Teaching the Anthropology of Food in East Central Illinois

In spring 2019, I taught a brand-new course called “Consuming Culture: The Anthropology of Food.” My intent was to combine anthropological theory on the relationship between food and culture with a hands-on approach, and also to take advantage of the recent explosion of food media, from the late Anthony Bourdain’s acclaimed television shows to Pinterest recipes to the Great British Baking Show.

I love hearing of the tried and true recipes people call their own, and the absolute joy sharing those recipes brings to people.

Our class met twice a week in a traditional classroom; however, we were conveniently located next door to our department kitchen, which offered a sink, a microwave, and some counter space for hands-on exercises. I had been fortunate, too, to get a copy of Willa Zhen’s new Food Studies: A Hands On Guide, which was designed to offer exercises that don’t require a full working kitchen or lab space. Students also completed a recipe project during the semester, as student Mariah Slaughter explains:

For this project, each of us had to choose a family recipe, written or verbal, to prepare, analyze, and write about. This project did a great job at taking what we were discussing in class and applying it in a personal manner that hits home for each student. This included taking field notes while preparing the recipe, and recording each step, in addition to the written or verbal recipe itself, and sharing the food with others and documenting that experience as well. For me, this was stepping further into a recipe I grew up around and picking it apart to see how and why it landed into my family and how it has been adapted since. This same technique of analyzing happens each time I open up my family recipe box, making me more grateful for those who nourished their bodies and those of their family before me with the same recipe. I love hearing of the tried and true recipes people call their own, and the absolute joy sharing those recipes brings to people.

Challenges

I had originally planned for a class that met for 2.5 hours once a week, so that we could take field trips. However, we were scheduled for two 75-minute sessions each week, which limited the number and range of field trips we could easily take. Although we visited several local ethnic restaurants to consider how such dining experiences were presented in a rural college town, I would have liked to have the time to take the students to an Amish-run bulk food store a half-hour’s drive out of town, to further investigate the range of food culture in the area.

This class has opened my eyes to all the different ways in which people receive their food and where that food comes from.

The students presented a challenging range of experience and familiarity with food. Some had little experience or exposure to cooking or to the language of food preparation; others came from families that did extensive canning, baking, and sausage making. Some students were surprised at how easily they could transform whipping cream into butter by just shaking it in a jar; others learned for the first time that pickles started out life as cucumbers (though everyone agreed that the textbook’s pickle recipe needed seasoning). Likewise, although almost everyone regularly ate yogurt in some form, almost no one had made it themselves. After starting Greek-style yogurt in class, the students stopped by my office to check on its progress over the next day or so, but most found the end result too tangy for their tastes.

Discoveries

The class allowed all of us to engage with food issues on our own campus and in the wider community. We addressed food insecurity on our campus and in our county (and beyond) during guest lectures from my sociology colleague, Michael Gillespie, and Barbra Wylie, director of Peace Meal, an area meal program for seniors. And at the very end of the semester, when spring finally arrived on our campus, we took a local “field trip” to hear about the Eastern Illinois University (EIU) Sustainable Garden Project and to assist with the project’s current phase of recycling food waste. Students washed and labeled compost buckets that are used to collect food scraps from the dining hall kitchens, and also turned the large compost tumblers that held the collected scraps.

Six students stand outside and clean compost bucket lids
Image description: A photograph of six students from the Consuming Culture class standing outdoors behind a university greenhouse, washing green plastic compost bucket lids with sponges and soapy water.
Caption: Cleaning compost buckets for campus dining hall food scraps.
Angela Glaros

Moreover, the students have applied their knowledge beyond the classroom, as with the EIU Sociology-Anthropology Club’s current coffee drive for Peace Meal. Like many similar senior meal programs, Peace Meal cannot use any of its funding to provide nonnutritive items such as coffee for the seniors it serves. As Mariah Slaughter says:

The club invited director Barbra Wylie, to speak to the club members about Peace Meal’s mission and how the club could help with fundraising for coffee. We decided to collect ground coffee, dry non-perishable creamers, and sweetener packets. The officers worked together to receive permission from the locations where drop-off boxes would be placed, choosing to place them at several on campus locations and also a local coffee and tea shop to open the door for the community to be involved. Before setting the boxes at their locations, we hosted a coffee bar for all members to come together to paint and decorate the drop-off boxes with coffee sayings. This has been such a learning experience for the officers and a huge opportunity for the club to connect with the community.

