Reflections on Michael Twitty’s Pepin Lecture

On October 24th, Michael Twitty visited BU to present a Pepin Lecture on his book, The Cooking Gene. This is Gastronomy student Ariana Gunderson’s take on the lecture.

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“But, America is not ready for you.” So said an editor at a major publishing house to Michael Twitty, when he proposed a book tracing the food history of his family and black American foodways in 2012. It turns out that Twitty, culinary historian and minor twitter celebrity (@KosherSoul) got the last laugh. Following a burst of media attention for his take on the Paula Deen scandal, publishers decided America was in fact ready to hear the story of Michael’s family and his intersectional identities – Twitty identifies as black, Jewish, Southern and gay. In his new book, The Cooking Gene, Twitty imparts an important narrative long silenced by white power structures in publishing, academia, media, and education.

Invited to BU for the Pépin Lecture Series, Twitty shared the story of his research and his book in an impassioned lecture peppered with Yiddish and pop culture references. In his talk, Twitty argued that when it comes to food, narratives matter.

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“Who owns Southern food? Who created Southern food?” These questions are pertinent to current discussions of appropriation and the persistent impact of colonialism on the present day, but Twitty reframed them to emphasize narrative: “Just because the oppressor and oppressed share the same food does not mean we can create a false equivalence.” Twitty argues that the narrative of a black southerner eating black eyed peas is fundamentally different from the narrative of a white southerner eating those same peas, and that the complications of those narratives are what matter to discussions of race and food.

Narrative also matters in the histories we tell ourselves and our children. Twitty objected to the characterizations of the influences of black cuisines on the American foodscape as “contributions.” This cultural transaction was theft, he asserted, not a “contribution” made in exchange for “rape, whips, and chains.” Telling the stories of black foodways is a small but imperative step to rectifying the whitewashing of our national historical narrative, but it is crucial to be honest about the conditions of that history.

Finally, Twitty argued that personal narrative matters. With each small genealogical epiphany – the name of his great-great grandmother, the current locations of his distant relatives, the foods cooked by his Igbo ancestors – Twitty’s sense of self- and community-identity gained context and legitimacy.  He encourages everyone, but especially black Americans, to research their own family history and genealogy as he has, to add depth and emplacement to their personal narratives.

At the conclusion of his talk, Twitty assigned the audience some homework (his experience as a Hebrew School teacher was apparent here).  “It doesn’t matter where you are in your life’s journey,” said Twitty. “Go home and write your food biography.”  This biography is to be as exhaustive as possible, to include everything – even one’s trips to McDonald’s.

“Then,” Twitty instructed the audience, “if your elders are still alive, interview them.” If not, write down everything you can remember about the food they bought, cooked, ate, or talked about. Elders need not be only blood relatives, they can be anyone in your community.  This documentation and preservation of food histories is exactly the work Twitty has completed in incredible depth for his own family history, a methodology especially important for lifting up the voices of the chronically silenced. “Anyone can do this!” Twitty asserted.

Ready or not, Twitty is precisely the food historian America needs.

Don’t forget to sign up for the next installment of the Pépin Lecture Series on November 8th, where BU Gastronomy’s own Megan Elias presents her new book, Food on the Page. Register here.

Reflections on Julie Guthman’s New Food Activism

On October 12th, USC Professor Julie Guthman visited Boston to present a lecture on Social Justice and New Food Activism at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. This is Gastronomy student Madison Trapkin’s take on the lecture.

“The new food activism.”

I stared at this phrase on the projector screen, accompanied by a picture of a basket of ripe strawberries. I felt out of place as a BU student sitting in a Harvard lecture hall, but those little berries put me at ease. Julie Guthman is a food person, I reminded myself. You’ll feel better once she starts talking. And I did feel better. But I also felt worse.   

Julie Guthman, courtesy of UCSC News

I’d arrived early to get the perfect seat and now I watched as students, professors, and members of the community filled the empty spaces surrounding me. As the lights dimmed, the usual hush fell over the audience, and Guthman took the stage. I was struck by her stature. A petite woman with short grey hair wearing black glasses and a basic black top stared at me from behind the lectern.

I forgot about her height as soon as she started speaking. Guthman began her lecture with Mark Bittman and the issues surrounding foodie culture, the group of epicures who enjoy watching cooking shows and participate in the sort of voting-with-your-fork activism that both Bittman and Guthman reject. The problem with this kind of activism, according to Guthman, is that it doesn’t do enough. Foodies focus on the pleasures of food, but Guthman urges us to consider what happens when we go beyond pleasure as she moves into the next part of her lecture.

