Food Fetish on Campus

In the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes one of the characters at the Custom House who is well suited to government work. He is the Inspector, an epicurean so devoid of imagination, feeling, and soul that he is likened to “the beasts of the field.” His mental capacities are limited to the ability to “recollect the good dinners which it had made no small portion of the happiness of his life to eat.”

I was reminded of that passage as I learned about the latest “studies” endeavor being cooked up on American college campuses: “food studies.”

These days, even in their required classes, students are not likely to get exposure to philosophical concepts like Epicureanism, or to classical authors such as Hawthorne. They’re more apt to take courses that focus on food itself, that tell them essentially, “You are what you eat.”  Food, in other words, carries moral meanings. What you eat and how you eat define you as a moral person, with the new standards of morality aligning with the other lessons of the contemporary campus on race, class, sustainability, animal rights, and gender.

The latest additions have little to do with legitimate intellectual endeavors like agriculture or nutrition science. Instead, food becomes another lens through which to examine oppression, sustainability, and multiculturalism.

A surprising number of universities have gone in this direction. The New School has an undergraduate program in food studies, while several offer master’s level programs: Chatham University, New York University, Boston University (a graduate certificate); and New Mexico State University (a graduate-level minor). The Graduate Center of the City University of New York offers an interdisciplinary concentration, and Indiana University even a Ph.D. concentration in Anthropology of Food.

Anthropology is one source of this focus on food, and a legitimate one.  At Emory University the Anthropology Department supervises graduates from the School of Public Health and the Department of Nutrition, and offers a specialization in “Food, Nutrition, and Anthropology.”

At Spelman College, anthropology professor Daryl White has taught a course called “Food and Culture” for twenty years.  It’s particularly popular among International Studies students, says White, because “Food is the universal solvent. You can talk about it when you can’t talk about anything else.”

Undoubtedly, food plays a role in cross-cultural communication. But the sociologist authors of Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape (the textbook White uses in his current course) present food as significant in a way that goes well beyond cross-cultural communication, as indicated by such chapters as “Eating Authentically” and “The Culinary Other.” They state that “foodies” can appreciate the “peasant cook,” the street vendor, and the master chef. Food studies have become part of the agenda of social justice and multiculturalism, which have come to infiltrate much of the humanities.

Food studies concerns do go beyond food, Professor White acknowledged in an interview in an Atlanta alternative weekly newspaper that ranged into the areas of Southern culture, racism, and Paula Deen. The study of popular culture figures and racism, of course, have long been edging out the traditional subjects on our campuses.

Food studies will now become a minor at Spelman.  It’s an effort White has been spearheading with Kimberley Jackson, who teaches a course on food chemistry, an elective that can fulfill a science requirement for the non-science major.

The effort for a food studies minor began with nine faculty members applying for and receiving a Mellon grant, White told me. After expected approval at the April curriculum committee meeting, courses should be available in the fall semester in several departments, including economics. A biologist and Chinese language expert will jointly offer a course that explores the development of Chinese cuisine, and the role of lactose intolerance. In the English department a course will investigate food imagery in Toni Morrison’s novels.

You can find the mania over food studies in many states, including North Carolina. At UNC-Chapel Hill, students in the Department of Geography can take “Critical Food Studies,” and others can develop interdisciplinary programs that incorporate courses such as “Food in American Culture” provided through the department of American Studies.

Food studies is also a focus of graduate research in Chapel Hill’s English and Comparative Literature Department. Rachel Norman describes her dissertation on Arab-American literature as “focusing on representations of language and food as practices of oral identity.”  Inger S.B. Brodey, associate professor, lists as among the courses she teaches Asian Food Rituals, cross-listed with Asian Studies.  And Jessica Martel’s dissertation is on “Modernist Form and Imperial Food Politics, 1890-1922.”

Food studies has made its way even down to freshman composition.  Apparently responding to market demand, the textbook publisher Bedford is offering Food Matters with a sample syllabus and recommended “resources” for an entire semester devoted to food studies.  Among the resources are the “documentaries” Forks Over Knives (which advocates a low-fat whole-food, plant-based diet) and Super Size Me (about the evils of the fast food industry), and the books, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser, Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir of her year eating locally, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the 1971 bestseller about the environmental impact of meat production, Diet for a Small Planet.

Perhaps for the freshman who did not realize he was signing up for a “food studies” composition class, the model syllabus begins by asking, “Do you eat breakfast?  Is it from a box, your garden, or the university cafeteria?” with more questions until: “Have you ever thought about where your food comes from?” Disarming the critic who might think these critiques are “overblown,” Holly Bauer, the author, who teaches English at UC San Diego, tells the student that the issue is “contested terrain” to explore and write about.

There is not much “contesting” among the essays in the book, however.  All seem to harp on  political themes relating to food: “Doberge Cake after Katrina,” by Amy Cyrex Sins, and “Equality for Animals,” by Peter Singer, Princeton bioethics professor. Bedford also includes an excerpt from Michelle Obama’s book, American Grown: The Story of One White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Pyramid and Food Plate Nutrition Guidelines.

The prompts for essays convey the idea that eating is fraught with ideological choices. Prompt #1 asks, “What is food?  What is the purpose of food?  What determines what we eat?”  Prompt #2 asks, “What does it mean to eat ethically?” and #3 asks, “What is the future of food?” as it notes the contributors’ concerns with climate change, global hunger, and labor injustice.

Thus, rather than reading examples of exemplary prose and being asked to write about important issues, students are fed a steady stream of polemics and are given loaded topic questions.

To put the primary focus on food, rather than ideas and writing, is to act in the manner of Hawthorne’s Inspector, I think.  A similar mistake in emphasis is evidenced in “Immanuel Kant, Cuisine, Fine Art,”  a paper to be presented at an upcoming conference by Texas Tech University history student David C. Simpson, who describes himself as “. . . researching my Master’s Thesis on the history of cuisine as fine art.”  Shouldn’t the primary focus be on Kant?

To be sure, many of the papers at the Food Studies Association conference in Prato, Italy, where Simpson will present, deal with important topics like food chemistry and health, and perhaps political systems (“Mafia and Italian Food Supply Chain”). Another upcoming conference, that of  the Association for the Study of Food and Society, also offers papers on scientific concerns, alongside such things as “Gender, Race, and Ethnicity” and “Art, Media, and Literary Analyses.”

And, finally, the Food Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association will hold several panels at its meeting, mostly on political topics, like “Food, Debt, and the Anti-Capitalist Imagination” and “How the Other Half Eats: Race and Food Reform from the Slaughterhouse to the White House.”

“Food studies” has become an academic growth area, adding to the deterioration of the humanities, and to the advancement of leftist ideologies. No doubt our universities will be producing many more “scholars” investigating all aspects of food: food and race, food and capitalism, food and gender, etc.  But we will have fewer graduates familiar with literary and philosophical masterpieces.  Fewer will be able to produce good writing—or real food.