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Reflecting on the Southern Foodways Alliance & Bentonville, Arkansas

I’m an outsider to the South. I grew up under the big skies of Montana with mountains always visible in the distance. I moved to Norman, Oklahoma for college and to me, it felt Southern. Compared to my mountains, the land was flat as far as the eye could see, the air thick with humidity. Locals spoke with a twang, politely punctuating sentences with yes ma’am and yes sir. They ate okra, catfish, and chicken fried steak. But I was quickly corrected. This wasn’t the South. Maybe it was the Midwest. Perhaps it was part of Texoma. But it wasn’t purely Southern.

The Southern Foodways Alliance introduced me to many souths—the old south and the new, souths local and global, nostalgically imagined and future focused—first through a graduate research conference in 2015 and again during their 2019 summer field trip. Comprised of two days full of talks, meals, fellowship, poetry, and art, this year’s trip met in Bentonville, Arkansas.

With just under 50,000 people, Bentonville and the cities surrounding it, stretching southward to Fayetteville, anchor Northwest Arkansas. This corner of the state has boomed and blossomed due to the historical presence and sustained economic investment of large corporations: Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt trucking, and most prominently, Walmart. While knowingly committing many wrongs against their workers and the environment, Walmart undeniably influenced this place.

Bentonville has grown into a city of great restaurants, a twice weekly farmers market, a world-renowned coffee importer and roaster, and miles of bike trails. As Angie Maxwell shared, Walmart has infused the University of Arkansas with much needed funds, not for ego-fueled named buildings, but for dissertation fellowships, child care services, and a new School of Art. Since 2011, Bentonville has also been home to Crystal Bridges, one of the nation’s best, most innovative, and most inclusive museums of American art (founded by Alice Walton) where admission is always free, sponsored by Walmart.

How should we interpret a place and its food, however alluring and thriving, that has been sustained and perfected by private funds, by resources that have been largely concentrated in a small area without supporting the rest of the state?

This question proved troubling and difficult to answer, but such narratives of progress and problems are not the only ones that shape life and food in Northwest Arkansas. In prose as delightful to hear as to read, Jay Jennings of the Oxford American introduced us to the state’s history and culture. Unlike Louisiana, which Angie Maxwell described as “culturally rich, but closed,” Northwest Arkansas is a place of fluidity, hybridity, and change. Cherisse Jones-Branch reminded us this has long been a place of catfish and barbecue, and likely always will be, but of so much more too.

Jeannie Whayne taught us of nineteenth-century Italian immigrants, who worked Sunnyside Plantation and began the Tontitown Grape Festival and the enduring dish of spaghetti with red gravy alongside fried chicken. Since the 1970s, this area has become home to significant Hmong, Marshallese, and Latino communities. Today’s shifting demographics have brought tortillerias, halal butchers, specialty grocers, restaurants, and markets full of gorgeous produce, which all stimulate new Arkansan foodways.

Culture here was shaped not only by those who arrived, but also by those who stayed. Jones-Branch told us the early-twentieth-century stories of the rural black women in Northwest Arkansas, too often overlooked, who didn’t migrate North, but who remained and organized “everybody” through their activism. Though in-home demonstrations provided an excuse to gather together, these women were interested in “more than just tomatoes,” motivated by poll taxes, reproductive rights, and the health and safety of their communities.

And yet, Jennifer Jensen Wallach reminded us that food and politics are not separate endeavors. Food is politics. “You can enjoy food in a very thoughtless way,” she said, but once you engage thoughtfully, you must balance that joy with everything else. In her history of Arkansas foodways, lyrically titled “From Unicorns to Plant Based Meats,” Wallach forced us to wrestle with how Tyson literally delivered the Republican prosperity promise of “a chicken in every pot,” as it supplied affordable and abundant whole birds, breasts, and nuggets to tables across the country. Tyson altered not just local diets, but national food culture, at the same time that it irrevocably affected the environment, workers, and global businesses practices.

Drawing connections between past, present, and future, Wallach drew our attention to Tyson’s more recent efforts to develop plant-based meats. Asserting that our current foodways are unsustainable, Wallach stressed that we need a new paradigm, a transformation in what we eat and how we produce it. It remains to be seen if and how plant-based meats might provide a remedy. Changes to our diets are, and will be, inherently painful said Wallach, given the myriad ways that food shapes and reflects our identities, ways of life, and senses of place. The more we read, the more we know. The more we know, the more it hurts, the more we must do something.

The SFA provides a space for these stories and conversations, but in ways more folksy and quirky than a traditional academic conference. As but one example, our days began with a benediction from poet and Arkansas native Patricia Spears Jones. When asked if she was a preacher, she chuckled, “Oh hell no,” but she nevertheless prepared us for our days of thinking and eating in a deliberate and soulful way. We need such inspiration as we face a future of food that is strained and uncertain.

Such complex discussions struck me as special given the context of a summer field trip. I listened to these talks surrounded by dozens and dozens of people, folks not just interested in a weekend of gastrotourism and indulgent eating, but in learning to critically unpack these difficult issues. As their craft-made podium art decrees, the SFA is about “working together” towards something good and lasting. I certainly found a sustaining dose of that with them in Bentonville.

Image Credits: Emily Contois, 2019 


Teaching the Unruly Unessay

Always inspired by the “unessay” projects I see profs proudly circulating on Twitter, I tried the assignment this semester in my Media and Popular Culture course. I couldn’t be more delighted with my students’ efforts and creations.

First a bit more about this class. It is both a foundations course in the Media Studies major and a part of the university’s general curriculum in the area of “Historical & Social Interpretation.” This semester it drew 31 students from every year of study and all across the university. The first half of the course emphasizes key theories and histories, culminating in a midterm. The second half provides opportunities for students to apply this theoretical knowledge to contemporary topics and issues.

Media & Pop Culture Class Selfie

Me, smiling a bit too hard, with the students of Media and Popular Culture, spring semester 2019

Last semester, students crafted short research papers, which they then translated into Infographics. This semester, students and I read Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Each class period, in groups of three or four, students led chapter discussions. Together we compiled one giant Google slide deck of media texts—magazine covers, photographs, relevant quotes, video clips, etc.—to illustrate the book and guide our conversation.

Over the course of about six weeks, students gained a vocabulary for deconstructing celebrity and femininity, as well as the broader concept of unruliness, which shapes the bounds of not just “respectable womanhood,” but the myriad ways that we move through the world. Students appreciated the highly accessible ways Petersen’s text employed theoretical concepts like taste cultures, convergence and participatory culture, the mechanics of media production, and the potential agency afforded by media consumption.

About two-thirds of the way through our reading, we had the special treat to welcome Anne Helen Petersen into our classroom for a discussion of her work and career. Students also had the opportunity to attend her public talk—organized by myself with Media Studies colleagues Zenia Kish and Justin Rawlins—on the politics of popular culture in the digital age, including her new work on millennial burnout.

