Eating Food, Talking Memory & Talking Food, Eating Memory: A Nostalgia Dinner Reflection

Written by Ariana Gunderson. All Photographs by Alexander Rogala.

The doorbell rings, announcing the first guest’s arrival.  One by one, the five guests climb the steps, take off their coats, and meet a small group of strangers. One person lays out a casserole dish, one 6 cans of soda on the side table. A few pots are warmed on the stove.  Once all the dishes are ready, we grab our plates, take a bit of everything, and sit down to start our Nostalgia Dinner.

Nostalgia Dinners, participatory research events studying food memory, began as part of my Introduction to Gastronomy: Theory and Methodology course, taught by Dr. Megan Elias.  The Nostalgia Dinner Series has now grown into a collaborative research project, in which every guest shares their lived experience as data and becomes a co-investigator.

A Nostalgia Dinner takes place on one night in one apartment living room, but the food and conversation traverse time and place, spanning continents and decades.  At these dinners, each guest brings a dish that evokes ‘nostalgia’ for them, sharing tastes and taste memories with the group. As we eat, we hear the stories behind the food and learn why each guest chose their dish for the dinner. We draw connections between the dishes and memories brought to this event, wrestle with concepts and definitions of nostalgia, and peel back the emotional layers of food memory.

A Nostalgia Dinner Spread in February 2018: Lamb Curry, Mushroom Stroganoff, Rice Krispie Treats, Mac & Cheese, Guaraná Soda, and Mom’s Soup

Because every Nostalgia Dinner has a different menu and guest list, the discussion is never the same twice.  At one February 2018 nostalgia dinner, lamb curry led to a discussion on coming to terms with the exploitation of gendered foodwork in one’s own family history, and ‘Mom’s Soup’ sparked talk on the renegotiation of family dinner when one moves back home in one’s twenties. Rice Krispies revealed the taste of a specific place (Boston Logan Airport, upon returning from a long journey) and Guaraná soda the taste of specific time in the past (early childhood spent in Brazil). A now-vegan guest’s mushroom version of her father’s beef stroganoff brought into stark relief the inaccessibility of the past.  Her taste memories connect her to those dinners of middle school weekdays, but her age, changing diet, and life in a new city make clear how impossible it is to truly recreate a meal of the past.  The next Nostalgia Dinner will cover different intellectual territory, shaped by its unique configuration of dishes and participants.

In studying food and memory, I try to choose methodologies that honor the knowledge and lived experience carried within each person. I believe this topic, tangibly relevant to everyone who has ever eaten (or not eaten) and remembered it, can be best explored collectively. In my Nostalgia Dinner Series, I learn from my guests about their experience with and memories of food, just as I hope this experience will encourage them to think about food and memory in new ways.

If you are interested in attending a Nostalgia Dinner this spring, please email Ariana at arianag@bu.edu.

Dining in Divinity, A Gastronomy Master’s Thesis

By Sonia Dovedy

During my last few semesters within the Gastronomy program at Boston University, I had the incredible opportunity to research, write, and defend my thesis, Dining in Divinity: Experiencing Joy During the Indian Tradition of Prasadam.

I originally embarked upon this study because I wanted to explore the way expressions of benevolent intentions, such as gratitude, humility, and love, while cooking and consuming food could impact taste, health, and overall wellbeing. Could food prepared with love and care make one feel joyous? Alternatively, could food cooked in negative circumstances exude poor taste and unfavorable qualities? When I realized that offering and consuming prasadam, a tradition from my childhood, followed a similar trajectory of behavior, it served as a catalyst for launching my research. Using mixed method approach, which included oral interviews, observation and ethnographic analysis, and a sensory approach known as “cooking as inquiry,” I embarked upon my study, exploring how different aspects surrounding the Indian tradition of cooking and offering prasadam could influence individual perception of taste and ultimately produce joy.

What is prasadam, you must be wondering?

Within Indian traditions, prasadam is an offering to the Divine. It is believed that during puja, or prayer, the deity first enjoys these gifts of food and water, and then returns the offering to the worshippers after consecrating it. In consuming the blessed item, worshippers receive darshan, or a glimpse of the Divine. While Hindu scriptures dictate a specific list of offerable materials, ultimately prasadam can be anything that is given selflessly, graciously, and in good faith—from a flower or a simple grain of sugar, to a full meal or elaborately prepared sweet.

Prasadam offerings to God are prepared in a very careful way. The chef must prepare the food with intentions of gratitude, love, and reverence; essentially, it is as if they are preparing the foods for a very special guest coming to dinner. Because of its sacred nature, this food is treated with respect; nothing is wasted, nothing is refused, and usually, these items are eaten mindfully, in gratitude, and with enjoyment.  One informant explains, “You always use the sweet…butter! You know…nuts, raisins, almonds…And probably, the only thing that I can think of, is that it leaves a very good feeling, a positive feeling. And it probably raises your feeling of happiness, right? It must be to do with the way you feel after you eat a combination of butter and sweet is the best, delicious things, you know?” (Sangeeta, August 14, 2017).

While conducting oral interviews, visiting temples, and cooking prasadam recipes at home, many curiosities arose…Why does this simple item eaten in the palm of my hands taste so much better than a lavish meal? What elements within this tradition are responsible for the production of joy when receiving and consuming this food? What would happen if I refused this special prasadam food?

