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Academic Food Fights

To take a much-needed break from the missing (or hijacked) Malaysian flight, Putin’s annexation of the Crimea from the Ukraine, the antics, antisemitism, and anti-Americanism of President Barack Obama, and news of college professors advocating the jailing of global warming deniers, I decided to indulge in some semi-humorous, cathartic (or therapeutic) commentary in this column.

When I saw the headline of Daniel Greenfield’s FrontPage article of March 15th, “Ice Cream Social Justice: ‘Critical Food Studies’ Comes to College,” I initially read it as “Critical Foot Studies,” and wondered what mischief the podiatrists and shoe manufacturers were up to now. Had they taken a survey of collegiate footwear and lobbied Congress to mandate environmentally friendly shoestring and leather on campus? Or asked Congress to enact prohibitively high import tariffs on Indonesian and Chinese products? Then I blinked once and saw it was “Critical Food Studies.” Never mind. “Critical Food Studies” was ludicrous enough. However, I’m sure some tenure-hungry yob is massaging a proposal to introduce foot, ankle and heel studies.

Greenfield, in his characteristically droll style, opened his article with:

Higher education tuition costs and student loan debt have increased proportionally with the sheer worthlessness of a college education. Students were paradoxically far more likely to learn something worthwhile when higher ed was for dilettantes, than now when it’s a mandatory job prerequisite.

Greenfield’s article about the proliferation of “food studies” in college and university curricula is largely based on a March 12th article by Mary Grabar, “Food Fetish on Campus,” on the John William Pope Center commentaries page. (Again, I initially read it as Foot Fetish, but, again, never mind.) Greenfield studiously annotates Grabar’s article. Grabar reported:

These days, even in their required classes, students are not likely to get exposure to philosophical concepts like Epicureanism, or to classical authors such as Hawthorne. They’re more apt to take courses that focus on food itself, that tell them essentially, “You are what you eat.”  Food, in other words, carries moral meanings. What you eat and how you eat define you as a moral person, with the new standards of morality aligning with the other lessons of the contemporary campus on race, class, sustainability, animal rights, and gender.

The latest additions have little to do with legitimate intellectual endeavors like agriculture or nutrition science. Instead, food becomes another lens through which to examine oppression, sustainability, and multiculturalism.

Greenfield remarked:

Political correctness, food and pointless American Studies navel gazing…in one course. Somehow I’m entirely confident that the discussion will be largely about white ‘othering’ of African-American foods.

Grabar further reports:

…[F]ood becomes another lens through which to examine oppression, sustainability, and multiculturalism.  A surprising number of universities have gone in this direction. The New School has an undergraduate program in food studies, while several offer master’s level programs: Chatham University, New York University, Boston University (a graduate certificate); and New Mexico State University (a graduate-level minor). The Graduate Center of the City University of New York offers an interdisciplinary concentration, and Indiana University even a Ph.D. concentration in Anthropology of Food.

How does one satirize or parody the inane? It can’t be done, except perhaps by the Monty Python troupe or the Marx Brothers. I defer to Mary Grabar:

You can find the mania over food studies in many states, including North Carolina. At UNC-Chapel Hill, students in the Department of Geography can take “Critical Food Studies,” and others can develop interdisciplinary programs that incorporate courses such as “Food in American Culture” provided through the department of American Studies.

Food studies is also a focus of graduate research in Chapel Hill’s English and Comparative Literature Department. Rachel Norman describes her dissertation on Arab-American literature as “focusing on representations of language and food as practices of oral identity.”  Inger S.B. Brodey, associate professor, lists as among the courses she teaches Asian Food Rituals, cross-listed with Asian Studies.  And Jessica Martel’s dissertation is on “Modernist Form and Imperial Food Politics, 1890-1922.”

Food studies has made its way even down to freshman composition.  Apparently responding to market demand, the textbook publisher Bedford is offering Food Matters with a sample syllabus and recommended “resources” for an entire semester devoted to food studies.  Among the resources are the “documentaries” Forks Over Knives (which advocates a low-fat whole-food, plant-based diet) and Super Size Me (about the evils of the fast food industry), and the books, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser, Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir of her year eating locally, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the 1971 bestseller about the environmental impact of meat production, Diet for a Small Planet.

Greenfield notes:

Will there be any Denny’s place mats to study? We could do a whole semester on the semiotics of menus, what they state and what they leave out and how they ‘other.’

If any reader here anticipated the time when university professors stooped to teaching hapless students how to “deconstruct” a restaurant menu or a cookbook, please raise your hand. Mary Grabar must have the last word in this part of the column:

And, finally, the Food Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association will hold several panels at its meeting, mostly on political topics, like “Food, Debt, and the Anti-Capitalist Imagination” and “How the Other Half Eats: Race and Food Reform from the Slaughterhouse to the White House.”

“Food studies” has become an academic growth area, adding to the deterioration of the humanties, and to the advancement of left ideologies. No doubt our universities will e producing many more “scholars” investigating all aspects of food: food and race, food and capitalism, food and gender, etc.  But we will have few graduates familiar with literary and philosophical masterpieces. Fewer will be able to produce good writing – or real food.

