Review: Eating Traditional Food

Hannah C. Gunderman

Brigitte Sebastia (editor). Eating Traditional Food: Politics, Identity, and Practices. Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2017. xiv, 240 pp.

A burgeoning “foodie” movement that favors traditional foods has drastically altered the consumption landscape in much of North America and Europe (as well as other regions, perhaps on a lesser scale), in ways that benefit some communities while prolonging legacies of colonialism and exploitation for others. As our food landscape continues to shift, it is of dire importance to understand the meaning of traditional foods: what role do they play in the global foodscape? How do we come to see food as “traditional”? What political, economic, cultural, and potentially exploitative consequences arise from renewed interest in consuming traditional foods? Brigitte Sébastia’s book comes at a crucial time in food studies as the growing interest in ethical foodscapes renders their definition and location more difficult. This edited collection is a relatively short read but one of significant substance as it fully addresses these questions, making a strong contribution to existing literature on traditional foods and food justice, with a consistent acknowledgement of the dynamic meanings of the world “traditional.”

The contributors to the book are scholars from various fields such as anthropology, sociology, history, and law, who all maintain an intellectual focus in food systems and food justice in their careers. Although the book could potentially be jargon-heavy for readers unfamiliar with food justice, this is not an insurmountable obstacle. Most of the chapters are highly accessible through the use of ten case studies in which each author combines food justice theory with the experiences of their own applied research within this field, rendering the book suitable as even the standalone textbook for courses specializing in food justice. While most of the authors provide their own working definition for traditional foods (none of which varies significantly from the others), the Foreword and Sébastia’s own introductory chapter, “Eating Traditional Food,” set the stage for the chapters’ critical examinations of food consumption through the lens of sustainability and justice, explaining the theoretical foundations of traditional foods:

How are traditional foods defined? How, culturally, do foods come to be known as “traditional”? Do meanings of traditional foods change in a globalizing world?

The first case study is introduced in Chapter 2 with an exploration of the revitalization of native “superfoods” in Mexico, documenting the dynamic consumption of amaranth, insects, and pulque under colonial and postcolonial influence. Beginning with this chapter, the book makes clear that traditional foodscapes are not untouched by colonialism and globalization, thereby diluting the connotation of “traditional” itself. The chapter authors often assert that “traditional food” is a concept that remains difficult to define, as reiterated in Chapter 3 as the reader learns of the complicated foodscape of Malta, where present-day “traditional” Maltese foods are actually absent from historical cookbooks in the region. Throughout the book, the reader is encouraged to understand that the designation “traditional” develops under a variety of geographical, economic, and political influences.

Among these political influences are geographical indications (GIs), which are introduced in Chapter 4 in the context of traditional food products in India. GIs are applied to products when they are deemed to come from a specific geographical area, maintaining qualities that associate it with their origin — in a sense, the most unwavering definition of “traditional food” as it is officially standardized. However, even with such standardization, traditional foods are appropriated, contested, and reinvented on a number of platforms, explored in Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8. Case studies in these chapters highlight several of the contested, and highly politicized, manifestations of traditional food, from controversial consumption of beef in India to an Israeli reality television cooking show in which Palestinian food follows a unique narrative. Called “MasterChef Israel,” the chapter uses case studies to demonstrate how Palestinian contestants are expected to conform to Israeli perceptions of what is traditionally viewed as “Arab,” and are Otherized and exoticized via their culinary performances in the show. The latter chapters of the book (9, 10, 11) explore the health benefits (or potential lack thereof) of traditional foods in Germany and France, as well as analyze the role of traditional medicine and Ayurveda in the ethical foodscape.

By using this book in a course setting, instructors can expect students to gain a strong proficiency in communicating the role of traditional foods in food justice studies and activism. Foodscapes are increasingly political due to their correlation with class, race, and access, and scholars must be prepared to understand how, and why, the meanings of traditional foods are created and (re)shaped within a geographic region. This book maintains strong geographic coverage, providing global case studies on the meanings, and struggles, of traditional food in a local foodscape. Instructors, students, and casual readers with an interest in food studies would be well advised to read this book, and use it as a catalyst to fuel further dialogue on ethical consumption in a globalizing, increasingly exploitative world.


Hannah C. Gunderman is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, studying primarily cultural geography. She has a Bachelors of Science in Geography and a M.A. in Geography/Environment and Natural Resources from the University of Wyoming. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue a career in the areas of qualitative research, ethnography, mapping of human behavior, and fandom/gaming.