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.

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.

Course Spotlight: Culture and Cuisine of New England, Spring 2018

 

Looking to add another course to your spring schedule? You might consider Netta Davis’s course, Culture and Cuisine of New England. Without fail, this course receives rave reviews from all who take it — from students who have lived in the region for years to those who moved here just for school.

This course explores the unique culinary culture of the New England region.  From history and anthropology, to archaeology, material culture, and folklore, this course employs an interdisciplinary approach to learning about regional dishes, their origins and meanings, the extraordinary people who developed New England cookery and food industries, and the intimate relationship between the land, (and sea!), the inhabitants and the foodways that evolved.

The encounters between Native peoples and Europeans brought forth succotash and “indian” pudding, (but maybe not Butterball Turkeys); Immigrant communities added linguica sausage to clambakes and Cranberry Chutney to the Thanksgiving table.  From Yankee Pot Roast and Eel Pie to Moxie, Maple Syrup and Sam Adams, New England culture and cuisine is a rich and tasty subject for study.

This class will include a weekend field trip, likely to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut. The last class visited there and feasted on Wampanoag chef Sherry Pocknett’s superb cuisine in the museum cafe.  (You can read Gastronomy alumnus Michael Floreak’s article about the food and beverage program at the museum here.) Weather permitting, we may try our hands at making sea salt from Maine seawater as well.

Culture and Cuisine of New England (MET ML 638) will meet on Thursday evenings from 6 to 8:45 PM, beginning on January 18. Registration information can be found on this page.

Images: Fisherman, Brewery labels, Cranberries, Boston Cooking School MagazineMoxie, Succotash

Spring 2018 Pepin Lecture Lineup

The Boston University Programs in Food and Wine have announced the following titles in the Spring 2018 Pépin Lecture Series in Food Studies, Gastronomy, and the Culinary Arts.

February 13th: Julie Guthman

UCSC professor Julie Guthman will be giving a lecture on her research on the California strawberry industry. You can read more about her recent talk on New Food Activism at Harvard here.

According to news.ucsc.edu, Guthman is a geographer who has been widely recognized for her study of organic farming and sustainable agriculture in California, as well as for her critical analysis of the obesity epidemic. She is an alumna of UC Santa Cruz (B.A., sociology, 1979) who joined the faculty in 2003.

March 29th: Jonathan Deutsch

James Beard Foundation Impact Fellow and Professor at Drexel Jonathan Deutsch will be giving a lecture on his work repurposing food waste.

According to drexel.edu, Deutsch joined Drexel from Kingsborough Community College-CUNY, where he served as professor and founding director of the culinary arts program as well as deputy chair of the department of tourism and hospitality. He previously worked at CUNY Graduate Center as professor of public health and founding director of the food studies concentration. Deutsch’s research interests include social and cultural aspects of food, recipe and product development and culinary education. He received his doctorate in food studies and food management from New York University.

He is the author of six food studies books, including Barbeque: A Global History, Food Studies: An Introduction to Research Methods, and Jewish American Food Culture.

April 11th: Ken Albala

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and Director of the Food Studies MA program in San Francisco. He will be talking about his new book, Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession.

“Every day, noodle shops around the globe ladle out quick meals that fuel our go-go lives. But Ken Albala has a mission: to get YOU in the kitchen making noodle soup. This primer offers the recipes and techniques for mastering quick-slurper staples and luxurious from-scratch feasts. Albala made a different noodle soup every day for two years. His obsession yielded all you need to know about making stock bases, using dried or fresh noodles, and choosing from a huge variety of garnishes, flavorings, and accompaniments. He lays out innovative techniques for mixing and matching bases and noodles with grains, vegetables, and other ingredients drawn from an international array of cuisines.

In addition to recipes both cutting edge and classic, Alabala describes new soup discoveries he created along the way. There’s advice on utensils, cooking tools, and the oft-overlooked necessity of matching a soup to the proper bowl. Finally, he sprinkles in charming historical details that cover everything from ancient Chinese millet noodles to that off-brand Malaysian ramen at the back of the ethnic grocery store. Filled with more than seventy color photos and one hundred recipes, A World of Noodle Soup is an indispensable guide for cooking, eating, and loving a universal favorite.”

Cookbooks & History: Carrot Soup

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the thirteenth essay in this series, written by Sami Vitale.

My name is Samantha Vitale and I am a second year Gastronomy student. For one of my classes this semester, Cookbooks and History with Karen Metheny, we were given the task to recreate a historical recipe. The recipe I choose was from American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. Amelia Simmons is deemed the American Orphan and helped to create the initial American cuisine. The version of American Cookery I chose was from 1798. As I was looking through the cookbook I found mostly meats, preserves, pies, and puddings. As I am a vegetarian, I chose to recreate a pudding recipe and because I am poor I tried to find a recipe with ingredients that I already had in my fridge. The recipe that I ended up choosing was “Carrot Pudding”. The recipe is as follows: A coffee cup full of boiled and strained carrots, 5 eggs, 2 ounces of sugar and butter each, cinnamon and rosewater to your taste, baked in a deep dish without paste. (1798: 28)

As you can see, there are no instructions regarding time or temperature which was the hardest part of recreating this recipe. I was not sure how long to boil the carrots for (until soft or until they were mush) or how long to keep the pudding in the oven. I also was unsure of the temperature that the oven was supposed to be or the temperature of the pudding when ready to eat. I ended up leaving the carrots to boil uncovered and about a half an hour in, decided to cover the pot with a lid because the water was hot but not boiling. I let this process happen for about an hour.

I then strained the carrots and added in the sugar, butter, cinnamon, eggs, and mixed them together. I put this pudding mixture (smelled rather good actually) into a Pyrex dish and stuck it in the oven.

The usual baking temperature for 75% of everything you bake is 350 degrees which is what I went with. Since the pudding has eggs in it, the pudding needed to fully cook in the oven which took about 30 minutes.

This pudding smelled so delicious and it was not the smell I was expecting. I let the pudding cool for about 15 minutes and tasted it. OMG was this carrot pudding good! Not at all what I was expecting it to taste like. I was imaging from just reading the recipe that it was going to be an interesting flavor, however, it was buttery and sweet, pretty eggy, and the carrots added a nice texture to the dish. It seems like this is a good dish for either breakfast, the season of fall, or Thanksgiving.

I then let it cool for another 30 minutes to see if the pudding would taste better at room temperature. Carrot pudding tastes much better hot or warm, room temperature was just chewy and I did not taste the undertones of cinnamon. Overall, the experience of recreating a recipe from over 200 years ago was easier than I thought, especially because the recipe was simple and had limited ingredients. I honestly did not think that I was going to enjoy carrot pudding as much as I did and I am happy that I tried something new.


Works Cited

Simmons, Amelia. 1798. American Cookery or the Art of Dressing Viand, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables and the Best Modes of Baking Pastes Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves and All Kinds of Cakes from the Imperial Plum to Plain Cake: Adapted to the Country and All Grades of Life. Hartford: Simeon Butler.