“The One True Barbecue”

Historical Studies  Alumnus Rien Fertel talks with Research Matters about New Orleans, Creole cuisine, race, and his time at The New School for Social Research. 

Rien Fertel—now a historian, James Beard Award-nominated writer, and teacher based in Louisiana—arrived in New York City as a self-described Hurricane Katrina exile in 2005.

The storm had swept away his business—a small grocery store that he ran in New Orleans—as well as his home. Like many of the 1 million individuals displaced by the storm, Fertel wondered if he would ever make it back to his hometown.

“I spent nine months feeling lost, and emotionally affected by Katrina,” he said in an interview with Research Matters.

During that period, Fertel stayed in New York on the couches of his cousin and uncle, the latter of whom was teaching on a part-time basis at The New School. Already familiar with the reputation of The New School for Social Research, Fertel applied to the M.A. program in Anthropology in hopes of adding structure to his time in New York.

When he was accepted to The New School for Social Research, Fertel discovered that wires had somehow become crossed, and he had been offered a scholarship to attend the Historical Studies master’s program. Though he had the option to transfer into Anthropology, Fertel decided to stay in Historical Studies, and the error turned out to be fortuitous. It connected him with his advisor—Professor of History Oz Frankel—and set him on a course that would provide space for him to work through his intellectual and emotional relationship to post-Katrina New Orleans, while building a foundation for his future career.

“I grew up in my family’s restaurant in Lafayette, New Orleans,” Fertel explained. “And when I started at The New School for Social Research, I was worried about New Orleans and about its culture, which seemed threatened with disappearance.”

Frankel’s class introduced Fertel to historiographic methods, and motivated him to think about the centrality of food to the distinctively mixed cultural setting of New Orleans.

“In my thesis, I looked into foundational texts—cookbooks for the most part—that wrote Creole cuisine into national and global vernaculars,” Fertel said. Against the backdrop of questions about how cuisine solidified the culture of the Gulf, he took another class with Frankel on the history of books as objects. Fertel’s thesis evolved into what he described as, “a textual history of cuisine,” engaging at the same time with broader questions of mythmaking and the construction of race.

“Part of what was going on in New Orleans in the nineteenth century—specifically after Reconstruction—is that you have these first cookbooks that codify recipes,” Fertel said. What emerged in his research was a kind of racial and ethnic hierarchy that privileged French and French-derived recipes, alongside what Fertel called “melting pot” recipes that often included several elements of African and Caribbean traditions.

“The books gave credit to French chefs,” Fertel explained, “in part because they seemed invested in the representation of French ethnicity in New Orleans.” Stories of French chefs who masterminded hybrid recipes—at least, according to the mythology constructed by these texts—tend to obscure the influences of racially marginalized cultures whose influences were in fact central to the evolution of the region’s cuisine.

Despite the fact that he only took one history class as an undergraduate, by the time Fertel finished the Historical Studies program at The New School for Social Research, he had become a convert to the discipline. And despite his skepticism about the future of New Orleans, he ultimately decided to return to the city.

“It honestly felt like a really bad idea to go back,” he recalled. But he had applied to the Ph.D. program in History at Tulane University, and had been offered a fully funded offer.

“At The New School, I had taken classes about capital and about class dynamics, and about war on the poor. And I was writing about race,” he remembered, “I saw all of these things happening in New Orleans. And though I knew that I had seen them happening before, I definitely became more aware of them in grad school.”

When Fertel returned to New Orleans, he said that he realized the city already changed—and that would continue to change as Katrina receded into the past—for better and for worse. As a doctoral student, he developed a dissertation on white Creole literature in New Orleans. His work returned to questions about the creation of the city’s myths and racial identities in books—this time in novels, plays, and poetry.

Thanks to the advice of a mentor, Fertel also became involved with an organization called the Southern Foodways Alliance, which connects academics and writers with individuals in the restaurant industry. Fertel said that the purpose of the organization is to recognize the people, places, and events in Southern culinary history that have been “ignored, suppressed, or erased.”

At the Southern Foodways Alliance, Fertel collected oral histories in Memphis about the history of barbecue—a regional cuisine with its own set of rich and complicated mythologies that resonated with his academic work. These oral histories quickly began to produce a full-on set of research questions about the traditions of barbecue in the South, occupying an increasing amount of Fertel’s attention.

