What FoodAnthropology is Reading Now

November 8, 2015—Inspired by the fantastic “Around the Web Digest series over at Savage Minds, FoodAnthropology will be compiling and sharing what’s piqued our interest in the world of food. Here’s what we’re reading now!

The first place to start, as we approach the travel season, is with what you should listen to on the way: Southern Foodway’s podcast Gravy continues to put out engrossing and well-produced food stories from the American South. Start with their most recent, The Cajun Reconnection,” and then stock your device with the whole back catalogue. One of my favorites remains Adaptation, Survival, Gratitude: A Lumbee Thanksgiving Story”—a tale of hybrid Native-Southern foodways that’s a perfect November listen.

Along with travel, the holidays bring sugar, and this study from the journal Obesity has attracted media attention in recent weeks: apparently, a reduction in sugar consumption can improve children’s health in as little as ten days: Cutting Sugar Improves Children’s Health in Just 10 Days

There’s bad news out of California, with recent reports that droughts are impacting California Salmon, and an unprecedented algae bloom is causing a neurotoxin build up in marine life and shuttering the state’s crab season: Why A Neurotoxin Is Closing Crab Season In California

If you’re looking for a new book to read—or perhaps assign—take a look at “The 14 Best Books About Food That You (Probably) Haven’t Read.” Some will be familiar—Sweetness and Power, for example, or Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs—but everyone is sure to find at least one unknown title on the list.

The NY Times Magazine food issue offers an interesting profile by Francis Lam of Chef Edna Lewis, put in a context of race, gender, and the changing south. Don’t miss the recipes for corn muffins and smothered rabbit at the end of the article: Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking

Los Angeles’ KCRW featured an interview with Toni Tipton-Martin, author of the “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” (2015, U of Texas Press), a book about cultural appropriation, African American cookbook authors, and the history of their books.

Students in Dr. Catarina Passidomo’s “Southern Foodways and Culture” course have been posting reflections of the class readings and discussions at the Southern Foodways Alliance. You can download the syllabus to read & tweet along with them, or just check out this post on Angela Jill Cooley’s To Live and Dine in Dixie, an examination how whites in the Jim Crow South strove to preserve white supremacy through the lens of segregated eating establishments.

If you have a link you’d like included, please email it to LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.


Filed under anthropology

Fundraiser Jambalaya

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

I recently asked my food and culture students to write short essays about foods that remind them of places. The objective was to get them to think about the relationship between the two, about how foods evoke particular places, but also about how place can determine how people experience food. This is one of several short informal essays the students write in the class, all of which are meant to get them to personalize particular issues raised by their readings. The students seem to enjoy writing these essays and I certainly enjoy reading them. Most of the students are from New Orleans or from nearby south Louisiana, and the foods they draw on definitely reflect the local cuisine. These little vignettes give me a chance to learn new things too and never fail to spark a lively class discussion.

Sometimes the foods evoke local stereotypes, but in unexpected ways. One student wrote that in her family “we would always boil seafood more than we would barbecue because who wants barbecue when you can have crawfish,” providing some potential insight into why south Louisiana is less invested in smoked meats than other parts of the South. That particular insight was a preface to a story about the experience of buying crawfish at a neighborhood shop on those occasions when the family did not want to boil their own. Another student wrote lovingly of the ambiance at the local grocery store, which is linked to the sublime shrimp po’boys she buys there. Students linked their food experiences with festivals, of which there are many in the area, all of which feature food, even when food is not the theme of the festival. One student IMG_4520evoked his annual pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in pursuit of crawfish bread, an experience so transcendent that “eating this Louisiana delicacy, is like seeing God in my food.” If the food in south Louisiana is divinely inspired, perdition may lie outside the region. One student recalled her visit to Grapevine, Texas, through the deeply disappointing New Orleans-style food she ordered at a restaurant, an experience that resulted in tears and anger. Lesson learned: the foods of south Louisiana are best when produced and consumed in the region.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, kin relations are often linked to food and place. “Mawmaw’s shrimp stew,” only available at one grandmother’s house, for instance, recalled fondly by one student. Another asserted that there is a special terroir for the only cornbread she tolerates, which is made by her grandmother in North Carolina, during family Christmas visits. Efforts to reproduce the recipe out of season in New Orleans have been dismal failures. Consuming sacks of oysters, both raw and cooked, accompanied by beer and duck gumbo, is linked to an uncle’s driveway. Another student wrote about eating seafood of all sorts at a hunting and fishing club in New Orleans east, where her uncle lived with his family and worked as the club’s keeper. The club, it turns out, is nearly 200 years old, linking my student’s family to very interesting parts of American history.

