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On Course:
Eating Culture

By Robin Parks


 

In 1861, Isabella Beeton (author of the famed Beeton’s Book of Household Management) described dining as “the privilege of civilization—it implies both the will and skill to reduce to order the more material conditions of human existence.” Food, for Beeton’s audience, should no longer be seen as mere fuel to set us about our workday. Rather, we should consider dining a revolutionary act, filled with meaning and portent.

One hundred and forty-six years later, Bryn Mawr students put “matters culinary” at the center of their studies in Assistant Professor Kate Thomas’s course, Eating Culture: Food and Britain 1798–1929. “We will work towards theorizing food’s materiality,” reads Thomas’s syllabus, “considering the physiognomy of food, the aesthetics of a menu, and the hermeneutics [methods of interpretation] of taste.”

Eating Culture resides in the English department, but takes its spirit from the burgeoning field of food studies, a field Thomas says is “thoroughly interdisciplinary.”

From Beeton on, there are, according to Thomas, a number of scholars doing “wonderful work” in food studies, including Timothy Morton, whose 1998 essay “Blood Sugar” examines how representations of sugar interacted with popular discussions of the slave trade (the essay is included in the anthology Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780–1830).

“We’re engaged in the complex business of field formation,” says Thomas. “Food studies or diet studies doesn’t yet have a firm footing.”

Slippery footing aside, the field is being enthusiastically embraced by the Tri-Co community. “We have ambitions,” says Thomas, “to make the Tri-Co a hub for research and teaching in this new field.” There is now a faculty food studies group, and scholars from geology, French, Russian, history and other departments are doing food-centered research.

“At various moments in the past,” Thomas says, “people have been very happy to talk about the politics of food and the philosophy of food. I think that we are coming back around to that again, with people thinking about local foods, how we source our food, how we transport it, how government is involved in it.”

Eating Culture uses literary methodologies to treat food/eating/cooking as texts to be read and examined just as students would any other text. In the essay, “Edible écriture,” British literary critic Terry Eagleton describes the project thusly: “The link between eating and writing has a venerable pedigree. Francis Bacon famously observed in his essay, ‘Of Studies’ that ‘some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.’ Literary language can be mouth-filling or subtly flavoured, meaty or hard-boiled, spicy or indigestible.”

While initially, Thomas’s students get their feet wet in this enterprise by generously applying the language of semiotics to a popular food writer’s memoir, they later shift the object under scrutiny to the corporeal text of actual food. First, though, the memoir.

Toast

Nigel Slater’s appealing memoir, Toast: the Story of a Boy’s Hunger, is the narrative of his young life with a mother who loathed cooking, a complicated and sad father, the step-mother who takes over the kitchen upon the mother’s death, and Slater’s own budding sexuality and culinary journey. Set in 1960s suburban England, the memoir is told in brief bites with headings such as “Boiled Ham and Parsley Sauce” and “Jammie Dodgers.” The U.S. edition includes a glossary that translates Britishisms: ‘crisps’ are potato chips, ‘gobstoppers’ are jaw breakers, ‘naff’ means dorky and unfashionable.

“It’s a narrative of rivalry, hatred, loss, full of conflict,” says Thomas. “Slater isn’t writing a story of how he came to have ‘taste.’ He’s happy to celebrate the tacky. It’s a story of how food can illuminate a life, an era, a nation.”

Thomas directs students to discuss the semiotics of food in Toast.  Based in linguistics, semiotics is the study of signs, and everywhere there are signs. We understand our culture through reading these signs: an Armani suit signals one meaning; Hello Kitty T-shirts another.

“We are surrounded by signs and systems of signs,” she tells the class, “but there’s an uneasy relationship between the signifier and the signified, between sign and object.” The sign has only an arbitrary connection to what it signifies. She gives the example that “the word ‘cat’ is not fuzzy. It does not have little whiskers. The sign stands in for the thing itself, but there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip.”

In Toast, virtually every instance of food is not actually about food. For Slater, food points to love, comfort, happiness, and sometimes grief and loss. Food is the signifier, emotion the signified.

The students firmly grasp this critical framework. One says, “Good food—I mean food that tastes good—does not necessarily point to a good relationship.” In Toast, she says, “It’s very confused for Slater.”

