Food, Borders, and American Culture
Considering food culture and history is not just a foodie thing. In Food Across Borders, Chair and Professor of Environmental Studies and Science Melanie DuPuis’ most recent book, she and her co-editors have assembled a collection of articles that looks at how national borders influence what we eat. It also embraces a broader definition, one that includes geographic boundaries such as oceans and deserts as well as cultural and ethnic delineations. This collection of articles examines what happens to people and food traditions at the borderlands, and the complex “American” food culture that result when boundaries are crossed.
DuPuis explains, “The main point of the book is that what we eat is a mirror of who we are collectively, not just individually.”
WE ARE WHAT WE EAT
The vibrant chile pepper motif adorning the book’s cover was selected by the editors because it is emblematic of several of the articles in the book, and inspired by one story in particular, Crossing Chiles, Crossing Borders by William Carleton. Crossing Chiles, Crossing Borders is a history of the pioneering horticulturalist Dr. Fabian Garcia who bred the New Mexico No. 9 chile and is regarded as the father of the United States chile industry who forever changed the North American food landscape. The No. 9 was the first chile variety cultivated to grow uniformly in size and in “heat.” The No. 9 grew in popularity with non-Mexican palates because of its mild heat profile, and it became a common ingredient in the regional cuisine transforming the North American dinner table to include foods once considered exotic, chile rellenos, tacos, and burritos. The broader consumption of the chile changed food culture.
“You can see, it’s hard to talk about food without talking about borders. The mouth is itself a boundary controlling what is taken into the body and what is left out. What is part of your own food culture, and what is not?” said DuPuis.
Other articles consider food sovereignty, which is a big topic in today’s food movement. How do you maintain the right to the foods you want to eat; the right to eat the food one considers to be culturally her or his own? Michael Wise’s article The Place that Feeds You looks at the Blackfeet Nation’s deeply rooted struggle for food sovereignty against the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs following the Civil War. Another story looks at how early Thai immigrants to California, middle-class college students in the 1950s – 70s, procured Thai ingredients like kaffir lime leaves and maintained cultural foodways when far from home. In ways, these stories are about the significance of comfort foods and its role in maintaining community identity and the feeling of home.
WORKING WITH GRADUATE STUDENTS
The book grew out of grants from The Clements Center for the History of the Southwest at Southern Methodist University and the Comparative Border Studies Program at Arizona State University which brought together scholars who were exploring the topic of food and borders. “A number of the contributors were young scholars from universities around the country whose dissertation work was developed into these chapters,” said DuPuis. At Pace, undergraduate and graduate students have ample opportunity to get hands on food-related research experience at Stone Barn Farms. Just one mile from the Pleasantville campus is, it is one of many nonprofit organizations where Pace students conduct research. “We’ve had a visiting graduate student from Switzerland who connected with the foragers at Stone Barn Farms and wrote her master’s thesis on foraging. The biggest project is a Pace undergraduate capstone project on silviculture, the practice of controlling the growth and quality of forests. The student is researching the environmental changes in forest plots that result from pig foraging.”
WHO IS THE BOOK'S READERSHIP?
“There is a serious food movement out there. People interested in questions of food justice, including issues of race, class and gender, will find this book useful as will people interested in food history. Our bodies, our history and ideas of nationhood are mirrored in food. By understanding food, we understand ourselves,” said DuPuis.
DuPuis is the chair of the Environmental Studies and Science department and the author of Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice and Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink, among other books. She’s a recognized authority in the world of food policy.
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