Pandemic Ruminations

Pamela Runestad
Allegheny College

Now that it’s mid-May and courses have come to an end, I’ve had some time to reflect. I have been able to mourn some of the events that won’t happen – activities I was looking forward to: research in Japan, presentations in Italy, a friend’s wedding in Hawai`i, and presenting at ASFS for the first time.

But my mind has also been occupied by someone who I did get to mourn (I say, as though the process is over), my maternal grandma. Grandma Wanda turned 90 in November. I missed her party because November is the Month of Academic Hell for me: the end of term (with progressively less light), travel for AAA, juggling kids with my husband who attends AAR, and hosting Thanksgiving. I mean, I love hosting Thanksgiving because we usually do nothing but cook and eat and watch TV, and that is what my extended family likes best about holidays. It is the saving sustenance (literal and figurative) that I gulp down as we head into finals. Anyway, I was able to spend a couple days with my grandma over the summer, so I didn’t feel bad doing my typical, crazy November Plan. We had had lunch at her assisted living home in July, and she watched my daughters color. She was disappointed the servers ran out of “pink fluff” before they reached our table (I’m guessing it’s some Jell-O whipped topping concoction). The kids were thrilled when she handed them grape popsicles from her freezer in return for their art – it’s the thing my 6-year-old remembers most.

Backing out of the garage on our way to my in-laws’ on December 22, my mom called to tell me that Grandma had suffered a fall and sustained several broken ribs. We made it to see her on December 27, and she was surprisingly lucid: she called me by name when I walked into her room, even though she wasn’t wearing her glasses or hearing aids (and has 6 granddaughters). My cousin Blake fed her some of her meals, and she talked to him, too. But then she rapidly deteriorated, and was gone the first week of January. The following week, we could do what most families now cannot: we had a visitation, funeral, and burial. We ate and drank together. A lot.

My grandparents went to the same church for decades. My parents were married there, and my brother was baptized there. These occasions are often followed by lunches or receptions: ham or turkey sandwiches, midwestern salads, potato chips. All manner of cake. Coffee and maybe Crystal Light or punch if the kids are lucky. After the services, I sat down with my parents, brother, and uncle, and we were joined by my dad’s college friends. In a lull in the conversation while everyone was eating their cake, I noted, “I think we all sat at this same table when Grandpa died,” and there was some soft laughter as they agreed.

I have had the strange privilege of writing the obituaries for the three of my four grandparents that I knew in life. To me, it is a task that almost no one wants to do, but for which anthropologists are well-suited. What details do you include so that you can paint a meaningful snapshot of someone’s life? How do you weave together the family fabric of those left behind when there are purposeful severings like divorce, or untimely losses of those who should be mourners, but preceded the deceased in death? Kinship is complicated. But participant observation and the creation of narrative served me well, and I found myself describing the place where we all spent time with my grandparents – the kitchen table.

Here are some things I didn’t write there. My maternal grandparents were both good cooks, but Grandpa more so. Grandma was the baker, really. They were both gracious hosts. In their “country house” where they lived for some 40 years, the kitchen faced the gravel road, and Grandpa was an expert at identifying just whose car was bombing down the lane, and whether they were planning to swing into the driveway for coffee or a beer. They had visitors almost daily and they loved it. Grandpa’s place at the head of the table was easy rolling distance to the fridge, and by the time you made your way into the house (the door was never locked) and up the stairs, he’d have a spread laid out for you. If it was coffee hour, there was probably a plate of cookies or some pie or a big bowl of cut melon (if it were summer). If it was beer o’clock, we all knew to go down to the basement and retrieve a couple of beers (or sodas) before coming all the way up. There would probably be crackers and cheese, maybe some sliced roast beef or pork, or maybe some sliced salami. If you stayed longer, you might be lucky and get what my grandparents called “Shipwreck Casserole” and veggies from the garden. Or you might be put to work canning tomatoes or making pickles or picking green beans by the 5-gallon bucket. It was at that kitchen table that I’d sobbed for what seemed like hours, unable to talk, with the passing of my paternal grandmother years before. Grandpa had poured me a glass of milk mixed with Kahlua and slid it across the table like an all-knowing bartender and my grandma Wanda put out a plate of her cookies. But it was also the table where I had countless weekend dinners while my laundry dried, ate my college graduation dinner, and devoured quick meals before my wedding. I don’t know how many holiday meals I ate at that table, or how many dishes I washed. I remember thinking many times over the years that it was strange to have carpet in the kitchen, but even when the 70s pattern wore out, they replaced it with carpet again. I suppose it was warmer on their feet in the winter than the alternatives.

I sometimes wonder who else thinks of that table these days.

