What is Food Studies?

"What is food studies?" An N. C. Wyeth 1948 illustration advertising the General Electric Space Maker Refrigerator. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

On college campuses, food has escaped the cafeteria. Excitement about critical approaches to food can be found in dozens of disciplines that usually have little to say to one another. Since the turn of the century, the interdisciplinary endeavor of “food studies” has seen its popularity increase exponentially.

Students seeking a degree in the subject now have plenty of options. Earn a B.A. in Food Studies at Brown University, The New School, the University of Pennsylvania—even the Culinary Institute of America, among many others. Or get an M.A. in Food Studies at the University of the Pacific or the American University of Rome, or an M.Sc. at the University of Vermont. Sign up for a Ph.D. certificate in the subject at the University of Oregon or the City University of New York. Or go all in and pursue at Ph.D. in Food Studies at New York University.

Promotion for the University of Wisconsin Food Studies Network Borghesi-Mellon Workshop Faculty Research Forum, November 11, 2016.

Promotion for the University of Wisconsin Food Studies Network Borghesi-Mellon Workshop Faculty Research Forum, November 11, 2016.

Most food studies activity, though, is happening outside of degree programs. More commonly, scholars and students venture out of their disciplinary homes searching for others doing the same. They come together for colloquia,  conferences, workshops, and such.

A recent example is the Faculty Research Forum put on by the Food Studies Network Borghesi-Mellon Workshop, part of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Humanities. Organized by Professors of Art Laurie Beth Clark and  Professor of Drama and Theatre Michael Peterson, the event gathered scholars from a dizzying range of programs, from soil science to Italian literature.

Edge Effects managing editor Rachel Boothby, herself a food studies scholar, attended the forum, and I had the chance to sit down with her to learn about the presentations and her thoughts on the state of the field.

Stream or download the conversation here. A transcript of interview highlights, edited for clarity, follows.

Brian Hamilton: So what jumped out to you from the forum?

Rachel Boothby: A few very compelling themes emerged. First, and I think probably most important, was that food studies is deeply concerned with understanding and addressing social justice issues around food. For instance, the first presenters, human ecologist Lydia Zepeda, discussed food insecurity and what she called “hiding hunger.”

BH: “Hiding hunger.” What does that mean?

RB: She found that many of the people we see everyday are food insecure. They’re working hard, but they’re still falling behind. Her research does a wonderful job of putting voices to those who are going hungry all around us, but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to be open about their situation, or even to use food pantries in some cases, and really humanizing these experiences.

Here’s one of the memorable stories Zepeda told:

Another person that I talked to—a 21-year-old female who worked full time—and she had  lost her job and her pay went from $13/hour to $9/hour. She worries about eviction, and many people mentioned that they worried about eviction. The first bill that they pay is the housing bill because they don’t have any cash and..they have no place to move. It’s really hard for them to downsize because they have no cash to move to a cheaper place or buy a cheaper place.

This woman did not turn her heat on the entire last winter to save on money, and for three weeks lived on bread, crackers, water, and milk here in Madison. She had an accident, two surgeries, and she had health insurance and the second surgery was due to medical error. But she was still liable for the second surgery. She owed over $30,000, which was not covered by her insurance. And she was on a contract with her health insurer to pay $60/month. She had no idea how long that would take her to pay off, so I did the math. And even at a 1% interest rate (which, of course, you’re not going to get) it would take her 55 years to pay off that medical bill.

“This woman…for three weeks lived on bread, crackers, water, and milk.” Image from Wikimedia Commons.

BH: It’s striking how a discussion of food is really a discussion of the structure and cost of health insurance, housing, energy, credit.

RB: That’s just it. Food can’t be analyzed in isolation from these larger social contexts. Another example of that was the caution Zepeda offered about how we talk about local food.

I also want to mention that virtually everyone talked about fresh, healthy food—organic food, local food—which, by the way, they could not afford and felt was like a social marker. So when we talk about local food, be very cautious talking about that, because it is really a way of delineating the haves and the have-nots.

RB: These sort of identity markers and emotional experiences around food were echoed by others. Jewish Studies scholar Jordan Rosenblum talked about the ways that traditions around religious food restrictions in Judaism have changed and shaped identity over time.  

The group that I study, Rabbinic Judaism, the “Who should we follow?” depends…. If you’re a member of the house of Hillel, you followed Hillel, and you don’t care about Shammai. If you’re a member of the house of Shammai, you followed Shammai, and you don’t care about Hillel. And that variance was allowed, so people look today and they say, “Oh look at all these groups and their various interpretations,” that was [that way] in the ancient world as well. And, for a wonderful modern political example, there becomes a custom of in all but 18 instances you follow Hillel, why do you follow Shammai in that? It’s because one day—things were often decided by voting—and the Shammai group looked around and realized there were more of them that day, so the Shammai called a vote on 18 things. So [it’s] because of a procedural mistake one day. But even though that became a broader thing, there still was variance. So: “Who should we follow?” It depends on who “we” is.

BH: So these ancient, culture-defining food rules that we think of as being—quite literally—set down in stone, might be the result of the same sorts of struggles and contingencies we’re familiar with in our modern politics.

