Post-Feasting on Culture: HHC seminar and beyond

For the many Haverford students who don’t know me, my name is Isobel (’11) – I ran a HHC seminar called “Feasting on Culture: The significance of food in everyday life.” The name may be fairly self-explanatory, but in my reading list I tried to cover every way I could think of talking about food: food as art, food as identity, food and family ties, food and agriculturee policy, food and religion, food anxieties, food in literature, food as a historical agent, food and social status, the ethics of food…all I can say is I wish my group had had an infinite amount of time to talk.
For the record, I wouldn’t really call myself a “foodie” – I find food socially and culturally fascinating, and I could probably talk for hours about the intricacies of a single ingredient, but being vegan (except when eating sheep’s head in Iceland…), I’m not one to coo over a bacon-wrapped oxtail or truffle mac-and-cheese or what-have-you. The point of my seminar was really go to beyond ogling food photos, as enjoyable as that can be. The seminar gave me an invaluable space to dissect issues I thought (and still think) are incredibly important on a global scale, but are frequently lost in the foodie-fication of our culture. The Food Network, food blogs, and even restaurant menus, can all be very telling social, political and economic signs.

(above: I had to prove the thing about the sheep’s head…)

I was lucky enough to take what I had learned with my seminar group and turn it into a Watson Fellowship; my project was studying the many implications of using local food (in case you’re curious, I went to Iceland, Madagascar, India – with a stop in Nepal – Greece, the Balkan countries, and Germany). Oddly enough, the books I read were frequently not at all helpful in framing my experience while travelling (I built up great expectations of some places based on articles I had read, only to be reminded that enthographies are hardly generalizable); what my seminar readings and discussions did help with was justifying my research interests to, say, my host family in India who thought my fascination with food culture (not to mention my habit of photographing the plates they set in front of me) was immensely amusing. Having come out of a culture immersed in “food porn,” I was surprised how often I had to explain exactly why food is interesting to study (or photograph). It’s true; food is totally mundane – why should we care at all, it’s just food? But we do, and that’s what’s so interesting.

(above: spices for sale in New Delhi)

After a totally food-centric year abroad, I’ll be honest, the decadence of American food media, and an online stream full of unflattering portraits of grilled cheese sandwiches, I frequently have trouble justifying the glorification of something that should be so simple, and so fundamental. I still love to cook, but sometimes, I wonder if food is really worth all the fuss we make over it. For now I’m taking a little break – even my recipe blog is pretty sparse these days. It seems this is a natural side effect of studying something you can have no detachment from. However, I know that the intricate web with food as its center is something I will not quickly leave behind in my research and my every day concerns. From what I have seen around the world – and from what I read of more formal research projects – I suspect that focusing on food as a particular topic, in any discipline, will be more and more important in the future, especially in developing countries.

(above: a food market in Antananarivo, Madagascar)

Feel free to email me with questions at isobelgrad [at] gmail.com. For anyone interested, the blog I kept during my Watson Fellowship can be found at: www.aroundthere.wordpress.com

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