Food Studies

Dickinson College Food Studies Certificate Program

Month: October 2016

Who Cooked on the Slave Ships?

By Lizzie Grabowski

“Who cooked on the slave ships?”

Psyche Williams-Forson stared out into the crowd of faces that filled the pews of Allison Hall. The irony was obvious. Williams-Forson, a self-identified PK (Pastor’s Kid), stood behind the lectern in a church hall delivering a lecture on cultural importance. The crowd had been eager to participate in call and response, but now she met with silence.

Who cooked on the slave ships?”

The obvious answer was enslaved women. But the question wasn’t asked to prompt this quick answer. Instead, it was meant to evoke curiosity, self-reflection, and self-critique. Why haven’t we ever considered who cooked on the slave ships before? In school, we were taught the history of the slave trade, the establishment of plantations, the battle for justice that wages on long after the end of the Civil War. We learned slave spirituals in music class. We made our own Underground Railroad quilts. We learned about Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln. But we never talked about food. Psyche Williams-Forson was at Dickinson to talk about food.

Food History is a new genre of study and Dr. Williams-Forson is a new genre of scholar. Food holds a unique place in culture as something that is among our most primal needs but evolved into a cultural mainstay. However, in our increasingly globalized and industrialized world, food heritage has become a target of critique. Particularly in the wake of the “Foodie” movement, traditional foods viewed as unhealthy or obesogenic are demonized. Disproportionately, these foods are part of African American culture.

Fried chicken. Macaroni and cheese. Chitterlings. “Comfort foods” culturally associated with black people, that “stick to your ribs” are policed by (predominantly-white) modern food reformers. Those who indulge in these foods are described as fat, lazy, and stupid for choosing to put themselves at risk for lifestyle diseases. However, what white critics fail to realize is that these foods carry much more importance than calories or fat content. They are culturally important, the result of recipes developed in different eras and under different circumstances but that have survived for generations. Preparing and eating these foods is a way for individuals to connect to their families and experience cultural independently as well as part of a larger group. Sure some meals may not be the picture of health, but other cultures have equivalents. Beer-battered fish and chips from across the pond surely can’t be classified as a diet food. Poutine would never make it onto a nutritionist’s meal plan. However, these foods don’t carry the same negative stigma as Southern-style pig tails. They aren’t touted as health foods but they aren’t marked as dirty, lazy, or stupid either.

Therefore, it is not surprising that African-Americans often experience public health efforts, blanket dietary guidelines, and federal and state programming as invasive. Plans that seek to police African-American diet also threaten African-American culture. Dr. Williams-Forson suggests, and I agree, that efforts to introduce healthier diets to historically African-American communities must recognize the strong place food holds in culture. Recipes and an appreciation for cooking were some of the only things slaves and later migrant workers were allowed to carry with them after being ripped from their homes. The only way that health programming can succeed is by modifying existing diets rather than completely replacing them. Communities can be shown how to or can decide to make healthier versions of traditional dishes or augment them with other nutritious meal components. Public health plans can be catered to specific communities in order to be more culturally-responsive and, eventually, more effective.

This is not to suggest that culture trumps our health or the health of our environment, or vice versa. Rather that people who are serious about food reform have to compromise to produce solutions that are socially, biologically, and culturally sustainable.

This Week in Food (10/23/16)

These past two weeks have flown by! But we are back, well-rested, and ready for a second half of the semester filled with food and fun. Here are some tid-bits from this week’s food news.

  1. We are still processing Psyche Williams-Forson’s public lecture, “Eating While Black.” In her discussion, Dr. Williams-Forson discusses slave food culture and the African American heritage to which it gave rise. Read here to learn more about some foods so entrenched in American culture that you would never know they are African transplants.
  2. Tomorrow is Food Day! In celebration, FRESHFARM Markets has put together a list of non-profits that are doing amazing work in the nation’s capital. If you are from the DC Metro area and are searching for ways to help out while you are home for the holiday season…look no further!
  3. The US Secretary of Agriculture addresses the Future Farmers of America at the 89th Annual FFA Convention and Expo. Watch his speech here.
  4.  Whirpool, Blue Apron, Zero Percent, and TriplePundit engaged in a Twitter Chat on food waste in America. Checkout the discussion highlights by searching #FoodWaste3p.

Student Perspectives

After seven weeks of thorough discussion on a variety of food-related topics, the Food Studies Introductory Seminar is well on its way! Following each course meeting, students are encouraged to debrief with  journal entries designed to extend the pupil’s interaction with course material. In celebration of an amazing two months gone and a highly anticipated two to come, we would like to share one such journal entry with you…

Journal Entry Provided by Janna Safran

The first part of this journal is me realizing that all of my previous knowledge and perspectives of farming are false conception of what farming really is. The second part of this journal is a reflection of what I learned and how that ties into one of the readings.

