When I started developing food workshops at the Université de Montréal in Canada in 2004 while teaching World Religions and Interfaith/Intercultural Dialogue, there were students and faculty who thought it was too bizarre, not serious enough or even frivolous. Needless to say that it took several years of hard work, perseverance, loads of imagination and a solid theoretical framework for the practice to be acknowledged in the academic institutions I taught in, whether in Canada, Lebanon or the United Arab Emirates. Fortunately, other scholars and practitioners have been interested in food in the last decade and food studies’ recognition has been growing on a global level.
Food studies explore agricultural, environmental, nutritional, social, political, economic and cultural perspectives on food. Scholars and researchers examine issues ranging from food sovereignty, sustainability and ethics, and food access and affordability, to the cultural and religious significance and representation of food and agriculture, and policies that shape food landscapes.In my classrooms, students are introduced to the main approaches in food studies, the issue of food as a cultural signifier and identity marker, and the diverse foodways and foodvoices found in Southwestern Asia and North Africa. This introduction exposes them to stories of families, migrations, assimilation, resistance, hybridity, and to stories of war and peace. It also helps them debunk stereotypes and experience dialogue through food diplomacy activities. Furthermore, students are introduced to Anthropology of food as a main sub-field of food studies, and are asked to use its many methods in research and food production: from applying a holistic perspective to case comparisons and controlled comparisons, and looking for the origins of targeted food to better understand human nature and evolution, globalization and its effects on local culture, niche foods, the locavore movement, food wars, etc.
This semester, just like the previous ones, I can proudly say that not only have my students revealed their hidden culinary skills, but they have also started to develop the curiosity and analytical flair of food anthropologists. They were able to understand that food is definitely not Just Food. Food plays a crucial role in communities and society as a whole; it represents an integral part of human livelihoods, beliefs, practices, identities, pasts, presents and futures.