“You can’t talk about food without talking:” Aimee Hosemann with a Professor’s Perspective on the Course “Food and Culture”

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

This month, the Food Pedagogy Series is pleased to offer a special pair of interviews. Doctoral candidate and instructor Aimee Hosemann was recommended by one of her students, and both Hosemann and the student, Clara Broomfield, agreed to be interviewed about the class. We will hear first from Hosemann, and then we will hear from Broomfield for a student’s perspective on the same course.

In this interview, Hosemann discusses the use of commensality practicums and a class cookbook in her course “Food and Culture” at the University of Texas at Austin. She also reflects on professors’ responsibilities when discussing their own diets, and the challenges of teaching as a doctoral candidate.

LRM: Before we start talking about the course, I would love to hear a little bit more about your work. 

AH: My work is linguistic and sociocultural anthropology with a Brazilian indigenous group called the Wanano/Kotiria. I’m specifically interested in women’s expressive practices.

About a year and a half ago, I was drawn into reading a bunch of stuff by vegan ultra athletes. I noticed how many professional athletes were moving into vegan or whole foods plant-based diets. They were telling stories that sounded like religious conversion narratives: they reached a moment of crisis in their lives, and found plant-based diets. They’re very powerful in the same way that religious testimony is. What started as a hobby turned into what I’m going to focus on for the next couple of years.

LRM: Looking at your course description, I noticed that the last statement says you will focus on “how flows of dietary images and discourses shape race and ethnicity, gender, social class, and other identifications.” I found that an interesting phrasing, because it seems that many food-related syllabi invert that—they look at race, ethnicity, gender, and social class shaping dietary practices rather than the other way around. Can you talk about that phrasing in particular, and about your goals for the class more generally?

AH: That’s such a great question! One of the things I’m interested in is how all manner of things have semiotic content that people interpret. Thinking about food as a globalized thing, you can imagine food and images of food moving around in different social networks. When people take those things on, there’s something appealing about those objects. I think about how people respond to these things, and how that shapes some of their ideas about themselves.

I think it would have worked equally well if I had inverted those things, but I guess I’m trying to play with the concept that dietary practices, and talk about dietary practices, are enactments of something—like the discourse-centered approach to language and culture, where language, culture, and society aren’t necessary the same thing, but they are constantly reconstituting each other.

I think that that plays in really well to my general goals for the class: more than anything, I want the students to adopt an anthropological mindset, and learn to think about things, ideas, and people as reflective of, and constituting, networks of relationships. The way that I wrote the description and my goals for the class work hand in hand with each other.

LRM: Does that approach shape the topics you address or the order of the content of the course?

AH: They did, sort of. I tried to think about things that students had ready experience with. So we have readings about coffee, and a discussion about the Paleo diet and physical anthropology evidence for or against it. Then, there is another structural element to consider, which is that we used Gillian Crowther’s textbook Eating Culture. I looked in that book for inspiration about things that students might really want to know, and things that are my interests—for example, readings toward the end of the semester, about vegan sexuality, about lacking food when you’re in a detention center a migrant, or the cultural and environmental impacts of the BP oil spill. These were things that I was really interested in at this particular moment.

LRM: It sounds like you are working to keep the content fairly current—these are very current issues, migrant detentions, and the BP oil spill.

AH: Yeah, and those two things especially, it’s not too difficult to think about how they would apply to a student body that largely comes from Texas. The oil industry is absolutely integral to a lot of people’s livelihoods here, and then in Texas we have some family detention centers that got a lot of media attention because they were not doing a very good job of housing people in a humane fashion. I really wanted to be able to think about those things, and the lens of food and food practices is a way to sneak at controversial topics.

LRM: Did you feel like that was effective, like you were able to broach more controversial topics successfully this way?

AH: I think it definitely helped. One of the things that I hammered constantly in my class was the need to understand where our food comes from, and how it is interrelated with other things, like immigration. Migrant Farm Workers AlabamaIf people want immigration reform, they need to be willing to pay more for their tomatoes. In class, we talked about: How important is a tomato to a particular cuisine? Would you pay for this cuisine that includes tomatoes, and what happens if you only want to be able to pay very cheap prices for your tomato? Who actually paid for that?

LRM: I want to back up a little bit: how big is the course, what kind of students enrolled, etc.?

