29. april 2014

TASTES: Foods, bodies, and places in Denmark

In the context of the advancement of the New Nordic Cuisine in Denmark in the last decade, this thesis explores a concept which has gained interest in contemporary food and eating in Denmark: taste. Tastes and flavours of food are increasingly addressed as important drivers of consumption and hurdles to health promotion; it is in this intersection the thesis asks: how are tastes crafted? Drawing on recent theoretical development of taste within anthropology and sociology, the thesis examines taste as a fractional object constituted in relation between the eating body, the food, and a host of other actors of which place—terroir—is a special focus. Tastes are thus not understood as properties of foods, bodies or places but as relational. They are simultaneously social, cultural, material, and physical. These relations may be observed in practices that take place in the mouth of the eater, but are also understood to include practices involved in growing, buying and selling, storing, and preparing foods.

The thesis is based primarily on fieldwork in Denmark, supplemented by short visits to Norway, France, and Italy, carried out between 2008 and 2010. Three main fields form the primary ethnographic basis. First, a scientific tasting panel is examined, on which samples of food are assessed by individuals who are becoming “sensor bodies” that enact tastes as singular and objective. Second, in baking classes for amateur bakers at three different locations in Denmark, non-eating practices involved in making bread, as well as political and moral issues, are examined as part of the appreciation of terroir bread: brown, unruly and (according to some) healthy. Finally, the production of farm foods, as examples of what are understood to be “local foods in season”, is examined on a farm with direct sales to mostly urban customers. I show how the primacy—or even agency—given to the foods affects a change in the way the farmer, the employees, and the customers come to arrange their lives along the lines of growth and decay of these foods. In terms of tastes, I suggest that the way terroir foods are produced, allowing for variation in tastes as well as often-strong flavours, is important to understanding the relation between food and eater offered by such foods.
Methodologically as well as theoretically, the thesis is thus inspired by Actor Network Theory in the way manifold actors are allowed into the analysis, and the way taste is examined in several sites which are not hierarchised in advance. These sites each emphasise different elements of taste, although each element has been analysed in all sites: “bodies” tasting (on the panel); the processes involved in reinterpreting well-known foods as terroir “foods” (in bread and baking); and “places”—spatiotemporal constitutions of tastes (on the farm). I understand them all to be part of contemporary Danish food and eating practices, and therefore consider them part of one field: the field of taste. These field sites form the ethnographic foundation for developing a range of “eating modalities”. The Actor Network Approach is coupled with a phenomenological tradition of taking lived experience as an important ethnographic point of departure, e.g. for understanding the eating body as a body which is at the same time “me” and “not mine alone”. It is suggested that these eating modalities, developed in the analyses of the thesis, offer a way of addressing the complexity of the eater-food relation and propose understanding the eater as a “lived body multiple” (Mol 2002).