Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Christopher Annear was recently interviewed for the “Cooking with Ideas” blog on the topic of anthropology and food.
Annear wrote an article “‘GM or Death’: Food and Choice in Zambia,” which originally appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. It was recently reprinted in the Best of Gastronomica special journal issue and caught the eye of the blog’s author, which inspired an interview. The interview as reprinted in the blog expands on Annear’s research which he says focuses “on fisheries, food and funerals.”
In describing the field of anthropology and what drew him to it, Annear notes, “Anthropology is the study of people, especially the cultural norms we generate and perpetuate socially within groups. What attracts me to the discipline is its ‘problem’ or issue focus without concern for disciplinary boundaries. Anthropologists draw upon the knowledge and tools necessary to comprehend focal issues with human social experience. Typically we begin to study issues from the ground up, with long-term fieldwork being a vital component of our practice.”
“I study the Mweru-Luapula freshwater fishery located in northern Zambia and southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. About 250,000 people live on the shores of the fishery and benefit from its produce and economy. My fieldwork focus is on how communities of people fish, trade fish and adapt to the vicissitudes of regional ecology. The fishery is theoretically fascinating because scientists, colonial administrators, and even many Zambians have long expected Mweru-Luapula to be a manifestation of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ yet my analysis shows this to be a robust human and ecological system,” he said.
He adds he also studies food in Zambia as a political arena, as well as “Zambian funerals as sites of cultural transition and cleavage. For example, in matrilineal northern Zambia relatives from a deceased person’s maternal side and those related by marriage often argue over who should receive the inheritance.”
Annear joined the HWS faculty in 2011 and holds a B.A. in cultural anthropology from Hampshire College, and a master’s and Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Boston University. He served as a 2012-2013 Fisher Center Research Fellow, studying a project that touched on last year’s Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men topic, “Gender, Collectivity, and the Common.” His project focused on the “sexual parallelism” of men and women’s lives (the seemingly separate lives) in the Luapula Valley.
Annear’s article in Gastronomica can still be found online.
The full blog interview follows.
Cooking with Ideas
Anthropology and Food: An Interview with Chris Annear
August 24, 2013
Every once in a while, I am surprised by how small the world is. So, I purchased an issue of Gastronomica, which I read on occasion and love. And, it hung around in my briefcase for ages, as I slowly read along. Then, startlingly enough, a familiar name! A faculty person from Hobart and William Smith has a piece in the issue I have been carrying around. How swell. And, then I ran into him recently and persuaded him to do this interview. His name: Chris Annear. His position: Assistant Professor of Anthropology. His picture? Here:
[Photo of Chris Annear]
And, more importantly, here is our conversation.
Bibliochef: So, I have obviously read your piece in Gastronomica – but let us start with describing your work more generally. I know you are an anthropologist and have been pursuing it since at least your undergraduate days. What drew you to anthropology? And, for readers that are not academics, could you say what anthropology is?
Chris: Hi Bibliochef! I appreciate the opportunity to discuss my work. In a nutshell, I work on fisheries, food and funerals. I like to think of myself as an intellectual omnivore, but it seems that my topical tastes are more related than they may seem. Since I first studied anthropology and food at Hampshire College, I find that my interests have routinely returned to the same set of themes and topics as my career has matured. Aside from the alliteration of these topic names, the central themes that tie them together include human social experience and politics of sustenance. These were the themes that first drew me to anthropology as an undergraduate-although subconsciously at first.
I initially wanted to study animal behavior in college, but my mind was changed during a bumbling trip to learn about wild turkeys in New Mexico in January of my first year. My advisor at the time sent me out to help a friend of his at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish relocate a flock of wild turkeys from one to another area of the state. I had asked to learn more about animal management, so I was thrilled at the chance to experience it first hand. However, things went contrary to expectation almost immediately upon arrival. In short we failed to catch and relocate the turkeys, but instead I learned all about the politics of how hunting and conservation interests are intertwined. I received an education about how human groups fight over natural (food) resources. Unlike the turkeys, I was hooked! I found the people to be far more interesting than the animals.
Anthropology is the study of people, especially the cultural norms we generate and perpetuate socially within groups. What attracts me to the discipline is its “problem” or issue focus without concern for disciplinary boundaries. Anthropologists draw upon the knowledge and tools necessary to comprehend focal issues with human social experience. Typically we begin to study issues from the ground up, with long-term fieldwork being a vital component of our practice.
