Talking Food History | Darra Goldstein

Maybe it’s just my own obsession, but everyone these days seems to be talking food. September saw the first IACP/Gastronomica Food History Symposium, held here at Williams College for a group of nearly one hundred. Participants came from across the u.s. and from as far afield as Australia, Sweden, and Peru, despite its scheduling just two weeks after September 11. What made the weekend especially stimulating was the mix of academics and culinary practitioners. We engaged in lively dialogue, considering, for instance, the distinctions between food history and culinary history. In panel sessions, Stephen Schmidt elaborated on the relationship between biscotti and meringues, while Yong Chen dissected Chinese-American restaurants. Symposiasts were able to view an exhibition of rare cookbooks at the Chapin Library, sample Berkshires artisan cheese, and quaff fresh-pressed apple cider. The sessions closed with a thoughtful address by Sidney Mintz on “Digesting the Future: Food Studies and the Puzzle of Modernity.” Following the success of this weekend, a second symposium is in the works for next September.

But academia isn’t the only place where people are talking food history. In October, the Calphalon Culinary Center opened in Chicago. This new cooking school, with its beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, aims to teach students more than just technique. Their programs will offer comprehensive classes on the history of the foods they learn to prepare. For the opening weekend, Calphalon brought together several speakers to demonstrate how the cultural context of food can be brought into the kitchen. Su-Mei Yu spoke on the development of Thai food and the external influences that shaped it; Zona Spray described consumption patterns in Alaskan Arctic cuisine (be sure to read her fascinating article on page 30), and I discussed food in Russian culture. We then repaired to the kitchens for hands-on demonstrations of foods we’d discussed.

In November, it was back to the traditional classroom, this time at the University of San Francisco, where I led a seminar in the Davies Forum, a special program focusing on values in public life. This year’s forum, organized by philosophy professor Yoko Arisaka, had as its theme “Our Food, Our Society: An Exploration of American Values.” We approached food in American life in a roundabout way, by reading Lidiya Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary, a documentary novel about the Siege of Leningrad that explores the psychology of deprivation and hunger.

Add to this roster the upcoming conference on “Food in Literature and the Arts” at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the first-ever conference on philosophy and food scheduled for April at Mississippi State University, and you can see how pervasive the study of food has become, all across the disciplines. Gastronomica is pleased to be part of this exciting groundswell.

We’re especially pleased to learn that Best Food Writing 2001 chose Paul Russell’s essay on “Delicacy” (Winter 2001) for inclusion, and that Gastronomica itself received the bronze ladle for “Best Food Magazine” at the Jacob’s Creek World Food Media Awards in Adelaide, Australia, in October—not bad for a journal still in its infancy, competing with a lot of rich kids on the block.

So, obviously, we’re on to something. How does the study of food enrich your life? Let us know. Send letters and submissions. At the very least, food can offer us comfort in these unsettled times.