Jolie is joined by Dr. Lucy Long, director of the independent Center for Food and Culture and an instructor of American studies, ethnic studies, folklore, and nutrition at BGSU, and Jerry Reed, a recent graduate from the MA program in popular cultures studies at BGSU. They discuss their “Finding Comfort/Discomfort Through Foodways” project that examines how comfort food can be meaningful and create meaningfulness in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

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From Bowling Green State University and the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society, this is BG Ideas.

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Jolie:

Welcome back to the BiG Ideas podcast, a collaboration between the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society and the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University. I'm Jolie Sheffer, Associate Professor of English and American Culture Studies, and the Director of ICS. Due to the ongoing pandemic, we are not recording in the studio, but remotely via phone and computer. As always, the opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of BGSU or its employees.

Jolie:

Bowling Green State University is located in the Great Black Swamp, long a meeting place of the Wyandot, Shawnee, Lenape, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Fox, Pottawatomie, Erie, Miami, Peoria, Chippewa, and Seneca Indian tribes. We honor the rich history of this land and its indigenous inhabitants, past and present. Today we're joined by two guests, Dr. Lucy Long and Jerry Reed. Lucy directs the Independent Center for Food and Culture and teaches in American studies, ethnic studies, folklore and nutrition at BGSU. Her research focuses on food, music, and dance as mediums for meaning and community.

Jolie:

Lucy served as the Director of "Finding Comfort/Discomfort Through Food Ways," a project that examines how people are living and eating in these difficult pandemic times. Jerry Reed earned a BS in Education and an MA in Popular Culture Studies from BGSU. He completed an internship with the Center for Food and Culture, working to develop a curriculum that uses food to help children understand cultural conflict. Jerry worked as the Assistant Director of the Food Ways Project. Thanks both for being with me today, I'm really excited to talk about this with you. To get us started, could you tell us a little bit about the Food Ways Project and how it came about? Will you start us off, Lucy?

Lucy :

Okay. When the pandemic first hit, I started noticing that food media was publishing recipes for comfort food. And this is a stressful time for comfort food. So I actually edited a volume and published some articles in 2017 on comfort food, so that automatically grabbed me. And my initial response to some of these publications, particularly-there was one for the New York Times, and it was comfort foods of famous chefs. And it was all these specialty ingredients and things that, probably, the average American would not have in their pantry. And I realized, first of all, these foods are not things that I relate to, personally, as a comfort food. And they probably are not relevant to many people who are reading this. But also, the idea of having to go out and find these ingredients, some of which are very expensive, but many of which, you would have to go to different grocery stores or try to find them.

Lucy :

And I realized, that's going to cause a lot of discomfort. So that got me thinking a little bit more about at how, during this time, it's not a simple thing to say, "Here, eat some comfort food and calm down." And then also, comfort food itself as a very American concept. Every culture has food that is comforting, that reminds people of their childhood, and things like that. But it's uniquely American in that there is a particular sort of morality attached to food in America. That different foods are good and bad, depending on what they do to your body, physically. And we're not even talking about health, we're talking about whether or not those foods make you fat or whether they make you kind of sluggish or whatever.

Lucy :

So, so much of our morality around food is tied to how that food impacts your body, your body image, and whether or not you have the proper type of body. So therefore, Americans talk about good foods and bad foods in terms of, good foods are ones that are healthy for us, will keep us nice, fit and slim. Bad foods are the ones that really tastes good, lots of fat, lots of sugar, salt, but we all know that they're bad for us. That they have negative impacts on our weight, on our body shape, and on our energy levels.

Lucy :

So that grows out of a very distinctive, American attitude towards food. And the phrase, "comfort food," was invented in the US. Dr. Joyce Brothers used it in the 1960s as an explanation for why so many Americans were starting to be obese, said that people are turning to comfort foods. They have stress in their lives or they need comfort for some reason, so they're using that as an excuse to eat these fattening foods. And then the food industry picked up on that and said, "Oh, okay, here are some comfort food dishes," and they started using that concept to market these dishes. Saying that, "Oh, everybody needs comfort, so here, eat some macaroni and cheese." So it turned into a marketing category.

