On Campus: Conference on the Politics and Social Dimensions of Eating

June 02, 2018

“Food is the medium and sometimes the message of cultural and socioeconomic conflicts”, was the main argument developed by Chilean professor Sonia Montecino during a lecture entitled: “Cocinas y Gastropolítica. Símbolos en Tensión”, held at in late April in the context of the XXVII Annual Graduate Student Conference organized by PhD students of Columbia University’s Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures and New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures. The two-day event, called “Beyond the Table: the Politics of Eating”, aimed at examining forms of visual art, literature and social practices that cope with, submit to, and question the experience of eating. The purpose was to bring into the field of academic reflection a fundamental subject to our cultures that, paradoxically, has been kept out of it: food practices.

Through the narration of some Chilean myths, Professor Montecino explained the ancient roots of the relationship between food and politics in our culture, stating that: “Gastro-politics is competitive encounter within a shared framework of rules and meanings in which what is risked are profound conceptions of self and other, high and low, inside and outside”. She explained how food and forms of cooking can be ideological: “The quantity of food you consume, where you consume it, how it is prepared, they all contribute to the web of meaning through which deeper relational structures can be broken down, analyzed and interpreted accorded with social meaning”, she stated.

Sonia Montecino is a Chilean writer and anthropologist who was awarded the Chilean National Prize for the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2013. She is a current member of UNESCO’s  Evaluation Body of Intangible Heritage; Assistant Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies at Universidad de Chile’s School of Social Sciences; and Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the same university.

Her work focuses on ethnic studies from a gender perspective and culinary analysis such as food habits, local gastronomies and cooking elaborations, tables and table manners, identity connections between food and culture, and nations food identities. Among her publications are: “Myths of Chile. Encyclopedia of Beings, Appearances and Charms (2015, Altazor Award 2005); “Chilean Food Heritage -- Products of the Valparaiso Region” (2012); “Fires, Ovens and Donations -- Food and culture in Easter Island” (2010); “Mestizo Kitchens of Chile --The Delightful Cooking Pot” (2005, Gourmand World Cookbook Awards); and “Mothers and Outcasts -- Allegories of the Chilean miscegenation” (1992, Academia Award).

Besides Professor Montecino’s lecture, fifteen graduate students from several universities in the United States, Chile, Argentina and Spain presented their research. By examining cooking, the means of production and distribution, processes such as rituals and communal memories revealed through food, participants unveiled the behavior, values, and segregations that occur in a particular society: how food is distributed, who eats what, how much is eaten, who and how many get a seat at the table.

During this conference, attendants also considered eating and drinking as much as an act of social cohesion and mutual recognition as it is a mechanism that expresses different forms of hierarchy and exclusion; an event that opens a space of physical and verbal coexistence that can suspend the present imperative of production. They also underlined that the act of eating articulates the dimensions of the body and the sensorial with collective processes or resistance, indigestion, subversion, and creation that often cannot be translated into verbal or visual languages.