“I had a deal with my advisor,” he joked, “Every time I turned in a dissertation chapter, I could go back on the road. I really loved talking with these people—going deeper, beyond asking, ‘how long do you cook this piece of meat and at what temperature.’”

The result is The One True Barbecue, which deals with the often behind-the-scenes labor at barbecue restaurants. Fertel focused on a practice called whole-hog barbecue, in which a pig is cooked slowly over the course of 24 hours. At the time of his research, the number of whole-hog restaurants was dwindling. Today, just a few years later, Fertel points to whole-hog’s resurgence, with restaurants opening even in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

“It has become a really hip food style for a lot of reasons,” Fertel said, adding that the book tries to understand the tradition of the process, and complicate the popular histories that often of barbecue’s origins.

“It’s about the myth-making that is placed front-and-center at a lot of these restaurants,” Fertel said. In the course of his research, he explained, “I talked to individuals who have worked in restaurants […] the people whose names are not on the front of the building. Their pictures don’t hang on the wall. A lot of them have been working there for 50 years—but customers don’t know their names.”

In many cases, the actual cooking has to take place in a structure that is physically separate from the restaurants themselves. As Fertel put it, the back-of-house employees that he talked to, who are often the individuals responsible for the recipes and high quality of the food, “were so outside the restaurant itself that a lot of these people were foreign to their own restaurant.”

Fertel traces the roots of his emphasis on under-acknowledged physical and cultural labor—similarly done by individuals from racially or ethnically minoritized communities— to The New School for Social Research.

In addition to his research and writing, Fertel teaches at the University of Mississippi, and has taught history at Bard Early College in New Orleans. At Bard, roughly 100 students attend public high schools each morning. According to the school’s website, students “spend the second half of every school day as undergraduates of Bard College, completing the first year of a Bard education during the last two years of high school.”

In his work at Bard, Fertel had the chance to teach archival research methods, taking his students to museums and archives, and challenging them to deliver research presentations—all in the city that he had worried he’d never come home to again.

“New Orleans has always been seen as exceptionally different from everywhere else, not just in the South but in the country,” he reflected, adding, “It looked different, it was built differently. The people talked different. We had a French background. We have an exceptional history. We invented jazz. We invented Creole cuisine.”

Fertel’s ongoing work—in his research, writing, and teaching—deconstructs many of the founding myths responsible for public conceptions about the cuisine and culture of his hometown. He credits The New School for Social Research for teaching him some of the skills that have made this work possible. But in talking to him, it is immediately evident that his efforts to tell under-acknowledged stories and to restore forgotten figures to narratives about southern culture, cuisine, and identity are motivated by a much deeper connection to the hometown that he loves.

From Fascism to Populism in History: Federico Finchelstein’s New Book

For New School for Social Research Professor of History Federico Finchelstein, the present-day stakes of engaging with the history of populism could not be more critical.

As Finchelstein puts it in his new book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press), “Populism’s past challenges to egalitarian forms of democracy continue in the present and are now threatening the future of our own democratic times.” He contends that a historical understanding of modern populism—whose roots he also traces back to the earliest days of twentieth century fascism—has become critical in any analysis of contemporary politics.

Differently put, our capacity to respond to the challenges presented by populism depends crucially upon our willingness and ability to acknowledge and process the lessons of history.

Having grown up under military dictatorship in Argentina, and having studied various forms of authoritarianism throughout his career as an academic, Finchelstein finds it surprising that his work has gained such sudden and urgent relevance in the United States and around the world. With the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency, Finchelstein suggests that the United States has become the global leader of populism. But it is hardly alone in grappling with populist movements, marking only the most recent in a long string of developments around the world. From Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, to Brexit, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and France’s National Front—among many others—populism is on the march around the world.

At the same time, it is the 2016 presidential election and the success of populism in the United States that most intrigued Finchelstein, at the very least because President Trump represents the first modern populist to hold the office here. “I never thought these issues would hit so close to my home in New York,” he said in a recent conversation with Research Matters. Reflecting on his longtime commitment to researching the history of fascism and populism, Finchelstein recalled his feelings about the intellectual legacy of The New School upon his arrival in 2006. “The New School for Social Research was founded not only on the idea that there was an academic need to resist fascism,” he said, “but also a need to understand it.”

