Dining in Divinity, A Gastronomy Master’s Thesis

By Sonia Dovedy

During my last few semesters within the Gastronomy program at Boston University, I had the incredible opportunity to research, write, and defend my thesis, Dining in Divinity: Experiencing Joy During the Indian Tradition of Prasadam.

I originally embarked upon this study because I wanted to explore the way expressions of benevolent intentions, such as gratitude, humility, and love, while cooking and consuming food could impact taste, health, and overall wellbeing. Could food prepared with love and care make one feel joyous? Alternatively, could food cooked in negative circumstances exude poor taste and unfavorable qualities? When I realized that offering and consuming prasadam, a tradition from my childhood, followed a similar trajectory of behavior, it served as a catalyst for launching my research. Using mixed method approach, which included oral interviews, observation and ethnographic analysis, and a sensory approach known as “cooking as inquiry,” I embarked upon my study, exploring how different aspects surrounding the Indian tradition of cooking and offering prasadam could influence individual perception of taste and ultimately produce joy.

What is prasadam, you must be wondering?

Within Indian traditions, prasadam is an offering to the Divine. It is believed that during puja, or prayer, the deity first enjoys these gifts of food and water, and then returns the offering to the worshippers after consecrating it. In consuming the blessed item, worshippers receive darshan, or a glimpse of the Divine. While Hindu scriptures dictate a specific list of offerable materials, ultimately prasadam can be anything that is given selflessly, graciously, and in good faith—from a flower or a simple grain of sugar, to a full meal or elaborately prepared sweet.

Prasadam offerings to God are prepared in a very careful way. The chef must prepare the food with intentions of gratitude, love, and reverence; essentially, it is as if they are preparing the foods for a very special guest coming to dinner. Because of its sacred nature, this food is treated with respect; nothing is wasted, nothing is refused, and usually, these items are eaten mindfully, in gratitude, and with enjoyment.  One informant explains, “You always use the sweet…butter! You know…nuts, raisins, almonds…And probably, the only thing that I can think of, is that it leaves a very good feeling, a positive feeling. And it probably raises your feeling of happiness, right? It must be to do with the way you feel after you eat a combination of butter and sweet is the best, delicious things, you know?” (Sangeeta, August 14, 2017).

While conducting oral interviews, visiting temples, and cooking prasadam recipes at home, many curiosities arose…Why does this simple item eaten in the palm of my hands taste so much better than a lavish meal? What elements within this tradition are responsible for the production of joy when receiving and consuming this food? What would happen if I refused this special prasadam food?

 

What I discovered…

Consuming this blessed food is highly rewarding to a spiritually devout individual; these blessed foods produce happiness because they invigorate spiritual, mental, and physical health. However, I also recognized that beyond religious belief, many other factors, such as memory, emotion, and sensorial aspects of taste, were impacting this tradition.

For example, emotional connections between the chef and the consumer, devotee and Divine, food and a fond memory, produced feelings of comfort, happiness, and joy. Devout individuals experienced immense bliss when consuming prasadam because they felt connected to the Divine. Similarly, children enjoyed eating prasadam because their mother had carefully prepared it especially for them. Others enjoyed prasadam because it reminded them of their Indian roots or late grandfather.

In addition, my findings revealed ways in which prasadam items reinforced cultural roots and encouraged familial bonding. When food is received as a gift and eaten in commensality, it evokes moods of celebration, sharing, and happiness. Furthermore, I also found that the appetizing sensory elements of prasadam foods, sweet and rich in nature, promoted a benevolent state of mind and attracted individuals toward spirituality.

Thus, while prasadam clearly serves as an important spiritual activity, my research shows that the sensorial qualities of the offerings, as well as food sharing, memory and emotion, and the details in preparation, are also significant in the experience of prasadam and to the creation of joy. Perhaps if every meal was consumed as prasadam, the world would be filled with happy, healthy, and of course, spiritually elevated people.

Read more from Sonia at www.bakewithsonia.com and www.cookwithsonia.wordpress.com.

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Alumni Spotlight: Caroline Pierce

There is a lot of unseen work that goes into writing a good recipe. Typically, conventional recipes contain a list of ingredients and their measurements followed by instructions for how to manipulate those ingredients into a successful dish. The recipe may use precise measurements, or may only call for a pinch or a dash. A recipe may instruct the reader to fold, knead, or broil, and expect the reader to know what each word means. In addition to the ingredients and the methods for combining them, recipes often call for a wide variety of cooking tools and implements. Some recipes may call for elaborate and expensive equipment (Vita Mix, anyone?), whereas some recipes may call for no equipment at all. Recipes can be vague and recipes can be precise. How detailed a recipe is depends on the audience the recipe writer has in mind. A cookbook written for advanced culinary students may be very different from a cookbook written for novice home cooks. In my opinion, recipes should be written with as much information and instruction so as to make the recipe accessible and available to as many readers as possible.

Luckily, I get the chance to write, edit, and test recipes every day. I currently have two jobs that allow me the chance to accomplish these tasks. I am a recipe developer at Just Add Cooking, a local meal kit company that provides easy, delicious, and healthy meals made with ingredients sourced from New England farms and companies. Writing a recipe for Just Add Cooking is challenging because not only must I write a recipe that is easy to read, quick to make, and delicious to eat, but the recipe must also meet the size constraints of the box we ship in and adhere to budgetary constraints. Also, we have nearly 500 recipes, so new recipes must be inventive and interesting, and we don’t like to call for equipment that many people may not have. The Gastronomy program has been incredibly useful in helping me to write good recipes. Karen Metheny’s class, Cookbooks and History, taught me that a recipe can be exclusionary in both financial and educational terms. A recipe that calls for expensive ingredients or equipment limits one group of people, whereas a recipe that excludes important details about cooking terms (how does one actually temper an egg?) excludes another.