We need to consider food producers. Bottom line. The often-undocumented laborers working tirelessly to give us tomatoes year-round, these are the people we need to look at. The farm crew working daily in an environment laden with harmful pesticides, we have to consider them too. What about the companies these people are working for? What has been done to underline the systems of oppression within the food systems that give us, a privileged group of scholars, our daily bread?

Guthman told us to question it all. And to get active.

After a brief history of the alternative food movement, Guthman moved into three cases studies that illustrated potential successes and failures of food activism. However, what struck me the most was her closing segment: what to do in the age of Trump.

The New Food Activism, edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julie Guthman

Guthman’s lecture was a call to arms and an acknowledgement of what we’re up against. Food systems in America are about to be hit hard under Trump’s reign. From school lunch programs to genetically modified crops, things are going to change. And as activists, we need to be ready. We need to look at the underlying policies that threaten our foodways; immigration policy, income and health inequality, insufficient health and safety regulation. We need to educate ourselves and empower each other. Guthman cited movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy as she pointed out the following: it IS possible for people of color to lead, to vote with more than your fork, and to affect the public conversation.

Her closing comment gave me chills. “We have to continue on in the vein of increasing awareness and activism,” Guthman stated, matter-of-factly. She meant business. And now, so do I.

I’m sure you could ask someone else who attended that lecture for his or her take and you’d get a different response, but that’s the beauty of the way Guthman speaks. She covered so much ground that it was almost impossible to narrow it down for the purposes of this blog post. The world of food activism is huge and filled with countless issues, platforms, and policies to get behind (or fight against), so we need to fight where we can.

Julie Guthman’s talk gave me hope for our country and for our foodways.

You can read more about Guthman’s lecture here.

An Internship Experience at the United Nations

Outside the UN headquarters 

Gastronomy student Ritika Jagasia spent two months in New York City this summer as an intern at the United Nations. Here is her reflection on the experience.

Ritika Jagasia

This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an Events and Knowledge Management Intern at the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation. UNOSSC is a body under United Nations Development Programme established to promote, coordinate and support South-South and triangular cooperation globally and within the United Nations. Their work is mainly structured to support developing counties such as India, Brazil, South Africa, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, in the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and technical domains.

My role in UNOSSC was to work on an upcoming important event called the Global South-South Development Expo that is offered by United Nations solely focusing on Global South. It in a high-level annual event, hosted this year in Antalya, Turkey, designed to showcase successful development stories.  While my internships was only for two months, they truly treated interns as a staff and entrusted them with serious responsibilities.
E_2016_SDG_Poster_all_sizes_without_UN_emblem_Letter copyIn 2015, the UN established 17 goals as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As a knowledge management intern I studied solutions provided by various countries to achieve the sustainable goals. As a gastronomy student, I was particularly interested in the United Nation’s Sustainable Goal 2, which is to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. I researched and collected data on the agricultural sector in African countries and my efforts will be produced in the upcoming UNOSSC Climate Change Publication. UN internships are, really, what you make of them.

Global Town Hall Meeting with Secretary General Antonio Guterres

I also had the privilege of attending the town hall meeting in the presence of UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres. I learned about the values and principles of the organization when the Secretary General mentioned that we come from different corners of the world. Our cultures, religions, traditions, widely vary and hence there are competing conflicts among us. This is why we need the UN. The Secretary General is very keen on getting various agencies under the UN umbrella to work together towards one goal of alleviating poverty and hunger and supporting partnerships.

Getting an internship at the UN is not difficult. It is about knowing what you want and being extremely motivated and organized. It was a fulfilling experience every single day when you walk inside the headquarters and knowing that somewhere you are creating a cause and making a difference. A job with an international organization certainly does not demand to discard one’s personal ideals, but one must match those personal views to the goals and policies of the organization.

Additional information on United Nations Internships can be found here.


Food Mapping: Growing Community at Brookline Grown

Gastronomy student Madison Trapkin shares her food mapping work from Anthropology of Food.

In the metropolitan sprawl that is the Greater Boston area, consumers have a wide variety of grocery stores to choose from. There are major chains like Stop & Shop and Trader Joe’s, or somewhere like Whole Foods if you have a bit more disposable income. For those who live in the vicinity of the Brookline neighborhood, there is also the option of shopping at Brookline Grown, a relatively small grocery store that is bringing fresh, local foods to their clientele. Brookline Grown is one example of the purveyors of local foods and food related products that have been cropping up across the United States that encourage customers (quite literally) to bring the farm to their tables.

