The abominable delicious

I’m back from a great few days at the annual ASFS conference in Scarborough, Canada. That’s the Association for the Study of Food and Society, a group of food studies scholars from all over the world. We come from many academic disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences and lean towards the analytical and the activist in different measures.

Despite all the terrific moments of revelation and recognition, it was a moment of revulsion that struck me most.  I was attending a panel/kitchen session about SPAM, that international product. The organizers of the panel (Hi’ilei Hobart, Adrian De Leon, and Josh Levy) brilliantly asked us to discuss our associations with SPAM while teaching us to make Hawaiian SPAM musubi and feeding us Filipino and Japanese SPAM dishes. Mixing up analysis with practice and palate was very exciting.

But as I cooked with my little group of randomly assembled conference-goers, one person looked into the pan where the marinated spam was frying and said, “Of course, it’s a total abomination, you know.” No, I don’t know! Of all places in the world to find someone dismiss SPAM as categorically bad! Hadn’t this person been listening? Didn’t the panelists draw out the ways in which white Americans construct SPAM as funny–a joke food–while its close cousin, the hot dog, is allowed to be perfectly normal? Hadn’t they heard some of us ask what really makes SPAM  any different from pate apart from those cultural stereotypes?

What makes food studies so useful in a world of global marketing and entangled supply chains is our commitment to first set aside assumptions and personal prejudices about the materials and meanings of food in our own and others’ lives. When we do that, it’s easier to see what’s really happening. If SPAM is a food that millions love and millions of others mock, and those groups tend to have geopolitical differences, something’s going on. And it may be something that you only can see if you look through the thick pink lens of SPAM.

In his presidential address, Krishnendu Ray called for attention to the tastes of all groups, regardless of class origins, to which I would add that it’s imperative to check your own tastes at the door. And I mean check in all senses. Check them out and see what they are, check them by not allowing them to flow freely through your thinking, and check them like a jacket in that you hang them up away from the action to be picked up again later.

The happy conclusion to this story is that one person’s intolerance added up to more SPAM musubi* for me.

*the word processing program wanted to turn “musubi” into “mouse,” which just goes to show that intolerance of diversity in world food cultures is everywhere.