I study the Mweru-Luapula freshwater fishery located in northern Zambia and southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. About 250,000 people live on the shores of the fishery and benefit from its produce and economy. My fieldwork focus is on how communities of people fish, trade fish and adapt to the vicissitudes of regional ecology. The fishery is theoretically fascinating because scientists, colonial administrators, and even many Zambians have long expected Mweru-Luapula to be a manifestation of the “tragedy of the commons,” yet my analysis shows this to be a robust human and ecological system. My other work, as you know, includes studying food in Zambia, both its presence and absence, as a political arena. I have begun to research Zambian funerals as sites of cultural transition and cleavage. For example, in matrilineal northern Zambia relatives from a deceased person’s maternal side and those related by marriage often argue over who should receive the inheritance.
Bibliochef: As an undergraduate at Hampshire College you wrote a thesis on the public culture of eating out in ethnic restaurants. Did you have an experience that made this an important topic for you?
Chris: I had long been interested in how groups of people learn about each other. So, I began with the hypothesis that American ideas about people from other countries are at least somewhat shaped by how other people’s foods are served to us in so-called ethnic restaurants. If this was the case, I thought, it would be fascinating to imagine that American restaurant patrons learn to think about Chinese people through the sugared down cuisine meant to appeal to an American palate.
Bibliochef: Given its title, “Going Native with Disposable Chopsticks,” I must ask: are you good with chopsticks?
Chris: Not as good as I should be!
Bibliochef: From Hampshire, you went on to Boston University – and worked on Zambia, as you mentioned earlier. Why Zambia? And how does that connect to your early interest in food (and, I assume, in ethnicity)?
Chris: My experience in Zambia began as a happy happenstance. I was placed in Zambia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Although as a Volunteer my work was to help people construct fishponds, it took me awhile to connect Zambia and my interest in food. The Zambian food staples I ate daily are actually pretty bland to my taste. These included nshima, a stiff bready porridge, boiled leaves, and caterpillars when in season. But when I eventually learned to recognize the centrality of food to family, ethnicity, and funerals, my interest grew. For example, there is an oft-repeated proverb in Chibemba, the language spoken predominately throughout northern Zambia, that states, “abalya mbulu, balapalamana.” This translates to those who eat water monitors stick together.
Bibliochef: Ok, clearly I have to think through my eating habits! Has that work lead you to take a position on fisheries and related international law?
Chris: Yes, in general people deserve the right to access the food resources they need to live sustainably.
Bibliochef: If you were saying what theorist has affected your understanding of the meaning of food, any that pop to mind?
Chris: Like many others, I am indebted to Sidney Mintz and Michael Pollan. In their own ways they have shown me how food meanings are created socially and politically.
Bibliochef: As you noted, in your alliterative list, you also work on funeral cultures and mourning. I think Nancy Jay (in Throughout Your Generations Forever) has argued well that community and eating together are quite definitely related. And, of course, there is terrific work out there on mourning in terms of history and symbolic analyses. (Ok, I admit it, I co-edited a book entitled Mourning Religion.) Do you have a view of how food serves a role in funerals and mourning? In ritual more generally?
Chris: These are among the biggest and most important questions regarding food, in my opinion. Food and drink are, of course, symbols of community, but they are also mechanisms for social cohesion and exclusion. People in rural northern Zambia embrace clanship as a means of social organization. Each clan is categorized under a totemic figurehead such as a tilapia, crocodile, or mushroom. Not only do those within the groups so named avoid eating these potential foods, but regions become known for the supposedly odd foods people there consume. People in the Luapula region where I work are known as “savage fish eaters” (abatubulu) because fishers are said to eat the fish they catch on one side of their boat although they defecate off the other side. This becomes a tongue-in-cheek slur when Luapulans accuse their supposed adversaries in the eastern part of the country as being nothing but “primitive rat eaters.” The reason I say these are supposed adversaries is because members of the clans and regions that joke in this way also bury each other’s dead. This joking relationship that is formed to an important extent by food plays an integral role in modes of burial and mourning in Zambia.
Bibliochef: Does your work affect what you are willing to eat?