AH: The class had 46 students. They were a lot of upperclassmen. It was not meant to be a super high-level course, but it assumed that students had some background in anthropology. Anthropology students got the first seats, then people from other departments. There were a number of ethnic and racial backgrounds represented, as well as traditional and non-traditional college students. Many people had worked in some kind of food-related industry, and had some experience with the work of food. That gave us the ability to really talk at a higher level about what the world of food is like.

LRM: 46 students…that’s a pretty large class to think about eating together. Could you talk a little bit about the physical structure of the class?

AH: We were in a relatively small auditorium, with about 80 chairs in it stadium-style. When I was lecturing, I tried to move around the room and get people to move around in their seats to engage. For some of the people down in the front rows, they never saw some of their classmates in the back, so they didn’t always know who was speaking. So I tried to move around as much as possible, and sometimes let them take over the conversation and turn their backs on me, and look upward in the classroom. Our eating sessions helped that, because then people could move around a lot more, and talk to different people.

LRM: You’ve mentioned this “commensality practicum,” and the student who recommended you spoke specifically about this a fantastic aspect of the course. Can you tell me more about it?

AH: It’s actually something I drew on from my high school newspaper class. We sometimes had what were called “interpersonal skills test,” which were times to kick back and let the stress melt away for just awhile. I always thought that was such a good idea, because we could talk and have fun together, and get to know each other as newspaper staff in a different way.

My class was scheduled at noon, and because it was a food class at noon, there had to be some way to integrate actual food on a reliable basis. I was really taken by the idea of having something like a discussion period every so often so that if there were things they wanted to talk about, they had a chance to do that.

LRM: Did everyone bring food to share, or their own lunches? 

AH: Everyone brought food for themselves, or somebody might have a little extra something to share with people who were close by. We had a separate day, when their recipes were due, that people made food to share. They liked that so much that the next week we had class brunch.

LRM: Was there a structured discussion topic for the commensality practicums?

AH: I would start out with an idea. One time, we talked about what kind of structure we might like our class cookbook to take on. Another time, I asked them how they feel about the concept of food as a human right. I would think about something that was in the air, and then ask them to get a conversation going. They would take it from there.

LRM: You mentioned a class cookbook. Can you tell me about that?

AH: Every student had to include a recipe. It could be for anything that they wanted, it just needed to be something that they liked, and I requested that they provide cultural or familial information; pictures if they wanted them; information on special kinds of techniques or shopping, and to really have fun with it. And some of them were absolutely amazing! Some were written bilingually, in the home language and in English. Beautiful photography, beautiful stories. People scanned and took pictures of the original recipe cards. They submitted them through Canvas, our course management site, and I am compiling them into a single document that they will all get electronically.

Taste of UT LRM: It sounds like they were excited about it. 

AH: They were very excited about it! Even if they didn’t show it in class, it came out in the writing. They talked about what the food is like, and how meaningful it is to them. I could really feel the excitement in their submissions.

LRM: Could you talk a little about a couple of the concepts you really wanted to get across in the course?

AH: There were a couple that really took on lives of their own in the course. First, “What is the idea of gender in relationship to cooking?” Professional cooking and domestic cooking are valued very differently. They really got engaged in that, especially thinking about it in relation to coming up with recipes that were good enough for class. Often, they went to female family members to ask for things, and it gave many of them a new way to think about what was happening when people were cooking at home for them versus when they were eating at restaurants.

Another was food as a marker of health and a marker of security. Because we were really trying to get to an understanding of health as something that is subjective, and even though there are things that we can say about health that seem like they’re pretty objectively true, that objectivity actually hides a lot of cultural context.

Thinking about food security and how it relates to issues of health, one of the things we discovered in class conversation is that the university has a lot of food available. They could conceivably eat just about any time they want to, but it’s not actually that accessible to them, either because of time or budgetary constraints. The things they want to eat are too expensive or too far away. Even though there is food around, as college students—even at this university that considers itself a Public Ivy—a lot of them are at least temporarily food insecure.

LRM: Can you talk a little about how you bring in linguistic anthropology to teach food?

AH: I love to use linguistic anthropology with food! And I’m a big fan of Jillian Cavanaugh’s work on salami, and her work with the documentary processes around food production. There’s a piece in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, “What Words Bring to the Table: The Linguistic Anthropological Toolkit as Applied to the Study of Food,” which details how anthropologists who do linguistics have found themselves doing food, and about how those things meld together. You can’t talk about food without talking, and the way that people talk about food—the how, the why, the when—all of these are just as important to the cuisine as the food itself. We spent a lot of time thinking about how what people say reflects ideas about food and their bodies, and what they have access to, what’s appropriate. That adds a whole level of analysis, and a lot of richness.

