Somewhere between winter’s last roar and spring’s early optimism, I go in search of lunch. A couple of blocks from my office, I settle on soup, an obvious choice. A neon sign announces “URBAN/SOUP.” I stand in line and order the “Creamy Coconut Carrot.”
But what makes soup urban? According to this eatery, glass does. Glass jars and no spoons. Before closing in 2019, this Munich-based business peddled “#healthyfastfood” and a “smart way for takeaway.”
Served in three sizes—tasting, medium, and hi-top—customers order soup in slender jars with screw top lids. They sip their soups—either there or to go—and then return or recycle the jars.
I take mine to go, return to the office, and drop in to see a colleague. As we chat, I attempt to drink the last bits of thick puree with the same concerns as someone trying to coax ketchup out of a glass bottle. She asks if I need a spoon. “But the whole concept of URBAN/SOUP is spoonless,” I answer, even though I’m clearly not getting any closer to the last fifth of my soup without one.
“If this soup is urban,” she asks, “what is rural soup?”
This begs the question: What is the urban? As a cultural historian who primarily studies food, my research centres on restaurants, asking: how do we relate to environments through the foods we eat and the stories we tell about them? Focusing first on North America and now Venice, Italy, I study restaurants and their politics, their culinary practices, ecological relationships, and cultural contributions.
So how does food conceptualize the urban? Foodways, a popular term, refer to “the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period” (Merriam-Webster). Encompassing production, distribution, and consumption, the term generally charts what people eat and what it means. Another common term is food system, and whether scholarship talks of foodways or food systems, two adjectives commonly appear: urban and rural.
In his seminal book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, historian William Cronon complicates what his title might suggest. The book, he explains, is neither a history of Chicago nor the Great West, “rather a history of the relationship between those places” (1991, xiii). Tracing the American tendency to see city and country as separate to transformations in the nineteenth-century, he complicates this neat division, rallying, instead, for a reflection “on how tightly bound together they really are” (Cronon 1991, xiv). Nowhere is this interconnection more obvious, I believe, than in studies of food.
There are countless ways cultures have sold and consumed food, from market stalls to taverns, but the very first restaurants emerged in an urban environment: eighteenth-century Paris. Historian Rebecca Spang traces the first restaurants to places offering consommé, a healthful soup: “In the beginning, in the last twenty years of the Old Regime, one went to a restaurant (or, as they were more commonly called, a ‘restaurateur’s room’) to drink restorative bouillons, as one went to a café to drink coffee” (Spang 2000, 2). Just as I sipped soup from a glass jar more than two and a half centuries later.
Restaurants evolved to serve an abundance of dishes. But they also serve much more than food. They are venues for cultural representation and negotiation. Places of power. Restaurants map which plants and animals are considered food and for whom. They map how one urban environment connects to others, both near and afar.
Returning to the question of how food conceptualizes the urban, food embraces complexity and collapses any simple binaries that isolate the urban from the rural. Like the plate of an enthusiastic diner at a buffet spread, one dish overlaps with the other. Rice bumps into salad. Bread brushes up against pie. Although cultures of consuming food do often differ in urban environments than rural ones (the former hosting many more places to eat out, for example), the ingredients themselves connect these environments.
Mango pureed into a smoothie (or even a soup) cannot be separated from where those flowers blossomed into fruit. This takes Jenny Price’s lead. A writer based in Los Angeles, she looks for encounters of nature in mass-produced culture, in shopping malls, on busses, and in mango body whip (a thick skin cream) (1999, xv). She highlights urban environments because, as she writes, “a Nature Out There says powerfully little about the ways people use nature every day” (Price 1999, 163). Eating is one of the most direct ways we interact with environments by literally digesting them. Restaurant menus are historical archives, environmental records. And like Price, I seek out restaurant kitchens, wine glasses, and dinner plates as moments of encountering environmental transformations. Moments that are collaborations between the urban and the rural. Eateries document how cultures eat ecosystems and how one glass jar of soup mixes multiple environments together.
Cronon, William. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Lauden, Rachel. 2017. “Foodways and Ways of Talking about Food,” Rachel Lauden (blog). February 16, 2017. https://www.rachellaudan.com/2017/02/19542.html.
Merriam-Webster. n.d. “foodways.” Accessed August 28, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/foodways.
Spang, Rebecca L. 2000. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press.
Price, Jennifer. 1999. Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York Basic Books, xv