Course Spotlight: Readings in Food History

Dr. Megan Elias will teach Readings in Food History (MET ML 633) on Wednesday evenings during the fall 2017 semester, and has prepared this overview of the class.

Pie cutting for Elias class
Lee, R., photographer. (1940) Cutting the pies and cakes at the barbeque dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico Fair. New Mexico Pie Town, 1940. Oct. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Every meal is a historical text, carrying messages about such things as global migrations, customs and trade routes. Because food has been both a constant and a catalyst in human histories many of the most important decisions made in the past depended on the need for sustenance or desire for new flavors. Paying close attention to food in world history helps to explain motives and strategies that shaped our world.

Megan Elias
Dr. Megan Elias

Through reading a selection of foundational and recent works in food history students will be able to identify and synthesize some of the major themes and arguments in the field. While dedicated food histories are a relatively new genre, food has always appeared in historical texts and these texts tell stories of their own that are sometimes left out of dominant narratives. We will consider some primary sources alongside our secondary texts to make sense of how food historians use their sources to build arguments. This work will help prepare students for Researching Food History, to be taught in the following semester.

Books we will be reading include the classic, Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz as well as more recent titles such as Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan by Eric Rath, Wine, Sugar and the Making of Modern France, by Elizabeth Heath, and To Live and Dine in Dixie by Angela Jill Cooley.


MET ML 633, Readings in Food History, will meet on Wednesday evenings from 6:00 to 8:45 pm, starting on September 6, 2017. Registration information can be found here.

Digital Field Work: A Call for Anthropological Research on Food’s Roles and Meanings in Social Media

Our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them. Today’s post is from Gastronomy student Morgan Mannino.

Morgan's photo
Morgan Mannino

My life as a Gastronomy student by night has started to seep into my role as a Senior Social Media Coordinator at America’s Test Kitchen by day. This summer in particular, I am enrolled in MET ML 641, Anthropology of Food, and have started to observe interactions that are happening online and to think about my role as a content producer through an anthropological lens. At face value, the world of social media and anthropological research may seem planets apart. And when one looks at what has been written, there is certainly a large gap between the traditional anthropological approach to what constitutes fieldwork and observation and what is happening online. However, many of the same concepts we’re exploring in Anthropology of Food—food as a system of communication, food being used to signify social relations and construct identity, feasting and commensality, etc.—are being enacted on social media. Thus, I am starting to see that there is a wealth of anthropological information that can be observed and analyzed through food’s role in social media. So, this is a call for anthropological fieldwork and observation to begin to address the value in applying an anthropological lens to food on social media. To start, I will present two examples that could make great research subjects.


This past year at America’s Test Kitchen we started a private Facebook group. We wanted to provide a place for our paying members to connect with each other, share their favorite ATK recipes, interact with cast members and staff, etc. A group like this (or really any food-focused Facebook group) could provide a wealth of information to an anthropologist. In our members group in particular, food is being used to express identity and status. One example of this is a thread where members have begun to post images of their kitchens and kitchen gadgets. These photos project members’ status as cooks—the more expensive or “professional” the gadgets or kitchen, the more they are perceived as better and more skilled home cooks to the group at large.

Food trends on social media are also rich places for studying the anthropology of food. The recent trend of “rainbow food” or “unicorn food” is a great example. Using Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, some questions to ask are: What does it mean when food transcends nourishment (or even taste-appeal or food-appeal) into pure spectacle? How is this trend gendered? How is status expressed through eating this food or even just taking pictures and sharing them? Here is a food map I created that begins to explore some of these questions about the trend of rainbow food on Instagram. In this map I used two variables: the y axis represents two poles of cultural capital, “high” vs. “low,” and the x axis represents two poles of material composition, “natural” vs. “artificial.” This is only one way to begin to analyze this trend, but already I was able to see how rainbow foods that are Instagrammed (the map also shows rainbow foods that aren’t Instagrammed to provide context) have high cultural capital, either because they are natural or, if they are artificial, their high cultural capital is derived from their exclusivity. This map help illustrates how rainbow food is a modern form of conspicuous consumption (on par with the sugar sculptures of Colonial England) and it is a fascinating example of identity and status being negotiated in food culture on social media today.Mannino_RainbowFoodMap

It’s also interesting, from the perspective of my work at America’s Test Kitchen, how meaning and identity are constructed through the rejection of food trends as well. Fans of America’s Test Kitchen in particular may shape their identity as cooks who are “above” food trends and instead look to mastering technical skills and/or iconic, classic recipes to inform and express their status as cooks instead.

In conclusion, there is wealth of information that can be learned by applying anthropological research practices to the ways we are expressing food meaning on social media. From private cooking groups to rainbow food, we’re negotiating identity, status, gender roles, and meaning through food images online.

Food Taboos and Cultural Identity in America: Eating Bugs

Our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them. Today’s post is from Gastronomy student Stacy Mirabello.