Teaching the Unessay

For our class, the unessay was integrated with our reading on unruly women and comprised 35% of the total course grade, broken down as follows:

Unessay Proposal and Literature Review (10%)

Students submitted a proposal and literature review (2-3 pages) in which they were asked to:

  1. Summarize the unruly characteristic (“Too X”) and female pop culture figure (actual or fictional) you plan to research. State why she interests you and what she can teach us about unruliness, women, and femininity in our present or in the past (if you’re interested to study a historical figure).
  2. Compose a literature review of at least 8 sources (3 of which must be peer reviewed) that will form the foundation of your writing or your unessay. For each source, identify it, briefly summarize its key point(s) in a sentence, and describe in 1-2 sentences how you’ll use/build upon this evidence in your project.
  3. Propose, explain, and defend your project format and share why it interests you. You may choose to write a brilliantly concise and beautifully written 1,500 word essay or its creative equivalent, such as a poem, a work of art, a song, a playlist, a music video (or parody), a game, a recipe, a fashion line…the options are endless, limited only by your own creativity and commitment.
  4. Also list any questions or concerns you have as you undertake this project.

Office Hour Proposal Feedback Appointment

Students were not required to attend a proposal feedback appointment, but 80% did. In these short 10-minute meetings, a number of students changed their proposed projects, as our discussions revealed new ideas and possibilities. These meetings also helped students to gain comfort with this creative format, inspiring several students to switch from the essay option to an unessay. In the end, only three students selected the essay option and one of those included designing the essay into a magazine-style layout.

Unessay + Interpretative Paper (20%)

Students creating unessays also submitted a paper (1-2 pages) that explained and interpreted the unessay. Given the many different formats unessays could take, the grading rubric, which I shared with students beforehand, covered both the unessays and their interpretive papers and included three guiding questions:

  1. Conceptual Adherence | Does the unessay clearly and compellingly analyze an unruly woman and her unruly characteristic, taking inspiration from the style and rigor of Anne Helen Petersen’s The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman?
  2. Depth of Theoretical/Argumentative Application | Does the unessay and its interpretive paper effectively build upon the knowledge learned in this class from our readings (unruly and otherwise), our discussions, and this project’s related research?
  3. Invested Effort | Does the project, whatever format it might take, represent the energy and performance expected for a final course project that culminates our learning and is worth 20% of the course grade?

I hope to employ unessays again, and while this rubric worked well to set expectations with students and guided my assessment, I’m not sure if a more structured rubric would be better. (I welcome others’ thoughts on this!) That said, the end of term grading process was a bit quicker (and a lot more fun) than the typical stack of research papers.

Presentation (5%)

As an opportunity to practice oral presentation skills, but also for us to view and celebrate every student’s creation, our finals period featured 4-minute presentations of students’ unessays, some of which are pictured below, with student permission.

Angel painted Marilyn Monroe as “too glamorous,” caught between the black and white of her time and the color of how her pop culture image now circulates. On the screen, see Veronique’s football playbook, dedicated to how Toni Harris tackles gender bias on and off the field. Celyn researched Dolly Parton as “too independent.” He composed and performed a country-inspired song, but with lyrics that removed the genre’s all-too-often-misogynistic tone. Christina played her ukulele and performed a song she wrote about how critics frame Emma Watson as “too aggressive” for her feminist views.

Dustie painted Daenerys Targaryen, reflecting on how she perseveres within a patriarchal culture, despite how others see her as a small woman against the largeness of the throne. Iris painted the duality of Reese Witherspoon’s feminism and her new domesticity, alongside reflections of her own unruliness. On the screen, you can see Taylen’s poster dedicated to Kesha and the unruliness of “too sleazy,” and her efforts to theorize a female gaze. Kimberly created and populated an Instagram account dedicated to Lady Gaga and critiques that she’s “too vocal” with protest signs bearing inspirational quotes from the Warrior Queen herself.

Luisa created a decoupaged wrecking ball to explore how audiences responded to Miley Cyrus as she transformed in the public eye from Disney child star to “too wild.” Annie performed her own stand up set, inspired by the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, women comedians, and the notion that women aren’t or can’t be funny.

And these are just the ones I took photos of! One student wrote a poem. Students shot a short documentary, music videos, and a “person on the street” comedy video. They created magazine and album covers, a collage, a fashion line, and a food blog.

Student Feedback

29 of 31 students (94%) completed an end of term feedback survey, including thoughts on the unessay. 86% of those students found the unessay assignment “very effective” or “effective.” Four students found it only “somewhat effective,” but zero students rated it as “ineffective” or “very ineffective.”

The assignment didn’t engage every student, as one student responded, “I personally didn’t find the kind of assignment very interesting, but it’s educational potential is high for those interested.” I also had a couple of students who struggled with the unessay’s less structured approach, as they reflected, “The project was pretty effective I just find the open endedness to be a little confusing” and “It gave me a lot of freedom but almost too much and made it hard to focus on it.” This feedback makes me think I ought to require the office hour consultation, so I can make sure all students have clarity and support. I could also emphasize more pointedly at key intervals during the project development stages that students feeling confused about the project are very welcome to come meet with me.

Overall, however, students enjoyed the unessay format for how it encouraged creativity. In this vein, students responded that the unessay: “forced me to get out of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to use creativity,” “It helps us learn and allows creative freedom,” and “It was a creative way to learn, which isn’t utilized very often in school.”

Students also reflected that the unessay format promoted their learning, as one student wrote, ” I think the fact that I was able to use my creativity allowed me to learn the material better than if I had written a paper.” Another responded, “I loved this assignment. For me, it was a practical way I could apply the theory I researched, which helps me understand it more in the long run.”

As I had hoped, the unessay format in some cases fostered greater student engagement and excitement for research. One student wrote, “Because it was a format that I chose, it was something I was most interested and invested in,” while another reflected, “I was able to make my learning and research plan more personal.”

One student found the assignment practical and applicable to life after graduation, writing, “It was such a refreshing break to be able to do this research but not just write a paper on it. Also, outside of academia, we will be doing more creative projects, so it was a good help to implement this type of project.”

As these responses and the unessays themselves show, most students embraced the unessay assignment, creating dozens of wholly unique projects that applied their knowledge and communicated their learning. I plan to use this assignment in future classes and hope it will inspire similar results.

If you have experience with unessays or questions, please share in the comments!

Additional Unessay Reading and Resources

Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2019 

CFP—You Are What You Post: Food and Instagram

In the beginning, critics pegged Instagram as the site for polaroid-shaped pictures of brunch and babies. Its presumed whiteness, feminization, and superficial consumerism have been slow to draw sustained scholarly attention compared with Facebook and Twitter, despite the fact that by mid-2018, the image-based social media platform had topped one billion users worldwide. Now an extensive and heterogeneous visual ecosystem, Instagram’s unique relations between food and media—and the broader cultural significance of these dynamics—warrant critical scrutiny.

