Grazing: Food for thought

Exploring food culture and its emerging role in academia

Remember Paula Deen, y'all? They called her the "Queen of Southern Cooking" until last June when she was kicked off the Food Network and lost millions of dollars in endorsement deals. She was big, blond, jolly, and spoke with a drawl that was smoother than the buttery lava that constantly oozed down her esophagus.

The height of her downfall was admitting she sometimes used the "n-word." This was in a court deposition for a discrimination lawsuit. As Deen attempted to defend herself in public, the depth of her racism and her cluelessness about it only became more obvious. The case was dismissed, but Deen had already done herself in.

During the storm of words over the matter, I noticed something odd. Very little of the commentary and reporting of depth was by food writers. (A notable exception is the New York Times' Kim Severson.) Most everyone treated the story like another tacky celebrity downfall due to thoughtless blathering.

But there is a much more important moral to the story. As I remarked to my anthropologist friend Daryl White, in a context outside the Deen story in particular, it is impossible to write meaningfully about Southern cuisine without eventually addressing race and racism, and the way it enforces standards of class and gender.

"Exactly," White agreed. "And that's just for starters." A professor of anthropology at Spelman College, he and his colleague, chemist Kimberly Jackson, are busy putting together an interdisciplinary program that will allow students to minor in food studies. The key word here is "interdisciplinary," referring to Spelman's growing emphasis on programs that allow students to pursue studies that draw from different fields of knowledge. (Anthropology itself is an interdisciplinary field of study.)

Let's imagine studying the Deen story from an interdisciplinary perspective. (These are my peregrinations, not White's.) First, the fairly new field of women's studies might observe how women, the world over, have been consigned to servitude in the relative invisibility of the kitchen. Emerging from that status was all but impossible for centuries. Famous chefs were, and mainly remain, male.

Paula Deen's story is almost a parable in this respect. She overcame agoraphobia to emerge from invisibility to become Queen. But at what cost? A psychological perspective might be introduced here to observe that her racism was inflated by grandiosity that failed to acknowledge that her art was borrowed from the women she demeaned and underpaid. In fact, they are the descendants of women who were literally enslaved in the kitchen. At Spelman, where black women's studies are particularly addressed, this point would be especially salient to study, I assume.

And then there's the question of Deen's kingdom, food TV. Perhaps the very medium — drama — makes coups like Deen's beheading inevitable. Maybe she got too greedy and big for her britches, especially when she didn't admit she had diabetes until she found a pharmaceutical to endorse. The perspectives of health, nutrition, and capitalism could be introduced at this point.

And what about food TV generally?

"Food on TV," White says, "has become a spectator sport as cooking shows and reality TV mesh. One reason food TV is popular must be the transformation of our culture into an ever-more-consumerist culture. It's a curious situation to me, since cooking shows explicitly invite viewers to develop skills, to view cooking as craft. At the same time, though, the essence of capitalist consumerism is passivity — at least when all we know or care about is the final product, our consumption of it."

While Spelman's planned program is certainly unique (and far from limited to Southern food), White is quick to point out that "anthropology is the only discipline in which study of food has always been legitimate." He cites George Armelagos, an Emory professor of anthropology, who co-authored a classic text, Consuming Passions, with Peter Farb in 1980. The book, which is available for free online, is a fascinating, highly readable treatise on global dining habits, including a chapter on the way taste is shaped by culture. The anthropology department at Emory allows students to specialize in Food, Nutrition and Anthropology. Emory also sponsors frequent food-related lectures.

The best known regional example of food scholarship is the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. Under the leadership of the amazingly industrious John T. Edge, the Alliance manages to publish articles and books, make documentary videos, record oral histories, sponsor events for academics and the general public, and explore methodology of food studies. Much of its work is published on its site.

Last month, the Alliance published The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South. It includes 16 essays. The promo material is clear that the book is "not driven by nostalgia," the sentiment that suffuses most writing about Southern food. It depends on a notion of "authenticity" that provokes endless chatter among foodies that reinforces kitsch-laden stereotypes, as Andrew Warnes suggests in one of the essays.

Considering the huge amount of material available through academic studies, is it fair to expect mainstream food writers to go "deeper"? Some will argue that readers only want to learn what to eat where, how the crunch of this harmonizes with the creaminess of that. I don't agree. The magazine Gastronomica, a journal that blends food scholarship and pop culture, is proof of that. Foodies are, in any case, fanatics and I believe many would welcome the opportunity to chew on something of more substance — even when it's the truth behind a masquerade like Paula Deen's.

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