- CommentariesPublishing in Food Studies
Jennifer Jensen Wallach
University of North Texas
When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, I was too sheepish to embrace openly my growing interest in food studies. At the time I did not have the vocabulary or the critical distance to diagnose the source of my discomfort. Looking back, I can recognize my half-formed, reflexive presumptions that minds and bodies were entirely separate and that thinking was far more important than what I thought of, somewhat pejoratively, as "biological" practices such as eating. I sadly concluded that food was not a proper area of study for a humanist, and I moved on to something else. Twenty years later I am both embarrassed and amused by my naivete, but given the context of the time, my anxieties were also understandable. My skepticism was mirrored and also amplified by many of the scholars with whom I dared broach the subject. As a graduate student, the most vulnerable among the academic species, I could not afford to challenge the conventions that had been handed to me.
Jennifer Ruark published an oft-cited article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1999 that captures some of the factors that shaped my ambivalence about food studies. Ruark highlighted the work of stalwarts such as Warren Belasco and Sidney Mintz and introduced some rising figures in the field such as Charlotte Biltekoff. While writing sympathetically about the work of these scholars, she demonstrated that applying a critical lens to the everyday activity of acquiring sustenance could generate important insights. Yet she also captured the anxieties of many working in this area who had been denigrated for practicing what some derided as "scholarship lite."1 Ruark reported that some food studies scholars worried about being lumped together with food writers who waxed poetically about their grandmother's cooking but who did not conduct research following established methodologies. Today I am [End Page 100] struck by both how far the field has come and also the fact that some of the same questions and concerns about what it means to practice (and publish in) "food studies" persist.
In my case, food studies eventually won out over my tortured objections. In spite of myself, I saw references to the significance of food everywhere. It would have been intellectually dishonest not to try to make sense of the overwhelming evidence that surrounded me. I taught my first class focused on US food history a dozen years ago. I was thrilled to be able to assign Psyche Williams-Forson's brand-new book Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, a brilliant interdisciplinary examination of the role of chicken in African American lives as both a symbolic and a material item.2 However, I struggled to find enough reading assignments for my undergraduates that went beyond celebratory descriptions of cherished food items while also covering the historical eras and topics I wanted to address. In contrast, last fall I taught a graduate readings course in US food history. With the exception of Williams-Forson's book, which kept its place of pride on my syllabus, all of the thirteen books I assigned had been published within the last five years, most in the last two or three. I struggled with the brand-new problem of not being able to decide which books from this new generation of scholarship to assign.
I used the theme of identity construction as an organizing principle in the class, and we looked at ways that food and ideas about food have been used historically to construct ideas about region, nation, gender, race, individuality, and social class, among other categories. Although we found many examples of instances when historical subjects utilized food practices in ways that were affirming and liberatory, time and time again our conversation centered around the history of how food and ideas about food have been used to label, oppress, exclude, and control people. Some of the texts we read contained graphic and disturbing descriptions of the exploitation of both human and nonhuman animals. Given the serious tone of our weekly discussions, I...