- The Politics of the Pantry: Stories, Food, and Social Change by Michael Mikulak
Over the past decades, scores of journalists, filmmakers, and researchers have delved into the ecological, social, and economic debates surrounding the history and implications of the ways our food is produced and consumed. Within the now-ubiquitous genre of food studies literature, most critical analysts attempt to explain the evolution of the modern food system within the global capitalist economy and propose ways to shift the configurations of geopolitical power in favour of health, justice, and sustainability. Joining these conversations, The Politics of the Pantry focuses on the political and discursive aspects of popular food-based narratives. Acknowledging that many popular food writers have been criticized for practising an overly privileged and classist politics, Michael Mikulak looks to stories of personal transformation that have the potential to capture the collective imagination. He describes these narratives as “storied food,” part of a social and literary genre that draws from individual actions in order to “lift the veil” of the industrial food system and point to more sustainable futures.
Weaving together theory and self-reflective practice, Mikulak suggests that small personal actions (like growing and buying local foods), while insufficient for systemic change, can become a gateway into broader anti-capitalist practices. His prescription is to embrace personal-choice and market-based solutions and then to move beyond their limits, toward collective pleasure and conviviality. Chapter one provides a brief history [End Page 524] of environmentalism over the past four decades, with an emphasis on the processes by which ecological crises are challenging capitalism to (re)consider the value of nature. He argues that while economic-centric thinking has normalized specific forms of knowledge and action, the tensions between the economic and non-economic representations of nature are a central site of struggle. Mikulak acknowledges that there is strategic value in adopting economic logic but proposes that inspirational stories from an embodied perspective have the power to embrace collective desires. Chapter two considers the different narratives of “storied food” and the work they do to draw out issues of knowledge and agency, along with the potential to challenge (green) capitalism. He extols the ways that authors use foodshed memoirs to share experiences of transforming their lives to embody life skills and ecological literacy and politicize the mundane act of eating. In chapter three, Mikulak experiments with his own foodshed memoir to show how embodiment can provide new spaces of possibility for utopian thinking and alternative practices. This case study attempts to demonstrate how food can become both a subject and an object of knowledge and move beyond the crisis of imagination that limits the politics of the possible. Here Mikulak narrates his personal transformation and shift toward a deeper politics that invites readers to consider their own practices and thereby challenge the dominant capitalist values.
Politics of the Pantry attempts to expand on mainstream bourgeois foodie politics through the use of politicized and transformational personal narratives of “storied food.” While well written and profoundly hopeful, the book could have gone substantially further in broadening the “politics of the pantry.” Mikulak points to the value of engaging with social justice and anti-capitalist activities; however, his study rarely moves beyond a descriptive position. While providing a critical overview of the most popular literature in the genre, Mikulak’s limited analysis and scope reproduce some of the same privileged narratives he critiques. In addition, the discussion could have gone much further to engage with other narratives discussing the wealth of knowledge and experience of the social movements and activists at the forefront of food system transformation. Despite these limitations, Politics of the Pantry is an excellent introduction to the field of critical food studies and offers readers a novel perspective on the foodshed memoir as an avenue for inspiration and engagement. [End Page 525]