How does the “social photography” (Manovich 2014) of Instagram mediate ideas about food, eating, health, and nutrition? How does food intersect with diverse performances of identity, including celebrity, in the digital vernacular of posting photos with significant frequency? Considering more than 70% of American businesses are estimated to engage with the platform, how does the visual economy of Instagram participate in and reshape food and restaurant brand development and marketing? How does Instagram’s rapid global expansion reflect and reshape visual geographies of food and eating? Exploring these and other questions, this volume will bring together food and media studies scholars to cast an interdisciplinary lens on what we learn about the cultures and economies of food through the Instagram frame.

We seek contributors for focused, lively, and engaging chapters on the topic of food and Instagram. The volume will be peer-reviewed and has received interest from Bloomsbury Academic, a leading publisher of works on food. The press affords a growing list of texts in Food Media and Communication, bolstered by the Bloomsbury Food Library, which affords space for pedagogical components suitable for both undergraduate and graduate course adoption.

Potential chapter topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Food porn on and through Instagram
  • Restaurants, food brands, and marketing
  • Taste, reviews, expertise, and criticism
  • Social status, aspiration, and mobility
  • Nutrition, nutritionism, “healthy” eating, and food tracking
  • Digital worlds, data, surveillance, and technology  
  • Instagram and the construction of identity and the self
  • Generational considerations and impacts
  • Consumption, diet(ing), and influencers
  • Convergence, transgression, and Instagram aesthetics
  • Globalization, transnationalism, and circulation
  • Instagram, community, and isolation
  • Instagram users and uses in the Global South
  • Representations of farming, agriculture, and food landscapes  
  • Activism, resistance, and other potentials of food Instagram
  • Food and online toxicity
  • Instagram and pedagogy

If you are interested in submitting a chapter to this edited volume, please send a 300-word abstract and 150-word bio  to co-editors, Emily Contois (emily-contois [at] and Zenia Kish (zenia-kish [at], by April 1, 2019. Please include your preferred name and email address, title and institution (if applicable), and current city, state, and country. Contributors will be notified of preliminary acceptance by May 1, 2019. Chapters of 5,000-6,000 words, inclusive of notes and bibliography, will be due September 1, 2019. These are firm deadlines, so we ask that contributors please plan accordingly.

Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact either or both of the editors. We genuinely look forward to receiving your proposals. 

Top Image Credit: Diana Garvin and Emily Contois 

Teaching with Infographics

In my Media and Popular Culture course in the Media Studies Department at The University of Tulsa, students embraced a final project that they ultimately described as “daunting and interesting,” thoughtful and painstaking,” a “strenuous yet rewarding undertaking,” and “a welcome challenge.” The assignment? To translate a 1,500-word research essay into an infographic. Less about visually representing complex data sets, this assignment sought to develop practical and creative skills in argumentation and flow, clear and concise writing, and the representation of complex ideas and concepts.

Here I share details about this infographic project for instructors who might like to try something similar.

Foundational Reading

We began by considering the history of infographics, all the way back to the first maps as the visualization of data. We considered how institutionalized data collecting in the 19th century furthered such techniques and created a new type of citizen, one comfortable thinking statistically. From these early examples came tried and true infographic concepts, such as “speak to the eyes.” This foundation proved useful for students, as one later wrote, “Gaining an understanding of how these graphics began as maps and charts to condense information and solve problems was a fascinating introduction to this material.”

From Alberto Cairo we considered how infographics function as “visual arguments” with cyborgian abilities that extend our human capacities. We learned that as infographic creators, we must think as craftspeople “to design devices to make people’s lives easier, not to entertain them, or to sell them an idea or a product.” These ideas resonated with students who remembered later that “design is the second most important thing and to not let it distract from the information.”

We also considered the practical, editorial, and financial challenges of creating infographics within professional journalism and critiques of infographics: that they indulge those who don’t want to read, that they focus more on design and going viral than distributing civic data, and that they’ve grown so promotional they are indistinguishable from advertisements.

Armed with this historical and critical background, students were able to conceive of infographics in deeper and more complex terms, even as they turned their attention to practical concerns.

Learning Design Basics

We next read basic guides for creating effective infographics like this and this. For a homework assignment, students brought into class examples of effective and less effective infographics so that we could learn what to emulate and what to avoid. From these examples, we created our infographic rubric:

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 7.49.55 AM

Scaffolding the Assignment

1. Storyboards. Students began the project by creating storyboards, based on the following assignment prompt:

Based on your research paper, create a storyboard, that is, a sketched-out rough draft for the information you plan to include in your infographic and how you plan to visually arrange it. Consider what evidence and key points are truly central to the argument you’re making and how you’ll “chunk” them. Consider textual components like your title, headings, subheadings, and blocks of text, as well as the visual elements like icons, images, graphic representations of data, etc. You don’t need to think yet about fonts, colors, and other aesthetic concerns, but you are welcome to do so if you feel ready. The more developed your storyboard, the easier the drafting process will be. You are welcome to design your infographic from scratch or use a template on Canva or Piktochart

2. Storyboard Peer Review. In class, students peer-reviewed one another’s storyboards, using the form below. Building from that feedback, students reflected on the current strengths and weaknesses of their storyboard and planned their next steps.

Screen Shot 2018-12-08 at 1.46.47 PM

3. Infographic Drafts. Students then created drafts of their infographics, addressing both content and design. Some students designed infographics from scratch, but most used templates from Canva or Piktochart, which worked well.

4. Infographic Draft Presentations. Students presented their drafts in class. This provided time and space to practice oral presentation skills and for students to share their research topics with their peers, expanding the breadth of pop culture content covered in our course. Students also gave peer feedback (on a designated form) to three others in the class, ensuring multiple comments (in addition to my own) on their drafts. Students appreciated this feedback, as one student wrote, “If I did not have people to critique my infographic, there would have been no possible way for me to understand my errors or even to realize mistakes.”

5. Final Infographics. Students submitted their final infographics to a Google Slide deck before our last class meeting so that we could share the final results with one another, ending with a round of applause for students’ effort and growth.


What We Learned

1. How to fine-tune an argument and write concisely. 

While a number of students emerged from this assignment with a new ability to write concisely, this was no easy task, or as one student wrote, “Condensing complex concepts into an easily digestible, understandable, and aesthetically pleasing format like an infographic takes a lot of time, effort, and planning.” This is an iterative process, which one student summarized as, “The process taught me how to better pick out the most important information from an essay and how to analyze and interpret that information in order to report and illustrate it in a concise and impactful way that will reach the broadest audience.”

2. How to truly revise. 

As one student conceded, students often perceive revision as simply “correcting spelling errors or formatting,” and it can be difficult to help them break through that. With infographics, a student found that the assignment “pushed me to delete entire sections and rework the draft so that the information would effectively align with my argument.” For one student, his “final infographic contained a more developed argument and newly found information that was not originally in my research paper.”