RB: Sure. But that doesn’t mean we should think of them as any less powerful. Anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney made this case in her paper about how rice came to shape and define Japanese national identity.

A rice-transplanting festival in Katori, Japan, 2008. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A rice-transplanting festival in Katori, Japan, 2008. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Rice becoming beautiful, rice plants becoming our land and all of that, is not a natural process. [It’s happened through] haiku and then woodcut prints and all of that. And then it became the symbol of the collective self of the Japanese. But I would emphasize that the collective self is never really coming out without the pressure of the Other. And so for example rice itself became an enormously important issue when the West came onto the horizon. And so they had a long debate whether we should try to adopt a dairy industry, whether we should start eating meat in order to compete with the Westerners’ body, and whether we can compete with Westerners on just a rice diet, and all of that.

BH: What other themes did you pick up on?

RB: A number of presenters explored the role that academics play in larger food movements, and their relationship to community organizations outside the academy. For instance, soil scientist Steve Ventura spoke of the ways his Community and Regional Food Systems project tries to connect academic resources to community needs and desires.

This is a team of students that did urban agriculture policy analysis in and around Milwaukee. The project included training both through extension and through Growing Power. This is their commercial urban agriculture program, where again the university involvement in a sense enhanced what they were able to do, brought a little more science into the process. A lot of what did were, in a sense, spontaneous projects that came up as we listened to people in the communities where we were working, what we called “community engagement projects.” Sometimes these led to related or spin-off projects. For example, we just looked at backyard gardening. One of the issues in backyard gardening is lead-contaminated soils in urban areas. So this is a collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin and a couple of nonprofit organizations in Milwaukee to make people more aware of that issue and on the science side to develop remediation and litigation strategies.

RB: Similarly, Alfonso Morales, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning who studies farmers markets, is bringing new tools to market managers to help them achieve their goals as these change over time.

The problems that managers [face] have everything to do with how it is they interact with society. Their principal purpose is to sell food, right? To sell food grown in the local area. So, what’s the problem? Well, that purpose, while it may be singular, is always taking place in changing contexts—changing regulatory contexts, changing expectations of society, changing needs and goals that people have. So I said to myself: wow, these market managers—who were often volunteers, not always trained in business—they may need a tool, a toolkit for understanding their activities, for being able to collect data on what they’re up to, analyze it, and report on it—report effectively interpretations that enable them to continue to achieve their purposes.

A market in Austin Texas, 2014. Image by Michael Rihani.

A market in Austin Texas, 2014. Image by Michael Rihani.

BH: It’s funny how an intimate act like eating, which we often do alone, has all these institutions and systems whirring and whizzing just out of view.

RB: Right, but food studies doesn’t neglect the intimate, personal ways that we experience food. I think folklorist Janet Gilmore really brought this point home in her discussion of the ways her late mother’s kitchen helped her to make sense of her death.

My latest work is about my mother, who, even though she’s a woman we could look at as someone of privilege, had many of the same kinds of worries that the people whom Lydia talked about, many of the same considerations in terms of asking anybody for help with her food. [She] started relying on shelf stable foods from Bi-Mart, which she could drive to sort of sneakily without raising the hackles of neighbors and cops, and she would end up at home then with these stocks that were reminiscent of Depression food and actually, in the book Evictedthere was one character, Lamar, who guards his stock of canned foods in a locked cabinet, and that was what my mother’s cabinets looked like when she died recently. Also part of this was reading her kitchen after she died because all the food was out and I could tell what time of day she had a terrible disaster in her home and I understood her, I understood her own little micro food system well enough, that I could really come to an understanding of the circumstances under which she did die.

BH: Wow. The “micro food system” of a deceased parent. It’s nothing I would have ever thought of, but it’s suddenly so easy to picture, so tangible.

RB: I think one of the most powerful lessons food studies has to offer is that our familiar, individual relationships to food are tied to structural issues of politics and justice on a broader scale.  Sociologist Jane Collins, in her concluding remarks, put this really well.

One of the reasons that I really love teaching about food (it’s my favorite thing to teach about) is the way in which it links concerns about meaning and culture with concerns about politics and economy, with political economy, with concerns about normative social justice, and how we define social justice. So it combines intimacy of food (or the lack of food, in the example that Lydia Zepeda gave us this morning) with studies of the power of food—the power by which we get or don’t get food—with an understanding of community built around food.

BH: Put like that, food studies sounds like one of the most promising interdisciplinary pursuits. It not only cuts across fields of study, it cuts across time and space and scale; links the individual to regional, political, and cultural communities; links production and consumption; and, especially, unites academic research with movements for social change.

Featured Image: An N. C. Wyeth illustration advertising the General Electric Space Maker Refrigerator that appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1948. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Rachel Boothby serves as Managing Editor for Edge Effects and is a Ph.D. student in the Geography department, where she studies the relationships between people, place, and food. Her master’s thesis explored the contemporary US local food movement, focusing on relationships between farm-to-table restaurants and farmers. Contact.

Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” He is also the lead author of Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement. TwitterContact.

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