Eating took central stage in my research a few months in to my year of fieldwork in a Rio de Janeiro favela. Favelas are complex social areas, wherein the history of colonisation and slavery intersect with the present of extreme socio-economic inequality. There also exist the violence of the drug trade, and of highly controversial policing programmes. So you may ask: of all the things to speak of, why eating? Eating is a method, enabling pathways for the self to grow, and to become.
In my Identities article, ‘Eating bodies, growing selves in a Brazilian favela’, I argue that eating can be used as an active attempt at asserting agency over one’s body and, by extension, subjectivity in a lifeworld open to multiple dimensions of uncertainty and insecurity. Nonetheless, my interlocutors’ relationship to food and eating could also be ambivalent. Eating can pose constraints on subjectivity, and set the stage for the unfolding of problematic kin, gender and post-colonial relationships.
The article presents material gathered with three interlocutors: Rodrigo, Gil and Claudia. Rodrigo, who was also my research assistant, was somewhat of a ‘self-made’ man. Rodrigo could do many things. He would often tell me that he could play music, dance and sing, but one thing he was really sorry about was that he never had a chance to learn how to cook. He often ate at a family-owned restaurant where he was reminded of his mother’s cooking, and of familiar protocols of enjoying a meal and relaxing on a sofa, like he would in his family home. Since he could not make food for himself, he found himself in a situation that troubled him: he was falling back on traditional gender roles: of having a woman bring him a meal.
Gil is a caseiro, a person who spends most of their time in the home. It was hard to get Gil to meet up in the favela. However, he would easily agree to go to restaurants downtown. A favourite location was an indoor municipal market where one could find imported food products that were uncommon in the markets in Rio, such as pumpernickel bread from Germany, olive tapenade and pesto from Italy, and a variety of spices and beverages from all around the world. Paradoxically, the home-bound man preferred ‘global’ food. The way Gil ate resonated with how he sought to ascribe his values and actions to larger scales than the locality of the favela, and to summon globalised flavours in his everyday routines.
But not all interlocutors shared the enthusiasm for imported goods. Some, like Claudia, tried to valorise ‘home-made’ food:
I am so tired of all these things with imitating European cuisine, and drinking European wine, which is not sweet. To be honest, I do not like it! And no, I cannot tell the difference between this or that kind! Is there something better than coming home to your mom’s feijoada [Brazilian black bean and sausage stew]?
Claudia, in her early thirties, is a pastry chef, and studied gastronomy at a public university. She had lived in the USA for a year with her American husband, in a beach house, with a maid. Not being able to take her husband’s jet-set lifestyle and partying, she moved back to Rio. Having experienced the jet-set lifestyle full-time, and the knowledge of a broad range of food items, she felt that she could choose to prefer the feijoada. Relishing the traditional, and perhaps habitual, did not represent a threat to Claudia’s aspirations. Claudia positioned herself as a different type of a contemporary consumer. She signalled her sophistication by valorising food items that are associated with Afro-Brazilian and working-class identities.
What unites my interlocutors is their perspective of food as empowering, albeit in differing manners. They all use their relationship to food as a way of asserting agency over their bodies and subjectivities, which would not have been as easily accessible through other channels, considering their disadvantaged position in Brazilian society. Eating well, and savouring it, was a way of making days memorable.
Blog post by Daniela Lazoroska, Lund University, Sweden
Read the full article: Lazoroska, Daniela. Eating bodies, growing selves in a Brazilian favela. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1697534