Grandma Wanda’s funeral was the first week of classes, so I had to explain to my students why I wasn’t there. One of my courses was a writing and speaking course that aims to teach our first years about genre and audience. I told those students about writing the obituary because… well, I suppose because it was on my mind and I couldn’t help it. But also because it was a good example of having to use your writing skills for tasks that you might not imagine otherwise while taking a writing course. Later in the term, after they had shared some of their writing with me, I read them a reflection piece I’d written about driving around town with Grandma Wanda as a kid. It was the details that they noticed and liked – and I used their comments to remind them to pay attention in structured ways. To use their senses. To take notes. To find good words to describe what they saw, smelled, touched, heard, felt. To plot out their writing plan. To put ideas and descriptions together in ways that other people would want to hear about them. They didn’t disappoint: when we talked about kitchens later in the term (and I stayed mostly silent this time), we heard all about recipes, kitchen tools, the smells of baked goods, and what it felt like to help in the kitchen. And then we talked about my favorite four, something I come back to once a week: race, gender, class, and ethnicity. This time, we talked about how these all play a part in how we gather, prepare, and share (or don’t share) food. We had a special treat at the end of this unit: special guest Michael Twitty lead a discussion about writing, speaking, cooking, and identity.

I basically prepped them to take my course in Ethnographic Methods while at the same time teaching them how to develop their voices as writers, how to choose your voice based on genre and audience, and how and when to cite.

A digression: I’m an anthropologist who specializes in East Asia at an institution that has neither an Anthropology Department nor an Asian Studies Major/Minor. I teach in Global Health, and was hired to teach Ethnographic Methods (among other things). I am cross-trained in medical and nutritional anthropology and much of my research is on HIV in Japan, but I chose to teach Ethnographic Methods as a food course and as an Asian Studies course because it was a way to talk about two things that I love and I wanted the students to love, too – and this way, they fit into our curriculum. I also just find it a really useful way to talk about race, ethnicity, gender, and class – through the 5s’s of food: sociality, safety, (in)security, sovereignty, and sustainability. Because there are other food courses on campus, different methods courses in my department, and various people on campus teaching other aspects of ethnographic methods, I do my best to teach participant observation, field notes to narrative, and how to craft questions.

So where does this leave me (us?) in a pandemic, when we’re faced with the worst versions of humanity that we teach about? We all mourning something, grieving for someone, raging about something. Chronic stress comes from many things:  pushing back against structural violence of state-by-state laws and who is protected and who is not – and the racist, classist assumptions inherent in those policies and how they are or are not enforced; trying to provide food, water, shelter and safety under increasingly difficult economic circumstances;  pushing back against gendered norms of cooking and childcare and professional labor under lockdown; pushing back against conspiracy theories and blatant systemic racism. And there is much, much more. This is just scratching the surface. It is easy to wonder, as a teacher-scholar, what good I’m doing when I see such suffering? Some days I have a hard time thinking and I retreat to my office to clean and organize, because it’s the one thing I can do that will still help me later and doesn’t require much brainpower. I’m also teaching my older daughter to cook and bake. Even with a desk upstairs, I write best in the kitchen. This place, and the things I make and teach here, bring me comfort when a lot is beyond my control. I know I’m privileged to be able to do these things. I hang on tight to them so that I can use my energy to help others find places of comfort, too.

Yesterday, I came across a really old manila file in my home office as I was cleaning. It was marked “Comprehensive Exam Answers” but clearly there were a lot of other papers crammed into it. I dumped it out on the floor to see what I’d hoarded away. Among the papers (and yes, my comps answers) I found a couple of documents that I was given in the first ever graduate course I took. One of them was a set of directions for how to read academic articles. I read it over and realized: I’ve been telling my undergrads to do the same things that I was taught many years ago, without really thinking about where I learned these strategies. (Thank you, Heather Young-Leslie.)

And then my thoughts drifted to a student I had in Ethnographic Methods in fall and Medical Anthropology of East Asia this spring. My goals for the latter were to help students learn about the region, while also learning how anthropologists collect, interpret, and write up their data by reading and discussing 3 book-length ethnographies on health. Students usually co-create the final essay prompt for this course, but this year I just gave it to them: Read Laura Gao’s “The Wuhan That I Know” (a series of illustrations that includes a discussion of dishes from Wuhan). Using the terms we’ve discussed in class, write an essay about how learning about East Asia has made you better able to understand COVID-19.

My student proceeded to write a beautiful essay on food, ethnicity, and discrimination – despite facing many of the challenges we know that the pandemic and subsequent remote teaching and learning poses.

This is not to take credit for his work. He is a brilliant student, and it has been my privilege to work with him. His essay is also one data point, and teaching is only one piece of my fight against All The Unjust Things. But finding these old files and thinking about my student’s work reminded me that food matters, if not always in the ways we predict.

I suppose I have my grandparents (and everyone else who visited them), their kitchen, and the food I experienced there to thank for first teaching me that; my instructors and colleagues for helping me be methodical about my processing; and my students for being so willing to partake in learning as a truly shared endeavor – even during a pandemic.

**

Thank you to David Beriss and SAFN for supporting blog publication of this piece. I was originally slated to give a talk on teaching ethnographic methods as a food course at the Umbra Institute in June. This is rather changed from what I was going to say, but I hope readers find something useful in it. Again, many thanks.

I would like to dedicate this post to my writing group members: Robin Kempf, Amy Nichols-Belo, Debra Thompson, Arielle Selya, and Kirsten Wesselhoeft, with special thanks to Michaela DeSoucey for reading a draft version.

The Wuhan That I Know: https://www.lauragao.com/wuhan

Pamela Runestad is an Assistant Professor of Global Health, Allegheny College.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies, Pandemic

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