Food and Culture

Nibbling on a piece of rich, milky, nutty cheese might have more cultural implications than you think.

Professor Christy Shields' research and teaching are focused specifically on food. At AUP she teaches several classes such as Cultural Anthropology and Food, Culture and Communication which examine the meaning of food and eating in our everyday lives. In her research, Shields explores the differences between American and French perceptions of eating well. French perceptions are centered around taste and pleasure, while American perceptions are shaped by a nutritional discourse.

In her courses, Shields strives to help students understand the ways in which our food beliefs and habits are culturally situated, as well as politically and economically shaped.  Because many AUP students are visitors to France, Shields also incorporates a variety of fieldtrips and asks students to draw from a range of research methods to engage with these experiences in a critical manner.

For example, students in the Food, Culture and Communication course partake in a trip to the Jura, a mountainous region in eastern France, where they explore taste by following the renowned Comté cheese from “cow to consumption.”

All of these experiences are focused on gaining an in-depth view of the French notion of terroir, a concept which links place, taste and culture. - Christy Shields

          

JuraJura
                                                  Cheese making: from the cellar to the table

Shields describes, “Students meet farmers, cheese makers, cheese agers and the Director of Communications during visits to farms, fruitières (village cheese-making facilities), cheese cellars... Students also get a sense of the larger regional fabric by meeting with wine makers, snail farmers, botanists and others.  All of these experiences are focused on gaining an in-depth understanding of the French notion of terroir, a concept which links place, taste and culture.”

During the trip, students also sample many regional, artisanal products including the unique vin jaune (yellow wine), the smoked saucisse de Morteau (a type of sausage), and the mythic absinthe.

Shields insists on the human aspect of the trip: “Conviviality and reciprocity are central to the  experience in the Jura and in France. So often students, like tourists, visit and leave. The Jura trip was developed with local taste educator Claire Perrot and is carried out in partnernship with locals. I try to find ways for the students to give back in other ways. For example, the students and I make homemade pizzas on our last night in the Jura and invite those we have met during the trip to join.  We also send samples of our work back to the folks at Comté, so that they get an insight into what we draw from the trip."

Jura
                 Professor Shields explaning the cheese making process

Shields organizes many other excursions into the worlds of French food and taste. Students visit the multi-ethnic Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, take a chocolate walk through the center of Paris and welcome French taste educators into the classroom who introduce students to the ABCs of tasting through a series of experiments that range from tasting cheese to smelling synthetic chocolate scents to listening to the crunch of a carrot.

Alumna Ella Cooper '13, confirms, "Christy’s Anthropology of Food and Taste class was a highlight of my bachelor degree. The coursework and readings interspersed with Christy’s own experiences and expertise made an exceptionally good recipe for academic rigor. The class also provided a unique opportunity to do fieldwork in rural France: it allowed us to explore theory from the classroom and apply it towards understanding everyday practices of food culture in the region. "

Amira Korkor '10 also benefited from the trip: "The Jura trip had a profound influence on me personally, with respect to my choices for the future. Since the trip I have worked for cheese vendors (in boutiques and at markets) in Paris and met many other cheese makers through whom I've learned even more. From this I then moved to Amsterdam to intern with Fairfood International where the importance of good-tasting, healthy, environmentally- and socially-conscious food is key."

Shields concludes, "In my early years in France, almost two decades ago, I had the good fortune of participating in a tasting led by Jacques Puisais, who exclaimed at one point during the proceedings : 'goûter c’est communiquer!' (to taste is to communicate). I suppose it is still this idea that continues to guide my teaching and research. Taste for me is not first and foremost about the nature of a food or person, but about the quality of an exchange."

To find out more about the trip and delve into the world of cheese, watch this short documentary film, created by MAGC alumna Tracy Ip '15.

 

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