Trusting the Grocer

By Benjamin R. Cohen

A word for the grocer, because before the recipe is the ingredient. To get the ingredient, you either grow it yourself or buy it at a store. Most of us buy it at a store. The grocer is the supplier.

At the supermarket, today’s worries over a reliable supply chain are often about availability and consistency. We are but consumers relying on others—producers—to meet our consumer needs. We expect producers to stock those shelves, whoever they are. It’s when the shelves are bare that we start to wonder, where does it all come from anyway? We think more about those bumper stickers asking us to know our farmer to know our food. But this is the exception, because the shelves are often fairly stocked. People benefit from and are beholden to a grocery infrastructure a century in the making.[1]

That infrastructure didn’t exist in the west in the nineteenth century. The worries over supplies then were not so much about consistency. Western customers had less expectation about what would always be on the shelves, what would always be in stock. They were more about worried over whether those supplies were what the grocer said they were.

It was the era of adulteration. Before the homemaker or housekeeper could buy supplies to cook the meals, she (often a she) had to trust that the grocer was selling her the real deal (I wrote a whole book about this, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food, 2019/2022).

The era of adulteration was a period in western history when customers fretted over the honesty of their food’s identity. Adulterated meant contaminated, corrupted, or otherwise misrepresented food. Was that sugar cut with sand, was that milk watered down, was that butter really butter or some factory upstart called margarine — things like that. One way to get a sense of the prominence of the worries is that the reigning economic paradigm at the time was caveat emptor—buyer beware. Most North Americans had not yet established a regulatory infrastructure based on the premise that your food shouldn’t make you sick.

Distrusting the grocer, from “The Use of Adulteration,” Punch (August 4, 1855). Image in the Public Domain.

Granted, adulteration has always been with us, from biblical times to today: we always worry if our food is what the seller tells us it is. But the so-named ‘era of adulteration’ came about in large part because of a relatively quick transition in western supply chains across the second half of the nineteenth century. It came about because customs—the root word inside customer—were disrupted. The age-old ways people had come to trust food from the market were thrown into disarray.

Grocers in the west stood at the balance between customer and supplier, managing a store counter that had quite a lot of power. That might seem odd, since our grocery stores today don’t seem to have actual grocers. But that’s because most of us are comfortable with our self-service grocery stores, so much so that the term “self-service” rarely factors into the description. Before innovations at the Piggly Wiggly and A&P early in the twentieth century, grocery stores were grocers’ markets, and goods were delivered across a counter by the grocer himself.[2] The storekeeper stocked wares behind him and out of reach of the rabble so that groceries came to customers like prescription drugs from a drugstore counter. “Know your grocer know your food” may have been a carriage bumper sticker, for all I know.

The grocer at work, from the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co., c. 1870–1900. Chromolithographed trade card. Printed by R. Ganton, Litho, London. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The word itself, grocer, descended from storekeepers in the Middle Ages who sold products in gross. For centuries, they were known as Spicers or Pepperers before their dealings in gross weights brought them the name Grosser (in the nineteenth century, French grocers were still called épicers, or spicers) The English spelling evolved by the time grocers were part of a food system that included not just the general or dry goods stores of rural livelihood, but public markets, butcheries, bakeries, and other specialty shops of the urban streets. The public market was, as the name would suggest, a public space. Grocers’ markets more often operated as private shops subject to their own self-decided operations. As rancor grew over customers’ fear they were being swindled, grocers professionalized to develop standards of practice and décor. They published manuals. They printed trade papers. They held conferences. One of their biggest challenges was to garner the faith of their customers. One reason their customers didn’t trust them was that oft-leveled accusation of adulteration.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, whatever success they had in those efforts was eclipsed anyway with the new self-service markets. A century later, we take it for granted so much that our worries are whether the supply truck will deliver the goods from across the country or across the ocean every single day or not. Today’s equivalent worries over food identity may concern the source, the process, and the supplier, but, in a hyper-consumer capitalist culture, until there’s a global pandemic or a boat stuck in a canal, they are less about availability.

I admit I think of this history every time I go to the supermarket; every time I go to the farmer’s market; every time I remember Mr. Hooper or the grocer down the block from my childhood, Mr. Gordon, a last vestige, even then, of the neighborhood grocer. It isn’t nostalgia to appreciate the grocer — it’s historical indebtedness. A word for the grocer is a word of appreciation for an often-invisible agent in the middle of supply and demand.

 

[1] Given the problems of supermarket redlining (and the related food apartheid) and prevalence of food insecurity, I’m nodding here to an idealized gentrified western model, to be sure, and one that isn’t ideal in the same way to everyone.

