Dr. Megan Elias will be teaching Special Topics in Gastronomy: Race, Ethnicity and Food during the Fall 2020 semester. This 4-credit course will examine how constructions and experiences of race and ethnicity shape and are shaped by foodways. Both positive and negative definitions of racial and ethnic identities delimit access to and use of different foodstuffs and preparations. In this class we explore these processes, focusing particularly on North America. We will read widely in the literature, paying close attention to intersectional scholarship to understand how limitations related to race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender and sexuality reinforce each other and are also challenged and resisted together. Students will be responsible for participating in and sometimes leading discussion, completing regular writing assignments and designing and completing a semester-long research project.
This class will meet on Wednesday evenings, from 6 to 8:45 PM, starting on September 2nd. The course is open to graduate students and advanced undergraduates. Non-degree students may also register. Please contact email@example.com for more information.
In response to the food-system challenges of pandemic and structural violence, Dr. Ellen Messer has been revising MET ML 721, "US Food Policy and Cultural Politics" to integrate themes from our cutting edge conversations. New formats and materials include integration of new readings and Zoom recordings on food-security issues associated with pandemic and racial disparities, new films and videos associated with struggles for land and food rights in different US locations, podcasts featuring the voices of new community leaders of color, and strengthened sections on gardening and labor issues.
We invite you to read the updated course description:
This course overviews the forces shaping U.S. food and nutrition policies, diets, and cultural politics in the twenty-first century. Special emphases in 2020 include critical responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and nation-wide demands for an end to all forms of racial and ethnic violence and injustice. Course resources and discussions cover the history of U.S. domestic food policy, the Farm Bill, “self-reliance” versus “comparative advantage,” and "sustainability/resilience" versus “efficiency,” and rights-based vs needs-based approaches as drivers of American agricultural, dietary, and food-regulatory policies. All topics and sessions integrate consideration of the multiple ways nutrition policies intersect with health disparities associated with systemic racism, inequalities, and violence. Using Greater Boston as a reference case in point, these discussions critically examine how 2020 nutrition-policy efforts by civil society and government align goals and actions to move forward from hunger to health, and use an “equity lens” to link short-term thinking with longer term outcomes. Concluding sessions probe responses to the question, “Is there a human right to food in the United States?”-- what additional actions are required?
"Food systems," "food chains," and "dietary structure" provide major analytical frameworks for tracing how food moves from farm to table, and the role of local through national government and private for-profit and non-profit non-government institutions in managing these food flows. Within each and considering the food system as a whole, course materials and discussions examine structural violence and persistent inequalities, and the ways policy, practice, and performance mitigate or exacerbate nutritional differences and enlarge or restrict the many voices of those impacted.
Class projects throughout the term explore how the current context affects particular food categories and food value chains, and the ways institutions are developing new strategies and tactics to address recent challenges. Assigned readings about regional food-sheds will draw on Northeast and
New England case studies, but participants joining from a distance will be able to contribute comparative information and experiences from their home locations, where comparable multi-sectoral “food security” and “sustainable food systems” initiatives intersect with “globalization from below.” These policy discussions constructively analyze the multiple layers of regulations and policies, and civil-society organizations and networks, which shape U.S. food systems and food chains at federal, state, municipal, and community levels. They highlight the significance of policy, practice, and performance that influence the varying outcomes and impacts of federal programs at state and local levels.
- Learn the basic structures, operations, and functions of U.S. federal, state, and local food agencies; their connections to non-government food agencies; and the ways these organizations manage official and parallel (supplementary) food systems, more or less effectively, to ensure everyone in the U.S., without discrimination, has access to nutritionally adequate food.
- Engage the challenges of preventing overweight, obesity, and associated chronic disease in the US food and policy context, including challenges to de-link ethnic, racial, and economic disparities from adverse nutritional-health outcomes.
- Be able to use USDA and FDA web-based information platforms for commodity policy analysis and advocacy, and critique associated structural inequalities associated with farm and nutrition programs.
- Understand sustainable food systems models, methods, and materials, as these motivate food-policy councils’ analysis, strategies, and actions; and recent efforts to include more diverse community voices in these processes.
MET ML 721 A1, US Food Policy Cultural Politics will meet on Tuesday evenings, from 6 to 8:45 PM, starting on September 8th in on campus/Learn from Anywhere format. The course is open to graduate students and advanced undergraduates. Non-degree students may also register. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Dear Gastronomy community,
We write today in solidarity with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, their families, and those protesting injustice and police brutality across the country who have been met with a brutal, militarized police force. It is with sadness and rage that we add to the growing list of victims David McAtee, a chef and owner of Yaya’s BBQ who was known as “a community pillar,” who “fed the police for free and didn’t charge them nothing,” who was shot and killed by police during protests in Louisville on Monday.
We have heard the calls to action, read the pleas for justice and reform, seen the links to donate and the numbers to call. Perhaps we have opened our wallets or shown up at rallies to demonstrate our support. Perhaps, given the context of an unprecedented global pandemic, we have not been able to do as much as we would like. Perhaps we simply do not know what to do, where to put our time, our resources, and our energy.
We write today to urge our fellow gastronauts to answer these calls, not just today or this week, but in everything that we do as food industry professionals, scholars, and activists.
Let us not forget that the US agricultural industry depends, and has always depended, on the exploitation of marginalized racial minorities. That the hospitality industry was first envisioned in the context of enslavement. That many of Boston’s famed food enterprises, like rum and baked beans, depended on the byproducts of sugar produced by enslaved laborers. That food access is a question of economic justice and housing justice; that food justice efforts must therefore reckon with the fact that racial wealth disparities (the net worth of white Bostonians is on average 31,000 times higher than that of Black Bostonians) are generational and institutional. That land ownership in this country is steeped in anti-Black racist policy, and that Black farmers continue to document discrimination at the local, state, and federal levels of government.
In short, majority white-led food policy, institutions, industries, and even activism, are all involved, directly or indirectly, historically and into the present, in racist systems that perpetrate violence against Black Americans. Those of us with racial privilege, who are over-represented at the highest echelons of our fields, must act, and our action must be ongoing.
As individuals we must:
Read and cite Black scholars, writers, and activists. Across specialties and platforms, we must amplify black voices. In food media and academia alike, we must push back against the dominant discourse that the white experience is the only experience, or the only experience that matters. We must hold ourselves accountable for doing this work every day.
Divest from the prison industrial complex. We must do the research at the personal and institutional level. Are our program funds, our retirement savings, or the investments of our friends and families growing due to the forced labor of disproportionately Black prisoners? Are we aware of all the companies (like Whole Foods) that depend on prison labor? Are we considering this when we “vote with our dollars?”
Restructure and redistribute wealth. This does not mean a one-time donation to a bail fund (still, please donate to a bail fund!). This means monthly payments to organizations who are doing the work to address racial injustice and violence (in its many forms) against Black Americans. This means using our skills, expertise, art, connections, and platform to raise money for these organizations (regardless of the news cycle). This means making the choice to dedicate our free labor to these causes. Please see this piece in Civil Eats for a list of organizations working towards food and land justice for Black Americans.
Vote in the interests of the most disenfranchised members of our community and country. This does not come down to a single election. This involves reading and listening to the voices, stories, experiences, and needs of the most marginalized, and then voting in their interests over our own.
As a community we must:
Make an official statement that the Gastronomy program is 100% in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, shared on all social media platforms including the Gastronomy Facebook page, Instagram, blog, and email. We must join the list of over 100 Boston University organizations pledging their support of the Black Lives Matter movement by partnering with Boston University’s Black Student Union (UMOJA organization) in their fundraiser.
Compile and promote resources that support the Black community and challenge systemic racism in the food industry, including but not limited to books, podcasts, websites, businesses, etc. Encourage students to utilize these resources.
Require that students and faculty address, analyze, and challenge systems of racism in their coursework. Academia in general, and food studies in particular, is overwhelmingly white. It is our duty to:
Address and challenge the predominantly white demographic that this discipline consists of and caters to.
Actively reflect on and challenge ways that systems of racism shape representation, power, and authority in the realm of food.
Acknowledge and analyze how race affects our positionality and privilege in the understanding of foodways in the classroom, in our work, and in any other platform in which we critically discuss food.
Integrate and uplift classwork, readings, speakers, and businesses from communities of color to help dismantle dominant white-centered discourse in academia.
The above are actions that we must all take, individually and collectively, to the degree that we are able, as often as we are able. But this list is not exhaustive. We ask students and faculty to respond with one action item, no matter how small, that they will be taking to address racism in their work and move towards a discourse of anti-racism in food studies.
In the words of Audre Lorde, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We cannot remain silent on these issues and ignore the role of racial oppression in our industry. We who love studying and working with food must recognize the institutional, systematic racism embedded in the field and actively work to undo it.
This program’s solidarity is crucial during this time. Please do not choose silence. Stay connected, stay engaged, and stay safe.
Elizabeth Weiler and Danielle Jacques are candidates for the MLA in Gastronomy
Gastronomy student Carolyn Holt wrote today's post as part of her work in MET ML 641, Anthropology of Food.
