Summer Course in Review: Ethnic Foodways in the U.S.

by Lisa Philpotts

steamykitchen.comI did not come to BU for the gastronomy program. In fact, I didn’t even know that it existed! Instead, I had relocated from North Carolina to accept a job as a librarian at Mugar. It was only after I had started working here that I learned about the program, and it was one of those “OMG-this-is-amazing-how-did-I -not-know-about-this-before?!” moments.

I have a passion for food and a background in health, and if I were to get a second masters it would be in nutrition. As I browsed the gastronomy course offerings, I was excited to find that I could study why food is so important to individuals, but from a different perspective than the one I would get in a nutrition course.  I decided to take the plunge and sign up for Amanda Mayo’s ML631 “Ethnic Foodways in the United States” class to explore the relationship between food and culture.

So how did it go?

Well, my friends were somewhat surprised to find out that I was burning the midnight oil. Perhaps for them, the phrase “gastronomy class” conjured up the image of relaxing, eating, and drinking.  And yes, there were the mid-class snack breaks and the outings to area ethnic restaurants, because after all, what are food studies without food?  But make no mistake: this was a graduate level summer class, with a graduate level workload.

Fortunately, the readings and class discussions were fascinating.  I particularly enjoyed comparing the experiences of different ethnic groups that have immigrated to the US and how those experiences have shaped their foodways.  I was amazed to discover how interdisciplinary the field is. We reviewed research on food and ethnicity by scholars from a wide range of disciplines, from anthropology to marketing. Amanda facilitated hands on practice with some research methods she personally employs as a food historian, taking oral histories and interpreting primary sources, the latter of which came in handy when I wrote my final paper.

My paper was about the food voice (a concept explored by past researchers including Annie Hauck-Lawson and Carole Counihan) of Malaysians in the US.  I coded for themes in cookbooks and memoirs written by Malaysians, but what I found most interesting was the use of online social media to communicate about food. Malaysians living abroad have created a particularly vibrant virtual food space, using blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to share recipes and reminisce about food from their home country. The course wrapped up with final presentations, and I brought in kuih to stick with my Malaysian theme.  My classmates brought papusaspalitaw, fruit pies, and buffalo chicken dip- I’ll let you wonder what their research papers were about!

I’d encourage any BU students or staff considering a gastronomy class to give it a shot. The class I took was rigorous and rewarding, and the icing on the cake was getting to know the other people taking it: intelligent, articulate, and above all, passionate about food!  Cheers to that!

Lisa earned her Masters of Science in Library Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is currently the Health Sciences Librarian at Mugar Memorial Library.  Lisa tweets about academia, health, and food at @LisaPhilpotts. 

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