One of the most evocative ethnographic vignettes to come out of this exercise this year was written by a student from a jambalaya potsmall town in Livingston Parish, not far from Baton Rouge. Summer time, she wrote, was jambalaya season. And not just any jambalaya. This summer dish was “fundraiser jambalaya,” “prepared on the side of the road, under a white pop up tent, in huge pots heated by propane burners, and always accompanied by Hawaiian Rolls and the chatter of eager volunteers.” She notes the faint whiff of roadside emissions or propane in the food, the mix of overcooked rice, the heaps of jambalaya that was somehow always mushy in the middle, maybe an effect of the Styrofoam clam shells in which it is often served. Eating the jambalaya was part of doing good, the tickets sold by kids, to support the local baseball team or some other cause. And eating it was a social occasion, an opportunity to stand around and chat with the neighbors.

At their best, these essays are not generally about praising the wonderful foods of south Louisiana. Instead, they evoke the atmosphere of place and the social relations the students think about when they describe certain foods. “Fundraiser jambalaya” is unlikely to turn up in any of the guide books or cookbooks published every year for people who want to learn to cook the foods of Louisiana. But its existence tells us a lot about the way of life of people who live in the region. I suspect there are other dishes performing similar roles all over the place. Ask your students.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology of food, louisiana, New Orleans, pedagogy

Cannabis Culture in Denver

From the editor: Attending the AAA meetings in Denver? The announcement below is for an event that looks into legalized marijuana in Colorado. This will no doubt touch on many aspects of the new legal and business context for marijuana, including the culinary and nutritional…and so may be of interest to SAFN members attending the conference.

The Anthropology of Tourism Interest Group, the Association for Legal and Political Anthropology and Culture and Agriculture have organized a free tour of the cannabis industry and a public anthropology forum to enable anthropologists to learn firsthand about the possibilities and risks accompanying legalized marijuana. Cannabis Cultures is a formal event of the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The organizers have created and sponsored this free event to bring together anthropologists and colleagues from across different subfields to engage with issues of timely concern for our host city.


When: Wednesday, November 18, 4:30-10 p.m.

Where: AAA meeting, Denver, CO

This is a free event open to participants in the conference. Given limited space and transportation, we ask that you please register in advance at http://www.eventbrite.com/e/cannabis-cultures-tour-discussion-reception-in-denver-registration-18811244940?utm_term=eventurl_text

Space is limited to the first 150 registrants.

Tour buses will depart from the Colorado Convention Center at 4:30 pm. Buses will leave promptly on schedule, so please arrive at least fifteen (15) minutes before departure. Buses will transport guests to tour a grow house and dispensary. After the tour, participants will be transported to the History Colorado Center for a discussion, forum, and networking event. At 7:15 pm, local experts will present a moderated forum about the environmental, economic, political, legal, social, and health dimensions of recent cannabis legalization, and AAA members will have the opportunity to learn from their experiences and ask questions. Food and a cash bar will be provided. After the presentations, guests are welcome to network and visit demonstrations until 10.00 pm when buses will return guests to the convention center.

1 Comment

Filed under AAA 2015 Denver, anthropology

Food in Culture and Social Justice at Oregon State University

Today, we will hear from Joan Gross, Professor of Anthropology discussing Oregon State University’s Food in Culture and Social Justice program. This post is part of SAFN’s Food Anthropology Program series, which features an undergraduate or graduate food anthropology program in each post. If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate a food anthropology program for the series, please email the series coordinator, M. Ruth Dike.

Ruth Dike: How did the Food in Culture and Social Justice program begin?

