Fall Lecture Series Recap: What’s Not to Like About Modern Processed Food? – A Historical Perspective

Throughout the year, the BU Gastronomy blog will feature occasional posts from special guest writers including current students, recent alumni, professors, and more. The following Guest Post is brought to you by Gastronomy student Nate Orsi.


Close your eyes…after you read the next sentence.

Visualize the history and prehistory of processed food.

Now, open them…What?!  you say…

Is it difficult to do?

Well then you missed Dr. Rachel Laudan’s engaging presentation on the evolution of processed food! Have no fear, Dr. Laudan has a website, a new book, and a long list of publications and interesting academic work to use in your own research or for pure academic enjoyment. And who doesn’t want a little bit of enlightenment now and again, especially when it is food focused.

photo by Austin Chronicle

In her recent lecture, Dr. Laudan covered everything from the cultivation of wild crops to animal husbandry, and laid the foreground for the present state of packaged foods. While several people in the audience were interested in the implications of agricultural drawbacks to large scale production, ethical concerns over food production, and food safety issues, Dr. Laudan fielded questions in a poised and balanced manner. It was enlightening to see her take information from the questions she received and incorporate those tidbits into the scope of her research. This is something I have struggled with in my own work (and I am sure I am not the only one). Scope is such a fickle beast, and looking at any historical topic within a global context is bound to be a daunting task.

photo by Retro Renovation

Refrigeration and packaging played extremely important roles in the development of processed food. It’s a little strange to think about how ice used to be something reserved for the elite classes — royalty and the landed gentry — so something to think about next time you ask for ice in a nonchalant run-of-the mill manner. No pun intended with the mill reference, even though there was a pretty in depth discussion about the development of milling and flour production. Bread is such an integral part of so many cultures, and Laudan made this abundantly clear with a distinctive portion of the lecture dedicated to talking about the Fertile Crescent.

photo by IGG

There are so many modern food related examples I can think of with regard to the development of food processing, but if you look at something as simple as lemonade, you can see the processed nature of the mix, the artificially created ice, even the sweetener. These three components sort of encapsulate some of the thematic qualities of Laudan’s discussion.

photo by Food for Thought

She noted how people tend to romanticize certain aspects of the past when considering modern food processes, and of course she explained how it is not a perfect system. I really enjoyed having a historical perspective intertwined with large scale production of processed foods, since it is important to look at the broader picture of food in its current state. It is difficult to effectively compartmentalize food systems, because there is so much interplay between all parties of an increasingly complex foodways.

photo by University of California Press

For more information on processed food and more of Dr. Laudan’s work, check out her website or pick up a copy of her new book, Cuisine and Empire, out this November 2013.

Are you a current student or a recent alum with a food-filled story to share? Pitch your idea to gastronomyatbu@gmail.com and get published on the BU Gastronomy blog!

Fall Lecture Series Recap: Don’t Police My Plate – Race, Gender, and the Politics of Eating the “Right Foods”

Throughout the year, the BU Gastronomy blog will feature occasional posts from special guest writers including current students, recent alumni, professors, and more. The following Guest Post is brought to you by Gastronomy student Alex Cheser.


As the clock neared the hour, the lecture hall quickly became standing room only as Gastronomy graduate students, faculty, and other members of the Boston University community gathered to hear Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson deliver her lecture “Don’t Police My Plate: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Eating the ‘Right Foods’” in conjunction with this semester’s Food and Gender course taught by Dr. Carole Counihan. This conjunction comes as no surprise as both Williams-Forson and Counihan have worked together on previous works such as co-editing Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World and consider each other friends within the field of food studies.

photo via Southern Living

Dr. Williams-Forson, an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, has published multiple works analyzing the connection between race, women’s studies, power, material culture, and, of course, food with her most notable publication being Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. This lecture contained work from a forthcoming publication tentatively titled Don’t Yuck My Yum.

Image via Seattle Magazine

Opening with several quotes from interviews with female students from various racial and cultural backgrounds, Williams-Forson quickly brought to light the negative emotional and cultural effects that stem from food policing or being told what to eat. While not discrediting their work and viewpoints, Williams-Forson established the sway of “white men telling us what to eat” and the all-encompassing dominance of the rhetoric of heralded writers such as Pollan, Berry, and others. She acknowledged that grappling with the industrial food complex is a worthwhile effort, but insisted that it is an effort that is unfortunately beyond the reaches of a large segment of the American population who still need to eat at the end of the day.

