July 6, 2011 — University of Virginia students in Lisa Shutt's "Anthropology of Food" class are looking in a whole new way at what goes into their stomachs and how it got there.
Over the course of four weeks this summer, the students are exploring the ties between food, kinship, gender and ritual, among other cultural practices that both define and unite societies across the world. As an anthropologist and lecturer in the College of Arts & Sciences, Shutt explained, "Food is part of all our identities."
Shutt, who grew up as an Italian-American and spent time researching cheese-making practices in France, created the summer session class to offer a fun medium through which to examine many different areas of anthropology. The class aims to pinpoint and break down cultural concepts, such as the family unit, in relation to food that take on very different meanings in other parts of the world.
"Because food is so fundamental, we think our way of understanding is universal," she said. In fact, "Food is not treated universally the way we understand it here. Eating food around the same hearth in some places makes you kin."
The idea of health, for example, varies from place to place. Shutt's class studied how not all cultures share Americans' perceptions of fat and lean.
"In other societies, like Mauritania, it is not only desirable, but necessary to be fat," Shutt said. "It is considered healthy to be near obese because it implies fertility and wealth." By contrast, in the United States, "to be obese is to be absolutely unhealthy. We ground our ideology in a particular idea of science."
By studying how food is prepared and consumed, students also get a chance to look at the constructions of male and female from a fresh perspective. "Gender roles are reproduced through the preparation of food," said Shutt, who lectures in the anthropology department.
One of the most visible examples of the transmission of ideology is TV cooking shows, which display certain patterns in their portrayal of male and female chefs.
"Most women, whether or not they are trained as chefs, you see cooking at home, not in an industrial kitchen. Men are much more spoken of as chefs," Shutt said.
She noted that women tend to talk much more than men about cooking for their family and creating a home. The prevalence of this characterization reflects an ideology that the home is created around food and that women should manage the domestic sphere.
"The Food Network gives society what they want," Shutt said.
While examining larger trends, the class also gives each student opportunities to connect with food on an individual level. On the first day, students were asked to bring in a recipe that meant something personally to them. They were surprised when three students produced a recipe for kimbap, a Korean snack resembling sushi. Although they chose the same dish, the students came from very different backgrounds and the dish held a unique significance for each of them.
Jamie Choi, a second-year student in the College, said her mom makes sure every woman in the family knows how to make the dish, and as a family they make and eat it together every day. Classmate Jen Vedhuyzen, who will graduate from the College this summer, said she makes the dish with her fiancé, but while for him it signifies a future in going to Korea, for her it signifies the past.
"It's special to me because it's the best thing we know how to make together," she said.
Before the class finishes, the students who chose kimbap will give a cooking demonstration together. Everyone will also take home a collection of the students' recipes, including descriptions of what the dishes mean to each contributor.
The students say they enjoy and learn from the in-depth discussions because everyone in the class brings their own perspective to the table.
"It's so fun because we have people from all over the world with interesting personal knowledge," said Hadley Warner, a fourth-year College student.
In addition to international cultural understanding, the course helps to educate students on the American food industry and the importance of community food systems. During a recent field trip, the students went to Main Street Market in Charlottesville to talk to Eric Gertner, co-owner of Feast , who talked about clientele and target audience for his local specialty food store.
By talking to Gertner and interviewing farmers at the Charlottesville City Market and Forest Lakes farmers' market, students learned more about the dynamics and benefits of growing and eating local food in the face of stark realities concerning the American food system. Films like "Food, Inc." and "King Corn" explored food companies' production and marketing practices that may mask environmental and health dangers.
Said soon-to-graduate College student Myron Ballard, "People don't perceive food as nutritious things for themselves, just a money sign, especially college students. Students should know about what they're eating."
At least half the students had never been to a farmers' market in Charlottesville before they were prompted to do so for a class assignment. Now they spend their time discussing how buying locally puts money directly back into vendors' pockets and the community, while those vendors may see only see a little return when they sell to grocery store chains. They also contemplate the socioeconomic problems complicating the decision to eat local and organic, since people with more money and mobility have greater freedom to make those choices.
"You don't realize what merchants really put into their work," Choi said. "This class has inspired me to go to the farmers' market more often and eat organically."
Shutt applauded food education efforts such as those by Observatory Hill Dining Hall, Hereford College, the U.Va. community garden and the local Food Hub. Having previously taught a class on food and gender, Shutt believes there is a future for "Anthropology of Food" and hopes to turn the summer course into a semester course, perhaps next year.
There's just one problem with the class, students agree. It makes them hungry.