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Omnivore - Food and academia: Full converstion with Daryl White

Spelman professor establishes minor in food studies at Spelman

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My last Grazing column took on the subject of food studies in academia. It was inspired by my friend Daryl White. He is a professor of anthropology at Spelman and chair of the department of sociology and anthropology. He and his colleague Kimberly Jackson have created a new minor in food studies at Spelman. Following are Daryl's responses to questions I emailed him. Warning: much of this is in academic lingo.

What will the new minor be called and what will the course work look like?

It will be called "Interdisciplinary Minor in Food Studies." It will have a required intro: (1) my Food & Culture course; (2) five electives from a growing list of either new food courses or extant courses across campus with food modules; and (3) a final research, internship, or social service "capstone." We will present the minor to Spelman's curriculum committee after which it will be official; but some students are already taking food courses in anticipation.

And why do this? What's the motivation?

A confluence of things: First, across academia there is a push for "interdisciplinarity," approaching the status of mandate. Second is Spelman's focus on recreating some topic-based, interdisciplinary seminar courses that center on black women's lives. Third, there's food's growing popularity in academia.

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Explain the importance of interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinarity strives for more integrated understandings in which issues/questions/topics are formed, explored and resolved in ways that are more than the sum of parts. Academia's canonical separation of disciplines dissects their subjects in ways that obscure as much as they may illuminate. Human life is fractured. (Examples: a gender, sexual orientation, culture, race, person, environment, disease or social problem.) So each discipline's social solutions are myopic. Their respective remedies often reveal more about disciplinary preoccupations and boundaries than the topic/subject of study. These are shortcomings interdisciplinarity strives to transcend.

I'm aware of two principal influences on this movement toward multi/Interdisciplinarity. They are (1) post-modernist debunkings of traditional disciplinary traditions; and (2) the various "studies," like Women's Studies, African-American Studies, Disability Studies, etc. They have opened new areas of study, new forms of knowledge, I guess you could say, by their unrelenting focus on a central topic. Such programs are necessarily multi- and/or inter-disciplinary.

Perhaps the best justification for multi-interdisciplinary study concerns understanding problems and being more effective change agents. Pedagogically, students are invited to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, demonstrating creativity in the particularity of their multidisciplinary knowledge and skills. At best disciplinary boundaries become more porous - questions, answers and knowledge more expansive.

Food apprehended through multiple perspectives can push students to go far beyond their major disciplines' paradigms, can invite them to be more agile, creative thinkers. and hopefully prepare them better for life after college.

I know you've been interested in this topic at least 20 years. How has the academy's attitude toward the field changed over that period. (I know the editor of Gastronomica has written that she was not taken seriously and ended up changing her dissertation topic to literature of some sort.)

It's hard for me to answer this. Of all the social sciences, anthropology is the only discipline in which study of food has always been legitimate. Contrast this with history, English and literature study: It took post-modernism in incidental collaboration with feminism to open the academy's eyes to everyday life, popular culture, activities traditionally associated with women, etc.

What do you make of Food TV? I'm kind of fascinated by the way restaurant dining has turned into something like viewing/participating in performance art. The banquet scene in Petronius' "Satyrticon" is kind of that way, so I know it's not altogether new.

A really good question. Food on TV has become a spectator sport as cooking shows and reality TV mesh. One reason food TV is popular must be transformation of our culture(s) into ever more consumerist culture(s). It's a curious situation to me, since cooking shows explicitly invite viewers to develop skills, to view cooking as craft. The essence of (capitalist) consumerism is passivity - at least when all we know or care about is the final product: our consumption of it.

What do you make of Southern cuisine? There was, as you know, a longtime relegation of it to the backward past. Then it began its comeback with "New Southern" cooking (Nathalie Dupree) and then a more "authentic" take with Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. Right? Not right? Is there some pattern in the way food trends develop in the US and elsewhere in the world.

Southern food has certainly been elevated. I love your question about trends. Food trends have been documented by historians. I can't recall anyone who has tackled this as a general topic: What are the features of such trends?

