The Catholic University of America

Dec. 19, 2014

Anthropology of Food Goes Beyond Taste

 
  Miriam Doutriaux and her students get ready for an applesauce taste test.
 

Apples are lined up on a table at the front of the classroom. There are several varieties and different shades of red, green, and yellow.

Miriam Doutriaux, anthropology lecturer, is asking her students about the symbolism of apples. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” calls out one student. Others join in. “Apple of my eye. New York City is the Big Apple. Don’t upset the apple cart. As American as apple pie.”

The students discuss the features of the all-American apple. “Hardy, natural, healthy, familiar, sweet-tasting.” They talk about apples in history, all the way back to Adam and Eve.

Doutriaux has a taste test planned for the students. They will taste her homemade applesauce vs. store-bought mass-produced applesauce. “Your grade does not depend on choosing my applesauce,” she tells them with a laugh. But after they taste the two, they all know which one is homemade and they prefer its taste.

She asks them to offer words to describe the industrially produced applesauce. “Sugary, runny, too sweet, reminds me of being a kid, childhood, preschool, smooth.” And for the homemade variety “thick, flavorful, tastes like natural apples, it’s more like apple pie than apple juice, perfect amount of sweet.”
The students discuss the reasons for the difference in taste, and before long they are talking about the history of food production.

In Anthropology of Food, a fall 2014 course offered through the Department of Anthropology, students answered such questions as: Are there ethical and non-ethical ways to produce food? How does food production relate to a healthy environment? What happens to food as it moves from the farm to the dinner plate? How does food become an expression of our social selves?

They took a field trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950 – 2000.” And because it’s an anthropology course, they did field research. Their projects ranged from analyzing food shows on television, comparing fast food and slow food dining experiences, studying food blogs, comparing supermarkets and local farmers markets, and documenting the effects of eliminating all sugar for 24 hours.

“This was a very broad subject for one course,” says Doutriaux, an archaeologist and anthropologist whose work focuses on the cultural production and negotiation of identity, ethnicity, material culture, and the history of collecting and museums.

“But in every topic we covered there was something students could relate to. They really embraced the subject and found the relevance in their own lives.”

One class includes a chocolate tasting presented by a representative from Cocova, a boutique store located in Dupont Circle dedicated to sustainable cacao farmers and offering more than 300 chocolates from around the world.

The guest speaker has four types of chocolate. She asks the students to smell each piece they are tasting and to let the chocolate melt slowly on their tongues. She talks about the different regions that produced the cocoa beans and how they were roasted. As the students describe the flavors they use terms such as fruity, sour, acidic, full. The taste changes, some notice, when they let it linger on their tongues.

As the course winds down in December, Emily Byers, co-director of the International Hunger Fellows Program at the Congressional Hunger Center, comes to talk about international food security.

“Hunger and the fear of hunger lead to global instability,” she explains. “In the last five years, there have been really exciting movements and public policy initiatives.”

Among many efforts, she points to the Global Food Security Act of 2014, which directs the president to coordinate the development and implementation of a comprehensive global food security strategy. She also tells them about the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellow Program, offered through the Congressional Hunger Center, which develops leaders committed to finding lasting solutions to hunger around the world.

“I wanted to end the course talking about current food policy,” says Doutriaux. “We came full circle. By the last class we were talking about food security right in our own backyard. And students were offering educated opinions and ideas for solutions.”

Doutriaux says it is gratifying to read her students’ final papers. “The topics were so creative. From history of the all-American hot dog to a survey of Christmas meals to weighing the benefits of GMOs vs. certified organic crops to the culture and the role of nutrition in achieving a healthy weight. Every paper was so different and elaborated on one of the many topics we covered this semester.”

Many students comment that the course has changed the way they think about and experience food.

“I enjoyed being able to learn about such an essential part of every culture, and about the evolution of food and how far along we have come in food security,” says Mary Archer, a senior philosophy major from Germantown, Tenn. It was eye-opening to me that organic food and industrialized foods are actually not polar opposites because they both use many of the same techniques.”

Senior Erin Sandlin, of Moorpark, Calif., says, “Although I am a politics major, my interest in sustainability was applied and enhanced with the topics in this course. I had never examined my own familiar set of standards for nutrition, and compared it with different cultures.

“Every culture has unique standards for nutrition and health which contribute to the types of foods it traditionally eats. The course made me think about why I choose to eat specific foods and prefer certain tastes.”

 

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