One Class, One Day: Studying What You Eat
CAS course examines how food defines culture
By Amy Laskowski
Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.
See a field trip to the real North End in the slideshow above. Photos by Vernon Doucette
“At this bakery, I recommend trying the ricotta cake,” says Merry White. She stands in front of the nine students enrolled in her anthropology class Food, Culture, and Society, which looks at foods found in specific neighborhoods in and around Boston. Everyone leaves the bakery licking the powdered sugar from their lips.
On this day, the College of Arts & Sciences professor of anthropology has taken the class on a field trip to Boston’s North End. They walk past one popular bakery and skip the spaghetti with bland meat sauce offered other places, which many Americans think constitutes real Italian food.
The intensive three-week summer course examines how food reveals immigration patterns, cultural identity, societal marketing, and social change. From the outset, White emphasizes that a lot can be learned from exploring neighborhoods and seeing what the locals eat.
Through food, she says, you can see layers of history and identity. “This class really gives an overview of why food is important and why it’s important for anthropologists to study it,” she says. “Food is part of human history.”
Classes consist of scholarly readings, documentaries, and discussions. The best part is the numerous field trips: Brookline for kosher food, Watertown for Armenian cuisine, and Chinatown for dim sum, to name just a few. On these outings students are required to talk to store owners, ask lots of questions, and take notes for future class discussions.
On the second day of the course, the students go to a local Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Harvest Co-op to study what these food stores reveal about the ethnic and cultural identities of their neighborhoods.
White instructs her students, who work in teams, to take notes on each store’s design, products, demographics, customers’ ages, and what they are buying. They are asked to pay attention to whether the store has just one ethnic foods aisle or breaks various foodstuffs down by culture, like Mexican. The students then present their findings to their peers at the next class.
During that outing, students notice small nuances that a typical shopper might overlook: the Trader Joe’s appeals to a younger, hip crowd, and nearly half the store appears to be stocked with wine and beer.
“So it seems that you’re buying a lifestyle of some kind,” White tells the class. “The store appeals to young working people, many of whom aren’t familiar with the Boston area.” A student who has spent time in East Boston describes for the class a local Shaws, which stocks more Goya products than other stores in the chain because of the area’s large Hispanic population.
Boston’s Little Italy?
During the North End field trip, White relays to the class how the neighborhood has been marketed as Boston’s little Italy, even though less than 20 percent of the current population is Italian. She adds that the area was once home to a vibrant Jewish and Irish community, noting that Salem Street (one of the main drags) was named for the Jewish word “Shalom.”
She points out that the Italians who still live in the neighborhood identify with the cuisine of specific regions in Italy (where they or their ancestors came from) rather than with Italy as a whole. “There is no such thing as Italian food,” White says. “Every region has its own specialty, and then it breaks down to every village, and every family.”
The first North End stop is Maria’s Pastry Shop on tourist-packed Cross Street. “When you go inside, be sure to look around, talk to the owners,” White urges. “Take note of what they’re selling, and get them to tell you their story. And be sure to support local businesses, and buy some food.”
The last stop of the day before lunch—a highlight of every trip—is to Salumeria Italiana, a market on Richmond Street.
The store sells traditional Italian brands like Nutkao—a bit like Nutella that you mix yourself. Three long shelves are stacked with only olive oil. Heaps of freshly baked bread are piled high in the front window.
As luck would have it, the store isn’t busy. Salumeria Italiana chef Raymond Gillespie, who would otherwise be slicing the guanciale (bacon prepared with pig’s cheek), felino salami, and wild boar, comes out from behind the counter to give a tasting to the curious group. Armed with notebooks and an appetite from their neighborhood walk, the students are attentive.
“I want you to study these shelves and tell me what you see,” he says first, pointing to the shelves stacked high with imported goods. “If you notice, we have no Barilla pasta here. That’s for a few reasons. The first being Barilla is from northern Italy, and this neighborhood is more southern Italy. Secondly, Barilla is really either made in New York or Wisconsin. It’s not real Italian pasta. The water is different and the people are different. So we use DeCecco, which is still made in Italy.”
He then hands out samples of Segreto degli Iblei olive oil (with a smell similar to fresh green grass), thick, sweet balsamic vinegar, and smoky pecorino cheese. The students leave the store feeling like they’ve already had a meal.
A few blocks away is the North Bennet Street School, which, the students learn, was once a school anad a social work center. Immigrants learned how to assimilate into American culture there. “Italian women were sent here for cooking classes. They were taught how to cook American boiled dinners. Can you believe that?” White asks her class.
Safa Bhimdi (CAS’13), one of White’s students, says she took the class simply because she loves food. “I should be 500 pounds by the end of this class,” she says with a laugh.
Philippe Bosshart (COM’12) hails from Switzerland. “I’ve learned a lot just about food history—for example, that when Columbus and other explorers began coming to America, that’s when food really started moving globally,” he says. “I’ve been at BU for three years now, but I was always intimidated to explore neighborhoods I didn’t know a lot about, like East Boston. But now I go out, explore, and eat.”
White hopes students leave her class with a fine-tuned sense of why we eat what we eat. “Food can teach us lessons about politics, marketing, economics of eating, gender, and inequalities of our world,” she says. “There is very little you can’t learn about a society from food.”