Insect-farming3When presented with the idea of swapping out potato chips for a snack of crispy crickets, the typical American response generally includes slight twitches of the body, cringing, wrinkled noses, and expressions of disgust. American culture has developed strong aversions and visceral responses towards the thought of consuming insects on a regular basis, both in general and as a reliable food source. Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, is deeply rooted in the evolution of humans, and how we perceive food, according to anthropologists, is a reflection of our ecology. Insects have played an important part in the history of human nutrition in a majority of the world’s population, but not in North America. This suggests our ideas about what is good to eat are also cultural.

Eating is something that all humans share but is also something that we use to differentiate ourselves on a regular basis. As Americans, what we eat, how and when we eat, and whom we eat with have symbolic significance. The eating behaviors into which we are encultured from birth shape our cultural identity, using food as a foundation by which we create beliefs of what is suitable to eat and what to avoid. With that said, in a society that is born to worship juicy burgers and crispy bacon, the task of changing the American mind about integrating bugs into our diets is somewhat daunting. Most information that the public hears pertaining to bugs generally recognizes insects as a food source that is consumed in famine stricken deprived countries, thereby associating bugs with a survival technique. American TV shows such as Fear Factor and Survivor negatively depict entomophagy.  Although both of these shows push people to their limits in a more or less controlled environment, the camera always highlights a person about to eat a giant live beetle or a roasted tarantula with intense climatic background music before zooming in so we can hear the crunch.

With hopes of calling attention to our national bee crisis, the recent removal of Buzz the Bee from the boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios is an attempt to view insects as, basically, good for the environment. It is rare that people are encouraged to view insects as vital participants in the ecology that sustains humans. Many people around the world eat insects out of choice, simply because of they taste good, but most positive environmental impacts and nutritional health benefits that insects deliver are largely unknown to the American population.

In recent attempts to promote bugs as a food source, cricket flour protein bars became an item to hit elite grocery store shelves. Although this a

stacey mirabello
Stacy Mirabello

step in the right direction, it is still not enough to replace the American meals. The challenge of changing the American culture to accept bugs as a food source is going to take time. Look how long it took for people to catch on to sushi!  In conclusion, these territorial critters seemingly represent a threat to the cultural identity ingrained within American society. But a change in our cultural eating habits may be the way to help a growing concern of the global food system one bug at a time.


Course Spotlight: Science of Food and Cooking

The MLA in Gastronomy Program’s course, the Science of Food and Cooking will be back by popular demand for the fall 2017 semester.

Baking science Cookie variations VRyanphoto IMG_4665
Students alter a cookie recipe’s ingredients resulting in differences in color and texture during a baking science experiment

Through a combination of academic lectures and hands-on cooking experiments in BU’s professional kitchen, students will take a comprehensive look at the molecular changes that occur as food is prepared and cooked. We will examine the science behind the transformation of milk into cheese and ice cream, what makes baked goods tender and dense versus light and airy, how the color of naturally occurring pigments in fruits and vegetables changes depending on conditions, and much more. Flavor science, sensory analysis, molecular gastronomy, and nutritional impact are encompassed in this exploration of the science of food. Students will also consider food science in broader social and cultural contexts. 

Join us for an engaging exploration of the science of food!

Instructor Valerie Ryan is a food scientist and food studies scholar. She has worked for both government and industry in the areas of food science and nutrition research, sensory analysis, and product innovation. Ryan has focused her food studies research on the impact of taste preference on human evolution. As a food  correspondent for the Boston Globe, she authored the column, “A Side of Science,” and numerous other articles and recipes.

Candy science and Crystallization Frank Carrieri VRyanphoto IMG_4613
Student Frank Carrieri makes candy for an experiment on crystallization

The Science of food and Cooking, MET ML 619, is designed for graduate students in food studies and other non-natural science majors and does not require prerequisites. Classes will meet on Monday evenings, from 6 to 8:45 pm, beginning September 11.  Registration information can be found at

A Bread Baking Adventure

By Sydney Manning

Like Oprah, I love bread. I would eat it all day, every day if the end result wouldn’t be me documented on an episode of My 600-lb Life. Bread and I have a somewhat complicated relationship. As much as I love it, I have never been able to bake it without a hitch. Sometimes it’s over-proofed. Sometimes it’s under-proofed. And sometimes it’s shoved into a screaming-hot oven at 3:00 a.m. because I’ve had enough, and also can’t believe that I’ve been bested once again by a giant blob of dough that I’ve tried (and failed) to style into an intricate design. But I always keep trying. For New Year’s this year, I stayed in, struggling through a chocolate challah recipe that I got out of an old issue of Bon Appetit. Since I was totally snowed in this weekend, I decided to make not one, not two, but three loaves of bread because I like to push myself, and (apparently) I like getting no sleep.