I know that some of my original perceptions of farming are shallow and arrogant, but please just bear with me.

I didn’t understand what farming really was; to me, it was a business, a means of production of food and a way of income. I didn’t understand why someone would chose to be a farmer- why they would waste their life to stare at rows of cabbages. I didn’t understand the journey that even something as simple as an apple took to get onto my hand.

But what I failed to understand was that farming is much more than just wearing overalls and staring at cabbages. A successful farmer must understand the anatomy of a plant, insect biology, the chemistry of pest chemicals and nature, and so much more. One simply doesn’t wait around for their produce to be ripe, they must religiously scout for pests, maintain a threshold that will be healthy for their produce, and work with the land to produce the best produce.

Another thing I failed to grasp was the multiple ways that a farmer can control his/her land. I use to think that farming was rather a game of chance- you planted it and it was up to the weather to either be nice or mean to you this year. However, there are so many more variables within that equation, some that you can control- like pests. There are cultural, physical, biological things that one can do to help deal with pests before bringing in the chemicals to kills them. I didn’t know that there was a strategy to farming- like putting grass in between crops to ensure a healthy environment or putting plants nearby crops to enhance pollen transfers.

I was blown away by the anatomy of the plant- I didn’t know that plants could be male or female or both. I didn’t know that some plants could pollinate on their own and be self sufficient.

To me, farming was a business, but to others, like Natasha Bowens, farming is much more than that. Her article, Why I Farm, brought a new perspective to farming and really opened my mind to looking at farming beyond a capitalistic view.

I want to highlight these few sentences that really stood out to me:

“The land beneath our feet carries our history and our freedom. It is healing and empowering and can be a commons that binds us together. My history traces back to the moment my ancestor’s shackled feet hit this soil, when the African farmer became the American slave…reclaim the connection with the land that was long before the oppression.”

Bowers brings up an interesting point- farming, for her, is about getting back to her roots, connecting with nature, but also healing from the oppression that exists in the past but also today.

This is slightly off topic, but in my Biological Anthropology class, we are currently talking about the extreme pressures that we, as humans, are exerting on the environment and in a way are messing with natural selection. By doing so, we are messing with nature, treating it like it’s a game piece in chess. Our species is so caught up in this capitalistic world that everything turns into a competition and a business. We forget our roots, we forget where things come from, and we forget the journey that someone or something traveled to get where they are today.

Today, we are fighting against nature; I think that makes us the bad guys. But Bowen is using farming to work with nature and be connecting with nature just like her and many other ancestors today.

After this week, I have a much more open mind to understand why people chose to become farmers but also the importance of farming beyond a business. I hope that this new knowledge will help me understand the process of food and help me take into account what farmers and other food workers go through on a daily basis.

Food Studies 201: Spiral Path Farm

On 10/10/16, the Food Studies 201 seminar visited Spiral Path Farm. Owned and operated by the Brownback farmily, Spiral Path is an organic operation in Perry County that sells their produce wholesale to such companies as Wegman’s as well as through a 1400+ member CSA.

This Week in Food 10/9/16

It’s our last edition before Fall Pause! Halfway there, its hard to believe! Until then, the following articles are a snapshot of this week in food…

  1. This multifaceted, interactive article is worth your time. The New York Times examines Big Food. Read it.
  2.  A new urban food program is underway in Baltimore, Maryland. Check out the details here.
  3. Can we back pedal climate change by planting our own veg? See how you can help…
  4. A foodie’s take on soil health. Combining taste and tilth. It’s worth a read.

Enjoy! One more week!

The Influence of Global Economy on Food Security

By Allison Curley

In my Archaeology and World Prehistory class, we are exploring themes of human food production and consumption over time and connecting historical issues to contemporary ones being presented in the Clarke Forum speaker series on Food. By looking deeper into human history, some trends appear that can be likened to challenges that people face today, particularly related to food security.

In his Clarke Forum lecture “The World That Food Made” on September 8th, Dr. Raj Patel focused on framing food insecurity in terms of political economy, patriarchy, and the impact of colonialism. He cited examples of how globalization and colonization created a market economy in which trade was prioritized over subsistence as governments became more influential in agribusiness than individual farmers. Incorporating his research in Malawi as a case study, Patel demonstrated the ways in which the introduction of a western market economy and the implementation of cash crop and monocrop agriculture contributed to an increase of food insecurity among the farmers producing the crops.