[2] Susan Spellman’s (2016) Cornering the Market is a good source for more grocer history. Shane Hamilton’s (2018) Supermarket USA gives it a good scope of international relations.

Cha (ឆា):The Remarkable Role of Stir-Fries in Khmer Gastronomy and Healing

By Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam

Within the grand, yet nebulous universe of what food and culture writers deem as “Asian” cooking and gastronomy, there is a deep love and affinity for the stir-fry. In a hot oily pan, various combinations of vegetables and proteins are tossed and transformed into something wonderful. The simple act of tossing becomes momentous – a way to incorporate flavours and aspects of a cuisine’s eccentricities with chosen ingredients in an endless number of ways. To say that the stir-fry “belongs” to as specific culinary tradition is contentious at times. While the origins of stir-fry, as a cooking technique and dish, originated in China, many cultures across the Asian continent and beyond have embraced it within their own cooking traditions.[1]

Growing up in the Khmer diaspora of the United States, my family and friends have had many conversations about what truly constitutes “Khmer” food and cuisine. More often than not, a joke about Cha (ឆា) would be made. Typically referencing how our moms would throw together whatever vegetables were floating around in our fridges with slices of random meats to feed us on small budgets of both time and money. To spruce up one’s cha,  additional clumps of garlic, onion, chili peppers, and or ginger were fried and immediately dashed with soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce.

A plate of cha trakhoun (morning glorywith chicken and rice

These core ingredients, with their strong and savoury aromas, constantly perfumed our kitchens. We ate cha for lunch, for dinner, at family potlucks, and when we were sick — to the surprise of many. Stir-fries as being curative cuisines, or the foods you consume (and lean on) when you’re unwell, is not a common association. In what reality could an oily and heavily spiced dish facilitate healing?

These were just some of my initial thoughts when I began my doctoral research in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Khmer traditional and folk food-medicines used in response to changes brought forth by seasonality, maternity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the interviews and conversations that took place, the consistent mentioning of a number of Khmer dishes which defined my childhood arose, with several types of cha being the most common. As I listened to each study participant’s reflections on food-medicines and/or curative cuisines, the actions and rationalities of my mother began to clarify intensely.

Whenever my sister or I were sick, she’d encourage us to eat chili peppers, limes, black pepper, ginger, and garlic in excess. Her rationality was that I needed to “warm my body” and that these ingredients would do that for me. Alongside bowls of borbor (rice porridge) and snau (soup), she’d prepare us some cha kgneuy (ginger stir-fry). This orientation of rice, soup, and stir-fry embodied the characteristic spread of Khmer cuisine — a little bit of everything: rice, soup, a fresh vegetables and herbs plate, and cha to bring it all together.[1]

A typical Khmer meal spread with rice, cha, vegetable/herb plate, snau (soup), and grilled fish

In both traditional and folk Khmer medicine, health and wellness are partially reliant on the balancing of bodily humors. Under the humoral theory of medicine, the body is made up of four distinctive humors (blood, phlegm, black/yellow bile) which correspond to specific organs and well as conditions (hotness, coldness, wetness, dryness). When these humors are pushed out of balance for one reason or another, illness ensues. To address this, both traditional and folk Khmer medicine approaches feature consumable remedies that shift one’s humoral orientation back into alignment.

In traditional and folk Khmer food-medicines, cha is a ubiquitous remedy because of its versatility. The ingredients of the cha determine its humoral qualities and impact. You can humorally “cool” or “warm” your body by eating a specific kind of cha. During pregnancy, cha trakhoun with oyster sauce (stir-fried morning glory) or cha mereh (stir-fried bitter melon) is eaten to cool and soothe the humors. In contrast, during postpartum as well as for COVID-19 prevention, cha kgneuy (stir-fried ginger with slices of meat) is used to warm the body and increase immunity.

A plate of chicken and chili pepper cha and sour snau soup

 In combination with other nourishing Khmer dishes, as well as the occasional medicinal decoction, cha dishes act as core components of the traditional and folk Khmer food-medicine healing regiments. In this way, cha blends together processes of eating and healing within certain contexts. The importance of cha to Khmer culture is exceptional, no matter how you frame it. Walk into any restaurant in Cambodia, and you’ll be sure to find one on the menu!


References

[1] http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/26142.htm.

[2] In, S., Lambre, C., Camel, V., & Ouldelhkim, M. (2015). “Regional and Seasonal Variations of Food Consumption in Cambodia.” Malaysian Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 21, pp. 167–178.

Danny Bowien’s Post-Authentic Asian America

By Leland Tabares

In a recent interview, James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Danny Bowien admits that if he were to create authentic diasporic Asian food, he would be making “Hamburger Helper” and “buttery canned vegetables.”