Joan Gross: After Oregon was discovered to be the hungriest state in the nation according to the USDA food security survey in 2000, Nancy Rosenberger and I were asked by a local task force to research food insecurity in rural Benton County. We conducted 66 interviews with low-income residents in two rural communities in the Willamette Valley that were known to be low on emergency food services. This effort brought us into contact with other community organizations and brought food into both of our research agendas. Several students in the Applied Anthropology program were already focusing on food and agriculture-related topics and when we did an inventory of Food Studies type classes around the university in 2011, we saw that with the addition of a few core courses, we had a program. The curricular proposal process was long and sometimes contested, but in the spring of 2012 we were approved to offer a graduate minor and an undergraduate certificate in Food in Culture and Social Justice.

Garden from one students’ Food Project.

Garden from one students’ Food Project.

MRD: What is the focus of your program? What are its strengths?

JG: The fact that Oregon has become such a food mecca, but still experiences high rates of food insecurity offers myriad anthropological research questions and leads to a focus on social justice. What better place to explore these issues than at the state’s land grant institution? Ours is an interdisciplinary program with coursework in and outside of Liberal Arts.  Credits for the undergraduate certificate can also be counted toward majors, minors, and selected general education requirements. Credits for the graduate minor (15 for MA, 18 for PhD) are selected by students in consultation with their committee, which allows for great flexibility in support of particular thesis/dissertation topics.  Through the “out of the classroom” Food Projects that all students are required to complete, our students have worked with campus and community partners doing things like leading cooking classes and gardening workshops, conducting program assessments, event planning, and creating resources like maps and guides. We also run an Intercultural Learning Community on Food in Culture and Social Justice in Oregon and Ecuador every other year, which incorporates students, community members and professors from both countries. You can find out more about this program here. Applications will be accepted until Nov. 13th.

Intercultural Learning Community helping with Pachamanca.

Intercultural Learning Community helping with Pachamanca.

MRD: What roles does anthropology play in your program?

JG: The program was conceived within anthropology and anthropologists teach more program courses than any other discipline. Joan Gross and Nancy Rosenberger teach Anthropology of Food; Melissa Cheyney and Kenny Maes teach Nutritional Anthropology; David McMurray teaches Agrifood Movements; Lisa Price teaches Food Justice and Research Methods in Food Studies; Sarah Cunningham teaches Food in American Culture. Garry Stephenson runs the Small Farms program in Agricultural Extension. Other anthropologists incorporate food-related issues into their classes.

MRD: Tell us about the students currently enrolled in your program.

JG: Presently there are 10 undergraduate and a dozen graduate students in the program.  The majority of the students are in anthropology, but we also have students in public health, nutrition, food science, forestry, natural resources, fisheries and wildlife, horticulture and agriculture. Find out more about our students here.

Preparing chestnuts for a Native Foods course that Dr. Joan Gross recently taught.

Preparing chestnuts for a Native Foods course that Dr. Joan Gross recently taught.

MRD: Where is your program located and what ties do you have to the local community?

JG: We are located in the heart of the Willamette Valley between the Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains, an hour’s drive to the Pacific Ocean. The Willamette Valley, with its rainy winters, gorgeous dry summers and rich soil, was the coveted destination at the end of the Oregon Trail. We have a superb farmers’ market, lots of artisanal food and drink producers, small and medium sized biodiverse, organic farms. Our students have worked in all of these places and more and our faculty serves on boards of several community organizations.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies

Food, Culture, and Social Justice in Oregon and Ecuador

osu pic 1

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

2016 Intercultural Learning Community with Oregon State University

The goal of this learning community is to gather a multicultural group of people (undergraduate and graduate students, professors/instructors and community members) who are passionate about food and social justice and who are interested in joining with others to learn more about cultural aspects of food, food systems and alternative food movements in Oregon and Ecuador. Through cross-cultural dialogue, collaboration, and experiential learning, participants will further develop their knowledge, social networks and their capacity for engaging food systems issues as global citizens, rooted in local realities. In addition, past participants all reported an increase in their communicative competence in Spanish or English.