 

What I discovered…

Consuming this blessed food is highly rewarding to a spiritually devout individual; these blessed foods produce happiness because they invigorate spiritual, mental, and physical health. However, I also recognized that beyond religious belief, many other factors, such as memory, emotion, and sensorial aspects of taste, were impacting this tradition.

For example, emotional connections between the chef and the consumer, devotee and Divine, food and a fond memory, produced feelings of comfort, happiness, and joy. Devout individuals experienced immense bliss when consuming prasadam because they felt connected to the Divine. Similarly, children enjoyed eating prasadam because their mother had carefully prepared it especially for them. Others enjoyed prasadam because it reminded them of their Indian roots or late grandfather.

In addition, my findings revealed ways in which prasadam items reinforced cultural roots and encouraged familial bonding. When food is received as a gift and eaten in commensality, it evokes moods of celebration, sharing, and happiness. Furthermore, I also found that the appetizing sensory elements of prasadam foods, sweet and rich in nature, promoted a benevolent state of mind and attracted individuals toward spirituality.

Thus, while prasadam clearly serves as an important spiritual activity, my research shows that the sensorial qualities of the offerings, as well as food sharing, memory and emotion, and the details in preparation, are also significant in the experience of prasadam and to the creation of joy. Perhaps if every meal was consumed as prasadam, the world would be filled with happy, healthy, and of course, spiritually elevated people.

Read more from Sonia at www.bakewithsonia.com and www.cookwithsonia.wordpress.com.

2 Day Food Styling, Writing, and Photography Class

In this hands-on, multipart, one-and-half-day workshop, Sheryl Julian and Sally Vargas will guide participants through what it takes to style, shoot, and write about food in a compelling and successful way.

Former food editor for the Boston Globe, Julian is a cookbook author, food stylist, and writer with over thirty years of experience in food media. Vargas is a professional cook, writer, and photographer and the author of several books, including and the newly published The Cranberry Cookbook.

Day 1

In part one, the class discusses social media, blogs, books, and cameras, as well as what makes an effective and successful shot (with hands-on practice), a slide show of a dish photographed from start to finish, photo critique, and more. All photos are shot with available light, so you can reproduce at home what you learn in the workshop.

Day 2

In part two, focus turns to photographing and blogging, as students rotate between shooting a main course dish and undertaking a blog or writing critique. Students and instructors will sit together and dine on the photo food with a discussion during lunch. All levels are welcome, whether you use your phone to shoot for social media or have invested in a camera to produce photos for a blog.

Details

The class will meet at the BU College of Fine Arts Photography Studio from noon – 5 PM on April 20th and 10 AM – 5 PM on April 21st. The cost of the class is $650. You can register for the class here.

Announcing the Spring 2018 Gastronomy Colloquium

We are delighted to share with you the schedule for our Spring Gastronomy Colloquium.  We are featuring exciting Food Studies works in progress  by scholars from diverse disciplines. The colloquium is intended to be a forum for food studies scholars in the Greater Boston Area to meet each other and as such is open to all who are interested. In other words, come and bring a friend!

Spring 2018 ColloquiumSpring 2018 Gastronomy Colloquium

 

All presentations are on Thursday afternoons at 4 PM, and will be held in Fuller 123, 808 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston MA.

 

Course Spotlight: Food and Public History, Spring 2018

food museumIn this 4-credit course, we will examine interpretive foodways programs from museums, living history museums, folklore/folklife programs, as well as culinary tourism offerings, “historical” food festivals, and food tours. Our goal is to compare different way to teach the public about history or cultural heritage using food, and teach the public about the history of food. How do we engage the public? How do we demonstrate the relevance of food as both a historical subject and as a topic of interest today? Through different approaches to public history, can we connect our audience to issues that are so critical today—the future of food movements, for example, or the preservation and understanding of cultural difference? How can we successfully engage the public, whether through displays, tours, or interactive/sensorial experience?

Students will have the opportunity to hear from several experts in historical interpretation, public history, and food history programs, including Dr. Cathy Stanton (Anthropology, Tufts University), whose expertise is in the intersection of food movements and public history; Millie Rahn (Heritage Studies, Plymouth State University), a specialist in folklore studies and folk festivals; Alyssa Shoenfeld, founder of Bites of Boston Food and History Tours; Kathleen Wall, Plimoth Plantation Culinarian; and Ryan Beckman, manager of Historic Foodways Old Sturbridge Village.

This is a project-based course involving experiential learning and hands-on activities. We will be taking field trips to area museums (Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village). I hope to schedule two walking tours in Boston as well. In addition, our visits will serve as case studies, allowing students will examine the process of creating mission statements, interpretive goals, and entrepreneurial offerings, as well as different methods of communicating with the public. Projects that build off of these case studies will include developing and creating an exhibit of cookbooks from our cookbook library for display to the university community, and hopefully an exhibit proposal for an area folk festival. The course culminates in a final project in which students develop a proposal for an interpretive foodways program for an area museum, tour program, or other public history forum.

Hope you will join us!

A live classroom option for distance students is available for this course. For more information, contact kmetheny@bu.edu.

MET ML 623, Food and Public History, meets on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8:45 PM, beginning January 23. Registration information can be found on this page.