Book Review: Food and Multiculture: A Sensory Ethnography of East London

Food and Multiculture: A Sensory Ethnography of East London. By Alex Rhys-Taylor. London: Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. ix + 175. ISBN 978-1-4725-8116-7, £76.49 (hbk)

Reviewed by: Lucy Jackman, PhD Candidate, Swansea University, UK

Awakening past memories and present realities of inner-city transformation, Alex Rhys-Taylor invites us on an exploration of London’s East End through gustatory and olfactory encounters. Accompanying him on the “rain-slicked pavement” (100), feeling “the heat of chilli peppers” (28) on our tongues in spaces coloured by the “smoky fog of charred lamb and chicken” (1), we uncover the rich history of London’s East End through socio-economic and cultural avenues. With the 2008 financial crisis, 2011 riots and 2012 Olympics present in the background of this sensory ethnography, Rhys-Taylor ‘zooms in’ on the microscopic experiences of everyday life in the city, questioning our ‘gut feelings’ and tracing the transcultural significance of the area’s history.

Aptly titled ‘Coming to Our Senses’, the opening chapter of Food and Multiculture offers a convincing argument for using sensory approaches in qualitative research. Food and Multiculture argues that ocular-centrist approaches overlook the roles that our other senses play in constructing class, race and multiculture. In addressing this lacuna, Rhys-Taylor points attention to specific ‘sensoria’ in East London – tastes, smells and textures of food – and deconstructs the ways in which these sensoria are made sense of, to create distinct or shared sensations. Importantly, Rhys-Taylor argues that it is through “a biographically, culturally and, to an extent, biologically specific filter, that sensoria become sensations” (5). Calling this process our ‘sensibility’, he speaks to Vannini et al.’s (2011) work on the ‘sensory order’ of cultures and how people are emotionally bound to particular sensoria. Our sensibility is what elicits certain gut feelings to particular tastes or smells, and in the city we are exposed to countless sensoria creating potential for revulsion or desire, association and distinction. It is in these moments that Rhys-Taylor dwells.

Structuring his ethnography around Back’s (1996) ‘metropolitan paradox’, which Rhys-Taylor describes as “the coexistence of transcultural and transnational social formations with entrenched senses of social distinction and separation” (21), each of the subsequent five empirical chapters opens with ethnographic description, depicting a scene of encounter. Chapter 2 recounts an instance of disruption through sharing the sensation of hot chilli peppers; chapter 3 follows the lunch crowd from ‘the City’ eating at newly established ‘street food’ sites; chapter 4 remembers a moment from Ridley Road Market in 1947, which fuelled anti-immigration sentiment; chapter 5 lingers on a scene of sociality from one of the East End’s chicken shops; chapter 6 unearths a seafood stall forgotten in the midst of a changing neighbourhood. Through these moments, Rhys-Taylor examines the impact of globalisation; the transformation of the inner city through processes of gentrification; the influence of media’s attention to particular food scandals; prejudice within ‘gut feelings’; the importance of sites of consumption for community building; the persistence of race and class politics in city planning; poverty; power; and, importantly, their impact on convivial society. These discussions are successfully drawn together in the penultimate chapter with a theoretical gaze, leaving Rhys-Taylor to conclude the book with reflections on methodology, in a way, reflecting on how he came to his senses.

Although I find it surprising that Rhys-Taylor does not reference the work on food and ‘multicultural imaginaries’ by geographers Cook, Crang and Thorpe (1999), particularly when delving into themes of hybrid cuisine, and the circuitry of particular food items, I understand that his approach is more sociological. In the telling of these stories, Rhys-Taylor identifies the influence of London’s transcultural past and present, which in my opinion is the real strength of this book. Drawing on Certeau, Giard and Mayol (1998), Rhys-Taylor discusses the invisible planetary ‘non-histories’ that are made ‘sensible’ when they are considered using a sensory approach. By uncovering these ‘non-histories’ and questioning the social significance of why we have ‘gut feelings’ about certain tastes and smells, this book will make the reader think critically about how prejudice is active, outside of visible or verbal discourses. Emerging from the midst of a ‘sensory turn’ (Howes 2012), Food and Multiculture is a refreshingly accessible book. Highlighting the creativity of sensory ethnography it will be a welcome read for researchers and students alike. Each chapter is self-contained and can be read individually, but together they form a wider narrative highlighting the many ways in which our senses are active in how we construct identity and relate to others. Whilst drawing primarily on urban sociology, the reach and impact of this text will undoubtedly be inter-disciplinary. Human geographers interested in multiculture, urban life, sensory methods or food will find this an engaging and influential piece of work.

References

  • Back, L. (1996). New Ethnicities and Urban Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Certeau, M.D., Giard, L., & Mayol, P. (1998). The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 2. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Cook, I., Crang, P., & Thorpe, M. (1999). ‘Eating into Britishness: Multicultural Imaginaries and the Identity Politics of Food’. In Roseneil, S., & Seymour, J., (eds), Practising Identities: Power and Resistance. Hampshire: Macmillan Press. Pp. 223-248.
  • Howes, D. (2012). ‘The Cultural Life of the Senses’. Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 3(4): pp. 450–454.
  • Vannini, P., Waskul, D., & Gottschalk, S. (2011). The Senses in Self, Society, and Culture: A Sociology of the Senses. New York: Routledge.
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