The group will be composed based on the following criteria

  • ability to enlighten the group about some aspect of the food system
  • gender equality
  • cultural diversity
  • age diversity
  • generosity of spirit

Program Cost:

US-based participants – $2110

Ecuador-based participants – $1710

This does NOT include tuition, transfer fees, airline ticket, miscellaneous meals/entertainment, passport or visa fees for Ecuadorians. Some scholarships are available.osu pic 2


Before beginning the program, participants must take the 4 credit Oregon State University online course “International Perspectives on Food Systems” (FCSJ 454/554). The cost of this course is $1120 for undergraduate credit or $2084 for graduate credit. Community members (including professors) who are not interested in transcript-visible university credits will be able to take a version of the course. OSU students will sign up for 6 credits of FCSJ 422/522 in Fall term 2016 to cover the 180 hours of field study and reflection exercises.

Credits, Certificates, Professional Development:

Every participant who successfully completes the program will receive a Professional Certificate in Food, Culture and Social Justice offered by the School of Language, Culture and Society of Oregon State University. Students who are enrolled in Oregon State University can count the credits towards either an undergraduate certificate or a graduate minor in Food in Culture and Social Justice. We will gladly work with other universities to establish equivalencies.

Professors, instructors and other community members will be supplied with a letter delineating the professional development aspects of the program that they can submit to their directors. We will encourage directors to compensate participants with a course down, airline tickets and other program costs.

Important Dates:

  • November 132015 – Deadline for applications
  • December 15, 2015 – selected learning community participants are notified
  • January 8, 2016 First installment of $100 is due for participants
  • March 15, 2016 – Scholarships will be announced
  • April 15, 2016 – The remainder of the bill is due
  • July 18, 2016 mandatory meeting for Ecuador group (must have passport, visa, travel insurance and airline ticket by this time. It’s possible to meet by skype)
  • October 28, 2016 mandatory meeting for Oregon group (must have passport, travel insurance and airline ticket by this time. It’s possible to meet by skype)

The tentative dates for the program are August 30 to September 13, 2016 for the field stay in Oregon and December 9 to December 23, 2016 for the Ecuador field stay. You are expected to be available for the entire field stays in both Oregon and Ecuador and to participate in certain exercises online following the two field stays.

The application and cost breakdown are available at http://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/feature-story/2016-intercultural-learning-community-0

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, Ecuador, Food Studies, Oregon, Oregon State University

Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity

Eating in the Side Room Cover

Review of: Warner, Mark S. 2015. Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Ashanté Reese
Spelman College

Mark S. Warner’s Eating in the Side Room reconstructs the foodways of two African-American families—the Maynards and Burgesses—who occupied the same house in Annapolis, Maryland from the 1850s until 1990.  Using archaeological data, archival research, and previously conducted oral history interviews, Warner crafts a narrative of food as a central site of resistance for African Americans. He illustrates this within several contexts: shifts in consumer culture, anti-black sentiments in the Chesapeake region and broader United States, the politics of freedom for African Americans (particularly those who were free during the early nineteenth century), and the racialization of food consumption.

The book is organized into eight chapters. Chapter one briefly lays out the central focus of the book, which is to: “explore how these families’ daily food choices within a newly emergent mass consumer society served as a relatively safe way to express a unique outlook and history, as well as offer a subtle, yet persistent, commentary of the racist stereotypes and violence that surrounded them (2015:2). Warner centers African American agency as salient to understanding communal and individual identities. Chapter two contextualizes the Maynard and Burgess families, detailing their economic lives within the context of Maryland’s growing and diverse African-American community. Chapter three explains the methods used to excavate the Maynard-Burgess house, detailing some of the politics of excavations in Annapolis, a city with a strong investment in colonial history. Chapter four presents the food assemblages discovered and offers analysis on how the Maynard and Burgess families acquired the pork, fowl, and fish that comprised the majority of the assemblages. Chapters five and six zoom out to contextualize the food choices made by the Maynards and Burgesses, demonstrating how their choices connected to broader trends in African-American consumerism and how they were contrary to choices made by whites. The final two chapters return to the Maynards and Burgesses, examining the legacies of food consumption and what those legacies reveal about sociocultural dynamics.

