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March 24, 2005

   

KATE SEARS-SANN '05 AWARDED WATSON FELLOWSHIP

Kate Sears-Sann

Kate Sears-Sann '05 has won a coveted 2005-06 Watson Fellowship, which will fund a yearlong independent study of food practices that combines her interest in cultural criticism with her longstanding passion for the culinary arts. Sears-Sann is one of 50 graduating seniors nationwide to win the prestigious grant, which is awarded annually by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to support independent study and travel outside the United States.

Sears-Sann's project, titled "Locally Grown, Locally Eaten: Marchés of the Francophone World," will take her first to France and then to three Francophone island territories: St. Pierre et Miquelon, in the North Atlantic near Newfoundland; Réunion, in the Indian Ocean off southeast Africa; and Corsica, the Mediterranean island that was the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. In each location, she will explore the relationship between culinary practice and local food production and markets.

"In France," Sears-Sann explains, "culinary traditions are firmly grounded in locally produced foods. Farmers' markets in the contemporary United States tend to be tied up with middle-class aspirations and draw fairly affluent patrons, but they're where everybody shops in France. They tie the table to the countryside. I want to see whether the French preference for eating locally produced food is amplified by the relative isolation of island life."

The three islands Sears-Sann plans to visit have widely divergent histories of food production, she says. Tropical Réunion has a history of sugar production and maintains an important export trade in vanilla and saffron. "If a local food product is desired on a global scale," Sears-Sann asks, "will the local food culture be centered on export and exchange?"

According to Sears-Sann, Corsica's island culture is independent to a degree that sometimes makes its political relationship with the French mainland uneasy. Its culinary tradition is correspondingly distinctive, she says, with types of cheeses and smoked meats that are available nowhere else. "There's a diversity of food products; the island isn't dependent on importation for survival," she says, "so it's a culinary closed circuit, in a way."

St. Pierre et Miquelon is an archipelago of tiny islands that for centuries provided a large proportion of the codfish eaten in Europe. Now the stocks of cod are so depleted that the islands' waters can no longer be fished. "If so much of a culture is wrapped up in a particular food product," Sears-Sann says, "what happens when it disappears? Professor Barber in the geology department has done research in that area, and he says that people there eat a lot of Spam."

Cooking has long been both a pastime and a source of income for Sears-Sann, who grew up in upstate New York. "My parents let me start a food business when I was about 12 years old," she says. "They were very generous and pretty much let me take over the kitchen during the summers. I started off baking cookies and selling them at local markets. For a while I was obsessed with making biscotti, which I sold to local coffeehouses. I've had stands in lots of farmers' markets over the years." Eventually, Sears-Sann's projects grew into a full-fledged catering business.

"It's really only in the past couple of years that I've started pursuing this interest as a subject of academic study," Sears-Sann says. "Writing the application for the Watson Fellowship actually helped me clarify my career goals and interests. The application requires a project proposal and a kind of manifesto about why the project is personally significant to the applicant. It was wonderful to have the space to write this document about who I am, what I want to do and why. I thought that I had gained a lot just from the application process, even before I learned that I'd gotten the fellowship."

Sears-Sann is currently acting as a teaching assistant to Assistant Professor of English Kate Thomas for her course "Eating Culture: Britain and Food 1789–1929," which involves cooking demonstrations. She is also taking "Food, Culture and Society," a graduate course in the University of Pennsylvania's folklore department. After her Watson year, she will probably apply to a graduate program that will allow her to continue her academic study of cuisine — but she also dreams of owning a restaurant. She doesn't rule out the possibility of following both paths: "I know of at least two Bryn Mawr professors — the English Department's Michael Tratner and the French Department's Pim Higginson — who've worked as professional chefs."

 

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