Professor Richard R. Wilk is a respected and much-published expert in the fields of economic, cultural and applied anthropology – with a particular focus on food. We called him up to talk about fish and grains and found ourselves journeying with him around the world of his work via eels, instant noodles, nationalism, bioprospecting and Proust, collecting a veritable banquet of things to think about along the way.
Sophie and Orlando Lovell: As a food anthropologist, you have travelled all over the world researching and teaching on the relationship between food and culture for most of your professional life. How did your interest in food begin?
Richard Wilk: I grew up in a foodie family. My mum studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. We travelled a tremendous amount when I was a child and we travelled on our stomachs to all kinds of great places. So I have a kind of lifelong interest in good food and exotic food.
Your daughter Elvia is fond of eggs, as we know. She tells us you know an awful lot about grains and fish. Can you explain why those two foodstuff areas are so good to study from an anthropological point of view?
I have to preface this by saying I am a longtime fisherman. I started fishing when I was about 5 years old. So everywhere I’ve been in the world, I’ve gone fishing. It became clear to me at an early age that things that people found delicious and edible in some places, were considered horribly inedible in others. So when I was a kid and brought an eel home. Other fishermen looked at me like I had crossed an invisible line by eating something inedible and dirty.
Much later, I wrote a book called Seafood: Ocean to the Plate with Shingo Hamada, where we take on the question “Why some fish and not other fish?” amongst other things. I am a member of the American Fisheries Society and am working with them on a survey of hundreds of fishing guidebooks that give opinions about which fish are really good to eat and which ones don’t taste good and should be thrown back. I spent a year and a half in Singapore, I guess four years ago, which is a huge seafood market.
What you see there is that the effect of taste on the environment is very dramatic. This dividing line between food and health or medicine that was put into the Western tradition back in the 16th and 17th centuries, never really existed in East Asia or South Asia. They have lots of ideas of what things are good for you, what isn’t, and especially what things boost male potency. I saw the other end of this in Belize where all the sea cucumbers disappeared from the reef in a three year period because they could get so much money for them in China and East Asia. It turned out that they are a key species on the tropical reef, so when you remove all of them, things change very rapidly. We are seeing a lot of those kinds of changes now.
So you tend to look much more at tradition and taste issues with foodstuffs rather than their effects as large economic drivers.
Yeah, you know my approach to climate change is also that you have to look at the choices people make and their taste. I did a little piece on wedding cakes and divorce cakes a few years ago because people were putting precious stones on their wedding cakes. And slices of royal wedding cake were being auctioned off for charity for hundreds of thousands of pounds. So this kind of luxury trade I am talking about is not just in East Asia where in Hong Kong, for example, according to Carl Safina, the lips of a particular endangered fish sell for 20,000 USD a plate.
Kazunoko, herring roe, is another example. It an enormous business. It’s a spring dish that people like to have in Japan. But they ate up all their herring years and years ago, so now they get them from Native Americans in the Pacific North West. Just like they now get sea urchins from Maine and Peru. This kind of global luxury trade in seafood is quite fascinating.
And very unsustainable presumably.
Totally unsustainable. But it’s kind of like grazing things. We ate up most of the Chilean sea bass – or escolar, as it is often called – so then we moved on to another deepwater demersal fish, the snake mackerel. Once that’s gone, we will discover yet another neutrally flavoured white deepwater fish.
What do you think the difference is between the current interest in studying food and food systems compared to the 1950s and 1960s during the time of the Green Revolution?
It was all about production then: thinking about food in terms of raw materials, and how people grow those raw materials. When I was in graduate school, I started out as an archaeologist, and when archaeologists think about agrarian systems they think about diet and look at what people were growing for food. Back then, they acted like the pots, these amphorae were just moving back and forth and being traded. They never really thought about the contents, like why it was worth putting hazelnuts in an amphora and sending them 4,000 kilometres to Egypt, or why you were willing to pay an enormous king’s ransom for a particular wine from Cyprus. We now know that all of these things were circulating as far back as the Bronze Age and perhaps even earlier. Personally, I think food and cosmetics were the most important trade goods for humans for thousands of years – also beer and wine and other kinds of exotic foodstuffs. It goes back a long way.
