Published on December 5, 2014
INTRODUCTION ! By Charlotte Haller, Professor of HI 193, Food in America ! One of my favorite activities in our First Year Seminar, “Food in America,” was to take ve minutes of class time to write on a particular topic. These “food for thought” essays were quick and low-risk, but the stories told, and the language used, were often vivid, funny, evocative, and smart. Wanting to capture some of their art, the students each chose one of these quick writing exercises to edit into a longer, more polished essay. After discussing their options, the students chose to compile their works into an online book, available to anyone, including future students in Food in America. Each student provided one submission and, with one exception, had one page at their disposal. Food in America makes for a wonderful First Year Seminar because it is a topic that speaks to everyone. It is a basic necessity. Unlike the air we breathe or the water we drink, however, food is staggeringly diverse and complex. 1 Take, for example, school lunch. Two of the pieces — some of the funniest in the bunch —describe in exquisite detail how disgusting institutional food can be. They convey the humor of school kids, complete with bouncing hot dogs. Yet, there is a third piece on school lunch that is a heartwarming appreciation of the brown bag lunch, packed by mom, complete with little notes. Apples similarly have multiple meanings depending on one’s history and experiences. For one student, a crunchy apple is the ultimate treat for a job well done, even better than the crunchy “reward oreos” doled out while babysitting. For another, however, apples conjures up memories of picking up rotten apples on the lawn as a childhood chore. Oreos might be someone’s “reward cookie,” but for another, it’s a memory of home and the “oreo cows.” ! Food has such complexity because it is embedded in our culture and in our families, and many of the essays are charming discussions not only of food but of the family behind the food. I want to meet “Uncle Neal” and try some of his mashed potatoes. I’d go to Thanksgiving at “Uncle Jack’s,” not just for the delicious food but for the post- meal board games with cousins. I wish I could have joined in the mess of making — and eating — peanut butter cookies at “Gram’s” house. You can always invite me to the lobster birthday dinner in Maine — not just because of the lobster, but because of the community of family and friends you can see in that essay. And I am going to make that pumpkin bread and enjoy not just the taste, but the connection to multiple generations of generous women who don’t believe in “secret” recipes. I don’t even like pop tarts, but I want to have some brown sugar ones to connect with the “sacred” Saturday space shared with a father willing to bend the rules of a junk-food-free household. Of course, this overemphasis on food can be taken too far, as one essayist reminds us, in her trenchant critique that Thanksgiving has become all about food, and not about family and community.