3. How to embrace new and difficult tasks. 

Creating an infographic was a new endeavor for all of us. One student reflected, “I learned that the development of an infographic takes hard, concentrated, and deliberate work to produce a quality and effective infographic,” while another characterized the assignment as “a lengthy, detailed, and conceptual task.” One student concluded, “This project showed me a whole new way of presenting information,” while another remarked, “I have learned so much about pushing myself to think outside of the box, and in different ways than I had before by doing this project.”


In the end, students said that the “infographic project was one of a kind” and that “the entire process was a highlight of the course.” Beyond such learning, I’m delighted to share a few wonderful infographics below (click to enlarge) from students William Bennett, Claire Lenz, Lydia Jeong, and Maria Donnelly.


Maria Donnelly

By Maria Donnelly


On Teaching “Persuasive Influences in America” for the First Time

This semester I taught “Persuasive Influences in America” in the Media Studies Department at The University of Tulsa. In this class of 29 students, 60% were in their first year and just over 10% were the first in their families to attend college. Expanding beyond the typical focus on “how we make choices,” we took a multifaceted approach to interpreting, historicizing, and critiquing persuasive influences in the United States. After working to define persuasion, its ethical stakes, and how it works, we read four texts whose primary aim is, in one way or another, persuasion. Taking on topics like self-help literature, advertising, the environmental movement, and the global food system, we unpacked how and why these particular texts were, and continue to be, both persuasive and influential in American society and culture. In each case we began with the text itself, then considered in turn audience reception, critique (often representing dramatically opposing viewpoints), and contemporary connections.

We first read the 1936 manual How to Win Friends and Influence People, penned by Dale Carnegie, often referred to as “the grandfather of self-help books.” We considered the text’s Depression-era roots, its best-selling status over many decades, and Carnegie’s own (in)sincerity. Through the Museum of the City of New York’s photo collection, we imagined ourselves in one of Carnegie’s courses. We read period book reviews, comparing their evaluations to contemporary reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Conceding the guide’s ongoing popularity and self-help’s place in U.S. culture, we pondered critiques of the self-help-ification of U.S. nonfiction. We wrestled with the concern that this genre persuades us to work on ourselves rather than change our systems, power structures, or societies.

We next read Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and took a seat in the audience for his 1957 Books and Authors Luncheon, where Packard defended his polarizing book. With his mid-century critique of motivational research into consumers’ inner desires, Packard irked, but also influenced, the advertising industry. Although some readers (including some in our class!) remained deeply enamored with advertising, Packard informed the public’s media literacy. We also discussed his warning cry regarding our increasingly expansive and wasteful consumer culture. Drawing connections to today’s social media influencers (with sponsored posts, fake views, and bot followers), we pondered if they might be today’s hidden persuaders.

We followed the themes of consumerism, waste, and regulatory transparency through to Rachel Carson’s lyrical and compelling Silent Spring, whose 1962 publication launched the environmental movement as we know it. We watched her 1963 CBS special and considered how her identity (as a single woman without a PhD) shaped industry’s vehement responses, summarized as, “Silence Miss Carson!” Despite Silent Spring‘s significant influence, we discussed the challenge of persuading audiences about problems with longer term consequences, including not only chemical pesticides, but also climate change, an issue whose urgency shifted beneath our feet during the semester.

We concluded our class reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. As a twenty-first-century companion to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Schlosser’s text endeavors to persuade the public through the stomach (concern for oneself) and the heart (concern for others, justice, and equity). First published in 2001, the book remains both persuasive and relevant, perhaps depressingly so. Despite the many limitations of fast food, however, we pushed our thinking even further as we read Julie Guthman‘s critique of organic salad mix and Suzanne Zuppello’s recent essay critiquing slow food’s elitism. Their arguments broke down the all too easy dichotomy between fast food and slow food, pushing us to consider labor, power, and access throughout the food system.


At its most basic level, persuasion is a conscious attempt to influence attitudes and actions. Studying persuasion proved an effective mode for developing and enhancing critical thinking skills applicable in our class and lives. We realized how often persuasion is about power and agency, context and complexity, culture and ethics. These stories aren’t easy or simple; or as one student wrote, “nothing is black or white.”

As my students reflected, the course challenged them to “always think deeper and critically about the information given,” especially as they were exposed to “different perspectives” and “varying world views” so “to keep an open mind, and not to be afraid of change or opposing ideas.” These lessons made one student “more aware of how people treat me when they need something, how Amazon recommends a product specifically for me, how treating my grass affects the land, and most importantly, definitively now knowing without question what’s in the meat,” while another student developed “a different curiosity about essential things in my life such as business, readings, advertisements, food, etc. Persuasion is everywhere.”

Building on this new knowledge, students had the opportunity to select and develop their own research on a persuasive phenomenon, interpreted broadly and creatively, and distilled into an 8-to-10-page paper. For many students, this was their first research paper, ever, a challenge I hadn’t foreseen, but one that we met together. Students researched the persuasive appeals of movie trailers, food labels (particularly for contentious components like gluten and genetically modified ingredients), social media advertising (especially for regulated substances like alcohol and tobacco), presidential communication (from FDR to Trump), cult leaders like David Koresh, “trash talking” athletes like Conor McGregor, and workplace behavioral assessments—just to name a few.

I’ll be teaching this course again in the spring and can’t wait to see where it takes us.

The Changing Nutrition Landscape for Whole Grains: Insights from History & Pop Culture

In November 2018, I had the opportunity to present at the Oldways Whole Grains Council Conference in Seattle, Washington. Oldways is a nonprofit food and nutrition organization that promotes food heritage, including programming like traditional diets and the Whole Grain Stamp. The conference brought together a diverse set of speakers and attendees representing food industry, food service, food writing, food marketing, academia, healthcare, and government.

Below is a recording of my talk, “The Changing Nutrition Landscape: Insights from History and Popular Culture.” You can find links to the many other fascinating talks here.

Photo credits: Kelly Toups

A Student Interview on Media Studies + Food Studies

Here at the University of Tulsa, students coming to college directly from high school take in their first semester a 1-credit course, “First Year College Experience.” The class aims to support students through this transition and provide them with strategies for success during college. While every professor teaches the course differently, one skill often emphasized is “how to communicate with professors.” Students practice this skill through interviews that they set up with faculty in fields of their interest.

I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Hana Saad about media studies and my own food studies positioning within the field. To start, Hana summarized media studies as:

Media studies is an interdisciplinary degree. Those who major in media studies work to understand the history and content of mass media, as well as the role that media plays in our society. Media studies is somewhat unique, as each individual can personalize their education with classes from a variety of other fields. This is why this major is such a great option. It allows students to study multiple passions and interests and opens them up to a range of different careers. Some of these careers include: creative directors, storytellers, media planners, and producers, as well as many other exciting options. Media studies is a field that is full of possibilities.

What follows is a slightly edited version of her account of our conversation. My thanks to Hana for her permission to share it here.

What got you interested in your discipline?

Dr. Emily Contois told me she was interested in food and how “food and health” are portrayed in the media. She talked about how the connection between food, persuasion, and the media has always interested her, so that was her main reason for becoming a professor in media studies.

What is your speciality?