What do you think are the key areas, with respect to food and human behaviours, that we need to focus more upon if we’re going to try and improve our dysfunctional food systems?
Well, I have to admit, I’m kind of a cynic about the outpouring of interest in food waste we’ve had over the last few years because most of what’s wasted is not wasted in kitchens by people throwing away their onion peelings. If you look at the way the system works, if we cut out food waste, farmers would go bankrupt because the system requires waste to keep it going. Most consumer capitalism depends on waste to keep things moving. I can’t tell you how many “food security and Covid” conferences and talks I’ve been invited to in the last year. It’s really kind of depressing. I think a lot of people who know little or nothing about food are jumping into this and redoing a lot of scholarship and ignoring a lot of other scholarship that’s inconvenient. (Like the fact that home cooking is less energy efficient than making big batches in cafeterias and central kitchens.)
So you are sceptical about big trends?
When Slow Food started I was very interested and spent some time at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, and I watched that dream lose its revolutionary potential, shall we say. It started out as a kind of really interesting mix of how you could have pleasure connected with politics. And I think that’s been part of the food discourse for a while, that there’s this strange relationship between the pleasures of eating and politics, but I think people forgot that totalitarian states do it too! You know, Hitler was a vegetarian, and his state was responsible for providing cheap food. It’s the same with other dictators who have often gotten to power at times when food prices were going up or access to different kinds of food was being cut off. A lot of the newly ex-colonial countries in the 1960s and 1970s immediately tried to keep out foreign food and get citizens to eat local food as a policy. Most of them were overthrown when people found out they could no longer buy English peas or the kind of white rice that they were used to.
Talking about long conferences on the internet, I guess you have heard about the rise of internet food cultures and practises like Mukbang, which is super popular in South Korea. What’s your take on food-related practices shifting to or arising within the digital realm?
It makes tremendous sense to me because food is visual and audible and the pleasures of food go far beyond eating it. The Japanese, for example, are really great at making food look good and making food into art and a form of design, but the idea that you could completely separate that aspect from the material food came about with the internet. You had cooking manga, but it was still really grounded in particular dishes from particular places. I think what we’re seeing now, with 3D printing food and food that is grown in labs or in greenhouses and farms that are enclosed, or these new aquaponic systems – is that food can be disconnected from place. In many ways, it’s become more abstract and less real. And I think a lot of people see that as a threat as well as an opportunity.
That’s a really good point. As I mentioned Mukbang, I thought about the popularity of TV cookery shows since the early 1950s – Fanny Craddock, Julia Child and so on. All these TV chefs brought new and quite exotic food cultures to the masses, certainly in the UK and I’m sure in the United States as well. So in a way the internet has brought with it a natural extension of watching people talking about, preparing and eating food on the screen – a vicarious sharing of food.
In a sense that was always part of the food experience, because food itself is gone after you consume it. It disappears, it has no permanence. I was asked once to write for a book on the materiality of food by some archaeologists. But in a sense the materiality is really the least important part of it because you can’t eat the same food twice, right? If you don’t eat it, it’s not food – it is waste. And before you eat it, it is only potential food. It only becomes food after it’s gone, basically. So in that sense, the object that we’re thinking about and talking about is never really there. We can only talk about imaginary, potential or remembered food either before we eat it or after we eat it, but our mouths are full while we’re eating.
That’s really interesting. We just published a piece that talks about a cookbook written in Aleppo in the Middle Ages, which was full of exotic palace recipes. It was greatly reproduced and shared at the time and is in print again today. So even back then it was apparently massively popular to vicariously enjoying these recipes by reading a book.