A Korean adoptee of a white middle-class family who grew up in Oklahoma, Bowien shows the relationship between food and diasporic identity to be messy when it comes to authenticity. For instance, he never tasted Korean food until he left Oklahoma for San Francisco at the age of nineteen and never formally trained to cook Chinese food prior to opening his now famous Mission Chinese Food restaurant. Discourses on authenticity do not readily account for ethnic narratives like Bowien’s. Indeed, he considers himself “the least authentic chef.” Influenced by his unique background, Bowien sees the current culinary world as what he calls “post-authentic,” defined more by “credibility” than “heritage.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic becomes legible through a recent collaboration with the Arizona Beverage Company. The New York-based company, known for their AriZona Iced Tea line and intentionally gaudy 1990s aesthetic, partnered with Bowien to create a special one-time menu using AriZona beverages as the primary ingredients. This brand deal was organized in 2019 as a pop-up event held at the Brooklyn outfit of Mission Chinese Food.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

The “Great Buy” menu—a reference to AriZona’s “Great Buy! 99 Cents” tagline—featured two entrées, a dessert, and a cocktail. They included, respectively: Mucho Mango Fried Rice, Smoked Green Tea Chicken Noodles, Grapeade Ambrosia, and Green Tea Ginsenger. The 99-cent price point for the dessert paid homage to the tall 99-cent AriZona Iced Tea cans popularized in the 1990s and early-2000s.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

To many in the culinary establishment, the notion that a chef would monetize his menu is antithetical to the profession’s values around creative freedom. Celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, Michael Symon, and Marco Pierre White have partnered with brands like Coke, Lay’s, and Knorr. But none had brought a sponsored product into their restaurants. Famed food writer Pete Wells of The New York Times equated the event to Bowien selling a brand “access to [diners’] heads.” Bobby Flay publicly condemned Bowien, saying that he would “never take a product and force it into [his] menu” because such an act desecrates the “sacred” nature of a chef’s menu.[i] The backlash to Bowien’s collaboration would appear to have damaged his credibility, a devastating irony for a chef who places credibility at the forefront of the post-authentic. But Bowien remains as popular as ever.

What the collaboration makes visible has less to do with Bowien and more to do with the culinary establishment. It reveals how industry norms gatekeep minoritized chefs who prepare nontraditional foods, demonstrating how access to credibility is unequally distributed. As I have written elsewhere, Bowien represents an emerging generation of misfit chefs whose nontraditional approaches to professionalism literally and symbolically mis-fit within the industry. Acts of mis-fitting expose how industry norms render some chefs unfit for professional belonging. Professional norms thus play direct roles in the formation and regulation of culinary authenticity and identity. Bowien realizes as much when, in response to the criticism, he explains, “I believe in breaking the system that says a certain type of cuisine or price point should be frowned on.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic then does not do away with identity, as if identity no longer matters. In fact, he indicates that identity is essential to the post-authentic: “Identity definitely interests me. I feel like today it’s all about identity.” Rather than using terms like inauthentic or nonauthentic, terms that might signal a refusal or avoidance of engaging with authenticity, Bowien employs post-authentic to highlight the important (and often damaging) ways that the restaurant industry’s professional norms—norms that place value in Western Anglo-European food traditions—not only contribute to the production of authenticity but also commodify and exploit minoritized cultures in the process.

By monetizing his menu, Bowien asserts control over the means of commodifying his Asian Americanness. In the fashion world, streetwear culture popularized brand collaborations between industry elites and smaller independent businesses. Bowien draws inspiration from these collaborations because they challenge the ideologies that separate so-called high and low culture. “Look at fashion,” Bowien explains, “how brands are doing collaborations with other brands. There’s this old guard that says you have to be haute couture or you’re not one of us: you have to do your haute couture first, then you can do your street-wear line. I’ve played that game [in the food world] and tried to do what made everyone else happy, but I wasn’t happy.”[ii]

Bowien’s collaboration with AriZona turns the tables back on the culinary establishment to insist that a menu composed of mass-produced commodities and branded content not only emblematizes an authentic contemporary American dining experience, but also illustrates the degree to which culture industries—from fine dining to advertising—produce and regulate notions of authenticity. For Bowien, the post-authentic is a critical accounting of these processes of cultural regulation by capitalist industries. Rather than refuse to participate, Bowien leans in to assert his own agency and individualism amid the system: “I believe that what I’m doing is good. I want to be myself.”[iii]


References:

[i] Qtd. in Wells, Pete. “This Menu Is Brought to You by Arizona Iced Tea,” 7 May 2019.