Within media studies, Dr. Contois specializes in food studies, gender studies, and public health nutrition. She got her PhD in in American studies.

Who do you look up to the most in your discipline?

Warren Belasco and Carol Counihan are two people that Dr. Contois looks up to the most in her discipline. She feels “so lucky that the masters of food studies” were also her mentors. She still is in communication with both of those incredible scholars today. She said she will “look up to them forever.” She also has a close relationship with her professor, Julia Ehrhardt, who taught one of her first undergraduate courses. She feels lucky because Ehrhardt is now someone that she calls a colleague.

If you could choose a different discipline to study, what would it be and why? 

Dr. Contois does study a variety of exciting disciplines. She told me, it is “so exciting to land in media studies” because it allows her to study all of the things she is interested in. She was not trained in media studies specifically, but her work has always been related closely to the field.

What is your favorite course to teach?

Dr. Contois told me about a class that she hopes to teach next semester at TU. It would be called “Food and/as Media” and would cover topics such as food studies, food and social media (like Instagram), and the critical production of food.

How do you choose what to teach in your classes, including lecture topics and readings? How do you prepare a course? 

Dr. Contois uses a method called “Backward Course Design.” She begins by thinking about what she wants her students to know at the end of the course, then moves onto the specific books she will use and what assignments she wants her students to work on.

How does working in your discipline affect your perspective of the world? 

Dr. Contois told me, “In both food studies and media studies, there is an underlying commitment to social justice and equity.” Dr. Contois said when we study pop culture, it allows us to “stop and question how media works” and how people are being persuaded. She says these fields of study have real “activist potential.”

Announcing a New Food History Fellowship at the University of North Texas

The number of food-focused graduate programs just increased by one. The University of North Texas recently announced a new MA fellowship in food history, funded by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

The fellowship affords a $5,000 annual stipend, renewable for a second year based on satisfactory academic performance. Awardees are also eligible to apply for a teaching assistantship in the Department of History, which provides an additional stipend and partial tuition waiver. Beyond financial support, the Fellow will have the opportunity to participate in career-building activities such as promoting UNT’s History Garden, working as an editorial assistant, gaining teaching experience in food history classrooms, and presenting their research in public forums.

I had the opportunity to chat with Jennifer Jensen Wallach and Michael Wise, both Associate Professors of History at UNT, to learn more about this new program.

I was excited to learn that UNT boasts eight faculty specialized in food history! Students will have the opportunity to study with both of you, as well as with Professors Katy Imy, Sandra C. Mendiola García, Rachel Louise Moran, Marilyn Morris, Clark A. Pomerleau, and Nancy L. Stockdale. What is the climate overall at UNT for food studies and food history research, teaching and learning, and community-engaged work?

We are fortunate to have a wide range of food studies faculty working across the entire university. Until recently, our food studies community was relatively fragmented, located, for instance, within our strong College of Merchandising, Hospitality, and Tourism; within our internationally-recognized program in environmental philosophy; our major centers in plant research and other biological sciences; and of course, within our Department of History.

About five years ago we began the process of organizing this interdisciplinary expertise in food studies in some more direct ways. Funding from the UNT Provost’s Office, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and the Department of History have enabled us to host a steady stream of food studies lectures, an international conference, and visits from outside experts who have advised us on how to build our program in food studies. Currently, we have assembled a working group of thirty faculty who represent four different colleges and ten different departments. Our exciting collaborations involve defining our vision for food studies at UNT and planning what kind of new programs we can build to benefit both our students and our community.

I’ve had a few food history colleagues critique food studies for how it perhaps focuses more on present and future food issues than considering the past. How do you view the relationship between food history and food studies, especially when it comes to training graduate students?

One of the unique aspects of our food studies working group is that we have people actively engaged in plant science; people training students to work in the hospitality industry; kinesiologists studying the impact of food on the body; and humanities scholars training students to think critically about all of these undertakings. As historians, one of the contributions we can make to these discussions is to provide the tools to move beyond the nostalgia that often accompanies well-intended, but sometimes misdirected critiques of our present and future food systems.

For instance, the often-cited suggestion that we look to the pots and plates of our collective great-great-grandmothers for guidance on how to solve our present food problems distorts our long historical relationships with industrial foods, and ignores the many inequalities of race, gender, and class that structured these mythologically superior past food practices. Such romantic narratives about food in the past are not just inaccurate, but in certain cases they have also served more insidious functions of justifying white supremacy, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and so on.

So, the scholars that work in our department are trying to disentangle how both past food practices and present ideas about food have helped create and recreate structures of power and inequality. We are interested in studying not only what people ate in the past, but also how distorted historical narratives about idyllic food pasts are often put to work in the present to sustain certain power structures.

Graduate students in history at UNT now have the option of organizing their studies thematically around a new concentration called “Body, Place, Identity” that trains students to analyze the historical work of identity construction in relation to histories of bodily and spatial practices—such as cooking and eating—that are significant building blocks of culture, yet ones that remain understudied by historians. The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts Fellowship in Food History is a direct outgrowth of this new initiative of our graduate program.

Students can now choose from a growing number of excellent, graduate level food studies programs, but securing funding and fellowships can be a challenge, especially at the master’s level. How did UNT come to develop this fellowship with the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts? And will this be an ongoing fellowship opportunity at UNT beyond this first recipient(s)?

Like many other graduate programs in the humanities, we are often forced to accomplish a lot with a little. Our Department of History already offers funding for many of our students through teaching assistantships and instructorships. The purpose of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts Fellowship in Food History is to offer additional support for an exceptional student who can use these funds to alleviate some of the financial pressure that often accompanies graduate school. In the future, we hope to secure additional funding from other sources to continue supporting food history graduate students at a high level.

Jennifer (learn more about her in this ASFS Member Spotlight interview) first reached out to the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts several years ago to help fund the Food and Foodways book series that she founded at the University of Arkansas Press.

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A selection of books in the Food and Foodways series from University of Arkansas Press, co-edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach and Michael Wise.

Since then, this series, which we now co-edit, and which is dedicated to telling lesser-known food stories, has published nine titles, two of which have won recent ASFS book awards. Because our work at UNT continues this same mission, we approached the foundation again to see if they would be interested in supporting our new graduate field in food history. We were thrilled and delighted when they agreed to partner with us.

For applicants who might apply for this fellowship from outside of the region, how would you describe Denton and Dallas-Fort Worth as a place to live, study, work, and, of course, eat?

The University of North Texas is one of Texas’s major public research universities, enrolling more than 38,000 students. We are broadly known as a premier school for music and the arts, and our university has grown alongside the Dallas-Fort Worth region (or “the Metroplex” as North Texans call it) for more than 125 years, serving the diverse public needs of the region’s 7 million inhabitants for higher education and community engagement. Denton is also home to Texas Woman’s University, another public institution with 15,000 students (and—it bears mentioning here—a wonderful library collection of thousands of historic cookbooks).

