The difficulty of defining Gastronomy is that in the three years I studied it towards a degree, we never even as a group were able to nail down a concise definition.
While Lucy Long’s description of what we study highlights an excellent point on the value of studying the quotidian, it only scratches the surface of the many different things we study. Interestingly, Gastronomy has less to do with the act of cooking than with talking about cooking. I joke that I started the program because I loved to cook, and ended up not cooking again regularly until I graduated! There are so many disciplines that can approach food on so many levels it can make your head spin. So with that in mind, I realize no single post (or series) can really define what it is I study. With that caveat, here goes:
Let’s start with the word “Gastronomy” itself: Gastronomy is only one name of many for what I study, and we are not unified in why we call ourselves the names we do. At other universities and colleges it is called Food Studies, Food Agriculture and the Environment, or bundled into another discipline entirely such as Anthropology of Food. A few years ago it was debated whether or not my college should keep the program name “Gastronomy” or change it to Food Studies. We have a fantastic wine studies sub-program, and all of its instructors were against a name change. After all, “Gastronomy” is so much more than “food” – it’s drink as well, they argued. “Food Studies” as a term limits the intended topic of study to only one portion of the issue, and leaves out beverages entirely. I take that a step further: “Gastronomy” covers everything from production through consumption of food and beverages (not to mention waste in our food system), and then goes beyond. It includes culture: the community that creates itself and is bound by food, the memories, the reasons for certain dishes, certain parties, and certain ways of presenting food and drink. The name Gastronomy, to me, fits this bill best.
As American Studies scholar Warren Belasco wrote in his excellent introduction to Food: The Key Concepts, “Food identifies who we are, where we came from, and what we want to be.” Just think about that for a moment, because this is really key (pun intended). The food choices I make plop me square down in a box, or more precisely a complex Venn diagram, of who I am (my preferences, my values, my resources), where I came from (my family history, my society’s history, my own personal history and exposures), and who I wish to be (my desire to eat everything on vacations, even if it may disgust me, is an example of who I wish to be, more than who I am necessarily). All of this from what I choose to put in my mouth!
Gastronomy dabbles in almost every field. It appears at food festivals (why do we have food festivals such as the Fluff Fest, garlic festivals, strawberry festivals, and more?), in grocery stores, at the city dump, and at local food banks. It tackles issues of gender dynamics and food (such as how the complex issues in domesticity play out in reference to food), history of food (what did the Romans eat, and how does that affect us today?), food policy (for example diabetes and health reform), food and art, philosophy, social justice, ecology, and more. It’s tied up with archaeology, anthropology, and agriculture. In short: Gastronomy is by its very subject matter everywhere. We can’t escape food, and each act of eating, engaging (playing!) with food, and engaging with our communities and food, we are engaging in Gastronomy.
Next up: Gastronomy, our food choices, and the locavore movement