If you’ve entered the United States from abroad, it’s not unlikely you’ve smuggled food, whether craftily or cluelessly. In a given day, 400-600 pounds of foodstuff will be confiscated from passengers flying into one international terminal at New York’s JFK airport alone. So I learned watching a 1’:53” video produced by A Great Big Story, “Where Illegal Food Goes to Die,” which made the Internet rounds in December 2015.[i]
The video’s opening shot pans over mounds of tropical fruits, part of a messy foodscape arrayed on a vast stainless steel table that also includes salami from Italy, Serrano ham from Spain, and lots and lots of avocados. The camera zooms in on two words typed on a slip of paper — Mango / India — before looking up at U.S. Customs and Border Protection supervisor, Ellie Scaffa, who’s explaining: “The reason why we’re confiscating all this stuff is not because it’s harmful to the human being. It’s harmful for our plants and our animals.” Indeed, her concern is not strictly speaking with the “stuff” of, say, ham and mangoes; it’s that, as Harris Solomon notes in Metabolic Living, his ethnography of metabolic illness and food politics in India, “things eaten have travel companions” (6). Bisecting confiscated fruits with a long-bladed knife, Scaffa is on the look-out for “foreign pests” in the form of insects or larvae that, if absorbed into “our” plants and animals, could harm domestic agricultural industries or natural resources and thereby, as Solomon might say, damage the metabolism of the United States body politic.
In Metabolic Living, Solomon approaches metabolic illness in and of urban India by theorizing the absorptive capacities of human bodies alongside the absorptive capacities, and limits, of the city of Mumbai in which those bodies dwell. Bodies and bodies politic alike are shown to be intimately intertwined. “To explore metabolic living,” Solomon writes, “is to explore the ways that people complicate and even dissipate boundaries across the skin and thus show how bodies and environments are mutually porous. Porosity requires work: work by persons who open up to or refuse materials like food, and work entailed in moving materials across uncertain boundaries” (9). For residents of a “modernizing” Mumbai, recently outfitted with corporate weight-loss plans and stainless steel food carts, discerning what’s harmful and what’s healthy to ingest—what’s properly or effectively absorbable and what’s not—means weighing conflicting advice and competing risk factors, judging unstandardized measures, and accepting that all is not, in fact, in view and under one’s control. Thus, Mumbaikars communicated to Solomon, “how much absorption is truly livable is an open question” (12).
Solomon offers “metabolic living” as “an ethnographic heuristic” (12), one I find generative in beginning to think about the gastro/bio-political work of moving edible materials across another set of uncertain boundaries: the borders of a nation.
Mango. India. Those two typewritten words taped to a piece of confiscated fruit signal that mangoes are “metabolic provocateurs” (66). The juicy-sweet, Proustian-return-to-childhood taste driving the springtime “mango madness” that, as Solomon describes, predictably impels diabetic urban Indians to “break” agreed-to diet regimes may also impel international travelers to risk confiscation, to chance steep fines, or—perhaps most severely in 2016—to lose the privilege of shorter security lines by having Global Entry status revoked. Food does stuff to people. Our desire can be such that we break rules for it, which precisely deepens our obsession.
In tracing how people live with metabolic uncertainty, obsession, and illness, Solomon’s chapters examine the gastropolitical work of Mumbai’s food cart vendors, political party officials, housewives, shop owners, dieticians, biomedical clinicians and others in probing, assessing, sanitizing, stopping up, and maintaining the porous boundaries between bodies and environments, homes and streets, domestic and political spaces, foods and their eaters. Gastropolitics (cf. Appadurai 1981) doesn’t just remind us that the personal (and edible) is political; it reveals the political to be tangibly material and socially intimate. Moreover, gastropolitical improvisations on the everyday norms of what Appadurai calls “commensal transactions” (e.g., apportioning, serving order, expressions of culinary appreciation, dishing out dietary advice — and smuggling mangoes or yelling threats at Border Protection agents who seize them) can reveal, in Solomon’s words, “the material forces that interlink bodies and their surrounding space” (75).
The gastropolitical boundary work of CBP agricultural specialists such as Ellie Scaffa concentrates such forces: political, economic, social and environmental together. To be sure, absorptions of “foreign bodies” into the American “homeland” happen all the time via designated “points of entry” (airports, shipping ports). In the month of December 2015 alone, 2,456,752 international passengers (and most of their luggage) passed through customs inspection at JFK airport.[ii] International borders serve—for most airline passengers, most of the time—more as gateways than as obstacles. But who, and what, gets to become a passenger in the first place? Or not?
Mango. India. In what the New York Times heralded as “probably the most eagerly anticipated fruit delivery ever,” the first legal shipment in decades of Indian-grown mangoes arrived at JFK airport in spring 2007.[iii] Until then, the mango seed weevil, endemic in India but “unknown” in North America, had precluded Indian mangoes from reaching U.S. soil. For Indians in America, “The taste of mango was a price of immigration.”[iv] But in January 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Indian counterpart struck a deal: the U.S. would allow importation of the desired fruit if India assumed the microbiopolitical job of exposing it to low-dose radiation to kill or sterilize lurking larvae.[v] Irradiation occurs in a USDA-certified facility 125 miles from Mumbai, “close to the prime coastal orchards growing Alphonsos,”[vi] considered the “king” of India’s some 1,500 varieties of mango.[vii] USDA preclearance centers in India represent a contingent moving of the border “outside,” similar to how incoming passengers may clear U.S. passport control en route at Ireland’s Shannon airport. Demonstrating a sort of parasitic state metabolism, as of 2014, 30 countries participated in the USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Preclearance Offshore Program.[viii]
Here, as in many other venues, Solomon’s “metabolic living” provides an indispensable guide to tracking and comprehending how processes of bodily absorption and rejection begin well before a cargo container is packed, a plane boards or, to be sure, a morsel of food is forked.
[i] http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/where-illegal-food-goes-to-die, accessed May 31, 2016.
[ii] Port Authority of NY & NJ December 2015 Traffic Report.
[iii] Karp, David. “A Luscious Taste and Aroma from India Arrives at Last.” The New York Times May 2, 2007, pg. F6.
[v] Any shipment found to have live pests is rejected prior to prophylactic irradiation. APHIS Factsheet: “Questions and Answers: Importing Indian Mangoes to the United States,” Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, US Department of Agriculture, April 2007. Available online, accessed June 15, 2016.
[vi] Karp, David. “A Luscious Taste and Aroma from India Arrives at Last.” The New York Times May 2, 2007, pg. F6.
[viii] USDA Office of Inspector General, Plant Protection and Quarantine Preclearance Offshore Program. Audit Report 33601-0001-23, September 2014. Available online: https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/33601-0001-23.pdf. Accessed June 22, 2016.
Heather Paxson is Professor of Anthropology at MIT. She is the author, most recently, of The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in the America (University of California Press, 2013).