Have you heard about Uri Scheft’s cookbook, Breaking Breads? It came out in October and I absolutely love it. It’s incredibly detailed, beautifully photographed, and packed with tons of recipes for breads and for dishes like Algerian salad and Babaghanouj. I decided to try Uri’s version of challah to see how it would compare to other challah loaves I’ve made in the past. I started out by whisking two packets of active dry yeast into 1 2/3 cups of cool, room-temperature water in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached. Next, I added seven cups of unbleached all-purpose flour, a tablespoon of fine salt, and five tablespoons of canola oil. I set the mixer to medium speed for one minute, scraping down the sides or pushing the dough down when it occasionally climbed up the hook. After about three minutes, I turned the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pushed and tore it, folding it onto itself, then giving it a quick quarter turn before repeating the motion. I did this for two minutes, then rolled the dough around and around until it had become a smooth ball that was easily the size of a human head. I put the dough ball into a large, floured bowl, covered it in cling film, and set it aside in a warm place to rise for what I prayed would be 40 minutes, but knew in my heart of hearts would be longer.

Sure enough, nearly two hours (and two episodes of Chopped) later, I came into the kitchen to find that my dough had risen so much that it was very close to spilling out of the top. Had I left it to proof for too long? Probably, but there was no turning back. Carefully, I peeled it out of the bowl, making sure not to release any of the vital gasses that I had spent two hours of my life waiting to puff up the dough. I flattened the ball into a rectangle using my palms, then using a sharp bench knife, cut the dough into three pieces. I cut those three pieces into three more pieces each, totaling nine equal-ish sized pieces (perhaps it would’ve been wise to use my ruler, but who had time to find one?). I took a piece, flattened it into a rectangle, then folded the top towards me, and flattened it again. I did this three more times until I ended up with a cylinder. I repeated the process with the remaining eight pieces. Once I had nine cylinders, I rolled each into 14-inch (give or take) ropes, pinched at the ends. My ropes may have been all different lengths, but they were ropes nonetheless and I was soldiering on; the time had come for me to start braiding. I braided the first two loaves in the traditional way and placed them on parchment-lined baking sheets.  As I got to the third, I decided to mix things up a bit. Once I had braided the third loaf and pinched the ends, as I had done with the first two, I curved the top end of the loaf around to meet the bottom, creating a beautiful braided circle. In the

Once I had nine cylinders, I rolled each into 14-inch (give or take) ropes, pinched at the ends. My ropes may have been all different lengths, but they were ropes nonetheless and I was soldiering on; the time had come for me to start braiding. I braided the first two loaves in the traditional way and placed them on parchment-lined baking sheets.  As I got to the third, I decided to mix things up a bit. Once I had braided the third loaf and pinched the ends, as I had done with the first two, I curved the top end of the loaf around to meet the bottom, creating a beautiful braided circle. In the middle I placed an oval ramekin so that the loaf would maintain its shape while baking. The ramekin would also make a great holder for the dipping honey later on. Next I put one large egg, a tablespoon of water, and a pinch of fine salt into a bowl and began whisking. This was my egg wash. Very lightly, I painted the wash onto the loaf, making sure that every inch had a sheen. On one half of the loaf I sprinkled a generous amount of poppy seeds, spreading them out with my finger when I noticed clumps. On the other half, I sprinkled white sesame seeds. I placed clean kitchen towels over the two traditional loaves, then left all three to rise for 60 minutes.

When my loaves had sufficiently risen (or I just grew impatient, I can’t be sure), I placed racks on the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheated it to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. I brushed the remaining loaves with the egg wash, and baked each loaf for 25 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the 15-minute mark. Finally, nearly seven long hours later, I had three unevenly-sized but no less beautiful (to me) loaves of challah cooling on the counter. As warm and wonderful-smelling as each loaf was, I have a very strict “no eating after midnight” policy, and it was well past that cut-off. It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I was finally able to taste the breads. The loaves sat uncovered overnight, so the first order of business was to wrap my two traditional loaves in two layers of cling film, then a layer of aluminum foil for good measure. They were on their way to the freezer for safe-keeping. It was the circle loaf that I was after.

Bread is best eaten slightly warm, so I placed the circle loaf in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, just to give it a little jolt of life. Once it was out, I placed the whole thing, sheet pan and all, on the table and grabbed the honey (I’d made a point to get the “good” honey at the market.) I cut off a generous piece for myself, really sunk it into the honey (I had to get my money’s worth), and took a bite. Good, I thought, but not great. Perhaps I would try again, but this time without the honey. Again, good, but not great. There was something different about this challah. For starters, it wasn’t as sweet as challahs that I had made in the past. And it lacked that signature pillowy-ness. Where had I gone wrong? Should I have left the dough to rise for a shorter amount of time? Maybe I should’ve left the ropes a little looser when I braided them. The bread just seemed a little…dull. But, all was not lost. I still had two other loaves in the freezer just begging to become french toast one day. The cure for dull bread is frying it in butter and drenching it in Vermont maple syrup.

Thinking back, would I make Uri’s version of challah again? Yes. Next time, I’ll shorten the proofing time. I’ll add a little bit more sugar. Perhaps I will even give it a filling like Nutella, or cinnamon and brown sugar. No matter what happens, bread never disappoints when there’s filling in the middle.