Final Portfolio: Myth of Food Consumption and Nostalgia

Interpreting the Myth of Food Consumption and Nostalgia

     Ever since human being has ceased living off wild berries, food consumption has obtained more than nutritive significance. As we have explored throughout the semester, food symbolizes identity, class, gender, memory and border crossing. Among all the class readings, Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption by Roland Barthes has provided me with an overarching approach in understanding the information constituted by food. In this article, Barthes employs semiotics to help contextualize the role and function of food. For what is food? “Food is…a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior.” (Food and Culture, pp. 24) For instance, when a middle-class American housewife picks up a can of tuna fish in the Whole Foods Market, she is not only consuming the “minimally processed” fish but the idea of organic living, the notion of environmental-friendly production and the image of a good wife and mom who cares about her family’s health.
Fundamentally, food consumption is about physiological satisfaction. However, as Barthes precisely argues, what is de facto consumed is a highly constructed end product that reflects collective institution. Abstracting from the projects I have accomplished this semester, food as a signifier has decoded the myth of authenticity. In short, food signifies nostalgia. Thus, in this final portfolio, I argue that the pursuit of authenticity arises from nostalgia-a sentiment embodied as one’s desire to partake in history, or trace individual experiences from the past.

Foodstuff Project: Long life Chinese Herbs (←Click on the title to view full context)
If food is a coherent system of information, as established by Barthes, then preparation constitutes a crucial semantic unit. (Food and Culture, pp.25) In this case, the relationship between authenticity and nostalgia is signified through the presentation and preparation of herbs. During the fieldwork, the two Chinese health clinics Mamie and I visited contrasted each other immensely. Health clinic A is arranged more identical to a modernized doctor’s office. The stainless floor, smell of sanitizer and crushed herbs prescribed in pre-sealed pockets forcefully emphasize hygiene. Clinic B, on the other hand, is filled with cabinets of dried herbs and offers herb-decoction service. The doctor practices the four traditional Chinese methods (望聞問切) and the prescription of herbs involves more manual work such as cutting, weighing etc. Immediately, Clinic B has claimed authenticity over Clinic A. As argued by David Sutton, practical knowledge of food preparation is an embodiment of memories in a jar. Cooking skills passed down from female authorities in the family line share similarities with medical practice herbalists garnered through apprenticeship. In both scenarios food preparation evokes the image of “traditional”, some heritage from the past. In Clinic B, the display of natural herbs on the counter and decocting tools resembles with Huatuo’s treatment from the Eastern Han Dynasty, Li Shizhen’s recommendation in the Compendium of Materia Medica while Clinic A addresses hygiene and standardization associated with modernity.
In conclusion, during the exploration of herbs as medicine, two levels of nostalgia are involved when determining authenticity. On micro level, nostalgia for individual experience has shaped the image associated with “Chinese medicine”. Moreover, the praxis of history has bridged the word “traditional” with authenticity. As Tulasi Srinivas quotes in her article As Mother Made It, “culinary authenticity…is framed in the terms espoused by the viewer, or eater…(and they) tend to say it’s authentic if it is artisanal, pre-industrial, uses indigenous ingredients…” (Food and Culture, pp. 368) In other words, authenticity derives from nostalgia for the sunny days of yore.

Cooking Project: Lomo Saltado& Mapping Project: A Taste of Szechuan
Also yearning for the good old days were the Chinese- Peruvian immigrants. The prosperity of Chifa restaurants in Peru, on the one hand has resulted from socio-economic predicament the Chinese Peruvian ancestors came across upon first arrival, is also an attempt to retrieve the past self through consuming cuisine of their ethnic group, region and locale. Tracing back to the 16th century, hundred thousands of Chinese have rafted across the Pacific Ocean to reach the American continent and swallowed sweat and blood in the clashes of cultures, languages and loss of identity. Often engaged through pursuit of gastro authenticity, this sentiment evokes memories for “home cooking”, or cuisine from the cultural origin. As Srinivas states in As Mother Made It, when people are away from their “home culture”, the idea of “homeland” becomes an important nucleus for nostalgic sentiment. (Food and Culture, pp.365) Thus, the establishment of Chifa restaurants has originated as a physical embodiment of nostalgia- an idealized image of cultural heritage, a social space of solidarity for people sharing the same mother tongue and customs, a utopia on the exotic land. The most renowned Chifa restaurant in Lima, Chifa TiTi for example, preserves its Hakka identity by embodying Hakka style architecture and introducing a touch of Hakkaness in food presentation. Our exploration of Chifa suggests that authenticity resonates with perseverance of cultural identity along with retrieve of past self from the other end of the globe. For Chinese Peruvians, classic Chifa dishes such as Lomo Saltado and Kam Lu Wonton are authentic because these dishes signify the history of multicultural emergence as well as early generations’ endeavor for assimilation.

