Mark Swislocki


On his book Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai

Cover Interview of April 01, 2010

The wide angle

Culinary Nostalgia evolved out of my attempt to make sense of an unexpected turn in my research.  I set out looking for the various ways that Shanghai people used food to participate in the “modern” world and act out their cosmopolitan status.  While I did find some evidence of this use of food, I found much more of the opposite: food, more often than not, was an assertion of provincial pride and an objection to modernity, or at the very least to the many structural forces and ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: urbanization, industrialization, nationalism, capitalism, socialism, and globalization. 

I kept finding, for example, twentieth-century writers on Shanghai foodways alluding to nineteenth-century writers on Shanghai foodways, who were themselves often citing verbatim even earlier writers on Shanghai foodways.  This pattern was especially pronounced in writing about regional specialty crops, in particular the Shanghai honey nectar peach, which back in the sixteenth century had helped Shanghai residents distinguish their city as a place of note.  The early literature on Shanghai’s peaches even likened the city to the rural idyll described in fourth-century poet Tao Qian’s “Peach Blossom Spring.”  Then, later on, came the many complaints about how the taste of the peaches deteriorated in quality as urbanization pushed local peach cultivation beyond city limits and out of native soil. 

In addition to the literature on Shanghai peaches, I was struck by the appearance of “Proustian” essays, written by sojourners in Shanghai, about how a chance encounter with their favorite childhood food, such as lotus root, conjured images of a better and more just world.  Equally striking was the way that restaurant décor, carefully chronicled in consumer guidebooks to city life, celebrated historical motifs more than Shanghai’s modernity.  I was especially surprised to find that even Communist Party authorities in Shanghai, famous for their denigration of the city’s pre-1949 society and culture, participated in culinary nostalgia about Shanghai’s and China’s past.

Lurking in all of this material, I eventually realized, was an enduring culture of remembrance surrounding regional foodways and regional culture.  Equally important was recognizing that this culture provided me with a way to study food in a manner suitable for an historian; that is, without divorcing food from social processes and power, since each act of food memory could be closely linked to shifting power relations at key stages in the development of city life.  Significantly, these stages now took on a meaning different from that usually ascribed to them, as the most “modern” city in China emerged as a deeply nostalgic place.

In this regard, I like to think that the book succeeds in avoiding some of the pitfalls of earlier forms of culinary history, as well as some of the less productive tendencies evident even in the more recent “food studies” scholarship.  One of the dangers of studying “food” is that food as such becomes the subject matter, while social relationships become incidental.  This tendency is especially (if not always) evident in work on the history of foodstuffs, which often make a fetish of a particular item of food and seek only to locate its importance in history, and as a result only reify history.  We thus learn much about food but little about history.

What I try to show instead was that food wasn’t in history; rather, it made history.  A lack of clarity about the differences between these two approaches accounts, in part, for why the field of food studies continues to be belittled as trivial (although I think that there has also been some conflation of books written for distinctly different audiences).

My ongoing reflections about the curious belittlement of food as a topic of academic inquiry certainly primed me to raise questions about the ongoing belittlement of nostalgia, a sentiment derided even by poststructuralists, from whom one might have instead expected more examination of the strategies of belittlement.  It thus became important to me to consider the possibility of de-pathologizing nostalgia: not to err by glorifying it, but more simply to listen to it, carefully.

Perhaps Shanghai’s honey nectar peaches really did taste better in the past.  But the more pressing historical issue is why people felt compelled to write about the decline of peach cultivation nostalgically by invoking, in particular, the image of the peach blossom spring.  This image was originally conceived as an allegory of escape from the corruption and infighting that plagued the Jin (265-420 CE) court.  In late nineteenth-century Shanghai, this same image now read as a poignant counterpoint to the rapid development and uncertainty of modern city life, as well as to patterns of corruption exemplified by gluttonous civil officials.  To criticize nostalgia, culinary or otherwise, is to miss larger points in play for social and cultural analysis.