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Friday, May 29, 2009

Local Brilliance: Studying Food and Sustainability in Place

People who study food, sustainability, and agriculture are experiencing quite a renaissance lately. With renewed interest in local foods, a push for a greener world, a Slow Food and Michael Pollan-driven blitz to remind people of their "food heritage," many of the things food scholars have been saying for years are reaching the limelight.   One of the longest running academic conferences on food and agriculture occurs in late May or early June.  For the last twenty years, sociologists, historians, geographers, literary scholars, cultural critics and more have gathered to discuss such diverse topics as the merits of aquaculture, the global reach of the chili pepper, the history of the open air market in France, the origins of green bean casserole, the politics of the farm-to-table movement, and the future of school lunches.  The Association for the Study of Food and Society, one interdisciplinary group, and its sister organization, Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society, come together each year not only to highlight recent scholarship, but to explore the sustainable, local food scene in a different part of the United States.  In 2008, the group toured sustainable fisheries, culinary arts training centers, restaurant recovery groups, backyard gardens, and farm markets in New Orleans.   They toured the newly opened Southern Food and Beverage Museum and listened to the Ray Charles African American Foodways Scholar Jessica Harris talk about culinary tradition and Americans as creoles. This year, the meetings are in State College, Pennsylvania, where tours include local dairy farms, Amish markets, and Penn State University, which has major green initiatives in place across campus.   Discussions focus on the future of food, from social to ethical consequences.
Academic conferences often seem exclusive, but many such as this are open to anyone who registers.  For a relatively inexpensive registration fee, participants can pick and choose what papers intrigue them, taste local foods, engage with food and environment activists, and meet authors at book signings (While Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver have yet to show up, Daniel Pinkwater, the Kitchen Sisters, and many others have given readings and lectures. This year's lecture is by Judy Wicks, author of White Dog Cafe Cookbook: Multicultural Recipes and Tales of Adventure from Philadelphia’s Revolutionary Restaurant, who is also a national leader in sustainable, local development.   Mingle with graduate students from the Gastronomy Program at Boston University, public health advocates, farmers market organizers,  community activists, the authors of Gastropolis, an edited book on New York's amazing food history, a gourmet organic pizza maker from Portland who makes local pepperoni, or just that sharp looking professor over there who seems to know a lot about culinary traditions in Spain.   You can even attend a film series, ranging from recent documentaries to special features.  
Photos: African American foodways scholar Jessica Harris speaks to a sitting room only crowd at the brand new Southern Food and Beverage Museum ; Chowing down over good discussion at Mardi Gras World (both photos: Kristina Nies); and touring the farmer's market in Portland Oregon, 2006 (photo: Dorothy Blair).

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