Carole Counihan. Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia: Place, Taste, and Community. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, v, pp. 151.
In Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia, Carole Counihan examines the activities of numerous groups across the Mediterranean island, with particular focus on taste as a political and educational tool. Although a short monograph, the nine chapters cover a range of politically engaged food practices and local organizations, taking in slow-food, farming, small business and restaurants through themes of taste, territorio (akin to terroir), and community. As an anthropologist engaged in close ethnography, Counihan’s rapport with the island’s people is palpable; the inspiration she takes from their principles, as well as the enjoyment she gets from their food, is evident in her prose throughout. The book’s key observation is that taste and “the right to pleasure” are sound, effective tools for food activists aiming to bring about local food sovereignty. Links are made between commensality and effective, non-elitist food activism. Though Counihan is at times overly quick to dismiss charges of elitism, this is balanced by detailed explorations of activists’ successes and frustrations in the face of competition from big business and competing organizations.
Offering a vivid picture of an island engaged in eating well, Counihan’s methodology is extremely thorough. The use of detailed semi-structured interviews appropriately supplementing sustained ethnography. The effect is to allow her informants space in which to develop their own ethnographic ideas, lending considerable credence to the author’s use of Gramsci’s “living theory” as a collectively constructed entity. The author’s own attempts at broad theoretical conclusions can however be lacking in complexity at times. She sets up readers with a distinction between “food activists,” “food advocates,” and “food rebels,” which seems like a taxonomical exercise given the more interesting perspectives explored in later chapters on multi-functionality, flexibility, compromises, and challenges. However, the willingness of political activists to bring detailed reflections on their daily practices and motivations to this ethnography largely make up for these moments of generalization. With the strength of Counihan’s research methodologies, this book is a valuable contribution to the anthropological literature on taste and place, given how rare it is to encounter academic writing on territorio (or terroir) that actually deals with, and gives a sense of, the composite everyday that inhabits and creates place. The contradictions inherent in the popularization of terroir worldwide as part of globalized elite food and drink vernacular are largely unexplored, but nevertheless it is refreshing to really get a sense of a place and a people engaged with their local territorio.
Having lived as closely with her informants as she did, Counihan seems to have developed a level of political solidarity with them, and at times, appears defensive of their ideals. This leads to the weaker aspects of the book. The wording in Chapter 2 verges on clumsy—though titled “Middle-Class Activism,” the author claims to have addressed the criticism of elitism in this chapter, dismissing as irrelevant to her case a range of scholars who have observed this phenomenon. The evidence that she uses to back up these claims is that the food activists she encountered were friendly, welcoming, and enjoyed eating together. There is an issue of balance between the openness, pleasure, and commensality experienced by the author, and a wider recognition of global context of structural inequality that surrounds food choices. Whilst she later deftly links the effectiveness and dedication of activists to the emotions of taste—and, extends this to explore taste education in local schools—the wider context of class surrounding the teaching and feeling of “good taste” remains under-elaborated. Ultimately, the author relies a little too heavily on instances of commensality as evidence of widespread egalitarianism in action.
Chapters dealing with restaurants and commerce escape this criticism and are particularly engaging. The close following not only of successes, but of painful failures in business, rebuffs any tendency of earlier chapters to be defensive of the slow food organization, or to ignore the influence of structural or global forces. Here we see all the personal realities of these forces in financial difficulties, divorce, and the struggle to meet ideals. Counihan rightfully highlights restaurant ethnography as an underdeveloped area of scholarship, and though only a single chapter, she makes a valuable contribution to addressing that lacuna. The primacy of trust and mutual benefit in making these businesses successful, and the anxieties that this engenders, are closely felt. These chapters point to all of the nuance that ethnography is capable of bringing to thinking through capitalism, politics, and the everyday: a testimony to the relationships the author built during her time in Sardinia and her ability to render them in writing.
Food Activists in Sardinia will be of particular benefit to those scholars interested in taste, place, and territorio (or terroir) as the detailed place-based ethnography grounds these themes in everyday practice. It would also be of great interest to food activists, a rare and welcome thing that the subjects of research be a key audience for the finished work. The best of Counihan’s work is located in the effectiveness of her ethnography, highlighting the complexity that geographical and personal specificity brings and reflecting her inclination towards developing a “living theory.” Yet this approach can also be inconsistent and themes of commensality, taste, and pleasure are not always developed to their full potential. The clear sense of rapport that makes this feel so successful as ethnography thus occasionally appears more likely to permit the evasion of issues of class and elitism, rather than being utilized towards bringing nuance to the wider context of food activism beyond Counihan’s field site.
Hannah Gormley is a Ph.D. candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research follows a recent surge in the global popularity of artisanal mescal, produced in the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, with particular attention paid to transformations of women’s work and identities.