Image via 21st Century Green Goddess

Wal*Mart, Target, Dollar General, and even the Dollar Tree serve as examples of vital providers of food in food deserts across the country. In this market model, people rely on Tyson chicken, canned vegetables, and other food products and goods that the “food elite” regularly demonize. This food elite creates the policing of ingredients and dishes that do not fit into its own management of identity and promotion of values, which clearly contain implications of differing racial and class politics. Williams-Forson proposes an amendment of a fourth pillar to the typical three pillars of sustainability surrounding food: social, economic, environmental. This fourth pillar is the sustainability of cultural vitality as outlined by UNESCO. This recognition of cultural vitality would prevent the dichotomous sorting of food choices by recognizing the strength of cultural heritage across races, cultures, classes, and genders and thus help eliminate the policing of plates and shaming of cultural foods and practices that minorities often feel.

Image via Kristen Chef

When confronted with questions about health and food-related problems such as obesity and diabetes, Williams-Forson maintained that this information could certainly be provided to those who request it but that the creation of a prescriptive model of nutrition, however tempting, continues this act of policing that only degrades people’s understanding of food and prevents real change. If people want to eat poorly, they have every right to do so according Williams-Forson. She encouraged an expansion of the medical model to include cultural study and consideration for better solutions to bridge the gap between food elitism and the everyday food access and practices of people in our country.

Are you a current student or a recent alum with a food-filled story to share? Pitch your idea to gastronomyatbu@gmail.com and get published on the BU Gastronomy blog!

November Events: Dia de los Muertos, a Gingerbread Competition, and Dinner with the Pilgrims

We are halfway through the semester and New England has made the official switch to Fall. With leaves on the ground, a scarf around your neck, and the scent of cinnamon on the air, its clear to see that the holiday season is almost here.  So take a break from the books, check out one of these delicious food-themed events, and get in the holiday spirit.

Please note that many of the following events require tickets or reservations.

Taza Chocolate Dia de los Muertos

When: Saturday, Nov. 2 from 1:00 to 6:00 PM
Where: Taza Chocolate Factory, 561 Windsor St., Somerville, MA 02143
What: A traditional Mexican celebration Massachusetts-style. Costumes, Mariachi music, delicious food and creative holiday-themed activities with the Somerville Arts Council.

27th Annual Boston Christmas Festival
Boston Christmas Festival 2011

When: Friday, Nov. 8, from 12:00 – 7:00 PM; Saturday, Nov. 9, from 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM; and Sunday, Nov. 10, from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Where: Seaport World Trade Center, Boston, MA 02210
What: A huge convention of holiday decor, crafts, and gifts. Get ready for the Christmas season with specialty foods and a gingerbread competition with top chefs and celebrity guest judges.

4th Annual Local Craft Brewfest

When: Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 6:00 – 9:30 PM
Where: John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, 1 Courthouse Way, Boston, MA 02210
What: Local Craft Brewfest is a celebration of local craft brews and is a major fundraiser for the free Annual Boston Local Food Festival.

Thanksgiving Dinner at Plimoth Plantation

When: Various dates during the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend.
Where: Plimoth Plantation, 137 Warren Avenue, Plymouth, MA 02360
What: Several events including America’s Thanksgiving Dinner, A Thanksgiving Day Buffet, and a 1627 Harvest Dinner with the Pilgrims.

Harvard Science and Cooking Lecture Series

When: Dates vary, but all talks begin at 7:00 PM unless otherwise noted.
Where: Harvard Science Center (One Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA, Hall C & overflow Hall E)
What: A lecture series combining the expertise of food specialists, world-renowned chefs, and Harvard researchers. Lectures vary from week to week and are open to the public.

Monday, Nov. 4, 2013
“The Science of Sweets”
Joanne Chang, Flour Bakery

Monday, Nov. 11, 2013
“Catalytic Conversion: Enzymes in the Kitchen”
Wylie Dufresne, wd~50
Ted Russin, The Culinary Institute of America

Monday, Nov. 18, 2013
“Fermentation: When Rotten Goes Right”
David Chang, momofuku

Monday, Nov. 25, 2013
Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO; co-founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures; and author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

Be sure to share any food events you find by commenting below or on the BU Gastronomy Facebook page. Show us what you eat this month by following us on Instagram and using the hashtag #bugastronomy.