Warner argues that the Maynard and Burgess’ (and other African Americans’) consumption of pork was not due to economic constraints but was instead a form of resistance to shifts in mass consumer culture in which beef was becoming the meat of choice for whites: “while some might argue that a preference for pork is attributable to economic factors, a detailed examination of the archaeological, oral, and documentary record indicates that this was patently not the case. African American’s consumption of pork within this region was a profound expression of an identity as separate from white society. One need only survey forms of African American self-expression as distinct as quilts, blues lyrics, orally transmitted recipes, and folk poems to see the prominence of pork in the collective black consciousness” (2015:3).

This argument, a critical one, is one of the most ambitious and fascinating arguments made in the book. The archaeological and consumer data support the claim that African Americans consumed pork in greater quantities than beef and in greater quantities compared to whites.  Warner also presents an array of examples ranging from quilts to music lyrics to illustrate pork’s central role in African-American expressions. However, I was left wondering if, in fact, the resistance to beef could have been multifaceted? As he carefully shows in Chapter two, the Maynard and Burgess families were not wealthy, but they were economically stable (2015:7). While their reasons for eating pork may not have been economic, is it possible that—given the diversity in economic means among African Americans—it could have been an economic choice for others? This illustrates one of the challenges of writing about African-American foodways and one of the reasons why this book is timely and important. African-American foodways are woefully understudied and are often uncritically examined. In that way, Warner challenges the essentialization of African-American foodways by providing an alternative view of how and why pork was important in African-American foodways. At the same time, the argument rests on a binary: important because of economic constraints or not. Because no assemblages as detailed as that from the Maynard-Burgess house existed, Warner notes it was difficult to compare his findings with other sites (2015:74).  Even with the compelling evidence Warner presents—both archaeological and otherwise—I wonder about the economics of pork consumption for those who were not as economically stable as the Maynards and Burgesses. Is there room for multifaceted forms and interpretations of resistance?

Eating in the Side Room raises critical, important questions concerning African-American food consumption.  The writing style, range of data, and carefully crafted narratives that contextualize the Maynard and Burgess families make it suitable for a variety of courses on food and culture, African American histories and daily life, or courses that focus on the Chesapeake region or the south more broadly. For courses on African-American foodways in particular, an instructor should consider pairing Eating in the Side Room with the newly released Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama (2015, University of Arkansas Press), which is a collection of fifteen essays that examine forms of resistance in African-American foodways.

It also has contemporary relevance. As food studies scholars and practitioners continue to grapple with how food consumption reflects economic, social, and health disparities between African Americans and whites, Eating in the Side Room asks readers to step back to think about the roots of such inequalities and consider the ways African-American families have exhibited agency even when alleviation of inequalities seemed nearly impossible. More than just an examination of food remains, Eating in the Side Room places the Maynard and Burgesses’s food consumption in ideological, historical, and contemporary perspective to illuminate power dynamics and resistance.

Leave a comment

Filed under African American Foodways, anthropology, anthropology of food, archaeology, book reviews, foodways, history

Thinking, and doing: Willa Zhen on Teaching Anthropology of Food at the Culinary Institute of America

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

This month, we hear from Willa Zhen, Associate Professor at The Culinary Institute of America. She discusses teaching anthropology at an applied institution, and many of the excellent hands-on activities she uses to engage her students.

If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

Lauren Renée Moore: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like to teach at the Culinary Institute of America?

Willa Zhen: The students here—especially those in the new Applied Food Studies major, which started in January 2015—love food. They love cooking, they love eating, and many want to do more with their careers than become traditional restaurant chefs. They’re thinking about food in complex ways, but also have a very hands-on, grounded approach. They understand food at a very practical and sensory level, and also at a cognitive level. That’s what our program is like, in a nutshell.

LRM: What is it like to teach students with such an applied focus?

WZ: When I taught at my doctoral institution, I taught very traditional undergraduate anthropology classes. We read classic texts—and I was in the UK, so we were reading things like Malinowski, very heavy and descriptive. It was very different teaching those types of students and a lot of the students there were very internationally focused, many of them were international themselves. Me included, I was an American living in the UK. Convincing them to read about far-flung places and cultures was pretty easy.

Here, students are working from a different set of experiences, and I try to ground class in what they already know and have experienced. Many students come from working backgrounds and have limited international and cross-cultural exposure. I’m not able to use the classic ethnographies to the same degree. In fact, I actually ground them in current issues and current debates, to really make it relevant. The goal is to get them to dive more critically and thoughtfully into their everyday experience. So it’s kind of a different way of thinking about things.