Farmers in Malawi were left without enough to meet their dietary needs after their country, like many others in Africa, became a producer of crops for export to Europe and the West. The economy became dependant on monocrop planting and exporting maize, native to the Americas. In an effort to improve food security and strengthen cultural bonds, the community was encouraged to shift practices towards more traditional techniques of polyculture involving other American crops that benefit maize such as beans and squash. Further, an annual event was spearheaded where participants, both men and women, share recipes and learn to prepare new dishes using the crops they have been growing. This resulted in breaking down patriarchal gender roles and uneven household labor distribution that led women to struggle with balancing cultivation and child-rearing. This ultimately helped improve the health of the households. Through working with the people of Malawi, Patel and his colleagues showed that a combination of reintroducing polyculture and strengthening a shared sense of community and culture ultimately improved the health and nourishment of the people.

Archaeology can provide a supplementary lens into past trends of food insecurity and unequal distribution that complement Patel’s current and historical exploration of these topics. An archaeological perspective can be used to examine patterns of food security over a larger time scale. In her recent article “Why Can’t People Feed Themselves?: Archaeology as Alternative Archive of Food Security in Banda, Ghana”, Amanda Logan uses an archaeological case study to argue that power relationships and economics have a greater influence on overall food security than do natural processes. Examining paleoclimatic studies using methods like oxygen isotope (δ18O) analysis to model past climatic conditions, she identified two main periods of drought in this region of Ghana: a long period in the Kuulo phase, 1450-1650 C.E., and a smaller one in the modern phase, 2009-present. By examining food availability, access, and preference through archaeological plant remains, Logan reconstructed the relative food security of each phase. Evidence of continued production of more traditional and drought resistant crops like pearl millet, sorghum, and tobacco, while sustaining a craft specialist economy including ceramics and metallurgy, revealed that there was greater food security in the earlier Kuulo phase, despite a much more severe drought.

In Logan’s study, she observed that the rise of the Asante in the Early Makala phase, 1772-1820s C.E., resulted in a reduction in diversity of crafts and the loss of tobacco as a widespread crop, but Banda was still food secure. British colonization in the Late Makala phase, 1890s-1920s C.E., however, resulted in significant shifts towards minimal crafting, elimination of the preferred pearl millet, significant reduction of sorghum in favor of cassava, and food insecurity. Both the Early Makala and Late Makala phases were categorized as wet periods, therefore these changes in food security during these times can be attributed to changed leadership and trade dynamics as opposed to climate. Complex trade dynamics between colonies, Europe, and the Americas had a greater impact on food security than did another regional tribe assuming power.

Furthermore, a drought in the modern phase, with the market economy of colonialism in place, caused intense food insecurity while a much more severe drought in the Kuulo phase experienced very high food security. This can be attributed in part to the replacement of well adapted, drought-resistant crops cultivated in the Kuulo phase like pearl millet with high yield cash crops to be exported. The system put into place by the British reduced the diversity of the local economy and the ability of the people to support themselves independently, making them more vulnerable to adverse climatic changes. Patel’s work reversing the oppressive effects of colonialism in Malawi and Logan’s evidence that traditional cultivation techniques and diversified economy positively influence food security demonstrate that the onset of colonialism and our current world food system are the main influences on modern food insecurity.

In conclusion, food security is not a simple matter of personal choices. Complex interplays of politics and economics have formed a deeply-rooted system that favors great divides between excess and insecurity, while simultaneously reducing the resilience of the producers. Changes in the systems that promote food security are needed in order to effectively combat food insecurity. Archaeological evidence suggests that people had greater capacity to resist adverse climatic changes before these systems took root, but in the presence of these systems they lack this resilience. This is even more threatening considering anthropogenic climate change, the effects of which are projected to be borne most heavily by those who contribute to it less.



Logan, Amanda

2016 “Why Can’t People Feed Themselves?”: Archaeology as Alternative Archive of Food Security in Banda, Ghana. American Anthropologist. 118(3):508-524. DOI: 10.1111/aman.12603

Food Studies 201: Out to Pasture

This Monday, the Food Studies seminar visited Dickinson College Farm to explore sustainable meat production first hand.

This Week in Food 10/2/16

In the spirit of last week’s debate and this Sunday’s reprise, here is a collection of articles summarizing our candidate’s plan for the US food system:

  1.  Huffington Post
  2. San Francisco Chronicle
  3. Fox News
  4. The Food Revolution Network
  5. Delish

After Michelle Obama’s eight-year focus on nutrition, active lifestyles, and gardening, there are some big wellies to fill.

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