Chris: Very much so. The more I study, taste, and commune with people around food the more I wish to do so! I was a vegetarian for seven years prior to cycling across the United States in 1992. On her birthday my girlfriend at the time and I were offered steak by a kind man in Blacksburg, VA named Dick Moose. At that moment I decided that I would rather accept his gracious hospitality than refuse a type of food. I haven’t restricted my palate since.
Bibliochef: It seems to me, in the past years, that the topic of food has resurfaced as a topic of academic interest; at Hobart and William Smith, for example, there was a long prior history of attention to food through Farm House (alas now defunct), a very early course on World Hunger (taught, I think, by Professors Dick Heaton and Eric Patterson), for example. And, now, there is the notion of a food studies minor. Why do you think the topic has resurfaced now in this way?
Chris: Thanks for the food studies minor plug! We hope to have it up and running soon. I think the only change from the past to the present is our collective recognition of food as an area worthy of scholarly focus. As we have discussed here, it is central to our social and visceral lives as human beings. Perhaps it took scholars such as Sidney Mintz to show us how food can provide an organizing structure for understanding power, class, and an economy of exploitation as he does in his book, Sweetness and Power.
Bibliochef: Well, I have to admit that the folks who ran the World Hunger course and others certainly thought it a worthy topic of academic interest. But, I suspect they were looking at the topic somewhat differently. Are there any ways you would critique the foodie culture that seems to pervade American culture these days?
Chris: While I can never encapsulate all people who might self-identify as foodies, I am concerned that ideas related to being a foodie connect too closely with the consumption of rarified foods and class privilege. I would like to see greater affinity and involvement among foodies in issues of social justice and access to healthy foods for all people.
Bibliochef: And, of course, I must ask: you have published in scholarly books and in The Journal of Political Ecology. And yet, I encountered your work in Gastronomica. Would you comment on that journal – as well as the relationship between academia and the varieties of publication venues where we do our work?
Chris: I am greatly privileged to have published in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. It is a wide-ranging publication about food with deliciously diverse tastes. Although it peer-reviews submitted manuscripts, it offers more than a disciplinary journal. Just as a culinary dish must be contextualized, sampled, studied, and integrated into its broader systems in order to be understood, Darra Goldstein, Corky White and other editors of Gastronomica recognize that food must not be constrained by medium or discipline. I think rigorous but also richly unbound journals such as Gastronomica exhibit the collaborative and interdisciplinary future of academia.
Bibliochef: And now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Chris: I like to eat, but I love to cook even more. While in the Peace Corps I had several basil plants growing out front of my small thatch-roof house, a cast-iron pot, a charcoal brazier, and a neighbor with a wood-fired oven made of corrugated steel roofing sheets. Over an 8-hour stretch while listening to the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio I baked pesto lasagna with homemade ricotta (lemon curdled, bandanna drained), fresh tomato marinara sauce, mortar-pestle pounded pesto, noodles from scratch, and eggs from my resident chickens. Bana Chibi baked the baguette loaves I prepared and I washed it down with a South African red wine flown to Lusaka, Zambia and hand carried the other 1,000 kilometers to my site. Although I ate alone, my pride in creation and time to think made this one of the most fulfilling meals of my life.
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why?
Chris: I love to cook to the tango music of Charles Gardel and kazoo cheer of Paolo Conte. Although not directly about it, they sound like good food. I enjoy Mark Kurlansky’s light touch in regards to oysters, cod and his histories of other foods. Bill Buford’s Heat (reviewed some time ago here on Cookingwithideas) and most things by Tony Bourdain constitute guilty gustatory pleasures.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Chris: Two eggs over easy, crispy home fries with lots of hot sauce, buttered wheat toast, coffee and sour grapefruit juice.
Bibliochef: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes region? If so, what is it?
Chris: I love most of the restaurants around Seneca Lake. Among these are Ports, Danos, Redman’s, Dallywater’s, Suzanne’s, Halseys, Red Dove, Pure, Stone Cat, and Uncle Joe’s. But my “favorite” is always the one that serves my next meal, because anticipation makes the food tastier!
Bibliochef: Okay, now there is a list and an answer! What am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What’s your answer?
Chris: My mouth is full and my mind sated. Thank you!