Another says, “We always talk about unhealthy relation­ships to food.” Along those lines, another student offers, “We bring baggage to a text and we bring baggage to a meal.”

They agree that in Toast, baked goods are a battleground, eggs stand for motherloss, and the smell of milk is both absence and presence.

Someone’s in the Kitchen

Thomas has greater aspirations for her students than merely examining words. She wants them to examine real food and think and speak critically about it. She wants her students to deconstruct the yum factor. The word “taste” comes under special scrutiny as she moves the classroom to a cooking school on the Main Line.

“The theory behind the demonstration classes,” she says, “is that we should be able to be as critical about things that are material as we are critical about texts and concepts.” Thomas says that food has often been seen as not a proper topic for study. “And so it’s a challenge to do a demonstration class and not have it turn into home ec. It’s interesting how many hurdles there are in the pathway to getting serious about theorizing taste beyond limited definitions of cultural prestige. Can we critically engage taste as a somatic experience and what implications might that have for our interpretive practices more generally?"

The class met twice, for an hour and a half each time, to witness Thomas’s preparation of recipes taken directly from Beeton’s.

Selected Course Readings

Against Nature, J.K. Huysmans

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton

Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace

The Country and the City, Raymond Williams

Culinary Jottings For Madras, Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert

Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism, Timothy Morton

Curry: The Story of the Nation’s Favourite Dish, Shrabani Basu

Food and Culture: A Reader, Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik

A History of Mary Prince, Mary Prince

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

The Location of Culture, Homi K. Bhabha

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, translated by M.F.K. Fisher

Practicing New Historicism, Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt

Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780–1830, Timothy Fulford and Peter J. Kitson

Toast: the Story of a Boy’s Hunger, Nigel Slater
When I taught this as a 200-level course,” Thomas says, “students were uncomfortable trying to analyze what they were tasting. They used the kinds of formulations that we abhor in the English classroom. The very last thing we would want anyone to say is just, ‘oh, I like it,’ ‘oh, I don’t like it,’ ‘it’s kinda great.’ And those were exactly the kinds of formulations we fell into when we tried to answer, ‘what are you tasting?’ What are you experiencing here?’ I’d ask them to talk about the custard and it would be ‘yum!’ It was all yum; there was no ‘ewww.’ I guess they were being polite.” Thomas moved the course to 300 level, so that the students had a well-developed critical vocabulary, which they were adept at applying at the demonstration classes.

“I found that students were very receptive to standing around and really using a critical vocabulary to talk about the food. The Beeton book ranges from telling you how to make gruel to telling you how to make turtle soup. We were able to think about the class profile of the recipes we made, and what kind of social project the Book on Household Management is. It’s very much a handbook for the making of the middle classes. It is Mrs. Beeton saying ‘To preserve your class status, your hard won class status, you can do it through producing this particular culinary culture.’

“We cooked two dishes: a ginger cream or custard and then I cooked a Scotch shortbread. I chose the ginger custard recipe because it had a wonderful footnote about the provenance of ginger, and since we had been talking about Colonial trade routes and Colonial relations, it was very germane. You’ve got that traditional, very creamy, bland but quite rich custard which emerges from an agrarian, dairy-producing English culture, then you’ve got the crystallized ginger which is powerful and spicy—and imported from the colonies. Students could understand this as a hybrid dish, one that expressed Colonial relations. We were able think about food as an expression of an empire.”

Victorians Fat and Thin

Thomas has gone back and forth between England and the states for a number of years. She did her undergrad at Oxford, her master’s at Cornell, her doctorate at Oxford. She taught at Oberlin and Dartmouth, but now calls Philadelphia her home.

“I’m settled. I really love it here.”

Thomas has a food-centered blog, called Syllabub (syllabub.blogspot.com). Her current book project, Victorians Fat and Thin, is about “shifts in class and taste that happened in the 19th century” she says, “and the sorts of collisions that occurred between food and cultures under industrialization. This class is a wonderful forum for me, drawing out these ideas.

“I’ve never taught such smart women,” she says. “I just haven’t. They have this sort of intellectual tenacity that I just love. I’ve taught many, many, very smart students, but I’ve never taught so many smart women in one small space. They’re extraordinary.”

 

 

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