Dr. Lauren Rabinovitz is the guest editor for this year’s special edition of American Studies (AMSJ): The Food issue. I interviewed her recently to get her views on research, teaching and the impetus for putting together a journal issue focusing on food. Dr. Rabinovitz’s work ranges from books about women in film, to digital projects such as the REBECCA PROJECT, a CD used as a tool for film analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rebecca.
Rabinovitz’s current teaching (and research) focuses on how American food practices and politics offer “a unique perspective on modernization, mechanization and American self-identities.” Rabinovitz came to food studies initially through a passion for cooking and being a “foodie” in the 1990s, particularly as a flood of TV food programming increased. This lead to a greater awareness of food in popular culture and media, and an interest in the politics surrounding food. As any American Studies professor would, Rabinovitz tested the waters of possibilities in food research with a graduate student pro-seminar reading group. This offered her and the students a chance to check out the literature on food through a reading group of 12 students. They discovered that food is a vital part of American history and that bringing American Studies questions to food opened up many new avenues of research for them. She now teaches a regular undergraduate lecture class on food in America, which not only engages students with food issues, but also requires Rabinovitz to stay current on food literature.
I asked Dr. Rabinovitz what “foodie” means to her these days. “Connoisseur is perhaps too elitist…someone who is passionate about the role food plays in one’s life, oh, and reading about food.” Essentially, foodies take an active role in how much pleasure one derives from food – cooking, traveling, trying new foods, enjoying food with other people: food and food practices other than simply food-as-nutrition. She further pointed out that food issues are now part of our political landscape: food waste, eating local, eco-systems, issues surrounding production of meat, antibiotics in relation to animals, political and ideological arguments for vegetarianism, the list goes on and on.
Food issues say a great deal about American contemporary culture. For Rabinovitz personally, food is a form of luxury. “There is privilege is being able to think about a range of options for food available and take pleasure in that. Food is very different for people who are economically disadvantaged or living in food deserts where economical options may not be very healthy.”
Rabinovitz saw the Food issue as a way to bring together a collection of articles that describe the range of food issues now being explored in American Studies. In the last 15 or so years, scholars have been tying food to race and ethnicity, observing a rise since the 1980s in ethnic festivals, cookbooks and restaurants through the U.S.. Rabinovitz originally envisioned a more cohesive group of articles, but opted instead to choose pieces with strong scholarship that suggest the “heterogeneity and breadth of food studies.” For instance, there’s a piece on Guy Fieri and Food Network. One on Kara Walker’s sugar sculptures. There are political pieces on the slaughterhouse industry and the sociologically driven contemporary practices of post-incarceration kitchens – food trucks and small restaurants that employee parolees. And an article on images of food in literature, in this case particularly the work of Willa Cather.
Food trucks, photo by TownSquareMedia, Sept 9, 2013
Photo of Willa Cather by Carl Van Vechten and photo of spiced plum kolache by Nicole at PaperandSalt.org
There are historical pieces looking at the late 1960s and the spontaneous encampments of hippies and their food practices of communal food preparation and consumption – food as a viable political weapon. Also included is an article on food practices at Jane Addams Hull-House which speaks to Rabinovitz’s own scholarly interests in historical food driven practices, and ethnic and immigration history in the U.S.
Garden at Pikes Falls community in Jamaica Vermont in 1970s, Vermont Historical Society, Rebecca Lepkoff photographer.
Hull House, Architectural drawing, 1899, catalogue of 12th annual Exhibition, Chicago Architectural Club, Wikimedia commons.
Rabinovitz hopes that the volume will peak interest of those not already attuned to food issues, starting them thinking about “food practices and the politics of food, not just as important parts of culture, not just everyday life, but to think in terms of larger communities and cultural/historical issues.” Rabinovitz sees food issues, not just a viable avenue for scholarly research, but as a vital venture in thinking about values. She also hopes to convey the fun of scholarship, particularly surrounding food research, making, and community.
Hull House https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f6/Auditorium_and_Coffee_House_at_Hull_House.jpg
Accessed, 10 Sept, 2018
Willa Cather and spiced plum kolache https://paperandsalt.org/2012/05/07/willa-cather-spiced-plum-kolache/
Accessed, 12 Sept, 2018
Garden at Pike Falls http://vermonthistory.org/