I went to one of Grabar’s links to scan the ist of papers being presented at the Fourth International Conference on Food Studies. Here are the titles of some of the hundred-plus accepted “scholarly” papers for individual presentations, in sessions, panels, and colloquia:

The Food-water-energy Nexus in China (I’m sure Michelle Obama and her hefty entourage will be looking into this problem during her upcoming taxpayer-financed trip to China, and return with even more declarations of how Americans should eat.)

Butchers, Cooks, and Restaurateurs: Gendered Food Cultures in the US and the UK

Mafia and Italian Food Supply Chain: How Criminal Power Affects Our Food

Eating in Bed: Food, Love and Marriage in Dakar, Senegal

The Latino Way Food Guide

Feminist Ethics and Food Policy

Not Just the Individual, Not Just Supermarkets: Understanding the Ecology of Urban Foodscapes

“Good” Food as Family Medicine: Problems with Dualist and Absolutist Approaches to “Healthy” Family Foodways

Eating Habits and Food Strategies among Airline Cabin Attendants in Scandinavia

A Body Political Approach to Eating

I did not make up these titles. See the link under “Immanuel Kant, Cuisine, Fine Art” in Grabar’s article. The last paper has a gem of a revealing description:

This paper establishes a conceptual understanding of changing eating cultures in the context of food abundance. It draws on Foucauldian biopolitics as well as concepts of body politics originating in feminist research and integrates these with a phenomenological perspective of food and eating as embodiment. Drawing on the scant literature that explicitely [sic] focuses on the nexus of food and body, the proposed theory-driven paper suggests a micro-macro framework for the analysis of eating disorders and food anxieties in the context of growing global food abundance and the booming beauty industry.

Yes, Virginia, there really are college courses on the oppressive beauty industry.

In Dr. Strangelove, the versatile Sterling Hayden plays Brigadier General Jack Ripper, an Air Force base commander who launches a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union because he imagines his sexual impotency is caused by a Soviet conspiracy to fluoridate America’s drinking water. He had nothing over the creators of these food study courses and “scholarly” papers. Imagine the state of civilization today had Plato and Aristotle abandoned the problem of universals and the nature of reality and the character of a perfect man for attaching philosophical, political, and social significance to whether one preferred wheat or barley bread with one’s sausage or fish, and how sitting or reclining while eating changed the course of history.

Anyway, I let my imagination have free rein to invent the titles of these course proposals in today’s academies. Chances are that a Food Studies curricula committee wouldn’t grasp that I was – shall I say? – funnin’ them.

“The Role of Food Vendors in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.”

“Sushi Skills under the Sun King.”

“The Role of Consumables in A Tale of Two Cities.”

“Chop! Chop! The Benihana Phenomenon in American Cuisine.”

“Privileged Palates: Eating the Rich in Exclusive Clubs. How White Privilege Discriminates Against the Tasteless in American Culture.”

“Custer and Sitting Bull: How Their Lunches Determined the Outcome of Little Big Horn.”

“Alice Walker: Culinary Subtexts in The Color Purple.

“Toni Morrison: The White Whipped Cream Beneath Black Patronage.”

An extra credit paper on Bill Ayers’s seminal essay, “Langston Hughes: A Kommie in the Kitchen, Resistin’ White Folks’ Ways of Cookin’.”

Master’s thesis for allied Cultural Comics Studies: “Interspecies Racism: Discuss how Disney was able to reconcile the tautological problem of Goofy, a black, clothed talking, bipod dog, having a blonde, non-talking, quadruped dog, Pluto, as an exploited pet, and the differences in their eating preferences.”

Master’s thesis for allied Cultural Comics Studies: “How Popeye’s spinach is a subliminal allegory for capitalist money, which gives Popeye distorted super powers to oppress Bluto, who represents minorities and latent but negatively portrayed homosexual tendencies. Integrate a discussion of the anorexia of Olive Oyl, postulate Popeye’s libidinous attraction to her, and examine her diet- and gender-driven fear of and hostility to Bluto.”

“The Symbiotic and the Idiotic in American Eating Habits.”

“Hannibal Lecter and The Silence of the Lambs: The Apex of Capitalist Epicureanism.”

“George Orwell’s Fable, Animal Farm: A Study in Vegan Political Action.”

“Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Cultural Imperialism: The Americanization of Mexican Cuisine.”

“Child’s Play: Eggs Julia and Elitist White Culinary Imaging in Mass Media.”

“Smörgåsbords, Open Buffets, and Head Shots: The Popular Opiate of Zombie Cinema, from The Walking Dead to 28 Days Later. Explicate the Pioneering Social Justice Vision of George Romero and the common subtextual conflicts present in this genre.”

“The Yoke is on You: Corporate Agribusiness’s War on Free-Range Fowls.”

I ask you: Are any of my proposals any less ludicrous than the ones accepted by the Fourth International Conference on Food Studies, or what can be found in many university course catalogues? The only difference between the real things and the satirical ones is that mine aren’t funded with government grants.

Bon Appétit!