment and marriage. While there are clearly unequal gendered dimensions to these works in terms of male and female personhood which I cannot go into in this blog essay, I would submit that both men and women who produce popular food travel discourses are attempting to gain social, psychic and moral uplift or mobility and authenticity through food and travel. In turn, they establish and fuel a never- ending spiral of consumption and a flat, flavorless politics that support the status quo.

In my forthcoming book, Altered Tastes, I intend to give these books and films a closer reading and more critical scrutiny. As a way to conclude, allow me to return, then, to the original motivation for writing Altered Tastes. What is the “puke” part of the title? Apart from an irreverent riff on the popular movie and book, I take puke as a core principle of a politics of disgust and refusal that should animate the kinds of productive activism and political actions necessary to replace if not obliterate these food travel spectacles. Inspired by the works of Karen Shimakawa and Parama Roy, I want to explore a politics based on unpalatability and revulsion in ways that trouble and destabilize normative and ultimately conservative desires and pleasures that emanate from touristic food spectacles. In other words, I want to create ways of thinking of food through inauthentic or non-normative personhood, through queer culinary routes. I also want to harness the affective energies of repulsion and nausea in ways that may compel people to think through and disavow their own individualist neoliberal foodie forays, and realize the potentials of what may seem unsightly, tasteless, or basically disgusting as sites of direct confrontation and engagement of the gritty, oftentimes repugnant paths to social justice and ethical sociality.

Martin Manalansan is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Asian American Studies, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the author of Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora, (Duke University Press, 2003). In addition to teaching and writing about foodways as maps of ethnic memory and longing, he is a total “participant-observer” in the global search for culinary excellence. Martin is one of four faculty leaders for a Spring, 2011 speaker series on “Race, Region, and Sexual Diasporas,” which is one of this year’s inaugural IPRH Collaborative Research Projects.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
This entry was posted in Theme: The Place of the Humanities (2010-11), Yearly Theme. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Place of the Humanities

  1. ryan says:

    Great post – the tactical use of revulsion is a really interesting and provocative suggestion. Not unlike the historical deployment of an “anti-aesthetic” in dada and situationism perhaps…
    While I think I understand the emphasis on the “global” as it relates to mobility (real or imagined) and the touristic demand for authenticity, I wonder how you would relate such narratives with those that might be understood as more “domestic” or even “provincial” in their food politics? What immediately comes to mind is the current celebration of inner-city Detroit (partly for it’s vast state of decay). Urban agriculture, and local food production, is being championed as a way to further dis-empower residents who are producing a semi-autonomous food infrastructure, just not for profit.

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