Summer Course Close-up: ML671 Food and Visual Culture

Throughout the summer the BU Gastronomy blog will feature occasional posts from special guest writers including current students, recent alumni, professors, and more.  This Summer Course Close-up is brought to you by Gastronomy student Bethany Graber. 

Food and Visual Culture: A look into the subtexts in food advertising and visual arts

“Big Appetites” by Christopher Boffoli

This summer, Potter Palmer is offering a special version of his class formerly known as “Food and the Visual Arts”, which will henceforth be known as “Food and Visual Culture”.  Well known and loved for a dedication to having indulgent treats and libations at the start of every class period, Palmer offers a multi-media experience to his students to encourage a thorough examination of how food is depicted and experienced through visual mediums.

Saturday Evening Post - Gourmet Cook (1946-04-13)
image via Potter Palmer class media collection

Each week, Palmer provides students with a combination of text, photos, video, and online content to consume (visually, of course).  Class time is spent examining the themes and messages within these mediums, as Palmer guides class discussion and debate over everything from provocative food advertisements to stereotypical gendered food television spots.  The group dissections ultimately aim to lead students to see the subtext beneath a glossy photo or a coiffed “celebrity chef”, working towards an understanding of exactly how powerful visual images can be.

image via DraftFCB, Auckland, NewZealand
image via DraftFCB, Auckland, NewZealand

Under the presumption that full stomachs promote sharp minds, each class period begins with student provided snacks and sips, many of which rival the foods presented in the images themselves (perhaps a tactic to make for more lively discussion).  In addition to Palmer’s dynamic use of multimedia content, groups of students present on the week’s content focus, each with a unique interpretation and understanding of the material.  Perhaps the most engaging methodology Palmer promotes is taking students outside the classroom, something he ensured remained in the course layout despite the condensed Summer 1 semester.  On a trip to Boston’s Chinatown, students were treated to a lecture of the history of the historic area. The tour was led by Jim Becker of Boston Food Tours who delved into the finer points of Chinese cuisine. After an informative talk, students were unleashed to discover the area’s many food treasures and distinctive imagery.  On another trip, Palmer took the class to the photography studio of food stylist Nina Gallant for a hands-on workshop in food styling and a lesson on the ins and outs of the food imagery industry.

image via Potter Palmer class media collection
image via Potter Palmer class media collection

Food and Visual Culture’s ultimate goal is to examine food and foodways within visual media, but ends up achieving so much more.  This multi-faceted class is a study of the modern ways in which the world interacts with food today, while simultaneously examining the visual imagery of the past. This dualistic approach engages us in a study of contemporary ideas and mediums from television to blogs, advertisements to instagrams, all while keeping food in mind.

Guest post by Bethany Graber, current ML671 Food and Visual Culture gastronomy student (Summer 1, 2013). 

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