Turning an Avocation into an Education

By Ilana Hardesty

As a new member of the Gastronomy program, I’d qualify myself as an “older” student; I’m taking my first class in about 32 years. My first semester is winding down and I’m reflecting on my choice to go back to school and pursue a Certificate in Food Studies at the age of 54. I don’t quite trust myself to make the full commitment to graduate student life by pursuing a master’s in Gastronomy yet.

storefrontUnlike some of my classmates, I do not have a career in the food industry. I work full time on the BU Medical Campus in Continuing Medical Education. I do, however, have a lifelong avocational interest in food. I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother – a healthy dose of Jewish cooking mitigated by a father born and raised in Iowa with a love of pork chops. As an adult, I found both solace and excitement in cooking, and also in reading about food insatiably. I dabbled briefly in nutrition science, working at the Tufts School of Nutrition and taking a couple of introductory courses, and discovered the joy of communal cooking and being at the front of the classroom by teaching the occasional adult education class around town. Now, it is time to impose discipline on my avocation. Since I work full time, this will be a long-term project; I am assuming that I’m on the five-year plan by taking one class per semester.

My inaugural class is the Anthropology of Food, and it has been a fascinating journey. While I am still getting my “sea legs” and learning how to think and write in a critical and scholarly way, I have enjoyed every minute of the time I’ve spent doing classwork – even when I want to cry with frustration at how out of practice I am at being a student (I’m looking at you, Lit Review!). I suspect that my husband might feel a bit differently, as 20-plus years of routine are disrupted by my classes and homework.

The Anthropology of Food is a perfect first class, because it provides structure and academic context for the things Photo Sep 24, 9 58 44 AMwe all observe on a daily basis. How does food define us? Why do we purchase, or cook, the things we do? What do our choices say about who we are? The class has made me stop and think about virtually every food transaction I myself make, let alone what I observe just moving through my everyday life.

The course, taught by Ellen Rovner, includes a semester-long project that is very thoughtfully broken up into chunks: identifying a venue in which transactions around food take place (a shop, a restaurant, mom’s kitchen) and conducting an ethnographic study of it. Through the project, I have learned not only about one specific place but also about what anthropology is and what anthropologists do. Over the semester we have been building toward our final paper , from participant observation and in-depth informant interviews to the literature review, and then pulling it all together. This has given us an opportunity to thoughtfully and through real experience develop our research questions.

Photo Sep 24, 10 02 44 AMI live in Watertown, MA, home to one of the largest Armenian communities in the U.S. It’s full of Armenian markets. As my research venue, I chose Sevan Bakery, a place where I already shop on a regular basis. As a non-Armenian, I was interested to explore the reasons both Armenians and non-Armenians choose to shop there as opposed to (or in addition to?) the other three markets within a half-mile radius. I learned a great deal through observation and interviews, much of which challenged my assumptions and made me rethink my questions. In many ways the project has been very personally eye-opening, forcing me to apply the theories I’ve learned in class (about cultural distinction and identity, for example) to my own assumptions, as an outsider, about how a cultural group like Armenians identify themselves. Because there are some parallels between Armenian history and Jewish history (ancient cultures, centuries of displacement, oppression, diaspora), I have found myself reflecting on my own cultural history.

As I work on my final paper, I can only hope that I do both Sevan and myself justice! In the end, though, as much as I have enjoyed the reading assignments and the writing for class, my favorite part has been getting to know my classmates. I am impressed with their varied backgrounds and look forward to getting to know them better, and learning from them.



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