I had a Korean student, now Dr, Chi-Hoon Kim, who did her dissertation on food nationalism in Korea. The government spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to revive the court food of the last imperial court in Korea, which ended long ago. They tried to turn this into the national cuisine in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it was not popular, and the attempt failed. It’s like taking an ancient language and trying to make it a modern language. As far as I know, Israel is the only place that’s done that successfully with Hebrew, but I think it’s almost impossible when it comes to food. The past is something that we imagine as much as anything – even when we have experienced it, how do we remember what we ate at a particular meal? I think Proust probably made up the whole thing about the madeleines after the fact, but he did a wonderful job with the words to evoke the dish. I’ve had soggy madeleines, ones that are a little stale are not good, but he never mentioned those.
You’ve worked with and researched a lot of different cultures during your career. What food-related community or ritual practices really stood out for you? Of whom would you say, “Oh they have a really healthy food culture?”
That’s a really good question. I guess, one thing I really enjoyed when I was doing fieldwork in the rainforest in Belize in the 1980s and early ’90s, was that kids could take me out into the forest and show me dozens of things that you could eat. In the late afternoon after school, kids would kind of fan out into the forest and find little birds, or chase crabs in the river, or catch fish, or find wild fruit. They had a kind of knowledge that children were passing down to each other through generations. After I did that fieldwork, a colleague went and looked at generations of children growing up fifteen or twenty years later, and most of it had been lost. Partially because so much of the rainforest was now gone, but also because kids were now interested in salty snacks and sweet snacks from shops. So they were out trying to figure out how to make some money in the afternoons instead of foraging in the rainforest.
I don’t want to make it sound like an ideal time that was suffused with the love of nature and all the things that we expect from indigenous people, but on the other hand, that depth of knowledge has become a source of food security for those same people today, because with the pandemic a lot of the communities shut themselves off and decided to keep outsiders away, and they formed their own organisations that carried surpluses from villages to other villages for distribution. So I think there’s a well of resilience still there among indigenous people that has not disappeared, as everybody thought it would.
What about grains? There seems to be a growing awareness of the necessity for seed stewards and preserving ancient varieties. I find that heartening: stories of people taking care of species and the seeds. It is something that is probably going to serve us all quite well globally in the future isn’t it?
There is an issue with this kind of discourse about exotic and underused crops that are not being exploited. There was a fashion in the development communities in the 1970s and 1980s to find these plants that were going to be miracle foods. For example, my colleague and co-author Emma McDonell did her research with quinoa farmers in the highlands of Peru. The success of quinoa was not a great thing in the long run for the indigenous people who had been saving the seeds. But poor urban people don’t get to eat it any more because and the price has been driven so high, so they are buying instant noodles and instant ramen instead, which, in a really strange transformation, has kind of taken over as a lunch food in many parts of the world.
Moringa is another one, I think we’re on the third go-round on moringa, because it was going to restore lost forests in the 1980s, and then it was going to be a source of charcoal to replace cooking fuels, and now, of course, you can eat the leaves and the fruits. One of my former students now makes part of her living selling powdered moringa and smoothies in Belize. So you know, in some ways there are two sides to the story about under-utilising foods, and loss of seeds, and loss of knowledge, and that is that sense of nostalgia sets them up to be marketed in ways that really take it out of the control of people who originally domesticated and owned it. It’s a form of bioprospecting in a way. Indigenous people have very mixed feelings about foreigners who come to preserve the diversity of their crops because they can lose control of those crops – an ownership based on thousands of years of domestication. I’m not trying to cast a pall over all the good things that are going on in the food world, because there are many great things happening.
Shifting to another kind of growing, what fields, with respect to food studies, do you think will grow in importance in the future?
In terms of academics or in terms of the real world?
Good question. Maybe academic study?