It is hard to overestimate the impact that COVID-19 is having on global supply chains. Awareness of the supply chain effects may have begun with the runs on toilet paper, hand soap, and canned beans at local supermarkets, but more recent accounts of supply chain disruption communicate the scale. Vivid images from all over the country of dairy producers dumping milk and vegetables plowed back into the ground surprised people reading about increased demand at food banks, prompting indignant questions on social media. Many food banks and related food distributors have limited storage capacity for fresh produce (and fewer volunteers than ever), and farms have limited processing capabilities. As Chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen (which specializes in disaster-response food production and distribution) pointed out on Twitter recently, “we have a food supply chain that we treat as invisible when it’s working...and only notice it when it’s not.”
What is now more obvious than ever is what scholars of famine have known for decades: there is food, and there is hunger; what’s missing is the distribution infrastructure (and political will) to connect producers with eaters. Some have argued that this moment illustrates the need for food sovereignty, and given the record sales of seedlings and seeds (and renewed interest in seed-saving) for home and community gardens it seems that many with access to land agree. But for small-scale farmers, adapting to the crisis has presented a series of challenges, and a steep learning curve.
Farmers who worked with restaurants are finding new ways to reach consumers, as some restaurants convert to grocery stores and some distributors and wholesalers pivot to home delivery. CSA shares have exploded in popularity, but most growth seems limited to farms that had CSA processing and packing capabilities before the pandemic. Some CSAs are arranged by farmers, others by coalitions, and while some are able to offer home delivery others deliver to CSA sites.
Farmers’ markets, which are (generally) better equipped than CSAs to accept federal nutrition benefits like SNAP and WIC, are subject to variable local and state regulation which has left some farmers scrambling. In efforts to negotiate social distancing guidelines, farmers’ markets have innovated: many are now “drive-thru” and some have developed online order and payment capacities to bundle purchases. This article from Boston Magazine outlines some of the options available to those in the city as of a few weeks ago.
I left Boston to shelter-at-home with family in New Hampshire after classes moved online, and a highlight of each week of social isolation has been picking up beautiful mushrooms, parsnips, and salad greens from Longview Farm’s one-at-a-time, self-service farmstand. In an effort to connect New Hampshirites to local farmers, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension began developing the New Hampshire Farm Products Map, which went live a few weeks ago. The Map not only includes farm locations and crop listings, but employment opportunities and non-food items like compost, hay, and cut flowers. As spring finally comes to New Hampshire, I am looking forward to stopping by Owens Truck Farm and learning about other local producers. Other local resources include the New Hampshire Food Alliance and the Facebook pages of farmers markets.
In Everyone Eats, E. N. Anderson notes that historically, “shifts in foodways often come from ecological or economic changes,” (Anderson 2014, 109). I am hopeful that the attention to the failures of our global food systems prompted by COVID-19 will translate into renewed connection with and appreciation for local food systems and the people who create them. Whether the capacity- and community-building facilitated by innovative responses to global supply chain disruption has staying power remains to be seen.
Anderson, Eugene N. 2014. Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture. New York: New York University Press.
This post, by Gastronomy student Amy Johnson, is part of our series from students in MET ML619, the Science of Food and Cooking.
“So this one is a bit of a trust fall,” a blonde waitress explains to me. I sit idly, my curiosity intrigued. “It’s punchy, grippy, but definitely one of my favorites.” She carefully pours the liquid into the thin-framed wine glass directly in front of me.
As the waitress walks away, I hear snickers from my partner. “Grippy?” he asks with a cocked eyebrow. He watches me swirl the red inky liquid in its glass, take a sip, and nod approvingly — his eyebrow still raised in question.
This “trust fall” is actually a glass of Nebbiolo, a red wine native to the Piedmont area of Italy. It harbors some common taste descriptors such as rose and black cherry, coupled with leather, clay pot, and star anise. As my taste buds perceive these flavors, I attempt to determine the wine’s grippy-ness. It is, perhaps, a combination of ethyl phenol and vinyl guaiacol. These compounds are joined together with the molecules commonly found in an oak barrel fermentation, which contains lactones (or is that benzaldehyde?) and is thus digging into my taste receptors, drawing out its moisture. I second guess myself — I’m detecting octenol, not benzaldehyde!
It’s all quite dizzying, no? Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you to the world of wine. In this lesson, we’ll discuss the role of mouthfeel in our perception of taste. Follow along, and feel free to ask questions if you need to.
Before we begin, it's important to note the differences in mouthfeel versus taste. Though the act of perceiving mouthfeel is typically done in conjunction with taste, it is a separate sense. Wine experts often reference mouthfeel in blind tastings in order to distinguish a wine’s unique characteristics; it is not uncommon to hear the words chewy, fleshy, or grippy mentioned during a wine tasting among top sommeliers. As Wine Spectator’s glossary of terms explains, “Mouthfeel is influenced by wine components, as acidity can be sharp, alcohol can be hot, tannins can be rough and sugar can be thick or cloying.” This type of tactile vocabulary allows sommeliers to discern one wine from another. But confusion ensues for the novice drinker who attempts to understand that a liquidus substance, such as wine, can have textural elements.
However, when these descriptors are applied to more everyday products, the lines aren’t so blurred. The typical wine novice might be stumped at the difference between a wine with viscosity and a wine that’s astringent. Yet this same consumer may shamelessly dump creamer in their coffee while scuffing at the idea of drinking black coffee. Why? Because they enjoy the viscosity, or “weight,” of the added cream and dislike the bitterness associated with black coffee. Cream adds body to the caffeinated liquid, cutting through its otherwise tannic qualities. This is how we can perceive the mouthfeel of liquids, and ultimately identify perceptions of taste.
Another way of understanding mouthfeel in its relation to taste is to focus on the wine’s components. For most white wines, this is acidity, and for most red wines, this is tannins. Tannins are astringent compounds that grip at the sides of your mouth, drying out the taste receptors. Acidity is a bit more linear in its description, partly because we have all experienced the zing! of a fresh orange. Consumers can also identify acidity in different scales. For example, most consumers prefer the taste of fresh oranges, some might also prefer fresh grapefruit, and almost no one enjoys biting into a lemon. These varying levels of acidity can give wine its crispiness, another category of mouthfeel. In an article titled The Indescribable Texture of Wine, wine writer Eric Asimov notes, “Too much acidity and a wine can feel harsh and aggressive. Too little and it feels flabby and shapeless. During the making of a wine, the acidity can evolve from the crispness of malic acids in the direction of softer lactic acids. Interestingly, lactic acids often provide a creamy texture to a wine.”
Thus far, we have identified flavor, viscosity (weight), tannins, acidity, crispness, and even creaminess. But arguably the most important, and most difficult to comprehend, is the discussion of a wine’s astringency.
As noted in the red wine mouthfeel wheel developed by Gawel et al., astringent-like descriptors make up more than half of the terminology employed in wine tasting. Astringency is particularly important in the role of mouthfeel as rougher, drier tannins can lead to the perception of a wine’s viscosity. These tannins coat the lubricating proteins in our saliva, forming little aggregates that make the saliva feel rough rather than liquidus. McGee (1987) summarizes this sensation best by stating, “This dry, constricting feeling, together with the smoothness and viscosity caused by the presence of alcohol and other extracted components, create the impression of the wine’s body... In strong young red wines, the tannins can be palpable enough that ‘chewy’ seems a good description. In excess, they are drying and harsh.”
Breaking it down further, we can begin to dissect my aforementioned glass of Nebbiolo. “Punchy” indicates the wine’s acidity levels, noting its youth, as the acid is strong enough to “punch” the inside of the mouth. Fermentation in oak barrels would lead us to the wine’s “grippy” qualities, in that it is, quite literally, gripping to the taste receptors. As for a wine that's chewy, we look towards its dynamic and astringent qualities, as in, “Let me chew on this for a minute before I make a decision.”
Indeed, it’s a bit of a trust fall.
Asimov, Eric. "The Indescribable Texture of Wine." The New York Times. January 10, 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/dining/the-indescribable-texture-of-wine.html.
Gawel, Richard, A. Oberholster, and I. Leigh Francis. "A ‘Mouth-feel Wheel’: Terminology for Communicating the Mouth-feel Characteristics of Red Wine." Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research 6, no. 3 (2000): 203-07. doi:10.1111/j.1755-0238.2000.tb00180.x.
"Glossary: Wine IQ: Wine Spectator." WineSpectator.com. https://www.winespectator.com/glossary/index/id/GL_mouthfeel.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Allen & Unwin, 1987.
"The Real Difference Between Flavor vs Taste." Wine Folly. March 14, 2016. http://winefolly.com/tips/taste-vs-flavor-vs-aroma.
Shepherd, Gordon M. Neuroenology How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine. Columbia University Press, 2017.
Wang, Qian Janice, and Charles Spence. "A Smooth Wine? Haptic Influences on Wine Evaluation." International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science 14 (2018): 9-13. doi:10.1016/j.ijgfs.2018.08.002.
 Shepherd, Gordon. 2017.
Here's another post in our series from Dr. Karen Metheny's Anthropology of Food class, by Gastronomy student David Ginivisian.
