Turning an Avocation into an Education

By Ilana Hardesty

As a new member of the Gastronomy program, I’d qualify myself as an “older” student; I’m taking my first class in about 32 years. My first semester is winding down and I’m reflecting on my choice to go back to school and pursue a Certificate in Food Studies at the age of 54. I don’t quite trust myself to make the full commitment to graduate student life by pursuing a master’s in Gastronomy yet.

storefrontUnlike some of my classmates, I do not have a career in the food industry. I work full time on the BU Medical Campus in Continuing Medical Education. I do, however, have a lifelong avocational interest in food. I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother – a healthy dose of Jewish cooking mitigated by a father born and raised in Iowa with a love of pork chops. As an adult, I found both solace and excitement in cooking, and also in reading about food insatiably. I dabbled briefly in nutrition science, working at the Tufts School of Nutrition and taking a couple of introductory courses, and discovered the joy of communal cooking and being at the front of the classroom by teaching the occasional adult education class around town. Now, it is time to impose discipline on my avocation. Since I work full time, this will be a long-term project; I am assuming that I’m on the five-year plan by taking one class per semester.

My inaugural class is the Anthropology of Food, and it has been a fascinating journey. While I am still getting my “sea legs” and learning how to think and write in a critical and scholarly way, I have enjoyed every minute of the time I’ve spent doing classwork – even when I want to cry with frustration at how out of practice I am at being a student (I’m looking at you, Lit Review!). I suspect that my husband might feel a bit differently, as 20-plus years of routine are disrupted by my classes and homework.

The Anthropology of Food is a perfect first class, because it provides structure and academic context for the things Photo Sep 24, 9 58 44 AMwe all observe on a daily basis. How does food define us? Why do we purchase, or cook, the things we do? What do our choices say about who we are? The class has made me stop and think about virtually every food transaction I myself make, let alone what I observe just moving through my everyday life.

The course, taught by Ellen Rovner, includes a semester-long project that is very thoughtfully broken up into chunks: identifying a venue in which transactions around food take place (a shop, a restaurant, mom’s kitchen) and conducting an ethnographic study of it. Through the project, I have learned not only about one specific place but also about what anthropology is and what anthropologists do. Over the semester we have been building toward our final paper , from participant observation and in-depth informant interviews to the literature review, and then pulling it all together. This has given us an opportunity to thoughtfully and through real experience develop our research questions.

Photo Sep 24, 10 02 44 AMI live in Watertown, MA, home to one of the largest Armenian communities in the U.S. It’s full of Armenian markets. As my research venue, I chose Sevan Bakery, a place where I already shop on a regular basis. As a non-Armenian, I was interested to explore the reasons both Armenians and non-Armenians choose to shop there as opposed to (or in addition to?) the other three markets within a half-mile radius. I learned a great deal through observation and interviews, much of which challenged my assumptions and made me rethink my questions. In many ways the project has been very personally eye-opening, forcing me to apply the theories I’ve learned in class (about cultural distinction and identity, for example) to my own assumptions, as an outsider, about how a cultural group like Armenians identify themselves. Because there are some parallels between Armenian history and Jewish history (ancient cultures, centuries of displacement, oppression, diaspora), I have found myself reflecting on my own cultural history.

As I work on my final paper, I can only hope that I do both Sevan and myself justice! In the end, though, as much as I have enjoyed the reading assignments and the writing for class, my favorite part has been getting to know my classmates. I am impressed with their varied backgrounds and look forward to getting to know them better, and learning from them.



An Intense Week of Jewish Food Culture

by Andrea Lubrano

Alumna Andrea Lubrano describes her exploits during the week-long Tent: Food NYC, exploring Jewish food culture in New York City from October 19th through the 26th, 2014. 

group picNew York City, a land made up of culinary diversity, was host to twenty remarkable individuals this past October during the first Tent: Food NYC, a program of the Yiddish Book Center. Hosted by The Center for Jewish History and led by Lara Rabinovitch, the Food Editor of Good Magazine and the “Queen of Pastrami,” this week-long intensive seminar had the best itinerary this gastronome could hope for. Plus, I got to share my most profound interests with likeminded individuals, who in one way or another understand the significance of food as a tool to preserve and enrich our cultural heritage and that of others.

Although this week, as one would imagine, explored specifically Jewish food culture in New York, it did so strictly under the parameters that Jewish food culture, like that of the Irish or Italians, is of equal significance to the fabric of the city, so there was little to no religious undertone.

chineseTo give you a re-cap of my week, every morning, more or less, we began our day defining the diversity of Jewishness in the realm of food traditions. We reviewed historic Jewish cookbooks and recipes held in the special collections library at the Center for Jewish History and also got a private showing of the menu and cookbook collection held at the New York Public Library.

We had a challah and babka workshop at Breads Bakery, went on a Lower East Side food crawl that included all the greats like Katz’s Deli, Russ and Daughters, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, The Pickle Guys, and Kossar’s Bialys, to name a few. We met Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte NYC, a master in spices and the senses.

challahWe had a cooking demonstration with Eli Sussman, the head chef at Mile End Deli. We learned some pitching tips from a lecture with Gabriella Gershenson, the Food Features Editor at Every Day with Rachel Ray. We also went on a tour of Little Odessa and Brighton Beach with Knish expert Laura Silver, learned about MAZON, a national non-profit organization that works on ending hunger, and had a lecture with Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice-President of the James Beard Foundation, about the future of our food and the importance of intertwining flavor and health into the larger conversation.

I’m most definitely forgetting some other wonderful and informative events, probably because the week was so engaging and full of enriching experiences.

criscoAs if the daytime schedule wasn’t eventful enough, all the participants were required to dine together every night of the week. And further encouraged to talk to a different participant as a way to keep the group dynamics flowing. A memorable dinner, aside from the tasting at Bar Bolonat and the meal at La Vara, was probably our Shabbat dinner, where all twenty of us shopped, cooked and cleaned for a home-cooked-family-meal.

All in all, this experience has truly given me a whole new perspective on the revival of Jewish food in the U.S., which being a non-Jew I initially thought only encompassed matzo ball soup and pastrami sandwiches. Thanks to Tent, today I know that Moroccan tagines, Iraqi qatayef, borscht, mamaliga and kvass have more than one culture associated with them. At the heart of the Jewish diaspora live the roots of their culinary diversity, making Jewish food as geographically specific as that of any immigrant American. If you haven’t already looked up this wonderful program in the hopes of joining their next seminar, I’m sure the fact the program is completely free of charge will encourage you to do so. There are also fashion, creative writing, museums, journalism, pop music and comedy workshops under the Tent umbrella (www.tentsite.org/).