To this tradition of scholarship, Finchelstein brings a distinctive approach to an examination of populism “from the margins,” integrating perspectives from the Global South that commonly remain outside Eurocentric historical narratives about populism’s emergence as a political force. For example, he reminds readers that Argentina’s Juan Perón became the first populist leader to reach power in the postwar era, becoming an example of how to do things for subsequent generations of populists in Latin America and elsewhere. In the subtext of his genealogy of populism, Finchelstein points to an unmistakable through line back to fascism—a line that similarly goes unaddressed in extant scholarship on populism. “Many interpreters of populism have a limited understanding of the historical and genealogical connections between populism and fascism,” Finchelstein explained. “They collapse important historical distinctions and different historical contexts, as well as continuities.”

From Fascism to Populism in History addresses precisely these contextual differences and continuities, providing a nuanced vocabulary for describing the particular ambitions of present-day populists and carefully articulating what it inherits from fascism. “In history,” Finchelstein writes, “fascism was a political ideology that encompassed totalitarianism, state terrorism, imperialism, racism, and, in Germany’s case, the most radical genocide of the last century: the Holocaust.” He adds that its central aim was “to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above.” Although populists often attract what Finchelstein calls “neofascist fellow travelers”—particularly when it comes to the definition of “the people” in ethnic, national, and racial terms—he emphasizes that they typically aim to, “reshape democracy in [an] authoritarian fashion without fully destroying it.” The result might not look like the dissolution of democratic rule, but nevertheless often represents a significant erosion of democratic institutions.

Defining Integrative Climate Change Research

This profile of The Integrative PhD Fellowship program and the work of Politics PhD candidate Katinka Wijsman originally appeared at newschool.edu. It is reproduced here as part of the Research Matters climate change series.

True to its commitment to innovative interdisciplinary scholarship, The New School for Social Research recently launched the Integrative PhD Fellowship, a program that crosses boundaries between disciplines and trains students to incorporate new analytic and expository techniques, like data visualization and graphic design, into their work.

Supported by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici and associate professor of art, media, and technology Daniel Sauter, the program teaches doctoral students to use emerging qualitative and quantitative methods in their analysis of some of the most pressing questions of our time. The program also invites faculty across the university to identify existing courses offered at The New School that can help PhD students develop new fields of integrative research and supports the creation of classes that are co-taught by faculty from across the university’s colleges.

Katinka Wijsman, a Politics doctoral candidate working on environmental issues, is one of the first four Integrative PhD fellows, having joined the program in part to learn more about visualizing landscape histories. Wijsman’s research, which she conducts in New York City’s Jamaica Bay, Suriname’s Weg naar Zee district, and the Netherlands’ Kijkduin, focuses on how coastal communities use nature-based or green infrastructure as means to adapt to climate change. In Wijsman’s words, such nature-based approaches “conceive of ‘nature’ as a climate change ally “rather than as “something in need of domination.”

Wijsman considers communities in a broad sense, thinking of them as not only human phenomena, but rather as entities that include other species and involve complex biophysical processes. Her participant observation in coastal communities entails what she calls “multispecies ethnographic encounters,”which she combines with document analysis and interviews to convey the politics of the changing landscape. In the Integrative PhD Fellowship program, she has acquired visual communication methods with which she makes her research accessible to new audiences.

In keeping with the intent of the program, Wijsman brings together analytic frameworks and methods from multiple disciplines into her work. She aims to understand better the effects of combining nature-based responses to climate change with traditional approaches. In her words, she investigates “the design, implementation, and evaluation of these nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation, and the politics of responsibility they emerge from and give rise to.”

Wijsman also works with a National Science Foundation–funded research network called Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN). At UREx SRN, university and government researchers and practitioners focus on climate change in ten cities in the United States and Latin America. Wijsman and her colleagues work on the ground, exploring natural environments, building new data resources, and presenting this information to the public and to government officials.

For Wijsman, the Integrative PhD Fellowship program is an ideal opportunity to discover new ways to conduct research and exchange ideas with academics and policymakers across fields. “I am excited about the intellectual mission and plan of action of the Integrative PhD,”she says. “This sort of exchange could be transformative to one’s own thinking and push intellectual creativity.”

Professor Willi Semmler Unpacks the Economics of Climate Change

This is the first in a series of Research Matters articles profiling the interdisciplinary climate change work of students, faculty, and alumni at The New School for Social Research. Check back for more!