Is aesthetics/presentation only a concern in "advanced" countries? Can you give me an example of aesthetic difference in a third-world country?

My immediate instinct: Aesthetic evaluation of food has to be universal. To pursue this, one would have to be willing to hold one's notions of aesthetics in limbo. It would be too easy (thoughtless) to assume aesthetic judgments are invented by elites, though there may be some truth to the idea (as long as we're willing to open "elite" to additional meanings).

I suspect our received assumptions are tied up with separations among things we call "work" "craft" "art" and, ultimately, "leisure" and "superiority." Does a culture have to have aesthetics as an independent semantic domain? An isolated reflective way of thinking/being? Operating with a social Darwinist mentality a century ago, anthropologists would have relegated primitive people's enjoyments, preferences, likes, and dislikes to magic, superstition, and other things childish or womanish. Our notions of aesthetics seem to have roots in distinctions made by elite classes.

An example that unfortunately isn't about food, but body art: My grad advisor (James Ferris) did research in the Southern Sudan among a Nilotic culture where all (adult) men painted their bodies daily before leaving their homes and entering public space. In the British tradition of symbolic analysis, he collected the nomenclature surrounding all aspects of the art. He generated a formal model, a grammar, of the decisions a man makes as he decides what to paint, how to paint it, with what colors, where to paint it, adjacent to what? These were attempts to uncover aesthetic principles and he had no doubt aesthetics were at play, from the way old men talked about it (an elite in kin-based circles). Old men would critique young men. One day Ferris witnessed an old man berate a young man for his design, pointing out various things wrong with it and ordering him to go home and correct the situation. Nonetheless there were many freedoms involved in the painting. Creativity was admired.

When a Brazilian practitioner of candomble or Santeria carefully slices foods (okra at a particular angle and width), arranges this and other foods, and offers it to spirits, or, rather, luring spirits to it, what is going on aesthetically? If spirits are attracted to beauty and one creates beautiful things to attract them, what does this reveal to us about aesthetics? I'm merely ruminating here and my Brazilian example depends on scant recollection of things past.

What about classism and food?

Historically, archaeologically speaking, social class emerged during the Neolithic revolution (with irrigated and plowed agriculture). Grains. When surplus foods are centrally controlled, food becomes a uniquely effective weapon. The biblical pharaohs' silos is an example....Food is an inevitable medium for communicating social class and other statuses. As a language, food differentiates, combines, celebrates - all social class signals.

Although I see the value of local, organic food, I'm also aware a poor person doesn't likely care if an apple was grown in China or the US. Are there ways accessibility to food is used for political ends? I'm thinking in part about the Congress' decision to cut back the already-tiny food-stamp budget. But I've also heard this mentioned fairly frequently in regard to third-world countries.

A crucial value of regarding food in interdisciplinary perspective is recognition that poor people's diets are tied up with economic inequalities and the processes that generate and maintain them. Without pairing poor people's food inequalities with other issues, food movements such as locavorism inevitably obfuscate what makes that diet possible for those able to follow it. To advocates of social change this idealist ideology is a form of political false consciousness.

The food stamp issue is interesting. The Tea Partiers know best and think they are helping worthy people out of poverty by making them look for jobs and work - and letting the unworthy starve and steal. That's one form of social control through food. From the liberal capitalist perspective, food stamps maintain social order by avoiding consequence of the Tea Party solution. A more lasting solution would need to include changes to aspects of capitalism.

Is there anything like a "postmodern" view of eating. I'm thinking about the overturned structuralism of Levi-Straus' "The Raw and the Cooked" and its dualism.

Postmodernists employ binary thinking, too. Many would regard fusion foods as postmodern. Food as a language of social identities and aesthetic contemplation notwithstanding, the existence of food has an inevitable linearity: earth , hands on agriculture and husbandry, harvest, raw ingredients, preparation, transportation and distribution, purchase and acquisition, preparation, consumption, waste.

On the other hand, post-modern food criticism exists, I'm sure. Postmodernism seems unable to move past discourse about discourses, confined to realms of representation - critiquing things that stand for other things. Food can stand that kind of criticism.