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If the research and recreation of Chifa contextualize authenticity in early migration, my mapping project in search for Szechuanese restaurants near Chinatown expands the dimension to globalization. Located in a multicultural cosmopolitan like Philadelphia, these Szechuanese restaurants conceptually inserted “local” into the “global” space. (Food and Culture, pp.357) Upon arriving at the gate of a Szechuanese restaurant, consumers seek for an authentic Szechuanese experience through steaming hotpot with bubbling sauces, burning sensations of spices on the taste buds, and more importantly- the cultural atmosphere that immediately teleports them to Szechuan to dine with the pandas. In this case, Szechuanese food signifies nostalgic sentiment for localization.
Retrospectively, both Lomo Saltado and Szechuanese cuisine around Chinatown have posed the question of authenticity in relation to nostalgia for cultural identity conceptually and spatially. In other words, consumption of these two cuisines exemplify desire to reclaim ethnic identity, recreate cultural solidarity and re-experience locality.

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Creative Project: Eat and Drink in Song Dynasty
Considering that so far my research has been circumscribed to a modern context, I started off this exercise as an experiment to place my argument on a historical dimension. In this project, Song cuisine not only signifies history but is itself part of history. Thus, recreation of the Song dietary culture is a pursuit of authenticity. In retrospect, this project reminds me of the “Little Song City” (小宋城)- a state-owned restaurant established on the reminiscence of the prosperous Bianliang City (汴梁城). Located among ruins from Song Dynasty, Little Song City aims at a complete restoration of Song’s food and culture. Primarily, both the architect and the interior design strictly imitate Song style. The restaurant staff wears Song costumes and speaks quasi-Song dialect. Even the management of the restaurant follows the landlord-individual food shop mode developed during that dynasty. The restaurant promotes itself as a place for authentic Song dining experience. Indeed it is a smart slogan. After an exhausting day of visiting Song remains around the area, tourists dine in Little Song City to strengthen their connection to the past. In this restaurant, consumers are no longer visitors, observers, outsiders of history but partakers of a simulacrum of the past. The restaurant, through equalizing its physical space with an opportunity to participate in history, constructs food with a cultural identity and a symbol of antiquity. The popularity of Little Song City best proves that this image is well sold. Food indeed, reflects a prevalent desire to partake in history.

Before taking this class I have always regarded food consumption as physiological necessity, as nutritive intake, and as sensual pleasure. Nonetheless, Barthes mythology empowered me to decode food as a system of communication. The saying has it that “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes.” So does authenticity. Essentially, defining authenticity cannot, shall not and will not be an objective experience. When one claims a particular food to be authentic, one turns to history for legitimacy. Through contextualization with secondary readings, each of the projects above presents food as nostalgia in a different perspective. In a brief summary, foodstuff project associates authenticity of herbal medicine with the concept of “traditional”. Cooking project and mapping project both emphasize authenticity in relation to retrieving identity culturally and spatially. Finally, the creative project adds a historical dimension and strengthens that food is a highly constructed product that signifies nostalgia.

Work Cited
1. Barthes, Roland. “Chapter 2 Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” 1961. Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 23-29. Print.
2. Sutton, David. “Chapter 21 Cooking Skills, the Senses and Memory: The Fate of Practical Knowledge.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 299-319. Print.
3. Srinivas, Tulasi. “Chapter 25 “As Mother Made It”” Food and Culture: A Reader. By Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 355-371. Print.





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This project tells a story of how the protagonists get together and separates through the presentation of food. Here I would like to quote a famous Japanese poem to express the central premise of the story.

“While transmigrating through the six realms,

There’s no one for company.

Alone we were born, alone we die. ”

(No Adobe, the record of Ippen, Dennis Hirota )

In this lonely world where hearts are isolated and emotions obscured, food becomes a signifier for revealing one’s genuine consciousness. Based on Roland Barthes and his mythology theory, this project seeks to interpret a relationship with the presentation of food.

The Bicycle Thief-Restaurant Scene

Antonio Ricci is an unemployed worker in post-WWII Italy. He is thrilled to finally find a job hanging posters. To maintain this job he has to own a bicycle. Thus his wife sells their bed sheets to support him. However, happy moments are always fleeting. On his first day of working his bicycle gets stolen! The following day, Antonio takes his son Bruno on a journey to look for bicycle. The restaurant scene starts when the protagonist Antonio Ricci failed to extract information about his stolen bike and accidentally took his frustration out on his son Bruno. Feeling regretted afterwards, Antonio decided to treat his son a rare meal at a pizzaria. In the restaurant, the auteur Vittorio De Sica dusts away the previous tragic atmosphere and creates a gleeful oasis for Antonio Ricci and Bruno. On this happy note, De Sica pays tribute to the working class and their intelligence of making joy out of crashed life.

