Submitted on Tuesday, 7/16/2013, at 4:03 PM

July 16, 2013

Deborah Gewertz

Deborah Gewertz, the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology

As government officials and food experts ponder the ever more urgent question of how to feed a ballooning global population, an Amherst College anthropologist and her two colleagues explore an answer: instant noodles. The staple of American college students’ diets for decades, instant noodles also serve “an important role in satiating hunger and in sustaining lives for many worldwide, including those hanging on under difficult circumstances,” according to Deborah Gewertz, the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology at Amherst, and her co-authors of The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century. In their new book, Gewertz and her colleagues examine the history, manufacturing, marketing and consumption of the ubiquitous foodstuff and make the case that instant noodles will have an increasingly significant global role in the coming years.  

“As a protean food designed for quotidian consumption, instant noodles have already shown a remarkable capacity to ease themselves into diverse lives,” she said. “We expect that the calories provided by the tasty, convenient, cheap, shelf-stable, industrially prepared instant noodles will remain important” as food becomes scarcer in the future.

In The Noodle Narratives, Gewertz and co-authors Frederick Errington, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and Tatsuro Fujikura, professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies at Kyoto University and a member of Amherst’s Class of 1991, describe the biophysiology of human taste, provide insight into how marketers penetrate new markets with industrial foods and analyze what it takes to feed billions of people. They also examine why what they call “one of the most remarkable industrial foods ever” appeals to young and old, rich and impoverished alike. “Instant noodles thus far have been virtually unstoppable—and, as such, their accomplishments are worthy of serious attention,” they observe. “They are telling in what they facilitate and reveal about global capitalist provisioning: They make a lot happen and show a lot happening.”

Noodle Narratives

To understand better the impact that instant noodles have had on the world’s diverse populations, the authors homed in on three markets. In Japan, instant noodles were invented in 1958 and “received their greatest embellishment.” The Noodle Narratives traces their transformation from a sign of modernity in the country in the decades following World War II to a convenient snack today. The book also describes how, after the Japanese market became fully saturated, manufacturers endlessly tweaked their flavors, toppings and packaging in order to entice consumers.

In the United States in recent decades, instant noodles have become important to many groups, but most notably to college students and their nostalgic parents, as well as the impoverished and prison inmates. The food has “remained a basic, price-driven commodity” to Americans, the authors note, and “an immediate link to the exigencies and preoccupations of  [the] present lives” of students or “a nostalgic link to the exigencies and preoccupations of  [the] youthful lives” of their middle-class parents. The authors also describe the country’s “heavy users,” the category of the chronically poor targeted by U.S. purveyors as the most promising, and the incarcerated for whom instant noodles provide a taste of freedom.

The authors last explore Papua New Guinea, where instant noodles arrived in the 1980s. Through their data based on long-term fieldwork, contemporary participant observation, interviews and surveys, they provide examples of the roles of instant noodles and explain how they serve as a cheap and intriguing food option for the urban poor, who eat them for snacks and meals and while entertaining guests, and also use the included flavoring packets in other dishes. The noodles, the authors observe, are transforming the poor into aspiring consumers of modern goods.

The book concludes by examining the inner workings of the manufactured food industry and discussing what manufacturers could do to make instant noodles a healthier option for the world’s population: for example, baking instead of frying them, adding iron or using spices in place of salt and MSG. More generally, the authors ask, “How might instant noodles and similar products feature in the various food futures that are proposed—indeed, promoted and implemented—as feasible for a huge world population that includes those who are habitually overfed as well as chronically underfed?”

“With 9 billion people in this world by 2050 and most of them living in cities, we know that it is going to take some kind of industrial production to feed them,” said Gewertz, who admits that she still cooks the noodles herself. “Instant noodles, as they are right now, are certainly not going to make people healthy. But they do fill bellies, and they will keep people alive. And I can’t say that is a bad thing.”

As such, “we find it difficult to imagine the increasingly urbanized food future without this humble form of salty, MSG-enhanced, oily, and sometimes sugary capitalist provisioning,” the trio writes in the conclusion of The Noodle Narratives. “Instant noodles will definitely not save the world, but they will continue to help a wide range of people deal with the often harsh exigencies of their lives. With some reluctance, we believe that this is for the better, not for the worse.”