LRM: Did students latch on to the importance of language in relation to food?

AH: I think they did. One of the pieces we looked at was Paugh and Izquierdo’s “Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction” about dinnertime arguments over food. That piece is so rich because the transcripts are just beautiful, and you really get the sense of the dynamic that’s happening. I was able to show them, by talking through these transcripts, how this discussion about food is emergent but also plays onto particular family histories.

LRM: The student who recommended you commented that this course integrates many “culturally relevant internet sources and films.” I wonder if you could talk about those?

AH: What with having a Facebook or Twitter feed, I saw all these interesting things. I’m always looking for interesting snippets to show people the connection between journal articles and real life. Then, I got a Netflix account last semester, and went through their entire holding of food movies. One of the hits of the class was the French movie Haute Cuisine, HauteCuisine-teasebecause it’s such a beautiful depiction of the gender issues between a private home cooking, and high-status chef cooking. The food photography was beautiful, the talk between the characters about food was beautiful, and it just really nicely tied together a lot of things in the class.

LRM: Were there any other films you felt were particularly successful? 

AH: A Year in Burgundy was good. We watched that while we were having brunch, and that was really cozy. Both of these movies are very cozy movies. They just make you feel warm, and want to engage with other people, and so that set a really good tone for talking, and appreciating what landscape does for food, what culture does for food. Both of those worked really well. Jiro Dreams of Sushi also went over really well.

I sent out links to a lot of things through Canvas, or through our Facebook group, so that people could look at them on their own time.

LRM: Can you tell me about the Facebook group?

AH: Yeah! It was a student suggestion in the last few weeks of class. Some of the core members of the class got along together really well, and they really wanted to have a way to keep in touch with each other and keep sharing materials. I think about 16 members of the class have joined up now and have been trading videos and having discussions about different things. I’m hoping to use it to keep touch with anyone who takes a food course with me.

LRM: Do you also incorporate those extra media items into class time?

AH: Yes. Luckily with food, things come up. For example, in Crowther’s textbook, there’s a discussion of Appadurai’s work on gastro-politics, and how being a daughter-in-law in a Tamil family can be a very difficult position around food. Well, the week after we talked about this, this news story came out about a daughter-in-law who was feeling very put upon by her in-laws, and didn’t like them messing around in her marriage. She had been urinating into their tea every day for a year to get back at them. Her mother in law was so angry, and wanted her arrested or to sue her for justice—but part of Appadurai’s point with gastro-politics is that, while the mother-in-law thinks she is having particular impacts on her daughter-in-law’s food experiences, the daughter-in-law can also approach this through subversion and claim her own kind of power in relation to her family food situation. That was one that I brought in, but students like to bring things in, too.

LRM: Do you feel like students’ interactions with the world changed as a result of the class?

AH: One of the questions they could answer on their final exam was about something that they learned about food and cultural relationships, and what kind of knowledge gaps they had before the class started. So far, what seems to be very strongly coming through in their answers is that, for a lot of them, they hadn’t really thought of food as a cultural entity, or that it was bound up in other things.

That’s an interesting thing to reflect on, because if you think of food as existing outside of social and linguistic relationships, that says interesting things about your own food history. A lot of students have starting thinking about the fact that white bread, or Starbucks Coffee, or other things that seem ubiquitous actually refer to a whole bunch of other things that they didn’t even think about.

LRM: Is there anything in the course that you didn’t feel worked well, or that you won’t continue?

AH: One of the things I want to do is get the class down to a size where I can have them doing journal reflections a few times over the semester. I’ve done that in other classes, and it’s one of the single most highly rated pedagogical things that I’ve done in any class.

LRM: Can you tell me a little about how that works in other classes?

AH: The journals are their own personal reflections, on what’s really making them angry or that they have a question about but don’t want to talk about in class. So, they write 3-5 journals over the course of the semester of about 3 pages. They submit them electronically, and then I give them fairly substantial comments so that we have an actual conversation about where they are. At the end of the semester, they have this record of how they’ve change as human beings.

LRM: You’re teaching a 2-2 schedule, and you’re ABD. Do you have any thoughts or reflections on teaching these classes while also working on a dissertation?

