“Why don’t you write your literature review about alcohol?” my African colonialism professor asked me during my master’s degree. “I can do that?!” I replied. The possibility of researching and writing on the history of beer and alcohol was, honestly, mind-blowing. I had already been an avid homebrewer for many years and had just begun to write articles for a regional beer magazine on historical topics. That first academic piece of writing ended up being a literature review about British alcohol policies. This was 10 years ago and nine years before I completed my doctoral dissertation focusing on the world history of Pilsner: “Empire in a Bottle: Commodities, Culture, and the Consumption of Pilsner Beer in the British Empire, c. 1870–1914.” It has been a lot of hard work and fun since that fateful question.
In May 2017, the University of Bologna’s Department of History and Culture hosted a workshop entitled “Household Consumption and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century.” The workshop was co-convened by RCC alumnus Giacomo Parrinello (Sciences Po, Paris) and professor of contemporary history Paolo Capuzzo (University of Bologna). The event was co-sponsored by the RCC and the University of Bologna. Twelve scholars from the US, Germany, and Italy convened to discuss the links between consumer culture (and practices) in the household and ecological transformations on multiple spatial and temporal scales.
The papers, all pre-circulated in advance, were grouped into three panels: food and the kitchen, household technologies, and energy and the home. The three panels were preceded by an introduction by the conveners, which presented the central concern of the workshop: the apparent contradiction between awareness of negative ecological impact of mass consumption and the affects and identities embedded in consumer practices. Continue reading “Household Consumption and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century”
When I first saw designs for the plantCube, a smart, fully automated machine for producing perfect vegetables, it seemed more like a high-fashion kitchen device than a sustainable alternative for growing vegetables. The plantCube was created by Munich-based start-up agrilution, whose cofounder, Maximilian Lössl, spoke with us at a Tuesday Discussion at the RCC last July. The company is developing and manufacturing an automated small-scale vertical farming machine meant to enable urban citizens to grow their own food at home. With the plantCube, you don’t need a balcony or garden—not even sunlight or soil. The only thing you need is a white machine that looks like a freezer, electricity, an Internet connection, and a mobile phone. Via app you can remotely control everything from ordering seed mats to the development of your plants inside the cube.
Although it has obvious benefits—it avoids long transportation, is free of pesticides, produces little waste, and is nearly non-perishable (thanks to a “holiday mode” that allows you to put your plants to sleep for a while)—I was skeptical about this invention. I was concerned by the idea that the fresh healthy vegetables I eat would not have touched juicy chilly dark soil, nor felt fresh breezes; I was concerned that they are not even able to experience a single ray of real sunlight. Could a plant growing on a nutrition mat in a clean white cube that automatically provides it with LED light, maintains a suitable temperature, and dispenses water in precise doses really be healthy at all? Continue reading “Nurturing My Greens with High-Tech? Reflections on Vertical Farming and the PlantCube”
In addition to the papers from participants, there was also a keynote talk by Ursula Heinzelmann, food writer and director of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Drawing on her most recent book, “Beyond Bratwurst: A History of Food in Germany,” her talk focused on the question, “What is German food?” and pointed to a diversity of regional food traditions within Germany and a long-standing openness to culinary influences from other countries—not just the typical Oktoberfest fare. Germany’s geographic and climatic variations, as well as its political, social, and economic history, have shaped the development of this flexible food culture. This picture shows workshop participants sampling German artisan cheeses and Riesling.
The productive tension between “local” foods and the “global” processes that bring food cultures into contact with each other became one of the key themes of the workshop, and was further underscored when visiting Munich’s Viktualienmarkt (food market) and its new neighbour Eataly. Full of vendors selling local specialities, the Viktualienmarkt attracts customers from around the world, including many tourists and visitors to Munich. A global brand originating in Turin, Eataly sells “typical” Italian food in its stores on four continents.
by Sibylle Zavala (with Ramona Mayr and Thomas Müller), Environmental Studies Certificate Program students
Our final project, and that of our fellow students, was pioneering work. As a biologist, an interculturalist, and an environmental planner, we formed a rather interdisciplinary group. We wondered what we could work on that would encompass sustainability across our three fields of study: we decided on the waste of food still suitable for human consumption, which is somewhat contradictory to the concept of sustainability. As stated by the 1987 Brundtland Commission, sustainable food security should meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Standing in my grandparents’ kitchen at a family gathering on a sunny winter’s day in Iowa I overheard my uncle ask my cousin, who was around my age, the seemingly simple question: “So where are you living right now?” I cringed, grateful that I wouldn’t be the one to have to muster up a succinct answer. As a young adult, this is a rather difficult question that leaves me reflecting on something that is supposed to be an integral part of my identity: where I live. I perked up my ears in anticipation of my cousin’s answer, eager to hear how he would respond. His reply was a simple “it depends.”
In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.
I am a child of the 1970s. My family might be called “back-to-the-landers.” In our kitchen, on the redwood shelves made from recycled chicken coops, sat Laurel’s Kitchen and the Tassajara Bread Book. My mother drove our VW bus down the long dirt road and into town to shop at the community co-op and the health food store. My mom bought “natural” food. She bought no-spray, wholegrain, brown food. We made our own yogurt and bread.
We also got a lot of food for free. We always had a garden, though it seemed to grow lots of zucchini and little else. Animals were a problem: raccoons ate our chickens, one by one. In some years, deer and feral pigs destroyed everything. We canned Gravenstein apples from the windfalls we picked up at the orchards that covered Western Sonoma County. We picked each year’s jam supply in the blackberry thickets down by the Russian River. Sometimes we got unpasteurized milk from a nearby dairy, and we went to the remaining chicken farmers for eggs (fertilized, memorably on one occasion with chicken embryos inside). One year my mom invested in a side of beef and we kept it in the cold storage in Sebastopol. My mom did not do these things to support local farmers. She did them because it was cheap and because it was “natural.” Continue reading “Making Tracks: Matthew Booker”