SPAM. When discussing canned meats, SPAM is arguably in a class by itself. Introduced domestically in 1939 as a convenient and affordable food, it has risen to an unlikely iconic status. The recognizable cans stacked on market shelves evoke a Warholian image. While there are other canned meats, SPAM reigns supreme over this legion of processed proteins. The option to purchase a shelf-stable meat product is beneficial, especially in our current state, offering both economical and nutritional value. Recent sequestering has led to many of us having extra time to cook at home while becoming more resourceful and creative in the kitchen. With pantries being stocked throughout the world for the potential long haul, the crisis provides opportunity for its continued culinary ascent in popularity.
The history of SPAM reveals a wondrous, almost unimaginable tale, traversing the globe with the U.S. WWII armed forces. And just like it provided valuable nutrition for the U.S. G.I.s, SPAM is, once again, at the ready to help get through this current world crisis. With over 15 variations, this spiced pork product, with global reach, is now welcomed into the cupboards and cultures of 44 countries.
Worldwide interest and creative marketing have given SPAM a life of its own, well beyond the shelfspace in global supermarkets. In addition to the multiple varieties, there is merchandise, memorabilia, and subculture with a vast interest for all things SPAM. Certainly, SPAM is not the only food with its own product branding strategy, Instagram account or annual street festival, but how many canned goods can you name that have a boulevard named after them? Or their own museum?
It is rare for such attention and hoopla to be associated with a convenience food. Despite its notoriety, versatility and popularity, SPAM is decidedly not for everyone. I am on the side of the latter. Never a staple in my Mother's kitchen, I can only recall sampling the product once. My college roommate was a big fan. Spurred on by his high praise, I tried it sliced and seared in a sandwich. Meh. Never since has there been a desire, need, or reason for me to include it in a recipe or meal.
While I can appreciate that this canned cube of six simple ingredients is a “go-to” for millions, I just don’t have a use for it. From my perspective as an outsider, SPAM is never the main focus of a recipe. Really a bit player that hijacks existing classics, it is forever attempting to insert itself into the lead role but never able to upstage an original. The plethora of international SPAM recipes including tacos, gyros, sushi is exhausting. All the while, this ingredient hides behind other, more interesting and appealing ingredients - an imposter of other, more legitimate foods. For example, would anyone consider a SPAM-LT to be a true substitute for a BLT? Akin to tofu replacing meat in a vegetarian recipe, SPAM has also oddly become a meat substitute. Seldom uttered in the same breath, does this improbable pair of proteins share more similarity than previously considered?
I have two SPAM memories related to 1970s American pop culture. The first is from of an episode of M*A*S*H. In this television dramedy about life in a Korean war U.S. hospital camp, Hawkeye, played by Alan Alda, creates a “SPAM lamb” in order to spare a real lamb from being served as the main course for an Easter mess hall dinner with a unit of Greek soldiers. Though I hadn’t noticed when watching reruns as a teen, I now see the producers had the ‘lamb’ set upon a tray of grape leaves next to a bottle of Ouzo and other Greek liquors.
The second memory is the one made famous by the Monty Python Sketch, aptly titled SPAM. This skit is a must-see glimpse into the comic brilliance of this troupe of British wits. Interestingly, the repeated Vikings’ chants of Spam, spam, spam, spam…. have been credited as the influence for the commonplace use of the word SPAM as reference to junk emails.
As homage to the irreverent three and a half minute performance, I submit the following recipe:
“Spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam”
Please enjoy the famously funny skit and credits from the 25th episode of Month Python's Flying Circus, which first aired on December 15, 1970.
Staples provide us with the basis of variety, and variety itself does seem to be one of our primal needs. COVID-19 has forced us to rethink what our staples are, what they mean to us, and our relationships with them. The following is a creative nonfiction piece, a collaboration by three classmates from Karen Pepper’s Food and Literature class, and is about the ways we are coping and thinking about our staple ingredients.
An Ode to the Staples I’d More or Less Forgotten About and How to Wing it with Them
This time has given me space to reflect on the staples. Flour, in particular. No, I am not baking bread,like a large portion of the inspired population, though I do not blame them for stress baking.
I am here to talk about the roux, the building block for other things: sauce, a thickener, maybe gravy. Mac and cheese is made of things that last: flour, butter, pasta, cheese, and salt. A béchamel may sound intimidating, but is nothing more than a handful of ingredients— those listed (sans pasta), and milk. Cook the pasta, drain and set aside. In a pot, over a medium heat, add a few knobs of butter, a healthy amount (here “healthy” means “generous”). Let melt, and add a spoonful of flour (about equal parts butter and flour). Whisk constantly for a couple minutes. Slowly whisk in a couple cups of milk and incorporate into the roux; let thicken, whisking occasionally. When thick, add loads of grated cheese, taste, and season with salt. Add vinegar or Tabasco to brighten it up. Pour the sauce over the pasta.
Alternatively, use a roux to thicken a soup and make it heartier. Melt the butter, whisk in the flour, then whisk vigorously, directly into a soup that is cooking. Let it simmer together for a few minutes. Play around with how long you cook your roux, using a dark roux or a light roux to experiment with depth of flavor.
Some use flour only to make vegan roux, the “dry roux.” Lay out some flour on a sheet tray and toast it in the oven. Whisk it into whatever sauce or soup to add body.
Staples foster versatility in cooking. I’m remembering ways to use flour that I’ve been too lazy or too busy to pull out of my back pocket. Flour is always laying around for one reason or another; now it’s for me and not the moths.
“Mush:” the Staple I Never Knew I Needed
Throughout my childhood I would look forward to Grandpa's "mush." My Grandpa was the king of making breakfast—bacon, sausage, homemade sourdough pancakes, fried eggs, toast, a big glass of OJ, and fried “mush”— a breakfast fit for a queen. The aromas drifting from the kitchen would linger throughout the air, hinting to my nose that breakfast was ready. I have gone through my life not knowing exactly what "mush" was, aside from the fact that it was delicious. Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, slathered with butter and syrup. Who knew it would take a pandemic to awaken my inner child-like appetite and reintroduce the beloved "mush" back into my life?
The stores were bare and the shelves almost empty as I reached for the polenta loaf. What is this? I added it to my cart and knew that I could create something with this reasonably priced cornmeal product. When I brought it home and slit open the package, I was in shock. It looked and smelled like "mush." I took out my cast iron skillet and melted some butter. I sliced the log into thin pieces and threw them into the skillet over medium-high heat. You want the “mush” to get crispy on the outside, with a dark brown crust. After flipping them once, they were ready. A little butter on top and warm syrup to taste. You want your fork to crack into the crust you've created and then dip the piece of “mush” into buttery and syrupy goodness. Now that I know the true identity of “mush,” I’m adding it to my personal “belt” of staples.
Be Careful with the Butter
It was the “Don’t come in here, Mom!” that made me leap up from the couch. (Though the absolute silence from the kitchen, after some faint scraping sounds, had raised my suspicions.) I surprised my son when I walked in on him: there he was, standing on a step stool, butter dish askew, the neat rectangle violently smooshed and gouged. The perpetrator clutched a large spoon and his face showed smeared traces of his crime.
Two months ago, I would have regarded this behavior with mild annoyance and amusement, a to laugh for the family group text. My son has always loved eating butter, something many might indulge in if it weren’t for the cripplingly unhealthy consequences of such a habit.
Now this brought a different feeling: a bloom of panic in my chest. This wasn’t any butter— this was the second to last stick of Kerrygold—which had been sold out at the grocery store the last two times we suited up into our PPE to replenish our supply! If we used it all, we’d have to switch to the languishing stick of ersatz vegan butter, left over from a dairy free houseguest. I found myself spiraling into wild theories about the international butter trade— was this the beginning of the end? Would they still manage to milk those Irish cows and fly Kerrygold across the Atlantic?
Like my son, I too love butter. I enjoy it every morning on toast. This minor indulgence, a daily staple in our house, felt threatened. Luckily, my worst fears proved false and we were able to replenish our stock within days. I hope that I can feel cavalier about a stolen tablespoon again.
The reliable and mundane has become precious. We use and think about our staples differently than before, re-discover food memories, and cherish what we have taken for granted.
This week we are featuring work from students in Val Ryan's class The Science of Food and Cooking (MET ML619). Today's post comes from Gastronomy student Madiyar Tyurin.
Food science and the way it affects the field of gastronomy is a relatively new movement in the world of fine-dining restaurants. For centuries, people had been practicing standard and universal cooking approaches. Experimenting with food and creating new techniques of cooking started at the end of the twentieth century. Today, those restaurants where that movement began are some of the most well known in their countries and in the world. This essay is going to analyze three restaurants, elBulli, El Celler de Can Roca, and Noma, where chefs and their cuisines are highly influential on their guests, colleagues, and the entire generation of rising cooks. The concept of molecular gastronomy together with their culinary brilliance have affected the formation and professional views of three top chefs in the world and resulted in the breakthrough and rise of their restaurants to the highest positions in the world.
