From Kitchen to Classroom: The Serious Study of Food

When Jacques Pépin accepted his honorary doctorate from Boston University this past May, he made note of this truly symbolic moment. While his proposed dissertation focus on food had once been rejected by Columbia University as academically unworthy, a leading university was now granting him a doctorate for his work as a celebrated author, chef and teacher. Much has changed over the past generation in the academic acceptance and even appreciation of the role food plays in our world.

Students now flock to specialized degree programs in gastronomy, pursue food-oriented tracks at the doctoral level, seek out programs and careers in the hospitality industry and elect courses on food and wine as a way of enriching their personal lives. Why has this intellectual curiosity exploded in recent years? Has food studies now moved from the kitchen closet into academic legitimacy? Are universities leaders or followers in this movement?

This phenomenon, I would argue, is neither a fad nor dilettantism. The personal appreciation of good food and wine is not sufficient motivation in itself to drive students to in-depth academic study. Food Studies appeals to students seeking a broader, more integrated perspective on what it means to be human. There are sadly too few ways to get an interdisciplinary, multicultural perspective even within the conventional liberal arts. The separate silos of study have forced a narrowing within each subject, which often inadvertently precludes intellectual exploration and discovery. The direction has been more to specialize, abstract and quantify, rather than to link the mind and the senses, the household with its social context, and the classroom with what can be touched, smelled, tasted and created.

Food has also become a means, perhaps even an excuse, to tie together the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences in a way that provides a lens on society long abandoned in mainstream academe. Students recognize this opportunity to combine the academic and the professional, personal appreciation with abstract understanding, tactile experiences with classroom instruction, and the need to specialize in a way that also builds a broad cultural foundation. Gastronomy provides perspective and meaning for those who want to better understand their world, or just their immediate community or heritage, and earn the cultural capital to better navigate their career.

At one time, cooking and eating were just home-based sustenance–too mundane to warrant serious academic interest. But we have developed a broader public discourse on the nature of food and what this says about ourselves–from the perspective of health, culture, history and even the arts. Gastronomy is both hedonic and cerebral–both pleasurable and revealing about our well-being and social systems. Complex policy issues tied to disparities in the quality of life are deeply engrained in how we produce, distribute and consume food.

Julia Child brought both passion and intellect to cuisine—in a truly American way by appreciating and borrowing from other cultures, while embracing the American melting pot: taking the best and fusing it all together in a confident, open society. She understood that the next stage beyond the televised demonstration kitchen and the authoritative cookbook was the academic classroom.

When Julia Child called for “the serious study of food” at institutions like mine, this brought many scholars together who hadn’t known they shared a common interest. Food is ubiquitous—both across nations and across academic fields. Historians, cultural anthropologists and archeologists, nutritionists and physicians realized they studied similar subject matter: each from their own vantage point.

Food Studies is provoking scholarly conversations across internal academic cultures that rarely interact. Professional associations like the Association for the Study of Food in Society have hundreds of members who regularly share syllabi, scholarship and ideas. Culinary schools have long existed for those in training to prepare food, agricultural schools were funded to promote the science of food production, and hospitality-management departments had emerged at many universities for those who wanted to oversee others in hotels, restaurants and tourism. The recent interest, though, is even broader, more inclusive and more traditionally scholarly, yet not at the expense of the experiential and professional.

When it comes to anticipating and promoting new fields or new ways to link scholars across fields, most universities fail miserably. The major university tends to force the nontraditional into traditional slots, where segmented departments often resist the outlier or interloper as threats to the status quo. As a result, academic innovation is often a complex, if not treacherous, maze of internal entrepreneurs and marginalized academic champions, encouraged on by outside pressures and opportunities. Innovation sometimes results more from conspiracies and accidents than through strategies. Most universities lack a locus or home for the misfits, integrators and innovators. Student wishes push and the university often ignores, sometimes resists, but at times ultimately acquiesces.

The study of food not only spans disciplines and academic programs, but generations as well. We have found that we can teach culture through cuisine to youngsters, as pre-professional training for those seeking careers in food and wine fields, to those in the midst of their careers seeking a deeper and more scholarly approach through gastronomy, and to older students who wish to enrich their lives through a greater appreciation of what food customs and techniques reveal about their culture and others over time.

I would call for more majors and master’s degrees that challenge balkanization within academe, more respect for the importance of food in serious scholarship, and far greater recognition of the need to structure the modern university itself to be more receptive to emerging fields that defy the conventional structure. In the meantime, bon appétit.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University. He thanks BU’s professor Rachel Black (Gastronomy) and Dean Christopher Muller (Hospitality Administration) for their valuable insights.

Related Posts: Learning to Eat in the Dining Commons by Kenneth Cardone (pdf)

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