Using sequence analysis and climatology terminologies, I analyzed the restaurant scene shot-by-shot and presented its importance in the whole film in elating the atmosphere and portraying class contrast.


Long Life Chinese Herbs

Long Life Chinese Herbs



According to the Webster dictionary, the word “herbs” is defined as “any such plant that can be used as medicine, seasonings, etc” (Webster Dictionary). However, “herbs” associated with Chinese medicine should not be narrowly understood: it is a more comprehensive term including various ingredients such as animals, seashells, minerals and anything found in nature can be used medicinally. Moreover, traditional Chinese herbs sometimes play crucial roles in cuisine as well. To explore the usage of herbs in Chinese culture both as food and as medicine, our group traced the historical origin of herbal medicine and conducted fieldwork in Philadelphia Chinatown.


In primitive times, humans found out that some of the herbs could be used for curing diseases during hunting and gathering society. In Chinese history, the earliest recognized herbalist was Shennong (divine father), a mythic god-like figure who lived around 2800 BC (Wikipedia). Shennong tested hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to the farmers. He also wrote Materia Madica (Shen Nong Bai Cao Jing), the oldest book on Chinese herbal medicine, to classify more than three hundred flora and fauna. A large number of herbalists augmented his works. Among them the most distinguished was Li Shizhen, an herbalist lived in Ming dynasty. The Compendium of Materia Medica (Ben Cao Gang Mu) complied by Li Shizhen is still used today for consultation and reference.
There are two major methods of applying the Chinese herbs: making a decoction, a tea that must be simmered for hours, or making large honey-bounded pills.

Unlike the western medicine, these two ways of applying Chinese herbs are regarded as unpleasant and sometimes unacceptable. The teas are time-consuming, smelly and awful tasting while the pills are sticky and difficult to chew. Thus, modern forms of applications that are more acceptable have developed. There are two popular forms to replace the traditional applications. The first one is extract powder that we have found in Chinatown, Philadelphia (which would be further discussed in the Fieldwork section); and the second form is small tablets or capsules. Both of the modern ways of applications are easier for people to accept.

Furthermore, Chinese natural herbs are usually used for three major functions. To begin with, herbs can treat acute diseases and kill bacteria or virus. In general, these acute ailments are treated for 1-30 days. Second, herbs can heal chronic illness such as respiratory disorder, allergies, and immune system deficiency. These illnesses need more than 6 months to be effective. Moreover, herbs can help to maintain daily life health by keeping the balance (yin and yang) of human body. In some cases, herbs are taken daily and for an indefinite period. This is typically the situation when there are genetic disorders or permanent damage that cannot be entirely reversed, problems of aging, and ailments that have been left for too long without effective treatment ( For instance, Lin Daiyu in the novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, has taken ginseng tea or other medicines daily since her birth due to permanent illnesses.

It is a common mistake to believe that everything natural that comes from the earth is safe and beneficial. This certainly is not true ( Centuries ago, traditional Chinese herbalists such as Shennong would test the herbs on themselves and have poisoned themselves with herbs in order to document the true natures of herbs. Additionally, the usage of herbs alone is discouraged even though the herbs used in formulas are safe. It is better to visit herbalists or doctors before taking any herbal medicines and they will adjust recipes and treatment after physical assessment. We visited two doctors in Chinatown and Chutong accepted health examinations by the doctors, which will be reported later.

Although Chinese herbs are usually taken as medicines, they also can be used either as seasonings or main ingredients in cuisine. Cantonese dishes, especially the soups, often contain Chinese herbs to provide more nutrition. There is no exact line between how herbs are used as medicines and as food in Chinese culture.