Most of today’s world-known restaurants were inspired by elBulli, a Spanish restaurant of molecular cuisine where Ferran Adrià created experiments with food. He stood out of the traditional chef image and was invited to Documenta in 2007. It is a highly prestigious art event in Europe that is conducted once in five years (Domene-Danes 2013, 100-126). Adrià revolutionized food by introducing such techniques as spherification or foam making from fruit juices. Participation in the Documenta fair meant that his dishes were no longer a product of the restaurant but the manifestation of art. At that time, elBulli turned into an exposition pavilion, and guests of the restaurant were considered as participants of the fair as well. His approach might sometimes be regarded as anti-synesthetic because Adrià tried to combine incompatible things, but the chef proved uniqueness by successfully introducing techno-emotional dishes in reality. Adrià’s meals combined different culinary techniques and often aimed at invoking memories. Opazo argues that achievements at elBulli created a new level of cooking that positively influenced all other chefs in the world by forcing re-thinking and re-evaluating of their ideas and knowledge (2012, 82-89). According to Solier, such desserts as liquid nitrogen pistachios at elBulli are the result of chefs’ creativity and enlightenment (2010, 155-170). It is not about traditional cooking, but scientifically proven decisions that drive Ferran Adrià to create and influence (ibid.). However, Kaufman might criticize this approach by claiming that a guest of the restaurant was no longer an independent actor at the moment of dining, as the chef promoted their own authority by telling how to eat a certain dish (2016).
One of the most famous restaurants in the high gastronomy industry is located in Girona, Spain and called El Celler de Can Roca. It is run by three brothers, Juan, Josep and Jordi Roca, who work as a chef, a sommelier and a pastry chef there. Girona is a part of the Catalonia region, which is well-known for its terroir nature resulting in distinctive flavors and taste (Meneguel, 2017). A combination of unique climate conditions and geographic location between sea and mountains resulted in a distinctive taste of anchovies, shrimps, bovines, lamb and duck, sausages and mushrooms (Vila, 2016). Meneguel says this region was named as the best gastronomic place in Europe in 2016 and the Roca brothers’ contribution to connecting food with surrounding landscapes and culture is indeed meaningful (2017). They focus on innovation of traditional dishes using local ingredients that carry cultural meanings with the incredibly aesthetic style of serving compared to some artistic events (ibid.). Ulloa et al. argue that the concept of nostalgia or using memories to evoke emotions and create signature dishes plays a significant role in the vision of cuisine at El Celler de Can Roca (2017, 26-38). Moreover, the restaurant members highlight the importance of sharing food and emotions with others as it definitely enhances personal experience and enjoyment, similar to how traveling together might stimulate greater excitement than experiencing the same things alone (ibid.). Some of their signature dishes include the yin-yang oyster that is based on the idea of contrast when a cold oyster is served with a hot sauce, chocolate truffles in a closed rock with a real moss inside as a tribute to forests surrounding the region, or a green salad where all ingredients, such as avocado, lime, melon, cucumber, tarragon, eucalyptus and olive oil are green (Aulet et al. 2016, 135-149). As Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, they spent their whole childhood watching soccer games and decided to make a “Messi’s Goal” dessert to praise the best soccer player in the world playing in Barcelona.
Noma is another one of the most prestigious restaurants in the world, located in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is a place characterized by modern Nordic cuisine, and Rene Redzepi represents a new generation of chefs who value old traditions and creative thinking. The word Noma is derived from Nomadic and Mad that means food in Dutch. Goulding claims that the number of tourists coming to the country in search of gastronomy experiences at Noma grows significantly every year (2013). Redzepi tries to reconstruct a classic restaurant model. According to Tressider, Noma’s concept is based on making unique dishes from organic products picked at local lands that embody the history of the culture and its environment (2014, 1-17). Noma could be considered as the modern type of restaurant with its own distinctive characteristics similar to the French wine concept terroir in a way that dishes created there would not be possible to re-create once moved away from the original location (ibid.). As Trubek suggests, the terroir concept attracts millions of tourists to come to a particular place in the world to experience new foods and emotions (2009). Therefore, cuisine is strongly tied to surrounding nature, and meals are changed three times a year representing different seasons. Tressider says as globalization continues to remove borders and boundaries between countries around the world, the growth of terroir restaurants could be considered as an attempt to save local values and natural response to the international homogenization (2014, 1-17). Looking at the past of Dutch history, Redzepi found that citrus plants had not grown in Denmark, and people used to eat ants that have a citrus taste to supplement the flavor of seafood. Therefore, one of the most recognizable dishes at Noma is the live ants in mayo and traditional doughnuts with sardines. Again, as the terroir cuisine is tied to geographic boundaries, it cannot be replicated anywhere else. Therefore, at a master class by Noma in London, serving dishes were largely minimized, as, for example, ants could not be delivered safely to the UK (BBC, 2009). De la Barre and Brouder argue that guests coming to terroir restaurants get unique experience encompassing all senses by terroir (2013, 1-11). It is a mechanism embodying culture, customs and place (Tressider 2014, 1-17). People from all over the world come to Copenhagen with the specific purpose to visit Noma. As Goulding explains, this trend has been called Nomanomics, meaning that the success of one place created a large attraction to the country as a whole (2013). So at this place the bond with nature is important as cuisine manifests more than chemical principles and traditional cooking techniques. Visiting Noma reflects in the adherence to creating personal identity.
This essay discussed three high-class restaurants that are elBulli, El Celler de Can Roca, and Noma. All of them are characterized by a unique approach to cooking based on experimenting with food and techniques and bringing their own new vision to the culture of eating. Chefs of these restaurants did not fear expressing themselves and their ideas on the plates. This resulted in the entire movement of the popularization of molecular gastronomy and experimental cooking in the world. Today, all top restaurants try to experiment with the food to a certain extent. One of the issues that might arise with the chefs who reached all awards is the possible lack of interest and motivation to continue expressing their beliefs in the kitchens. Therefore, it is important to develop the entire sphere of molecular gastronomy at restaurants overall as competition might lead to a new level of achievement in this industry.
Aulet, Silvia, Louis Mundet, and Josep Roca. “Between Tradition and Innovation: The Case of El Celler de Can Roca.” Journal of Gastronomy and Tourism 2 (2016): 135-149
De la Barre, Suzanne, and Patrick Brouder. “Consuming stories: placing food in the Arctic tourism experience”. Journal of Heritage Tourism 8, no. 2-3 (2013): 1-11
Domene-Danes, Maria. “El Bulli: Contemporary Intersections Between Food, Science, Art and Late Capitalism.” Barcelona Research Art Creation 1, no. 1 (2013): 100-126
Goulding, Matt. “Nomanomics: How One Restaurant Is Changing Denmark’s Economy.” TIME. Roads & Kingdoms, February 14, 2013. http://world.time.com/2013/02/14/nomanomics- how-one-restaurant-is-changing-denmarks-economy/
Inside Claridge’s, 2, “Episode 2,” directed by Jane Treays, aired December 11, 2012, on BBC Two, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pc3gk
Kaufman, Cathy. “Etiquette, Power, and Modernist Cuisine.” Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, 2016.
Lane, Christel. “The Michelin-Starred Restaurant Sector as a Cultural Industry.” An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 13, no. 4 (2010): 493-519
Meneguel, Cinthia. “El Celler de Can Roca and its role in stimulating the creation and development of gastronomy tourism products.” Master’s thesis, University of Girona, 2017.
Opazo, Pilar. “Discourse as driver of innovation in contemporary haute cuisine: The case of elBulli restaurant.” International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science 1, (2012): 82-89
Saffron, Alexander. “World’s best restaurant Noma serves live ants.” The Telegraph, March 22, 2020. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/11379809/Worlds- best-restaurant-Noma-serves-live-ants.html
Solier, Isabelle. “Liquid nitrogen pistachios: Molecular gastronomy, elBulli and foodies.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 (2010): 155-170
So Good Magazine. “Messi’s goal.” March 22, 2020. https://www.sogoodmagazine.com/pastry- blog/pastry-chef-articles/jordi-roca-creativity-beyond-a-dish/attachment/gol-de-messi/
The Love of Gardening Project. “Liquid Nitrogen Pistachios: Molecular Gastronomy, elBulli and foodies.” March 22, 2020. https://www.theloveofgardeningproject.com/liquid-nitrogen- pistachios
Tressider, Richard. “Eating ants: understanding the terroir restaurants as a form of destination tourism.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change (2014): 1-17
Trubek, Amy. The Taste of Place. Berkley: University California Press, 2009.
Ulloa, Ana Maria, Josep Roca, and Heloise Velaseca. “From Sensory Capacities to Sensible Skills: Experimenting with El Celler de Can Roca.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 17, no. 2 (2017): 26-38
Vila, Angela. “Girona candidata a Ciutat Creativa UNESCO de la gastronomia?” Master’s thesis, University of Girona, 2016.
This week we are featuring work from students in Val Ryan's class The Science of Food and Cooking (MET ML619). Today's post comes from Michelle Samuels.
Craving pickles is a commonly reported experience among transgender women and other transfeminine people undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT). The commonly held explanation involves a potential sodium-wasting side effect of one of the HRT drugs, but this relationship has not been formally studied. Further, it remains unclear why pickles have taken primacy as the object of this common craving.
To better understand this relationship between transfeminine people and pickles, I have examined existing research on other hormone shifts and food cravings, hunted down early mentions of the phenomenon, and conducted short, informal interviews with transgender and cisgender peers and with the primary care physician who has overseen my own medical transition.