Jolie:

Yeah, it's so interesting because, two thoughts. One is that, the opposite of comfort food is discomfort food. The things we're supposed to like are the things we're not supposed to enjoy. That there really is this idea of, maybe that is also a very American thing, that Protestant work ethic, that we're suspicious of pleasure, in some ways. Jerry, what was your particular interest in some of these issues in this Food Ways Project?

Jerry:

Especially as we dug deeper into the interviews that were conducted, I think one of the most surprising and interesting aspects for me was this idea of food of discomfort. Because we focus so much on this idea of comfort food as this a very individual experience to help one self feel better. Which is incredibly relevant during the time of pandemic or even during a time of stressful elections. So when people start talking about foods of discomfort, there's two major things that I've noticed. One is there are foods of actual physical discomfort, foods that you just can't eat for dietary reasons. Whether you're lactose intolerant, PKU, et cetera, that your diet is limited.

Jerry:

And then there's also foods that, it's not so much that the food itself causes discomfort in some way, it's the concept of food as a whole. Some people have turned their minds now to that ... Let me redo that. A number of people have realized that, "Oh, now I happen to work at home or not work for a while. I'm living well within my needs." And they can see that, now that they've stepped a little bit outside of that daily work that they do from 8:00 to 5:00. So to be able to realize that, oh, there's got to be a number of people who are not able to live within their means. Especially during a time like this, where even as I'm struggling, I'm surviving. And so that's brought a number of weird pieces of discomfort, just conceptual discomfort, to people. And that has caused some to act, some to not act, at different levels.

Jolie:

I'm curious, in terms of this project, because of the pandemic you had to really work remotely. Entirely, I imagine, including with the number of international collaborators. So how did that affect the way you collaborate and conduct research?

Lucy :

We were able to actually extend this project much further than most oral history projects. We frequently did not even know where people were when they were responding, initially. And then it does kind of happen, I also was using social media, LinkedIn and the Center for Food and Culture has a website. And that goes out to anyone who's interested, anywhere in the world. And then I was also using Facebook. And so when I was sending out information about this, and people were responding, and then they would tell their friends about it. So I also do a lot of work internationally, especially on culinary tourism, so a lot of my international connections were seeing this, "Oh yeah, this is really interesting." And so they were sending me things.

Lucy :

Some of those people would just send me a little paragraph, this is what's happening here. Other times, there are people who are using this ... I developed it first as an assignment for an undergraduate class, and then realized, oh, this would actually be very useful to do on a larger scale. I should mention here, too, I did get a little bit of funding that helped to cover honoraria for the researchers. Minimal honoraria, I should say, from the Association for the Study of Food and Society. And then also humanities, the Ohio Humanities. Formally the Ohio Humanities Council, now it's just called the Ohio Humanities, and then also from the Elliot Torium Foundation, a private foundation.

Lucy :

So when this started, it was just like, oh, this is interesting. Let's see where we can go with it. And then, because of my international work, various colleagues in different places were picking up on it and extending it. And then the researchers themselves, one of them, who also happens to be my daughter, she teaches in Ireland at a university. So she's having some of her students do the project. And she was interviewing some of her colleagues and friends, who tended to be very international. So we're hearing from people who lived in Israel or who had parents in Israel, Norway. And then another one of the researchers is Chinese studying in the US. So he has access to a different group of people.

Lucy :

So, it's not a model for a social science ethnography. A lot of it was serendipity, but everything was so sudden and unexpected, we just took whatever opportunities there were. I had worked previously with Jerry and so when I started getting this idea, I approached him. I said, "I don't know if there's going to be any funding, would you like to sign on to be the assistant director of this? There's a lot of administrative stuff that I'm going to need." And he said, "Sure." I said, "Now, I don't know about funding, but ..." So I know that Jerry was committed regardless of funding. So he's been a tremendous help through this.

Jolie:

And Jerry, could you talk a little bit about some of the tasks that you were working on and how the pandemic may have changed the way you had previously worked on projects or worked specifically with Lucy and your relationship prior.

