Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Food Practices: Is That Butter?[by Ken]

Jovan (25, born in California, raised in Mexico, finished highschool while working in the fields in Central California, has a couple years of community college and is looking into a college program in law enforcement),  is just setting up his kitchen in his new apartment while his roommate is visiting his family in Europe.  Jovan gave me a tour of his kitchen.

A few days before, I had visited Jovan (who has been a respondent in another project of ours) and found out that since he had changed jobs, he was pretty nearly broke and had only a bag of rice in his kitchen.  He works at a department store that provides lunch and dinner if he works those hours, so he was eating okay.  But the Trader Joe's was just around the corner, so I spotted him some dough for a bag of groceries.

Jovan said he wanted to gain weight and that his workout routine wasn't helping him much, the "muscle milk" he was using was giving him a rash, and he thought he was probably lactose intolerant.  Milk sugar is a big ingredient in that muscle milk powder, so he wasn't drinking the stuff.  I don't know much about nutrition and weight gain, but I asked if he liked pasta, he said he did but didn't know how to make it.  So while at Trader's I filled up a small basket of goodies, with pasta and olive oil and the stuff that I tend to eat, then asked him to take out the stuff he probably didn't know how to cook or probably wouldn't cook and eat.  He took out the bag of baby spinach and replaced it with a head of cauliflower.  He said he'd try the plain yoghurt (I said you can add your own sugar, which in fact is what he did).

So when I visited for the kitchen tour, he made me lunch.  Potatoes with a little sweet red pepper and eggs.  He showed me what he used: eggs and sweet peppers from TJs and the bottle of Crisco oil that he keeps on the stove.  "Its what I'm used to."

During the kitchen tour, he opened the refrigerator and showed me the stuff he get from work, from the grocery department, and sometimes from shopping carts that have already-purchased goods that shoppers leave behind by mistake (he had a nice chunk of breakfast ham that someone had left behind!).

"There's the butter," he said.
I didn't see any butter.  So I asked him to point it out.  He pulled out the tub of Country Crock margarine.
"What's in that stuff?  Does it say butter on it?" I asked?
"Oh.  I guess not.  I just am used to it.  I cook with it."

So, margarine can be butter in Jovan's taxonomic scheme.  Works like butter, cooks like butter, doesn't taste too bad, he says.

Now, if we are interested in how consumers understand what is "good for you," sometimes it really makes sense to consider if people even have enough to eat, and if they consider things that they buy and use to be good for them.  I don't know, but I suspect that Jovan's mother used the same products that he has in his kitchen.  What are the emotional attachments to the food I found there?  I guess there are plenty.

His roommate has a box of waffle mix. His roommate is from Belgium. Sounds rather stereotypical, but in fact the roommate likes his food not very spicy; Jovan likes things picoso so there is always some negotiation and change.  The idea of eating food that is free of pesticides, that is not industrial food, is not part of the conversation here.

When does it become part of the conversation for these guys?  When I bring up the idea with Jovan, he says it doesn't cross his mind.  He uses what he's used to using, and is plenty busy making sure he has enough to eat—gaining weight is a shill for worrying about having enough social support and food to eat, but that's really an analytic leap, about as true as a good guess can be.

At some level, I'm imposing my middle-class food sensibilities on Jovan when I suggest, as I did, that his "butter" is not as healthy as my olive oil.  I'll talk more with Jovan when he roommate returns, and we'll see if he's using any of that Trader Joe's olive oil instead of that "butter," and we'll see what he thinks of different ideas about food.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Meaning of Clean (And Dirt)

The Meaning of Clean (And Dirty)
British anthropologist Mary Douglas put it very simply in a famous essay about food taboos: the definition of dirt—what she calls pollution—is cultural. Dirt is “matter out of place.” It is not necessarily unpleasant smelly stuff, or stuff that soils your kitchen counter. Dirt is fine in a flower pot. It is not okay in your souffle. Pretty obvious, right? Not necessarily.
These things are culturally determined. One person’s gross stuff may be another persons delicacy. And as anyone who has shared a kitchen with another human being knows, one person’s “clean enough” is someone else’s big, nasty mess. Learning local definitions and checking carefully before applying your own (or your company’s) definition is important, here.
We were recently in China, where we were looking into household cleaning practices for a maker of household cleaning products. We learned that what counts as clean may not match up with our American understanding of what clean means.
Take the exhaust fan over the stove, for example. For a Chinese householder, that thing needs to be grease-free, and the Chinese folks we visited spent most of their cleaning effort (and most of their cleaning product) trying to keep the greasy mess out of the hood above the stove. I don’t think I have touched mine in two years, which would probably be appalling to any of the Chinese people we spoke with. But I don’t do that much stir-fry, really, so I don’t think there'sa fire hazard (yet). On the other hand, water is the universal solvent of choice for cleaning most hard surfaces in Chinese middle-class households. You have to do the ethnography of cleaning. That critical step has to be taken before a product designer or marketer begins to ask survey or focus-group questions about cleaning.
Consider “green” cleaning products in North America and how these are marketed. Here, product designers are up against a difficult set of cultural questions. What smells count as "clean" smells? What kind of clean is clean enough, and where? And when? Does “green” mean the same thing to everyone? (We know it doesn't; the interesting part is just element of "green" matters to whom). And how do the many different cultural traditions in North America weigh in on these green cleaning questions? Folks interested in sustainable, green cleaning products (and people concerned about water pollution) need to know about this stuff.
Without a solid grounding in the real practices of real people in real households, the questions designed for a standard A & U (Awareness and Use) survey or for a product-testing focus group could easily go wrong in two ways: they could ask dumb questions, or they could miss asking questions that matter. It makes sense to do the ethnography of clean up front to understand the range of practices and beliefs that matter within a cultural tradition; then build survey questions to discover the patterns that hold true in the larger market. Otherwise, your results might be“matter out of place.”