What do a gastronomist, an engineer, a financial researcher, and an ethnographer have in common?
Answer: all of them are applying their individual skills to parsing the systems that shape communities across the globe. From Italian open-air markets and better strategies for parking and energy use in American cities, to the social effects of gentrification, these four Boston University researchers are engaged in studying the ways in which people interact with one another in an era defined by globalization and new technology.
Food has long been ethnographer and gastronomist Rachel Eden Black’s lens on the world. From the open-air markets of Turin to her research into wine and wine culture, she is steeped in the study of how communities and agriculture intersect.
Black recently published a book about the role of an open-air market in Turin, an Italian city whose residents now shop mainly at supermarkets. “I worked at the market. I sold fruits and vegetables, and chickens, cheese, and whatever I could get involved with,” Black says. “From the culinary perspective, markets are connecting consumers with producers.”
The effects of that connection, and the backstory of the Turin site that some say is the oldest of its kind in Western Europe, are among the subjects of Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market, published in 2012 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Now, Black is returning to the world of growers and producers—this time to focus on grapes.
“Wine is a topic that, while about 15 years ago there were a few books about it, no one has really done an anthropology of wine,” she says.
To that end, Black has coedited a forthcoming volume—due to be published in 2013—that showcases new research into the subject. Part of it, including a chapter by Black, examines vineyard production and technology from a theoretical point of view.
She is also on the cusp of new research in Italy, looking into the economically troubled wine region of Carema. Farmers there are struggling with the financial changes that swept Europe during the first decade of the 2000s.
Black is an assistant professor and coordinator of the Department of Gastronomy, started in the 1990s by a duo of renowned chefs: Jacques Pépin and Julia Child. But that Black would be researching food-focused anthropology was never a given.
After graduating with a BA and MA in history from the University of British Columbia, she turned in proposals for a PhD that emphasized food as her angle into history. She learned quickly that the topic would not be easily accepted by the academic establishment.
“I realized then that food wasn’t really being addressed by that discipline,” Black says. “People kept telling me: ‘You should do intellectual history; this is not a good topic; there aren’t any documents for you to use.’”
It took three years for her to come to terms with the push-back and then find a foothold. Traction came from the University of Turin in 2001, where an anthropology department scholarship finally set her on a path that could combine her historian’s training with her interest in food research.
“Food is a lens through which you can study the social, the political, the cultural, the biological—there are all these elements,” Black says. “It’s really taking off. From all the books being published, to conversation around policy, I think people have started to realize that food is really important.”
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