Despite his contributions to scholarship in the economics of climate change, Willi Semmler—the Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research—considers himself a relative latecomer to the field.

“I stepped in just a few years ago,” he explained, reflecting on decades-long efforts to understand the implications of a warming world for global growth.

Semmler suggested that serious discussions about these issues began with the first meetings of The Club of Rome, an international group of scholars and practitioners from across fields and areas of expertise that first met in 1968. “They recognized that growth has limits,” he said, “It affects the environment. And it uses up resources that won’t be available for future generations.” If given the opportunity, Semmler can trace the highlights and lowlights of climate change policy throughout the half-century that followed the 1968 meeting—from Rome to Rio, Kyoto to Cancun, and Doha to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Semmler now serves as the Director of the Climate Change Project at The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, and was recently named Senior Researcher on climate change issues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria. With Lucas Bernard—PhD alumnus of The New School and Professor at NYC College of Technology—Semmler edited The Oxford Handbook of The Macroeconomics of Global Warming. In their introduction, they write, “The developed world can protect itself against climate change through infrastructure improvement and will use more energy to adapt to climate change effects. But it is in developing countries where some of the most dangerous consequences of climate change will be concentrated.”

In this sense, questions about the economics of climate change can rehash fundamental debates about the winners and losers of globalization, and the haves and have-nots within an interdependent global economy. “The losers of globalization were not compensated, and this has produced inequality,” Semmler said. As a result, the current political moment—in which climate change is already a hot-button issue—is made more complicated by debates about globalization itself. He explained, “We are seeing imbalances within individual countries and across borders [and] people are more skeptical about what type of globalization we really want.”

Semmler argued that this is especially the case in countries like the United States, where large swaths of the manufacturing labor force has been affected by globalization over the last three decades. He pointed out that the negative fallout for workers is particularly pronounced, “if you don’t have a proper social system where the victims or the losers of globalization and the free markets don’t have much in the way of unemployment benefits, welfare benefits, or opportunities to do re-schooling or reskilling.”

In this context of considerations about both climate change and the consequences of globalization, Semmler is examining whether financial markets can be used to help shift investment toward green technologies, nudging policy toward regulations that will promote sustainability and growth.

Semmler again returns to fundamental debates about the role of financial markets and regulation of industry to illuminate the stakes of his analysis. Breaking down the argument in his recent book Sustainable Asset Accumulation and Dynamic Portfolio Decisions, Semmler said, “There are basically two views on financial markets: the first is that you can’t constrain operations of the market and you can’t too much constrain investment choice.” In this approach, if social problems or unexpected needs emerge, then the markets should be free to allocate resources to address them. “You make your money freely and then you give it to social needs.”

But Semmler’s research suggests that, “There can be guidelines for more responsible investment: investment that takes into account environmental responsibilities, or that creates social impact.” Against the notion that such guidelines limit growth potential, Semmler has suggested that such strategies—which consider the responsibility to address social dilemmas like climate change—can produce better results for investors. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will lose money,” Semmler said, “Because you may be better off in the long run.”

If there is something that concerns Semmler most, it is the possibility that political uncertainty might be a drag on growth. “The global uncertainty comes from the global world order,” he said, “It’s now the global world disorder. Economies, corporations, people, and firms are affected by these macroeconomic phenomena.”

Potential solutions to these enormously complex challenges, in Semmler’s estimation, will continue to require nuanced and collaborative solutions that can better understand the often-hidden forces that are driving economic change. To celebrate Semmler’s contributions to the field of economics, several of his students and colleagues assembled a festschrift—13 essays on his work and career—in 2016. Of his work, New School for Social Research economics PhD alumnus Aleksandr Gevorkyan writes that, “Semmler’s macroeconomic analysis penetrates the most deeply hidden and convoluted aspects of the complex modern global economy.” Judging by the essays included in the collection, titled Dynamic Modeling, Empirical Macroeconomics, and Finance, climate change is less of a hidden aspect now than when Semmler began working on the issue.

And judging by the pace of news and persistence of uncertainty in the field, it seems that the economics of climate change will only continue to demand new research and insight.

Inaugural Activist-in-Residence Shanelle Matthews Engages at The New School this Fall

Shanelle Matthews and Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly lectured in the Race in the US Course on October 2, 2017. View the video at livestream.com/thenewschool.


