Food Cultures

Food can be studied from biological, sociological, phenomenological, and culinary perspectives. It is analyzed by anthropologists, nutritionists, political scientists, ethicists, journalists, theologians, and physiologists, as well as cooks and critics. Food discourses run the gamut from high-minded to pedestrian. Over the past decade especially, the academic study of food – and indeed, the development of Food Studies as a program of scholarly inquiry – has grown dramatically. However, these discussions too often occur within the silos of existing clusters (e.g., anthropology of food, history of food). 

This seminar aims to intervene in this tendency by encouraging a transdisciplinary conversation among scholars who currently study food on the University of Wisconsin campus and those who might like to add a consideration of food to their portfolio of interests. Recorded cultures across time and space share three things in common: (1) they ate food; (2) what constituted “food” was disputed; and thus (3) they tabooed foodstuffs that were physically digestible but not culturally digestible. How are we to theorize the ways in which food – or, more appropriately, “food” – has been a contested and meaningful category? 

We will look at a range of existing texts that consider food gastronomically and phenomenologically. We will consider the ways that individuals, communities, and societies relate to and represent food. Emphasizing the culture in agriculture, we will look at the sourcing of food and its delivery. We will think about aesthetics and ethics, marketing and technology, hunger and excess, cooking and eating, justice and regulation, nutrition and safety. We will discuss how modern food systems raise questions debated in antiquity, and how ancient food taboos develop into multi-billion dollar modern industries.   In this multivalent seminar, we anticipate a recurring focus on biopolitics (theoretical as well as historical understandings of food as a central part of the organization of living bodies in political frameworks), representation (depictions of food in works of art and culture, including nonfiction accounts) and practice (food itself, how it is produced, transformed, consumed and embodied).  

While attentive to political, economic, and geographic frameworks, we will anchor ourselves in the strengths of the humanities--criticality and creativity. For every scientific and policy concern, there is also a humanities question worth asking. For example, food safety regulations might be considered not only from the perspectives of law and health but also analyzed for the ways in which they illustrate cultural values. What can the humanities bring to the study of food? What can the study of food bring to the humanities? And what happens when we share the insights developed in our disciplines to examine the same data set?   One of the challenges we are posing to our seminar participants is to attend to the materiality of food culture, the ways that acts of gastronomy are not only trades to be studied by humanists but are actually instances of humanistic culture in and of themselves. As humanists, we will also pay close attention to what can be learned from the ways that food is used analogously and metaphorically.

Schedule and Readings

Week 1: Cultural Context
In which we frame our humanities approach to food studies with the sociology of culture and food activism.

  • Cooked by Michael Pollan, Penguin, 2013

Week 2: Identity
In which we consider constructions of “authenticity” in the context of cuisine.

  • Appadurai, Arjun. “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India.” Comparative Studies 30/1 (1988): 3-24.
  • Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus.” in Food and Culture: A Reader. Edited by Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik, 296-314. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Week 3: Taboo
In which we interrogate the designation of certain foods as ineligible for cultural consumption.

  • The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World, by Jordan Rosenblum, Cambridge, 2016. Chapter One (pages 8-28).
  • Fessler and Navarrete, “Meat is Good to Taboo: Dietary Proscriptions as a Product of the Interaction of Psychological Mechanisms and Social Processes,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 3/1 (2003)): 1-40.

Week 4: Abundance and Scarcity
In which we contemplate hunger and excess.

  • Selections from: So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance. Duke, 2010.
  • Selections from: Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. by Julie Guthman. University of California Press, 2011.

Week 5: Ethics
In which we study the ethical dimensions of how cultures justify food choices and foodways.

  • Selections from Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, Back Bay Books, 2010.

Week 6: Politics
In which we investigate the political dimensions of how cultures justify food choices and foodways.

  • Selections from Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Marion Nestle. University of California Press, 2007.
  • Selections from Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System, by Raj Patel. Portobello, 2012.

Week 7: Race and Ethnicity
In which we revisit identity politics in the light of our readings on politics, ethics, taboo, abundance, and scarcity.

  • Selections from The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Farming by Natasha Bowens. New Society, 2015.
  • Selections from Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. Princeton (pages 114-120).
  • Additional options: 
  • Dethroning the Deceitful Porkchop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama, edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach. University of Arkansas, 2015.
  • Latin@s’ Presence in the Food Industry: Changing how we Think about Food. University of Arkansas, 2015.

Week 8: Food and Art
In which we learn how artists in the past and the present have engaged in serious play using food.

  • Selections from The Taste of Art: Cooking, Food, and Counterculture in Contemporary Practices, edited by Silvia Bottinelli and Margherita D’Ayala Valva (including Clark and Peterson, “Ways of Eating: Tradition, Innovation, and the Production of Community in Food-Based Art.” 225-243).
  • Additional Options:
  • Selections from: Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art. University of Chicago, 2012.
  • Selections from: Arts & Foods: Rituals Since 1851. Organized by Germano Celant, Milan Expo 2015.

Week 9: Mediatization
In which we investigate the popularization of elite food culture, from celebrity chefs to reality television.

  • Selections from: Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, edited by Anne L. Bower. Routledge, 2004.

Week 10: Restaurants
In which we assess the materialization of the themes we have explored in professional kitchens and dining rooms.

  • Selections from: The Ethnic Restauranteur, by Krishnendu Ray.  Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
  • Selections from Joshua Abrams, Feeding the Senses: The Contemporary Chef and the Theatre of the Restaurant  Routledge, 2017 (forthcoming).

Epilogue: Reading Cookbooks
In which we examine the roles of cookbook narratives, from memoirs to scientific analyses, in articulating cultural contexts for recipes. (The listed readings will be supplemented with suggestions from group members who will also contribute a dish prepared from their selected book for a final meal).

  • Selections from: Ruth Reichel, My Kitchen Year, Random House, 2015
  • Selections from: J. Kenji López-Alt, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.