In the end, I have concluded that some transfeminine people experience food cravings during hormonal transition, some of these cravings are from HRT-related sodium wasting, and this sodium-wasting sometimes leads to craving pickles over other salty foods—but that this alone does not account for the communal narrative about pickles and cravings.
Instead, it appears that the pickle has taken on a complex symbolic importance: as a common experience in a community in need of commonality; as an expectation and touchstone for those undergoing an uncommon, understudied, and underrepresented medical process; and, perhaps above all else, as validation.
1) Pickles and Transfems, an Introduction
In 2017, Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender author, received a jar of pickles from a fan at a book signing. “As the night wound down, a transgender woman approached the signing table and handed me an enormous jar full of kosher dills,” Boylan recalled two years later. “’I made you these pickles,’ she said somberly, ‘in solidarity.’”
Boylan was baffled, but quickly caught up:
Apparently the meme began because transgender women in transition often take the drug spironolactone, an anti-androgen that has the side effect of making people crave sodium. Which is where the pickles come in; if it’s salt you’re after, pickles will definitely do the trick. (Boylan 2019)
First, what is spironolactone, and how might it contribute to pickle cravings?
Spironolactone, popularly called “spiro” in the trans community, is a diuretic most commonly used to lower blood pressure via its effect on the water- and salt-regulating hormone aldosterone, causing the body to absorb less sodium and more potassium. (When I began taking spiro, I was told to limit my intake of potassium-rich foods; why has pickle craving taken off as a trans symbol, but not banana avoidance?)
Aldosterone is also one of the androgens, a set of hormones associated with “masculine” characteristics in hair distribution, skin texture, muscle mass, genital formation and function, and other areas. In the 1970s, doctors treating hypertension in cisgender women noted that spiro also reduced their androgen levels, leading to spiro becoming a standard medication for treating the symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) (Ober and Hennessy 1978). With the discovery that spiro in doses of 100mg daily and above can also directly inhibit testosterone production, the drug became a standard part of transfeminine HRT (Tomlins 2019).
Transgender medicine has long operated outside of the medical mainstream (Safer and Tangpricha 2008), so there is limited research and understanding of the finer points, such as food cravings. However, a patient handbook on PCOS notes that patients taking spiro should be wary of sodium loss, and recommends "eating saltine crackers, a small sour pickle, or any other salty snack before exercise." (Futterweit and Ryan 2006, 181; emphasis added)
Pickles may “do the trick” for the sodium-craving side effect of spironolactone, but so might saltines, potato chips, or salted peanuts. Why, then, has the pickle become so central that a fan would somberly present a jar to Boylan?
3) The Research: Hormonal Shifts and Food Cravings
Could other changes from HRT also contribute to food cravings, perhaps giving pickles an edge with their qualities beyond saltiness, such as sourness?
Again, while transgender food cravings are unstudied, there is some research available for cisgender women.
In a review of 14 studies of taste and preference in pregnant women, Weenan et al. found that many women experienced some change in their sense of taste during pregnancy, including a decrease in the perception of saltiness later in pregnancy, and an increase in liking and consuming salty snacks in the second and third trimesters. The review also identified a higher threshold for bitterness in the first trimester and a preference for sweet snacks in the second trimester, but no significant or consistent change in perception or preference for sourness (Weenan 2018), and so, no answers for the popular trope of pregnant women craving pickles, when, again, saltines would do the trick.
Faas et al. trace hormonal appetite changes to estrogen and progesterone levels during pregnancy and in the ovarian cycle: Appetite decreases when ovulation boosts estrogen, and increases during the high-progesterone luteal phase (i.e., the time between ovulation and the beginning of menstruation) as well as during pregnancy (Faas 2009). Transfeminine HRT almost always includes estrogen, and in some cases, includes progesterone to aid in breast development and counter some cardiovascular, cancer, and bone density risks of estrogen and reduced testosterone (Prior 2018).
So, based on the findings of Faas et al., and perhaps of Weenan et al. as well, the usual transfeminine HRT cocktail containing estrogen much more often than progesterone would reduce appetite and associated cravings. In other words, the apparent parallels in food cravings in HRT and in the ovarian cycle and pregnancy are not so parallel after all. However, these parallels may still have a cultural role in the experience of transfeminine HRT; more on this later.
The diuretic side effects of spiro, then, remain the best physiological explanation for pickle cravings in transfeminine HRT. However, as discussed above, spiro does not explain why pickles have surpassed other salty foods to represent this phenomenon.
4) Let’s Have a Kiki: A Qualitative Survey of Trans and Cis Hormone-Related Food Cravings
I contacted my own primary care physician, Dr. Joseph Baker at Fenway Community Health Center in Boston, who has overseen my entire medical transition, and asked him about cravings for salty foods, or pickles in particular, in patients undergoing transfeminine HRT. “I have observed some anecdotes,” he said. “Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any reliable sources of information on food cravings with hormone therapy. This may be an area that needs to be investigated further.” He also checked in with colleagues, who similarly noted hearing anecdotes about food cravings and increased overall appetite, but no published research.
To at least gather more anecdotes, I conducted an informal, qualitative survey of friends and acquaintances to gather reports of cravings associated with any and all hormonal shifts. I used Instagram to conduct this survey, with initial questions on Instagram Stories and follow-up questions in Instagram direct messages, in February and March of 2020.
Respondents included four cisgender women, six nonbinary transmasculine people, and five people across the transfeminine spectrum (two of them identifying as trans women), all in their 20s and 30s; one transgender woman was African American, one cisgender woman was Asian American, and the rest were white. They shared experiences during both transfeminine and transmasculine hormonal transition, pregnancy, and ovarian cycles. Because of varying levels of comfort sharing such personal information, here I identify all respondents by their initials for consistency. See the Supplement after the Works Cited section at the end of this paper for all of the responses.
Consistent with the research on pregnancy described in the previous section, two cisgender women and one nonbinary transmasculine person reported pregnancy-related pickle cravings. “I already loved pickles, it just intensified—also kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.,” said AB, a cisgender mother of two. JC, another cisgender mother of two, reported that she craved pickles because she craved salt, but at the same time pickles were “also kind of fresh? Refreshing?” WR, a transmasculine person who had been pregnant, raised the possibility that their own pickle craving came in part from cultural depictions of pregnancy.
Respondents also reported pickle cravings linked with their ovarian cycles: AE, a cisgender woman, reported craving pickles during ovulation, while CF, a nonbinary transmasculine person, said, “Usually [I crave pickles] as a, ‘Damn, I’m going to get my period I guess.’ Pickle dinner is a near ritual thing when I’m PMSing.” Because AE’s experience is of a craving during an increase in estrogen, while CF’s is during an increase in progesterone, it is difficult to draw any physiological conclusions from these reports.
Surprisingly, several transmasculine people reported an increased desire for pickles after beginning to take testosterone, popularly referred to as “T.” AG said, “My boyfriend and I are both trans masc on T and crave salty vinegar things more than anything now. I didn’t think much of it until he [my boyfriend] brought it up as a hormonal possibility.” Likewise, GJ, who began taking T four or five years ago, said, “I’m not sure, but within that time I definitely noticed I started to crave salty things more, especially pickles.” While transmasculine people may experience some suggestible craving from hearing that other transgender people crave pickles, AG’s experience of a craving beginning before hearing about the trans-pickle connection raises the possibility that some other mechanism may also be at play for individuals taking testosterone, which could also be explored by looking at cisgender men with naturally and medically lowered or raised testosterone levels.
Most interesting for the purposes of this paper, the transfeminine respondents showed no consistency in cravings, with two reporting cravings consistent or semi-consistent with the narrative and three reporting no cravings.
DT, a nonbinary transfeminine person, said, “It was constant for the first six months for me, then kind of died off, and now I don’t crave [pickles].” Those six months began around the time DT started taking estrogen in the form of estradiol, at 2mg/day, when they had already been on spiro at 100mg/day for two months; both dosages were doubled in September, with no reported change in pickle cravings until three months later.
SS, a transgender woman who has been on the same 400mg spiro and 4mg estradiol dose as DT for the last year, reported craving “pickles, capers, and olives.
I think it’s the brine. I’ve always loved pickles, but [now also crave] olives! I have no idea [why], I think it might just be the salty/vinegar taste of the brine, but olives leave this slightly slick mouth feel. Before HRT I couldn’t stand them [olives], but now I can eat a whole jar without hesitation. It feels like I have no self control, I find myself eating things I literally couldn’t stand before, and binging whatever craving comes to mind.
SS’s experience raises interesting questions about the physiological nature of HRT-related cravings; while she reported an increased desire for salt, she also notes a change in liking olives, which she previously disliked because of their oiliness.
On the other hand, the other three transfeminine respondents reported no noticeable change in food preferences or cravings associated with HRT. These three non-cravers included two nonbinary transfems and one trans woman, and were within the same age range as the two transfems who did report cravings.
The five transfeminine respondents reported varying feelings about the pickle craving narrative and experiencing or not experiencing such cravings. “It felt a little validating?” said DT. “I think it was one of those things where it validated my identity as a trans femme person and made me feel like I was being let into a secret club. I knew it was a shared experience among trans femme people and that felt really important to me.”
