Letters from Camp: A Reflection on the 2015 Annual Meetings of ASFS and AFHVS

Madeline Chera
Indiana University

Madeline Chera is a PhD candidate in Anthropology with a focus on the anthropology of food. She is the student representative on the ASFS board and a 2011 winner of the Christine Wilson Award from SAFN.

The annual American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings give food and nutrition anthropologists a much needed break at the end of the fall semester and invigorates our minds enough to push through grading final papers in dreary December. However, there is another conference that many of us attend, which takes on an air more befitting summer vacation. It’s somewhat akin to a scholarly summer camp, with critical thinking and good food. It is the joint annual meetings for the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS). Compared to the AAA meetings, it is much smaller, the feeling is more intimate, and the vibe is decidedly jovial. This year’s meetings took place over five days from June 24 through June 28 and packed in ten concurrent panels during each of twelve sessions, but there were plenty of opportunities to meet the same friendly faces throughout the weekend, whether it was at panel presentations, before the keynote, or over drinks.

This is a conference for our (i.e. SAFN’s) kind of people: those interested in exploring the local food culture with their minds and mouths, eager to collaborate in a spirit of conviviality, and ready to discuss a wide range of issues, from class and colonialism in the food system to the ins and outs of fried candy bars (my co-panelist, Christine Knight, actually covered both of these topics in her presentation on media representations and Scottish identity!). However, despite the affinities in interest and the numerous shared values of the conference-goers, one of the benefits of this event is that the participants are not all alike–and not all like us. Although SAFN does have a prominent presence at the ASFS and AFHVS meetings through numerous presenters and sponsorship of two sessions and one of the socializing (and snacking!) opportunities this year, this annual conference is not just a SAFN meeting. The meetings of ASFS and AFHVS are a valuable opportunity for SAFN members to spend time with other scholars of food and agriculture and with professionals in related fields, and to gain exposure to different methods, areas of literature, pedagogical techniques, and topics of investigation. In fact, this opportunity was highlighted in the guiding motif of the meetings. Chatham University’s Falk School of Sustainability and its Food Studies Program hosted the conference this year in Pittsburgh, a city known for its iconic bridges, and the conference theme, “Bridging the Past, Cultivating the Future,” gave a nod to the power of these structures to join together otherwise disjointed entities. The meetings united sociologists, historians, nutritionists and dieticians, philosophers, psychologists, political scientists, media studies and consumption studies scholars, environmental and agricultural scientists, entrepreneurs, non-profit staff, activists, writers, chefs, and–yes–anthropologists.

Any worthwhile conference aims to build bridges between colleagues and across existing research, as well as to cultivate ideas that steer the work that will come afterward. This one just had the good sense to set out these goals explicitly from the beginning, and it had the implicit bonus ambition to help us savor summer with the jubilant vibe–as much as any academic conference can really have–that is the hallmark of the ASFS/AFHVS annual meetings. The following are a smattering of my personal highlights from this scholarly summer camp:

  • Staying with a Falk School alumna and her housemates in the beautiful Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Not only was this a financial benefit to me as a penny-pinching graduate student, but also I got to explore and learn about the city from the perspective of a local residence and residents. I got their tips for a nearby coffee shop and tasted some cherries from their CSA, and then I had the opportunity to hear about how Pittsburgh’s food and sustainability scene impacted their lives as people who aren’t researching such issues full-time. Although it was brief, the chance to be just a bit more embedded into the context of the area made the experience richer for me.
  • Networking with fellow graduate students. Another student was staying at the house with me, and we were able to chat over last minute tweaks to our presentations. During the day, we kept running into each other in between sessions, and in turn, introduced each other to the people we had met. The size and set up of the conference this year, as in other years, was conducive to repeated exposure, which fostered familiarity and led to some potentially fruitful as well as thoroughly enjoyable connections. From discussions with graduate students, I was able to learn about the structures of other food-focused graduate programs, get insight into areas of research I never would have considered previously, and generate ideas about how to market oneself in order to find desirable work (g. When is using a tool like Good Food Good Jobs helpful and when is it not? And how does one manage the feast-or-famine cash flow of consulting work?).
  • Discussing alternative-to-academic career paths. I was part of a group of several graduate students who had all put in proposals for roundtable discussions about professionalization. In the end, our sessions were combined into a super-panel of women with advanced degrees who are not employed primarily as professors but continue to do work related to food and agriculture in some way. The participants had worked as market researchers, writers, and entrepreneurs, and in a food policy council, state extension services, a university, other non-profit organizations, and private business. Each of them traced out her own study and work trajectory, and then they all answered questions from the audience. The discussion yielded tips for translating the skills honed in graduate school to those hiring in the non-academic world and about where to look for positions. Participants also explained their experiences with job training in different types of positions, and assessed the usefulness of more schooling in different scenarios. This session affirmed for me the wide applicability and value of the grant writing, communication, data analysis, project management, and storytelling skills that my professors have helped me develop and to see that there are many ways to apply the content based knowledge of the field right along with these skills. It was heartening to see these professionals maintaining their scholarly ties through participation in the conference, and they were very kind to provide group mentorship in that form.
  • Rubbing elbows with VIPs, who treated me as a peer. Most of the time I can play it somewhat cool, but the glimmer of our own food scholar stars has not worn off for me yet, and I still get a bit excited when Esteemed Professor X listens to my paper and even asks a question, and when Recognized Expert and Author Y chats with me casually by the coffee carafe. So, I get excited fairly frequently, because this conference is usually one in which the friendliness of the group makes it easy to strike up conversations, with undergraduates and senior professors alike. The tone was one of genuine interest and mutual support, and the names from my Food Studies qualifying exams list were not only encouraging my work and the work of my fellow grad students, but also sometimes inviting us to dinner with them! Students echoed the collegial sentiment, and everyone created an environment in which new ideas could be tested out with a response as positive as that given when forthcoming book chapters were read.
  • Catching up on the latest in the field. Given that I am a borderline book hoarder, the fact that I only brought a carry-on bag with me was an important wallet-saving buffer between me and the collection of exciting new literature for sale at the conference. Many of the volumes were written or have been reviewed by conference attendees and they represented a slice of what is new in the studies of food, agriculture, and society. However, the more cutting-edge material was in the sessions themselves, where I heard about a wide range of topics, including the complicated relationships between contemporary chefs and new media; the politics mediated by travel writing and botanical classifications in the colonial period; and the assessment of behavioral and attitudinal changes of students as a result of participation in food studies programs. If only I could have been in ten sessions at once, maybe I would be totally up-to-date!
mad mex burrito

Enormous local burrito.

Alas, I could not be in ten sessions at once, so I resigned myself to absorb what I could and then enjoy the cruise-like-but-better part:

  • Eating delicious and thoughtfully selected food. It probably comes as no surprise that this crowd loves good food, so there were plenty of opportunities to socialize over delicious and well-curated food and drink, including local stand-outs Wigle Whiskey, Rivertowne beer, Venturi yogurt, and the culinary creations of Chatham students. One of the best things I had was a single fresh peach put out with the morning coffee. I got the sense that the conference organizers’ list of recommended dining options nearby had been deliberated over carefully and vetted by more than one expert. It all added to the excitement and enjoyment that punctuated every coffee break and the end of each day.
  • Sporting my collection of fruit-themed earrings and seeing one of my best friends for the first time in over a year.

    Chera selfie

    The author, with earrings and Leigh Bush.

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Filed under AFHVS, anthropology, ASFS, Food Studies

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