The Future of Food Studies

Brad Jones, Graduate Student, Sociocultural Anthropology

November 3rd, 2017

The Future of Food Studies conference brought together more than 50 graduate scholars representing 17 disciplines, 31 different universities, and 9 countries for 2 days of intense dialogue and discussion. Participants came from as far away as Germany and India and from top universities such a Brown, Berkeley, and Harvard. Overall, the conference offered novel theories and methodologies for the study of food and planted the seeds of new subjects of inquiry.

1. What is food studies, and what are the range of approaches to the topic? How do you approach the topic?

Food saturates the human experience. It nourishes, tempts, and disgusts us. It brings us together around the table and it also divides us. Nothing is more universal, nothing more culturally-specific. For years, the study of food occupied only the margins of academia, always on the table but rarely the main course. In the past two decades, however, food studies has leaped into the mainstream. Food studies now boasts its own journals, professional associations, and undergraduate and graduate programs at institutions around the world. Scholars are problematizing local and global food systems, exploring the embodied experience of cooking and consuming food, and analyzing the ways that food produces and reproduces identity, to just scratch the surface. As an anthropologist, I'm particularly interested in the articulation of food production and consumption and the meanings individuals associate with it. For instance, I recently published an article on the reinvention of Lowcountry cuisine in the Carolinas, exploring the way that regional tastemakers are materially and discursively producing palatability and patrimony in the form of heirloom grains. The paper emphasizes that the process of elevating what was once a racialized and marginalized cuisine to gentrified James Beard award-worthy fare is riddled with accentuations and erasures, emphasizing the "tasty" aspects while eliding unsavory others.

2. What were your hopes and goals for the event?

The goal of the conference was to bring together graduate students, themselves the future of food of studies, to trace the contours of these questions the interdiscipline of food studies, now prominently implanted in the academic landscape, faces. For example, new initiants and seasoned scholars might wonder what the interdiscipline accomplished thus far? How will the field continue to evolve as it becomes increasingly institutionalized? What new theories, methodologies, and topics will scholars turn to next? In short, what is the future of food studies? Organized by the Graduate Association for Food Studies, an interdisciplinary academic community with the goal of connecting graduate students interested in food and promoting and encouraging their exceptional work, the conference also sought to build scholarly networks and plant the seeds of new collaborations.

3. How did you go about planning an event of this size and magnitude?

We started early, built a strong organizing team, and met (at times, annoyingly) often over Skype! I can't thank the planning committee enough and the support from some many departments across WashU. Building on the success of the inaugural Future of the Food studies conference at Harvard University in the Fall of 2015, we had a lot of the systems in place to streamline a successful event, but organizing a conference is a heck of a lot of work, especially when the conferences brings in so many people from throughout the country and world. However, the rewards are legion. The payoff of most academic labor is diffuse and delayed, but here it was extremely tangible: the new friendships, the chance to hear cutting edge scholarship, the exceptional conversations, the diverse fieldtrips, and the tremendous keynote lectures. It was also a great opportunity to highlight the exceptional work of students and faculty across Washington University, and further solidify our reputation as a national leader in the study of food and agriculture.

4. Now looking back, what were some highlights of the event for you?

The opportunity to bring prominent scholars Krishnendu Ray and Alison Hope Alkon to campus was a real treat. Their presentations were thought provoking and engaging and stoked a genuine hunger for pursuing further food studies scholarship. I was also extremely impressed with the quality of discussion following each panel. Nutritionists dialoguing with science and technology studies scholars, historians engaging with anthropologists, practitioners debating with theorists. This is where the important and intellectually-stimulating work happens. Conversation among peers from interdisciplinary backgrounds produced a willingness to ask questions freely and critique the "common sense" that might otherwise be taken for granted within the confines of home disciplines. That exchange and affability was also what made the opportunity to get out of the lecture hall and get our hands dirty at Good Life Growing urban farm was such a neat experience. Such interesting conversations to be had about social enterprise, agroecology, urban renewal, community development, and the work we could and should be doing as publically engaged scholars.

5. Anything else you'd like to share?

The conference would not have been possible without diverse institutional support and sponsorship. On behalf of the planning committee, I'd like to thank schools, programs, and departments across WashU: Anthropology, English, History, American Culture Studies, Environmental Studies, the Center for the Humanities, and Brown School of Social Work. Other support came from the American Studies program at Harvard and the Umbra Institute, a study abroad program in Italy with a strong emphasis on food studies. The biggest thank you, though, is owed to Association for the Study of Food and Society, the premier scholarly society for food studies. Their seed grant has made this conference possible, as well as iterations of it in the future. No other organization is more committed to seeing food studies flourish.

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