Gastronationalism and the cultural conflicts of food

Ashwanta Jackson examined the way some foods become the subject of cultural debates for the sake of protecting their national identities. Who knew hummus could be so controversial?

That light might be shining brightest on hummus. The version of the chickpea puree that comes closest to the modern-day version was a thirteenth-century book, Kitab Wasf al-At’ima al-Mu’tada (The Description of Familiar Foods). But before this printed example, scholars have noted that some version of the dish was seen in both Egypt and Syria in medieval times. And as Ariel explains, “some historians have speculated that the ancient Egyptians prepared chickpeas mashed with vinegar.” But through the years, the modern version of the dish has been claimed as a product of several countries.

In 2008, for example, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists sought to trademark several Middle Eastern dishes with the intention of “stopp[ing] Israel from marketing hummus and other dishes as Israeli.” The Association’s claims relied on the “feta precedent,” explains cultural anthropologist Nir Avieli, “whereby a European court granted Greece the sole right to use the term feta as the name of the cheese it produced.” This claim would also prevent the term hummus being used in other countries where hummus is also commonly eaten. With this claim, hummus became more than a food, it became a stand-in for a long-established conflict, as Avielli explains, “the culinary sphere is among the richest sources of metaphors for social relations and social structures.”

The term ‘gastronationalism’ came from Michael Owen Jones in Pig Tales: Assumptions, Beliefs, and Perceptions Regarding Pork Bans Real and Rumored to describe “the practice of labeling food based on national origins to protect it as part of a nation’s heritage.” An example is how, in Europe, you can’t call sherry “sherry” unless it comes from an area in the province of Cádiz in Spain (known as the “Sherry Triangle”).

Monsters ain't that bad

Cody Delistraty wrote about monsters and their “more nuanced” nature. Are they misunderstood and capable of teaching us more than their evil existence lets on?

Though Freud posited that Medusa’s hair represented sexual repression, a symbol of castrated genitalia and the madness to which that might lead a person, the poet Ann Stanford, in her “Women of Perseus,” unpacks the more nuanced psychological effects of Medusa’s rape and the complications it adds to understanding her. Commenting on Stanford’s work, the poet and scholar Alicia Ostriker notes in her article “The Thieves of Language” that “the trauma ‘imprisons’ Medusa in a self-dividing anger and a will to revenge that she can never escape, though she yearns to.”

Consumed by this vengeful desire, Medusa might be not so much a monster as a tragic figure. Given the way her story as a “monster” has been told over the last few centuries, however, you’d be hard-pressed to know it.

When depicted as wholly and unchangeably evil, the classic monsters of literature and myth help make sense of a complex world, often with Biblical clarity and simplicity. The existence of pure evil implies the existence of pure good. Heaven or Hell. The Light Side of the Force or the Dark Side. Mount Olympus or Hades. The idea is that though we must choose a direction, it’s a straight and clear path.

While the article centres on monsters and evil entities as a whole, I believe this argument is acutely accurate for female monsters such as Medusa. And it’s always men who write about them in this way. I’ve never really seen Medusa as a monster really; if anything, I’ve quietly cheered her on whenever she’s turned a dude into stone. We could do with more of that in the modern world.

Monster-related: Venom, the symbiotic supervillain – good or evil?

Kristin Hunt on our cinematic viewing behaviour in the streaming age

For JSTOR Daily, Kristin Hunt looked at how cinema works for its viewers in the age of streaming services:

In the streaming wars, audiences have access to more movies than they could possibly consume, even in a once-in-a-century pandemic that has left many homebound. Yet ironically, in this rush to give consumers more “choice,” the streamers have systematically devalued creatives, leading to a glut of mediocre movies that fade from memory the second the credits roll.

I pay for Amazon Prime. Sometimes I can go a month or two without watching anything on it. Other times, I get my money’s worth (yes, I’m aware of the Sunk Cost Fallacy). But between that, Netflix, and any streaming service I’ve ever used, there’s more chaff than wheat. Thousands of movies and whenever I want to watch a film by a specific actor, it’s not there. I guess it forces me to actually buy the movies I want or acquire them by other means…

bell hooks (1952–2021)

bell hooks has passed away at the age of 69. It’s a tragic loss to the world and she will be sorely missed but her work in writing, feminism, and activism lives on. I remember reading her essay ‘Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister‘ for my dissertation and how it changed a lot of my perspectives on Black music, Madonna, and Blackness as well as giving me new ones.

Below are some links to obituaries, dedications, and essential reading for those unfamiliar with her work. In the words of Raquel Willis:

If you’re just learning about bell hooks, there’s no shame. You can always read her words and meet her on the page.

Articles and papers


Books (note: links are from Bookshop but aren’t affiliate links)

James Bond villains and their love of post-Soviet architecture

For JSTOR, Jonah Goldman Kay examined the preferences of James Bond villains for post-Soviet architecture and it came from Sir Ian Fleming and his disdain for modernism:

In particular, Fleming objected to modernism’s obsession with utopia, which was antithetical to his conservative ideology. Fleming saw the ideal world as existing in the past, within an already-existing power structure. Modernists like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe believed that architecture could be used to create a better, more ideal world, full of new conceptions of power. The Western world ran with modernism as a way to remove inefficiencies, construct a more prosperous society, and generally live out the principles of capitalism. In the USSR, modernism came to represent the goals of the communist project: leveling, equality, and a strong presence of the state.

