Friday, 22 February 2013

FCC: Food and Discussing and Writing Food Identity

Of the many food and culture programs I have been a part of since their introduction to campus over a year and a half ago, this week's grouping undoubtedly tops them all in terms of the sheer number, frequency, scope, content and (arguably) impact not only on Denison's campus, but on my own personal and professional life. In addition to highlighting all of that, the next few posts (I hope) emphasize in particular the growing food movement and attention recently being given to food in central Ohio, the landscape of which has helped shape me and my interests in seeking to understand the connections between food and culture. To that end, I begin with a recap of this week's Food and Culture Colloquium module.

For the first half of our module, I began by reflecting on module 15, when we centralized food identity within the specific context of local, campus food culture, taking a look at quite a few influences that shape the extent to which food can and does affect the way, how and what we eat, and of course what they says about who we are. In particular, I had asked us to think about how individuals would describe what and how they ate before coming to Denison; what and how they eat since arriving to campus (i.e., as they've been shaped by this environment); what individuals may have lost, found or perhaps reinvented in relation to their food identity; and to what extent my nascent research may be a reflection of their own experiences on the Hill. For this session, I asked us to expand our context of food identity and reach to a momentary reflection on how food relates to us regionally and how our geographic location influences resources and by extension then our own identities as a result. Taking a larger step back, I proposed the question: what is “American” cuisine. How would you describe it? (No, really, how would you describe it? Comment below!)

Maybe it looks something like the above image via BuzzFeed? (SLIDE) To what extent is this a stereotype? What’s missing? What about Ohio... where is the corn, the beef, the buckeyes?? I’m pretty sure our “local food” is more than Cincinnati chili. Or maybe our country map more closely resembles this one?

Let’s suppose we’re in agreement there’s no such thing as a singular definition of “American” cuisine. Well, how about regionally then? Whatcookingamerica.net, for example, divides up the U.S. into 10 categories, with the tagline to “rediscover the flavors and traditions of true American cuisine.” The author of the site, Linda Stradley, author of I’ll Have What They’re Having: Legendary Local Cuisine writes that
“The United States first developed as distinct regions isolated from one another, much like individual countries. New immigrants tended to settle according to nationality, forming tight urban and rural communities with strong threads of languages and cuisines. In each region, the people brought with them their customs and adapted them to indigenous food and ingredients. Americans have taken Old World cuisines and combined them with regional ingredients and traditions to create foods uniquely American. Local restaurants have kept most regional cuisine alive. Throughout this country, local eateries revive and continue to redesign classic regional dishes.”
Here, then, geography has clearly played into regional food identity, access to resources, challenges to resisting food identity assimilation and/or the courage and creativity that comes along with fusing food cultures. But at the same time, these multiple identities speak to the larger context of culture and our relationship and understanding of culture with others.

As we turn our attention to the notion of culture(s), I can't help but think that our understanding of ethnicity has evolved over time and requires much more understanding than ever before. Borrowing previous food analogies, our historical representations of American identity have traditionally been rooted in the 18th century immigrant melting pot, so much so that it continued to be supported into the early 20th century. 40 years ago, it was the 1970’s salad bowl that redefined how we understand who we are in relation to others, and for a specific audience, the pan-Hungarian goulash joined the lexicon in the late 20th century as an ethnic stew. There seems a timely irony that 40 years later, a new wave of Americans trying to claim hold to their identity, such as Tim Fernholz and Dylan Lathrop, have suggested a new model to consider: 21st century America as the sandwich.

Following our small group discussions on our food identities as they play out in the U.S., Evelyn Frolking took on the second half of our module with an emphasis on her experience writing about regional food culture, as it has played out in the lives of six local (read: Ohio) producers. To a similar effect, the following recap pertains more so to the public book launch of Homegrown: Stories from the Farm (written by Evelyn and her husband, Tod), for which this module served as a somewhat of a primer to last night's presentation.

The evening began with an introduction by Executive Director of the Granville Chamber of Commerce Maggie Barno (followed then by McDonald & Woodward Marketing Manager Trish Newcomb), who talked about the various factors that led to the Chamber's endorsement of Homegrown and reflected on her positive experiences with farmers markets throughout her life.

A collection of stories told from the side of food producers who produce for local consumers, Homegrown recounts very important issues and messages. In fact, Evelyn describes the book as "a small book with a big message." And in the context of the work, events and programming I've noticed since moving to Granville, the messages are relevant and timely, and perhaps even more importantly situate the story of this region as one of countless others that are happening concurrently throughout the country. It should be noted, too, that Tod's contributions to the book (via sidebars of approachable, technical information, the sidebars of which are reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver's style) add to the complexity and reality that food is so much more than something we eat. Indeed, the blending of Evelyn's "folksy writing style" and Tod's "academic, scientific writing" were reflected in publisher Jerry McDonald preface to those in attendance. This is truly a dynamic process, and the book is about what it takes to produce locally grown food for local consumers while being juxtaposed against the clear description of the landscape (on which the food and consumers coexist).

As Evelyn noted, the word of the year in 2007 was "locavore," and to this day we're still talking about eating local, and now from the point of view of the producers. As was especially revealed throughout the program, and as the producers [many of whom were present at the launch] tell their stories throughout the course of the book, the serious issues come out (e.g., labor, capital investment, transportation); but what's revealed even more so is the courage and the fact that those represented in the book are very devoted people to us, the consumers. These folks produce so that we can have good food. For whatever reason one might choose, the relationship between food and Granville is one which notes how unique yet representative this community is.

I'd like to end this post the same way Evelyn ended both her portion of Wednesday's module and yesterday's program, as well as the preface to Homegrown, i.e., with a quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Strength to Love" (1963):
"This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed non-conformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come not from the actions of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a dedicated minority."
Suggested readings for this session:
“America Isn’t a Melting Pot: It’s a Sandwich” (Tim Fernholz and Dylan Lathrop, 2011)
“Ethnic Cuisine: United States” (Nancy Freeman, n.d.)
“The Culture in Kitchens” (G. Murphy Donovan, 2012)
“Culinary Pluralism; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Olive” (Jenn Lindsay, 2012)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here. To view a few more photos from last night's public book launch, click here.  

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