Shelf to Table

Shelf to Table.jpg

Easy access to food has transcended from being a luxury into a ubiquitous fact in most highly-developed nations. Wherever you go there will almost certainly be at least one chain restaurant, grocery store, or convenience store promising an abundance of cheap, caloric food within its establishment. As such, we need to acknowledge that the sounds of these food distribution hubs are something that all of us experience on a daily basis. We can begin to develop a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of how our food reaches us by considering how the seemingly inane noises made in distribution hint at the greater infrastructure of these systems. As well, we can also use these sounds to discover how precisely food distributors want us to perceive this shelf-to-table process, and what biases we may accumulate in allowing these ideas to take hold. 

Scooping Chocolates into a Plastic Bag

Scooping Chocolates into a Plastic Bag

Walking into a grocery store, you will often almost immediately be greeted by a long row of bulk products. There is column after column of snack foods, stored in towering plastic containers that seem to loom over the prospective buyers. These bulk food sections are designed to encourage the customers to buy more of a given product than a simple packaged good would allow. The price per pound is lower than their packaged counterparts, and having the user fill their own bag makes it easier for said customer to overestimate how much of these products they need. The incentive of these grocery stores to use these consumerist incentives on their customers is a prospect that runs counter to a sustainable ecosystem. This is an issue dating as far back as Leopold, who cited how the drive for conservation is consistently hindered by the necessities of economic growth (246).

The design of these bulk sections in grocery stores is representative of the desire for a pastoral ideal of abundance. Garrard speaks to how grocery stores are looking to exemplify the idyll, or celebration of the abundance of the present (44). These containers are always designed to have large, clear views of the contents within, making even the most mundane of products seem like a great bounty. This effect is only exemplified in the soundscape, enabled by the process by which you get food from these containers. By taking a large scoop to collect some chocolates or nuts, you make a noise akin to dipping one’s hand into a chest full of treasure (if not for sanitary reasons stores might actually approve of that more tactile approach). This sound of food upon food implies that this container holds more than you could ever consume on your own time.

Dining Hall Ice Machine

Dining Hall Ice Machine



Susan Leigh Star explains the “embeddedness” of infrastructure as the way, “[i]infrastructure is sunk into and inside of other social arrangements and technologies” (381). This notion of embeddedness is important to our understanding of the invisible infrastructures that facilitate food distribution. The invisible infrastructure present in this recording is all of the processes that went into creating the actual vending machine that dispenses the ice into the metal Yeti cup. While the average dining hall patron wouldn’t think critically about where the ice came from or who worked to construct that vending machine, the Eco critic would consider these factors and many more.  The receptacle of the Yeti cup offers another layer to the infrastructure of food distribution, representing the corporate appropriation of the wilderness. The Yeti brand as a whole tasks itself to retain the wild properties of heat and cold and make them last well past their natural existence. The notion of wilderness that brands like Yeti and Patagonia help us to explore is explained by Garrard as, “a place of freedom in which we can recover our true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives” (77). Our thirst for wilderness is essentially a thirst for an authentic experience outside of the mediated realities of our everyday lives. 

Vending machines create convenience along with potentially harmful waste

Bottled Drink Machine: Purchase and Dispense

Keep America Beautiful played off of the environmental sentiment of Indians “with the slogan, ‘Pollution it’s a crying shame’. It implied that white people, not Indians, make pollution, and that Indian ethics of respect for nature were needed to counteract white greed and destructiveness” (Garrard 130). Traditional American Indians feel deep sympathy for all of the beings on earth, as everything is spirited. They all look at the mass population as being disrespectful by its lack of appreciation for the earth. One major way that the masses harm the earth is through pollution. Within a shelf to table mindset, pollution becomes an overwhelming concern. One may think of how much waste they are creating, what exactly happens to all of their waste, or how their waste may impact another animal’s living environment. Plastic bottles are a large part of pollution. They represent how society is advancing in a way that is beneficial to people without considering other life. People are growing more accustom to easily accessing the things that they desire, but conveniently accessing goods tends to create high environmental costs if not properly reduced, reused or recycled. Building the idea of environmental collectiveness and appreciation, Aldo Leopold introduces ‘The Community Concept’ in his book, A Sand County Almanac. “The land Ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land”(239). When going from shelf to table it is important to be mindful of other ecosystems and to overall, prolong the life of our earth.

A Furman University's typical Cookout order.

