- A Recipe for Food Studies
In the spring of 2009 I taught a course on southern foodways at Mercer University. Many of my students enrolled in the class, perhaps expecting long, sustained analysis on chicken frying techniques and eloquent rhapsodies on RC cola and moon pies. While those are intriguing topics, I fear that my students were disappointed. Instead, we spent the semester studying southern culinary practices as a complex set of power relations that involve race, class, and gender identities in a dynamic system of production and consumption. The class was a thrill to teach, and many of the students report that their notions about food have been radically changed. They benefited immensely from a number of recent books that demonstrate a critical new turn in food studies—texts that examine not only the history of food but also its cultural and social significance. The new books my students read either in full or in part include Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America's First Food, by Andrew Warnes; Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, by Frederick Douglass Opie; African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture, edited by Anne L. Bower; and Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, by Psyche Williams-Forson. [End Page 365]
Contemporary food studies build upon the work of many scholars, cookbook authors, and journalists. In the arena of African American and southern foodways, key figures include John Egerton, John T. Edge, Doris Witt, Vertamae Grosvenor, Jessica Harris, and Marcie Cohen-Ferris. Their work, whether scholarly or journalistic, typically analyzes how people maintain cultural heritage or ethnic identity by preparing, sharing, and consuming foods historically associated with specific populations. The new approach to food studies, however, examines food as an arena of cultural analysis open to theorization and interpretation through a more critical lens. This shift is important because globalized means of food distribution have threatened, if not eradicated, the association between food consumption and specific populations in many industrialized nations, which has effectively destabilized food as an identity marker. One hundred years ago, for example, southerners ate organic, locally grown, slowly prepared food because they had to. Now, given the dazzling array of fast foods, foreign foods, mass-produced foods, and gourmet foods in the marketplace, southerners may choose to eat organic, locally grown, slowly prepared food because they want to, but they are likely to choose arbitrarily from among the other available options. That is a tremendous shift, and it has the effect of both concealing many of the more odious aspects of food production and threatening the continuation of distinctive regional, racial, or ethnic food cultures, so it is important that food scholars begin to examine the historical and cultural underpinnings of food practices.
Because food as a cultural product spans many forms of social contact, the obvious problem in food studies is disciplinary ambiguity. How should a scholar study food? Which evidentiary and theoretical approaches are appropriate? Must the practice be interdisciplinary? These are some crucial questions, for food itself is both an ephemeral product and a persistent cultural practice. In this case, is it appropriate to study the social context without focusing on the physical artifact? At present, most food scholars come to the topic from within an established disciplinary paradigm, usually history, literary studies, sociology, or anthropology, which influences their approach considerably and usually places the analytic emphasis on either historical or methodological concerns. But food is so intricately braided with other elements of...