Anthropology in the Classroom

By Kelly Alexander (Duke University)

The culmination of Our Culinary Cultures, an anthropology and documentary studies seminar I designed and have taught at Duke University for twelve years, is community engagement in our local food scene in Durham, North Carolina. We spend the first half of the semester reading up on ethnographic methods and practices while plumbing articles from the food studies canon (I mix it up, but reliably there are readings from Mintz, Wilk, Sutton, and selections from Kulick and Meneley’s collection of essays Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, alongside M. F. K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, and Edna Lewis). Over time, this has involved students observing, interviewing, and writing about people, from sommeliers to fast-food workers, and from cookbook editors to professional beekeepers (that project involved twelve stings and an ER visit).

Michelle Liang’s Shanghai spring onion noodles

This year, the pattern was disrupted when COVID-19 came, and the students who left for spring break never returned. All their upcoming prearranged interviews and observations were canceled in short order. As their instructor, I was left with the question: Could there be a meaningful way to practice ethnography for students who not only couldn’t go anywhere but also whose once-vibrant food scene had disappeared?

Jwalin Patel’s chaat

One solution that struck me was that we could cocreate an autoethnographic project, one in which we became our own community of subjects. At least in using ourselves, and in exploring the new ways in which we might cook and eat together while not actually being together, we might still document the politics of how food can both bring us together and divide us. Slowly, deliberately, each member of the seminar—including me—wrote weekly entries that combined photographs of meals and dishes with notes on what we decided to cook and why, which resources we had available (and which others we wished we did) and shared them with the group; in the process, we considered issues of deprivation, access, and distinction in unique ways. Ultimately, we decided to collect our responses in order to build an online archive of our experiment as a way of documenting food as a material of self-care amid an isolating pandemic. What stands on the Duke Arts website today is our evidence of the ways in which cultural anthropology and journalistic/documentary storytelling techniques can help us all face the day.

You can find the project website here.

Joe Gracey’s Tex-Mex enchiladas

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