Shanelle Matthews joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network in January 2016, having spent seven years in journalism and public interest communications. As the network’s Director of Communications, she crafts messages for the organization that she called, “a co-creator of the 21st-century Black Freedom Movement.”

In a recent conversation, Matthews talked about how her diverse training and experience as an organizer, researcher, journalist, and communicator for numerous political and non-profit organizations came together to equip her for the position. “I believed everything that I had done up until that point prepared me for this role,” Matthews said. “And then it became clear that no experience could really prepare you for a job like this.”

This fall, Matthews has also joined The New School as the university’s inaugural Activist-in-Residence, a pilot program jointly conceived by NSSR Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly and two members of The New School’s Board of Trustees, Fred Dust and Susan Foote. They worked to recruit Matthews to The New School.

“It feels important for me and for people who are committed to this position to close the gap between the movement and the academy,” Matthews said. She suggested that it represents an opportunity to align resources among academics and activists, build mutual trust, and facilitate innovative collaborations to produce social change.

According to Matthews, partnerships of this kind have the potential to break down barriers that can often separate scholarship from activism. “If we continue to work in siloes, it will take us much longer to make progress,” she said.

Just four weeks into her tenure as Activist-in-Residence, Matthews has big plans for her remaining time at The New School. She will deliver a lecture in the Race in the U.S. course alongside Professor Woodly. The class is a continuation of the “Post-Election America” series, and is Livestreamed on a weekly basis through The New School’s Facebook page. Matthews is contributing articles on race in America for Public Seminar and has made herself available to students across The New School for one-on-one discussions of activism and scholarship.

She will also continue to conduct research into the representation of under-represented voices in media. “I’m trying to deepen our understanding of how decision makers in media decide who to offer as experts,” she said. Matthews hypothesizes that to diversify the pool of individuals acting as experts would advance understanding. This dovetails with her work through Channel Black to provide training in improvisation, debate, and cognitive science to leaders in the movement, many of which identify as black, female, and LGBTQ. The goal is to share knowledge and communications best practices to empower a new generation of leaders to serve as experts and effective advocates in the media. “Increasing representation of black, LGBTQ, and female voices into the media will help us create more empathy and nuance, which we desperately need.” Matthews explained.

Having advocated on behalf of the black community, women, and LGBTQ individuals in several previous roles, Matthews was serving as Deputy Director of Communications at the Sierra Club—the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization—just before she joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Matthews talked candidly about her decision to join the Network staff. “I had to do a lot of personal digging to decide whether this was the right role for me, and whether I could serve the black community in the way that we needed,” she said. With nearly two years behind her, she adds, “I’ve had to learn how to be more tender and more gentle in a fast-paced environment that can feel lonely and hard to navigate.”

Matthews finds it is hard to pinpoint her most difficult month as Director of Communications for BLM, and instead pointed to the intellectual, professional, and emotional challenges of having to respond so frequently to acts of violence on behalf of a global organization that contains many perspectives. “When you become the person who’s responsible for concisely and accurately messaging for a network that shares the same name as a broad moniker, it can be unhinging,” she said. Speaking of a weeks-long stretch last year in which she was called upon to respond to events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, Matthews added, “You become, in some ways, slightly confused about what you believe versus what makes sense to message at that moment, and what’s true for most people. And you need to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re not going to make everybody happy.”

The New School strikes Matthews as an institution with a responsibility to lead conversations about how activism and scholarship can advance social justice. “It’s very exciting to be here, and I’m proud to be here,” she said. Observing some of the structural imbalances of representation in higher education, she added, “For a university to have integrity on these issues means having more people of color as decision makers—in addition to diversifying students and faculty.” Matthews expressed that she is looking forward to working with colleagues at The New School “to offer perspectives on how to double down on the institution’s commitment to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.”

“Whether we are talking about issues that impact the Black community, White community or any community, we will not be able to move forward and become a more empathetic and pluralistic country until we hear from more diverse voices,” she added. “Through my work at The New School and beyond, I’m committed to making that a reality.”

The lecture delivered by Shanelle Matthews and Deva Woodly as part of the 2017 Race in the U.S. class, broadcast live on October 2, 2017, will be archived and available on The New School‘s Facebook page and at livestream.com/thenewschool.