When writing a recipe, I include as much information about the ingredients as possible and provide as many details about the instructions as I can in order not to alienate new cooks. I try not to assume anything. Furthermore, I am fully aware and continually question (thanks to the Gastronomy program) how financially accessible meal kits are to the general population.

In addition to my work at Just Add Cooking, I also work as a freelance recipe tester for Fresh Magazine produced by Hannaford Supermarket. As a tester, I am sent recipes which I follow without making any changes or alterations in order to determine whether or not there are any issues with the recipe. Usually, I am looking to make sure that the cooking times are accurate, the recipe yields the correct number of servings, and the instructions in the recipe are precise. This last part is the most complex aspect of recipe testing and could include any number of variables. The baking time might be off, a sauce needs more liquid, there’s too much oregano, etc. The purpose of the test is to ensure that the recipe can work flawlessly in any home.

People lead busy lives and if they go to the trouble of making dinner for themselves and their families, then following a recipe shouldn’t be stressful. Recipes should be straightforward, and the results should be exciting and satisfying. One of the major lessons I learned from the Gastronomy program is that of empathy. My job is to make people’s lives easier. I can accomplish this by writing and editing recipes so that they are clearly read and easily made. If I can also introduce people to new cuisines, techniques, and ingredients, then I am doubly successful.

Memories From My Table – Paintings by Laurel Greenfield

Gastronomy alumna Laurel Greenfield is hosting an opening reception for her first solo gallery show  at Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc. on February 8th from 5:30 – 7:30 PM. The gallery features some of Laurel’s favorite paintings from the past year and she will be discussing why she paints food as well as the stories behind some of her paintings. You can see more of her work at laurelgreenfieldart.com.

We hope to see you at the reception!

Experiences from the Winter Fancy Food Show

By first year Gastronomy student Kaitlin Lee

Last week I attended the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. This Disneyland of food is orchestrated by the Specialty Food Association, the trade association for specialty foods in the United States. The Fancy Food Show brings together thousands of producers and thousands of products for buyers from local co-ops and Wal Mart alike. Trends are solidified. Deals are made. And so, so many samples are handed out.

I spent most of the show at a booth that makes handmade kimchi in Brooklyn, Mama O’s. Many morning visitors demurred trying the fermented condiment. My boothmate, a show veteran who’s attended regularly for the past ten years, thought this was a smart move. Endless samples can lead to hedonistic behavior, and she’s seen people vomiting in the bathroom, the result of overindulging or mixing foods like jamón ibérico, goat kefir, and barrel-aged sauerkraut in quick succession.

I successfully avoided the fate of past sensitive-stomached attendees, but by the third and final day, I walked around the floor in a daze. A bite of Roquefort at one booth, a spoon of chocolate mousse across the aisle. The SFA’s mission statement is to “shape the future of food,” and to taste the future, I had to try everything.

Photo courtesy of specialtyfood.com

“Plant-based” foods, which are framed as environment and technology friendly, were the breakout category at the show. I tried many a non-dairy cheese, from a mozzarella equivalent to an uncanny cashew brie.  With a mottled-rind exterior and creamy, faintly nutty paste, it was the Westworld host of vegan cheese. But big hype doesn’t always equate to big flavor. Plant-based butter mimicked the mouthfeel and look of the dairy derived-original, but it lacked the sweetness and satiating fullness of traditional butter. Plant-based shrimp perfectly looked the part. It had a sweet/umami flavor profile I associate with shrimp, but the thick breading emphasized the slightly spongy texture of the pea-based protein base.

The literal and metaphorical feeding frenzy is fascinating from a food studies perspective. Debates over the ethics of production, consumer desire for transparency and healthier foods, even issues of cultural appropriation and who can commodify flavors and ingredients are embedded into the most casual interactions at Fancy Food. Most of the gatekeepers and retail buyers, are white, and the majority are male, which trickles down to what consumers find at their local grocery store. I wonder what the French trade reps and proponents of legacy foods think of plant-based brie. The future of food is clearly looking forwards and backwards, and it’s anyone’s guess where it will end up.

2 Day Food Styling, Writing, and Photography Class

In this hands-on, multipart, one-and-half-day workshop, Sheryl Julian and Sally Vargas will guide participants through what it takes to style, shoot, and write about food in a compelling and successful way.

Former food editor for the Boston Globe, Julian is a cookbook author, food stylist, and writer with over thirty years of experience in food media. Vargas is a professional cook, writer, and photographer and the author of several books, including and the newly published The Cranberry Cookbook.

Day 1

In part one, the class discusses social media, blogs, books, and cameras, as well as what makes an effective and successful shot (with hands-on practice), a slide show of a dish photographed from start to finish, photo critique, and more. All photos are shot with available light, so you can reproduce at home what you learn in the workshop.

Day 2

In part two, focus turns to photographing and blogging, as students rotate between shooting a main course dish and undertaking a blog or writing critique. Students and instructors will sit together and dine on the photo food with a discussion during lunch. All levels are welcome, whether you use your phone to shoot for social media or have invested in a camera to produce photos for a blog.

Details

The class will meet at the BU College of Fine Arts Photography Studio from noon – 5 PM on April 20th and 10 AM – 5 PM on April 21st. The cost of the class is $650. You can register for the class here.