The expressive and cultural use of foods knows no limits. Cuisine is said to embody the spirit of the people who create it and often serves as the entry point for another's culture. A plate of enchiladas in El Paso, clam chowder in New England, biscuits and gravy in the Midwest. The association of foods with regional cultures occupies a corner of the humanities in the form of food studies. This is a relatively new academic specialty that explores how foods captivate the imagination, bring people together, or drive them apart, among many other things.
The 2018 Texas Tech Humanities Center conference "Food, and... ," developed by founding director Dr. Dorothy Chansky (President's Excellence in Research Professor, School of Theatre and Dance), invited international participants to explore food imagery and food policies across the humanities, around the globe, and across historic periods. By examining food's role beyond the physiological and venturing into the political as well as the metaphorical roles of scarcity, abundance, and excess, humanities scholars create nuanced impacts on critical thinking as well as everyday goings-on. Two years after the conference, a collection of some of the event's best papers have been collected in a book called Conversations With Food that Chansky spearheaded, published by Vernon Press the last week of September 2020.
Conference participants examined food's presence in their respective disciplines to zoom in on the myriad ways that food transformed from sustenance to culinary arts. Developing his presentation for the conference, Patrick Midgley (PhD. Theatre, 2021) discovered the theoretical possibilities of such an approach. "I took big swings to go far in different fields," he says. "This paper was unlike anything I had written before."
Midgley's paper—which was revised and expanded to be a chapter in the book—interprets food imagery in Caryl Churchill's play The Skriker. He recalls discovering in his research the exceptional use of foods as a literary device to separate the real from the surreal in the play, which eventually merge in The Skriker's climactic scene: a banquet. Midgley's methodology involved "repositioning food as an 'actant' as well as a prop, to explore the complicated language of a densely literary text" in the interest of drawing out the play's nascent posthuman theories. The duality of decay as rot, but also as a key component of fermentation, and therefore creation, opened up a new realm of research that provided an entry point for Churchill's complicated language.
Working with Dr. Chansky throughout the conference and subsequent book development bolstered Midgley's critical reading and response skills as well. While considering his experience at the conference, he recalls assisting a colleague in later years with his own reading and response project. "I feel like going through that process of proposal to conference to publishing was a great experience that helped me in my own later work," he says.
At the request of Vernon Press, presenters' papers were collected and organized into an anthology co-edited by Dr. Chansky. Chansky explains that the book earns its title from back-and-forth possibilities between disciplines included at the end of each chapter that tie together the interdisciplinary articles:
"I was surprised and delighted when the press contacted me and was even more delighted when thirteen conference participants—four from TTU!—agreed to revise their papers to be in a book. It was a long haul, and I asked Sarah Tracy from the University of Oklahoma to come on board as co-editor. Sarah, who presented at the conference and has a chapter in the book, is a historian of medicine, food, and science. Between us, we were able to handle the range of disciplines from which the chapters came. These include anthropology, American history, Classics, dramatic literature, critical animal studies, and sports history. Among others! The brief commentaries at the ends of the chapters were written by the authors and they encourage a 'choose your own adventure' way of approaching the book. No need to read from start to finish. We want readers to treat it more like a tempting buffet than a formal sit-down meal."
Conversations with Food is but one example of the humanities' foray into interdisciplinary study that discovers how the commonplace becomes the noteworthy. Not everyone is a humanities scholar, a theatre professional, or a chef. Not everyone considers food beyond what they will have for dinner.
But everybody eats.