The Language of Food Conference: Engaging More than the Mind Alone

by Emily Contois

Sandwiched between the re-launch of the BU Gastronomy Garden Club and the 2012 Boston Marathon was the Language of Food Conference, April 13-14 at Cornell University. Directed by Diana Garvin and co-sponsored by more than a dozen university departments and local food purveyors, the conference employed a variety of perspectives to explore food as a means to understand culture. While the field of food studies builds upon an interdisciplinary approach, this conference brought together not only speakers and panelists from a variety of disciplines to engage the mind, but also incorporated several food events to fully engage the senses.

For example, the conference included study of food in visual art with a guided gallery tour of the exhibit, “Consuming Food in Space,” an introduction to the menus and Italian avant garde food advertising (which you can see above in the conference poster) held in the Olin Kroch Library’s Rare Book and Manuscripts collection, and film screenings of Big Night and Dinner Rush.

The conference also complemented talks and panels with tastings. For example, in one of the conference keynotes, Rupert Spies of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration not only discussed how culture influences cuisine, but supplemented his talk with flavored insect snacks, bringing to life his point on overcoming culinary cultural bias. A tasting led by the Cornell Cheese Club with dairy delights courtesy of Murray’s Cheese enlivened the palate – and also revived intellectual stamina between back-to-back panels.

The first panel explored food as celebration and spectacle, with papers by Yvonne Maffei on Eid celebrations and modern Halal eating practices, by Christina Ceisel on food festivals in Galicia, Spain, and by Alexandra Cale on how actresses intertwine their consumption of food and sex in an effort to garner media attention.

Anthropology Panel, “Food as Celebration and Spectacle,” from left: Tim Haupt (Chair & Respondent), Alexandra Cale, Yvonne Maffei, Christina Ceisel, and Emily Contois | Photo: Julia Hastings-Black

I also presented a paper that I wrote in Understanding Food: Theory and Methodology (ML 701), taught by Rachel Black in fall 2011. Titled, “Not Just for Cooking Anymore: Deconstructing the Twenty-First-Century Trophy Kitchen,” it spoke nicely to Chad Randl’s presentation on remodeling the postwar American kitchen and Ruth Lo’s paper, which explored the Italian bourgeois kitchen. Though examining kitchens during different historical time periods and using differing disciplines, the papers revealed an unintended discussion of the role and meaning of kitchens.

Randl and Lo presented on the History of Architecture and Urban Development panel that explored food and space. The panel included Anna Thompson Hajdik’s chapter on the Borden Milk Building from her larger study of state fairs. While a trivial detail, I cannot help but share one fun fact. Did you know that advertisers set up a bovine marriage for Elsie the Cow, the Borden Milk mascot? And her beau? None other than Elmer the Bull, who became the mascot for Elmer’s Glue. Bechara Helal’s presentation, “Tasting/Testing: Experimentation and Research in Contemporary Laboratories of Architecture and Gastronomy,” proved equally interesting, drawing theoretical connections between the hypothesis-making process in both disciplines.

The conference also included a keynote by BU Gastronomy’s own Carole Counihan on “The Language of Food Activism in Italy” and an Italian Studies panel that explored food as a site of coercion. The conference ended with wine and beer tastings, sending participants forth on a high note.

Emily is a current gastronomy student and graduate assistant, editing the Gastronomy at BU blog, January-August, 2012. Check out her research in food studies, nutrition, and public health on her blog,

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