LINK:  University of Chicago Magazine
About the Magazine | Advertising | Archives | Contact
 LINK:  August 2006LINK:  featuresLINK:  chicago journalLINK:  investigationsLINK:  peer reviewLINK:  in every issue

:: By Laura Demanski, AM’94

:: Photography by Dan Dry

link:  e-mail this to a friend

Chicago Journal ::

College Report

The world in a bowl of ramen

photo: From soup to icon: Annie Sheng studied ramen noodles for her BA project.
From soup to icon: Annie Sheng studied ramen noodles for her BA project.

At three or four packages for a dollar, instant ramen doesn’t provoke deep contemplation in the checkout line. But that featherweight rectangular block of flash-fried noodles, slight to the point of neglibility as a purchase, carries the weight of the world behind it. So says Annie Sheng, AB’06, who sees our global economy and its cultural repercussions in a bowl of ramen.

To research her BA project on instant ramen, Sheng, like any researcher, read the literature. In addition, the recent graduate from Edison, New Jersey, watched Japanese movies, shopped in Chicago’s ethnic supermarkets, and operated a noodle-making machine in Portland, Oregon. The 100-page, honors-winning paper resulting from her enterprising, eclectic methodol-ogy—“Ramen Rage: Instant Noodles in Global Capitalism and the Production, Reproduction and Transformation of Social Meanings and Taste”—just could mark a new scholarly subfield at the intersection of international studies and cultural anthropology.

Inexpensive and ubiquitous, instant ramen is an archetypal global food product. Its worldwide consumption and dependence on an international economy, Sheng says, make it an ideal lens for understanding how global capitalism shapes markets, societies, and individuals. In the first half of “Ramen Rage,” she focuses on the circulation of raw wheat destined to become instant ramen (the United States is a key ex--porter) and of the finished product, which leaves Japan bound for foreign markets to the tune of more than 80 billion packages each year. The second half of Sheng’s paper looks at the cultural formation of taste—how different contexts and associations affect individuals’ relationships to the food they eat.

Supported by a Richter Fund grant from the College, Sheng traveled to Portland’s Wheat Marketing Center, where wheat-processing methods for many uses, especially for Asian foods, are developed, tested, and shared with U.S. growers. There Sheng saw “the whole process of how wheat is grown; how it is converted into noodles, bread, or other products; the importing and exporting process; and how complicated and intricate it is.” Her conversations with technicians, inspectors, and other workers lend real-world perspective to her library research.

To study the cultural aspects of ramen, Sheng watched movies that ranged from Japanese anime and manga to the 1985 “noodle Western” Tampopo. “I was looking at consuming ramen as a means of consuming an identity,”  she says. “In Japan ramen is a big deal, a cultural icon.” In the U.S. it’s more often seen as a convenience and consumed largely in college dorm rooms using a hot pot and water from the bathroom tap. In Taiwan, Sheng found, a recent vogue for ramen seems tied to a general appetite for Japanese pop culture (as opposed to the high culture more widely associated with Japan a generation or two ago). And in Mexico, she discovered, instant noodles imported from Japan have been nibbling away at the traditional-food market and raising the hackles of parties like the National Council for Culture and Arts.

According to Sheng’s advisers, the strength of her project was persuasively connecting ramen’s economic and cultural aspects. Her BA project preceptor, anthropology doctoral candidate Greg Beckett, AM’03, says “Ramen Rage” shows that “the strange and ephemeral processes of large-scale social, economic, and political forces appear knowable by their presence in the most intimate and everyday aspects of our lives.” Sheng’s adviser, anthropology professor Judith Farquhar, AM’75, AM’79, PhD’86, says Sheng “followed up so many leads, with such rich results, that we began to worry that she was taking on too much. But somehow she managed to pull it all together very impressively.”

Charting the influence of large-scale economic processes on the formation of individual taste, Sheng’s paper follows in the footsteps of Sidney Mintz’s classic 1985 book about sugar, Sweetness and Power. By using one exemplary product to shed light on global commerce more generally, her work takes a page from scholars like Pietra Rivoli, who analyzed world trade by following the production, circulation, and sale of a single Wal-Mart T-shirt in his 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.

Sheng’s potential book plans, if any, remain on hold. A month after graduating she left the United States to teach English in Japan, where she expects that ramen will continue to play an important role in her day-to-day life—perhaps not as the object of continual contemplation and analysis it has been in Chicago for the last year, but frequently, she presumes, as lunch.