AH: I have a lot of thoughts about that! One of the things that teaching a 2-2 does, very obviously, is slow down your progress on your dissertation in certain ways. But it also is a lesson in time management. You have to figure out very quickly what your work style is. Do you need extended periods of time to work on certain things, or can you work efficiently in short bursts? That’s been really interesting, and it’s been interesting thinking about moving on to a tenure track position–because it’s not exactly going to get any easier from this point on. So, it’s been kind of a baptism by fire, and it really does make me consider, “is this something that I actually want to do?” On the positive side, teaching things that I’m very interested in has been actually really beneficial for my research in a lot of ways. The students get excited about it, and they ask a lot of questions, and we have really good conversations. And seeing people who are just getting introduced to my work, and find it interesting and ask me questions, then gives me new things to write about.

LRM: Do you talk about your own work in your classes?

AH: I do. I trend vegan in my own diet, and there are particularly strong reasons why I feel that way, and I will talk about them. I also have sort of a complicated worldview about food, because I am also in favor of responsibly hunting. I talk about the complexity of that, but I also try to shy away from talking about my own dietary practice too much, until a student asks me directly what I eat.

Partly, that is because my perspective as an anthropologist is, “I’m not here to tell anybody how to eat.” It’s also because I don’t know anyone else’s health or nutrition status, and I don’t want to be seen as giving definitive answers for what is or is not appropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to use my position as the professor to convert people to veganism. I’ll talk about why I think veganism is interesting, and why vegans believe the things that they do across the wide variety of vegan beliefs, but I would never tell a student, “you need to be vegan.”

LRM: These hesitations about not wanting to impose your own dietary views—do you talk to students about that?

AH: Yes. That came up, too, a couple of weeks ago, when there was a story about a professor who was vegan who does use her classroom as a space for evangelizing for the lifestyle. I brought that into class and said, “what do you think my responsibility is, what do you expect to see out of me?”

LRM: And how did they respond? 

AH: They responded that they absolutely did not, under any circumstances, want me to tell them how to eat.

LRM: How would you compare this to the ways some professors might advocate for local, organic, or sustainable foods when teaching about food? 

AH: I have heard about some programs where there is more explicit focus on local and organic food sources, and push people to shift their dietary practices that way. It does seem like a more widely accepted thing, if you were to evangelize for a particular diet.

However, in another class I talked to students about this. We talked about how, once you start talking about local, organic food sources—never mind even vegan stuff—you’re often dealing with people who are white and upper middle class, and their dietary experience may be very disconnected from some of the students in their classrooms.

I may have students from the Rio Grande Valley, or from underprivileged backgrounds. When they go home, they may live in a food desert. I can tell them all the reasons why local and organic food might be preferable, but I also tell them, “If you can’t afford to do those things right now, do what makes you feel like you’re doing the best that you can with the opportunities and the money that you have. You can only do what you can do.”

LRM: How do students respond to that position? 

AH: The students themselves are very critical of a lot of the food discourses that they hear. They understand that people might think them to be good ideas and very socially transformative, but they also understand that there are people who get excluded for structural reasons. They were as openly critical of those kinds of things as I might have been.

LRM: In some of the readings you’ve assigned, you touch on topics of moral judgments of obesity. Do you feel like students’ sensitivity and critiques of local food discourse is extended to the way they understand discourses around obesity, as well?

AH: Oh yeah. There’s a video from Spokane Public TV, “Our Supersized Kids” about supersized kidschildhood obesity. When we watched it, they identified a lot of things that even I hadn’t noticed. For example, while there is talk about the unhealthfulness of obesity, there is also a lot of bullying of kids who are perceived as being unhealthy. A lot of it is framed as their fault. They caused it by virtue of being obese and unhealthy. If they would change themselves, then everyone else would change. That’s a very common logic that underlies a lot of victim blaming. The students were really able to identify those very quickly.

LRM: Aimee, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. This seems like an excellent course, and I am excited you’ve opened your teaching to commentary from a student, as well. It will be wonderful to have varied perspectives on the same course.

2 Comments

Filed under anthropology of food, Food Studies, teaching

2 responses to ““You can’t talk about food without talking:” Aimee Hosemann with a Professor’s Perspective on the Course “Food and Culture”

  1. Pingback: “It completely changed my mindset” Clara Broomfield with a Student’s Perspective on the Course “Food and Culture” | FoodAnthropology

  2. Pingback: Around the Web: Year in Review 2015 | Savage Minds

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