The Noodle Narratives: A worthy successor to Sidney Mintz?

Adam Drazin, UCL Anthropology, and convener of the MA program Culture, Materials and Design

noodle-narr_custom-dc422cdcd6e7173a5488bf859f8972c5329257eb-s2-c85In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Aloud (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03bfk9h), the book the Noodle Narratives was compared to Sidney Mintz’s classic study Sweetness and Power (sidneymintz.net/sugar.php).  In Sweetness and Power, Mintz famously shows how sugar underwrote and structured the capitalism of slave labour and factory labour in the British Empire, and convergently set out what class meant in the British Empire in consumption.

Is this comparison justified?  Are noodles the capitalist staple infusing our contemporary world system?

For Frederick Errington, Deborah Gewertz and Tatsuro Fujikura, noodles represent ‘Big Food’.  They a staple food, made from wheat processed to have flavour, carbohydrates, just enough protein, an unimaginable (and unnecessary) shelf life, and adaptability of consumption.  The authors illustrate their capacity for cultural shape-shifting.  From Japanese noodle museums, they are heritage.  Among American students and convicts, they provide for sensitive, personal and memorable moments.  In Papua New Guinea, instant noodle-based entrepreneurialism forms the basis of kinds of private enterprise which anthropology has for a long time identified as potentially deeply significant moments of local sociocultural change.

There is no doubting the globalism and social ubiquity of pre-processed instant noodles, nor their simple technical ingenuity.  This book is very successful at demonstrating the way that a loved and personal commodity is associated in many different parts of the world with groups of people among whom underprivilege resides with aspiration.  Even this book itself will be ‘loved’ by many readers, on account of the noodle contagion.  The book also draws attention to the shifting nature of inequality as a global issue, but does not necessarily manage to provide answers.  While relatively clear forms of class, based on production and consumption, provided a clear architecture for Mintz’s devastating critique, the ideologies of inequality with which the Noodle Narratives deal are less clear.  The significance of the global uniformity of the technical production, and materials, of processed noodles are clear, but the prolific translation of these into ideas of what society is in localised contexts through cultures of knowledge, is more murky.

The reader of this book will be left with many intriguing questions about globalism and how anthropological ideas can travel.  Aside from being a good exploration of the role of materials in consumption, the book is an illustration of how the power and cultural influence of notions of ‘cheap’ and ‘processed’ remains undervalued by anthropology, and of how many cultural concepts such as these require to be unpacked and expanded by contemporary material culture studies.

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