All photos provided by Willa Zhen.

All photos provided by Willa Zhen.

LRM: Can you tell me a little bit about the structure of your class?

WZ: My students don’t have intro to anthropology and we don’t have an anthro major. There are other classes which explore anthropology in some way, but this is the only anthro class. So I wrote it as an intro to anthropology. I’m trying to get them thinking about classic anthropological concepts and methods of inquiry, but through the lens of food. I actually have two books that I have them read. One of them is an anthropology textbook, and it introduces concepts like kinship, community, etc., and then I have them read Counihan and Van Esterik’s Food and Culture Reader. Then, we do a lot of activities.

For instance, when we talk about kinship, family, commensality, and family structure, I have them do kinship charts. I have Grinding grains - 5them draw their own kinship chart, and then ask them to think about feeding, commensality, and kinship. They use colors to do this. They take one color—I have crayons or colored pencils—and have them shade in everybody who’s fed them. And then they use another color to shade in all the people they feed. I ask: are there overlaps? For most people, elders feed them, and then when they hit a certain age, they’re feeding younger family members. But sometimes, students’ charts don’t fit that characterization. Maybe they didn’t have anyone who fed them, because their parents were working or maybe their parents were unable to feed them due to physical disability. And it creates ways of thinking about feeding and structure and commensality. With that exercise, we read Psyche Williams-Forson’s work “More than Just the ‘Big Piece of Chicken’: The Power of Race, Class, and Food in American Consciousness” on African American family relationships and chicken. It becomes a very tactile way to think about these anthropological concepts.

LRM:  Can you give me an example how you bring current debates into the course?

WZ: One of the ways I teach them about agriculture, technology, and the domestication of plants, is by sneaking it in through a hands-on activity. What you often hear is that food way back when—like your grandmother’s food, which is what Michael Pollan likes to say—was great and romantic and pastoral. It was wonderful! Or, with the Paleo diet folks, we hear that our ancestors ate so much better, right? They foraged, there was no domestication, and everyone was healthier, leaner, and sexier back then. We talked about these different ideas, and then I have them grind grain by hand. We went to the kitchen, I put them in different teams, I had them set a timer and everybody got different tools to work with. Some teams got mortars and pestles of different compositions, others got stone, other a cutting board. I had them see how long it took to grind the grain down to usable flour. They also measure the start weight, and when they got to a point where they had a usable grind, they weighed it again.Grinding grains - 3

This activity was a little bit evil, because some students were very frustrated. That’s the point. To make them think. Smashing things with stone is not as effective as a mortar and pestle, which is not as effective as an industrial mill. It gives them an appreciation for the amount of labor and time it takes to get usable food. They also gain an appreciation for agriculture and storage technology. This got them thinking about the notion of romanticizing the past and the idea that things were better. They quickly realize that it sucks to do things by hand. But, a lot of people on the planet still have to process food in very backbreaking, difficult ways. Grinding grain in class gave them an appreciation of how physical and backbreaking it is. And these students are people who have a lot of manual dexterity. They have all been trained as cooks, and they know how to use a kitchen and work with food. But none of them were prepared for how difficult it was. We were in the kitchen and they were upset because their hands were hurting and their ears were ringing—because it’s very, very loud to hit things with rocks for a long time. They can see why these different technologies may have developed.

Later, I took mercy on them, and had them mix some store-bought commercial flour with what they’d ground, in order to make it into something cookable. The point of this was to grind your flour and then eventually cook it into some kind of bread. They had an option of making any type of bread they wanted. It was open for them to decide because one of the points about agriculture and the development of technology is that our ancestors had to figure this out. They didn’t have a recipe book. So students started asking questions like, “Are there ways we can make this process happen faster?” I asked them to look at the kitchen. What technologies would they have had available to them in the past? Perhaps they had fire. The students started roasting grains, to see if that would make it easier to grind. Some of them boiled their grain down to a paste to see if that would make it easier. As they did this, I said, “This is what our ancestors did, too. They figured it out, because I’m sure they came to the same conclusion you did, which is: this sucks. I’m hungry, how do I make this faster?”

