This Spring, two big food studies conferences took place, the first organized by the Institut Européen d’Histoire et des Cultures de l’Alimentation in Tours (France), the second organized by the University of Toronto Culinaria Research Centre in Toronto (Canada) in name of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS), and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS). When going over the programs, I got the impression that both branches of food studies have different focal points – an impression I also gather from my experiences as a PhD candidate with the Social & Cultural Food Studies Research Group (FOST) in Brussels and those as a postdoctoral researcher with the Food Studies Program at The New School for Public Engagement in New York. As I am not a fan of impressionism in scholarly research, I decided to put my feelings to the test. I subjected both conference programs to a quantitative analysis (I’m a methodology junkie) and the results confirm what I have been experiencing all along. European food studies are more about history and culture, whereas the American counterpart focuses more on policy and food systems.
The wordle below gives an overview of the 100 most recurring words in the Tours program. Granted, I did clean the data first, otherwise the word cloud would have told us the conference took place in Tours and consisted of sessions. Informative as that may be, those weren’t the facts I was looking for. The wordle shows that food and alimentation were the glue holding the conference together. Besides, it speaks of historical research dealing with the colonial period, the 18th and 19th centuries, and wartime. It mentions street food and markets in an urban context and it refers to identity, cuisine, heritage, traditions and authenticity. Also prominent are allusions to nations, like Germany and Italy, and nationalities, like the French, British and Irish. From the wordle I conclude that European food studies are more history oriented, while they have been and are building a track record in cultural studies.
The wordle we have here visualizes the 100 most recurring words in the Toronto program. Although like in Tours food was the conference’s foundation, the differences in approach are striking. We see a high frequency of notions related to food systems research with presentations on food production on the one hand and community research with talks on food justice, healthy food, school meals and migrant foodways on the other. Finally, the conference was rather policy-driven, considering the regular occurrence of terms like policy and politics.
Of course, the above conclusions are very general and ask for a qualitative deepening. Let us interpret the findings from the quantitative analysis in light of a close reading of the street food panels that took place at both conferences. I don’t have an objective justification for street food as a case study, on the contrary. Considering my own research on the subject, I’m very biased. Or should I say interested. The Tours program contained three street food panels. The first one investigated the socio-economic role of street food in early modern and modern cities (15th-19th centuries, roughly), with presentations on early modern Antwerp, Rio de Janeiro and Brussels between 1835 and 1955. The second panel explored the spatial framing of street food in early modern cities and discussed 18th-century Paris, 18th-century Mexico and the 18th-century Stamp Act Crisis. The third one gathered case studies on Tel Aviv and Paris, but had no overall theme. In Toronto, the one street food panel talked about the regulations of ambulant vendors in the Philippines, vendor and public perspectives on street food in Toronto, the ideology of gourmet food trucks in North America and a comparison of pushcart policy in 1930s and 1980s New York (my presentation). The panel’s chronological focus was – apart from my excursion to the 1930s – quite contemporary, while the overall narrative – which hadn’t been discussed beforehand – dealt with formal policies and informal regulations.
I’m sure others will pick up on other words or panels to dig into and interpret them in a slightly different way. After all, we all have hot and blind spots. Nevertheless, my findings do clarify that European food scholars focus more on history, while their American colleagues emphasize policy and policy-making. With this observation, I cannot help but wonder… Do they talk with each other? Do they discuss their research results? Do food historians consider the present-day societal relevance of their research and do food sociologists, anthropologists, nutritionists and many more take into account historical developments? They probably do, but not in a systematic way. They don’t often sit together around a table (with food) to contrast and compare research results, and develop structural long-term analyses that provide thorough explanations for historical and contemporary issues. Why not organize one big food studies conference next year? All in favor?
Illustration by Ana Zivick via Pexels.