In this mapping exercise, I consider Brookline Grown as an example of the larger food movement towards local and sustainable agriculture. I discuss the layout of the store and focus on four specific products, as well as what each indicates about foodways, identity, relationship, and current food trends. There are certain aspects of locally sourced foods and food products that cannot be attained from processed, generic, and otherwise large-scale farmed foods. I also examine the various ways in which buying local can strengthen community bonds and encourage positive relationships with growers and producers of local foods.

trapkin food map

In order to create this  map of Brookline Grown I visited their store. They are located near Coolidge Corner on Pleasant Street. The unassuming exterior of Brookline Grown gives way to the plethora of locally sourced delicacies within its walls. The various products that fill their shelves and baskets are all sourced within a 7-mile radius, which impressed me given their proximity to the city’s elements. Rather than provide an exact to-scale representation of the shop’s interior, I decided to focus on the sourcing of four specific products. I selected items from different food groups in order to provide diverse coverage of the store’s offerings: sweet potatoes, milk, greens, and sriracha (a type of hot sauce). I chose to illustrate one wall from the store and from that honed in on the products I had chosen, including a small map of Massachusetts with every chosen item. Each map of Massachusetts includes a red dot that indicates where the selected item was grown or produced. My goal was to indicate the proximity of production to Boston. Brookline Grown is a proponent of the farm to table movement, which has secured an important spot in this nation’s food history as a direct response to the explosion of commoditized processed foods that began in the 70s. Therefore, it was important for me to emphasize the locality of each item.

Oyster on the Rise

1551535_1467427143505109_3284607062007736119_nGastronomy student Allison Keir shares her thoughts on the “oyster revival” in the next of our summer blog series, Perspective from Anthropology of Food.

Over the last ten years, oysters have been making a come back into the mainstream food scene. Oyster bars and buck-a-shuck happy hours are popping up all around the metropolitan areas. Why, might you ask, is this re-emergence happening? About a hundred years ago there was an abundance of oyster beds along our coastlines that were slowly depleted from pollution, overfishing, and destruction. Many people don’t know that New York Harbor was once known to be the mecca for harvesting oysters until consumers started getting sick from eating the raw shellfish. Thus, oysters as a sellable food product were shut down and slowly drifted from the food scene. Author Mark Kurlansky recounts the history of oysters once dominating the food scene of New York Harbor in The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters,” Kurlansky writes (2006:95).

At the time, what policy makers and the locals didn’t understand was that it wasn’t the oysters that were bad for consumers; it was the sewage that was being dumped right into the same water from which the oysters were harvested. Later on, the Clean Water Act was created, and oysters and other shellfish were no longer permitted for harvest in water that wasn’t within “Class A” water quality. Not only did this protect our seafood, it helped to clean our waterways. Since then, oysters have been slowly making their way back into the food scene.

Oysters are in a revival and are thriving in a new socialite food scene filled with consumers who are becoming more aware of the environmental benefits of oysters. It only takes one of these bouldering bivalves to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.  Oysters are also one of the most sustainable forms of protein out there; in comparison to beef, their digestive systems reduce and live off waste and other toxins in our waterways, turning the waste into food for themselves and cleaner water for us!  They are naturally reducing the nitrogen levels in our waterways that have been a major component in ocean acidification and the depletion of our marine life.

oysterConsidering the cost of each oyster at any given raw bar, you could favor oysters as the elite class of mollusks. The pure deliciousness of eating fresh raw oysters while sipping on some wine or micro brew beer has gotten many consumers in the mainstream food scene hooked. Ironically you don’t even need a hook to catch an oyster! Still, oysters are an acquired taste and many people see them as blubbery textured creatures with a marshy flavor, while others think of them as a delicate salty and sweet jewel of the ocean that is comparable to kissing the sea.

So what is driving the surge in popularity for this tasty bivalve? While some consumers may be aware of the ecological benefits of protecting our oyster beds, it is possible that the taste for oysters is not just an ecological, but also a social phenomenon. Oysters have emerged back into the mainstream food scene and are being wined and dined with all walks of life. You don’t have to go down to the docks to see oysters being served on the half shell. You can just go to your local watering hole down the street or make a reservation at a nearby seafood restaurant so you can sit at the raw bar and enjoy the experience of watching the oysters get shucked!