KG, who reported slowly increasing doses of spiro and estradiol from the same starting dose as DT, echoed this sense of a “club” in describing not experiencing the craving herself:
I heard about this a lot but never experienced it…. I guess I didn’t really mind; I never felt like my gender aligned with what I heard or saw from the broader transfeminine community… and I still don’t, to this day, which is both empowering around my own identity and in some ways feels othering.
Similarly, KT, a transgender woman, did not notice a change from HRT—noting she has always loved pickles, and drank “sips of the juice” even before starting HRT. “I wondered if the whole pickle craving thing was kind of a joke or a social psychological effect,” she said.
The range of experiences reported by the respondents, cis and trans, transfeminine and transmasculine, show the complexity of hormonal changes in human bodies and their relationships with food cravings and preferences. To elucidate these complexities, further research could draw from a larger pool of respondents, with greater cultural, racial/ethnic, and age diversity, and gather prospective data rather than relying on respondents’ recall.
The responses also demonstrate the importance of a social element to the idea of pickle cravings among transgender people, including a sense of validation and being let into or finding oneself outside of a “club,” with even some transmasculine people—perhaps having heard generally about transgender pickle cravings but not the spiro explanation specific to transfeminine people—reporting sharing the experience.
5) Trans Archeology and the Evolution of HRT Cravings
The current state of the transfeminine pickle phenomenon appears somewhat muddled, with many trans people reporting familiarity with it, but only some describing actually experiencing it.
However, the origins and underlying mechanisms of the phenomenon may become clearer by looking to the past. Here, we discover what may be the strongest piece of evidence suggesting the transfeminine pickle phenomenon is not strictly physiological: The pickle only rose to prominence within the last decade.
In her seminal 2007 memoir/manifesto Whipping Girl, Julia Serano describes a strong craving after starting HRT—not for pickles, or any other salty food, but rather for eggs:
I immediately attributed this to the hormones until other trans women told me that they never had similar cravings. So perhaps that was an effect of the hormones only I had. Or maybe I was going through an ‘egg phase’ that just so happened to coincide with the start of my hormone therapy. Hence, the problem: Not only can hormones affect individuals differently, but we sometimes attribute coincidences to them and project our own expectations onto them. (Serano 2007, 66–67)
What Serano describes is the frustration with a common refrain in trans medicine: “Mileage may vary.” Myriad individual factors influence the effects and experiences of HRT, as well as hair removal, surgeries, social transition, and so on. Add to this the lack of accurate popular representation of these processes and the scarcity of “elders” who have gone before; no wonder trans people would grab on to any commonly-reported touchstone, any narrative of what to expect, even one as trivial as craving pickles.
The earliest mention of transfeminine pickle cravings that I could find using English-language Google is from a 2010 message board (much has been written on the astonishing difference the last ten years has made in trans culture and the complexity and brevity of trans “generations,” see, e.g., Lavery 2019).
The original poster asks:
why do I crave salt so much….?
Is it the spiros highish doage that does it? Or do I just like salt…
I feel like I’m never satisfied with it but I always have way too much….
I’ll put sea salt on my had and freaking lick it off…
WWHHHHYYYY? ( “Spiro and Salt Cravings?” 2010; sic)
She is answered by a dozen other trans women, all echoing the same explanation: Spiro is a diuretic.
However, pickles are just one of many foods discussed in the ensuing thread. One responder writes: “Mmmmm, kosher dill pickles, olives, pickled herring, bacon, miso soup, those crazy expensive sweet and salty granola bars… the list goes on and on.” Another reports loving olives stuffed with anchovies. A third respondent is hopefully joking when she writes, “Don't eat rock salt unless it's actual salt, I nibbled a chunk of some chemical labeled ‘de-icer’ and it was vile and not fit for woman nor beast” (ibid).
This message board conversation from 2010 shows that the transfeminine community was already familiar with the sodium-loss side effect of spiro, but that pickles had not yet taken primacy. We have to assume, then, that pickles have taken primacy for cultural, rather than physiological, reasons.
6) Chocolate, and an Answer?
It is a tangent in the 2010 thread about salt cravings that may offer the most insight—a tangent about chocolate.
The tangent begins with one poster writing, “chocolate is amazing. I eat it and I can feel the rush all over my body. Mmmmm, chocolate! Orgasmic! It's not just the taste, but how it makes you feel... I don't know how to explain that. LOL” (“Spiro and Salt Cravings?” 2010; sic).
What is notable about this is not so much that she reports craving chocolate, but the emphatic and decidedly feminine way that she reports a craving especially common among American women. This craving is likely cultural, given that the gender difference in chocolate craving in other countries is much narrower (Hormes 2014).
Here, we see food craving as gender performance, with the poster enacting and emphasizing her female identity through a culturally gendered, commonly-reported food craving (for more on gender performance, see Butler 2011). Considering that women are much more likely than men to report any kind of food craving, at 97% percent of women compared to only 68% percent of men by one estimate (Weingarten and Elston 1990), it seems appropriate that food cravings would hold a special, validating importance for trans women and other transfems. This would seem to explain why, of all of the experiences associated with HRT, a food craving would rise to the top as a symbol, unifying cultural touchstone, and meme.
So, why the pickle? Of the salty food cravings, it is the one most popularly associated in this country with pregnancy (for more on the rise of the “pickles and ice cream” narrative see Onion 2018), making it perhaps the most powerfully feminine of all already-feminine food cravings. The pickle is also meme-friendly, with a long association—via the absurd and the phallic—with drag culture (see, most famously, Rubnitz 1989).
As we have seen, pickle cravings in transfeminine HRT have a likely physiological cause in the salt craving effect of the diuretic spironolactone. However, while sodium deficiency from spiro can contribute to craving any number of salty foods, the common narrative about the shared pickle craving experience is fairly new, arising within the last decade.
Rather than a purely physiological phenomenon, this craving has gained prominence in the trans community as a shared touchstone experience, an expectation in a still-mysterious medical process, and as a validation of gender identity through the feminine associations of food craving in general and of pregnancy cravings for pickles in particular. Throw the comic nature of the fermented cucumber into the mix, and the pickle is the perfect candidate for a unique role for a food. Perhaps no other community has, or has quite the same need for, a food role like the craving of the transfeminine community for pickles.
Boylan, Jennifer Finney. 2019. “Why the Pickle Became a Symbol of Transgender Rights.” New York Times, September 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/opinion/transgender-rights-pickle-boylan.html.
Butler, Judith. 2011. “Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender | Big Think.” June 6, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo7o2LYATDc
Faas, Marijke M., Barbro N. Melgert, and Paul de Vos. 2009. “A Brief Review on How Pregnancy and Sex Hormones Interfere with Taste and Food Intake.” Chemosensory Perception 3 (2010): 51–56. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12078-009-9061-5
Futterweit, Walter, and George Ryan. 2006. A Patient’s Guide to PCOS: Understanding—and Reversing—Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. New York City: Henry Holt and Company.
Hormes, Julia M., Natalia C.Orloffa, and Alix Timkob. 2014. “Chocolate Craving and Disordered Eating. Beyond the Gender Divide?” Appetite 83 (December): 185-193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2014.08.018
Lavery, Grace. 2019. “Trans Kids These Days.” April 15, 2019. https://grace.substack.com/p/trans-kids-these-days
Ober, K. Patrick, and John F. Hennessy. 1978. “Spironolactone Therapy for Hirsutism in a Hyperandrogenic Woman.” Annals of Internal Medicine 89, no. 5 (Part 1): 643-644. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-89-5-643
Onion, Rebecca. 2018. “Hysterical Cravings.” Slate, April 18, 2018. https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/04/pickles-and-ice-cream-how-the-crazy-combo-became-iconic-for-pregnant-women.html
Prior, Jerilynn C. 2019. “Progesterone Is Important for Transgender Women’s Therapy—Applying Evidence for the Benefits of Progesterone in Ciswomen.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 104, no. 4 (April): 1181–1186. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2018-01777
Rubnitz, Tom. 1989. “Pickle Surprise.” Accessed March 15, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N733Ofj2cVQ
Safer, Joshua, and Vin Tangpricha. 2008. “Out of the Shadows: It is Time to Mainstream Treatment for Transgender Patients.” Endocrine Practice 14, no. 2 (March): 248-250.
Serano, Julia. 2007. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2nd ed. (2016) New York City: Basic Books.
“Spiro and Salt Cravings?” Susan’s Place, January 24, 2010. https://www.susans.org/forums/index.php?topic=71424.0
Tomlins, Louise. 2019. “Prescribing for Transgender Patients.” Australian Prescriber 42, no. 1 (February): 10–13. https://doi.org/10.18773/austprescr.2019.003
Weenan, Hugo, Annemarie Olsen, Evangelia Nanou, Esmée Moreau, Smita Nambiar, Carel Vereijken, and Leilani Muhardi. 2018. “Changes in Taste Threshold, Perceived Intensity, Liking, and Preference in Pregnant Women: A Literature Review.” Chemosensory Perception 12 (2019): 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12078-018-9246-x
Weingarten, Harvey P., and Dawn Elston. 1990. “The Phenomenology of Food Cravings.” Appetite 15, no. 3 (December): 231–246. https://doi.org/10.1016/0195-6663(90)90023-2
Supplement 1: Results of a Qualitative Survey of Trans and Cis Hormone-Related Food Cravings
AB, cisgender woman: “Pregnancy! I already loved pickles, it just intensified. Also kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.”
