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Interview with Melissa Caldwell

The food anthropologist on Gastronomica, smog tasting and always being equipped for the next meal.

Melissa Caldwell

Hometown Chattanooga, Tennessee
Home base San Jose, California
Claim to fame Editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies and anthropology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz
Currently cooking “It’s Dungeness crab season – we’re living for that – and dry farmed tomatoes (which is most of them due to the drought). I could eat tomatoes all day, every day.”
Travel essentials A corkscrew and cutlery: “I have a spoon in my briefcase. I’m always ready for the next meal.”


What differentiates Gastronomica from other food magazines?
It’s the nerdy version of newsstand titles – like Nature for food. Critical food studies is an emerging discipline and uses food as a starting point for conversations about identity politics, ethics, history and memory, colonialism. Food is interesting as a topic because it brings together the personal, the political and the social. It’s never just about sustenance or pleasure.

Your own research has focused on Russia. Why is that?
State socialist political systems have used food practices in very different ways than democratic or capitalist ones, and Russia is a fascinating example of this. For instance, in the 1930s, architects built apartments without kitchens to create gender egalitarianism and communalism by freeing women from the kitchen and forcing everyone to eat together in public canteens.

Is there a food trend you’re into right now?
My new research is on food hacking. Chefs, computer engineers and artists are making food this hypothetical thing instead of about its heritage and tradition. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s project on smog tasting – smog harvested from various cities and whipped up with eggs into meringues – is reworking the question of what terroir tastes like and asking whether we can taste it through other things, like pollution.

What are some of your favourite food cities?
Barcelona has amazing grocery stores and markets. I love the cheese, meat and olives. I’m in Moscow a lot, which is all sidewalk cafés and shashlik stands. And Helsinki is fun in the summer. I love the mix of pickled fish and lingonberries and reindeer meat.

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INTERVIEW     MELISSA CALDWELL     Q&A    

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