The academic world is nothing if not conservative and is always startled by a new development that’s been around in the world for a while. You know, having spent a good part of my life in universities, I’ve always told my students not to expect rapid innovation around here. Universities and the Catholic Church are the only two institutions that remain from the middle ages and they didn’t get that longevity by zig-zagging and innovating. But I think the ideology of food and the politics of food are not going to go away as topics. And I’m hoping that sometime in the next ten or fifteen years, people will recognise that you can’t produce your way out of a food problem.
My entire life, what I’ve heard is: we need to grow more food because there are so many hungry people: “Eat your beans, there are children starving in India.” It’s a great moral lesson, but it totally misstates what the real problem is with hunger: that people don’t go hungry if they have money to buy food. Food is there, but they can’t afford it. It’s always political strife, conflict and poverty that cause hunger, not a lack of food. So this excuse that agribusiness and developmental organisations have been using for the last 50 years: that we need to grow more food or stop wasting food because then we’ll have enough to feed the hungry – it doesn’t work that way. We have enough food to feed everyone on the planet pretty well if we all ate a lot less meat, but free-market capitalism is not a great way to distribute food evenly and fairly.
There does, at least, seem to be an increasing understanding that we need to get away from the idea of “growth”, in the sense of more production, as a cure to the world’s ills, but what are the alternatives – or where do we search for them in your view?
I think the discourses on human rights, and food and shelter and water, are converging in some really interesting ways. We now have people talking about the right to water, the right to shelter, and the right to food in ways that may end up striking at this serpent of productivism – this idea that somehow if we just find the right seeds or the right chemicals, or get rid of all the chemicals, or get rid of all the GMOs…
We’ve constantly been told that genetically modified plants and animals are going to be more productive, and that will end hunger. But when there is more production, usually what happens is that prices fall, and small farmers who are feeding themselves and their community go out of business.
The conflict over farm policy going on in India right now, for example, has been brewing for the entire 20th century: the question of whether governments should be supporting farmers by subsidizing them or controlling prices. Neoliberalism has been about taking away support for the farms and for food production and letting the market take care of it. And if we know one thing, it’s that the market is not really good at justice. The market is not really good at distributing things fairly and evenly. It may be worse to have a bureaucrat doing it, but there have to be some alternatives. And I think that those alternatives are what a lot of activists and people in academia, who are involved with food security, are trying to find: ways of distributing food that are neither clumsily bureaucratic nor market-based. Because certainly, charity is not a long-term answer. I’ve been involved with one of our local food banks, I used to send students there to do service learning, and while it reflects so well on the generosity of the community, it’s not a permanent solution. Although in the US with the failure of government it’s all that people have. And I think that’s really tragic.
At the same time, we’re also going to see a lot more food tech because high-tech and food is kind of a moving frontier for robotics and genetics. They can’t keep their hands off of it. So conventional farms and the whole food system are going to face all kinds of new pressures that we can barely anticipate today.
Interview by Sophie & Orlando Lovell
Richard R. Wilk is an American anthropologist best known for his work in economic anthropology, but focusing most recently on food. He has published hundreds of works on topics including human ecology, consumer behaviour, beauty pageants, Maya culture, bad poetry, and visual anthropology. Wilk moved to Indiana University in 1988 and is currently Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus of Anthropology there. He has also held visiting professorships at University College London, University of California at Berkeley, The National University of Singapore, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Marseille, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Richard Wilk’s latest publication, edited together with Emma McDonell, is called “Critical Approaches to Superfoods” and is available from Bloomsbury Academic. He is married to the archaeologist Anne Pyburn and together they are parents of the author Elvia Wilk.
Elvia Vasconcelos (no relation), who illustrated this conversation for The Common Table, is a design researcher who has been working in the digital industry for the past 10 years. She is also a graphic recorder, sometimes known as a “sketchnoter”, which means someone who uses simple drawings and notes to map information and communicate stories in a simple, clear and engaging way. Elvia is based in Lisbon, Portugal. Follow her on Instagram @sketchnotes_are_awesome.