井の中の蛙

7/7/2014

Science, Social Science, and Pseudoscience of Diet/Culture Thesis

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:50 pm

Eminent food historian Rachel Laudan alerted me recently to the existence of new scholarship, cultural psychology, giving support to the idea that different basic grains gave rise to different cultures which have measurable effects at the individual level: “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.” The research is intriguing for its attempted rigor: From a quantitative social science perspective, they did everything right.

Cross-cultural psychologists have mostly contrasted East Asia with the West. However, this study shows that there are major psychological differences within China. We propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, whereas farming wheat makes cultures more independent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. We tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, we tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. We also find that modernization and pathogen prevalence theories do not fit the data.

There’s a problem here, though, that scientists and statisticians refer to as “prior plausibility”: it’s not enough that you can create an experiment to test for a difference, but there has to be a good reason to create the experiment in the first place. If there isn’t, then the concept of “statistically significant correlation” becomes meaningless. This is Bayesian statistics, as I understand it.

As Rachel Laudan and her commenters point out, there are good historical reasons to believe that many wheat-cultivating cultures were at least as collective-minded as rice-growing cultures are presumed to be; similarly, there’s plenty of research pointing out the individualistic and profit-oriented elements of early modern Japanese and Chinese peasant societies.

The upside of this is that it finally spurred me to pick up Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time which is often cited in these discussions. As I said on twitter, I’ve been reluctant largely because citations to it seemed mostly to be used to bolster arguments like those above: that something fundamental about rice cultivation — usually the collectivist village, as imagined in modernity — is the heart or essence of Japanese Civilization since forever, etc. What I found, as most of you know, is a fairly satisfying and subtle discussion of the way in which symbols work in cultures, with a “side dish” of historical skepticism about the actual role of rice and of agriculture. The way in which the discourse of Japan as made up of rice cultivating rural communities has obscured many elements of change over time, including the diversity of rural production, hunter-gatherer traditions, non-agricultural commoners, and the value of mobility and urbanization in modernity.1

In fact, it seems like most of the citations to Rice as Self that I’ve seen over the last ten years have been very weak ones: Ohnuki-Tierney doesn’t support the “rice creates culture” argument (at least not here; this is 20-year old scholarship, and she’s been busy since then) and I strongly suspect that the evidence doesn’t, either.

  1. I’ll admit, anthropological semiotics still feels very circular to me: the chicken-egg problem of cultural re/production, activity/agency never feels quite resolved or quite grounded. []

3/23/2012

Credentialism and Other Modern Traditions

The Japan Times article on Japan’s application to UNESCO to have 和食 [washoku, Japanese cuisine] declared an internationally recognized “intangible cultural asset” is a fantastic display of modern cultural discourses. The combination of bad food history, the distortions of modernism, and abject credentialism is really quite disturbing.
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1/17/2008

Fortune Cookie History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:46 am

A grad student from Kanagawa University may have cracked the great riddle of Asian cuisine: the origin of the Fortune Cookie! As the NY Times reports, the original fortune cookies may have been produced by Kyoto-area confectioners in the late 1800s.1 The practice — and the distinctive iron grills used to make the sembei crackers, which are part of the historical puzzle — spread to Japanese-owned Chop Suey houses in San Francisco.2 From there, Chinese-owned restaurants began to offer them, and Chinese-owned bakeries supplied them.

Then came WWII, which changed everything.

Ms. Nakamachi is still unsure how exactly fortune cookies made the jump to Chinese restaurants. But during the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese immigrants in California owned chop suey restaurants, which served Americanized Chinese cuisine. The Umeya bakery distributed fortune cookies to well over 100 such restaurants in southern and central California.

Early on, Chinese-owned restaurants discovered the cookies, too. Ms. Nakamachi speculates that Chinese-owned manufacturers began to take over fortune cookie production during World War II, when Japanese bakeries all over the West Coast closed as Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Mr. Wong pointed out: “The Japanese may have invented the fortune cookie. But the Chinese people really explored the potential of the fortune cookie. It’s Chinese-American culture. It only happens here, not in China.”

The war also served to popularize the fortune cookie

they were encountered by military personnel on the way back from the Pacific Theater. When these veterans returned home, they would ask their local Chinese restaurants why they didn’t serve fortune cookies as the San Francisco restaurants did.

The cookies rapidly spread across the country. By the late 1950s, an estimated 250 million fortune cookies were being produced each year by dozens of small Chinese bakeries and fortune cookie companies. One of the larger outfits was Lotus Fortune in San Francisco, whose founder, Edward Louie, invented an automatic fortune cookie machine. By 1960, fortune cookies had become such a mainstay of American culture that they were used in two presidential campaigns: Adlai Stevenson’s and Stuart Symington’s.

It’s such an American tale. It’s all there: entrepreneurship, food, racism, migration, war, marketing, invention, industrialization and orientalism.3 I can’t wait to tell my students.

(Crossposted, of course)

  1. I’m immediately reminded of the rickshaw, which everyone associates with China but which was actually invented as the jinrikisha in Japan at the opening of the Meiji era. There is evidence in the Times article going back to the early 1800s, though. []
  2. Japanese in North America were much more likely to be from Kansai than Japanese in Hawai’i []
  3. Also the obsession with national origins, Japanese-Chinese competition, the value of open archives, the historiography of food culture and the power of media to shape a historical finding. []

7/17/2007

Oh Tempura, Oh Mores!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:06 am

The New York Times has been on a Japanese culture kick this week which I just couldn’t let pass without note. There have been not one, but two articles in praise of Sushi, and an appreciation for a Roots Kabuki troupe on tour in the US.
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11/17/2006

Someone’s class project….

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:29 am

Apparently, some English class at a Japanese university is exploring the Anglophone Blogosphere in search of pen pals and practice. (This is the closest thing to a meme you’re probably ever going to get on this blog.) This was mine:
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11/12/2005

Israeli Sushi

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:44 pm

Japanese food is, as I’ve said before, one of the great contributions to world food culture. But nothing remains “pure,” even if it was in some sense pure to begin with. Our favorite sushi place here in Hilo features lots of avocado-filled futomaki, poké (marinated sashimi, basically, available in a wide variety of styles and flavors, and destined to become Hawai’i’s most distinctive contribution to world food) as a side dish and in sushi (the rice-side-out poké sushi rolled in crushed macadamia nuts is my wife’s top pick) and one of my personal favorites is the Green Bay roll, with smoked salmon, cream cheese and asparagus.

Nothing brings out creativity like food. And nothing drives creativity in food like the restaraunt market, in which responding to local tastes frequently trumps purity of spirit or style (though “purity” is often a valuable market niche as well). So it was with little surprise that I learned that Israeli sushi [gracious half-bow to Jonathan Edelstein] is moving in its own directions.

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