Review: Teaching Food and Culture

Teaching Food and Culture. Edited by Candice Lowe Swift and Richard Wilk. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2015. 209 pp. US$39.95, paper. ISBN 978-1-62958-127-9.

Review by Chelsea Wentworth, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, High Point University

In Teaching Food and Culture Swift and Wilk present a compilation of papers that use food “to transform research into pedagogy,” arguing that food is a productive medium to Teaching Food Big Coverengage students in the core themes and topics of anthropology. One of the strengths of this volume is the editors’ commitment to all four subfields of the discipline; however, every author demonstrates a commitment to a holistic approach to teaching and research that is reflective of the trans-disciplinary nature of the study of food. Several authors specifically mention that assignments can be adapted to courses in a range of disciplines including gender studies, communications, public health, religion, economics, and history, giving the volume a broad readership. After presenting an overview of the chapters and the goals of the book in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 is an interview with the late and notable food scholar Sydney Mintz. The interview took place via email correspondence and is Mintz’ thorough responses to three questions posed by the editors of the volume.

Section II of the book, Nutrition and Health, begins with a chapter on “Teaching Obesity: Stigma, Structure, and Self.” The authors of Chapter 3 describe the ways they use the topic of obesity to address key concepts in their upper and lower division undergraduate courses on anthropology and global health including poverty, discrimination, and responsibility. While they describe the sensitive nature of teaching obesity and problems that can arise in having students research and debate this topic, more concrete examples of how to avert these problems in the classroom would be beneficial. In Chapter 4, Sept describes how she structures her upper division archaeology course, Prehistoric Diet and Nutrition. Blending biological anthropology and archaeology she links studies of genetic change and the development of taste, with popular culture trends in food such as the paleo-diet. She details a related in-class scenario-building exercise that prepares students for debates on hunting and scavenging. After providing a brief history of the development of nutritional anthropology and the biocultural approach to food in Chapter 5, Wiley outlines the history and social life of milk. A detailed semester-long assignment presented in the appendix guides students through their own single-food project, yet the body of the chapter itself could be strengthened by more classroom examples.

The three chapters of Section III: Food Ethics and the Public offer the most pedagogical insight with discussion of activities and student’s responses to these approaches. First Benson (Chapter 6) describes three different assignments he has used to emphasize the role of food in the study of consumption, explaining how they “…[have] students look inside themselves at their own issues of dependency and habituation as well as upward at the powerful institutions that make the myths and realties of consumption” (111). This balance is carefully analyzed in several other chapters including Chapters 7, 8, and 12 where the notion of linking research and praxis, and demonstrating how the personal is political are emphasized. In Chapter 7 Counihan describes her research and teaching that encourages her students to reexamine the places where food is produced, purchased, and consumed. Using Lancaster’s historic farmers market, she provides students with a central research question, “Does Central Market promote a just and community-building system of food production and consumption?” This guides students through ethnographic research on the intersections of food, gender, class, race, power, economics, and politics. Service learning courses that address these same themes are the focus of Chrzan in Chapter 8. By offering readers a history of her service learning courses, she describes her successes and failures, allowing readers to avoid these pitfalls in their own courses. The active ethnographic requirements of the assignments in these chapters illustrate how students learn to apply anthropology beyond academe in ways that also promotes food justice and democracy.

Finally, the chapters in Section IV: Food, Identity, and Consumer Society discuss identity creation and how food and eating can illustrate “otherness”. Sutton and Beriss (Chapter 9) explain how place, identity, and community can be analyzed through an exploration of restaurants. However it seems that Chapter 9 would be better suited to the third section of the volume. Chapters 10 and 11 accentuate the role of language in the study of food. Stross (Chapter 10) presents a narrative of his syllabus, and highlights several innovative in-class activities. In Chapter 11, O’Connor explains how she uses food to teach semiotics with an emphasis on helping students understand the relationship between theory and method.  In the final chapter, Van Esterick reviews her decades of research and teaching on food, discussing how her research informed her teaching, which in turn informed new research. She writes poignantly about the emotional reactions experienced by both scholars and students through discourse on family, hunger, health, and disordered eating.

Several authors reflect that their courses on food attract a diversity of students making teaching both challenging and enjoyable as they learn from their experiences. As students grapple with how to analyze personal experience in an academic context, food becomes a tangible and emotionally charged vehicle for applying anthropological theory. In teaching anthropology courses, this is not an uncommon problem. However, this volume could benefit from deeper discussion of how to handle pedagogical challenges in the classroom. While ethical dilemmas such as students who struggle personally with issues such as food security and eating disorders are regularly mentioned, precisely how these problems are resolved in the classroom is largely absent (with Chrzan’s chapter a notable exception).

This volume will be of most use to graduate students and professors who are preparing to teach new courses, or wish to infuse their existing courses with new assignments, activities, and articles. Nearly every chapter includes expansive reference lists for readings and films, and many authors list website URLs for resources and classroom activities. A major strength of the volume is that most authors describe a specific assignment used in their course that is subsequently listed in the appendix. These assignments are excellent additions to the volume, providing easily adaptable teaching examples for readers.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, methods, teaching

One response to “Review: Teaching Food and Culture

  1. Pingback: Food Anthropology, A Tribute to Sidney W. Mintz

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