AE, cisgender woman: “Ovulation! Need salt/sour to make good eggs.”
AG, nonbinary transmasculine: said, “My boyfriend and I are both trans masc on T and crave salty vinegar things more than anything now. I didn’t think much of it until he brought it up as a hormonal possibility. Being Jewish is an extra layer to this because if it’s not a crisp dill I’m not into it lololol.”
CF, nonbinary transmasculine: “Usually [I crave pickles] as a ‘Damn, I’m going to get my period I guess.’ Pickle dinner is a near ritual thing when I’m PMSing.”
DT nonbinary transfeminine: “It was constant for the first six months for me, then kind of died off, and now I don’t crave [pickles]. It started about a month or so in. I started spiro in May of 2019, and was on 100mg/day. Estradiol started in July 2019, 2mg/day. They both got doubled in September. I’d say cravings started over the summer, sometime just before starting estradiol, and then continued through the end of the year. I 100% had heard of it [the pickle craving]. [Experiencing] it felt a little validating? I think it was one of those things where it validated my identity as a trans femme person and made me feel like I was being let into a secret club. I knew it was a shared experience among trans femme people and that felt really important to me. I haven’t felt that craving in a while, though I do still keep a jar of pickles in my fridge just in case…”
EL, nonbinary transmasculine: “I’m transmasc so I know I’m not the target, but I’m also an RN and we talked about the cravings when I was in school. We were literally told to provide clients with salty snacks, specifically pickles. I went to school at University of South Carolina, they have a campus in Greenville that I attended. We’d discussed spiro in my pharmacology class but it was in a general medical/surgical class that we went over real life side effects. The professor wanted us making care plans for patients on spiro, and the two patient scenarios we were given were for transfem HRT and congestive heart failure. I remember it really well because that was the first time we ever discussed any kind of queer health other than in psych class.”
GJ, nonbinary transmasculine: “Briney crunch [is the appeal]. I don’t know if it’s HRT or what but I crave salty pickled things all the time the past few years. Well, I started hormones four or five years ago, so I’m not sure. But within that time I definitely noticed I started to crave salty things more, especially pickles. Official start date [i.e. age at beginning of HRT] is complicated but let’s just say 26.”
JC, cisgender woman: “Pregnancy made me want something salty all the time. And pickles were salty but also kind of fresh? Refreshing?”
KG, transfeminine: “You know, I heard about this a lot but never experienced it. I’ve always loved pickles, so there’s that, but I never experienced any cravings. I guess I didn’t really mind; I never felt like my gender aligned with what I heard or saw from the broader transfeminine community—which at the time was primarily via Reddit—and I still don’t, to this day, which is both empowering around my own identity and in some ways feels othering. I started HRT when I was 25 and a half (actually on my half birthday!). I started quite low, 100mg spironolactone and 2mg of estradiol (orally) and slowly increased the dosages over a few months. It eventually settled at 6mg estradiol. My spiro dosage had increased to 200mg but I had many issues with dizziness and blacking out, but after two years, I wasn’t feeling enough had changed so my doctor (after a lot of “consulting with colleagues”) increased my HRT dosage to 8mg sublingually, which is what it still is today.
KR, cisgender woman: “I have PCOS but haven’t been on [spiro]. But even when I’ve taken things to ramp up estrogen and stifle T (birth control and/or supplements), I haven’t really had cravings I don’t think. I’ve had PCOS since I was 11, diagnosed at 22 and haven’t taken birth control since then. I take inositol, it works.”
KT, transgender woman: “I’ve always loved pickles enough to drink sips of the juice. I honestly probably did that before starting HRT. I’m on 6mg estradiol a day, and 100mg spironolactone a day which started (at much smaller dosages) in July of 2017, when I was 24 years old. I’ve also been on progesterone (100mg) for about a year now, kinda on and off as I figure out if it’s right for me. I feel and have felt fine about it [not experiencing cravings]. I’ve never put too much thought into it. I wondered if the whole pickle craving thing was kind of a joke or a social psychological effect. Everybody’s body is different, though! Happy for everyone who gets those pickle cravings. Pickles are amazing, and more trans folk eating pickles warms this Jewish trans femme’s heart! I think I might go buy a jar of pickles now.”
LS, nonbinary transfeminine: “I don’t think that I ever experienced this phenomenon, at least not in a way that I noticed. I maybe first heard about it when I read Whipping Girl in the months leading up to starting HRT. I can’t remember if Serano actually mentions the salt/pickle craving, but she discusses the effects of HRT and that was my primer for expectations. [I felt] indifferent I guess [about not experiencing any cravings]. I’ve always liked pickles and always had a preference for salty/savory over sweet. My starting dose when I was 25 was maybe 2mg of estradiol a day and went up to 6mg. I did that with 200mg spiro for a few years, and introduced progesterone about a year into HRT. I’m now on 0.5ml estradiol injected every other week and 200mg of progesterone a day, and no anti-androgrens.”
SS, transgender woman: “Pickles, capers, and olives. I think it’s the brine. I’ve always loved pickles, but [now also crave] olives! I have no idea [why], I think it might just be the salty/vinegar taste of the brine, but olives leave this slightly slick mouth feel. Before HRT I couldn’t stand them [olives], but now I can eat a whole jar without hesitation. It feels like I have no self control, I find myself eating thing I literally couldn’t stand before, and binging whatever craving comes to mind. I’m on 200mg spiro, 4mg estro, and I started when I was 23, which was a year and a few months ago.”
WR, nonbinary transmasculine: “Pregnancy. Cultural depictions, probably. Also nostalgia/comfort? I ate pickles a lot as a kid. Crunch plus brine plus salt plus tang [was the appeal].”
This week we are featuring work from students in Val Ryan's class The Science of Food and Cooking (MET ML619). Today's post comes from Gastronomy student Mara Sassoon.
Açaí: by now, the purple Brazilian berry is ubiquitous in the United States. Most often, it is found in the form of a frozen pulp that is mixed with bananas or other berries into vibrant frozen smoothie bowls, a dish that has become increasingly popular over the past few years, popping up in restaurants and cafés and on Instagram feeds (fig. 1). Recently, even Trader Joe’s and Dole have gotten in on the trend, offering premade versions one can find in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store. But why has the purple treat become so popular?
Jamie Lauren Keiles gets to the main reason for the açaí craze in her 2017 article for the New York Times Magazine titled, “The Superfood Goldrush.” She interviewed the owner of a so-called “superfood café” in Los Angeles about the smoothie bowl’s appeal. His response? “The blend is like an ice cream. But healthy” (Keiles 2017, 34). Açaí, as Keiles’ article points out, has long been hyped as a health-packed ‘superfood,’ espoused for a multitude of potential benefits— marketers like to point out that is rife with antioxidants, and some even point to anti-aging and weight loss benefits from the berry.
Food and nutrition science have become entangled in the problematic strategies marketers use to claim positive health effects of so-called ‘superfoods.’ Examining how açaí or any of the many other ‘superfoods’ out there—among them, blueberries, pomegranate, kale, and quinoa—have been advertised over the last fifteen to twenty years reveals how food and nutrition science are negatively utilized by marketers to influence how people perceive nutrition and healthy eating.
“Every food producer wants to expand sales. Health claims sell. The FDA requires research to support health claims and greatly prefers studies that involve human subjects rather than animals,” Marion Nestle writes in a 2018 article for The Atlantic, “Superfoods are a Marketing Ploy” (Nestle 2018). In the article, Nestle details how food producers fund research to support health claims they make about their food, a perfect example of how food and nutrition science is shoehorned into supporting marketing goals. She specifically points out two producers, Royal Hawaiian Macadamia Nut and Wild Blueberries of North America. The claims their research produced? One: eating macadamia nuts every day could reduce the risk of heart disease and two: Wild Bluberries’ particular frozen blueberries are healthier than fresh blueberries.
As Nestle argues, the research funded by these industries is often misleading, organized around profit rather than around real concern for people’s healthy eating habits. This kind of research and these kinds of claims cast individual foods as cure-alls no matter what comprises the rest of a person’s diet. “To ask whether one single food has special health benefits defies common sense. We do not eat just one food,” Nestle writes. “But when marketing imperatives are at work, sellers want research to claim that their products are ‘superfoods,’ a nutritionally meaningless term.” Nestle would likely agree that the next time one digs a spoon into a frosty açaí bowl, one should think about the studies behind its health claims and who has funded them.
Indeed, açaí is not immune to such sensationalized health assertions. The use of the term ‘superfood’ is rampant when it comes to the fruit. Sambazon, one of the most popular companies for açaí products, labels it as “The Amazon Superfood” on its website (Sambazon, n.d.). The term is also present in relatively new recipe books: Melissa Petitto, a registered dietician, published the 2019 book Superfood Acai Recipes: 40 Natural and Super-Easy Smoothie and Bowl Recipes (fig. 2). At the beginning of the book, she cites the same supposed health benefits of the fruit that are widely promoted elsewhere—among them, positive effects on brain function, high levels of antioxidants and nutrients, and anticancer properties (Petitto 2019, 6). Many restaurants use the catchphrase, too: similar to the café Keiles describes in her article, Vitality Bowls, a popular franchised eatery with locations around the United States, specializes in açaí bowls and also dubs itself a “superfood café.”