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The Texas Woman’s University Cookbook Collection includes more than 25,000 cookbooks, 10,000 pamphlets of promotional recipe leaflets, and 1,800 international menus.

With all these students, faculty, and university administrators, Denton is a vibrant college town. It boasts an affordable cost of living, and its civic character comes from its many independent retailers, coffee shops, and an ever-increasing number of restaurants, many of which are situated on or around our historic town square. We were particularly excited when Spiral Diner, a vegan institution based in Fort Worth, opened their third location here in “little d.”

In short, Denton is a place that surprises most people with its unexpected charms. Visitors often remark that it reminds them of what Austin was like in the 1960s—diverse, unpretentious, and friendly. Although we’re suspicious of such kinds of mythical, historical comparisons, we’d agree that Denton is different from what many people imagine when they think about Texas. It’s a fun place to live and a interesting place to work as a student and scholar.

How to Apply

  • Interested candidates must first apply for admission to UNT’s Toulouse Graduate School and then to the UNT Department of History’s MA program.
  • After completing these applications, candidates should also submit a letter of application describing their qualifications and research interests in food history.
  • This letter should be submitted alongside a 2018-2019 “Application for Departmental Scholarships” (being sure to check the box for this fellowship) available here.

The deadline for all applications is January 15, 2019.

For more information, please contact Jennifer Jensen Wallach (Jennifer.Wallach [at] or Michael D. Wise (Michael.Wise [at]

Top Image: Okra growing in the UNT History Garden. Photo credit: Emily Olkkola


Q&A with Adrienne Rose Bitar on Diet & the Disease of Civilization

I moved across country this summer, a process that necessitated packing and unpacking all of my books, including titles other academics might find odd: dozens of cookbooks (like my microwave cookbooks!) and a number of diet books (yes, some for men).

Luckily, Adrienne Rose Bitar, a postdoctoral associate in history at Cornell University, can relate to my collection of weight loss texts. She surveyed four hundred U.S. diet books for her recent monograph, Diet and the Disease of Civilization. Focusing on four diets and their associated locations—Paleo (the cave), Eden (the Garden), precolonial (“primitive” paradise), and detox (preindustrial world)—Bitar demonstrates how each diet depends on the same “Fall of Man” story, which she asserts forms “the narrative backbone of our national consciousness.”

I recently had the chance to chat with Adrienne, one dieting scholar to another, in my latest for Nursing Clio. Our conversation covers the research challenges of studying diet books, what detox diets can tell us about American culture, how Adrienne managed to go from dissertation to book in just two years, and how and why she sees a message of hope in diet literature.

Why I’m Still Blogging After 6 Years & Being Trolled

I started this blog turned something-maybe-slightly-bigger in July 2012. Most years around this time, I take a moment to reflect on why I blog as an academic and why others might want to as well. Past reasons—which I wrote about in 2013, 2014, and 2017—still resonate with me. Blogging builds an audience of readers, collaborators, friends and fans, mentors and mentees. Blogging also builds bridges. Blogging helps my writing, especially if and when I feel stuck. It has opened doors I didn’t even know to knock. And it’s been fun, year after year.

This year, however, I have some different things to reflect on.

What does it mean to be a public scholar, to blog, and to share my work, perspective, and life, after being trolled quite unpleasantly, for weeks? (You can read more about that in my Nursing Clio essay, “I Was Trolled, Here’s Why I’m Turning It into a Teaching Opportunity.”) Seeing this happen to me has made some fellow scholars and friends even more hesitant to start blogging. To that I say, no. Now is the time more than ever to be public scholars and to be scholars in public. 

To begin, the outlets that picked up the story about my Feminist Media Studies article, those who wrote the stories, and the folks who read them, commented on them, tweeted me, and emailed me, weren’t at all interested in who I am or what my research is actually about. All of that information is freely available and easy to find here on this site. So, blogging about my research did not invite or incite any of this vitriol.

Furthermore, my research could have been attacked even if I didn’t have an online presence, which would have left me with fewer avenues to claim, own, and drive the narrative of this situation as it unfolded. Similarly, because I already have an established online presence, a Brietbart article isn’t the first thing online searches return for my name.

A more important point, at least for me, was that being a public scholar meant I didn’t have to face this experience alone. People who I had never met or even spoken to before, who had been reading my work over the years, reached out to me with words of support at moments when I needed them, for which I’m unceasingly grateful. Without my online presence, I might not have had as many generous and kind folks on my side as this experience transpired.

But what made me most uncomfortable in all of this wasn’t the mean tweets or being called offensive names or having my happy corner of the Internet poisoned—perhaps forever, which I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with. It was the sustained antagonistic sentiment against social scientists, humanists, and feminists; against scholars, academics, and professors; against the academy and higher education.

I know that I’ll likely never convince some (or maybe even very many) folks, but I also hear and see and acknowledge that there’s a lot of confusion about what academics do and why it matters. That’s part of the reason why I share publicly some of what I’m working on in the classroom with my students, like teaching with cookbooks, designing dietary guidelines, defining American food, or writing on food, gender, and popular culture. It’s why I’ve blogged about how my Instagram is full of visual representations of what my work life of research, writing and revision, class prep, conferences, etc. (etc.!) looks and feels like. It’s why I blog my research publications to make them more accessible, so they’re not just behind a paywall or too full of jargon.

Sure, part of me is utterly heartbroken that I’m starting my academic career at a time when my professional field is widely misunderstood, attacked, and maligned. But for me that’s all the more reason to stand up for what and who I believe in, to weather the storm(s)—(with help and support!), to not stay silent, and to be a public scholar with all the grace, resilience, and empathy I can muster.

What Jonathan Gold Taught ASFS Food Scholars

The 2017 ASFS/AFHVS conference at Occidental College included a writing workshop with Laurie Ochoa and Jonathan Gold, one of our most important food writers, one devastating to lose.

As but one tiny way to honor him—his words, writing, perspective, impact, and legacy—here are live-tweets from the workshop, “Dessert is Not an Ending: Food Writing in the Age of Instagram.”

More a gorgeously meandering, quirky conversation than a linear lecture or a task-oriented workshop, Laurie Ochoa and Jonathan Gold pondered with us—a group of food studies academics—our current food moment, taking in the power of place and people, definitions of authenticity, social media’s impact, the art and labor of writing, and the still untapped but ripe and exhilarating potential that exists where academic theory, deep context, visceral detail, and food writing meet.

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An incredible honor to meet and learn from Laurie Ochoa and Jonathan Gold.

Much will be, and should be, written about Jonathan Gold in the days and weeks to come. Reading his words and those written about him will be one way to process our grief, but I am also moved by Gustavo Arellano’s call in his op ed in the Los Angeles Times:

Don’t mourn his passing too long. The best way we can honor his legacy is by living in the Southern California he wanted all of America to know: a big ol’, multihued, ever-delicious bowl of stew. Or plate of fessenjoon. Or giant taco. So eat.








