Review of:
Adventures in Eating: Anthropological Experiences in Dining From Around the World.
Helen R. Haines and Clare A. Sammells, eds. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2010. Pp. xvi + 292, index.

There is an increasing public interest in the topic of bizarre, strange food, or of excessive consumption of familiar but challenging foods. In part, this interest is linked to the concept of a challenge, based on disgust and pain—growing from its early exploration in Japanese television game shows, to the western television and movie sequence of Jackass. At a family level it is manifested in numerous ways, such as teenagers’ adventures with hot chili peppers. This new work draws upon that interest in seeing food as a challenge and to be consumed as a trial of endurance. A related trend is in the increase of global tourism, and where an encounter with a strange food can be presented in returning travellers’ accounts as emblematic of a particular exotic culture. Then, howsoever brief the journey, if the “other” has had to be taken into oneself, so the account can more confidently aspire to be presented as “a trial of culture”—or more traditionally as an “Adventure.”

Appealing to that interest in the exotic, Adventures in Eating presents itself with a cover of sepia colours and typefaces, both reminiscent of a narrative of Indiana Jones, and three small images—a plate of cooked cockroaches, a durian fruit, and a dish with accompanying Efes beer and Troy glass (from Anatolia, but surprisingly not treated within the text). This is all then laid across a generalized global map, and the whole combines for a sense of unbounded, albeit traditional, adventure, observed from a comfortable base. Indeed, the editors declare “we have chosen to stress North American behaviours” (15 n6). Ignoring the advances in postcolonialism, this is all very attractive, and good fun, but actually belies much of the solid, thoughtfully-engaging work which is presented within these covers.

While this work participates to some degree in “titillation through disgust,” its aim is much more specific. This is a serious work, from the word “Anthropological” beginning its secondary title, and so to the work’s over-riding acknowledgement that anthropologists’ fieldwork will often put them as participants in situations which challenge their own assumptions about food and its consumption. The key question is “What does one do when saying no is not the best option?” (8) —and this phrasing must be an experience-broadening riposte to Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just say no.” The case studies and narratives variously probe answers to that question, and this is what unifies the accounts across the chapters. The explicit aim is to guide the upcoming generation of anthropologists in their expeditionary encounters. The editors nicely phrase this hope: “this volume will serve as an introduction to newer anthropologists on how to approach the delicate matter of eating in the field—and how to turn food into food for thought for both oneself and the discipline” (10).

The scope is thus presented as global, supported within by a world map (xvi). The countries covered in the chapters are predominantly New World and developing: Belize, Peru, Kenya, Bolivia, Japan, Argentina, Ethiopia and Honduras. Labelling text “fills the oceans,” however, what the map indirectly makes clear are the large omissions. In this adventure, other than as asides, do not look for dining experiences from: the continental mass of Asia, west or south Africa, Brazil, or Australia. Together this forms a sizeable gap, which perhaps was avoidable. Our age of “Lonely Planet guides to everything” makes more comprehensive material both available and expected.

Chapters are presented in five groups: The Main Course; Side Dishes and Accompaniments; Table Manners and Other Rules to Eat By; Beverages; and The Last Course. The specific foods encountered in the chapters range from boiled eggs (with chickens inside), rats, guinea pig, termites, freeze-dried potato, durian, MSG and sugar, beef (for a vegetarian), to coffee and alcohol. While the exotic items of food are immediately confronting, the more familiar foods are revealed as having many layers of acceptable codes of associated behaviors. In their various contexts, all examples present gastronomic/social challenges to their respective researchers. Comparative observations emerge, such as that Honduran alcohol consumption, despite its central role, has neither the swearing and hurtful comments nor the teenage large inebriation parties which occur often in the U.S. (268, 269), and elsewhere in the Western world. It is this broad conceptual coverage which makes this work a satisfying whole.

map for review

Foodways scholars would be stimulated by much of this, but also have their own specialized needs of such a work. Chapter one contains a strong and accessible survey across the topics of challenging foods (“to each their own taboos,” 14), as well as of global foodways. “Even foods with no nutritional value still have social value and can be worth purchasing and gifting” (12). It is a well-referenced and thoughtful engagement, to which I would refer any new foodways scholar. Throughout, each chapter has its own references list, usefully short and well-selected. For foodways scholars, this work shows a useful varied application of the concept of commensality, the act of eating together. All of Chapter two is given to this concept (summarized on 24-25). Commensality provides a regular touchstone for each of the following chapter’s adventures, and the Index entry shows just how closely structured this is. This concept could provide a useful starting point for many subsequent studies.

cover for review

The attempts to cross-reference chapters and their details is laudable. So many edited collections which emerge from conferences present un-coordinated chapters, but by contrast here one senses a strong editorial presence—as is often the case with the best of regional university publishers. Much as a reader might like a more comprehensive global coverage, the work is certainly one which will help to prepare adventurers, and adventurer/scholars, for new challenges with eating and drinking around the world.