Catching Up with Alice Julier and the Future of Food Studies

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Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Arts in Food Studies (MAFS) program Alice Julier did not write the book on food studies—she edited it. Earlier editions of the book, Food And Culture: A Reader, have been the most widely used textbook in food studies in the US. This winter, its fourth edition will be published, with Julier as co-editor. We took the opportunity to chat with her about where the study of food is heading.

Q: For background, can you give a super-brief history of food studies as an academic discipline?

A: Sure. In the academic study of food and agriculture, there were essentially two camps and they were very separate. On one hand, you had anthropologists and material historians, who looked at things like culture and history. On the other, you had rural sociologists and sustainable agriculture people, who were focused more on production and food systems.

When I came to Chatham to start the Master of Arts in Food Studies program in 2009, I was excited by the possibility of designing something that crossed that boundary. And I’d say that’s something that’s unique to Chatham’s program, the way that we combine those areas, particularly with all the experiential components.

Q: What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in food studies?

A: The “culture” side of food studies used to be anthropology-focused, but now there are many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences—for example, American studies, literature, and geography—that either examine food or examine other issues through food. And along with that, there’s been a diversification of the texts we look at—for example, one of our Chatham faculty in English, Carrie Tippen, uses cookbooks as literature to examine notions of identity and authenticity.

Another change is the creation of  the MAFS + MBA dual degree program, which is a truly unique program for students who understand that navigating the business world, big or small, is a large part of creating better food systems.

Our students come with a clear critique of the food system, but our job as faculty is getting them to unpack their beliefs, to say, okay, is there something in the industrial food system that we can find that’s useful or good? Are GMO’s always what we think they are? Or is current agricultural policy all bad? That kind of critical examination is part of our teaching.  The alumni from the last eight years tell us that those skills along with great research methods training help them in a wide range of careers.

While we’ve always taught courses on meat and animal agriculture, we’re finally embracing animals on Eden Hall Campus.  We have chickens now! The students built the coop; it’s gorgeous. (Assistant Professor of Food Studies) Nadine Lehrer and (Assistant Professor of Water Resources) Ryan Utz are doing a project where they’re bringing goats to campus to see if they will eat various invasive plants. Our (MAFS) alumna Maya Lantigos (’18) is currently an apprentice at a local butchery—one of very few women in that role —and we’re interested in working together to bring her here or send our students there for training.

One of the big areas of interest for me is labor: I’m interested in thinking about how we get to  a new food economy, with people being trained for jobs in that sector who might not have had that opportunity before. What do jobs look like in that economy? When you look at culinary environments, what is a “skill”? Is chopping a skill? It’s not a trivial question, because it’s often expensive to teach people culinary skills, but the jobs range so drastically in pay what does that mean now, and what will it mean in the future? These are things I’m increasingly focused on from both a practical and an intellectual perspective.

Q: Will the MAFS program use the new book?

A: It’s primarily a text for undergraduate food studies courses, so it’ll be used in some courses in our Food Studies minor and our eventual major.  Some of the articles in are part of our graduate curriculum.  There’s one called “Authenticity in America: Class Distinctions in Potato Chip Advertising” that I teach in my Food, Culture, and History course. Everyone buys a different bag of potato chips and brings them in, and we have a discussion about how companies advertise class through imagery on potato chip bags. And of course, we eat the chips…

Think about the difference between Cape Cod potato chips, with the white bag and the lighthouse, and the rugged-looking graphics on some of the other brands. It’s such a concrete way of demonstrating something really abstract.

Q: Last question. I saw that the book includes an article called about “punk cuisine”. What is that??

 A: Ha! That’s a great article. It focuses on dumpster diving. So, Claude Lévi-Strauss is a foundational theorist in the study of food, and he developed this concept called the culinary triangle that includes the raw, cooked, and rotten; it’s really abstract, and it’s hard to make it apply concretely. But Dylan Clarke, who wrote the article, talks about people who are straightedge, punk rock, anti-capitalist, who do dumpster diving for food. For them, the “rotten” becomes the ethical and valorized part of the triangle, because you don’t have to pay for it. They totally upend the culinary triangle. Think about how that looks today, with ugly food CSA’s and food rescue. It’s a really smart, prescient way of making food valuable.

Chatham's Master of Arts in Food Studies in the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment emphasizes a holistic approach to food systems, from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption, providing intellectual and practical experience from field to table. The MAFS + MBA program provides breadth and depth in food studies, business, and sustainable business, equipping all students with a holistic understanding of food systems and business skills.