Pondering & Archiving #foodstudies18: AFHVS/ASFS Conference at UW-Madison

Since its first meeting in 1987, the annual Association for the Study of Food and Society conference has provided a space for critical, interdisciplinary exchange on food studies research and practice—one with a strong sense of community, which is perhaps best articulated by ASFS members themselves:

That sense of community is alive all year long through the peer-reviewed journal Food, Culture & Society, in the ASFS newsletter, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and much more. Our community spirit also takes root on a new campus each year at the annual conference, which has been co-hosted with the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) since 1992.

This year’s meeting took place on the gorgeous lake-front campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison upon land acknowledged as the traditional territories of the Hooçak Nation. (Please see page 6 of the conference program for the full land acknowledgement.)

As we learned in the conference program, Madison is home to myriad co-ops, farm-to-table restaurants, CSAs, community gardens, bike paths, parks, and 13 farmer’s markets, including the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest in the nation. (Check out Katherine Hysmith’s Twitter thread photo tour if you weren’t able to visit it in person.)

The agri-food energy of Madison inspired and transformed the conference theme of “the agroecological prospect,” as panels, roundtables, workshops, keynotes, and meals each examined the politics of integrating values, food, and farming. Our thanks and congratulations to the Program Committee co-chairs, Michael Bell and Michelle Miller, and the members of the various planning committees who put on an outstanding conference.

Our #foodstudies18 live-tweeting efforts (including our pre-conference How To Guide) are one way that we seek to make the conference proceedings accessible to folks outside the organization and for members not able to attend this year’s conference.

We’re happy to hear live-tweeting was helpful this year for those not able to attend in person—and for those in attendance who struggled to choose between all the great session options.

To build a digital archive of this year’s conference, below is a catalogue of Twitter threads and Twitter moments that offer highlights from some of the sessions. It’s worth noting that we doubled our Twitter coverage of full sessions this year thanks to the help of a growing team of live-tweeters.

Check out #foodstudies18 for even more coverage—and we hope to see you at next year’s conference: #foodstudies19 at the University of Alaska, June 26-29, 2019!

#foodstudies18 Twitter Threads and Moments

For more information: Please see the final program for presenter names, affiliations, and paper titles. Check out the interactive online program, which also includes abstracts.

You can also check out past conferences by following the hashtags:

Feature Image Photo Credits: Emily Contois and Katherine Hysmith, 2018 

How I Pack for Summer Academic Conferences

Friends have asked me for this for years, so here goes: a post on how I pack light for summer academic conferences!

Note: this is not the post where I defend fashion within professional academic contexts as a feminist issue, though I have lots of thoughts on said topic.

I leave for the 2018 AFHVS/ASFS Conference tomorrow (yay!), so here I present my three outfits for attending sessions and four outfits for casual receptions and sightseeing—though there are many more combos to be had here!


Beyond these separates, I packed pajamas, a top and bottom for working out, underthings, makeup, and toiletries—all in my fav weekender bag, with space leftover to bring a few new books home!

A few tips:

  • I have good luck with A-line or tube-shaped skirts in stretchy fabrics. They pack tiny, don’t wrinkle, mix and match a million ways, and keep your legs out and cool, if your conference is somewhere toasty.
  • Wear a cardigan/sweater and a scarf/wrap on the plane, so you’ve got layers if you need them during the conference without taking up space in your bag.
  • Choose a few pieces in a base, coordinating color like black, white, grey—you get the idea. That’ll make it a bit easier to mix and match.
  • Use jewelry, belts, and/or scarves to accessorize and make similar combinations look quite different, so you can squeeze more looks out of just a few pieces.
  • Find a pair of flats you love that are crazy cute and comfy and just wear them with everything. (Even then, pack blister bandages. Always.) That said, pack a pair of sneakers so you can go for walks and/or exercise, if you want to.
  • Embrace leggings as pants. They’re way more comfy for traveling in, and if you need to pack them, they take up hardly any space.
  • Roll everything for packing so it takes less space. Note: This requires fabrics that are wrinkle-resistant. That’s often a good thing anyway, y’all.

Just for fun, here are some of my past conference adventures in packing light: AAHM 2017 in Nashville on the left, and ASFS 2017 in Los Angeles on the right.

And here’s my greatest challenge to date, two weeks in Europe (including a fabulous history of nutrition conference in Venice) all packed into a regular-sized backpack and a tote bag:


Do you have tips to share too? Happy packing and conferencing, y’all!

All photo credits: Emily Contois 

Presenting My Students’ Final Project: Defining American Food

This spring I’m co-teaching Food in American Society and Culture with Professor Richard Meckel for the second time. We’re joined by a new group of eighteen students from various concentrations, years of study, and areas of the country and world—unified by a common interest to study food seriously, critically, and with all of our senses. In addition to a number of classic food studies questions (which you can peruse in our course bibliography), we also asked:

How do we define American food and how does food define Americans?

This is a complex, contradictory, perhaps impossible, and notably polemic question. For example, our student, Charlotte Senders describes efforts to define American food as “a frustrating pleasure in attempting to uncover what it is exactly that’s in that great American melting pot,” while our student Dorinda Fong writes, “American food in a sense is undefinable, in the same way something is priceless, not meaning that it has no price but that it’s simply not possible to pinpoint a specific one.” Embracing this complexity, our student Solina Powell writes of American food: “Its definition is fluid and changes not only for individuals of different identities, but transforms as those individuals’ own identities develop over time.”

The first time we taught this course (read more here), our final class project examining this question was comprised of essays that drew from our class Pinterest board, on which students posted throughout the semester examples of “American” foods, ingredients, techniques, restaurants, personae, characteristics, values, problems, and contradictions. (Check out the final result here.)

This year, we tried something a little different. Students could choose one of two essay options to conduct, write, revise, and include on our class blog.

In the first, students wrote a restaurant review that reflected upon how the chosen establishment defined American food in whole or in part through elements like its menu, flavors, techniques, chef/cook and staff, décor, service, and mission.

Using food studies scholar Warren Belasco’s culinary triangle of identity, convenience, and responsibility as a framework, Halle Katz reviewed By CHLOE., considering how the vegan chain endeavors to redefine American fast food. Praveen Srinivasan reviewed his favorite Providence restaurant, Apsara Palace, arguing that the restaurant’s approach to fusion cuisine—marked by the coexistence of aspects like jasmine tea and Justin Bieber—defines American food more broadly. Seeking to understand the popularity of the Cheesecake Factory, Audrea Holt argued that its portion sizes, abundant choices, and middle class attractiveness exemplify American cuisine.

Jacqueline Doan reviewed Emporium Pies in Dallas, considering how its “American” blend of modern and traditional elements is deeply influenced by conventional gender roles, from the menu to the decor to the shop’s marketing. Miranda Villanueva dined at The Beef Barn in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, which prompted her to examine the assumptions of whiteness that undergird typical definitions of “all-American” food as “steaks, fries, and apple pies,” despite how delicious she found them at the restaurant.