Cookout Order

Since 1989, Cookout has been a staple in the South's fast food diet. Cookout has become increasingly popular in college towns and low-income areas for the large amount of food that can be purchased for a relatively low price. Among the most popular orders is their tray which comes with one entree, two sides, and the choice of over 40 hand-spun milkshakes. Some people order based off maximizing the amount of food they want, and others based off of cravings. Nonetheless, whatever is ordered is rung up by a cashier who then relays the order to the kitchen via a microphone. This all too familiar interaction falls under the realm of ecoacoustics. Ozga calls this, “a science that investigates natural and anthropogenic sounds and their relationship with the environment” (416).  It seems that to categorize Cookout and the rest of the fast food industry as a trope, one must leave behind preconceived notions or the implications of other ecocritical tropes to understand a new one, foodscapes.

Foodscapes have many implications, but in the context of this recording, it pertains to the area or the environment surrounding food. They differ in different environments with respect to socioeconomics. For instance, in upper-class environments, foodscapes may pertain to and are not limited to farmer’s markets, upscale grocery stores, and even home or community gardens. On the other hand, lower income communities are subjected to food inequality where they cannot afford to purchase fresh produce or even provide themselves with a balanced meal. As well, people who live in lower income areas are limited to the food options that they can either walk to or reach via public transport. If you can, take into consideration the stark differences of the hushed sounds of Whole Foods juxtaposed to the Cookout interaction above it is evident that economic construct is a driving force in food distribution. Sadly, prejudice is so deeply embedded in society that it is even part of the food landscape. In the redundancy of everyday life, we sometimes miss or do not take into account the role sound plays in our lives. Ingold encourages the use of, “attentive listening, as opposed to passive hearing” (3). Following her lead and listening, even at Cookout, will make us more aware of sound and food inequality in our day to day lives. 

Tea Maker Single Serve Appliance

Tea Maker Single Serve Appliance

This sound is of a tea maker as it finishes making a cup of tea.  The signature sound of air being pushed through along with the last few drops of liquid signal that the tea is ready.  The tea maker was recorded from the comfort of a college dorm room a mere 5 feet away from the bed with a Blu Life One X2 phone.  As Susan Leigh Star points out in her article The Ethnography of Infrastructure, the infrastructure and hidden costs of many everyday things are completely invisible to the user (380).  Single serve tea makers like this allow individualized convenience at the cost of increased waste materials as opposed to making tea in bulk or using reusable bags with loose leaves. Furthermore, the process of actually farming the tea leaves will be largely unknown to the average user.  They will likely be unaware of the water, land, and fertilizer used to make their favorite teatime brews. In addition, users will rarely consider the energy/electricity costs of something as seemingly small and insignificant as a tea maker nor will they consider the process of manufacturing and gathering the materials for the machine itself. 

Then there is the matter of the tea leaves themselves.  Greg Garrard explains the idea of the wilderness as “signifying nature in a state uncontaminated by civilization” (66).  Many brands may reference the wilderness or may claim that their herbal teas have an “earthy” flavor. This commercialism of the wilderness trope attempts to fool the user into believing that their tea is more natural even though it was most likely grown on a large scale plantation.    

Water from faucet pouring into saucepan

Water From Faucet Pouring Into Sauce Pan



Water is essential to human life, especially in the context of food consumption as it is used in most forms of cooking. For centuries, access to useable water was a constant battle and even shaped culture by forcing humans to live near water and value waterways enough to fight over them. With the modern plumbing system, first world nations do not have to spend large portions of their day acquiring water to use. Instead, households are able to access clean water with the flick of a wrist. Faucets supply kitchens with plenty of water for drinking, cooking, and washing dishes. Susan Leigh Star used this exact example when discussing invisible infrastructures saying, “turn on the faucet for a drink of water and you use a vast infrastructure of plumbing and water regulation without usually thinking about it” (380). This quote highlights the anthropocentric nature of infrastructure: manipulating waterways for ease of use. Star also says, “it is by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work” (380).  This assumption that the infrastructure only finds its value in the other work it serves reduces its importance and perhaps wrongfully so. While other portions of the world only dream of the luxury of indoor plumbing, privileged peoples tend to only notice this miracle when it fails them. Star showcases this claiming, “the normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks down” (382). Yet again we see an anthropocentric account of the environment- in this case, a built environment. This built environment is part of what Star calls “learned as part of membership.” Membership in this community leads to acquiring a “naturalized familiarity with its objects” (381). All of this demonstrates the anthropocentric nature of a built environment that must, like wilderness and pastoral tropes, be considered for its value and its treatment. If this is neglected, an understanding of our dwelling is at risk as our perspective of our environment will be mostly illusionary as the result of perceiving far off places as our environment rather than that within which we live every day.