Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.
Review of Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food (Princeton, 2016) by Michaela DeSoucey, 2017 Culture section book award co- winner
Some readers may at first deem foie gras—that French delicacy made of the liver of ducks or geese fattened by force-feeding—a trivial or frivolous cultural object that warrants no scholarly scrutiny: “Why should we care about foie gras? Why should we read a whole book about it?” Well, Michaela DeSoucey (NC State) will surely convince them, and even the least sanguine hipster, of foie gras’ significance for advancing several conversations in various subfields of our discipline.
DeSoucey’s book, Contested Tastes, one of the winners of the section’s 2017 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book, is one of those that elegantly shows how insightful the sociological analysis of a seemingly marginal thing can be. Why foie gras? Because it lies at the epicenter of divisive moral and cultural debates that matter in and way beyond the world of food—debates about nationalism, the cultural politics of markets, ethical consumption, animal welfare, and cultural globalization. How did foie gras become an epicenter of contention for these issues? That’s what the gist of the book is about. DeSoucey uses a multi-method approach and a comparative research design to trace foie gras’ “social life,” from production to consumption, in France and the U.S., and to reconstruct its history. Her analysis refines and extends current knowledge in organizational theory—especially in regards to the roles of contention in markets, and to categorization and valuation processes—, economic sociology—particularly, pertaining the moral order of markets—, and the sociology of culture—in relation to symbolic boundaries, and the sociology of taste.
One of the book’s most illuminating conceptual contributions comes through the notion of gastropolitics, which the author defines as “conflicts over food that are located at the intersections of social movements, cultural markets, and state regulation” (p. xii). The concept of gastropolitics captures the multivocal character of a product’s cultural and moral politics—of foie gras in the case at stake. Depending on who you ask (and where), this duck or goose liver-based delicacy can be an emblematic expression of the French’s culinary primacy, the malign product of a torturous feeding technique called gavage (French for ‘force-feeding’), an authentic expression of traditional artisanship, a mass-produced commodity, the world’s most delicious thing (Anthony Bourdain dixit), or an immoral and vicious food. DeSoucey persuasively argues that these different cultural and moral valences of foie gras are relationally intertwined and at least partly co-constitutive. She finds, for instance, that foie gras emerged as a cardinal signifier of Frenchness partially because it became “ethically contentious and vilified elsewhere” (p. 65). In other words, as foie gras’ controversial production process gained relative prominence in the U.S. and other countries (amounting to “foiehibition” in places like Chicago—vividly reconstructed by DeSoucey in Chapter 4), within France its vigor as a key symbol of national culture grew notably. These findings show that contentiousness over a product’s moral standing may not just be a salient trait of markets’ initial or transitional moments (e.g. before or during the creation of a market), but that it can be a permanent component of a product’s identity as well.
DeSoucey also discovers that, as foie gras controversies spread, its consumption increased. And not only among French patrons, but even in cities where it had stirred polemic. The zealous animal rights activists seeking its prohibition unintendedly ended up igniting curiosity for foie gras in new consumers. In this spirit, beyond its manifest usefulness for describing the intricate dynamics of culinary products and practices, the prism of gastropolitics also illustrates the need to pay close attention to the economic dimensions that underlie all forms of moral crusade and struggle.
A particular variety of gastropolitics, named gastronationalism, centers around the ways in which foods convey and produce a collective sense of identity and nationalist sentiments. DeSoucey shows how gastronationalism can be manufactured and sponsored by state authorities and governmental organizations (Chapter 2), and how it is articulated in everyday rituals and interactions (Chapter 3). Through a rich ethnographic account of small-scale foie gras production in rural France, Chapter 3 portrays the micro-level dynamics by which the delicacy is (re)constructed as a symbol of French national heritage. The scripts and practices of artisanry and craftmanship play a key role, as they evoke “tradition” and “authenticity,” and hence foster a connection to history and the national past. Chapter 2, on the other hand, depicts the production of gastronationalism “from above.” It includes, in that sense, very telling snippets of French senators’ testimonies pertaining the National Assembly and the Senate’s codification of foie gras as part of France’s official cultural and gastronomic patrimony. As the testimonies suggest, the declaration was “preemptive and anticipated ‘any initiative from Brussels’ (the European Union’s headquarters) on the matter” (p. 62). DeSoucey thus delineates how states and their peoples respond to fears related to the alleged homogenizing force of globalism. They do so by protecting their nationalist symbols through bureaucratic measures and policies, and via everyday routines and practices that denote the symbols’ authenticity and traditional quality, thus bolstering their mythical appeal.
Finally, the book’s methodological approach is ingenious and stimulating: DeSoucey combines participant observation, interviews, and the analysis of documents of different sorts (newspapers, court transcripts, tourism guides, etc.) to follow foie gras through its circuits of production and consumption. In that sense—along with Clayton Childress’ splendid book Under the Cover (Princeton; reviewed in this newsletter’s previous edition)—Contested Tastes breaks from sociologists of culture’s usual tradition of severing the analysis of production from that of consumption.
Because I found the book’s methodological recipe inspiring, I felt saddened that it did not include a methodological appendix. The methods are briefly outlined in the preface, and some more information is scattered throughout the chapters and in a few footnotes. But given the wealth of data the author amassed, I would have liked more detail about how the research was done and about the sources of information. An appendix would have provided the space for the author to describe, for instance, how she combined the data coming from the different sources she used, and to explain further the “ethnographic lens” that guided the fieldwork behind Chapter 3.
This issue notwithstanding, I think Contested Tastes is a remarkable feat. All readers, but especially those interested in organizations, economic sociology, consumption, sociology of culture, and food politics, will enjoy and learn much from this delicious book.