Fleming’s distrust of modernism and utopia played out in the ideologies of Bond villains, which tend to be grounded in a distinctly modernist idea that technology and utilitarianism can radically improve humanity. Part of the reason that modernists were so drawn to utopia was that they shared a twin interest in the end of history. In creating the villains of the Bond franchise, Fleming took this theoretical idea and made it quite literal: nearly all of them harbor an obsession with ending history, usually through mass destruction.

For more on post-Soviet buildings, check out Frank Herfort’s “surreal photos” and, if you want to branch out to general pop culture, NSS Mag published an article in January about the evolution of post-Soviet aesthetics.

A mini Halloween post

Since it’s Halloween and the last day of “Spooky Month”, I thought I’d put together a list of Halloween/horror related links for you to enjoy.

Enjoy your nights, stay safe, and happy trick or treating!

African Americans in Soviet Russia

George Tynes, flanked by Soviet army cadets

Zakkiyah Job wrote an interesting piece on the great African American escape to Soviet Russia.

Under Stalin’s de facto policy of ethnic cleansing, it’s hard to picture the USSR as any kind of paradise for persecuted minorities, but in stark contrast to the trauma and systemic oppression that people of colour had long-faced in the many parts of the western world, Mother Russia poised itself as a beacon of equality, ahead of the historical curve.

The likes of Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Dorothy West found themselves in the USSR, much to the chagrin of the American federal government. But the history of Black people in Russia goes further back to include people such as Abram Petrovich Gannibal, a Cameroonian aristocrat who started an Afro-Russian dynasty in the 18th century.

After Ottoman forces kidnapped him as a boy from Cameroon, he was sold to a Russian diplomat and “gifted” to Peter the Great, who publicly adopted and freed him. Abram became a military engineer, a high-ranking general and a nobleman. He is also a maternal great-grandfather to the famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

For more on the subject, check out the following list of texts:

The Black Caribbeans of the Harlem Renaissance

claude mckay

As the son of a Black Jamaican woman and Black Bajan man and an admirer of the Harlem Renaissance, I was intrigued by this JSTOR article by Matthew Wills.

Black Caribbeans in the Harlem Renaissance examined some of the Black Caribbeans that had an influence on the 1920s movement including:

  • Claude McKay (Jamaica)
  • Eric Waldron (British Guiana; raised in Barbados)
  • Arturo Schomburg (Puerto Rico)
  • Wilfred A. Domingo (Jamaica)
  • Marcus Garvey (Jamaica)

Domingo himself argued, “West Indians were better prepared to challenge racial barriers in the United States” because they came from countries in which “Blacks had experienced no legalized segregation and limitations upon opportunity.” The brutality of American racism, so very different from that of imperial Britain and France, shocked them into action. In the 1920s, of course, “the great colonial empires were alive and well, but the intellectual seeds were already being sown for their eventual dismantling.”

Almost a quarter of Harlem’s Black population was foreign-born in the 1920s. They included, most famously, Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey. Garveyism, with its “ideological mixture of Black pride, diaspora consciousness, and defiance of white racism” was foundational to the growth of Black nationalism in the United States, the Caribbean, and the world.

Of course, this only covers the Black Caribbean men. There were plenty of influential Black Caribbean women in the Harlem Renaissance such as:

  • Hermina Huiswoud (Guyana)
  • Amy Jacques Garvey (Jamaica)
  • Maymie de Mena (Martinican and French Guianan grandparents)

“This freedom from spiritual inertia characterizes the women no less than the men, for it is largely through them that the occupational field has been broadened for colored women in New York. By their determination, sometimes reinforced by a dexterous use of their hatpins, these women have made it possible for members of their race to enter the needle trades freely.”

Wilfred A. Domingo, Gift of the Black Tropics

Recommended reading

The history of the chili pepper

chili peppers

Matthew Wills wrote a great piece on the long, wonderful history of the chili pepper. Straight off the bat, we get educated on something most people associate with chilis—hotness:

Not all chilis are hot. Some are mildly sweet, others comfortably warming. Used in widely different cuisines on every continent, chilis originated in the Western Hemisphere. “Chili” itself comes from a Nahuatl word.

But I prefer the hot ones. In small quantities, not super hot, and preferably in flake form. I also enjoy videos of people eating chilis such as AyyOnline and this classic.

Oh, and for anyone who wonders why water doesn’t help when you’ve eaten a chili: it’s because the water spreads the capsaicin (the alkaline chemical that produces the burning sensation) across your mouth. Therefore you need an acid to neutralise it; drinks like milk (which contains lactic acid) and any citrus juice will help.

Related: Hellboy Right Hand of Doom hot sauce, the world’s hottest gummy bear and Gabrielle Union eating hot wings on Hot Ones.