For sophomore, the story’s in the food

By
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Emma Buck ’11 has always been interested in food, but it wasn’t until she took BIOL 0190H: “Plants, Food, and People” that she realized it could be a field of study.

Using cuisine “as a lens for different issues,” Buck has declared an independent concentration in gastroanthropology, the study of the relationship between the evolution of cultures and their dietary practices.

Buck said food illuminates topics of nutrition, health, history and cultural development.

“A lot of political and economic issues come at play as to why a person eats,” she said.

It all started with her work on a farm in Ireland, Buck said. The ability to be self-sufficient in the production of food inspired her to further explore how food and people connect.

During her freshman year, Buck took BIOL 0190H, taught by Professor of Biology Peter Heywood. The course further stimulated her interests, and after reading an article about the environment, food and sustainability, Buck said she saw her path “laid out” before her.

Heywood has signed on to be her advisor and to support her work. “I was interested in the subject,” he said, adding that he would “like to think that” his class helped inspire Buck to follow her passion.

“One of the reasons I was so excited that it is all here,” Buck said. Currently, her courses include ECON 1530: “Health, Hunger and the Household in Developing Countries” and ARCH 0770: “Food and Drink in Classical Antiquity.”

She has already taken a range of other courses for the concentration, including BIOL 0030: “Principles of Nutrition,” AMCV 0190J: “Old Salts and Sacred Cod: Culture and Environment in New England Fisheries” and HMAN 1970A: “Eating Cultures: Food and Society.”

In the future, other classes she said she plans to take include one on hunter-gatherer adaptations and another on ethnographic anthropology.

Buck’s family and friends “were not surprised” when she revealed she was concentrating in gastroanthropology. She has always had an interest in the culinary arts and shopping for food, she said, and the concentration brings together many of her interdisciplinary interests. She had otherwise planned to concentrate either in Literary Arts or American Civilization.

Colleen McDonald ’12 is a fellow concentrator in gastroanthropology. Along with Buck and other prospective concentrators, she is trying to establish a Department Undergraduate Group. Her track will focus on “nutrition, food psychology, and sociology,” she said.

McDonald said she has always been captivated by food, but after taking a food anthropology course at Yale, discovered that there was a legitimate, “research-intensive” aspect to food studies.

“I think it is a fascinating understudied field,” McDonald said.

Buck’s interest in food and its production extends beyond her studies to her extracurricular activities. She is an editor of the Sustainable Food Initiative’s Ripe calendar, has a gardening education fellowship and sells cheese at the Farmers’ Market held on Wriston Quadrangle.

Buck is not the only person at Brown fascinated by the relationship between food and people. Though no independent concentration can be exactly duplicated, other students are pursuing a similar path, according to Jonathan Mitchell ’09, an independent concentration program coordinator at the Curricular Resource Center.

The justification for each concentration has to be different, he said, adding that “the proposal should be personal.”

Buck said a fair number of faculty members are also interested in the topic. And a group of students is trying to establish a Food Studies Departmental Undergraduate Group to “bring resources together that can benefit other concentrations,” she said.

A number of Group Independent Study Projects exist to address related topics, including one about sustainable agriculture and another on disordered eating. Though there are not many undergraduate gastroanthropology programs, the study is more prevalent among grad students, Buck said.

After graduating from Brown, Buck said she would be interested in attending culinary school or managing her own farm, though she said she is not yet certain of her future plans.

She has many possibilities, she said, because gastroanthropology is “a really emerging field.”