Two decorated cardboard boxes for the collection of donated coffee are stacked on a table
Image description: A photograph of two large cardboard donation boxes prepared by the Eastern Illinois University Sociology/Anthropology Club for its Fall 2019 coffee drive for Peace Meal, an area meal program for seniors. The boxes are decorated with paint and colored paper and stacked on top of each other. The top box features the words “Coffee Makes Everything Possible” with a cutout image of a blue coffee cup next to them. The bottom box features the words “Coffee Drive” in lowercase script, surrounded by painted images of fall foliage.
Caption: Decorated coffee drive collection boxes.
Angela Glaros

As Slaughter points out, the class inspired the project:

Two of four club officers were in the food class and were present when Barbara Wylie first came to speak of Peace Meal and its mission. Her statement was so emotionally powerful and passionate, it is truly something I will never forget. She told stories of seniors who received the meals, not only in the literal sense of feeding their bodies, but also feeding them emotionally; the service also gives seniors basic human-to-human contact, checking in on them when their families are not present. She told us an emotional story about a senior who had fallen down and waited all night until their meal delivery came for someone to help them up and the senior could only say, “I knew you’d come!” Barbra Wylie’s statements and stories of this program made this more than meal deliveries for seniors but gave us all an emotional connection. This is what led the group to get involved.

Such connections demonstrate that even under less than ideal circumstances or in the presence of logistical challenges, food anthropology offers a concrete and meaningful way of understanding social life and relationships. Slaughter states:

One of the topics we worked around was not only who is preparing the food you eat but whom have you fed, this being on any scale you think of as feeding someone. Working in the food industry, this is something I still think about often. Even in the food industry, whether that is McDonald’s or a specialized bakery, the importance of feeding people and nourishing their bodies is still ever present. To that regular customer, the food you are preparing for them is integral to their foodways.

I have always held baking and cooking in high regard; when I make something, it is all done with care and creativity. This class has opened my eyes to all the different ways in which people receive their food and where that food comes from. I now find myself a little taken aback and even perhaps sad when I see food not prepared with care, knowing how much that food may truly mean to the person receiving it, even if they do not realize it in the moment. Because food matters and so does the symbolic relationship we hold with it.

Angela Glaros is associate professor of anthropology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Eastern Illinois University and president of the Central States Anthropological Society. She writes about the power of women’s voices in traditional forms of folk and religious music in Greece and Greek-American communities.

Mariah Slaughter is a senior sociology student with a minor in anthropology and entrepreneurship at Eastern Illinois University and president of Eastern Illinois University’s Sociology-Anthropology Club.

Cite as: Glaros, Angela, and Mariah Slaughter. 2020. “Teaching the Anthropology of Food in East Central Illinois.” Anthropology News website, April 2, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1374

Comments

Food is a rich topic for anthropology because its production, preparation and consumption figure in so many aspects of life. I used to assign my Intro students a paper on their family’s secret recipe (or another recipe, if there was no secret one). Invariably students groaned: “We don’t have any secret recipe in my family.” “Just try,” I’d say. And then nearly all of them would return from fall or spring break with a paper about their family’s secret recipe! They were surprised‒and so was I, the first time, because recipes were no secret in my family. We were always sharing recipes (and still do).
Usually only one person in a family knew the secret recipe at any given time. One young woman was surprised that a cake she’d eaten often was her family’s secret recipe. She was even more surprised to learn that her own mother was keeper of the recipe. And she discovered a new closeness with her mother when mom decided to make daughter the next heir to the recipe and together they made a “sunshine cake.”
Caution: If you try this exercise, advise your students to honor the secret part of it and not to ask for the recipe itself.

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