Category Archives: cultural anthropology

Only in Austin: P. Terry's Burger Stand

“Only in America” has become something of an expression, in the United States, to talk about things which are possibly only found in this country. As a cultural anthropologist, I can’t help but question the validity of those claims of “American exceptionalism” when I hear them. As a non-citizen, I tend to perceive those claims as rather nationalistic in tone.

But it’s all good.

And it can be fun to apply the same concept to Austin, as it’s a rather unique city. Austinites have almost a patriotic attachment to their city. It might even come from the fact that most of them come from elsewhere… 😉

As the name implies, P. Terry’s Burger Stand is a small hamburger restaurant. Had seen it before (it’s in my neighborhood) but didn’t really know what it was. Noticed that the Austin Chronicle’s readers poll had the place listed as Best Fast Food for 2007. Became intrigued, browsed their site

As it turns out, they’re “Anti-Fast Food” and the owner opened the place after reading Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. They use “ethical” meat, get fresh produce every day, pay their employees decent wages, and seem to genuinely care about things besides profit. They play a bit of “Austin humor” in the fact that their vegetarian burgers are on the “South Austin Addition” part of their menu.

Had “The Double” as a combo, with iced tea as the drink. It didn’t really take longer than at a fast food to get the food ready. The tea was rather good (and unsweetened iced tea is one of the things I like about living in the South). The fries were nice, somewhere between typical fast food fries and genuine Belgian fries. Hadn’t noticed that the double was a cheeseburger (I don’t like processed cheese) but it was rather good as burgers come.

Things which surprise me for such a “high-minded” place:

  • The burger tastes almost exactly like a generic burger from a mainstream chain. Same type of sauce, iceberg lettuce, bun… Not that it’s a bad thing as it probably makes it easier to reach the “mainstream consumers.” But I somehow expected something which would be very unique in taste. Maybe not like La Paryse or even like Frite Alors. But at least like BellePro.
  • It’s mostly a drive-thru. As a compulsive pedestrian, I can’t help but associate drive-thrus with consumer culture, conspicuous consumption, etc. Not as “Anti-Fast Food” as a sit-in burger joint.
  • They use as much wrapping material as any fast food chain location would. It does make sense for a drive-thru to wrap the food but, since I ate on premises, I thought they might have used a reusable tray or something vaguely “ecological” like that.
  • In the “pleasant surprise” category: their food is very decently priced. Especially when compared to the average meal in this city. I also mean to imply that the portions are rather big, which does make their pricing even more impressive but also goes with the whole “American fast food” model.

Overall, a nice experience. And I do perceive something “typically Austin” about the place. It’s both very clearly connected with mainstream U.S. culture and just a bit on the quirky side of things. Noticed the same balance at the Book People bookstore and at the Magnolia Café diner (“Sorry, we’re open”). Not to mention all the coffeeshops like the Flipnotics Coffeespace from where I’m sending this blog entry.

News, Anthropology, Polygamy

This is one for which I need help.

Is there a serious debate, in the U.S., on the issue of polygamy?

Don’t really have access to U.S. television news. Been getting information through many other methods (many of them online). But this one is about television news in the U.S. and it could be interesting.

The latest Borowitz Report (Andy Borowitz’s spoofs, called “shockers”) is about polygamy:

CNN Switches to All-Polygamy Format

One thing about the Borowitz Report is that it often brings my attention to something in the actual news. Then, it’s easy for me to look it up on diverse news services and to dig up more details by going to diverse sources. Because it’s a spoof, the Borowitz Report doesn’t impose its conclusions on me. And it’s usually timely enough that it’s possible for me to read the deeper analysis instead of being caught up in all the knee-jerk reactions.

But, in this case, it’s about television news and mainstream media. My guess is that CNN ran a few stories on Warren Jeffs and such. And there are obviously some entrenched opinions on both sides. But given the fact that kinship systems, including marriage practises, are among the core areas of cultural anthropology, are there people (anthropologists and non-anthropologists) who are discussing polygamy in a broad way? In fact, are people talking about marriage in diverse contexts? Isn’t there anyone talking about the social basis of marriage?

For some reason, in the U.S., many people seem to assume that marriage has to do mostly with love, sexuality, or religion. And people there often think of polygamy as a way for a man to have sexual intercourse with many women. Perhaps because of Hugh Heffner’s life story. But isn’t Warren Beatty proof that you don’t need to be married to have sexual relationships with many different women?

Because of this association of marriage with sexuality, it’s often difficult to get people to discuss the social issues associated with polygyny and other kinship systems. For instance, the actual power afforded women in a polygynous household. Or the economic basis of marriage systems.
The debate over polygamy has been brewing for a while here in Canada and probably in the U.S. (where it’s connected with religion). But I’ve yet to see a serious attempt to discuss it in a thoughtful fashion.

Can anyone prove me wrong?


Getting My Fix

It’s that time of year. Leaves aren’t even falling but classes have started at most academic institutions. Problem is, for me, didn’t get courses to teach this semester. Grrr!
And this is where teaching is “addictive.” No, not like drugs, gambling, WoW, or even pornography. But like Clodhoppers. It just feels right. Or it’s the hype… 😉

Ah, that rush you get from teaching!

Those who haven’t taught can’t really know how it feels. In fact, it’s quite possible that some people who do teach are not feeling it. But once you do feel it, you just want more. Despite all the obstacles. And we all know there’s a lot of obstacles in a teacher’s path! From abuse to social stigma, from grading to excuses… None of it matters. You may tell yourself that you just need one more class to teach, one is never enough.

To make matters worse, every class is different. You think that the next one will be so troublesome that you will run away from teaching but that’s exactly the time when you’re getting the ideal class and you forget all of your resolutions about avoiding the downward spiral of teaching.

Next thing you know, you want to bring a soapbox to the street and teach perfect strangers about the benefits of ethnography or the cultural significance of food. But it doesn’t even stop there. You take a look back at material you prepared for previous semesters and you want to expand them to serve as a basis for “open-source” textbooks. Or you look at your roster for a future semester in awe at the diversity of the student body: from accountancy through women’s studies, from exercise science through biochemistry, from film studies through human relations. And that’s when it becomes really tricky. You can just imagine how fun it’ll be to teach them about uxorilocality, tribes, and friendship. You can almost hear their objections to issues of globalization and ethnicity. You want to reach out to them and prepare reading material to get them started before you even meet. So you go online to your course management system and look at its newest features (if you’re lucky and are using an exceedingly good system like Moodle, Claroline, or Sakai instead of an evil system like Bl*ckb**rd or W*bCT).

What’s worse, you start blogging about the joys of teaching. At night. With no other purpose than getting your fix.

Ah, well…

Anthropologists and Foreign Policy

Maureen Dowd NYT Didn’t See It Coming, Again (via The Neil Rogers Show)

One smart anthropologist reinforcing the idea that “mirroring” – assuming other cultures think like us – doesn’t work would be a lot more helpful than all of the discredited intelligence agencies . . .

So, the psychological concept of projection applied to cultural contacts. Not sure which anthropologist coined the term but it does make sense in an anthropological context.

The piece as a whole is rather typical NYT op-ed. Still, it’s interesting to see references to applied anthropology in such a context.