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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Dinner and Dialogue at the Eucharistic Table

By Kendall Vanderslice
photo credit: Alethia Williams

A new trend is emerging in Christian communities across the country. Modeled after the gatherings of first century Christians and grounded in the language of the Eucharist (a meal of bread and wine instituted by Jesus during his final Passover supper), dinner church communities gather to hold their church service over the course of a meal.

Continue reading “Dinner and Dialogue at the Eucharistic Table”

Decoding Alternative Food Communities

by Ariel Knoebel

I stared down at the entangled green tendrils in the dirt, thinking to myself “What is tatsoi, anyway?”

I was embarrassed to ask. Everyone else seemed to know exactly what they were doing as they crouched between the rows of bushy greens, chatting while weeding with expert hands until perfectly straight rows emerged down the field. Eventually, I got over my first-day-of school jitters and spoke up, swallowing my pride for the sake of the soon-to-be-uprooted plants in my hands. From there, I learned not only about the small oval shaped leaves I was weeding around, but all about the farm crew members, where they came from, and what drew them to the hot, dusty, hard work of growing food for the community.

Continue reading “Decoding Alternative Food Communities”

Wedding Cakes, Congealed Precedent, and that time I wrote a thesis

by Lucy Valena

From my first semester in the gastronomy program, I’d pretty much decided I would write a thesis. As a project-oriented person hoping to do independent academic writing in the future, it seemed like a good challenge that would help me prepare for the next step in my career. Additionally, I was feeling unsure as to whether or not I would apply for a PhD program after finishing my master’s degree, but knowing there was a chance I might want to definitely solidified my choice.
Since the history and symbolic aspects of food are what that I find most fascinating, wedding cake seemed like a natural target for my research. I had also written a paper about wedding cake history for the intro class, so I at least knew something about the previous work that had been done on the topic.
Wedding cake has survived for such a long time (at least 300 years), and it shows no sign of going away; my question was, simply, why? The project ended up taking me all over the place: my research included reading historic cookbooks, interviews with producers of fake wedding cakes, and analysis of mainstream television. In order to really address my findings the way I wanted to, I had to cobble together theory from three different thinkers.
In the end, I found that wedding cake has survived because of its flexibility and constant shape-shifting. While its physical form has changed so much over time, the value ascribed to it has remained the same- a mixture of commodity fetishism and ‘tradition’, or what I call ‘congealed precedent’. These factors have allowed the wedding cake to remain fashionable and also symbolically important over the ages.
Writing a thesis was the most intellectually stimulating thing I’ve ever done. It was very difficult, and for the last few months of the year I spent working on it, I had the uncanny feeling that my project was eating me alive. I am a painfully slow writer, and I ended up rewriting the paper at least five times before I finally felt it was done. However, getting through it, seeing the challenge and rising up to meet it, was very empowering and invigorating. Since I got my undergrad degree in studio art, before this I had never written anything more than twenty pages (aside from the failed novel I keep in a drawer in my desk). After this experience, I have confidence and excitement about other research and writing I would like to do independently, a task I now feel I have the tools for. Obtaining those tools was my main reason for going to grad school in the first place, and with that in mind, I feel great about the experience.
In the time I was writing my thesis, I got married. In addition, I sold my business of five years, and subsequently underwent the somewhat dramatic lifestyle change of no longer being self employed. Sometimes, life is like that, and everything shifts all at once. If I could do it all again I may have timed things differently, but there was also something magical and liminal about that intense year. Its almost as if I was transformed into a different person, in a time that was bookended by the beginning and finishing of this project. I’m still not sure if doctoral work is in my future, but if it is, I know that I will be much more prepared for it because I wrote a thesis.

Read more of Lucy’s writing and follow her many baking adventures at her blog, Ink and Lemon.

How to Be an Academic Food Writer

By Anna Nguyen

I am a failed food writer. For many, many years, I have tried to write publishable food narratives, but with no real success. And yet, oddly enough, I read quite obsessively. Though not all of my reading materials revolve around food or food culture, many of my favorite reads are food-focused: essays by George Orwell; Steven Shapin’s recent efforts on wine and food histories; Haruki Murakami’s pieces about his cooking practices and eating preferences. I am keen on reading any memoir by chefs or food personalities. The list goes on. People say reading is an indicator of good writing, but I am proof that this sentiment does not hold true. The only reason I write so uncharitably of my forays in food writing is because I lack the ability to write sensorially; that is, I have not yet trained myself to write sentimentally about food using any other senses than the visual.

How does one write about taste in a way that evokes anything but just visual inventory? How does one successfully translate a fleeting, visceral moment into words shared with others? These were — and still are — questions that I always ask myself as I attempt to write. I am perhaps thinking too much about the words in use. That is, I find it extraordinarily difficult to put into words what I’ve just tasted. I try and try and try, and I still find the end result unsatisfying. There are days that I’ve come to terms with my reductionist perspective. Some days, terse paragraphs are sufficient; other days, many other days, I’m like Thomas at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. I leave many unfinished and untitled essays on food on Google Drive because I cannot muster any profound words to write what I intend to say.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of my failed career aspirations is that I’ve found focused research interests in the Gastronomy program. As I am planning my thesis, I intend to address the problem of food writing and the limitations of the language of food. In particular, I intend to try to understand the meanings of words in use — what is the inarticulate trying to articulate, and how language and epistemologies are constructed and shared.

IMG_20151217_143056My interests were shaped during my first year as a graduate student. While attending classes, I found myself growing fond of discourse analysis, textual analysis, phenomenology, and social theory — all things that I had at one point during my undergraduate years hated and tried to avoid. But to know theory is to be able to use and criticize what is lacking. Merely suggesting that language and knowledge are social constructs are non-answers that do not address the problems that I’m interested in, problems like the vagueness of food policies and laws, and food literacy. Nor does the concept of “social construction” add anything meaningful to ongoing academic conversations. If I am thankful for anything about my time as a graduate student in the Gastronomy program, it’s for the reason that I am able to intelligibly articulate what I don’t like with more force.

I’m still writing, though my writing has shifted focus. I tend to write with a more academic tone, but it’s probably not as academic as one imagines. Allusions to my literary background and journalistic experience are still present, though I’ve tried to dismiss unnecessary imagery. Great scholars like Arjun Appadurai, Gary Alan Fine, and Steven Shapin have written about food and culture without adhering to a strict academic template, and that’s something I wish to emulate. Perhaps it’s something I’ll attempt in my proposed thesis.

As I prepare the initial stages of thesis writing, I’m reminded that food writing existed long before food studies was birthed. During my first meeting with Walter Hopp, my thesis advisor, he heralded the chowder description in Moby Dick as being great food writing. I’ve been so buried in theory and academic texts that I’ve forgotten about literature. Perhaps on some much-needed breaks from the exhausting writings of Peter Singer and Michael Pollan, I should look back at the food writings of George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. And maybe it’s finally time to read about that damn whale.