Jerry:

I guess, for my tasks, there's two halves of it. There's the largely administrative half that, it was at home or not at home. It didn't really make too much of a difference, really, just depended on which wall I was staring at. But then came the other half of it, which was doing interviews and conducting these interviews with all of these participants. Which was a very different way than I'm used to doing field work. My field work that I did for my thesis, I did at a middle school in the area. And I was there with the students for a large portion of the day, and that's what I was used to, is just being around the people. So now all of a sudden, doing these cold calls to people I don't know to say, "Hey, I want to talk about food for awhile," was a very different setting.

Jerry:

But because people were already isolated and wanted that contact, they were happy to talk with any stranger about anything. Just that piece of human contact was so valuable to everybody that we talked to, and it made some of the conversations we've had absolutely fantastic. And yet my work with Lucy prior, because of the nature of building curriculum, the only real thing that changed was that we couldn't really meet face to face. Which can be, I guess, somewhat solved via Zoom, WebEx, whatever your medium is.

Jolie:

I think it's interesting that you're talking about, in addition to comfort food, the comfort of community. And even having the occasion to talk about these things is also a real balm in these challenging times. Can you talk a little bit, each of you, about how this project created or changed your sense of community?

Lucy :

I think for me, I really enjoyed getting to know the different people who were working with me. They're all either master's students, PhD students, or they had recently completed masters. I was able to learn things from them, and that was really nice. I was given a whole different perspective on things from them. And then a lot of people were sending me emails with just brief snippets of their thoughts about comfort food. And some of those really challenged the assumptions that we all have. One of them that I always point out, a woman contacted me and said, "I just wanted you to let you know that my husband and I are both disabled. We've had to live off of food stamps for the last 20 years. We are eating better now than we ever have because the food stamps were expanded," and they were able to go to the farmer's market.

Lucy :

They were able to use them for fresh produce. And she said, "This is wonderful. I'm healthier now than I ever have been." And that was completely the opposite of what we expected. That's not to paint a rosy picture of this all either, but it automatically challenged some of my assumptions about class in America, and how class is then tied to community. Similarly, someone else, they actually came from an upper middle class background and they lived out in the suburbs. And they said that in order to go shopping, they had to drive to a supermarket. People didn't usually go out walking in their neighborhoods. They had all this money, but they didn't have that kind of casual contact that you could get in a city or in a very small town.

Lucy :

And they said getting food meant they either had to drive somewhere or have it delivered, and they could afford to do that, and they recognized they had a lot of privilege in being able to do that. But she said, "It's very, very lonely. We don't have the usual kinds of contacts." She didn't realize that going to the grocery store had been a way for her to connect with people. Before, it was just a chore and now suddenly, she recognized that it had been a routine that had provided connection for her. That she didn't recognize that. So two things there, having money definitely made things a lot easier for people, but it didn't automatically give them a sense of community.

Lucy :

And it did not give them people that they felt that they had a sense of belonging with. And then also, being partly because of the pandemic, people were starting to recognize that these activities around food that we think of as just chores, that they were actually opportunities for very meaningful connections with other people. And suddenly we were missing those.

Jolie:

What about you, Jerry? Any observations either through the research or your own experience, in these last seven, eight months around community that have caused you to think a little differently?

Jerry:

Especially in thinking about the interviews, it's surprising how much, when you would start to ask somebody what their comfort food is, how little they would talk about the food. And what the conversation would turn to is about the meals that they would share with people, or the origin of the recipe that they got the recipe for their comfort food from. And then they would bring off into a different story about that, about their grandmother, so on, so forth. And so, I think it goes to show so much of comfort food is tied up in identity and community. Who we decide our tribe is. And so it's really fascinating to hear somebody start to talk about how much they really, really have been going to carbs during this time, and then all of a sudden they're talking about how much they miss their grandchildren or friends, so it really is a lot of focus on the comfort that we get from community. Rather than the comfort that we get from food.

Jolie:

We're going to take a quick break. Thanks for listening to the Big Ideas podcast.

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Jolie:

Hello and welcome to the Big Ideas podcast. Today I'm talking to Dr. Lucy Long and Jerry Reed, about their research on comfort food ways and how the network and practices around food provide opportunities for connection. One of the things that also strikes me in the discussion about comfort foods and how they come from traditions, from rituals, whether those are religious or cultural, familial, regional, things like that. I'm wondering, are you seeing in your research, new traditions being formed out of these pandemic times? Or revisions of traditions due to these particular circumstances? And if so, can you give us some of those stories?