In their paper, “Unlocking the Energy of the Amazon? The Need for a Food Fraud Policy Approach to the Regulation of Anti-Ageing Health Claims on Superfood Labelling,” Janine Curll, Christine Parker, Casimir MacGregor, and Alan Petersen delve into the problematic marketing of açaí as a ‘superfood.’ They include statistics to illustrate the sales impact of labeling something a ‘superfood,’ including that “blueberry sales reportedly doubled between 2005 and 2007” because of it (Curll et al. 2016, 420). However, Curll et al. argue that calling something a ‘superfood’ is tantamount to “food fraud,” referring to the misleading labeling or packaging of food. The authors, who are all from Australia, specifically examined açaí products available there, including powders, frozen pulp, pills, and drinks.
One common thread they observed was that many of the products included an “exotic back story” as part of a marketing tactic to make the products’ health claims seem more believable. They write, “Labelling implies that it is the mystical origins in the Amazon jungle itself that contributes to the superior properties of the açaí berry” (2016, 435). While not one of the brands they observed, Sambazon uses the same kind of tactic in its marketing, even working a positive environmental bent into its narrative: “Ancient legend tells us the entire Amazon was born of a single seed of Açaí. A gift from Princess Iaçã (her name spells Açaí backwards), its legendary powers are said to have saved its people from starvation while creating abundance for all who lived there. Today Açaí continues to protect the people of the Amazon, by making the forest more valuable standing than cut down” (Sambazon, n.d.).
Reflecting on Sambazon’s mythical story, however, one must question the impact the ‘superfood’ marketing and subsequent rise in sales of açaí have had on the environment. Extensive detrimental ecological impact due to increased açaí production has not been widely reported, however in a 2015 paper titled “Floristic impoverishment of Amazonian floodplain forests managed for açaí fruit production,” Madson Antonio Benjamin Freitas et al. report on a study they conducted on the impact of heightened demand for the fruit on the forests where it is grown. “Our study is the first to demonstrate a significant loss of local tree species richness and a trend toward floral impoverishment in Amazonian floodplain forests under intense açaí production,” they write, noting a negative impact on the variety of surrounding plant and tree species that they believe should be curtailed through conservation initiatives (Freitas et al. 2015, 24).
Curll et al. also observed that almost all of the products they examined touted anti-aging properties due to the levels of antioxidants found in the fruit (2016, 433). In fact, the rich antioxidant level of açaí is one of its most prevalently advertised benefits. Curll et al. point to açaí’s popularity as starting with a 2005 book by dermatologist Dr. Nicholas Perricone—and a subsequent publicity appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show—in which he discussed the anti-aging benefits of the berry. In said book, The Perricone Promise: Look Younger, Live Longer in Three Easy Steps, he discusses the high level of antioxidants in the fruit and also praises its anthocyanins, pigments containing antioxidants, calling açaí berries “the richest anthocyanin sources by far” (Perricone 2005, 50).
Perricone and others have placed açaí on a pedestal that Curll et al. find problematic. They argue that, while the berries certainly possess many healthful qualities, they are perhaps no more healthy than other foods, writing, “‘superfood’ claims...seek to distinguish some fruit and vegetables, such as açai, from other ‘normal’, unbranded fruit and vegetables on the basis that a particular set of bioactive molecules (or ‘phytochemicals’) in the food are especially potent antioxidants” (2016, 433). Yet, other fruits contain comparable levels of phytochemicals to açaí. Bioactives in Fruit: Health Benefits and Functional Foods, edited by Margot Skinner and Denise Hunter, a more than 500-page tome detailing the nutrient compositions of various fruits, actually groups açaí with grapes, blackcurrants, strawberries, peaches, apples, blueberries, pomegranates, and others in its discussions of fruits with high levels of phytochemicals (Skinner and Hunter 2013, 468). This is yet another example of the potential for food and nutrition science to be used deceptively for marketing initiatives.
Other studies have found that açaí’s antioxidants have not been proven to be fully absorbed by the body. In The A-Z Guide to Food as Medicine, Diane Kraft and Ara DerMarderosian write that recent studies of the açaí berry—the first entry in the book—which is also often consumed as juice, found “‘no consistent clinical evidence of antioxidant potency’ of acai compared to other beverages, such as red wine” and that drinking the fruit’s juice and pulp “raised plasma antioxidant capacity but did not affect other markers of antioxidant activity such as antioxidant capacity of urine” (Kraft and DerMarderosian 2016, 1). These studies noted by Kraft and DerMarderosian show that food and nutrition science can also be used to fact-check health claims made by food companies, ironically, based on food science itself.
Look outside the realm of açaí products, and one can see that the term ‘superfood’ is widespread in food marketing (fig. 3). As Nestle points out in her article for The Atlantic, it is necessary to be an engaged and aware consumer who attempts to discern who conducted the studies that back up health claims and whether there could be any biases present. I realize that food scientists, researchers, nutritionists, and food companies must often work hand in hand due to the FDA’s requirement of research to back up health claims. Still, perhaps there could be more regulatory processes to avoid instances of studies seemingly designed to back up such claims specifically.
As many of the aforementioned scholars have pointed out, ‘superfood’ is a problematic term and, though unrealistic, it would be helpful to stop using the term entirely. It is still used irresponsibly by influential sources. For instance, Harvard is sending out mixed messaging on the term. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published an article titled “Superfoods or Superhype?” which supports the notion that the term is problematic (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, n.d.). Yet, Harvard Health Publishing ran a blog post in 2018 titled “10 superfoods to boost a healthy diet” (McManus 2018). Doctor Mehmet Oz, regarded as a prominent authority on health topics, uses the term in his book, Food Can Fix It: The Superfood Switch to Fight Fat, Defy Aging, and Eat Your Way Healthy. Although he discusses in the introduction how people use the term problematically and that “no such food exists” (Oz 2017, 2), he is nonetheless using it in the title of his book because it is a catchy and enticing phrase. The term connotes a cure-all food, and as the example of açaí shows, that is an impossible feat.
Curll, Janine, Christine Parker, Casimir MacGregor, and Alan Petersen. 2016. “Unlocking the Energy of the Amazon? The Need for a Food Fraud Policy Approach to the Regulation of Anti-Ageing Health Claims on Superfood Labelling.” Federal Law Review 44, no. 3 (September): 419-449.
Freitas, Madson Antonio Benjamin, Ima Célia Guimarães Vieira, Ana Luisa Kerti Mangabeira Albernaz, José Leonardo Lima Magalhães, and Alexander Charles Lees. 2015. “Floristic impoverishment of Amazonian floodplain forests managed for açaí fruit production.” Forest Ecology and Management 351, no. 1 (September): 20-27.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. n.d. “Superfoods or Superhype?” Accessed March 22, 2020. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/superfoods/.
Keiles, Jamie Lauren. 2017. “The Superfood Goldrush.” New York Times, May 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/magazine/the-superfood-gold- rush.html.
Kraft, Diane and Ara DerMarderosian. 2016. The A-Z Guide to Food as Medicine. New York: Taylor & Francis.
McManus, Katherine D. 2018. “10 superfoods to boost a healthy diet.” Accessed March 22, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/10-superfoods-to-boost-a-healthy-diet- 2018082914463.
Nestle, Marion. 2018. “Superfoods are a Marketing Ploy.” The Atlantic, October 23, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/10/superfoods-marketing- ploy/573583/.
Oz, Mehmet. 2017. Food Can Fix It: The Superfood Switch to Fight Fat, Defy Aging, and Eat Your Way Healthy. New York: Scribner.
Perricone, Nicholas. 2005. The Perricone Promise: Look Younger, Live Longer in Three Easy Steps. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Petitto, Melissa. 2019. Superfood Acai Recipes: 40 Natural and Super-Easy Smoothie and Bowl Recipes. New York: Crestline.
Sambazon. n.d. “Discover the Benefits of Açaí.” Accessed March 22, 2020. https://www.sambazon.com/discover-acai.
Skinner, Margot and Denise Hunter, eds. 2013 Bioactives in Fruit: Health Benefits and Functional Foods. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Fig. 1. Açaí smoothie bowl by Shari’s Berries. Available from: Flickr Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sharisberries/33343287432/in/photolist-2ahDtTk-LwFo8K- NahEqS-N8pgB2-2ggEzkR-SNr4G5-MDgGLq-wHYMw-7Wb68R-2ggESpV-2ggEouW/ (accessed March 22, 2020).
Fig. 2. Cover of Superfood Acai Recipes: 40 Natural and Super-Easy Smoothie and Bowl Recipes by Melissa Petitto. Available from: Google Books, www.books.google.com/books/about/Superfood_Acai_Recipes.html?id=Pu2ODwAAQBAJ (accessed March 22, 2020).
Fig. 3. Advertising campaign for Health Warrior bars by Elevation Advertising. Available from: Elevation Advertising, http://www.elevationadvertising.com/brand-platform-superfood/ (accessed March 22, 2020