Grinding grains - 2

LRM:  Do you usually teach in a kitchen setting?

WZ: I’m usually in a traditional classroom, with the whiteboard and computers and desks and chairs. We do have kitchens available. The trick here on campus is that the kitchens are usually occupied. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to finagle my way into a kitchen and use that space, but I try and use activities that work in a classroom setting, as well. If I got stuck and couldn’t get a kitchen, I wouldn’t be able to do the part where they had to figure out other adaptive technologies like fire or boiling, but they could still do the grinding part where they get mortars and pestles and grind at a desk.

I try as much as I can to plan things that don’t necessarily require kitchens even though the kitchen is ideal for some of them. I try to think outside the box a lot, how to make this engaging and also pedagogically and academically valid. It takes a little bit of thinking out of the box, and the lot of willingness to trust your gut and experiment and to be willing to have it flop.Grinding grains - 4

LRM:  I wonder if you have other activities you could share that might work well in a traditional classroom setting?

WZ:  One of the things I have done with my anthro class to think about concepts like community and identity is have them look at community cookbooks. You can also do this with ethnic or international cookbooks. One of my favorites is the White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler. It’s a best-seller.  Students can think about how communities self-identify. Who are the self-identified people who buy a white trash cookbook? I have them pull out who the community is, what their values are. Are there certain types of foods that seem to be present? How do they describe themselves? Then, we talk about the narrative of the community, and how we present ourselves, and how much of this describes what the community actually is.

I also have them do mini participant observation either as part of class time or outside of class. It helps them understand sociocultural anthropology methodologies. I find that with students who have been trained as cooks, the challenge is not getting them to do the assignment, it’s actually getting them to reel back that chef’s hat. I have to say, “This is not a restaurant review, you’re not describing the food, you’re not describing the meal, or how you would have plated in it. But, what was actually going on around you?” I often get something that’s more of a restaurant review, and I have to say, “What was actually happening? What was the action, the drama in front of you? Or was there no drama?”

LRM: What do you want students to take away from your class?

WZ:  When I’m teaching the Anthropology of Food, I don’t expect them to remember who Franz Boas or Margaret Mead was. What I want them to get out of it, and remember a couple of months from now, or ten years from now, or maybe when they are very old and in their rocking chairs is: I want them to think outside of themselves for just a moment, and ask, how do I know this? Where am I getting this information? That’s always my key goal. It’s part of the nature of anthropology, to think about where cultural values and norms come from. That’s the one thing I always want my students to think about. To take a step back, and think, where is that coming from?

LRM: Do you feel like you achieve this?

WZ:  I hope so. For one ethnographic project, I had a group study people who drink alone in bars. They went to a local watering hole and they get permission from the owner to hang out there. They started the project assuming different things about why people drink alone. They assumed that these people are losers who didn’t have anybody to drink with. They found in their interviews that why people drink alone is much more complex. Some people didn’t truly drink alone. They went to the bar alone, but they ended up socializing with everybody at the bar. That was their way of socializing. Or people go to the bar alone to socialize without committing to a specific time with specific people. Other people like drinking alone just for the solitude, or it was just a quick drink to get out of the house. The students’ assumptions were really challenged. They always thought that drinking alone was embarrassing, but it wasn’t, necessarily.

LRM:  I wonder if you could speak a little bit to graduate student readers about working in an applied environment like the Culinary Institute of America?

WZ:  For anybody who’s coming from a traditional academic background or institution, teaching at a non-traditional institution can be incredibly rewarding and fun. For me, I’ve always had one foot in applied work anyway, and I felt like that was missing from traditional institutions. Here, I can do a lot of things that I’ve always wanted to do, that I wish I could have done in classes. It’s so rewarding to be able to do these hands on activities. And I think that’s something, particularly with this tight job market, and the difficulties of getting anything in academia. If you want to work in higher education, don’t discount these institutions. The students I have are very focused and driven because they are career minded. They are determined to do well and succeed, and they understand that they have to work hard. Those concepts make sense to them because they have to work in the kitchen from day one here. My advice would be to not dismiss these institutions. It’s so gratifying to be able to do this mixture of academics and also be very grounded. We get to think, and get to do at the same time.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology of food, Food Studies, teaching