Lucy :

I think new traditions are definitely being created, being rediscovered. One of the definitions of comfort food, Julie Loker was a medical sociologist who first started studying comfort food, and she published an article in 2002 and then in 2004 that established comfort food as a scholarly topic. And she identified four different needs that were being fulfilled through comfort food, that then helped people relieve their stress. And one of those was nostalgia, one of them was convenience, and we don't always think of convenience and fast food can be comfort food, because it's very convenient. Foods that offer physical comfort, the hot chocolate on a cold day, and then indulgence, which is what we usually think of. And then about 10 years later, another researcher identified belonging as a need that was being fulfilled.

Lucy :

So people wanted to eat the foods that other people were eating, because it gave them a sense of belonging to that community. So that gave us a baseline for studying comfort food. And part of what we started finding, the definition of comfort food is foods that help relieve stress. That's the accepted, American definition. What we started finding is that the kinds of stresses that people were dealing with during the pandemic, I think are more of an existential nature. We don't have control over our lives anymore. All of a sudden you have to recognize that nature really is more powerful than humans. So all these myths that, Americans in particular have grown up with, were suddenly being challenged.

Lucy :

And so, what I started noticing was that comfort food was fulfilling some of these more excess existential needs. Baking bread, I find it amazing that that so many Americans had gluten sensitivities, that bread purchasing was what was dropping. And then all of a sudden, they're all trying to make bread during the pandemic. And I felt like a lot of what that was showing was, people had a sense of control by cooking in general. And they could control the whole process and they could control the outcome. And having that sense of control is very important during the pandemic, when we can't control anything else.

Lucy :

It also gives people a sense of agency or efficacy. We can actually do something, it's not just control, but we can actually do something to change the outcome of things later. So we can organize our freezer so that we know that we can now make dinners for at least another 30 days. And that makes the individual feel like, oh, okay, I can do something to change the outcome of my future. And then also, one of the things that was fascinating, that the researchers who are doing most of the interviews pointed out to me, a lot of people were finding comfort by giving comfort to other people. Working with food banks, making food for their neighbors, doing things like ... something as simple as going shopping and checking with all their elderly neighbors and friends to see if anyone needed things picked up.

Lucy :

And that was being nice, but it also fulfilled this existential need to feel like, as an individual, we have significance in life. We can matter. And we can matter to these other people. So we started seeing these other needs, rather than belonging, I like to think about connectedness. Because part of what we were seeing with food was people were connecting, not just to a community. They were connecting to nature, to the seasons. So many people started gardening. I know for the first time I was able to do a CSA because usually I'm not in Bowling Green during the summer.

Lucy :

So suddenly I was, and I discovered that, oh, okay, now I'm eating zucchini and tomatoes and nothing else for the next three weeks. So now I'm eating butternut squash and potatoes and that connects me to the seasons. It connects me to nature. It connects me to these larger things that help to give a sense of continuity of life. So that kind of connectedness is on an existential level. And it's a much deeper kind of stress than simply, I had a bad day. So some of that was very exciting to me, the idea that people were finding comfort by giving comfort. I find that very optimistic and it gives me a lot of hope.

Jolie:

Yeah, and I think that's one of the ongoing questions, of what of these changes will stick around after there is a vaccine, after the immediate pandemic crisis has passed. Jerry, are there any other new traditions or observations that you were struck by in some of the interviews you've done that you want to share?

Jerry:

I guess I can categorize them in three different ways. There's the new traditions, one of the examples I can think of is somebody who has specifically taken time out of their day to have their tea time, specific time, and they specifically have their tea with condensed milk. Which is very popular in Newfoundland. Then there's also traditions that have changed. So one interview we talked about how do you have a Seder dinner online and the guides that have been sent out by the community and recipes that have been sent out. Sadly, people can only have a Seder dinner, but have a Seder dinner for a smaller group, rather than the large portions that are usually served because you have so many people.