[ii] Qtd. in Birdsall, John. “Chef Danny Bowien doesn’t care that you have a problem with his Arizona Iced Tea deal,” 10 May 2019.

[iii] Ibid., Birdsall.

“Like a Collapsible Concertina”: Cosmetic Interventions in Fin-de-Siècle London

Jess Clark

In the Fall of 2020, new reports revealed a marked increased in cosmetic procedures—surgery, injectables, and other dermatological treatments—over the course of the COVID pandemic. During the global crisis, some people of means have flocked to plastic surgeons, cosmetic dermatologists, and other experts for appearance-altering treatment. Observers attributed this uptick to patients’ “opportunity” to be out of the public eye for extended recovery periods, not to mention the distorting effects of long hours on social media and online meetings. Whatever the cause, the “Zoom Boom” meant a surging interest in artificial enhancements. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some 64 per cent of its practitioners experienced increased demand for online consultations since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Face Harness,” from William A. Woodbury, Beauty Culture (New York: G.W. Dillingham Company, 1911), p. 341. Public Domain via Hathi Trust.

While this level of interest in cosmetic interventions may be unique to 2020-21, invasive procedures that required weeks of downtime are not. We need only to look to a handful of court trials taking place in fin de siècle London to hear dramatic accounts of cosmetic enhancements, their demands, and dangers. In the early twentieth century, London’s periodical press focused on a spate of cases against self-proclaimed “beauty doctors” who promised to renew the youth and looks of British women. The fact these stories only appear in the public record in the case of botched procedures suggests far more widespread—and concealed—instances of dramatic cosmetic enhancements that remain beyond the reach of historians.

One notable case unfolded in October 1904, when Britain’s periodical press covered the scandalous story of a “beauty doctor” taken to court over the alleged defrauding—and deep discomfort—of a client. Under headlines like “Wrinkles Came Back” and “’Beauty Doctor’s’ Promise,” articles detailed a Marylebone Police Court case in which a dissatisfied dressmaker described the effects of unsuccessful cosmetic treatments. Garnering laughter from the court, the dressmaker used vivid language to describe the beauty doctor’s dealings, conjuring unsavory images invoking various foodstuffs:

Madam, she said, put some stuff on her clients’ faces, which had a burning effect, and caused them to swell to a tremendous size. She then put on a sticky plaster, which was allowed to remain fifteen or sixteen hours, and when it was removed the face was like a half-roasted beefsteak. After that she administered a sticky jelly. That left the face like a pudding basin, and it was allowed to remain in that state four or five days, during which time the unhappy victim was unable to part her teeth, and had to be fed with milk in a feeding cup.

Despite these unappetizing descriptions, the dressmaker reported that the treatment’s effects were transformative. When “the mask was taken off….whatever your age, the face was that of a young woman of 18 years of age—full, clear, and fat; beautiful, in fact, without a wrinkle, a scar, or a blemish.” Although the client’s skin was “very, very red,” the effects reportedly delighted the “deluded” customers. Within days, however, “wrinkles gradually reappeared, and the face became like a collapsible concertina.”[1] Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.

“The Geography of a Dissipated Woman’s Face,” from Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), p. 318. Public Domain via Hathi Trust..

 

It is unclear what precisely went into these “rejuvenating” recipes. While not identified by name, the description of the “sticky jelly” suggests some form of “face skinning”—or chemical peels—which grew in popularity through the early twentieth century. As historian of cosmetics James Bennett has shown, early experimental peels could include “[t]inctures of iodine and lead, lime compresses and chemicals such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, croton oil and trichloroacetic acid.” By the twentieth century, processes of “écorchement” (or “flaying”) included caustics like salicylic acid, resorcinol, carbolic acid, and electricity to remove upper layers of the skin and reveal the “youthful” skin below. In most cases, reported American beauty entrepreneur Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a client took “board for a week or two or three with the professional skinner.” In doing so, “she pays for her board and torture in advance.”[2] Then, as now, clients remained out of sight in the aftermath of their cosmetic procedures. Whether due to self-imposed or government-mandated isolation, this time represents processes of alleged transformation, albeit at a potential cost.

 

 

[1] “Price of Beauty,” Daily Mirror (24 October 1904): 5. See also “A ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (22 October 1904): 165; “Beauty for £20,” Daily Mail (24 October 1904): 3; “A Concertina Face,” Daily Express (24 October 1904): 5; “A Face Cure,” The Times (24 October 1904): 11; and “Another ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (29 October 1904): 1230.

[2] Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), 185, quoted in James Bennett, “Face Skinning,” Cosmetics and Skin, 25 January 2019, http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/aba/face-skinning.php