On Saturday afternoon, we have visited four herbal places in Chinatown. In chronological sequence each represents herbal food shop, herbal pharmacy, and two Chinese medical clinics.
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The food shop Heung Fa Chuen (杏花邨) locates close to the grand gate of Philadelphia Chinatown (費城華阜). On the menu of Heung Fa Chuen we found various items with herbal ingredients. They offer herbal drinks like chrysanthemum tea (菊花茶) and selfheal tea (夏枯草茶). Other herbs such as black sesame, red bean, green bean and peanut are available ingredients to top in sweet soup and tofu pudding. When asked why customers would pay extra to add these herbs to their food, the owner of the shop answered, “Some people like these (the herbal ingredients listed above) because they make the soup more flavorful. Some others add herbs to make their food more nutritious.” Indeed according to Chinese herbalists, black sesame, red bean, green bean and peanut all have medical functions when ingest properly. But as indicated by the shop owner, some people may have chosen herbs topping simply for their fragrance and taste. In addition, it has happened in history that people ate herbs (defined broadly as above) to alleviate hunger or even fill the stomach. For example, in Respond to Yan Chen[1], the Qing Dynasty minister Fucheng Xue stated,


In summary, he said the Manchurian army were not used to eating rice. So they depended on Za Liang-a mixture of cereal, corn, buckwheat, soybean, sweet potato, peanut, green bean, and sesame for food consumption. Of course it is not likely that people go to Heung Fa Chuen and order extra herb toppings to expel hunger. But the example does add a third motivation to consuming herbs. From visiting this food shop, we conclude that the line between food and medicine could be drawn in terms of motivation of consumption. When herbs are consumed to complement nutrition, it could be considered as medicine; when herbs are served against hunger or out of gastronomical preferences, it belongs to the category of food.

After we left Heung Fa Chun, we turned left onto Arch Street and visited the herbal pharmacy at the corner. If not for all the Chinese characters on the pill cases, we would have mistaken the store with CVS or Rite Aid. This store features a lot of herbal medicine one could easily find in a regular pharmacy in China. Unlike fresh/dried/crushed herbs found in Heung Fa Chuen, here herbs appear in a more modernized form. In most cases they are highly condensed and candy-coated. It was not busy on a Saturday afternoon, so we chatted with the pharmacist. He told us that 90% of the customers are Chinatown residents or Chinese students from neighboring universities. To further explore our topic, we asked him whether they sell any food ingredients in the store. He looked at us with a strange smile and said, “Well, most people won’t be here unless they are sick.” According to him, herbs are consumed as medicine when an illness has occurred. In other words, herbs are medicine when herbs they as cure. Otherwise it cannot be labeled as medicine because it does not remedy any sickness. We are skeptical about his argument. If the function of herb decides which category it belongs to, then the judgment largely depends on the definition of “illness”, not herb itself anymore. Turtle jello (龜苓膏Guiling Gao)for instance, is served as a Cantonese snack dish, not a medicine. Yet it claims to cleanse, nourish “yin”(陰), and improves circulation. If the imbalance of “yin” and “yang” can be counted as illness, then technically turtle jello is a medicine as well, which is against our empirical experiences.

Our final stop was the two medical clinics. To look less suspicious, we decided that Chutong would pretend to be a real patient-and was there to treat acnes. Doctor A felt Chutong’s pulse and prescribed packets of condensed fluid. Some of the ingredients include: honeysuckle, chrysanthemum and radix bupleur. Interestingly, we later noticed that on the pockets printed a tiny line-The Chinese Herbal teas. Doctor Lin, on the other hand, did more careful check-up for Chutong’s acne. He practiced the traditional four methods of Chinese medicine-Observe, Smell, Ask, and Feel the pulse (望闻问切). His prescription came in pockets of mixed herbal powder a convenient substitute for fresh/dried herbs. When we were waiting for Doctor Lin’s assistance to mix the herbal powder, we chatted randomly with people in the clinic. We asked why they chose Chinese medicine over western one, and the answers can be summed up in four categories. Almost everyone mentioned that Doctor Lin is trustworthy and well respected in the area. A lot of people said they were used to Chinese medicine and believe it has fewer side effects on their body. Some claimed that they found it really convenient that Chinese medical clinics do not require appointments. And a few explained that they were here solely for balance of health. It is amusing to associate the last answer with the Pharmacist’s theory. If the fourth group of people came merely for balance of health, i.e. not sick, should we define the herbs they get as food rather than medicine? Now we think that there should be more divisions than “food” and “medicine” when categorizing herbs according to function. At least there should be “health care” to cater the needs of those who enthusiastically pursue the balance of “yin” and “yang”.
Although we failed to obtain a solid conclusion on what determines the line between herbs as food and herb as medicine. We did acquire two potential factors: motivation and function. The nuance between the factors is that “motivation” is a subjective perspective, i.e. why people take the herbs. Meanwhile, “function” is more objective in describing the actual effects of herbs. However, the two criteria are not always in accordance. The turtle jello for example, is often taken as food motivation wise, but benefits balance of health as a function.

[1] Xue, F. (n.d.). Respond to Yan Chen.