Jerry:

And then there's also this, it's a slight abandonment of tradition, and one of the best examples that I have for this from an interview, would be a couple that ... Their new date night routine was to go to this very fancy Italian restaurant. Well, you can't eat in, so they would get the takeout and eat this very nice, expensive Italian food, in their car out of styrofoam boxes. So it's this, going away from being around all these people ,and it speaks the same idea of it, but it's not really the same thing anymore. And it's also an excuse to get out of the house. It has a new meaning just beyond that. And so that's three different ways that I think about it.

Jolie:

What possibilities do you see in bringing food into classrooms more often and more directly, whether at the K-12 level or in college. Could you talk a little bit about that? The role of education around food?

Jerry:

Well, I steal this concept from a botanist I met in Costa Rica. He became a botanist, and then later a tour guide, and said that he studied botany because there's plants everywhere, so you always have something to talk about. And the same is true with food as a human need, you just need food, so there's always something there to talk about. And food is so intrinsically tied into identity, and often in ways that we don't realize, which circles through back to the appropriation piece. When we talk about Southern food, for instance, and even Appalachian food, these two very different categories that both get a lot of their food histories from historically Black cooking and slave cooking.

Jerry:

And so when we talk about food, at any level within education, all of a sudden we're able to talk about individual identities without even having to bring up ethnicity, race, gender. One of the easiest questions to ask, to start talking about what your identity is without really even talking about identity, but talking about food, is to ask how your family prepares rice. Because most families eat rice, and if you don't eat rice, that says something when it comes to identity. And rice is this really recognizable and very versatile food. And so what you do with it says a lot. And then you can start talking about, when it comes to cultural differences, this aesthetic piece, that your enjoyment of this specific rice dish comes from your history and your family and how grandma makes it. Cultural history.

Jerry:

So food is this vital piece of connection. And my previous research for my thesis focused on how children use food as a means of creating connection and community amongst themselves. And they're very active in doing this, and examining food, and trading food, and trying to engage each other with food. It's a human need. And so to be able to bring this human need to the forefront of education, to use it as a background for conversations in the humanities, conversations in the sciences, is easy and beneficial because it's very easy to understand.

Jolie:

I'd like us to conclude by asking you each to reflect on our current moment and what you think might be the broader implications on how we regard food ways. And in particular, what lessons do you hope we learn from this moment about food and connection that we can take forward with us in the after times, whenever they do eventually arrive. Jerry, would you go first?

Jerry:

So much of how we decide who we are as individuals comes back to food. Not necessarily the individual dishes, but the people we eat with, the people we choose not to eat with, and how we share those meals. And what this time has done has changed that in very significant ways. But I think people are also finding ways to overcome that and rebuild their community, and rebuild the communication that they once had through food, through a variety of other means. And so I think one of these overarching pieces that you should begin to look at next is, we compare the inequalities between these two new systems, because it's easy to see one problem in just one system. But once that changes, it reveals new problems that may even say, the problem that we thought we had? It doesn't exist. That's not even the thing because it's actually this thing. So now is the time to really solidify all of these major problems that then can be focused on.

Jolie:

What about for you, Lucy? What would you hope we take away from this period in history in thinking differently about food and culture?

Lucy :

First, I should mention, that listeners can go to the website and actually see ... We have an online exhibit from text and photographs from the interviews. So people can go to www.foodandculture.org, and that website takes them to the exhibit and to the whole project. And they can read the questionnaire and actually respond. And they can also see on that website, the curriculum project, doing it. But I think the thing that I take away from this is the significance of food. That we tend to overlook the power that it has to create connections for us. And those connections both take us inwards and outwards, so that we can connect with our own histories, our own past. It can be something that's very personal, but it also connects us outwardly with larger society, with our larger culture, and internationally. So I think what the pandemic is doing is making us recognize the significance of small things, of everyday things that we normally take for granted.

Jolie:

Thank you both so much for joining me. I really loved this conversation. Listeners can keep up with ICS by following us on social media at @icsbgsu. You can listen to BiG Ideas wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred platform. Our producers are Chris Cavera and Marco Mendoza, with sound editing by Marco Mendoza. Research assistance was provided by Kari Hanlin.

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