Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture.

By Fabio Parasecoli.

Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-1845207625, $115; paper: ISBN 978-1845207618, $31. 192 pages.

Review by Rossella Ceccarini, Sophia University, Japan

Food studies is an interdisciplinary field into which Bite Me by Fabio Parasecoli fits cozily. The book delves into representations of food in popular culture and is divided into six chapters, looking at the relationship between food and: 1) brain, memory, and senses; 2) ingestion, digestion, and refusal; 3) politics of production, distribution, and consumption; 4) body and diet; 5) body and race; and 6) tourism. Issues of consumption form the common thread throughout but, having gone through the introduction, readers can read each chapter independently according to their main interest. In fact, portions of the chapters have already been previously published in academic journals and edited books. Therefore, those curious about neurosciences can read the first chapter; readers interested on the social and cultural construction of what can be or cannot be eaten can focus on chapter two and three; those interested in issues of body shaping can read chapter four; readers interested in race stereotypes represented through food in popular culture can jump to chapter five; and those interested in culinary tourism can go directly to chapter six.

Parasecoli draws for the most part on theories from semiotics and media studies, and introduces theoretical frameworks from other disciplines as well (e.g. sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, etc.). Some theories are described in the introduction and taken up later in each chapter. Other theories are presented little by little as the reading progresses. However, while explaining some theories in depth in the introduction, Parasecoli neither quotes nor explicitly mentions them later in the book, as in the case of Antonio Gramsci’s theory. Certainly, glimpses of Gramsci can be caught in the book and in the final afterword, but because of the importance given by Parasecoli to the concept of cultural hegemony in the introduction, the readers would expect to find Gramsci’s name mentioned again in the volume.

The outstanding feature of the book is that popular culture examples such as movies, magazines and novels always support the theories. For instance, the author analyzes the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (chapter one) and the Atkins diet (chapter two) through the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Pierre Bourdieu’s and Marcel Mauss’s theories fit well with Marvel Comics and science fiction (chapter three). Some chapters are more prone to give detailed examples than others. For instance, chapters one to three give meticulous plots of movies (e.g. the Matrix, Island, Woman on Top, Chocolat) and novels (e.g. Interview with the Vampire, The Man in the High Castle, and 1984). Chapter four details the Atkins diet with quotes from Dr. Atkins’s book. However, the final chapter devoted to tourism seems somehow detached from the rest. Though rich in number, the examples lack the detail of the preceding chapters. Parasecoli often mentions special dishes, authentic food, and localities attractive to the gourmandizing tourist, but details remain sketchy. Focusing on an example that tourists crave by detailing one particular cuisine and/or one specific culinary destination would have been appropriate. Moreover, focusing on food representations in travel magazines, travel novels, and documentaries would have made the chapter consistent with the rest.

The book ends with the author’s afterword on food studies, more examples, and a short research agenda. According to Parasecoli, food studies could benefit from the tools of media studies. The impact of communication on the way we perceive, consume and produce food should not be underestimated. In doing so, not only acclaimed films centered on food (e.g. Babette’s Feast or Like Water for Chocolate) but also B-movies and cartoons could be fertile case studies.

Parasecoli leaves the reader without a strong conclusion to wrap up the numerous cases and guiding theories found in the volume. In addition, a glossary of food and unique dishes would have been useful for readers not familiar with every ethnic and local specialties mentioned. On the other hand, he succeeds in making available complicated theories to a more popular audience. The variety of examples (movies, novels, magazines etc.) and topics (race, gender, tourism, masculinity and femininity, etc.) makes Bite Me interesting for a broad and heterogeneous audience. Finally, the volume is useful in at least two ways: as a tool to approach social science theories through contemporary popular culture (and vice versa); and to grasp the many facades of the interdisciplinary nature of food studies.

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