Reviewing her morning coffee at Blue State, Julia Christensen explored how the shop operationalizes patriotic consumer citizenship, as it synthesizes the personal, local, global, and political on its menu, in its decor, and through its mission. Considering the Dominican menu at D’Canela Cafeteria in Providence,Jesse Beller asserted that the infectious joy, abundance, and sense of home resonating on the menu, in the kitchen, and throughout the unassuming restaurant represent the best of American food.

In a second option, students conducted an interview with a person of their choosing in which they discussed views, perceptions, and definitions of American food.

Accompanied by beautiful black and white photographs of her family, Solina Powell interviewed her mother, asserting from her title onward that immigrant identity is “the key ingredient to American food.” Curious to explore the role of her Asian-American heritage, Dorinda Fong interviewed her father, arguing in the end, “The line between distinctly American food, hybrid/fusion food, and Americanized ethnic food is simultaneously extremely fine and incredibly blurry.” Cynthia Kyin interviewed her mother on her experience as a Filipino immigrant, concluding, “The ability to afford food and to be full encapsulated America as an ideal for my mom. It was a glimpse into the larger picture of why she came to America. This experience is also reflected in the stories of many other immigrants,” such as those we read together in Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America.

In her powerfully titled interview, “Working Hard and Hardly Cooking,” Desiree Acevedo argued that American labor practices—particularly working class conditions such as low wages, long commutes, and holding multiple jobs—spawned the often derided American food values of convenience, cost, and accessibility. Also investigating convenience, Marina Hyson argued in her interview that convenience forms a bridge between two halves of American food culture that simultaneously embrace innovative, fusion flavors and the simple blandness of processed foods.

Erin Miller spoke with her grandmother, who despite living in Puerto Rico, India, and China, defines American food as the midwestern fare she grew up eating—”hamburgers, cheese, and potatoes”—but with a deep respect for the “good food” of other countries. In an interview with her father, a nutritional epidemiologist, Talia Curhan discussed how the abundant choices that define American cuisine can be both liberating and overwhelming for eaters.

Nicholas Moreno scored an interview with television chef, restaurateur, and author, Michael Symon, who defined American food by its multiculturalism, abundant natural resources, and the consumerist quest for specific and often novel foods, asserting that American food will “just keep getting better and better.” Waylon Jin interviewed Philadelphia restauranteur Marty Grim, concluding that globalization, commercialization, and a diversity of perspectives have most influenced American food, and that “the whole of American cuisine is felt and is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Owen Parr interviewed a friend—who happens to be a recent Brown alumna and food studies student—discussing together the dynamics of power inherent in defining American food and its ongoing processes of borrowing, adapting, appropriating, and reimagining cuisine. In an interview with her roommate, Charlotte Senders explored: “the ways that American values might (or might not) map onto the ways we grow, produce, and distribute food. Perhaps we are what we eat, but we are most definitely also where what we eat comes from, and how it was produced.”

I hope you enjoy reading these talented students’ full essays on our class blog to see how they each tackled the complicated question of defining American food.

9 Writing Productivity Tips from Food Historian, Ken Albala

With several fellow writers at Brown University, I sat down to discuss writing productivity advice with Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific, who has authored or edited 25 books in the last 16 years. With a publishing career spanning academic monographs, encyclopedias, edited volumes, and cookbooks—as well as articles, chapters, essays, public writing, and dozens of media appearances on television, radio, podcasts, and in print—we can all learn a thing or two from what has worked well for this prolific writer:

1. Let projects choose you that you genuinely enjoy.

Ken’s single greatest piece of advice is to choose a field of study in which you’re “completely driven by intellectual curiosity. You have to love what you’re doing and want to spend time on it.” As a food studies scholar, Ken shares that he loves cooking, shopping for food, and thinks about food all day. He gets to use that energy when he writes: “My research gives me somewhere to put all that.”

Similarly, Ken recommends working on research and writing projects that you truly enjoy. Then you’re less likely to procrastinate or to get (or feel) blocked. “It’s your attitude,” Ken says. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, it’ll be drudgery. Don’t turn your writing into a chore. Think of it as your reward, as in ‘I get to write!’ Then, it’s not an effort at all.” Such a perspective shapes the writing process, as well as the final result. “Don’t write from a sense of having to,” warns Ken. “Then the writing has no verve to it. A lot of very serious academic writing is tortuous that way.”

2. Plan out your writing projects. Balance them with teaching and service.

Ken uses a hand-drawn calendar, charted out three or four months at a time, setting incremental goals and tracking his daily word count. To balance writing with teaching and grading, Ken recommends “grading in a deluge,” such as assigning longer mid-term and final papers, rather than grading numerous, smaller assignments throughout the term.

3. Write quickly.

Although perhaps not a feasible goal for all writers, Ken writes at a rapid pace. He wrote his dissertation (which would become his first book, Eating Right in the Renaissance) in about a month. He wrote his most recent book, Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession, at a one-week writing retreat. Ken’s approach to writing ensures his speed, which he describes as “throwing thunder bolts…I write the same way I throw pottery and the way I cook—I throw it all out there.” In order to stay in the writing zone, Ken adds footnotes after he completes the writing itself.

4. Don’t belabor sentence-level revisions.

Ken says, “I don’t immediately revise and belabor every sentence. Get the ideas there first.” He explains his approach with a pottery metaphor: “If you poke at it too much, the clay won’t hold. Your writing won’t either.” Ken also writes in much the same stye and voice as he speaks. “I hate jargon and technical obscurity, which helps with writing this way” he says.

5. Research slowly (and by hand).

Although Ken writes very quickly, he researches for “as long as it takes.” He may have written Noodle Soup in a week, but he researched it everyday for three years. While he does not outline chapters, Ken sketches a chapter map. He takes careful notes by hand throughout the research process, arguing, “The physical writing out of the sentence burns it into your head,” paving the way for your own writing later.

6. Trust in the process of writing.

In defense of not outlining or doing lots of writing pre-work, Ken repeats the advice of one of his college creative writing instructors: “The ideas come in the process of writing.” Writing for long stretches during the day, Ken remarks, “You get in the zone. You forget time and space. Everything goes away. I don’t like to stop. I like to keep the kettle boiling.”

7. Be open to saying yes, even to happy accidents.

Ken has never said no to a project. “If I’m doing it,” he says, I’m doing it because I want to.” He recommends such an approach to others too: “If it’s fun, you might as well do it.” At the same time, Ken assures, “It’s fine to write things and not publish them.”

8. Write with confidence. Don’t let negative reviews affect you.

Ken shares, “Everyone has self doubt: Is this any good? Will anyone like this? You ignore that.” For dealing with, and moving on from, negative or unhelpful reviews—a constant in any academic’s writing life—Ken says, “Sometimes you ignore the reviews too. Convince yourself that person is a moron and keep going.”

9. Take time to rest and relax.

Despite the pressure for academics to work all the time, Ken never writes in the evening and takes weekends off. “Go home,” he says. “Leave the work there. You need a place away from it.”

Top photo credit: Emily Contois, 2018