The Art of Researching Food
Three Projects from NSSR Alumni About What and How We Eat
Food is at the center of human life. What we eat, when we eat, how we eat, and why has evolved from matters of basic essential survival function to ritual, culture, and identity. Research Matters sat down with NSSR alumni from Anthropology, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism, and Politics whose work collides with the study of food.
The Food of a Diaspora
During the 2019-2020 academic year, Isobel Chiang (MA Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism ‘20), received a grant from the India China Institute to conduct ethnographic field work within the Chinese diaspora community in Kolkata, India. Specifically, she set out to explore the phenomenon of Indian-Chinese food.
“I wanted to know how Cantonese and Hakka cuisines have been retained, modified, understood, and misunderstood in India today,” Chiang says. “I have a background in sociology, so I knew going in that when you study the food of a diaspora, what you’re really studying is the culture of a diaspora, the politics of a diaspora, you’re studying boundaries, the way we hold onto identity or ideologies or religious convictions when we move away from home, the way we forget.”
In addition to visiting Chinese restaurants and food markets, and of course, eating, Chiang also conducted oral histories with Indian-Chinese residents.
“I didn’t want to simply ‘parachute’ into Kolkata and start researching. I wanted to get to know the residents there, fold myself into their lives. Luckily for me, they were so gracious and welcoming. I ate an inordinate and probably unhealthy amount of dumplings. I talked with business owners and chai sellers. I was invited into peoples homes to cook with them and share meals. I went to universities in Kolkata to interview young Indian students about their conceptions of Indian-Chinese food. I even found myself at the birthday party of one of Bengal’s most famous soccer players,” Chiang says.
This project has personal implications for Chiang. Her father was born in Kolkata, but during the Indo-China War of 1962, he and his family moved to Toronto, Canada. Chiang is one of the few members of her family who have been back to India since.
“My father remains unsentimental and indifferent toward India,” Chiang describes. “The only thing that connects him to the place he’s from, the only time he allows his children to peek behind the curtain of his past life, is when he cooks fried rice. This sounds like a cliche, but it’s the truth. Thus, food has always been my entry point to India. In many ways, going to India was my attempt at dealing intellectually with my father, with his heritage, and therefore my heritage.”
Chiang crafted these experiences and research into a piece of long-form journalism that she workshopped in a Master’s writing workshop during the Spring 2020 semester, and hopes to eventually publish it one day.
“The New School grant wasn’t just helpful for making this trip possible, it made this trip possible,” Chiang said. “Without the grant, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to conduct independent research abroad. Very few publications have the money these days to send journalists abroad to cover stories like this, so it would have been a difficult story to pitch to a magazine and get funded.”
The Future of Meat
When Jan Dutkiewicz (PhD Politics ’18) began graduate work in Politics at NSSR, he thought he might want to study the $200+ billion U.S. animal production industry. He looked for academic literature on the topic but found very little, especially in political science. So he set out to create it.
“It seemed like a really good opportunity to bring the tools of political economic inquiry — the intersection of economic activity with politics and social effects…to this [industry] that’s completely hidden in plain sight,” Dutkiewicz says. He worked within Politics as well as with faculty from several different disciplines, including Hugh Raffles, Professor of Anthropology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History and co-founder of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which helped support his research. “The New School is really unique in that…there’s a real openness to disciplinarily risky research,” Dutkiewicz remembers.
His dissertation, Capitalist Pigs: The Making of the Corporate Meat Animal, traced how the U.S. meat industry seeks to produce a commodity that best suits changing market conditions. He is currently turning that dissertation into his first book, which he places at the intersection of political economy, economic sociology, and economic anthropology.
After graduating from NSSR, Dutkiewicz was the Connie Caplan Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. There, he started asking questions around normative ethics and bioethics in the animal production industry, especially around new food products. In particular, Dutkiewicz began to dig deeply into plant-based meat alternatives and the potential of cellular agriculture — the production of animal products from cells rather than from animals themselves, also known as lab-grown or cultivated meat — to transform the global food landscape. In addition to his peer-reviewed publications, Dutkiewicz now writes and speaks extensively on the meat and alternative protein industries for media outlets ranging from The Guardian and Jacobin to Forbes and Business Insider. “Bringing this research to the public is a really important and valuable part of my work,” he says.
In his 10+ years studying the topic, Dutkiewicz has witnessed an enormous growth in public awareness, concern, and debate over the effects of animal production and consumption on anthropogenic climate change. He believes that recent advances in the alternative protein industry will make it easier for more people to decrease their meat consumption
“What cellular agriculture will do is that it minimizes switching costs. It’s saying, we’re not asking you to actually change what you like eating, what your tastes are, what your culinary and dietary habits are. We’re just asking you to switch between products that are ultimately very similar. From a social impact perspective, you can’t underestimate the power in our society of providing people with more consumer options and technologically developing superior products,” Dutkiewicz says, citing empirical evidence from the fast-food industry showing the popularity of alternative meats among people who aren’t vegans or vegetarians
Dutkiewicz will continue his work this fall as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School.
Mushrooms as Ethnography
Peggy Tierno (MA Anthropology ’20) loves mushrooms. Sporting a pair of tiny dangling red mushroom earrings, she explains how a paper on the kinship of fungi for her Anthropology Master’s program evolved into a multidisciplinary collaborative journal.
“The paper explores multi-species and multi-sensory ways relating and building community and kinship relationships with other species,” Tierno says.
Her infatuation with mushrooms started when one grew miraculously among her spruce saplings. This led her down a path to research the species’ other incredible natural interactions.
“When you’re thinking about food, for a lot of people, food might be the only way they are interacting daily with the natural world,” Tierno shares. “So I’m thinking about our relationship to food, thinking about how mushrooms relate with their environment, and thinking about those reciprocal caretaking relationships.”
Because of her passion for the subject, Tierno decided to expand and evolve the life of her work beyond a paper. “I was thinking on how I could turn it into a collaborative project, with submissions of poetry, personal writing and artwork alongside research on mycelium and mushrooms,” she says.
While taking a class on design and publishing and using the resources at the Making Center at Parsons School of Design, Tierno created a prototype for her journal. Now, she hopes to establish a journal of diverse multimedia work that is created collaboratively, and that has the potential to eventually develop into a larger project around community and food.
“Food is something very intimate, it’s very important to my personal life and my personal relationships, and how I connect with people. I love to cook for people. I love to be cooked for,” Tierno says. “Another thing I am thinking about with this project is how to do DIY cultivation or communal cultivation of mushrooms that people can have access to, expanding the collaboration of relating with mushrooms.”
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