The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society
by Janet A. Flammang

University of Illinois Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-252-07673-2.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 11/13/2009

Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

In this wide-ranging discussion of the influence of the dining table in American civil and cultural life, political scientist Janet A. Flammang explores the complex relationships between cooking, eating, serving food, and sharing mealtimes—important rituals of a civil society that are in danger of erosion in contemporary industrialized society.

The Taste for Civilization is divided into five sections. Part One offers a close look at gendered (and devalued) foodwork and the difficulty of making time for it in most modern American families. Part Two surveys the importance of table conversation, table manners, and table rituals, all of which bind families and communities in important patterns of sharing, learning, and belonging. Part Three, "Food for Thought," explores the link between mind/body and the importance of bridging the two, while Part Four looks at Alice Waters' "delicious revolution" and the Slow Food movement, which restore the taste for food and food practices to their proper place, separate from the commoditization of food. Part Five emphasizes the importance of community food rituals and community markets in the development of new food practices.

Throughout, Flammang emphasizes the social significance of foodwork and foodways (particularly regional and community foodways), and the role of women in this important aspect of civil society. On a daily basis, she says, participation in our food culture can "bring out the best in people by prompting them to think about the common good and larger purposes." It is in the household and the family that this important socializing function takes place and it has traditionally been the responsibility of women. But this vital task should belong to the whole family, she says. Families must find ways to work together to teach and learn the values of foodwork, to create a taste for delicious and healthy food and the ritual of the daily table, and to establish food relationships with their neighbors, through gardening, purchasing food at local markets, and eating together.

The Taste for Civilization makes an important contribution to cultural and feminist studies and to political theory. Recommended for women's studies and food history collections.

Janet A. Flammang is a professor and the chair of political science at Santa Clara University and the author of Women's Political Voice: How Women Are Transforming the Practice and Study of Politics.

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